Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012
This morning began the third day of my self-improvement mission, which so far I give mixed reviews. It includes some nightmares that I have brought on myself, and breakfasts at the diner near the harbor where I make sure to eat good food—like only a few strips of bacon and not so much butter on my toast, all of which I chew twenty-four or more times per bite. This last new habit almost made me late for work, but so did watching two seagulls fight over a fish on the dock when I reached my car. One seagull had caught a big fish, which he tried to swallow in a hurry because another seagull was pestering him. The one with the fish ran far enough away to drop it, but the other one closed in, keeping the pressure on and causing the beleaguered gull to try swallowing it whole. I was afraid he was going to choke himself to death. Finally, though, the chased gull dropped his breakfast a second too long and the pesky one clamped on it and flew away. That was pretty smart of him; meanwhile, the not-so-smart seagull hopped around looking dazed. If I was him, I’d have been pecking at myself for not thinking of flying far away with the fish to a secluded spot to eat in peace and quietude.
This self-improvement plan of mine includes paying more attention (like to seagulls), listening to people more, reading more, remembering my dreams more, and refraining from losing my temper because it can be pretty bad, especially last summer when I played baseball in the Connie Mack League. But now, at twenty, I am already too old for Connie Mack, and it is time to get serious and improve all facets of my life because my job is the same one I had in high school. And I’m not even married yet. And I still live with my grandmother.
There is a dream book by my table that I am determined to write in every morning when I wake up. I heard somewhere that a person can control his own dreams if he says aloud, “Tonight I will control my dreams.” I tried it the last two nights, but both times I wound up having uncontrollable nightmares instead. Two nights ago, for instance, I dreamed about my grandmother. She was just sitting there reading or something—it was a nothing dream—but when I figured out it was only a dream she got a wild look to her. I tried to open my eyes to real life, but the dream wouldn’t end, and my own sweet grandma stood up to come after me—quick, not like my real grandma. I finally forced myself awake just before she got to me.
Then last night I had a dream about lying around at the beach with a pretty girl, but as soon as I thought, this can’t be real, she disappeared, only to be replaced by a bunch of guys stretching piano wire at me. I tried to open my eyes wide—again, again—before waking up for sure. My heart hammered and I cursed at myself for interrupting a girl-on-the-beach dream in the first place.
I was preoccupied with seagulls and dreams when I walked into work at the rug cleaning plant, and right away, Harry, an old guy with a full beard who either grouches at me or jokes around with me, muttered a complaint from behind his desk.
“You lost Mrs. Thompson’s flokati,” he said, looking down at the works of the calculator he’d been trying to fix yesterday.
“I didn’t lose it. I know I put it in bin nine. I know it for a fact.”
“It’s not in bin nine,” Harry mumbled. “Get those orders you took yesterday, the three steam jobs. No pick-ups today, just—”
“Good, cause my back—”
“Damn you, calculator.” He gave it a shake, then looked up. “Punch in, will you, I want to be alone with this thing.” I went into the back room and punched in. “But look for that flokati before you go. Who the hell knows where it is…”
I went into the bin room and straight to bin nine, which was empty. “Where’s the flokati?” I called.
“That’s what I’m telling you. It’s not in bin nine. Maybe it flew back to Greece.”
I came back, confused, into the front room. “I put it there…”
“Get on the road, will you? I gotta fix this thing.”
Across the street from the docks and the band shell is Fairview Road, which goes straight up and is lined with houses for the very rich. That’s where my first stop was, right near where I’d seen those seagulls fighting an hour before. I hadn’t thought anything of the name typed on the first invoice until the door opened to Jamie Morrow, standing at the entrance in a bikini. I hadn’t seen her since our junior year in high school, when it took almost the whole year of practicing in front of mirrors to ask her out in May, between classes. I had to chase her down the hallway while she listed all the reasons why she was so busy, and “thanks anyway,” she sang.
I hated her after that one-minute race through the history wing and all over again after she opened the door—so beautiful there that I wouldn’t even glance at her—and led me into her hallway. I looked everywhere but at her, trying to fool myself by pretending that maybe she was just some crabby old lady from Speonk.
The rug on the stairs needed to be steam cleaned, she said, plus the first three upstairs bedrooms, as well as the downstairs hallway where we stood. I nodded like I was listening, but all of what she said was on the invoice anyway. I set my face like stone, imagining the present 20-year-old smarter me beating the hell out of the 17-year-old idiot me, for running (slap) after (slap) the impossible (bonk). I held out the invoice for her to sign, looking up the stairs at the job ahead. Then she told me—her voice soft, a sneak attack—that the check was on the table in the foyer and she’d be out back if I needed her.
I wasn’t going to need her or chat with her or even nod her way, I vowed, heaving the steam machine up the stairs and starting on the first room. Big beautiful house. And me from the poor side of town, on the wrong side of the tracks, like poor George Wilson from The Great Gatsby whose own wife said he wasn’t fit to lick her shoe. Just when I was thinking that maybe Wilson would have liked that, I pulled back too hard on the hose handle and my elbow knocked a statue off a desk. The statue—some jockey/horse combination—hit only carpet, but it broke cleanly in two anyway. I stopped everything and picked up the two pieces—plus another tiny chipped piece that I stuck in my pocket—and fit them together again. It took me a couple of minutes to get it to stand up without tipping over, and then I looked at it for a minute, confused. The jockey on the horse had broken mid-waist, and the top half of his body was just as big as his bottom half plus the whole horse combined. Carefully steam-cleaning and backing my way out of the room, I missed spots on purpose, just spraying them wet instead.
The other two rooms and the stairs were uneventful, but it was getting hot. Jamie hadn’t offered me a drink, and from the hallway, dripping sweat from my chin, I saw the reason: she was out in the courtyard, “busy” lying on a beach chair getting a tan. That was playing with fire, letting the sun cook her like that, as far as I was concerned, and I just snuck out because she’d already signed the invoice.
That whole episode at Jamie Morrow’s really put me in a mood, so I had early lunch at the pizza place in town before heading over to a place called Nessequogue, which I had trouble finding. The lady there, in her thirties, maybe, had two little kids she kept in a pen in the dining room. When I said hi to them and smiled, the lady looked mad.
I had to steam the living room rug and the kids’ room, which both looked like they’d been drooled on. I was halfway through the living room before realizing that I was running out of steam solution, so I had to call Harry to bring more.
“Where the hell are you?” he asked me over the phone. I looked across the kitchen table at the woman, who looked ever madder than before.
“Uh..in uh…” I looked at the invoice. “I’m in Ness-socki.”
“Ness-a-kwog!” the woman fumed at me.
“Uh…Ness-a-kwog, Harry,” I said into the phone, and looked at the woman blankly because she was really steamed.
A half hour later Harry brought me a gallon of cleaner, but he didn’t look as mad as I thought he would. He just said something about needing to get back to his calculator.
The woman was the mad one; still, later while I was cleaning the kids’ room, she brought me something to drink, and I thanked her very much. She was all right, this lady, to give me a soda even though I’d mispronounced her town. I flipped the top open but stopped myself before sipping. It was diet soda. Diet. Filled with saccharine. What was with people, I wondered, drinking saccharine and baking in the sun—set on killing themselves. I didn’t want to take the chance, so after calculating the result of every possible action, including her angry one if I said I didn’t want the drink after all, I poured the saccharine soda into the steam machine. It wasn’t so much compared to all the water sloshing in it, I reasoned while finishing the kids’ room.
Finally, at around three o’clock I arrived at house number three. No girl in a bikini, no angry-eyed mother of penned-up tots in a dining room—just an old lady who greeted me like I was her grandson. She had a house filled with books, including shelves of them in her kitchen. She didn’t get around to telling me to get to work until she’d shown me a bunch of old books in her living room. I told her I liked to read.
“I love European literature,” she said. “Especially the Russians. Here’s my Tolstoy collection.”
“Wow. I read his story about a horse.”
“Kohlstomer. Beautiful story.” She pulled out a book and leafed toward the back. “Here it is.”
I looked toward the upstairs where I knew I had to get to work.
“Read…right here,” she said, outlining a passage with her forefinger. “Read this.”
“All right.” I began to read.
“Out loud.” I looked up. “Read it out. I love to hear it.”
“…Okay.” I read:
But I will not speak of that unfortunate period of my first love; she herself remembers my mad passion, which ended for me in the most important change of my life.
The strappers rushed to drive her away and to beat me. That evening I was shut up in a special stall where I neighed all night as if foreseeing what was to happen next.
In the morning the General, the stud groom, the stablemen and the strappers came into the passage where my stall was, and there was a terrible hubbub. The General said that he would have everybody flogged, and that it would not do to keep young stallions. The stud groom promised that he would have everything attended to. They grew quiet and went away. I did not understand anything, but could see that they were planning something concerning me.
“Beautiful passage,” she said when I finished.
“The way he can catch experience, even of a horse…” She drifted off into the kitchen.
“Well…” I said to the kitchen wall, “it beats Black Beauty, that’s for sure.”
I picked up my machine and the cleaning fluid and was looking around for a dirty carpet when she came out with a book. “Here’s some more of Tolstoy’s stories. Try ‘Master and Man.‘ What a story.”
“I can’t bring it back, though.”
“Well, I’ve got an Oriental rug in the den I want you to clean. You can bring it back next week.”
“Oh.” I thought of my lower back. “All right.”
I rested the book against the door where I wouldn’t forget it, and finally got myself upstairs to work on two large bedrooms. I didn’t break any statues or spill artificial sweetener into the machine’s tank or miss any spots. I liked this lady, and tried to make it my best job of a long day that had begun with that poor harried seagull losing its fish and ended later with a warm thank you and goodbye from the old woman who’d lent me a book and asked me to read Tolstoy to her.
The flokati was in bin eight the whole time. I called this out to Harry from the bin room, and he took a long time before answering. “What are you, dyslexic or something? Come here and help me figure this…damn calculator out, ‘cause I have no idea.”
I went into his office after punching out. “I don’t get how I didn’t see the flokati right next—”
“Oh. Morrow called. She said to come back for your tip.”
“Yeah.” He sat back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. “And Magiliagutti or Magliagory or whatever her name is from Bay Shore, she called.”
“Really?” I thought about the book, which I’d left in the van.
“She complained that you took too long.”
I stood there next to his desk, eyebrows furrowed.
“I don’t know what to do with you,” he said, shaking his head down at the calculator. “Putting a flokati in the wrong bin…not finding it when it’s staring you right in the face…” He peeked at me over his glasses and smirked. “Reading books to old ladies…”
I opened my mouth to say something but he waved his hand with a chuckle.
“Just come here and help me figure this damn thing out.”
On the way home, I adjusted my self-improvement plan slightly, starting with dreams. I’ve decided to leave myself alone in them, whatever happens, so I don’t ruin a good thing. And may the beach girl appear in at least one dream. And may my grandma not show up in it.