When Chuck clutched his fat fingers to his chest, wheezing and coughing, and then fell to his knees by the hamburger grill, everyone was too busy with the noon rush hour to pay attention to him at first. I thought he had dropped his sunglasses on the floor— since he was always wearing sunglasses indoors—and was looking for them. But then he collapsed face-first to the floor and I— being the only manager on shift at McDougall’s that day—had to leave the scrambling helter-skelter hurry-flurry of the front counter to see what was happening.
By then, Joe and Devon had both left the assembly line and were standing over Chuck, frowning down at him. Matt was at the deep fryer, glancing over his shoulder while trying to catch up with the day’s deficit of chicken nuggets. We were all too busy for antics, and I was pretty miffed already because Joe had pissed me off earlier by talking about how big my ass was, loudly so that the customers could hear by the front counter. But I knew Chuck, somewhat, and knew that he never clowned around.
Seeing Chuck’s empurpling fat cheeks, I knew something was seriously wrong. I yelled at Andrea up front, near the phone.
“Call 911!” I then pointed to Joe and Devon. “You two flip him over onto his back.”
Joe and Devon looked at each other, in reluctance, and then squatted down and grabbed hold of Chuck. Slowly they dragged his corpulent body over, face-up, grunting as they struggled. The biggest problem was Chuck’s gut. He was a large man—tall and obese and big-boned—and so flipping him over was like flipping over a beach-stranded whale.
Scabby-faced Joe, always an asshole, smacked Chuck’s cheek a couple of times.
“Wake up, you fat-fuck,” he said.
I pushed him aside and knelt down beside Chuck, ruining my brand new pair of pants on the greasy floor. How many times had I told them to mop up when the morning rush was over? They always did the least they had to for their paychecks. No work ethic at all.
I pressed my ear to Chuck’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. By now his breathing was shallow, and his heartbeat faint. Being a manager, I had taken CPR and First Aid classes in the Spring. I never wanted to have to use what I had learned, especially not on someone who stank like Chuck did. It was not fair to me. Joe was a merciless asshole, but when he chose the nickname “Cheddar-Chuck” it stuck because it rang true. At the same time, Chuck didn’t smell like Cheddar; he smelled like mold and mildew and ammonia. Cat piss, in other words. He was always worse in the heat of Summer, and a hundred times worse in the sizzling heat of the grill area. Often I sent him to fetch things from the freezer downstairs, hoping it might cool him down and stop his sweating. It never worked for very long. Being this close to him, and checking his vitals, I felt nauseated and dizzy as my stomach churned and my head spun. I did not want to do CPR on him. Often I wore more perfume because of how bad McDougall’s stank in Summer, and how bad Chuck stank over it all.
“Andrea!” I shouted. “Is the ambulance on the way?”
Andrea popped up between the partition that separated the grill area from the front counter area. She looked like she was going to cry.
“The ambulence is on its way!” she shrieked, her eyes rimmed redly and her chest heaving toward hyperventilation. God, I hated working with teenagers. It reminded me of how much I hated myself at that age. Melodrama and histrionics. Everything was the end of the world for them.
I turned back to Chuck and saw, with alarm, that his face was blue now, almost gray, like a corpse. I knew I had to do something. Being a manager, I wondered if I could order Joe to give him mouth to mouth. I would have enjoyed the look on his face in any other circumstance, but I knew I was the manager, so, ultimately, I was responsible for whatever casualties we suffered throughout the day. I did not want to lose my job because a fat, stinky loner decided to die on my shift. My aspirations were to be a CEO someday. I was too driven in my career to be derailed by something like this. I worked sixty hours a week and went to night school, marching indomitably toward my business degree. It was often difficult, especially with whiny, lazy, and stupid teenagers under me. It was worse than corralling cats. At least with cats you could just pick each up and drop them where you wanted them to go. I couldn’t lay a hand on any of the teens, no matter how much I wanted to strangle them and drop them into a river.
That said, Chuck wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t honestly know how old he was. He had a cherub face and could have been anywhere from twenty to forty years old. He never talked about himself, and had worked at McDougall’s almost as long as I had. In a way, we were kin by merit of time spent in the franchise. Still, that did not change how disgusted he made me feel.
I swallowed hard. Chuck was dying and I did not know how long the ambulance would take to arrive here. Last time we had a medical emergency it took half an hour for the ambulance to arrive. Luckily, the old man had only pulled his chest muscles and was not having a heart attack. This was different though. Chuck was dying, and in doing so he was selfishly ruining my future. Why couldn’t he have waited until he was off-duty to keel over? Maybe at home, or at least down the street and out of sight.
And looking at Chuck now, I realized I never noticed how many warts arrayed around his fat, cherubic face. He was like a warthog, really. Very ugly, all in all. The warts were discolored and scabby, and round as mushrooms. It looked like he suffered from psoriasis, too. Perhaps if he had bathed himself properly he wouldn’t have so many skin problems, or his body odor problem. He disgusted me.
I took a few deep breaths, which only made things worse for me as I knelt over Chuck. I did not want to lose my job. I had too many bills to pay, and college tuition rose every year. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, I palmed my forehead, massaging my face as I weighed my options. Who the fuck was I kidding? I had no options. Do or die…even if it made me want to upchuck.
Leaning over him, with my hands over his heart, I set myself into compressions. I don’t know how many I did, actually. I did not keep count. I probably did more than I should have, stalling for time while faced with the prospect of putting my mouth to his. Then again, I might have done the right amount. It really wore my shoulders out. It shouldn’t have, if I had done them right, but I was a little panicky at the thought of losing my job. Every year they changed the number of compressions and breaths, probably to justify the renewal fees each year. It was a good business model, I supposed, even if it irritated the hell out of me.
I hesitated when I thought it came time for the two breaths. A wave of nausea overcame me again and I swayed. I told myself to woman-up and do what I needed to do. It was part of being a manager, after all. And if I wanted to be a businesswoman I would have to steel myself in as many ways as humanly possible. So I took a deep breath, tilted Chuck’s head back to open his airway, clamped his nose, held his jaw open, and pressed my lips to his. For a moment I wondered if it was the first kiss from a woman Chuck had ever had. This ironic thought was obliterated as I breathed into his mouth, and tasted the stench of his innards. However awful he smelled on the outside, his halitosis was a thousand times worse. I gagged and retched, making gawp-mouthed vowel sounds that could give way to vomit at any moment. Nonetheless, I soldiered through and breathed again into that sewage grotto of his mouth. It was musty, like a cellar, and rank, like the cellar was full of dead rats. I coughed and gagged, feeling Chuck cough up into my own mouth as something vile and sour spurted against my tongue and throat.
Lurching to my feet with a frantic cry, I ran to the nearest garbage can, clamping a hand to my mouth as vomit hurled itself against my palm. Leaning over the garbage can, I sputtered as everything came hurling out, my gullet exploding with bile and half-digested food. Joe would have laughed at me in any other circumstance, but even that asshole kept his mouth shut as I returned to check on Chuck.
He was dead.
The paramedics tried to resuscitate Chuck using an AED. It was no use. They asked us if he had any allergies, but no one knew. He was fat and ate three egg burritos in the morning and two quarter pounders for lunch everyday. Heart disease, they concluded, with a shrug. The “American Illness.”
They carted him away. By that time we were so far behind on our orders that we rushed for two hours straight trying to catch up. I put Joe on the grill, and I took over his spot on the assembly line. By the time Bob came in to relieve me as manager for the night shift, I was dehydrated, sick, and pale.
“You need to take a day off,” he said, after I informed him of what happened.
“I’m fine,” I said, defiantly. Bob wanted my position as daytime manager. He tried to act like my friend all of the time, with his casual talk and stupid smile, but I knew there were no such things as friends. Only competitors.
It was as I was leaving that I noticed something in the corner, beside the grills. I walked over to it and bent over, finding a ring of keys in the coagulated grease.
“DAT ASS!” Joe exclaimed.
“Shut the fuck up, Joe,” Devon said.
I ignored both of them. I took the key ring and put it in my pocket. It belonged to Chuck. I could tell because it had a Sailor Moon figurine hanging from it. Maybe, I thought, I could give it to his family.
A week passed and a funeral was held for Chuck. I went to the graveyard, late in the evening. There was an old woman there, standing over the large pile of unsettled earth. When she saw me, she smiled. She was a small woman, withered and white-haired beneath a black hat.
“Charlie never did have nobody,” she observed. “I should have been there for him more often. But my health problems have never been good for socializing, even with my grandson.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. She looked me up and down. “How did you know Charlie?”
“I was his manager,” I said.
She nodded and stepped forward, hugging me. “I heard you tried to do right by him. Tried to save him. But there weren’t no saving him. Not Charlie. It’s all his momma’s fault, of course. My son, Charlie’s daddy, died of a heart attack, too. When he was young. Then that no-good woman remarried, not even a month later, to some other man. Moved out of state and never looked back. Been trying to call her, but the slut blocked me.”
I could only nod. Family drama was not something I had time or energy for; it was the reason I did not talk to my family anymore. They just weighed me down.
“Charlie never really had any friends,” his grandmother said. “I raised him, you know, after his daddy died. He liked cartoons. He liked video games. He liked food, too, like his daddy. But that was his only sin, God bless him. He kept to himself. But he worked, too, and I couldn’t fault him none for that. When he moved out I had hoped he would of found a life for himself. Now…now I just hope he’s found some peace.”
“I hope so, too,” I said, if only because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Were you his friend?” she asked, looking up at me shrewdly.
“He was a coworker,” I said. “He was a…a hard worker. Always arrived on time and never missed a day.”
It was my default remark for people of whom I had little else to say positive. I said the same thing about Joe, sometimes. He came to work, most of the time, though he came only because he liked to harass the girls in drive-thru, and because he thought he might be able to fuck me someday. Fat chance, that. I had a man in my life— why would I want a scab-faced, little scrub?
“Chuck never made any problems for anyone,” I concluded, diplomatically.
She smiled, appeased. “Yes, that was Charlie. Always working hard and doing what was right. He was a good boy. A good man.”
She wiped a few tears from her eyes and I looked away, feeling embarrassed and awkward. I never knew how to handle this emotional stuff. Emotions got in the way, I often noticed. Emotions had no business in a businesswoman’s life. I looked toward my car, parked to the side of the road that cut through the graveyard. I was anxious to leave. I was a busy woman; an aspiring businesswoman.
“Oh!” I said, suddenly remembering. “I almost forgot.” My hand rummaged through the pocket of my pantsuit, finding the key ring. I held it out to Chuck’s grandmother. “I found this at work. It’s Chuck’s, isn’t it?”
She raised a hand to take the ring, but then withdrew it. “I couldn’t go there,” she said. “Not right now. My health isn’t very good. I hate to bother you, Miss, but do you think you could just go ahead and give that to Charlie’s landlord? I know it’s a burden, but I just don’t think I could deal with it right now. He’d ask me to move Charlie’s things out, and I just couldn’t do it by myself, and I don’t think I’d want to see his things. You could just drop it off at his apartment building. It’s on Basswood Road, Apartment number…what was it? Number 230.”
I felt misused suddenly, and very irritable. I should have refused, because it would have been my best interest, but the old lady looked very pitiful, and so I felt guilty. Guilt was a moral failing. I would not be able to feel guilt as a CEO, I told myself. Still, my hand dropped the key ring in my pocket again. I told myself I wouldn’t make a scene, but I also wouldn’t go to his apartment and drop the key off. I didn’t have the time. Let the landlord deal with it. He had an extra key, anyway, if he was a responsible businessman.
“I have to go,” I said. “Sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, dear,” the old woman said. She turned toward the unsettled earth again, praying while I walked back to my car.
I started to suffer a cough. It came on occasionally, whether at work or at home. It was a light allergy cough, it seemed, and then it became more of a deep-chested, painful cough that rattled my throat. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, though, so I just medicated myself with cough syrup and antihistamine pills. Intermittently I would feel nauseated and dizzy. I would have thought myself pregnant if not for the fact that my boyfriend and I were not having sex that much, and when we did we were extremely careful with condoms and birth control pills. He went on frequent business trips, too, which meant we spent a lot of time apart. He worked as a hardware salesman for a tech company. It was one of the reasons I respected him so much. Love did not enter the equation; it was all about future prospects, compatibility, and synergy; like any good Corporate merger. Still, I missed him a lot when he was out of town. Much of the time I had only the teenagers at work and the weirdos at night school around me, and I felt their presence and attitudes surrounding me like an infectious miasma of mediocrity and idiocy. Michael, my boyfriend, was so professional and savvy, and I liked to think that his professionalism rubbed off on me, innuring me to the effects of the parasites that frequently surrounded me.
I called my boyfriend the next week, while he was staying in Vancouver for a tech summit. He sounded busy. He always sounded busy while out on his business trips. That was why they were business trips.
“Hello?” he said, his voice slightly tinged with irritation.
“Hey,” I said. “Just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine,” he said flatly.
“That’s good,” I said. “How are things in Vancouver?”
“Fine,” he said. “Listen, Elle, I have to go. I have an important business meeting in a few minutes. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “So you’re making good business contacts at the summit?”
“Yes,” he said. “Really good contacts.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um. See you when you get back.”
“Sure, Elle,” he said.
He hung up. My man was doing well. I could tell. He was too busy to talk. He was in the zone. One day I called him at work, while on break, and when I hung up Andrea, who was also taking her break, asked me why I didn’t tell him I loved him. We were not that type of people. We did not “love” like in the movies. We were a mutual venture together. We were a partnership, albeit not necessarily a platonic kind. We had sex, and we sometimes watched tv together, but neither of us had pretensions about feelings. Life was a survival game, an enterprise and a franchise. We would not be embarking on the “ultimate” franchise, children, but we would be conquering the business world together. That was what I told myself I most wanted in a life partner.
That night it rained. My breathing became worse as I left the community college campus, holding my umbrella and fast-walking to my car to get home so I could write a paper I had due the next day (which I had forgotten about). I felt over-exerted, as if I had ran a marathon, and sat in my car, coughing and trying to catch my breath. I gagged for a moment, sounding like a cat coughing up a hairball, and something exploded wetly against my upraised hand. Turning on the light, I expecting phlegm. Instead, there was a grayish mucus splattered all over my fingers and palm. Wiping it up with a napkin, I felt horrified. I knew I needed to go to the doctor and so when I arrived home I called Melinda and asked her if she could switch shifts with me the next day so I could go to the doctor in the morning. Melinda was a twenty-something, like me, but her resting bitch-face and grouchy attitude always made me think she was in her fifties. She was happy to switch with me because it meant she would have Friday night off. I doubted she actually partied or had a date lined up, but maybe it pleased her to think she could have either going for her on a Friday night.
That night I slept in fits, coughing and hacking up the grayish mucus. Friday morning, I went to the doctor’s office. By then, however, the rain had stopped, and the sun had come out, and I was no longer spitting up the gray mucus. The doctor— an old man with a perpetual scowl— examined me and said I had allergies. He wrote a prescription for expensive allergy medicine. He also noticed a place on my chest that I had not seen: a ring of scabby discoloration just above my right breast. Examining it, through his thick glasses, he diagnosed it as ringworm and gave me prescription for that, too.
My insurance covered most of the expenses and I took my medication before going to work that night. I was relieved to think my condition was diagnosed and, hopefully, soon to be mended. I did not want to miss work or school. My ambitions had no time for any health complications.
I woke up the next day with my eyes sealed shut. For a moment I panicked, rubbing my eyelids frantically with my fingertips. I could feel a hard, crusted substance along the raven-wings of my eyelashes, solidifying like mortar between bricks. Painfully, I scraped the thick crust away until I could see. My vision was blurry, though, and I went to the bathroom to find out what was wrong. I told myself it was just grogginess— that my eyes hadn’t focused since waking up—but when I turned on the light in the bathroom a sudden burning ache flared in my eyes. Squinting through the pain, I saw my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot, the flesh lining the socket inflamed, and a yellow pus was leaking out of my tear ducts. It had to be an eye infection. But I had just gone to the doctor! If only this infection had shown itself yesterday, then I could have gotten treatment for it. As it was, I didn’t have time to go again. I took my allergy medicine, then went to the store and bought an over-the-counter eyedrop medication. It was not antibacterial, but it was good enough to clear my eyes of most of the redness, even if the puffiness remained, and the pain of seeing in light worsened. I bought a pair of sunglasses, also, and wore them throughout the workday. Joe, being the asshole he was, kept saying I was hungover. I wished he wasn’t a part of that school-to-work program. How the hell did he have the grades to sustain his daytime job and his schoolwork? Devon, I could understand, but not Joe. Maybe he was a dropout. I wouldn’t have been surprised. I wasn’t the one that hired him, although I sure wanted to be the one to fire him. The problem was that he worked well enough, and never missed any days. And we were always short on help at McDougall’s.
At one point I tried to take the sunglasses off, but the lights inside the restaurant burned like freshly cooked, salted fries pressed against my eyeballs. What the hell was wrong with me?
Work became tough after Chuck’s death; not because he had died and I missed him there— quite the opposite, in fact, since it did not stink so badly as when he was there—but because we were now undermanned on dayshift. Joe was worse than ever, consequently. He felt free to say whatever he wanted to me and the rest of the girls because he knew I couldn’t afford to fire him. Even Devon lost his patience with him. I had to separate them more than once before they came to blows. Drama was too damn high now, and I had no interest as a stage director.
And hiring new employees was only a temporary solution. The new hires quit within a couple of days. None of them wanted to work the grill. It was hot and it spat scalding grease and it was hard work scraping the grill clean between cooking burgers. But I did it when I had first started. I had the red scars on my knuckles to prove it. They just had no ambitions. That was the problem with a lot of people. Lazy and unmotivated and ungrateful for a chance. Fucking parasites.
I went home each night feeling more drained and miserable than before. My cough became worse, racking my body and sloshing my brain about in my skull. I slept more and more each night, sometimes oversleeping and having to rush to work to help with Opening. Michael wasn’t home from Vancouver yet, and didn’t call very often. I would have called him, but last time I did I interrupted one of his important meetings. He was very peevish with me after that and so I didn’t want to be a bother. I didn’t want to seem clingy, or even emotional. Emotions were a weakness in a partnership.
It was all a disaster. They suspended me at work, without pay, and they were mulling over whether they would terminate me. I did not know what to expect from Corporate. And what was worse was that it was all completely avoidable. Joe and Devon got into another argument while I was helping in Drive-Thru. It was some stupid argument over who should be responsible for throwing pickles on the hamburgers. It was petty and trivial and unprofessional. Anyway, push came to shove and Joe tried to punch Devon. Devon was a boxer, evidently, and blocked the punch. But instead of just letting the altercation go, Devon threw a punch, too, and knocked Joe backwards. It was rush-hour at the time and I didn’t see how it transpired, but Matt saw it from the deep fryer. He said Joe staggered backwards and slipped on some grease and spun around to try to catch himself, landing face-first on the corner of the grill. He suffered third-degree burns. Almost melted his face off, from what I could see from behind my sunglasses. It did not help his ugly face at all. Sorry, but it was hard to feel compassion towards the little shit. It was his own fault, anyway. I may not believe in karma, but cause and effect are real things, as are idiots and consequences.
And there were a lot of consequences from that idiot.
Since I was the manager on duty, Corporate had decided to send their army of lawyers into the case and determine what the legal ramifications could be and whether my severance might save them money in the long run. By “severance” I mean severing and skewering my head for public display to ward off a potential lawsuit and PR catastrophe. Joe and Devon were both seventeen years old, working there on the school-to-work program. I was the adult responsible for their safety, at least in the eyes of the Corporate executioners.
I had nothing to do but stay at my apartment and wait for the guillotine to drop. Michael had been sent on another business trip right after his Vancouver summit, back-to-back, and would not be home, he said, for three more weeks. This time he went to Montreal. He never had much time to talk whenever I called him, and his text messages came in tersely-worded trickles. I felt isolated and alone, unmoored from anything that kept me anchored; and the world was a violent, drunken storm. Or some such melodrama. I became a homebody in the meantime, staying cooped up all day every day, only going out at night for groceries. I kept the window curtains drawn and most of the lights off in my apartment. I never looked outside at daylight unless I had to. Even moderate light hurt my eyes. I wondered if my cataracts had gotten worse. I went to the doctor and he said I had a fungal infection, and gave me some antibiotics. The pain subsided, but the vision impairment only became worse. My skin itched incessantly, and the rings of scabby tissue multiplied, cracking and spreading like vengeful psoriasis.
It was the week of my period and I did not feel well. I was as anemic as an inbred aristocrat that was her own aunt. Normally my periods were light, since I took birth control, but this week was heavy and debilitating. My flow was darker than usual, almost black, and while it never smelled like roses it had a worse odor than usual. I started to believe I had an infection down there, too, since it burned so badly. Just when I was about to go to the doctor, however, Corporate dropped the blade and my head went rolling. I lost my job. I lost my steady income and I also lost my health insurance. Rent was due soon, too, as was my car payment. Because I went to night school I had little savings for anything beyond next month’s rent. When I tried to call Michael I got his voicemail. I texted him what had happened, and told him I needed money, but he only texted back a cool response:
“We will discuss it when I return.”
He would not answer my repeated phone calls and did not seem to care about the Medical Emergency texts I sent him. And while I didn’t believe in bad luck, this seemed like the perfect storm of converging problems.
My symptoms grew worse. For some reason my mind kept returning to the day that I gave Chuck mouth-to-mouth. I wondered, in my paranoia, if I had contracted something from him. I sat on this paranoia for a while, but then it became too strong and forceful. I became anxious, my anxiety growing alongside my illness. Finally, having nothing else to do, I decided to investigate the problem at its source.
I drove to Basswood Drive, looking for the apartment complex that Chuck’s grandmother had told me about. I did not expect much of an apartment for someone living on McDougall wages, but even with that in mind his neighborhood was a dump. It was an apartment complex beside the railroad tracks, shaken occasionally by the passing train. The cars parked outside the two-storey building ranged from rusty jalopies to pristine sports cars that made you wonder how someone living in such a rundown neighborhood could afford such flashy rides. Chuck did not own a car. He had walked to work everyday, which had only made his odor problem worse. Even on the coldest mornings he came in soaked in sweat and reeking of that soured-sweet smell of mildew and repellent body musk. Often his smell overpowered the heavy grease smells of the grill area. Since I was a manager I had to handle it when everyone complained. I bought him a very strong bar of deodorant and gave it to him, half-expecting him to lose his temper and throw it in the garbage can. Instead, he nodded lugubriously and went into the bathroom to apply it. It had done little good in fumigating his stench. His smell was like an aura permeating the air all around him. It ignored the deodorant’s best efforts. I didn’t know at the time if his stench was a result of bad hygiene and self-neglect or a medical problem. The truth was that I didn’t give it much thought other than as an annoyingly persistent defect on his part.
Everyone on the McDougall’s daytime crew knew it was only a matter of time before obesity killed Chuck. None of us expected it so soon, though. His obituary claimed he was only twenty-eight years old. He was a good worker, I realized, even with his odor problem. Then again, it was very inconsiderate of him to subject the rest of us to his stench. Perhaps he had had a medical condition; perhaps that was what eventually killed him. The paramedics claimed it was a heart-attack, and maybe it was, but maybe it was triggered by some undiagnosed, underlying condition. If so, maybe it was contagious.
Behind the apartment complex was a woods. I couldn’t see far into it, and had never been to this side of town before, so I did not know how far it spread out along the railroad tracks. I knew there used to be a small park with a slide and swings for kids, but the city closed it when they started finding used syringes near the gazebo. There was a huge hullabaloo about it in the newspaper a few months ago.
I pulled into the parking lot and idled with the air conditioner on. It was a hot Summer day and the heat made my cough worse. Only cold air seemed to allay it. I really, really hoped I hadn’t contracted a disease from Chuck.
Feeling suddenly lonely and depressed, I called Michael. The phone rang three times before it went to voicemail. I waited a minute and called again. It went to voicemail on the second ring. I waited for the beep and left a message, speaking into that static-eaten voice that lay between us. Irrationally, pathetically, I felt the strong need for a hug. I detested such a desire even as I sighed and wrapped my arms around myself. Another fit of coughs shook me like a ragdoll in my seat, so I turned off the car and got out, scanning the numbers over the apartment doors. From one end to the other I walked, looking for the right door. I then walked the other way. I could not find Chuck’s apartment. Confused, I frowned and wondered if I had misremembered what his grandmother had said.
“What’re ya’ lookin’ for?”
I turned to see a man seemingly stepping out from shadows into midday daylight. He was skinny and greasy with sweat, his Confederate battleflag wife-beater soaked through and he had a black mullet and tacky pornstache.
“Needin’ some weed?” he asked. “Maybe somethin’…stronger?”
“No,” I said. “I’m looking for Charlie Blanford’s apartment. He goes…went by ‘Chuck’.”
The man slunk up to me like a side-saddling crab. “What was his door number?”
I told him while he leered, boldly, at my breasts in my pantsuit. I crossed my arms over my chest and turned sideways, away from him, and he looked at my butt instead, his eyes up and down my contours as if fondling me with his gaze. I got enough of that at work from Joe. Actually, I wondered if this sleazeball and Joe were related. They both had that same inbred, blueblood skin, and creepy slug-eyed leer.
He smirked. “I see yer problem. He was that boy that lived in the basement.” He chortled, a squealing pig snort that sounded as if his pea-sized brain had slipped out and become lodged in his nasal cavity.
“Where’s the door, then?” I asked impatiently.
“Follow me, Missy, and I’ll show you.”
Instead of walking in front of me, he walked behind me, telling me where to go while he stared at my ass along the way. We went around the complex and into the marshy, waterlogged backyard. There was a set of concrete stairs that descended down alongside the cinderblock foundation. A dirty, windowless door stood at the bottom of the stairs, stained with a green floodwater mark. Even now a quarter inch of water had settled there, in the cool shade, away from the sun; stagnant and dirty and full of dead insects.
I began my descent. The country-fried redneck started down after me. I paused.
“Thanks for your help,” I said, hoping he would take the hint to leave.
“No problem, baby,” he said. He adjusted his crotch while I was at head-level. I averted my eyes and I took another step down. When he did the same, I lost my temper.
“I am here because Chuck died,” I said. “I am…was…his manager. His grandmother sent me to see to his things. This is a personal matter.”
“Oh, I understand,” he said, his lecherous pornstache clinging to his face like a leech on a scrotum. “I’ll let you do what you need to do.”
I walked down the rest of the steps in a rush, unlocking the door and slamming it in his face. I locked the door again, before I even groped for a light switch amidst that moldy, catacomb darkness. I could feel water soaking through my shoes and into my socks. It splashed and lapped with each step. As my hands scoured the walls for a light switch I could feel the cinderblock riddled with a veiny, scabby, flaky substance. It felt scaley, too, and moist.
The smell was awful.
Behind me, I heard the redneck try the door knob. He was a persistent creep, but after a few futile twists of the knob he cussed and walked upstairs, leaving me alone. I suspected he would be waiting for me when I left, lingering up at the top of the stairs.
It was very dark in the basement, so I took off my sunglasses and, finally feeling the light switch, flipped it on. A couple of lightbulbs flickered to life, their pale glow illuminating the derelict basement palace that belonged to “Cheddar-Chuck”. There was a couch in the middle of the large room. It was discolored and rank, seated in front of an old television and dvd player, both of which stood atop several cardboard boxes stacked atop one another. The carpet was mushy with water, like marshland, and discolored like the couch; brown, gray, black beneath the water. I sloshed through the pool of water, following the two lights that were strung up on hooks that had been affixed onto the foundation pillars that supported the rest of the apartment complex above. The majority of the basement was just one large living room with a kitchenette in the corner. The latter had a sink full of dirty dishes, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator. The sink was overflowing with water, gushing onto the floor. Despite the light, the walls were black with shadows and mildew, scabbed over like leprous flesh. The basement was very hot and humid, laboring my lungs with its stale, stagnant, and balmy air. There were two plug-in heaters, each one standing perilously atop their own stacks of damp cardboard boxes. Their insistent heat intensified the stench.
None of this made any sense to me. It was a waste of water and electricity. As I wandered deeper into the dimly-lit living space I discovered the bathroom— partitioned with a mildewy shower curtain— and found that the bathtub’s water was on and overflowing onto the floor, too.
Chuck had really given up on life, it seemed to me, long before he had died. It was sad, or would have been if I had let my emotions get the better of me. Maybe he was depressed. Maybe he was lonely down here. Then again, maybe he liked the solitude. He couldn’t have liked the scenery much. There were no windows at all and the dim lightbulbs did little more than accent the darkness with a hinting ghost-glow of illumination. I took out my cellphone and turned on its flashlight to see where I was going. The bathroom stank worse than the living room, so I turned away from it and returned to the living room.
I could smell cat piss beneath the sweet-decay stench of mildew, but I couldn’t find any cats. I thought I heard something toward the back of the basement, and spun around too quickly, knocking over a lamp with my butt. It fell and broke in the water. Luckily, it wasn’t plugged in, or else I would have been electrocuted. It was as I picked up the lamp that I found a heap next to the couch. I shined my cellphone light on it. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at. My brain told my eyes it was a scoopful of earth with dandelions sprouting all over it. When my eyes and brain finally figured the morbid enigma out, I screamed involuntarily and staggered back, hands on knees, bent over and retching. It was a dead cat: old, mangy, subsumed by cobwebbed mold as the feline bloated and decayed in the water. The “dandelions” were fungal spheres, spores ready to bloom into airborne motes.
I saw more cats around the basement’s bowels, now, recognizing them for what they were. Each had grown its own garden of fungi upon their inert bodies. For a moment I thought I saw a cat move, but told myself it was just the lapping of water against its limp tail.
I didn’t know what I expected to find, and had found more than I wanted. But before I could leave my eye alighted on some other strange remainder of Chuck’s stagnant life. There was a makeshift partition of waterstained drywood near the kitchenette. It was a crudely constructed room within the basement, and it had a single door leading into it. The door was closed and blank-faced except for mildew and water stains. I tried the knob and found it locked. Taking the keyring out again I tried one key, then the other. The second key worked and the door opened slowly, creaking on its rusted hinges. The interior of the room was utter shadow; impenetrably black. I raised my cellphone to tunnel into that darkness.
The stench of the basement was concentrated here, like the breath of a graveyard in an ancient, undrained swamp. A wave of mildew and mold and decaying vegetables and ammonia struck me so hard I staggered. I steadied myself with my free hand on the door frame. Gagging and coughing, I turned away. But then I heard what sounded like a sigh. Turning around once more, I raised my cellphone and scraped away the shadows with a swipe of its light. Involuntarily, I moaned in horror.
Listen: I wanted to become a businesswoman. I wanted to be my own boss. That was my dream. CEO supreme. Corporate Queen. Prime Mover. It was a lonely seat of power, and faraway presently, but I wanted it no matter how tough a job it was. I was willing to be an island, self-reliant and a castle envied by every petty, backstabbing person below me. A fortress of solitude. I could do that, I told myself everyday. I would strive that way, like Ayn Rand, or Margaret Thatcher. An Iron Lady. Unto myself, independent from all. A tower against the mightiest storms, standing tall and proud and always defiant.
Yet, even as strong as I thought I was, a panic overtook me and I flung myself into a dash out of that stifling, mildewy, shadow-drenched, and waterlogged place. I felt the mold and the mildew suddenly growing, like an organism, in my lungs, and I could see it conquering my wind bags, inch by inch, inside and out, soon spreading through my entire body until I was nothing but a fungus-fleeced half-corpse. Like those cats. Like that thing spread upon the bed. A thing that Chuck, in his loneliness, found and cared for while in its silent stagnation.
I ran through the door, nearly slipping and falling in the basement’s water. Unlocking it, I rushed upstairs, nearly collapsing with fatigue and fear and infection. The country-fried sleazeball was up there, waiting for me, but when he saw me— and saw whatever illness was taking me—his eyes boggled and he swore.
He ran away in a frenetic, fear-sprawled scramble.
I crawled to my car and, eventually, drove myself home.
I wanted to call someone, as I lay in my bedroom, overcome with fatigue and sadness and depression. But I did not know who to call. I had no friends to call— only coworkers. Only competitors. After several hours of slipping in and out of consciousness, I called Michael. Someone answered, but it was not Michael.
“Hello?” she said, her voice young and perky.
I struggled to make my tongue work. I did not know if it was the sickness or the emotions I felt.
“Michael?” I whispered, my throat feeling as if it was flaking apart.
“Somebody wants you,” the young woman said. There was a fumbling noise, and Michael sighed dejectedly.
“Michael?” I whispered again. My voice sounded like wind through wet, dead leaves.
“Christ,” he whispered. He then spoke more firmly into the phone. “Hey, babe, what’s going on?”
I wanted to tell him I was dying, and I needed help, and that he was a selfish bastard, and that I hoped he would feel guilty when I died. Instead my mouth said, weakly, “It’s three in the morning.”
He cleared his throat, and I heard the woman laugh drunkenly in the background.
“It’s a different time zone,” he said, defensively. “I am having a business meeting. It’s ten o clock here.”
My head, and my heart, hurt too much to think whether that was how the time zones worked or not. Instead, I let the phone fall onto the wet, fetid bed and laid back on my pillows. My eyes were leaking, but I was not crying. I was too tired and hurt and depressed to cry. I felt hollow, and hollowing. I closed my wet eyes and let the gray pus seal them forever.
Chuck had been too obese to be a home for it. The stress of the loneliness and isolation was too much for his cholesterol-clogged arteries and fat-choked heart. Heat from the grills only made it worse. He often wore sunglasses indoors, while at work. I thought it was to keep the steam from the grill out of his eyes. I might have thought he was concealing pupils dilated from drugs, but the truth was that I did not care as long as he showed up for work. No one was anything to me but a worker. I wasn’t anything to anyone but a manager.
And now I was nothing.
I can’t see anymore. My eyes are sealed shut. Even so, my apartment is utter shadow. I cannot hear, either, except for the occasional dripping of water from my bathroom. My body cannot move. I no longer cough. Air enters through it. It helps me breathe. It keeps me half-alive, and keeps me half-dead.
I used to sneer at people who needed to go to psychiatrists. I used to mock women who said they were the victims and were oppressed. It never seemed to me that I was oppressed or a victim. But now I do believe oppression exists, and the oppressor is Life. But soon…soon it won’t oppress me anymore. The sweet surrender is nearing now. I am so tired of the rat race. So tired of the competition. Now I just want to let go. Life has held me too long as a slave. I was such a fool for not realizing it before. To live is to suffer. We are enthralled to an abuser, and we make reasons to love our abuser. But now the loneliness will end. The pain and the sadness will subside. You can’t be lonely if you have it inside your mind, always there; always whispering. And it does whisper to me, as it grows throughout my body. It tells me how contented I will be when it has fully bonded with me. We will set each other free in a great sigh of contentment.
I am so sad and lonely now. Depressed. I don’t feel like moving, or even thinking. I just want to lay here, like that thing I found in Chuck’s bedroom, half-decayed into the bed, and half-eaten up with fungus. Let me waste in the dark. Let me dissolve into nothing. Maybe if Michael finds me here he’ll be sorry. Maybe he will feel bad for having treated me so badly. Maybe he will feel something; anything at all. Or not. I don’t care. Emotions are burdens. I don’t want them anymore. I just want the shadows, and the balmy air, saturated with moisture, and the stagnated silence. Like a mushroom in the dark, I just want to be left alone.