Wednesday, July 16, 2014
He would work on the painting until the phone rang. And though he knew it would ring soon, at any moment, he knew not to rush it, not to fuck it up. Sure, with time and patience even a massive mistake could be corrected, but time was not an option. There was only patience, consideration, breathing, slowly. Purple was the main color now. Different shades and tones of course—violet, crimson—but to a child they’d all be purple. In a way maybe this was a painting for children. He let the streaks bleed, let the oil run, and each streak seemed to fall right where it needed to, a sort of controlled chaos, like Pollock’s splatters or Saint Phalle and her rifles, but less violent. The way the morning sunlight came in was nice, lighting up the dust particles in the air as well as the painting, softly. No music played—he couldn’t do it—and still no birds chirped. A cricket maybe somewhere outside, a frog, a lawnmower miles away. He dipped the brush again and pressed it to the canvas.
The phone upstairs rang.
He closed and opened his eyes, set the brush down, took a photo of with his cell-phone, and left the basement. The clock on the wall said five forty-five.
“You’re awake,” she said.
“Yeah, you too.”
And then he was driving over. It was cold outside and inside his truck, which needed to warm up first or it would die out but there was also no time, not enough time, and so after five minutes, after a cigarette and filling his thermos, he was on the dirt road that led to the highway, the moisture from last night running down the windshield in tiny little streams that caught the orange light and looked something like the painting. Her house was a guest-house of sorts and it sat behind a much larger house where an old and dying woman lived alone, a woman who’d devoted her life to her job and retired to a country home so she could die, an old woman who met Karen on the right day and so let her move into the guest-house and there she’d been for five years now. He turned off the highway onto another dirt road and, after drifting through a clenching of trees, circled around the large house that he called a mansion and into his parking spot. Well it wasn’t his his, but no one else ever parked there.
Karen sat on the porch drinking decaf. It seemed like it might rain that day. She had a cigarette, unlit, and as he stepped onto the wooden stairs she held out her hand and he placed the lighter in it and sat beside her. She wore her father’s jacket, leather with stains and smooth spots, old and brown and still smelling like either her father or the original animal. He wished she wouldn’t wear it and he’d told her so but it never ended well. “It’s my fucking jacket and it’s comfortable,” she’d say and then he’d let it go and feel like a fool for bringing it up, because it always turned moving forward into moving backward and there just wasn’t time for that.
“How’d you sleep?” she asked, smoke and warmth leaving her mouth and vanishing near the porch’s ceiling, shifting from white to invisible.
“Good,” he lied. “You?”
“Bad,” she told the truth.
He lit his own cigarette and asked why.
“You know why,” she said. “This fucking head.” She tilted her head back slightly and rolled her eyes back into her head, going all white.
“It takes time,” he said. “Remember? You can’t rush it. One day at a time.”
“Yeah,” she said quickly, her voice filled with disbelief and maybe a bit of annoyance. The kind of annoyance that meant “Are you gonna fill me with that bullshit too? Are you gonna sit here and fill me with that bullshit too? I know everyone else will but you too?”
They sat and smoked in silence and when their coffee was gone he had to go.
“Call in, Shane,” she said, forcing what she thought was a wicked smile onto her face.
“You know I can’t,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead and drove to town.
The shaker was acting up again and Steve was in a panic. “We’ve got a nine o’clock for fifteen cans of 342, dammit.”
“I’ll figure it out,” Shane said, bending onto one knee to look under the device, where it mounted into the wall.
“I know you will,” said Steve. “But you gotta hurry because otherwise I’m gonna lose my shit, man. It’s that fucking new kid. What’s his name?”
Shane inserted the tip of his knife into the wedge and, lifting slowly, extracted a massive clump of color 250, a paint he’d mixed the day before and had clearly spilled.
“I’m sure,” he said. “His name is David. I’ve been working with him for months.”
“Well it was him,” said Steve. “He doesn’t take care. He’s always in such a goddamn hurry, as if he only has a certain number to mix and then he’s just gonna waltz outta here and—”
“Steve,” Shane said. “It’s early. Shutup. I broke it, it’s fixed now, his name’s David, and at nine o’clock we’ll have fifteen cans of 342.”
Steve flipped the switch to the Axis Paint Shaker II and it jostled loudly, making the floor hum. He patted Shane on the back. “I knew you could do it.”
At lunch he got out his colored pencils and sketchbook and opened it and then took out his phone and pulled up the image he’d taken earlier. First he quickly and lightly copied the new strokes and streaks he’d completed this morning into the book. He’d only been at it fifteen minutes when she’d called, so it didn’t take long. David sat across from him, respecting his concentration. The young boy had his headphones in and though the volume was low, he invisibly hammered on the ghost drum-set before him, taking bites of ham and cheese and mustard pretzels in between fills. Shane liked David. He worked hard enough and didn’t care enough and that mattered to Shane. This job, mixing paint, was not suited for a kid like David, a kid with his kind of talent. Shane had seen their band at least four times now, and though he usually had to leave early, he could tell by the energy in the air, the increase of fans at each show, that they could be going somewhere. They were, actually, going somewhere, he remembered. This summer they’d somehow got booked at a couple festivals on the west coast. A major chance for them, thousands of people. Shane raised his hand and waved it until David pulled out an earbud.
“Where are you playing those shows again?”
“This summer? L.A. and San Fran. Why?”
“I keep forgetting.”
“Oh,” David kept drumming. “You gonna come?”
Shane laughed. “Nah.”
“You ever been to California, man? It’s beautiful. You’d love it.”
“I’ve been,” said Shane. “A long time ago.”
“Oh yeah, dude. I knew that. You did some gallery shows there right? In the eighties?”
“Early nineties but yeah,” said Shane.
He took out the remaining earbud and leaned over the table. He nodded at the sketchbook. “That the same one?”
David reached over and turned the pad around to face him. He was quiet, actually looking, watching it like it would start to move and bleed more right then. Nothing came from his mouth immediately. Shane liked this about him. He wouldn’t just speak to speak. He thought first. He didn’t rush off and make big decisions without thinking them through. He took his time.
“It’d make a cool album cover,” said David. “When you gonna finish it?”
“I don’t know,” said Shane.
His phone rang and David looked at him. Shane nodded and David stood up.
“Sit down,” said Shane. “I can leave. I need a cigarette anyway.” He gathered his supplies into a pile and carried the phone outside.
The clouds had thickened and it was definitely going to rain. It was a good thing.
“I like the rain,” she said.
“I know. Me too,” he lied.
“It calms me. I feel less… I don’t know, less something. Less everything. But it’s a good kind of less everything, you know?”
“Yeah,” he said. And he did. There was so much to do all the time. So much to be or try to be and so much to take care of and let go of.
“It’s like I can be less and more at the same time,” she said. “Less of a person and yet more part of everything else. Where the me goes away and I actually like it.”
“Is this what you want to talk about right now?” Shane asked. “I have to clock back in in about five minutes.”
“Can’t you just leave?” She asked. “I’ll make it worth it for you.”
He knew she couldn’t, not in the way she meant. But not because she didn’t want to or he didn’t want to but because she just couldn’t. And that was okay with him now. It used not to be. Years ago when he was still traveling and her problems had just begun. He blamed her then, for always having to answer the phone and always feeling guilty and nauseous the day after he’d been with someone else who actually would with him. He didn’t know what was different now, what had changed in him, but it didn’t matter why really. He’d been teaching himself to stop asking why so much. There was a philosopher whose name he forgot but he learned about in art school who basically said that the problem with questions like “What is the meaning of life?” was that by posing them as a question you made the mistake of thinking there even was an answer. That by asking something you created the necessity for and the possibility of an answer. That by asking “What is the” you’ve created the impression that there “is a.”
“I can’t. It’s barely one. Steve won’t let me. Plus,” he said, careful to use the correct word, “I need the money.”
“But will you come after?” she asked, pleading.
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll be there by five.”
“You want to grab a quick beer after work?” asked David.
Across the street from the hardware store was a small Mexican restaurant with a bar attached and a ridiculously long Happy Hour. He and David took a seat on the back patio, where the fading sunlight still leapt over the surrounding fence and warmed their skin. David ordered chips and salsa and a Corona; Shane asked for iced tea.
“Too early for beer?”
“I can’t drink anymore,” Shane said, lighting a cigarette. “It’s easier for Karen to stop if I’m not doing it either.”
“How is she?” David asked. There was sincerity in his voice, a sad and caring sincerity that tempted Shane to open up more than he could.
“The same? Better? I don’t know,” Shane exhaled a long stream of smoke. “I think better.”
“Good,” said David.
“Yeah, I actually can’t stay long. I’m supposed to meet her at five.”
“Any big plans?”
“Sit on the porch. Drink coffee. Smoke cigarettes.”
“Can I ask you something?” David asked. “Something personal.”
“What do you get out of it?” David asked. “I mean, not that she’s not a good person or anything but, you know, what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“It just seems like everything you do is for her, you know? And I’m not saying that’s a problem or that you shouldn’t or anything like that but it kinda seems like you put yourself on the back burner all the time, for her sake, and that you could, I don’t know, maybe benefit from doing some things for yourself once in a while.”
“Like what! Like your art, man. Your paintings. I mean, how long you been working on that one, the one from today?”
“I don’t know. A year maybe.”
“It takes time,” Shane lit another.
“Look,” said David. “All I mean is that I think you’re really good. Like really good. And I know you can do it because you already have, in the nineties, and people liked it man. You have a Wikipedia page! And it just seems like you’ve given up, for her, and that you’re gonna miss out on so much. Like if you just moved away for a while you know, to like New York or L.A. or somewhere with a scene, not this fucking hole, then you could be something again. Something more than the manager of the paint department at fucking Steve’s Hardware. I mean, you’re not getting any younger, man.”
“She needs me,” Shane said, looking over the wall to where the sun set behind it, where the orange leapt out and hit the pink and blue. “Her mind isn’t well, you know. She has no one else.”
“But you need you too. You can’t be so selfless, man.”
“It’s harder when you get older.”
“I know, man, it’s just… I don’t know. I want you to be happy. I want you to do what you’re good at and fucking get out of here, you know. I’m not saying you have to just abandon her forever but, you know, she’ll be around. You can come back if you want but give it a chance is all I’m saying.”
Shane looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go.”
“Alright,” said David, finishing off his beer. “Look, I don’t mean to step on your toes or anything, I just—”
“Don’t worry,” said Shane. “I appreciate it. I really do. Thanks.”
He pulled the truck into his spot and she came outside with distress on her face.
“It’s five ten,” he said. “It’s only ten minutes.”
She groaned in annoyance. “It’s only ten minutes,” she repeated in the dumbest voice she could conjure. “It’s only ten minutes, it’s only ten minutes it’s only ten minutes. Fuck you!”
“Karen—” he began, but she was already back inside and the door had slammed behind her.
“Fuck,” he said, and lit a cigarette.
He let the tail-gate down and swung his legs from it. The stars were coming out, blinking into existence by the dozens. He practiced smoke rings and French inhales and thought about the color purple and all its variations. He thought about the painting at home and about Karen inside. He thought about streaks going down the canvas and down her face and he thought about her crying purple tears that stained her skin and dried like oil over years and years. He thought about purple smudges on her forearms and hands from where she wiped the tears away and then even her snot was purple as it slunk down from her nose in thick globs she brushed away violently. A light came on upstairs and he knew soon she’d be looking out and down on him. He imagined other fluids flowing from her purple. Not just blood, that was easy, but sweat and piss and shit and even the moist area between her legs that was never moist anymore, all of it streaking crimson and violet down her sides and legs and soaking into her feet.
He looked to the window in time to see her turn away and then said “Fuck it,” and got in the truck and drove home, stopping along the way to pick up a fifth of vodka and more cigarettes.
He took shots while mixing the paints. The moonlight hit the canvas like the sunlight and he turned on a single lamp in the corner. He remembered it was his weekend now and decided he’d finish the painting before it was over. He wouldn’t leave the room until it was done. He kept one burning in his mouth and took out his sketchbook and compared and stared and thought.
When the phone rang he took another shot and ignored it as best he could. When he finally put the brush to the canvas a minute later he heard the phone stop and a voice, his voice, came from upstairs. “This is Shane. Please leave a message, including your number, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” He’d forgotten he had an answering machine. Then came the beep and then came Karen.
“Shane, it’s me. I’m sorry. Just having a bad one, you know,” she laughed to herself and sighed. “Look, can you just come back please? I need you, okay? I’ll do whatever you want. Whatever. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. You know that. I know it’s not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault it’s mine, or my fucking father’s. You know what he did to me, that fuck. That sick fuck.” She sighed again and waited. “I could use a fucking drink right now. I sure could. Something stiff. Whiskey neat. A martini. Remember those Sake Bombs that time in Chinatown? When you broke the table from slamming it too hard and the waiter got pissed? Remember we took the cab with that other couple back to our hotel? You’d just sold a piece and we used the money to do coke all night with them. Where were they from? France? Or was it Belgium? And the guy wanted to fuck me and he told you that the girl wanted to fuck you too. God, that was crazy. Remember that Shane?” She paused again and when her voice came back it was pleading. “Shane? Answer me, please. Don’t leave me like this. We can have kids. I’ll get off the pills for a bit and when they’re born I’ll get back on them. We can move in together when the old woman dies. I know she’s gonna leave me the house, she has no family. Wouldn’t that be nice, Shane? Wouldn’t—” and the machine cut her off.
He took another shot of vodka and that was when he noticed the streak. Had he done that? Fuck. Fuck, it was all wrong. It should have moved up from right to left not left to right. He took a shot. But he could fix it. He had all night. No, he had the whole fucking weekend. No. He had his whole fucking life to fix it and so he took another shot. There was no rush anymore, and the feeling of time slipping away was a rush of its own, like when in movies the camera zooms in while the cinematographer pulls it backward and that effect happens like nausea. But it happened within him and then he put the brush back to the canvas and when he pulled it away it was all wrong again. And now there were two lines to fix but it didn’t matter because there was so much time. And within an hour Shane was drunk and the painting was destroyed and then the phone rang.
He turned away from the canvas and walked upstairs.
Monday, March 17, 2014
He couldn’t believe his luck. What were the chances that he’d tune in, right now, at this very moment, when there was only a quarter of an hour left? It was uncanny. Not only would he receive the additional fruit-sized attachments for free, but, if he called within the next fifteen minutes, he’d also receive the juicing attachment, a thirty-dollar value, for only fifty cents! He picked up the cordless from the kitchen counter, eyeing the bowl of fruits and vegetables that would soon be expertly sliced, diced, and juiced in the blink of an eye, and, heart racing, dialed the toll-free number. He fell asleep thinking of preparing fruit for the pretty girl.
After exactly eight hours he woke up. That’s how much you were supposed to sleep and that’s how much he slept, every night, to achieve optimal physical and mental health and performance. Ten minutes were then devoted to Good Thoughts, a trick he’d learned two months before on Good Morning America. Five were devoted to stock phrases the show had supplied, which he’d luckily remembered after being tipped off to always have a blank tape in the VCR, just in case. From memory he went through the list: today will be a beautiful day, because I am a beautiful person; not all days can be the greatest day, but every day can be a great day, and today is no exception; there is no greater joy than spreading joy; the people I will meet today are complicated and caring individuals, no matter the specifics of our interaction, and I must give them the benefit of the doubt; the world is becoming a better place, as long as people, first and foremost myself, do their part to create happiness and encourage understanding. After repeating this list twice (in order to not let the later affirmations outweigh the earlier) he began his own individual list, using some of the Suggested Guidelines for Forming Positivity: I will not let unkind individuals break my spirit; I am unique and gifted; sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me; Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savoir; a penny saved is a penny earned; don’t count your eggs before they hatch; and his favorite, picked up before the VHS tip, and therefore from a forgotten source: be the change you want to see. Maybe this had something to do with what You’re Them meant.
After turning off the Deluxe Noise Lite white noise generator he did his morning stretches, flossed and brushed, and ran his bath water, calibrating the thermometer beforehand to avoid mistake, as water that was too hot stunted growth and contributed to hair loss. While the tub filled he drank one cup of orange juice, ate two bananas and one bran muffin (counting as he chewed for proper digestive efficiency), and took his medication last, as the bottle suggested (Take two pills daily following a light meal). The nausea the medicine had been producing was fading lately, a fact he attributed to his Good Thoughts and the kind words of Dr. Sylvia Hui, who mentioned it might be rough at first, but would ultimately balance out, and he’d feel much better in the long run.
It’s good to get out of the house, he knows, so every morning he went for a walk to the nearby park. It wasn’t the most beautiful day but it was a beautiful day. In the small satchel he switched from shoulder to shoulder, to avoid back pain, he has supplies. Necessaries. Two bottles of filtered water, a pear, sunblock, hand sanitizer, an umbrella (while it’s not likely it’ll rain this weekend, John, there’s always a chance here in Portland), a BLT hold the B (Meat is Murder he saw on a shirt), a book—today’s is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, a recommendation from the pretty girl at the book store—the cell-phone Mom made him carry, and, of course, his first aid kid, which reminded him that he needed to get his CPR certification renewed ASAP, because you never know. He smiled at everyone as they walked past, in a calculated way that he was taught is not overly friendly. A large man passed by and said, “How’s it going, sir?”
“Great and thanks,” he responded. “How are you?”
“Good, thanks,” said the large man, who kept moving on.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Have a nice day.”
The large man didn’t respond but he didn’t take it to heart. It happened a lot, and you never know what’s going on in a stranger’s life. Halfway through the park he found a spot in the sun, but near the shade and restrooms, and sprawled in the grass, where he relaxed his body while sipping water. A dog from a family nearby came sniffing, and he yelled for permission before petting. It was granted and the dog was very soft but not entirely clean. When it left he applied a small layer of hand sanitizer after rubbing a capful of water between his hands. The day’s agenda was to read in the park until one, alternating between sunlight and shade, then to head back to the book store where the pretty lady worked, since she did say to let her know how he liked it, then he’d stop by Trader Joe’s and get home in time for Dr. Phil and the evening news, because the effective citizen is the informed one. After the news he’d make dinner from the recipe list Mom left for the kitchen and maybe read more, depending on if he had found nothing to watch on TV, since lately everything is so violent or dirty, and he knows if you watch too much of that stuff you can become desentized to it.
He was trying to figure out what to tell the pretty lady about the book, because he didn’t know if he liked it. Well, he didn’t finish it either, but it made him uncomfortable and sad for some reason, so he couldn’t. He couldn’t figure out why the man, Peter, would leave his kids behind and risk his life just for some pictures. The Snow Leopard was beautiful he knew, he’d seen pictures, but the kids seemed more important. Being a father was important, and the more he thought about it the more it bothered him. He felt like maybe he had kids once, but that wasn’t possible, because he wouldn’t leave them. Children are precious. Children are angels. And so he didn’t know what to tell her, the pretty lady, because she’d called it profound, which the dictionary made sound important. He thought about lying but knew it wasn’t right, only the little white ones that Dr. Sylvia Hui told him about using and when it was okay. He didn’t want to be slapped or hurt again, like that time in Safeway when the big woman knocked him down, and all he did was say the truth.
“That’s when you use a white lie,” said Dr. Sylvia Hui. “When telling the truth might be seen as hurtful to someone or yourself. You have to imagine that you’re them.”
That part always confused him. You’re them. He had to ask her about it.
“It’s when you put yourself in their shoes for a while,” she’d said. “Just think on it, okay?”
He’d told her okay and he did, think on it, but it still made no sense, and since Dr. Sylvia Hui didn’t bring it up again and not being able to figure it out made him feel bad, which wasn’t good, he decided to not mention it anymore. It was a little white lie he guessed, because thinking about it hurt him, and that’s when you used them.
Before entering Barnes and Noble he took The Snow Leopard from his satchel and made sure the receipt was there. He found it folded neatly in the back of the book, and slid it into his front pocket carefully, making sure not to wrinkle it or drop it on the ground where it might get wet or blow away. It had happened before and the young mean cashier—no, that wasn’t fair, he had to be fair—the young new cashier had refused to take the book back, even though he explained about the receipt and how it had only been five days (return books within 7 days for full credit) and how he had been going there for years. He was crying by the time the manager he knew showed up and did the refund for him, helping him out of the store by his arm and telling him to come back the next day when he felt better. It was warm in a good way inside. He always felt good here. The lighting, the smell of the coffee he never drank but loved to breathe, the rows of all those books, all those stories. You can never get a friend as good as a book, one of his bookmarks said. But he thought dog’s were man’s best friends? In the store he liked looking at the back of the DVD’s, too, but he couldn’t bring them back like the books if he opened them, and plus they were too expensive and he didn’t have a player anyway. The checks he got from Chrysler each month were enough to get by but not enough for DVD’s, and he liked his VCR anyway because he heard the DVD one couldn’t record. He made his way to the front counter and, using his receipt, did the return.
“Was there anything wrong with the book?” the girl had to ask.
“It just upset me.”
“Okay,” she said. “We can only give you a gift card, though.”
“That’s great. You can combine it with this one if you want,” he said smiling. She was pretty but not pretty like the pretty girl. He came here with Mom one time hoping she could meet the pretty girl but she was off that day, is what Tim told him. Tim worked with the pretty girl in the café section, and he knew Tim’s name but not the pretty girl’s. Since he had been coming here he never knew any of the girl’s names because none of them wore nametags. Some of the boys wore nametags, though. Like Tim. He liked Tim alone but he didn’t like how Tim was sometimes when the pretty girl was there. How Tim would sometimes touch her arm or say something quiet in her ear and make her laugh. One time Tim said something in her ear and they both looked at him and then the pretty girl’s mouth fell open and she hit Tim in the arm. He knew Tim had said something he shouldn’t have about him and that the pretty girl had defended him. He wanted to be mad at Tim but he knew he had to forgive and forget so he let go. Even if Tim wasn’t being nice he knew not to let unkind individuals break his spirit. He wondered if she loved him too. It was hard to know. She was the only girl he had ever loved, he thought. Maybe before there was one but he couldn’t remember and it made him feel sick when he tried and gave him headaches. He didn’t like the idea that there could have been anyone else. He was saving himself for the pretty girl and her alone, and he didn’t like it when other girls would look at him or touch him. Love is a two-way street. Like last month when Mom brought Jan and Casey over. Jan and Casey were Mom’s young friends, sisters, and they loved him very much and he loved them too. They would come over with Mom and talk sometimes and even play card games or look at a picture. But last month one night when they were over he started feeling strange again and had to lie down. He must have fallen asleep but when he woke up Jan was sitting on the bed next to him in the dark and she was touching his head, smoothing the hair back by his scar. She was breathing funny and it scared him that she was touching him. No one can touch you if you don’t want them to he’d heard on Dr. Phil. He rolled over real quick and Jan jumped up and left the room and then left the apartment. Mom wasn’t there when he got out of bed, and neither was Casey.
The pretty girl was working today. He never knew when because she didn’t seem to work every day and it was only in the middle of the day and on some days he had to see Dr. Sylvia Hui at that time. He wished he didn’t have to go there but it is important to see your doctor on a regular basis and both Mom and Dr. Sylvia Hui insisted. They said it would help with his headaches and when he felt strange. It is important to remember, Mom always told him. He had to get his courage up before talking to her so he went to the section called Relationships and Marriage and looked at the spines of the books. He found the one he liked most and opened it to page 76: “Navigating the single world, we know, is never easy, and dating can be scary! But God did not put us here to be afraid of one another; he put us here to love one another. And sometimes we meet a person randomly and feel a connection. It’s important of course to be aware of just what that connection is, though. God wants us to love each other, but he wants us to love each other first and foremost with our hearts, rather than our bodies.” He breathed deeply and closed his eyes and counted to ten. He kept reading: “So when you meet a stranger that might be that special someone you must first decide that it is with your heart that you want to love them. Once this is established you can use without fear these following techniques:
1) Strike up a conversation. It’s important to do this only if convenient for both persons. Especially if they are in a situation that requires focus, like a workplace, or with other people.
2) Be confident. If you have love in your heart you can be assured that you have a home in His heart. And if you have the Savior in your heart, and have ensured yourself saved for access to His Eternal Kingdom of Heaven, what have you to be afraid of? The answer is nothing. BE CONFIDENT.
3) Be honest. No love can be built on lies, no matter how unappealing or even boring the truth may seem. Do not make yourself something you are not. You are perfect the way you are, as long as you act according to His rules and scriptures.
He stopped reading there. He felt good, strong, ready, confident. Be the change you want to see. He walked to the café.
It all happened so fast, just like they always say on TV. One minute everything was great and he was talking to the pretty girl and he finally asked her her name and she told him it was Carrie—Carrie!—and then he told her about the book and she said it was okay and that it isn’t for everyone and he said thanks and that he’d like to see her outside of work sometime because he only ever saw her at work and Carrie said that sounded nice and so he waited outside for her and she told him she was going to the bench nearby and he asked if he could come and she said it was okay but that she wouldn’t be there that long and so they walked to the bench together and it was the best time he ever had and he asked how old she was and she said twenty-three and he said he was forty-eight but he knew deep down it didn’t matter because age ain’t nothing but a number and when they sat down he said he wanted to know her and understand her and she said that was nice of him and so when she took out a cigarette and started smoking it he didn’t know why because tobacco is a tumor causing, teeth staining, smelling, puking habit and he told her and she laughed and said that’s what she heard too but that she had just worked all day and she needed to relax and the cigarette helped. And then she said it was an eight-hour day and this cigarette feels like Heaven, put yourself in my shoes and she stared at him and he didn’t know what to do because she looked so serious and she didn’t say anything else. And he remembered that this is what Dr. Sylvia Hui had said, too, that to understand someone you need to put on their shoes and so that’s what he tried to do. But when he pulled off the first of Carrie’s shoes and started to try to force it onto his foot, which was much too big, she jumped up and asked him what he was doing and he told her he was trying to be her and then she started to walk away before he even got to her other shoe and he didn’t know why so he got up, one of her pink shoes pulled halfway onto his foot, and tried to follow her but she walked fast back toward the bookstore and he didn’t know why so he ran after her but tripped and when he got to the Barnes and Noble a minute later a cop came out and told him to stop right there and then Carrie came out behind the cop with Tim. And so he took the pink shoe off his foot and when we he went to give her shoes back the cop blocked him and when he twisted away he fell onto the ground and he hurt his arm and he was scared and then he was running and the cop was chasing him and knocked him down again and he hurt his arm more and he was crying and yelling and then he was at the police station and it seemed like forever before Mom and Jan and Casey were there and they all hugged and cried and then they took him to the hospital, because it is important to see your doctor on a regular basis, and then home.
Mom told him he was too old to do things like that. They were sitting at the table together, all four of them, and Mom and Jan and Casey were drinking coffee and he had some green tea, the healthiest drink you can have: 4,000 years of Chinese history can’t be wrong. He told Mom he was only going to try to do what he was told by Dr. Sylvia Hui to do and then Casey asked him if he’d been taking his medicine every day and he told her yes. Then she looked at Jan and Jan looked like she was going to cry and said she was going to go to the bathroom. Mom asked him if he’d been trying to remember and he said he had but didn’t know for sure because she wouldn’t tell him what to remember because it was something he had to do on his own. When Jan came back she asked him if they could look at a picture again and though he didn’t like to do it he said okay because sometimes it’s important to forget about what you want and do what will make others happy, even though the pictures only seemed to make everyone feel worse. Jan opened her bag and took out a big photo and put it on the table. It was one he’d seen before and he didn’t like it. He clenched and unclenched his hands and Jan slid the picture over to in front of him and no one said anything. The picture was a red truck, a Chrysler!, and in front of it he saw himself standing there. He was younger than he was now and it was strange to see him look like that. But that’s not what bothered him. What bothered him was the woman standing next to him and that he had his arm around her and that he was holding a girl that looked like Jan and the woman was holding another baby bundled in pink.
“What do you see?” asked Casey.
“That’s me,” he said.
“Good,” said Casey. “Anything else?”
“This,” he said, pointing at the girl he held. “It looks like you, Jan.”
“Good,” said Jan smiling. “It is me.”
“Anything else?” asked Casey.
He looked at the woman and the baby and the red truck, shining. His stomach started to hurt more and his hands hurt from clenching them and then it started in his head and he closed his eyes and moaned. Mom said that’s enough for now and then she helped him to the room and put a wet rag on his head and rubbed his arm. Casey and Jan watched him from the doorway and their eyes were so blue and heavy. Mom told him to close his eyes and rest and he did and he fell asleep.
He woke up sometime in the night and went into the living room. Under the couch he found his favorite tape and put it in the VCR. It was a tape by Chrysler, and it is, after Carrie, the mot beautiful thing in the world. In has a man with a beautiful voice, a strong voice, walking down a dark tunnel. The man seems familiar to him, reminds him of something long ago about guns but he can’t remember. He talks about the teams in locker rooms and what will happen in the second half. He says It’s half-time in America, too and there are beautiful images of the city and the country, and the country looks so pretty and the city does too in a scary way. He says we’re all scared because this isn’t a game. He says it seems we’ve lost our heart at times and we have. Sometimes he feels so sad and like there’s nothing good, even with his Good Thoughts. There are beautiful pictures of families in black and white and strong-looking firefighters. He says that’s what we do. We find our way through tough times and when we can’t find our way we make one. Then there’s a beautiful road and a girl in a car that looks like the pretty girl, looks like Carrie, and he says all that matters now is what’s ahead. And it’s true. He doesn’t feel it completely right now but he knows it’s true. There are more beautiful things like pristine machines and gleaming cars and this is when he usually has to fight the tears, but tonight they’ve already come flowing down his face and his eyes burn and he has to wipe them away and his nose begins to run. Then the man comes out of the shadows finally and you see his face, a strong face, and he says Yeah. It’s half-time, America. And our second half’s about to begin. And it’s true. Our second half. It’s something we share, something we’re all together in. Maybe this is what You’re Them really means. And then the strong and familiar man walks away and the music fades and the picture goes black and the tape ends and the static comes on. And then he rewinds it.