September 18, 2010

Cheap Bastards

Only a week after a heartbroken friend from New York came to my house in Vermont, I got another urban escapee, this one from Chicago. He was an old college buddy known for his humor, good looks, intelligence, and lovable self-absorption. I called him “Golden Boy” and he told me to eat shit.

Even though the house up here in the land of rolling hills, soft light, cows, and shady dumbasses is huge and built for a family, it turns out that I hate people. I thought I was lonely squirreled away deep in its rooms, but I found that I love to be alone so I can be lonely. Therefore, the second Jason showed up for an indeterminate length, we began to make calculations. Me, on how to put him to work on the house and keep him here for as short a stay as possible, and he, on how to extract as many free vacation days with the least amount of effort.

By the last night — two weeks later — we both were not completely satisfied with the outcome. He did mow the lawn, help re-pitch the gutter, and drag my garbage across town to a dumpster that I’m “allowed” to use, but he did no housework and I cleaned up after him. I had expected a roommate and a factotum, basically, while he had expected a hotel and room service. He wanted to stay even longer than two weeks, but he forgot to ply me with alcohol and food to win an extension. Even so, it was nice having him around, his urbanity pulling me out of that kind of lethargic resignation that takes hold of you in rural towns, because every day is exactly the same as the previous one.

We shared a last dinner at a nearby bistro of inconsistent offerings, but it was the only game in town and the mojitos were better than in New York. We walked the mile and a half to the hilltop on the kind of beautiful night that makes Vermont sometimes worth it. But before we got to the road leading to the bistro, we bumped into a local friend of mine who wondered where we were going. He asked because at that precise moment, a dusky 7pm, walking down Main Street, Jason and I were, simply put, the best looking couple in town.

“We’re going to the bistro,” I said, “for a last supper.”

“Last supper? Is your friend treating you?” This is what it always comes down to in Vermont: nose-butting.

“I don’t know, we’ll see,” I said, looking at Jason while he stared distantly at the river, following its winding banks with intense fascination.

At the bistro, after my mojito, glass of wine, green salad, fancy burger, and chocolate mousse, and he with his sad, inexpensive little chicken sandwich, we were at loggerheads.

“Are you ready to settle up?” asked the waitress.

“Yes,” I said, “We are ready to settle up.”

The check came and for a moment it sat unmolested on the table. Then, projecting an air of childlike curiosity, a kind of staring innocence that only someone who has led a life charmed by raffish ease can maintain well into his thirties, Jason casually reached for the check. He brought it to his eyes and peered at it with pretend incomprehension, while I followed his wallet that he had already dropped on the table, taking this as a good sign. But soon I realized that he had no intention of making a move.

“I’m bad with sums,” I remarked.

“Oh?” said Jason.

“Always. Also I need reading glasses now. I can’t read bills anymore.”

“You’re getting old,” Jason said.

“Yes, I know. Soon, I’ll become a pensioner on a fixed income. A very fixed income.”

“Isn’t that a line from Seinfeld?”

“Yes. Regardless, I’m bad with sums.”

“Yes, I know,” Jason said.

“So just add it up and tell me what I owe.”

Jason sighed, irritated that I had tasked him with this odious detail. He lifted the check closer to his nose. I can’t be entirely sure, but I think his hand shook with an infinitesimally detectable Parkinsonian tremor. I took this also as a good sign.

After examining the check for what seemed like an hour, he finally put it down and looked at me.

“Okay, so you owe, um, like thirty-two dollars.”

“Thirty-two.”

“That’s right.” It sounded a bit less than it ought to have been. Maybe he had decided to pick up a piece of my tab, after all.

“Yeah,” he said. But I could hear in his voice – I could hear it – a note of uncertainty.

“Okay,” I said. I reached into my wallet and began to file through the bills. I counted them out slowly, very slowly.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Jason said. “I think I made a mistake.” He looked again at the check, squinting deeply at the figures scrawled on it. “I think it’s more like thirty-six dollars you owe, actually. Thirty-six.”

“Thirty-six? Really? Okay. So thirty-six then.” I found the extra four dollars and handed it all over to him. “Here. Thirty-six.”

“Thanks.” He returned the check to the table, but he still didn’t look happy. Everything about him had slowed down, as though I was watching him through a glass partition at an aquarium and he was on the other side, in the water, weakly grasping at the invisible plankton.

“You know, wait a minute,” he said again. “I don’t think that thirty-six is really enough.”

He was fucking with me, the little shit. He wanted to goad me into verbalizing exactly what I was expecting of him, so he could come back and tell me what a selfish, cheap bastard I was. I had always suspected that he was a closet antisemite. It would all come out now. All of it.

“Thirty-six isn’t enough? You want more?”

“Wait, let me look.” Again he scrutinized the bill, flipped it over, did a little reading there, and then flipped it back.

“I forgot about the two drinks you had.”

“You cheap cunt.”

Jason ignored this and instead said, “You owe forty. Forty dollars.”

“Forty? Really? Are you sure this time?”

“Yes, completely sure. Forty bucks.”

I fished around in my wallet and took out another four dollars.

“Here you go.”

“Thanks.”

We sat silently. I sipped the dregs of my wine. The waitress came and put her hand on the stack of bills.

“Are we all set here?”

“Yeah, we’re all set,” said Jason.

After a moment holding a thoughtful expression, Jason looked at me and said, “You know, I actually owe you some money.”

“What? What for?”

“I never paid you back for that bread yesterday.”

“The bread?

“You know, that artisanal baker’s sourdough brew country loaf that you paid five dollars for. I owe you two-fifty.”

“Oh, okay.”

He produced two dollars and fifty cents and handed it over to me.

“Here you go,” he said.

I took his money and we left the bistro. Jason flew back to Chicago the next day, and I was alone again in my big, drafty house.

- Vermont

September 2, 2010

Shit Stories

Bathroom accidents. The fear of the unintended poop plagues those of us with digestive problems. They plague us with a cruelty that makes one wonder if there isn’t some kind of god after all. Not a nice one, by the way. A bored one. If you live in a crowded city, the dread is worse. What New Yorker doesn’t carry a list of available public bathrooms? But in a place like, oh, Vermont, it turns out that when you bring a few people of relative unselfconsciousness over for a dinner of curry rice and salad, lots of wine, other stuff, and the extra time that country life devises to keep one idle for as long as possible, people start talking.

There were five us sitting around the tiled table on the porch, the cicadas buzzing outside, the warm light of the porch’s globe lamps gilding the food with religious awesomeness. Even the beautiful Kerri Kenner was there, visiting from somewhere in the Midwest. Or running from there, more likely. Kerri Kenner, always on the move, chasing or getting chased down.

Jen told her story of pooping her pants while jogging. I’d heard this one before. She had been countering my complaints about post-surgical gas problems.

“Of Hindenburgian proportions,” I had told her.

Then Jeff chimed in about a truly horrendous humiliation visited upon him at work. It was his last day and so his colleagues took him out for an Indian food buffet, his favorite. He gorged himself and then made the fatal error of topping off the meal with a cup of coffee. What the poor bastard didn’t know was that a surprise cake party had been planned for him.

“When I was in the room with all my colleagues – and a supermodel was there, too, by the way, a coincidence, there for a meeting – I had to suddenly run to the bathroom. I mean, I had to run.”

“But you made it, right?” said Gary. “Everybody always makes it in the end.”

Jeff shook his head. “Sort of.”

I interrupted. The spotlight was off me. Something had to be done. “Remind me to tell you about the poop on the toilet seat where I was working once.”

“Shut up, David,” said the woman I wanted to marry, now that I had three glasses of wine and felt lonely. “Let him talk,” Kerri Kenner chided.

“So I got my pants mostly down, but I was a second too late. I shat all over the walls. And my pants.”

“Oh, God Christ,” someone said. I don’t know who; I had shut my eyes and clamped my ears. “The walls?”

“It went projectile,” Jeff said, illustrating with a sweep of an arm. “I made sure the door was locked and then I spent a half-an-hour cleaning the walls and washing out my pants.”

“You took your pants off…”

“And rinsed them in the sink. Then I put on the damp pants.”

“I would have been worried that people thought I pissed myself.”

“Paranoid about that, about if I smelled, about if it was going to happen again.”

“So the cake party?”

“So I go out there completely paranoid. Freaked out. And now I have to shake the supermodel’s hand. I’d been gone for a while, so people were looking at me weirdly. I was humiliated.”

“That’s an awful story.”

“It gets worse.”

We leaned closer.

“I lived in Jersey then, so I took the bus home.”

“Oh no.”

“And it happened again. I shit my pants again. While I was on the bus sitting next to a lady. I shit my pants. She looked at me like I was some kind of bum.”

“Wow. What a story.”

“I shit my pants once!” cried Kerri. “They call it a shart.” The world is not lost when a girl as beautiful as Kerri Kenner can be the victim of such a foul reminder of our roots in the animal kingdom, then be able to talk about it, and then use that word. That word, shart. Kerri Kenner. My life lost meaning without the doomed Kerri Kenner.

“I was in my cubicle and it just suddenly happened.”

“Out of nowhere?”

“It just happened. You know, when you think you’re going to fart but you poop instead. A shart.”

“Jesus. What did you do?”

“Luckily I was in my office. If my desk had been in one of the open spaces I would have never lived it down.”

“A woman once left a poop stain on my bed,” I said, sipping my wine loudly. “She never lived that down.”

“I went to the bathroom to clean up. It was so disgusting. I had to throw away my underwear and wash out my jeans and then put them back on so I could leave the building and get to a store for a new pair.”

“And underwear.”

“Yeah, and underwear. The rest of the day I was praying no one would come sit in my office and chat. Oh! And I had to clean up my chair, too.”

“A horrific story,” I said.

We were silent, all of us, contemplating the horror that follows us day in and day out. There but for the grace of God …

Gary piped in now. “Homeless man. Subway. G train. New York City.”

“Testify.”

“It was rush hour. Train was crowded. But there was one car that was half empty. I should have known better.”

“Ah, the empty car fallacy.”

“Right, so of course, the reason it’s empty is because there’s a homeless guy at one end of the car.”

“I take it the shit part’s coming up soon.”

“Oh, yes, he had shat everywhere. The smell. The smell.

“New York Fucking City.”

“I made a beeline out of there with the other idiots who also hadn’t known better.”

“It could have been worse.”

“It got worse.”

We leaned closer.

“I got it all over my hands and jacket. The guy had smeared his shit on the poles, which I brushed when I tried to get out of there.”

We were silent, all of us, contemplating the horror of the state of mind required to play with shit.

“So, David,” someone said. “What about you?”

I told the story about the office poop.

“But what about you?”

“Me?”

“You have the digestive track of a 93-year-old man. Surely, surely you’ve had some accident over the years you can tell us about.”

Kerri Kenner smiled with a devil’s satisfaction. Kerri Kenner. My head swam whenever she looked at me, even when her eyes spoke of nothing but the space that separates each of us from the other. They all looked at me, waiting to hear me say something, to tell a story of such debasement that it would put all of theirs to shame. And yet, despite my intestinal issues and my ongoing fear of an indescribable shitting accident, it had never gone beyond just the fear. And for once I saw that I wasn’t alone in this world of scatological terrors, of anxieties, of the terrible human occurrences that we – usually, but except for tonight – keep private.

“Okay, I have a story,” I lied. “Let me tell you about the time I was in third grade.”

 

- Vermont