Hole-Heartedly

Hole Heartedly

There was a hole in Jenny’s kitchen. It was not a normal hole— not a hole corroded from water damage or dry-rot or punctured by Jenny accidentally dropping a heavy pot on the floor while trying to rearrange the kitchen because she was so sick of how her apartment looked.
No, it was a perfectly round hole, smoothly circumscribed and excised as if by a god’s compass. It was the size of a single person, and that person was Jenny herself.
What was in the hole was not normal, either. You could not see the layers of linoleum, wood, concrete, and steel beams stratifying the perfectly smooth circumference of the hole, nor the kitchen of Miss Abbergast, the crazy cat lady, down in the apartment below Jenny’s. The hole was simply black; plunging, impenetrable black. No light or gradation of shadow shown in its depths whatsoever. It was a smooth well of black ink. It allowed no light and gave no light. If Jenny dropped something down the hole it would not return, nor would it make a sound. There seemed to be no bottom within the realm of the hole.
But there were voices coming from the hole. Whispers, groans, moans, wails, hateful laughter, screams, shouts. They but rarely remained quiet for long. When these voices did stop, the singular and friendly voice of a man would speak to Jenny.
“Jenny, it would be so nice if you could stick your head down here so we could have a look at you. We just want to say Hello.”
When Jenny said nothing, and backed away out of the kitchen, there would be a silence from the hole for a moment, and then the cacophony of overlapping voices would return, loud and urgent and incomprehensible. At such times as these, Jenny would turn her television on and sit and watch Wheel Of Fortune on mute. It was like the noises from the kitchen were coming from the game show’s audience. She was not of a settled mind as to why she did this. It was like embracing the hole and disavowing it at the same time.
Jenny told no one about the hole. She was glad she had no regular visitors. She was also glad her mother was confined to the nursing home where she could not visit her daughter anymore. That old hatchet would have blamed the hole on the fact that Jenny never married. In particular, she would have blamed it on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Her mother blamed a lot of things on the fact that Jenny had never married Arty Witzman. Jenny’s middling job as a secretary was because she had not married into the Witzman family trust. Her father’s early death was because he was stressed from fear that Jenny was a closeted lesbian in denial of her own natural inclinations. Her mother’s failing health also stemmed from Jenny’s relationship status, as did the Yankees not winning the Super Bowl. When Jenny pointed out to her mother that the Yankees were a baseball team that could never play in the football championship, her mother blamed her single status for that as well.
“No grandchildren to keep our name going,” the old matriarch would say on the phone. “No grandchildren to keep your father going. I’ll be passing soon, too, and then my poor baby will be all alone.”
“I’m fine, momma,” Jenny would say. “I am happy alone. I really am.”
“You should have married that nice boy, Arty. He would have been good to you. He would have made you happy.”
“He would have been good for you, momma. He would have made you and dad happy.”
“But now who are you going to marry? Nobody! Maybe you should have been a lesbian. You would have found someone then and been married. It’s legal now.”
“Mom, I’m fine being alone…”
“And you could have been artificially inseminated. That’s legal now, too! You could have chosen any father for the baby you wanted. Tom Selleck! Your son could have looked like Tom Selleck!”

Sometimes things came out of the hole. They walked on two legs, mostly, but sometimes they crawled on their hands, too, if they had hands. Jenny could not see their faces. Male or female, their heads were blank and bald. They tried to speak, but their mouths were muffled. They stared blindly at Jenny from the kitchen. Mute and blind and deaf. Eventually they would crawl back into the hole— not unlike rats into tunnels— and speak from there. Of course, they would all drown each other out until their voices died away and that one singular voice spoke up again.
“We really would like to meet you, Jenny. We could be such wonderful friends.”

Jenny had friends, despite what her mother believed. They were work-friends, of course, but friends just the same. They would invite her to parties, or ask her to go out with them to bars after long shifts at the Firm. Jenny declined everytime, but it was nice to be invited. That they thought of her at all sufficed for her.
When not working, Jenny spent much of her time watching true-crime television programs and being grateful she had not entered into an abusive relationship, or had been murdered for an insurance policy. Life was simpler on this side of the television screen, and it made her grateful for the simple life she had. Things always became complicated when there was more than one person mixed into Jenny’s daily routine, like a whole handful of extra cogs in a clock that did not need them. That was one of the many reasons why she stayed away from her mother. That old woman had no life of her own, and so she sought to control Jenny’s life. Even when her mother had her own life— before the nursing home— she had sought to control Jenny’s life.

Jenny lived in New York, but she did not feel like a New Yorker. Walking the streets was like navigating an alien landscape with hostilities lurking under every passing face. She had been born in New York— in a taxi, no less, while her father cussed the afternoon traffic— and yet she felt like an illegal immigrant trying daily to trick the “true” New Yorkers into believing her faulty facade. She feared that, sooner or later, they would deport her. Her paranoid mind paraded delusions constantly. A bus full of witch-burners. A flash mob at the park ready to crucify her to a tree. The other New Yorkers—the true New Yorkers— would all turn as one and scowl at her, then grab her roughly, telling her she did not belong here, and then take her to the outer city limits and heave her into the Atlantic with a face-breaking splash into that cold, briny water.
That was why Jenny stayed home in her small apartment when she was not stuck behind her secretarial desk. Her apartment was a refuge from the alienation of her birthplace. Her mother knew how Jenny felt, how Jenny had always felt, and had scolded her for it her entire life.
“You are a New Yorker, Jen, and you need to start acting like one. This meek and mild nonsense has got to stop. The city would eat you up if not for me protecting you.”
“I’m fine, mom,” she said. “I’m okay with being alone.”
“It’s not healthy, Jen,” her mother said, disapprovingly. “It’s not natural. You need someone to protect you when I am gone.”
“I’m okay with being alone.”
The faceless figures nodded in the kitchen.

Jenny had done what she could to reinforce her apartment with her own identity. As a result, it was quite bare and plain. The truth was that Jenny did not know what she wanted. She had vague inclinations, like bran cereal and the urge to watch gameshows with the sound off and the subtitles on, but she did not know what she wanted in life. Her mother had crowded Jenny’s head with many expectations and admonishments that the old matriarch deemed crucial to a happy life. Since moving out on her own, Jenny had followed a scorched earth policy to those mobs of nagging expectations. Yet, in the burnt-out void of her mother’s demands Jenny found herself standing amid nothingness with little conception of which direction to go, or, indeed, which direction lay where.
Jenny was forty-three years old and she did not know what she wanted in life.
She did know what she did not want in life. She did not want to listen to her mother. She did not want to go out in the city after dark. She did not want to talk to people outside of work. She did not want to open the blinds of her apartment windows and look out upon the cityscape, whether it be day or night, dark or light. She kept them shut, and thus kept the alien sprawl of the city out of her wary head.
Jenny feared the silent, sullen-eyed skyscrapers as much as the people milling around them. Those glass-and-steel monoliths loomed over her like overbearing parental figures, silently mouthing criticisms and demands while she tried to live her life the quiet way that suited her sensitive nature. The giant buildings told her that she had become pudgy, that men were disgusted by the way her belly bulged over the buckle of her belt. They said she should stop eating pepperoni pizza and cherry cordial ice cream because it pitted her face with acne. They warned her that she was getting older and uglier, that one day she would wake to find herself in dread of her future and in regret of her past, having squandered her life by living like a solitary nun.
She wished she could shout the skyscrapers down, topple them with a word, create an expanse of silent land echoing all around her, the rubble swept away in the outward sweep of the pronunciation, only herself remaining where once an overwhelming multitude of busily bustling mobs and machines battled daily for meager inches of breathing space. Sometimes she wished she could shout herself away, too.
And through all of this the hole waited. It babbled and it waited.

Then one day Jenny saw an advertisement while reading some online articles on her computer at the Firm. It was an ad for a matchmaking site called “Reel Love”. The site’s logo had a fishing pole with a heart-shaped hook on the end of its line. It boasted of having united over “One Million People In Matrimonial Bliss”.
It was Jenny’s lunch break. She was eating leftover spaghetti that she had brought from home. The spaghetti sauce was cold and wet and salty on her lips. For some reason— she did not know why— the combination of licking the cold spaghetti sauce and seeing the “Reel Love” logo made her eyes start to water. She dabbed at her cheeks with her paper napkin and then, on impulse, clicked on the advertisement.
She gasped. This was a company computer. Now she feared that the ad might have been a viral portal and she felt a heart-quickening terror at having infected the entire network. The whole business communications array would shut down and her boss would be furious. They would trace it back to her computer. She feared she might even be terminated.
Within a moment, however, she was brought to the main “Reel Love” website. It was a free dating site, evidently. She did a quick Google search for its ratings and reviews, all of which seemed to regard it as an authentic website. Out of curiosity, she perused some of the profiles and blushed to think of all of the men on the site that she found herself wanting to know more about.
Telling herself that it was all for fun, she hastily filled out a profile for herself and used her old employee ID photo in the Human Resources file as her one and only photo. She was skinnier then, nearly eight years ago, and her hair was not so faded or thinned as it was now. Her glasses in the photo were a bit thicker, though, and her brown hair was shortly cropped, unlike her drab, poorly straightened longer hair she had nowadays. Still, she justified the innocent subterfuge with the excuse that she had no other photos and, telling herself that she was making the profile only as a novelty and not with any serious interest or intent in dating.
Her profile completed, Jenny logged off and finished her bowl of spaghetti before she had to get back to work.

Later that day, when Jenny was ready to turn her computer off, she received an email notification. Going to her inbox she found a message from Reel Love stating that someone had commented on her profile. Jenny dithered for a beat, not knowing whether she wanted to ignore the message and forget about her profile or to open her profile to read the comment. Curiosity prevailed briefly and she started to log into the “Reel Love” website. But then she stopped. She feared what she might find. What if someone had written something mean-spirited and captious. She could barely handle criticism from her mother anymore; criticism from a stranger seemed worse.
Another email alert popped up in her inbox. Her curiosity won out, at length, and she finished logging in. The two comments were from the same person. With great expectations she read them, her heart in her throat..
“Go kill yourself, Velma!”
The secondary comment was from the same anonymous person.
“Seriously, Scooby Doo’s not the only dog in your show!”
Crying now, Jenny logged off and turned off her computer. She went home.

Riding the bus while crying was embarrassing, so Jenny pressed her face against the bus window and pretended to watch the streets and people pass by. It was midwinter and the days were short, shortened further by the tall skyscrapers that huddled together to block out the setting sun. The busy streets were already swimming in gray shadows, threatening to darken to night just as Jenny stepped off the bus and entered her apartment building.

When Jenny arrived at her apartment, she immediately went to the kitchen and began washing dishes in the sink. Jenny enjoyed washing dishes by hand. She never owned a dishwashing machine and she never would. It wasn’t that she enjoyed playing in the hot water— though she did— nor the simple reassurance that she would have clean dishes available when she needed them. No, instead it was the gratification of personal liberty and personal responsibility. It was a ritual of independence and self-reliance and an exercise in self-motivation and maturity. It was much the same as what a bachelor might feel as he was washing a beloved car just before a night spent cruising town on a Friday night. It reinforced ownership and strengthened the idea that these were her dishes, her apartment, her life. She belonged to herself, for better or for worse. No one had a say in how or when she washed her dishes. Her mother was not there, like some nagging supervisor, to shovel her bank-load of two cents down her daughter’s throat.
Jenny also liked playing in the hot water, and the simple joy of submerging a dirty plate, scrubbing it, and then lifting it from the water, squeaky clean. If only the city itself could be so easily, magically cleaned— cleaned of all the people who ignored her like some trash caught in a sewer grate.

After washing the dishes, Jenny ate a peanut butter sandwich for supper and watched tv on mute. As she sat on the couch— listening to the voices in the hole—she heard a chime. It startled her and she glanced around, confused. Her eyes alighted on her cell phone. She picked it up and glanced at the screen. She had an email from Reel Love. She pushed the icon, but then set the phone down. She did not think she could handle another hateful message from another stranger.
Jenny continued to eat her peanut butter sandwich. She continued to watch tv on mute. She continued to listen to the voices coming from the hole in the kitchen. Occasionally she glanced down at the phone, fighting against her own curiosity.
Curiosity eventually won and she picked up the phone. Opening the email, she saw that she had a “Catch” and, so, logged onto her Reel Love profile. She did not open the message, though. She was still fearful that it would be another mean text. Instead, she set the phone aside and went to the bathroom to take a shower. She took a long hot shower, letting her pudgy body pinken in the steaming water.
When she came back into the living room, she watched the evening news. Figures were getting out of the hole in the kitchen. They stood around, arms hanging laxly at their sides while they leaned forward, as if ready to fall. The faceless people stared at her while she watched depressing reports about the world. The volume was turned off and the subtitles were on. The apartment was completely silent except for the softened noises of the sleepless city beyond the blinds and drapes. Eventually, Jenny picked up her phone and checked her online profile.
The “Catch” was a man under the username of “Ken-Do Attitude”. He had sent Jenny a message.
“Hi! I just wanted to say Hi!”
The redundant message did not seem to be sarcastic. When Jenny checked on “Ken-Do Attitude’s” profile she found him to be an average sort of guy whose only flaw was a fondness for not smiling in his pictures and having a combover that drew more attention to itself than it would have had the man simply let the bald pate show through.
Still, there was a familiar sentiment in Ken-Do Attitude’s eyes that made Jenny want to respond to him. She typed something simple and unadorned.
“Hi! It was nice of you to say Hi!”
A prompt message returned to her.
“Thank you!”
“You’re welcome!” Jenny typed, not really knowing why he was thanking her.
“My name’s Kenny,” came his next message. “You seem nice. I like that you like game shows. I like Jeopardy, even if Trebek is a little bit haughty.”
“You’re right!” Jenny responded. “He is a little bit haughty.”
“My favorite show is The Price Is Right,” Kenny said. “When I get the chance to watch it.”
“I like it too!” Jenny responded, not really sure why she was using an exclamation point to punctuate every sentence. “I don’t get to watch it often either. I’m always working when its on.”
The faceless figures watched Jenny from the kitchen threshold, staring blindly as she texted on her phone. They stood and stared for a long time. Then, with what appeared to be reluctant resignation, they loped back to the hole and crawled back in.

Through their online conversations Jenny and Kenny learned basic things about each other. Kenny was a computer programmer and networker for a local company. He said he worked twelve hour days, on again and off again every three days with a fourth day being allotted for an eight hour shift to even out the forty hour workweek. His schedule was a mess, typically, and he did not have a lot of free time to pursue social activities. Nor did he have the “knack” of social interaction. This confession only reinforced Jenny’s fondness toward the idea that Kenny was her soulmate since she, too, failed at being adequately sociable. She told him, often, that she felt like a hermit crab looking for love, and he, being a like-minded introvert, shared the sentiment and assured her that he was willing to come out of his shell if she were willing to come out of hers.
So, before either one knew what their fingertips had done, they had agreed on a time and place for their first date.

The day of their date Jenny gussied herself up like never before. She put on her best white blouse and did up her hair with a brush and a red bow. She even was so cavalier as to wear a red skirt, albeit with black stockings to warm her against the Winter winds. Looking at herself in the mirror, she knew she would not have been most men’s first choice— she looked like Minnie Mouse on second glance—but she liked to think she was Kenny’s first choice, and that sufficed enough for her modest confidence.
Meanwhile the faceless figures in the kitchen languished by the hole as Jenny left her apartment, turning the lights off as she went.
They were to meet at a casual restaurant a few blocks from Jenny’s apartment. As she rode the bus her mother called.
“Mom, I’m going on a date!” Jenny blurted into the phone.
Strangely, there was a long silence on the other end, and Jenny thought, perhaps, that her mother had accidentally “butt-dialed” her. But then she remembered that this was her mother and she never did anything accidentally. After a moment, her mother spoke. Her tone was as stiff and blunt as a burnt baguette.
“What kind of man is he?” she asked.
“A nice guy,” Jenny said. “He works a lot of odd hours, but he’s nice. I mean, I haven’t actually met him yet. We’ve talked online, but he seems nice.”
“You haven’t met him yet?” her mother said, incredulous. “Jen, of all the nonsense you’ve ever done! Met him online? Ridiculous! He could be a serial killer and you wouldn’t know!”
“He is not a serial killer, mom,” she said. “He’s a computer programmer.”
“Computer programmer?” Her mother sighed raggedly. “I suppose I should be relieved he is employed at all. But did you know that Arty Witzman has become a doctor? A surgeon no less…”
“A computer programmer is a very important job, too,” Jenny said.
“Not like a surgeon,” her mother grumbled. “What’s his name? I bet I know his family.”
“Kenny,” Jenny said, glancing around self-consciously at the other passengers on the bus. She felt like they were watching her; judging her. “Kenny Mahoney.”
“A Mahoney? There’s no good that comes from a last name like that. Just imagine what the children will be called in school! Mahoney bologna. He was probably called that in school, which is why he never became a doctor.”
“Mom, you can’t judge people on their last names…”
“Yes, you can, too! It tells you what kind of family they come from. Whether they are respectable or not. In New York you know everything you need to know about a person by their last name. And Mahoney is not a good name. Not like Witzman…”
“Bye, mom,” she said, and then turned off her phone.

Jenny stepped off the bus and walked down the street toward the restaurant. The evening pedestrian traffic was thick. Normally Jenny would have shunned the streets at this time, staying at home and watching tv and listening to the hole in her kitchen. There were innumerable people walking with and against her, but she felt she could cope with the crowded sidewalk because she was going to meet who would, in her mind, be her soulmate. In fact, this hopeful thought made her feel a little less alienated from the city tonight. She felt like she finally belonged here, or at least would belong here once she and Kenny bonded together like all of those other couples that Jenny watched and envied on the street everyday. Together they would be stronger. Together they would be happier. Life would have greater meaning. Every day would be like the Yankees winning the World Series, except without the cheering and the clapping because ruckus like that upset Jenny’s nerves.
There were several people crowding the restaurant’s entrance. For a restaurant operating under the pretense of being casual, it sure appeared to be the “must-be” place. She wondered if they would need a reservation to get in. So many people were crammed together at the door that she thought it must be a fire hazard.
Overwhelmed by the crowd, Jenny lingered away from it. She did not want to try to infiltrate that shoulder-to-shoulder mob. It would have been worse than riding the subway train at rush hour. And she hated the subway, whether at rush hour or not.
“Jenny! Jenny, over here!”
It was Kenny. He was deep in the crowd, near to the doors and waving his hands frantically above the other prospective patrons’ heads. Jenny peered at him, and peered through the crowd around him, wondering how she was going to get to him.
“They’ll let you through,” he said, his optimism not quite believable. “Don’t worry. C’mon in.”
Against her better judgment, Jenny waded into the crowd. She got quite a few glares and grumbles as she bumped into people and slid between them and tripped over their feet. Eventually she arrived next to Kenny. She tried to return his smile, but found herself annoyed and frustrated and quite captious.
“You should have chosen a different restaurant,” she said.
Kenny’s smile faltered, like a captain feeling coral on the underside of his ship as soon as he spots land on the horizon. He looked embarrassed and penitent, but instead of softening Jenny’s attitude, his hara-kiri smile only exacerbated her irritation.
“You’re right,” he said, nodding like a berated schoolboy. “Normally when I eat here it is 4 in the morning. It’s easier to get a table then.”
“It’s not 4 in the morning now, is it?”
“No,” he said.
“Most sensible people are in bed by then, anyway,” she continued.
“You’re right,” he said.
The wind was cold this evening, even with the people barricading the two of them from all sides, and that bitter wind seemed to invade Jenny’s lungs and heart and make her bitter and cold also. She suddenly wondered if the hole in her apartment was cold or warm or felt like nothing at all.
“You really should plan ahead for these things,” Jenny said. “You’re a grown man, after all.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling nervously. “You’re right.”
They waited in silence for a couple of minutes. While they waited, Jenny reflected on her behavior and wondered why she was so waspish. Kenny looked like a beaten dog. As she stole glances at him she realized that she should apologize. Yet some hard stone in the back of her throat refused to budge on the subject. The harder she tried to dislodge it to let an apology through, the deeper and sharper and more embedded it became.
And then Kenny— like a hopeful jester walking the steps up to the gallows— tried to tell a joke.
“Hey, want to hear something funny?” His hopeful grin was beyond naive. “What did the taxi driver say when the knight got into his cab with his jousting stick?”
Jenny did not say anything. She was not certain she wanted to hear the punch line.
“‘I’m afraid there is going to be an additional sir charge.’”
Jenny did not laugh. Her face became taut and she turned away, crossing her arms and tightening them around the pillar of irritability she had become.
“I hope we go in soon,” she said stiffly. “I will get a cold if I stay out here much longer.”
Kenny opened his mouth to say something— again with hopeful naivete somewhat brightening on his face— but then his face fell into an expression of glum impotence. Another minute passed in silence. The minutes seemed to last forever right now.
At length, Jenny and Kenny entered the restaurant and, after a few more minutes of waiting, they were taken to a small table in the corner. A waiter brought them menus, and took their drink orders, then left them to their frigid silence. The window beside them offered a view of the brick wall belonging to the building next-door, as well as the dumpsters. It was not exactly romantic, which irritated Jenny even more. With no good view, she could only look at Kenny, or else at the crowded restaurant and all of its livelier patrons— laughing, smiling, chatting in ways that Jenny did not know how to even parody. When she looked at Kenny she found herself analyzing all of his flaws, her mother’s voice categorizing and elaborating on them indulgently.
Kenny was pudgy the way Jenny was pudgy. He was not unhealthy, and certainly not fat, but he had relaxed too much into his sedentary job, slouching in front of his computer. Jenny could tell. Like herself, Kenny had forward-neck syndrome, his neck angled against itself at the nape and the shoulders instead of rolling smoothly up to the base of the skull. Looking at him, she knew the most exercise he had daily was equivalent to her own: stepping up and down from a bus and walking a block to get a coffee and a doughnut at a café.
Yet, Jenny was irritated by his pudginess. In her mind he would have looked quite fetching had he lost a couple dozen pounds. That there was potential made her all the more captious. It was like the healthier, handsomer Kenny was a bully mocking Kenny behind his back, and he did not have the strength of spine to confront him.
Finally, she spoke.
“You should exercise more,” she said. “It’s not good for you to be overweight.”
Kenny smiled sheepishly. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to go to one of those Cross-Fit gyms. I just feel so exhausted whenever I get off my twelve-hour shifts.”
“But all you do is sit in a chair,” she said, more outraged than she meant to sound.
“You’re right,” he said, blushing.
“Well, then you can go to the gym before going to work, and then rest while you are sitting in your chair at work. I bet you have restless leg syndrome, don’t you?”
“I do,” he said, cringing at the onslaught. “Sometimes.”
“Going to the gym would get rid of that problem. You should start tomorrow.”
“You’re right.”
Jenny assumed Kenny had restless leg syndrome because she suffered from it constantly at work also. She had tried to join a gym and make a habit of exercising before work, but never really took the first step. She knew, even now, that she was admonishing herself through Kenny, and yet she could not stop.
Kenny glanced around for the waiter, and adjusted his glasses.
“And you should change your glasses,” she said. “They don’t really match your face.”
“You’re right,” he said, deflating in his chair.
“And sit up straight.”
He straightened his back and pressed his chest out, though the look on his face seemed less determined than his tucked-in gut. He looked like might pop his gut.
“Don’t hold your breath,” she said. “You’ll give yourself an aneurysm.”
Kenny tried to laugh it off, but his laughter fell dead from his mouth. “You should have been a drill sergeant. You could make a supersoldier out of anybody.”
Instead of laughing, Jenny scowled. She knew it was a joke— moreover, she knew there was truth in it— but she could not smile at it. So, she scowled. She wondered if she was looking more and more like her mother right now. If she had caught sight of herself in a mirror she probably would have ran off screaming to the nearest skyscraper and thrown herself off. Her eye glanced at the window, but instead of seeing her own reflection she saw faceless figures strangling each other in the side-alley. They seemed to get no satisfaction from the throat-crushing skirmish.
The waiter arrived and took their orders. When he left, Kenny tried to talk to Jenny more. He spoke of his family in New Jersey, his upbringing, his job.
“Eventually I hope to move to first shift,” he was saying. “Maybe live less like a vampire and more like a normal human being.”
“You should get a new job,” Jenny said. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“My boss said I’m making good progress,” Kenny said, his tone more hopeful than boastful. “He said he wants me to be in charge of my own code team when we get the next contract. I’ll be the primary coder.”
“But do you get a raise for it?” Jenny countered.
“Well, no, but it would go toward my favorability with the higher-ups. And would look good on my resume…”
“So do it and then get another job,” she said. “A better job. Right now you’re basically a computer physician. You should be a computer surgeon.”
“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” he started to say. Her glare made him stare down at the table. “You’re right,” he said. “I should be a computer…um… surgeon.”
Time passed. The other diners came and went, all of them much happier than Jenny felt. She was becoming impatient. She was hungry and still cold and, above all, she was irritated with her soulmate for not being more perfect. The faceless figures stared through the window in anticipation, no longer strangling one another.
“What is taking them so long?” she complained. “We’ve been here for almost an hour.”
“There are a lot of people…” Kenny said, but then shriveled under Jenny’s withering look.
“Thank you, Mr. Obvious, but that doesn’t excuse bad service. Next time you should to take me to a better restaurant. Maybe some place less ‘casual’. It will cost more, but there will be less people and better service.”
The waiter eventually returned and apologized, saying that their order had been misplaced among what was an avalanche of orders from the other patrons. Apologizing several times, he took their orders again, and promised the meals would be free of charge. Kenny was delighted, but Jenny was furious.
“If we had come earlier we wouldn’t have been forgotten,” she said.
“We’re getting our food free, though,” Kenny said sheepishly. “I mean, that’s good, isn’t it?”
“We should have went somewhere else,” she said, her eyes daggers that stabbed every person in the room with merciless deftness. “And you’re just relieved that you don’t have to pay for me.”
“That’s not true,” Kenny said. “I like you, Jenny. I…well, I would take you to Hawaii for a pork roast if you wanted me to. I’d do anything for you.”
“I don’t like pork,” she said, dismissively. “And Hawaii’s too hot.”
The waiter brought them their food within quarter of an hour, with a healthy heaping of sides and apologies and well-wishes. As they started to eat, Jenny resumed criticizing Kenny.
“You shouldn’t eat mozzarella,” she told him. “It’s bad for you. It will give you a heart attack. My father died of a heart-attack.”
Kenny paused, the mozzarella stick suspended in front of his shocked face, poised between his pointer finger and his thumb. Some of the Italian sauce dripped onto his white shirt, red and promising a stain.
“And now you’ve gone and dirtied your nice shirt,” Jenny complained. “You really should be more careful when you’re eating. You’ll ruin everything you touch if you don’t follow etiquette and pay attention to what you are doing.”
The faceless figures in the side-alley nodded furiously in agreement.
“I was paying attention,” he said, sadly. “You just distracted me…”
“That’s no excuse to be a slob about your food,” Jenny said, horrified by her own words and yet unable to stop herself. “You’ll never correct your own bad behavior if you don’t own up to it. You have to acknowledge a problem before you can solve that problem.”
“You’re right, but…”
“And you seem very reluctant to find fault in yourself. That’s a bad sign. Maybe that’s why you’re in your forties and still trying to go on dates instead of being married with kids.”
“You’re right,” he said, devastated. “You’re right, Jenny. I hate being alone, if you must know the truth. I work so much and then I come home to sleep or watch tv. Sometimes I go out, to places like this, by myself, to convince myself that I’m ‘happy’. But I’m not.”
“You need to get over it,” she said. “Be a man. Grow up. Life sucks, but you’re your own problem. Deal with it.”
The remainder of the date was spent in silence. Kenny did not eat any of his food. When the waiter asked if anything was wrong, Kenny only said that he did not have much of an appetite today. Jenny did not eat much, either. She felt too angry to eat— too angry at Kenny and at herself and at New York and all of its happily bustling, chatty people— and so she just sat and fumed, a migraine coming on in earnest due to her anger and her hunger.
“Are you finished eating?” she said.
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her.
“Then it’s time to go.”
Stepping outside, they slipped through the crowd still waiting for their chance to dine. They walked down the cold, loud, scintillating street.
“You’re not walking me home,” she said. “So don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” he said. “Then I guess I’ll say ‘Good night’ now. Good night.”
“Just like that?” Jenny snapped. “That’s a bad way to end our date.”
“Well…” said Kenny, slowly and flabbergasted. “Do want a want hug or handshake or…?”
“No kissing,” she said quickly. “But you can hug me, if you want.”
“Okay,” said Kenny. He stepped forward, with a self-consciously awkward smile, and gave Jenny a brotherly hug.
“You do need to go to the gym,” she said as she released him. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said, sighing like a tire on a nail.
Jenny and Kenny went their separate ways. He walked with a glum shuffle toward the subway terminal. She walked with a determined stride toward the bus stop.
It was only when she had halted at the bus stop that her mother stepped out of her— so to speak— letting Jenny see things clearly again and gain perspective on her own behavior that evening. Cringing at the painful reflections, she wondered why? Why was she so critical? Why did she badger and brutalize him so much? She was embarrassed. She was ashamed. Tears came to her eyes and she wished she had never gone on a date with Kenny. At least then they would still be on good terms with one another, and he would not think of her as a judgmental nag. Were there enough apologies in the world to tend to the wounds given to him?
Nearby, the faceless figures slouched despondently, as if ready to collapse in a pile on the street.
Acting on impulse, Jenny took out her phone and called Kenny. Miraculously, he answered.
“Hey,” he said, sounding like he was dying.
“Kenny, I want to apologize,” she said. “I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did.”
“No problem,” he said, his tone lightening.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted. “I was a real…a real bitch today and I want to tell you I am sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, feeling her temper rise. “I normally don’t act like that. I am normally a quiet, kind person. Not bitchy. But you messed up and it irritated me to have to wait out in the cold around a bunch of strangers. And then they forgot our food, which is why you should have never brought me there. I mean, what were you thinking bringing me to that restaurant?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice dropping like an anchor into the deck of a boat.
“No, you’re not supposed to apologize,” she said. “I called you to apologize. Though you do owe me an apology for messing up our first date.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, you can’t just apologize for it and act like it never happened. I mean, it was our first date, and it’s been ruined, and all because you didn’t have the foresight to plan on the restaurant being busy in the evening. That should have been obvious to you. You know everyone eats out and drinks in the evening.”
“You’re right,” Kenny said.
There was a long, silent pause from Jenny’s end.
“Um,” said Kenny, “Jenny, are you still there?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “I am waiting for something.”
“Waiting for..?”
“Waiting for you to accept my apology,” she said, irritated.
“Oh! Right! Apology accepted,” he said.
“And I accept your apology,” Jenny returned. “Just be more thoughtful in the future.”
“The future?” he said, the wariness in his voice as obvious as if he was being trained for a new job involving New York sewers and alligators.
“Our next date,” she said. “Be more thoughtful about it next time. Think it through.”
“I…well…see…um…”
“What?” she asked, sharp as a filet knife in the ribs.
“My job is just so…untimely,” he said. “I don’t know when I will get my next evening off.”
“You said you worked four days a week,” she said.
“Yes, but one of our programmers quit so I might not be free for a while. Overtime work. You know?”
“Then we can text each other,” Jenny said. “Until your next day off.”
There was a long, silent pause on Kenny’s end now. “Right,” he said. “Sure.”

***

It had been two weeks since Jenny and Kenny went on their first, and only, date. Jenny had been texting Kenny, but he was not texting back except infrequently, and even then tersely. When Jenny logged onto Reel Love she found that his profile’s status remained as “Floating” whereas Jenny had already changed hers to “Hooked”. When she asked him why he had not changed it yet, he told her he just forgot. At least he had not changed his status to “Bobbing”, which was more or less an admission of getting “Nibbles” from other girls online.
Meanwhile, the faceless figures gibbered in the kitchen, staring after Jenny while hunched over in stances expressing uncertainty and anxiety and duress.

As time passed, Jenny became more and more determined to find Kenny and talk to him in person. Lately he was becoming so reticent in his texts that she could hardly expect more than a few words in his replies. So, feeling both peeved and anxious, Jenny wrapped herself in a long coat and headed to the restaurant where they had went on their one and only date. It was had been three weeks to the exact hour since that date and, she reasoned, that Kenny should be there since, according to her reasoning, he was not an especially creative guy when it came to dating.
The restaurant entrance was crowded. The patrons pooled out into the street in a chatty rabble. Jenny could not see Kenny among them. Yet, she had her suspicions. She walked down the alley beside the restaurant and looked in through the windows. Her heart and face both fell when she saw Kenny sitting at the table with a girl very much like herself— only cheery and blonde and glowing with joy. Kenny looked like a different person as well: he was not so hangdog and gloomy as he was on his date with Jenny. He smiled, quite a lot, and when he smiled he became very handsome. There was a good rapport between Kenny and his mysterious friend, which only stung more sharply in Jenny’s heart. This dinner date seemed to be everything hers had not been.
Turning away from the window, Jenny left the alley and walked back to her apartment. She did not feel like taking the bus. Feelings of alienation and loneliness overwhelmed her. Again came the irrational desire to scream the buildings down to rubble and blow everyone around her away. At least if there were no people around she would not be so starkly reminded of how alone she really was.
Except for the faceless figures— they followed her closely, like a marching parade without music or merriment or smiles or sounds.

***

As Jenny entered her apartment her phone rang. Thinking it might be Kenny, she hurriedly struggled to take it out of her purse. She was in such a rush that she did not look to see who the caller was, and instead answered immediately.
“Hello?!” she said.
“Jen, you haven’t called me today,” her mother said.
“Oh,” said Jenny, dejected. “Sorry, mom. I’ve been…busy.”
“You are never too busy for the woman who brought you into this world, Jen. That is quite disgraceful, you know. What would your father say?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for a lecture. I just saw Kenny with another woman.”
Her mother did not miss a beat, but was at the ready like a gunslinger at high noon with a pistol aimed at the heart. “I tried to warn you about men with the last name of Mahoney. You cannot trust them. No good comes from that name. Now Arty Witzman would have never treated you like that. If you had just let him take you on a date you would have seen…”
The phone fell from Jenny’s ear, regaling the floor with all that could have been while Jenny walked into the kitchen.
“I don’t like my life,” Jenny said, staring down at the hole. Several of the faceless figures were crouched around it, and looked up at her expectantly. “I hate my life. I hate being me.”
The faceless figures nodded with unnatural rapidity and speed. Then they each, in turn, climbed into the hole. A voice called from the hole.
“Come home, child,” it said, “and be at peace.”
The hole was quiet now. It was dark and devoid of longing and of hopes and fears and expectations. It asked nothing, but gave everything; everything Jenny thought she desired. Solitude, peace, silence, nothingness. She slipped off her shoes and socks; she shrugged off her long coat and blouse; she let slip her skirt and pantyhose and undergarments. Then, after a long moment of standing bare in the stark fluorescence of her kitchen, she took a couple of steps and dropped into the hole, plunging soundlessly out of sight.
Voices rose from the hole afresh: laughing and shrieking and crying and shouting in unrest. And a moment later they hushed. The hole was gone, as if it had never been there.

***

Kenny returned home to his small apartment. It was nice to see his sister again and to take her out for dinner, especially since she was now eating for two. Knowing that he would soon be an uncle also made him feel happy.
As he took off his shoes, the thought of the coming workweek hit him hard with the dread of all of its grinding overtime and computer-code isolation. He tried to remain positive, but it was difficult, especially after his disastrous date with Jenny, which continued to haunt him weeks later with its humiliations and disappointments. He vowed to learn from it, however, and tried to remind himself that it had been his first date in years and that he would do much better with the next girl that responded to him on Reel Love.
Suddenly optimistic, Kenny checked his phone to see if he had gotten any “Nibbles” today.
“None,” he said, sighing.
He set his phone aside and stretched, feeling his gut swell around his belt buckle. He did need to lose weight. Suddenly all of the happiness he felt for his sister disappeared, leaving him feeling deflated and insignificant. He went into the living room and sat down on his love seat. What an ironic name for his couch, he thought: love seat.
To distract himself from his cynicism, he turned on the tv and played a videogame. It was an action-adventure game with a bikini-clad warrior woman fighting demons and other hellspawn. It embarrassed him to admit it, but if he went into a game store his eye would inevitably drift toward games like this one, featuring a female protagonist endowed with special powers and a special figure. That said, he knew that if he ever won a woman’s heart he would never need to play such games again. What would be the point? He would feel fulfilled. Complete. Whole.
Kenny played the game for an hour or so until it was almost time to go to work. He checked his phone once more and found no new messages. Standing up, he felt like he had been dissected by aliens, piecemeal, and they had chucked him into their waste disposal and jettisoned it into space. He went into the kitchen and grabbed a tv dinner from the freezer, putting it in his lunchbox alongside a thermos of coffee and a plastic-wrapped doughnut. He was about to close the lunchbox when he stopped, took the doughnut out and put in a bag of baby carrots. He almost closed the lunchbox again, but hesitated, throwing the doughnut in for good measure.
“I’m going to be there for sixteen hours,” he told himself. “Better bring all of the food I can.”
Turning off all of the lights in his apartment, Kenny went to the door. Hesitating, he looked back, surveying his apartment and its glum silence and brooding shadows and meaningless emptiness. Defeated by this perpetual bachelor’s lifestyle, he stepped out and locked the door behind him, then went to start another long, code-crunching, screen-staring workday.
And in the living room, next to the playstation and between the tv and the love seat, a perfectly round hole opened. Echoing from its black depths were voices that laughed and cried and screamed and moaned, and they waited patiently for Kenny to return from work so they might welcome him home.

Left Alone

 

2018-12-23 01.54.52

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.
“Christ Almighty!”
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.