I hate this place. I come here each morning at nine a.m. I am greeted with the frigidity of the security guard, dour and unwelcoming. The dim, fluorescent light offsets the purple faces of the secretaries. I know they all judge me. The big blue sign, emblazoned with the moniker SOS Business Solutions, looks smugly at me. I pause to grimace back at it. I hack loudly, drawing the attention of the desk ladies, buried under their binders and files. The skinny one doesn’t even raise her eyes at me. I swear she smirks.
I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirrored paneling on the wall. I stand 5’9 and I weigh 296 pounds. My hair is unkempt and my goatee has shades of grey in it. My frame slumps in the reflection. I slide my hand over my gut and move on. I don’t want to give the desk ladies another reason to judge. Big, gay Jack, they chorus, the bumbling, sad sack! And then they laugh in unison. I can feel it trail behind me, a gray jet stream of contempt. I walk into the main office and a vacuum is created. The air sucks through the door behind me. The buzz of words from moments ago hangs dead in the air. My co-workers eye me with disdain. A second splits and everyone goes back to work. Right, I think to myself, just like I never walked in, just like I never existed.
I trudge slowly over the hard carpet. Gray with red diamonds, it glares at me from the floor. On both sides, the carpet climbs the walls of cubicles, held in by cheap black aluminum. There’s not a window in sight. The walls are covered in clocks. Signs and symbols provide constant reminders that I work at SOS. I reach my desk, where my name is printed on cardstock and tacked to my cubicle. The paper is of the cheapest material, highly replaceable. I hurl my black bag into the corner and squeeze into my awful brown chair. I begin to ticker-type my way to eternity. As per routine, I answer none of my e-mails and check the company stock. It has fallen steadily since I began working at SOS. I’m sure everyone speculates on a correlation between the two. I move on to the social networking sites, where nothing personal awaits me. There are the inevitable invitations to Seattle’s social scene, sent by people who don’t know me. About six thousand donation requests for mindless charities, where people think that overweight gay men are giving, and of course half a dozen friend requests from people I hated or didn’t know in high school. Fuck them all.
Amy’s voice comes over the side of my cubicle. “What should you never say when you get on a plane?” I wait a beat, hoping it will go away. The bait for a response dangles, midair.
“What?” I say.
“Hi-Jack!” says Amy. She is in her mid-twenties. She is always smiling. She pops her head over the carpeted divider and smiles.
“Are you standing on your chair again, Amy?” I ask without looking up at her. She will soon be guffawing at my lisp.
“I certainly am!” she says. Amy is excruciatingly short.
“You’re going to get yelled at by Brian Youngblood,” I say, raising my eyes.
“Who cares? Did you get the invite to my party on Saturday?” I throw a half scowl at the thought of carousing with my spiteful co-workers. E Vino Veritas, I think, throw some booze down their throats, then the truth will come out.
“I accidentally deleted it. I probably can’t come anyways,” I say, shifting my weight.
“That’s fine, it’s an open house, lots of people are just going to be stopping by. I think Hannah from HR is bringing her fiancé from finance, what’s his name again?”
“I don’t know,” I say, even though I do. His name is Evan Caldwell. He is insanely attractive. “Brian Baumann is probably going to make me work late anyway,” I say, trying to veer off the path of conversation.
“The Brians sure must love you, the way they make you work late all the time. Shit, speak of the devil.” Amy pops back behind her cubicle. Brian Youngblood’s pleasant timbre floats in behind me.
“Amy, would you please not stand on your chair, the cleaning ladies are complaining about footprints.” Brian Youngblood rests his chin on my cubicle. “Jack C., hello.”
“Hello Mr. Youngblood,” I say, simultaneously flipping to the graph chart on my computer. Brian Youngblood is a gorgeous young executive. His chiseled complexion conjures visions of Roman warriors.
“Please, call me Brian. Or Brian Two, I guess.” His sentence is followed by a forced chortle. I imagine him laughing at my naked body, me standing at the foot of his four-post bed. “I got your data file on the Downs portfolio. You really put a lot of time into it. Just wanted to swing by and give you a kudos.” He slips a Kudos brand chocolate chip granola bar onto my desk and laughs big. How funny, I think, give the fat man some candy. I force a smile at him as his grin wears down. He moves on from my cubicle to Amy’s without saying goodbye. He begins to talk with her about the party. I know their hushed tone is strategically directed away from me.
After work I drive my car to a fast food chain restaurant and wait in the drive-thru. I get my dinner and putt to a stall at the back of the lot. I put my car in park and leave it running. I wonder what it would feel like to attach a dryer tube to the exhaust and run it through my window. I wish I had a garage. I eat my hamburgers and contemplate my note. I think about it for a while, even down to the style of paper I’d use: handmade, rough-textured, four ply. I jam my car into gear and roll out of the parking lot.
My house is an awful place. Red brick with an ugly taupe overhang. The shrubs in the front yard never bloom and the grass is of the crab variety. I park my car under the disgusting canopy that matches the overhang. It looks like my roof was built from manila folders. My mailbox is empty. I lumber inside, out of the cold Seattle rain, and remove my clothes. My answering machine is empty. I stand in my underwear at the kitchen counter, empty pizza boxes and soda cans everywhere, surrounded by green Formica and deteriorating particleboard. I pour some water into a glass with cartoon characters on it. I grab the orange bottle of sleeping pills prescribed to me and make my way to the couch. I sit down and thumb through the records in a crate on the floor. I settle on an early Smiths album and carefully drop the needle. I down four of the 10 mg pills in my hand, enough to beat my tolerance. I grab the cordless phone and dial my mother on the east coast. I let it ring until I lose count and I drift off.
I wake up to a timid knocking at the door. Startled, I consider pulling the sheet over my head and letting the visitor drift away, but curiosity gets the better of me. I pull on my sweatpants and marinara-stained white tee and saunter towards the door. Through the peephole, a young boy stares back at me, one eye squinted in the circle. In any typical situation I would avoid contact. However this situation is neither typical, nor avoidable, since the boy has spotted me through the fish-eyed glass. The deadbolt slams inside the door and I pull the knob. My guest and I stand, staring at one another.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi?” I say.
“My name is Michael. I live down the street. I heard your music earlier. I sat down in the bushes below your window and listened. What was it?” I stare at him with my mouth open. “Well?” he says. I glance at the stereo.
“It was The Smiths,” I tell him. The boy lacks the hard, judging features of adults. His brow is not furrowed, his lips not creased. His eyes aren’t black bullets above mounds of grey. His complexion is seamless.
“Cool, got anymore The Smiths?” He asks the name quizzically. He brushes past me and over to the record crate, thumbing through the sleeves. I motion to protest, but he isn’t paying attention. “I’m going to put this one on.” He grabs The Sounds of the Smiths from the stack. “I like the cover.” He lets the turntable spin and sits on the couch. Bewildered, I sit next to him. “You don’t mind do you? My friend moved away last month and I’m really bored. I’m cooped up inside pretty much all day, but at night I get to make the rounds, because my mom goes to sleep, you know?”
I half frown at him, but somehow I can’t ask him to leave. He begins to talk to me over the music. He talks about a model plane he’s building. He says he’s got a workshop in his room. He says whenever his mother cleans it, she throws away important stuff.
“How old are you?” I say.
“Twelve, but I read a lot.” I nod my head. I try to think of the last time I had someone in my house.
“The gas man fixed my line,” I blurt out.
“Well that’s good,” he says, and picks up some fast food wrappers. “You should really clean this shit up, it can get unhealthy.” I look at him in awe. “Sorry, did I offend you? I curse a lot. Just not around my mom. She hates it. Do you get drunk?”
“Rarely,” I reply, and try to think of the last time I got drunk.
“I really want to get drunk. Just to try it. My mom says it’d be really bad for me. She says maybe when I’m sixteen. Do you have any booze? Any hard liquor?” I get up and wander to my cabinet, and as it occurs to me that I’m breaking myriad laws, I pour the kid and myself a drink. He follows me into the kitchen. I give him the glass and he sips from it. He half coughs half scoffs and says, “That shit is nasty.” He takes another sip, I stare at him. “Do you play?” he asks. I look at him for a second. He motions to the guitar in the living room.
“Oh, I used to. Nothing serious, just with myself.” The kid smirks. He walks over and picks up the instrument. He holds it like a watermelon and plucks the first string. “Here,” I motion for him to give it to me. I strum a few chords on it.
“Cool. That liquor didn’t make me feel too great. I think I’m going to head home. I’m going to stop by again, though,” he says. Before I can object to his return the kid is out the door and I am left holding the guitar.
I am awake before my alarm goes off. I find it hard to perform my morning masturbatory ritual in the shower. Every time I picture Brian Youngblood’s dynamic physique, Michael’s face appears. I step out of the shower without release and drudge through the rest of my routine. When I take my pills, they seem to put up more of a fight sliding down my throat. I find it hard to look at the newspaper with apathy. I’m angered by the facts in it, saddened by the black and white deaths. Even the fast food breakfast sandwich I eat tastes meager and dry.
The voices of the desk ladies are unclear this morning. I cannot hear their biting remarks lingering and echoing in my head. At my cubicle Amy’s desperate pleas for my attendance at her party seem less driven by mockery and slightly more genuine. Brian Youngblood has no candy bar today—-he just smiles and waves.
By the time work is over, I’ve thought about Michael so much, I rush home. I pass right by the plethora of fast food restaurants I usually patronize at this hour. I think I see a cashier or two look quizzically at my speeding car. I stop by a liquor store outside my neighborhood and buy three bottles. I get the sweet stuff, even though I never liked candy liquor much. In my house, I flip through the records, looking for the Smiths album I had listened to the night before. I have broken a sweat. I find it and drop it on the turntable, nearly busting the needle in half. I sit on the couch and wait for Michael.
I wake up at 3 a.m. No Michael. The tone arm beats against the final groove of the record. I scoff at myself. I consider putting my head inside the oven and turning the gas on. Instead I go to the bedside table and pick up my father’s revolver. I sit on the couch, staring at the gun. I awake again at 7:30 in the morning. Already a half an hour late, I begin my ritual. Everything is back to normal.
Late Thursday night, while I half doze on the couch, a knock comes on the door. Through the peephole I see him, distorted, standing with a book in his hands.
“It’s a songbook, by The Smiths,” he says as I open the door for him. I stand and stare. “My mom works for a music publishing company so I asked her to get it. Can you play from it?” I take the book from him. I tune my guitar and begin to play the first song in the book. I raise my eyebrows to him. “Are you going to sing?” Michael asks. I shake my head and crack a half smile.
“I don’t sing,” I say.
“Okay, I’ll sing,” says Michael, taking a seat next to me on the couch. We go through a few songs together. His voice is awful, but he knows the songs. “I bought the CD. I’ve been listening to it a lot. I like the Smiths,” he says. His brown-haired bowl cut comes all the way down to his eyes. In order to become an attractive older man, he’d have to put on some weight. He looks emaciated. I tousle his hair. I go in the kitchen and make him a milkshake. He asks me to put some liquor in it, so I pour some Irish Crème in a shot glass and tell him to put it in himself, while I’m not looking. After a while longer of talking and drinking milkshakes he tells me he’s tired and is going to home to bed. I’d rather have him stay, but I don’t want to push.
“Hey,” I say as he walks towards the door, “wanna go to an adult party on Saturday?”
“Like a porn or sex party?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “just a party with adults at it, I mean. It’s in Magnolia, you ever been to Magnolia before?” Michael shakes his head. “It’s a nice neighborhood. We’ll leave at ten and I’ll have you home around one thirty.”
“All right,” he says and smiles. My nerves are hot for the next two days.
Friday goes by in a blur. Amy is overjoyed by my affirmation of attendance and surprised at my query about bringing a guest.
“Of course you can bring someone! The more the merrier,” she says, her eyes bursting with excitement. “I’m quote-unquote bringing someone, too.” She stares longingly at Brian Youngblood from atop her chair.
Saturday consists mostly of sleep and preparations for the night: cleaning my car, buying some good wine to bring. I even buy some new clothes to wear. Michael raps on my front door at a quarter past ten. We head to the car and drive off, bearing down on the wet Seattle streets. The dreary surroundings remind me of The Smiths. I try to gauge where Michael lives by the way he looks at the houses.
“I don’t know how long I can stay out, I’m really tired,” he says apologetically.
“That’s fine, I don’t know these people that well.” I give him a wink and tousle his hair. I wonder if he gets frustrated when I do that. The Magnolia neighborhood of Northeast Seattle is a beautiful place. When it rains, the water glints off the stone buildings like diamonds. We reach Amy’s apartment complex and head up the stairs. When we get to the top, I wheeze. Michael puts his hand on the small of my back and asks if I’m all right. I smile at him and say I am. I hear the sounds of laughter and music coming from behind the door. I look at Michael and puff out my cheeks, then knock on the door. Amy answers, wearing a beautiful green dress. She smiles and welcomes me. She is about an inch and a half taller than Michael.
“Jack, I didn’t know you had a son?” she says looking a bit put off at Michael’s presence.
“I don’t.” Michael, looking bewildered, pans the room. “This is my friend, Michael.” With the grace of a kindergarten instructor, she welcomes Michael and I into her apartment. I put the wine on the table and tell Michael I will grab us some drinks. My hand hovers over the assorted alcohols, deciding whether or not to pour Michael an adult drink. I decide a little nip won’t hurt him and pour some vodka into a glass of soda water. The two of us stand in the corner, near the fireplace, not saying much. Occasionally Michael looks up at me with sensitive eyes. He seems like he wants to ask a question, but is afraid. The two of us draw odd looks as the party passes by. I begin to talk to him about his school and his mother. After an hour, Michael looks tired. I ask him if he’s ready to go soon and he nods. As we start to leave, Brian Youngblood walks toward me.
“Jack, can I speak with you for a second?” He pauses, looking at Michael. “In private?” I glance at Michael. He nods, then sits down on the hearth. Brian Youngblood pulls me over to a corner of the room where Brian Baumann and Amy are standing. Both Brians look queasy. Amy sets in first. “Look, Jack, I don’t care what kind of fucked up shit you do on your own time...” Brian Baumann cuts her off. Brian Youngblood puts his arms around her shoulders. Brian Baumann addresses me in his thick, monotone voice.
“You don’t bring seventh graders to parties with you Jack, regardless of maturity. You’re making everyone here uncomfortable.” He runs his hand through his slick, black hair and looks at Amy. “I think everyone would have a better time if you and the kid would just leave.”
I want to say something that makes him understand my plan had already been to leave, and that the party has sucked anyways, but I have a lump the size of my fist in my throat. I want to push the three of them to the floor and watch them writhe together as I kick them. I want them to feel every burst of anger I’ve ever had. I choke back my tears and nod at them both.
“I don’t want this to affect our working relationship,” Brian Baumann says as I walk away. “You’re an asset to the SOS family!” Brian Youngblood mutters something underneath his breath. I grab Michael by the shoulder and head towards the door.
In the car, Michael and I are silent for a long time. I ask him if he’s okay.
“What’s a pederast?” he asks.
“Who said that word?” I ask him, with anger in my voice.
“What is it?”
“I want to know who said it, and then I’ll tell you what it is.” I say.
“What were her words exactly?”
“She said, ‘I knew he was a fag, but a pederast?’”
“What?” I exclaim.
“I knew he was a fag, but a pederast,” Micahel says, more certainly this time. “Does it mean someone who makes love to kids? Like a pedophile?” he asks. I hold my breath.
“Yes. Boys, specifically,” I say.
“Do you?” he asks.
“Do I what?” I say.
“Want to make love to me.” I pull the car onto a side street and put it in park. Michael looks nervous, but doesn’t move. I stroke his hair out from his eyes. I put my arm around his head and pull him close. He doesn’t squirm. I kiss the top of his hair. It smells like baby shampoo. I hold him there for a second and release him.
“No, I absolutely do not want to make love to you,” I say. I tousle his hair once more and put the car in drive. He is quiet for the duration of the ride. I can’t tell whether he is offended or unnerved. Back in our neighborhood I pull into the carport and he gets out.
“Hey,” I say, “come over tomorrow night. I bought another record the other day.” He nods his head and smiles at me, turning to walk away. The look in his eyes lingers for a moment, until I let it go. I move slowly into the house and fall asleep on the couch.
Sunday passes with no trace of Michael. That night I order enough pizza for two or people. By 1:30 a.m. the whole thing is gone. I put on the Smiths album and open my window. I fall asleep, my arms crossed over my body.
On Monday morning I call in to work. I tell them I’m sick and can’t come in. The voice on the other end of the line is that of a woman I know wasn’t at the party. She cannot end the conversation quickly enough. Over the next few hours I get three phone calls. Two are from the SOS main office and one is from Brian Youngblood’s personal cell phone. He gave us the number for personal emergencies, or if we ever needed to talk. I had never felt the urge. Brian leaves two more messages on my answering machine before I unplug it. His voice is wavering, unsure.
“Hi, Jack, Brian Youngblood here, I see that you’re out sick today. It’s too bad, because I really wanted to talk to you. Listen, we’ve talked it over with HR and the bosses, and we think you’re just not fit for SOS. Not like physically fit, well, you know what I mean.” He pauses, “you’re just not gelling with the organization, working for the team anymore. I really hate to do this on the answering service, but we’re going to have to let you go, Jack. I’m sorry. I’m always here to talk.”
I blink my eyes and move on to the second message.
“Hi, Jack, Youngblood again.” He pauses and sighs. “Are you all right, man? Are you gonna be all right? Call me, all right? All right.” His phone clicks and I delete the message.
At four thirty I put on some clothes and walk to the store at the corner. On the way, I look for Michael’s face in windows of houses. I strain my ears for music. All I hear is swollen traffic. All I see are shut curtains. I reach the store and buy three bouquets of blue flowers and some candles. I lug it all back to my house. I clear the center of the room of trash and furniture and set the items out. I put the Smiths book in the center of all of it. I drop the needle on the record player and quietly hum along. Behind me is Amy. She is crying. The two Brians interlock their strong arms and nestle their heads together. The security guard shakes his head and lowers it. The desk ladies murmur about how sad I look. They wish they could do something. Everyone’s eyes are on me, devoid of contempt, filled with empathy. In the small front room of my meager brick house, I am having a funeral.