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.