Christopher McPhail

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Christopher McPhail rode his bike to Brevard Community College on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  Always spotted him on my drive to work.  Puffing and pumping and sweating on his Huffy.  Taking up too much room on the shoulder.  Everybody knew him by sight because no post-adolescents rode bikes in Melbourne, Florida.

Christopher was roughly six foot six inches tall and weighed about a hundred pounds.  Sported auburn hair cut like a bowl.  Had a row of oddly spaced chickpeas for teeth.  He must’ve been twenty-one or twenty-two.  Give or take five years.

I know his name because he was always doing his homework at the Java Shack.  He’d walk in on stilts, clutching his bike helmet, and stare at the menu for a long time.  Dripping sweat all over the counter.  He’d order a panini, pick a spot by the window, and play on his laptop for a few hours.

One time, a cashier named Carmen interrupted my smoke break to tell me that a customer wanted to speak to me.  He had a complaint.  I told her to tell him to wait it out another five minutes so that I could finish my cigarette.  She complied.

A minute later, a cashier named Rebecca interrupted my smoke break to tell me that a customer wanted to speak to me.  He had a complaint.  I explained that Carmen had just told me about his complaint and that I would be inside to deal with it as soon as I was done with my cigarette.

Rebecca said that this was a different customer.  I told her to just go on inside and I’d be right behind her.  Once I was finished with my smoke.

Just as I was about done, a cashier named Alina interrupted my smoke break to tell me that there was a herd of customers who wanted to speak to me.  I put out my cigarette and went inside.

There were thirteen retirees pacing in front of the bakery.  An old man in golf gear ushered me close.  He said, I don’t wanna jump to any conclusions.  But I do believe that young man over there is, uh, is…

I asked the old man to explain what the young man was doing.  He winced and pointed to the dining room.

All was quiet, save the sound of jazz on the muzak.  Six old ladies had pulled together a couple of tables to play bridge.  Their Tuesday afternoon ritual.

But they weren’t jovial.  They were frozen.  Eyes bulging, clutching their cards, staring at Christopher McPhail.

Christopher McPhail was in his usual spot, staring at his computer with the whites of his eyes.  His bike shorts were hiked and his wiener was exposed and he was voraciously masturbating.  Like a novice camper trying to start a fire with a wet twig.

They’d never said anything in shift supervisor training about how to handle sexual deviants.  So I marched over to him.  Tried to look intimidating.  Bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing and crying and puking.

Christopher noticed me approaching and slammed his laptop shut.  He sunk into his chair.  I pointed a finger in his face and told him not to ever ever come back ever.  If I caught him in the Java Shack or anywhere in the shopping center I would have him arrested.

He agreed to never come back.  Put away his wiener and his laptop and left.  I made Kevin, the busboy, bleach the table and chair.

I never saw Christopher McPhail riding his bike on Wickham Road again.

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Melissa on the Q

ImageIn the beginning I was most enamored with riding the subway.  It was a haven for people-watching.  Folks fat and slim and rich and poor.  Eyes kind and eyes shifty and beady ones too.

Every ride was pure novelty.  Pure magic.  Like riding an escalator for the first time.  Or boarding the monorail at Disney.

All the colors of the rainbow forced together.  Perfectly acceptable to lock eyes with strangers.  Most of the time they avoided my gaze.

It took me just a few weeks to notice the stink.  I began to miss privacy.  The freedom of owning a car.  Other commuters became obstacles.  I stopped observing them and started staring at the floor or the wall or my phone.

One time I noticed a girl with Down Syndrome on the Q.  She whispered things to the man next to her and he nodded and whispered back.  He didn’t resist when she locked arms with him.  I assumed they knew each other.

It was around eight on a Tuesday night.  We were deep in Brooklyn and so the train was mostly empty.  I chose to stand because I was anxious.

I was about to see my estranged girlfriend.  We’d been fighting over inconsequential things that had become consequential.  I was staring at the floor of the car, working a dozen arguments over and over and over again.

And the handicapped girl appeared in front of me, her arm outstretched like she was going to pull me up from a ledge.  Like she was going to rescue me from some great catastrophe.

She must’ve been in her late twenties or early thirties.  Unruly blonde hair.  Slightly overweight and wearing a dirty sweater two sizes too small.  There were little scratches all around her mouth.  Like she’d had a cactus for lunch.

Her eyes were trained on mine.  They were liquid.  She looked right through me.  Didn’t say a word.

I thought she was asking me to steady her.  I told her to grab the pole.  She shook her head and thrust her hand in my face.

I shrugged and said I didn’t know what she wanted.  She said it looked like I needed a hug.  And then she hugged me.

I held on to the pole as she buried her face in my chest.  She looked up at me and smiled and told me her name was Melissa.  She said she’d seen me in a dream the night before.

I patted her on the shoulder, politely encouraging her to let go.  But she just buried her face deeper into my chest.  We hugged throughout the rest of my ride.

The train reached my stop and I told her so.  She let go.  Said she hoped to see me again.

I realized everyone was staring.  An elderly woman in a big hat was scowling.  A couple of teenagers were gawking and laughing.  A man in a suit stole glances from behind his newspaper.  All of these people united by disgust.

I never saw Melissa again.

Stonedfish

ImageMy last production gig in Florida was for SeaWorld Orlando.  They wanted a bunch of pre-show videos featuring glassy-eyed trainers talking about all the animals.  Something to show guests on the jumbotron above Shamu Stadium.

On day one we shot at Discovery Cove, where guests pay hundreds of dollars to swim with dolphins in pools lined with faux rock and manicured palms and food carts.  A square-jawed trainer named Brent waded into the pool and read cue cards about echolocation and melons and positive reinforcement.  A bottlenose dolphin named Penny floated patiently at his side.

Brent readied his whistle, nodded, and flicked a wrist.  Penny zipped past him and jumped and everybody groaned.  She’d failed to slap the water with her tail flukes before jumping, which was an integral part of the maneuver.  As a result, we didn’t get our shot and Penny didn’t get a fish.

The director called cut and we rolled again.  And Penny missed again.  And again and again and again and again and again and again and then she finally got it and we broke for lunch.

I struck up conversation with a dolphin trainer named Becky.  She had sun-bleached hair and bronze skin and aspired to work with orcas.  I asked her a lot of questions because I had an inherent interest in zoology that had developed during my Fat Stage in middle school.  And also because I thought she was pretty.

Becky said that orcas are dolphins and dolphins are very smart.  Nobody knows how smart they are, though.  The Shamu tank is divided into different sections.  SeaWorld opens and closes different gates at different times to keep the orcas stimulated.

I asked her about Tilikum.  The big orca who ate the head trainer a few months prior.  Becky said she didn’t want to talk about it.  So we chatted about the weather instead.

On day two we set up at Shamu Stadium.  They called an orca named Katina to the main pool and closed the gates to keep the others out.  She had a newborn baby, Makaio.  The senior trainer, Constance, waded onto a shallow lip and fed Katina to keep her close.

Constance explained that Makaio wasn’t nursing and nobody knew why.  Should he decide to nurse, said Constance, we have to cut and let him finish.  Absolutely no interference allowed.

We got a couple of takes of mother and son at the edge of the tank, on their marks.  Then, Makaio submerged and began nursing.  Constance called cut and was all smiles.  The crew oohed and aahed.

After a few moments Katina dropped below the surface, forced Makaio to stop nursing, and pushed him onto the ledge so that he was fully exposed to the air.  Constance gaped in shock.  Katina gaped for fish.

We started shooting again.  Finished early, solely because of Katina’s assistance.  Makaio had lost his interest in nursing by the time we wrapped.

They opened the gates and a third orca swam into the main tank.  He hugged the glass and lapped the pool like a black torpedo with swiveling eyes.  Searching every nook and cranny because he knew he’d missed something.

I pressed my face to the glass.  He locked eyes with me on every pass.  Then the AD told me to collect the crew’s trash.

We shot in the sick bay on our last day.  It was warehouses and concrete and razor wire.  They had a couple of SeaWorld executives in suits standing over a little pool filled with sea turtles.  Talking all about their efforts to rehabilitate injured wildlife.  Conservation.  Preservation.  Breeding programs.  Flashing pearly whites and talking about the future.  Our children and our children’s children.

At wrap the gaffer asked me to carry a bunch of equipment back to the vans.  Lugging C-stands and lights and hampers back and forth.  All under the watchful gaze of a bottlenose dolphin.

He was in an above-ground pool that couldn’t have been more than twenty feet in diameter.  Just deep enough for him to submerge and turn around.  He propped his head on the edge of the pool and watched me do my job.  Stared me right in the eye when I looked.  And I could feel his eyes on me when I wasn’t looking.

It reminded me of an uncomfortable and cathartic bus trip I had in Milan, once.  An old woman wouldn’t take her eyes off me.  Just smiled and watched me read my book.  Unapologetic, too.

I couldn’t concentrate with her eyes on me so I tried to make small talk.  She didn’t speak English.  I didn’t know Italian.  So I just nodded and smiled back and she kept watching me.

This dolphin was the same.  Like somebody who spoke a different language.  Using his eyes to communicate with me because that’s all he had.

At the end of the shoot Becky said I should apply for a job at SeaWorld.  Said I was a good fit.  I told her I had actually applied and been hired at the beginning of 2010.  Took a test about cetaceans and pinnipeds and sirenians and aced it.

A jovial lady in a pink muumuu gave me a W2 and an I9 and everything was fine and we joked.  Then, she said I was supposed to do a drug test and my heart stopped.  There’d been nothing on the application about any fucking drug test.

She led me to a man shaped in form and personality like a fire hydrant.  He asked for some leg hair.  I had no choice but to say yes.  He trimmed a bunch from my right shin.

I got a phone call from a restricted number a couple of days later.  I answered and heard a lot of static.  A gravelly voice asked if it was me and I said yes.  It was Dr. Charles Weimeraner, of Anheuser-Busch.  He asked if I was ready to hear the results of my drug test.

I said yes.  Then there was a really really long pause.  Really really long.  Like he was going to tell me I had HIV.

Then he said, you tested positive for THC.  I considered my options.  I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.  He ignored me and asked when I’d last used.

Truth is, the last time I’d used was twenty minutes before his call.

But I told him I’d taken a single puff of weed on July 4th, six months prior.  He laughed and said he found that hard to believe.  My leg hair was more cannabis than human.

I got an official letter stating that SeaWorld had a zero-tolerance drug policy.  For the safety of employees, guests, and animals.

A few days later, Tilikum dismembered the head trainer.  On the 24th of February.  The day I was supposed to start.

On the L Train

ImageThe L train serves millions and runs from 8th Avenue to Canarsie.  I used to live off the Halsey Stop.  It was crowded at all hours of the day.  Filled with glassy-eyed commuters in the morning and inebriated hipsters at night.  Took me thirty minutes to get to work on a good day.

I rarely got a seat.  I didn’t like to stand in the morning because I was tired and dreaded work.  And, I didn’t like to stand in the evening because I was tired and dreaded my shitty apartment.

Every once in a while I’d get a seat.  And then some elderly lady would hobble on and and I’d feel obligated to surrender it.

One time an empty train car rolled to a stop right in front of me.  Not a soul on it.  The other cars were packed.  I strolled into the empty car and planted my ass right in the center.  Felt pretty proud of myself.  Like I was getting away with something.

When the doors closed I caught the stench of rancid vomit.  We accelerated and left Halsey and I considered walking between train cars to escape.  But the MTA says not to do that.  I was afraid I’d fall to my demise.  So I stayed in my seat and endured the scent of upchuck.

It was the worst thing I’ve ever smelled.  It was as though the perpetrator had collected the spew and cooked it in a wok.  Or baked it in an oven.  Or swallowed it only to shit it out again.  Like rotten eggs and curdled milk and hot orange juice and other people’s cooking and feet.  A stink so putrid it was visible.  Hung frozen in the air like dragon’s breath.

I buried my nose in my sweater and found puke there too.  My olfactory receptors were singed.  Corneas burnt.

I changed cars at Myrtle-Wyckoff.  It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder.  I didn’t get a seat.

But I did have a view of the empty car.  A man in a suit noticed all the space and goose-stepped right in.  Sat center-car, grinning stupidly, like he was getting away with something.

Then the doors closed and his eyes bulged and he grabbed his throat.  Opening and closing his maw like a bass gasping for oxygen.  Stood up and paced around urgently on stiff-legs, looking for an out.  The doors opened at DeKalb and he ran into my car.

He was green and dripping sweat and on the verge of tears.  People inched away from him, eying him like he was a crazy man.  He smelled like puke.

I surfaced at Union Square.  Threw out my sweater for good measure, then went to work.

A Katie Holmes Christmas

ImageI was waiting for my friend on a corner in Chelsea.  She was hunting for a power bar in a bodega.  A lanky man passed me.  

He was all arms and legs and Adam’s Apple.  There was a parakeet in a vest perched on his finger.  He walked very slowly because he was admiring his bird.  

People watched him with curiosity and contempt.  A lady in a leotard tried to pass him but it was crowded and he had his elbows out. 

Suddenly Leotard Lady screamed and dropped her bags and startled everyone. 

She threw her arms wide as if to bear-hug somebody.  The Bird Man stopped and turned around and glared at her.  Then Katie Holmes leaped into Leotard Lady’s open arms.

Katie swung her purse in a great arc and smacked the parakeet right off The Bird Man’s finger.   He shouted, my bird, my bird!  Katie was too busy hugging the lady in the suit to notice.  

The parakeet fluttered around and screeched.  The Bird Man plucked him out of the air and put him back on his finger.  He yelled, watch where you’re going!

Katie Holmes paid no attention.  She locked arms with Leotard Lady and they paraded down 7th Avenue like schoolgirls.  The Bird Man continued walking north.    

My friend came out of the bodega.  I told her I’d just seen Katie Holmes.  She said she’d just seen a man with a parakeet in a vest.   

Baldwin & Lox

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A large man in a slate jumpsuit stood at the intersection of 18th and Irving Place.  He was devouring a bagel and lox.  I watched him from the opposite corner.  We were both waiting to cross.  

He was at least six feet tall and his gut hung in the jumpsuit like a bowling ball in a hammock.  His hair was black and grey and untended.  He looked to be in his fifties.   

He tore into the bagel like a hyena into a wildebeest.  Clamped his jaw, shook his head back and forth and back and forth.  Flashed the whites of his eyes.  

The crosswalk signaled us to proceed.  He stepped off the curb with his eyes on the bagel.  I stepped off the curb with my eyes on him.  At once fascinated and disgusted and jealous.   

We passed one another.  He pulled his eyes from the bagel to glare at me.  Cream cheese was smeared around his mouth like rabid foam.  My heart stopped and skipped and I knew that I knew him.  

Alec Baldwin.  

Alec Baldwin furrowed his brow and stared me down.  Like a bouncer ready to punch.  Rubber-necked to keep his eyes on me until he got to the opposite curb.  Then he tossed the last of the bagel into his maw.  Wiped his chin with his sleeve.

I watched him storm south on Irving Place until he disappeared in the fray.  A car honked and I got off the road.  

I bought an everything bagel with lox and went back to work. 

Craigslist

ImageI lived with Owen Katz for eleven weeks.  He was sixty years-old.  I’d found his room ad on Craigslist.    

He owned a three-bedroom on 110th and 8th.  The apartment was dark and smelled like curdled milk.  Antique nightstands were stacked floor-to-ceiling in the hallway, making it difficult to get around.   

But the building had amenities like an elevator and a laundry room.  It faced Central Park too.  I wanted to live in a nice neighborhood.    

Owen showed me the vacant room.  It had a mini-fridge and a yellow lamp and black hardwood floors.  There was a tall bookcase built into the wall.  Owen kept his books there even though he’d been renting the room out for years.  There was no lock on the door.   

The room’s centerpiece was an oil painting of a red-headed woman.  Her expression was constipated aggression.  Her eyes followed me.

It was a portrait of Owen’s mother, painted by the room’s previous tenant, Javier.  Owen said the painting looked nothing like her.  He showed me a photograph to prove his point.  Javier’s style was Impressionistic, but he’d managed to capture Mrs. Katz’ scowl.    

Javier killed himself two years prior by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  All because of some temptress.  Owen told me he thought Javier would’ve become his lover had he lived.  

Owen introduced me to his current tenant, Keith.  He occupied the room adjacent to mine.  Keith was twenty-one and short and had a regal beard.  Reminded me of a Tolkein dwarf.  He worked in reality television as a production assistant.  

I said I was checking out the vacant room.  Keith nodded and smiled.  Then he closed his door and locked it.  The next and last time I saw him was three weeks later.  He was buying Cheetos and Gatorade at the BP on the corner.    

The living room would have been spacious were it not for the array of coffee, end, and side tables that lined the walls.  I asked Owen if he was in the furniture business.  He said no, I’m an aspiring novelist.  

I remarked at the army of circus chotchkies that covered every surface of the room.  He ignored the comment and asked if I was partial to marijuana.  I said yes.  

He lit a joint and told me that he was born and educated in New York City.  Studied journalism.  Worked as a freelancer then moved to Germany to be a documentary programmer at the Berlin Film Festival.  He called it The Berlinale.  

Owen loved everything about Berlin.  Wrote his first novel on the steps of the Reichstag.  He admitted to being a teutophile and was adamant that I relocate to Berlin should I ever get the chance.  Berlin’s a great artist town.

He asked if I spoke any other languages.  I said no.  He put out the joint and crossed his arms and legs and furrowed his brow.  Then he said the room was mine if I agreed that I would never ever ever smoke cigarettes inside of it.  I agreed.

It was only after I moved in that he mentioned he slept in the living room.  Said I was welcome to hang out in there any time, though.  I asked why he didn’t sleep in the third bedroom.  He said he used it for storage.  

Owen went to bed at two and woke before sunrise each day.  The whistling kettle sounded his morning routine.  After a breakfast of toast and tea, Owen would pry open the door to the spare room, stomp in, and slam it shut again.  Then he’d bang things around in there for a few hours.  

Sometimes his voice came muffled through the walls.  Usually sounded like he was talking to somebody.  Occasionally sounded like he was weeping.  I never asked him what he did in there.  

One afternoon I found a peculiar grapefruit in the freezer.  It had a face made of cowrie shells.  It was sitting right in front of the meatballs.  Staring at me.  Later, Google told me that it was an effigy to the god EleguáEleguá is one of the gods in Santería.

Owen left town at the end of each month.  He’d travel upstate to dwell in his cabin in the woods.  He said most of his best writing came out of those weekends of seclusion.  

I made full use of the apartment the first time he left.  I overcooked pasta in the kitchen and watched television in the living room.  Even had a couple of friends over.  They didn’t stay very long.  

Owen returned early Monday morning.  He woke me by banging on my bedroom door.  I found him standing motionless in the hallway, clad in a trench coat, glaring at me like I’d shot somebody.  

He licked his lips and chewed on some words then finally asked if I’d deliberately burned his tea kettle.  I said I didn’t know what he was talking about.  He led me to the kitchen and thrust the kettle in my face and pointed to an inch-long burn mark.   

There, he said, that one.  Did you do this?

I hadn’t done that and said so.  His jaw gaped in disbelief.  I went back to my room.  Owen pried open the door to the third bedroom and slammed it shut again.  Started throwing things all over the place.  

I listened to him chatter and hum and cry for a few hours.  Then I went to work.  

That night I was home alone.  I decided to check out the third bedroom.  I pried open the door and crossed the threshold.   

Inside, there were dozens of homemade cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling.  Big ones and small ones and medium ones.  Fat and skinny and deformed.  Most were tattered and stained but a few looked clean and new.  

They all had buttons for eyes.  All dangling like lynched bodies.  All staring at me.  

I closed the door to my bedroom and opened the window and smoked a cigarette.  I considered contacting Keith but didn’t have his information.  

I came down with the flu a day later.  Threw up my guts until I had nothing left.  At one point I passed Owen in the hallway on my way to the bathroom.  

He asked if I was unwell.  I nodded.  He had circles under his eyes.    

I called out of work and had hours of hot, dreamless sleep.  When I finally woke up I rolled over and checked my phone for messages and saw Owen standing at the foot of my bed.  I sprung to my feet and startled him.    

He ran out the door.  I followed him to the living room.  Asked him what he was doing in my room.    

He apologized.  Thought I would be at work.  Asked if I’d been smoking in the room.  

I said I’d be moving out at the end of the month.  

I didn’t own much so it was an easy move.  Managed to get my clothes and computer and hard drives to my new place in Brooklyn before the lease started.  Couch-surfed for a couple weeks to avoid Owen.  

I went back to his place on the 31st to clean the room and get my security deposit back.  Owen watched me change the AC filter and dust and sweep the floor.  Then I asked if he was satisfied.   

He nodded, said the room was clean enough to show.  Then he mentioned, matter-of-factly, that his birthday was tomorrow.  He would be sixty-one.  I wished him a happy birthday.

Owen handed me my security deposit.  I wish it would’ve worked out, he said.  I was hoping you’d stay for at least a year.  

I thanked him and showed myself out.