Tuna Fish

ImageThey were well stocked on alcohol for the day and decided to stop at Subway on US1 to pick up lunch.  Billy Hiller was the only one to select tuna.

It was Memorial Day weekend and, as such, quite crowded on the beach.  They walked a ways, past sunbathers and surfers, and settled on a sparse stretch opposite some coquina rock.  Then they put down towels and waxed their boards and cracked open beers.

Somebody said it would be smart to eat the sandwiches right away.  Otherwise they might get sandy.  So they dug in.

A seagull landed nearby and cocked its head to watch them eat.  Then another landed.  And another.  One after the other until they were surrounded by a legion of seagulls.  It was quite common to see such flocks at the beach.  But they always maintained a respectable distance, so nobody thought anything of their growing numbers.

Billy unwrapped the first half of his sandwich.  The chef had been generous.  There was a layer of tuna three or four inches thick.  He savored it.  Clumps of tuna dribbled down his chin and dropped on his lap.

His friends said the sandwich stunk.  The seagulls cocked their heads.  One by one, they inched closer to Billy.  Curious sunbathers watched from the safety of their towels.

A bird as big as a basset hound hopped over to him.  It was missing a foot and had no shame.  It cocked its head and assessed Billy’s size and pecked at his crotch.  He shooed it away and took another bite.  His friends were wrapping up their sandwiches and urged him to follow suit, but he just kept eating.

Another seagull dropped out of the sky like a feathered meteor, grabbed the second half of the tuna sandwich, and flew away.  Billy jumped to his feet, cursing, and gave chase.  A handful of other gulls took flight too, squawking in excitement, eager to share in the spoils.  They collided midair, exploding into a white fireball that landed in the ocean.

The sight so disturbed the remaining birds that they took to the air and circled the picnickers.  Neighboring parties relocated their towels to avoid the fray.  Bird shit rained down on Billy and his friends so they ran away.

The flock chased Billy like an angry cloud.  His lungs filled with fear and he screamed.  Help me!  Help me!

The birds chased him all the way to a crown of coquina rock.  He turned around and ran the other way.  The flock followed.

People watched and shouted for Billy to go this way or that way.  Go into the water!  Fight back!  Drop the sandwich!

Billy weighed his options.  Finish his tuna sandwich while being pursued by 20 seagulls.  Or, drop it and go hungry the rest of the day.  He reached the boardwalk and turned to run the hundred yards back to the coquina ridge.  The birds followed.

Sunbathers stood up from their towels to watch Billy Hiller finish his tuna fish sandwich while evading the flock.  One bite after another, he ate his lunch while on the run.  Reached the coquina rock and ran back to the boardwalk with the squawking flock on his heels.

He tossed back the last of his sandwich and screamed victory.  The birds knew the sandwich was gone and landed in defeat.  They hobbled around, pecking at sand and shells and each other.

Billy Hiller ran at them with everything he had.  They exploded into flight and landed again a few dozen yards away.  When they settled, he chased them again.  And again and again and again.

He refused to let them rest.  All day long, until he was red in the face and it was time to go home.

Billy Hiller hasn’t eaten tuna fish since.

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Mom’s Catfight

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We were visiting Grandma in Orlando.  The last time I’d seen her was when my brother Jeffrey was born.  Four years prior.

We’d gone out to Denny’s so that Dad could rest his patience.  Mom was talking about how much of a dump Texas was.  She hated it there because it was a cultural backwater.  And also poorly manicured and dry.  The only reason we were there was because Dad was working his dream job at NASA.

She wanted Dad to transfer to Florida, post haste.  Cape Canaveral or Titusville or Orlando.  Anywhere, so long as it was peninsular Florida.  Because Florida was paradise.  And Grandma agreed.

During the discussion, Jeffrey was making faces through the window.  He was a gifted facial contortionist.  Spent hours making faces in front of the mirror, everyday.  At four years of age he was already on par with Jim Carrey.

Took me ten minutes to realize that he was actually mocking a pair of Denny’s employees on a smoke break right outside.  I egged him on.  The smokers noticed him and laughed and made faces back.

Somebody behind us cleared her throat loudly.  Like she was hocking a loogie.  Or trying to get our attention.

Mom, Grandma, and I turned around.  There was a mountainous woman in an Orlando Magic shirt glaring at us.  She put on her glasses to get a better look at Jeffrey.  Her twenty-something daughter sneered.

I found the girl’s appearance frightening.  Namely because she was wearing a leather jacket and not at all because she was cockeyed.  Jeremiah Palmberg had told me that the Hell’s Angels wore leather jackets at all times.  I should always mind my Ps and Qs around leather jackets.

I’m not sure who fired the first shot.  Grandma said something like, why don’t you ladies mind your own business?  Which enraged them.

Magic Lady said Mom should learn how to parent.  Mom retorted with, I do know how to parent, thank you very much!  Magic Lady chortled.  Hell’s Angel flexed her muscle.

All the while, Jeffrey continued making faces at bystanders through the window.  Puffing out his cheeks.  Pulling the skin under his lids to make his eyes bulge.  Baring his buck teeth.

I begged them to disengage but they didn’t hear me.  Grandma was too busy telling them about Dad’s brawn.  Mom said she wouldn’t hesitate to call him.  Magic Lady kicked her head back and guffawed.

The waitress came to check on us but nobody paid her any attention and she left.

When it became clear that there would be no resolution to the discussion, Mom announced our departure.  Pulled Jeffrey away from the window.  Paid at the front.

We got out unscathed and made our way to the parking lot.  Magic Lady glared at us through the window.  Mom stopped in her tracks.  Kissed her fingers.  Planted them on her rear end.  And cackled whilst wiggling her butt, back and forth and back and forth.

Grandma laughed.  I was horrified.  Jeffrey was oblivious.

Hell’s Angel shook her fist, leaped to attention, and made her way out of Denny’s.  Magic Lady squeezed her way out of the booth and ambled after her daughter.  We about-faced.  Mom told me to take Jeffrey by the hand and lock ourselves in the car.

Hell’s Angel ran up to us with Magic Lady in tow.  Mom spun around on her heels and told her to back the fuck up.  Her keys were nestled between her fingers like claws.  Hell’s Angel noticed the weapon and hesitated.

I got Jeffrey safely inside the car.  Tried to distract him by commenting on the humidity.  He ignored me.  Plastered his face to the glass and blew raspberries and puffed out his cheeks and flicked the bird.

Grandma was screaming at the women.  Pointing and screaming.  Spraying saliva.  Eyes red with rage.

Mom tried to get into the car.  Hell’s Angel grabbed the door and slammed it shut, right onto Mom’s hand.  She howled in pain.  Grandma grabbed Hell’s Angel by the hair and yanked her head back.

Magic Lady, who’d maintained a safe distance, called off the assault.  Hell’s Angel walked back to her mother, gingerly pulling torn hair from her scalp.  They paced the parking lot as we drove away.

Jeffrey was awestruck by the fight.  He went on and on about how exciting Orlando was.  I told him that I found it to be a cultural backwater, albeit well-manicured and humid.

We moved there three years later.

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.  

No. 2

ImageI had a pet hamster named Speedy when I was 9.  He spent most of his time storing food in his cheeks and running on the wheel and burrowing in cedar chips.  I liked him but he didn’t like me.  

Speedy’s cage started to smell and my mom worried that guests would notice his stink and get the wrong idea about us.  She put his cage on the landing, out of the way.  

My 3 year old brother Jeffrey thought that Speedy was lonely up there.  It became his prerogative to visit the Habitrail daily.  He’d shuffle up the stairs to watch Speedy exercise, hoard food, and dig.

One day I noticed that Jeffrey was clutching a No. 2 pencil whilst ascending the stairs.  He crouched above the Habitrail and from afar, appeared to be innocently observing the hamster with toddler curiosity.  

But he was actually poking Speedy in the flank with the pencil over and over again.  Had this vacant look in his eyes while he did it, too.  I asked him to stop.  He complied.

I put on a pair of gardening gloves and picked up Speedy.  He had no visible injuries.  I set him down.  He lapped at some water and buried himself under the cedar chips.  

Mom and Dad interrogated Jeffrey.  Why would you want to poke Speedy with a No. 2 pencil?  Don’t you realize that he is a living, breathing thing?  How would you like it if you were stabbed in the ribs with a No. 2 pencil?  

Jeffrey admitted that he had been jabbing Speedy for quite some time.  He really didn’t know why he did it.  Didn’t have much to say beyond that.  Pretty remorseless overall.  Mom said he probably didn’t know what he was doing.  

Speedy died a week later.  He was partially buried under the cedar chips when I found him.  He still had food stored in his cheeks.  

Mom didn’t want Jeffrey to know that Speedy was dead.  She’d have Dad take care of the body while we were at the grocery store. 

Jeffrey offhandedly mentioned the Habitrail’s disappearance at dinner the next day.  Mom winced and gave Dad a look.  Dad said Speedy had gone to heaven.  

Jeffrey fell into silent contemplation.  He furrowed his brow and looked at my Dad.  Opened his mouth to speak, but it took a long time for the words to take form.  

Heaven’s in the dumpster?

The Food Baron vs. Mister Horne

ImageI was a shift supervisor at the Java Shack in college.  We served sandwiches, salads, artisan coffee, and baked goods.  My job consisted of counting tills, writing schedules, hiring associates, firing associates, customer service, and supervising.

Matt the GM was usually there when I started my shift, so I made myself busy.  Counted the safe, did the checklists and the pan up, arranged the baked goods.  Refilled the coffee and called in people to replace call outs.

Matt always left at 6, at which point I’d retire to the office to make art on Microsoft Paint.  Fire-breathing dragons, velociraptors, motorcycle gangs, volcanoes, zombies, hummingbirds.

Around 7 I’d walk to the front of the store for the dinner rush.  Afterward I’d give all the associates free food.  My friends regularly stopped by for smörgåsbords.  Paninis, salads, pastries, cappuccinos, soups.  All they could eat and then some for the road.

My reputation for generosity preceded me.  I became known as The Food Baron.  If upper-management had gotten wind of my antics, they would have fired me for theft.

One day the district manager, Dawn Davis, dropped in for an impromptu meeting with Matt.  She was red-faced.  Matt was sweating.  They were flipping through paperwork.  When she left he took me into the office and interrogated me.

Food cost was through the roof.  70% above projections.  Matt figured associates were stealing. Told me to fire anyone caught sneaking food.  I was to make an example of any thieves.

I went from being The Food Baron to Scrooge in a day.  From Caesar Augustus to Nero overnight.  Started swimming the store like a shark looking for thieves.

If I found a chewing employee, I’d ask for a receipt.  Caught our sandwich guy munching on an illegal Artisan Turkey Cheddar Chipotle Panini in the walk-in freezer.  I barged in and he tried to hide the sandwich in his pocket but I’d already seen it.  Fired him on the spot.

Food cost dropped dramatically.  Matt complimented my vigilance.  Even phoned Dawn to let her know how well I was performing.  Gave me a 25 cent raise.

Then I caught old Mr. Horne stealing.

We were in Melbourne, Florida, which was one of the world’s premiere retirement destinations.  God’s Waiting Room.  Old people loved to stop by to read the paper and sip coffee and play bridge.  Our dining room was slacks and bifocals and velcro tennis shoes.

Mr. Horne was maybe 80 years old and just over five feet tall.  He had coke-bottle glasses and stringy white hair.  Looked like a barn owl in pastels and knee-socks.  Mr. Horne was a permanent installation in the dining room.

He’d order a cup of coffee and sit by the window and stare off into space.  At first I had the impression that Mr. Horne was beyond conversation, but after a while he took to chatting Matt’s ear off.  Mr. Horne never talked to me, though he watched me closely while I worked.

The first time I rang up Mr. Horne he ordered a small cup of coffee.  I handed him a cup and he gave me a five.  The till popped open and while my eyes were fixed on the cash, Mr. Horne’s arm snatched an extra cup from the stack next to my register.  Fast as a striking snake.

Mr. Horne stared at me blankly, like nothing was amiss.  He’d stacked the second coffee cup underneath the first.

I considered apprehending him on the spot.  But, it occurred to me that Mr. Horne was very old and his papery skin was probably sensitive.  More than likely, Mr. Horne wanted an extra cup to shield his withered fingers from the heat.

After the dinner rush I noticed that Mr. Horne was using both cups.  One cup for coffee.  Another for hot tea.  A liver-spotted paw wrapped around each cup like they were Oscars.  He wasn’t even using sleeves.

When I arrived at work the next afternoon, I found Matt glazing cinnamon buns in the bakery.  I informed him of Mr. Horne’s thievery and he told me to keep an eye on him.  Shoplifting was illegal, regardless of age and background.

A few hours later I spotted Mr. Horne in the dining room.  He was sipping a cup of coffee and a cup of hot tea, simultaneously.  I started wiping tables in the dining room.  I noticed him watching me from behind his coke-bottle bifocals and decided to make small talk.

How are you today, Mr. Horne?  Oh I’m quite alright.  Beautiful night, isn’t it?  Oh it certainly is, certainly is.  Say, you sure do like coffee, dontcha Mr. Horne?  Oh don’t I!  And you seem to like tea, too.  Sure do.  Not often you meet a man likes to drink coffee and tea at the same time, eh?

Now.  I’ve been sized up before.  One time I was sized up outside a club on A1A.  Another time the cable guy gave me a good once over when I told him off for being late.  A thousand times in the locker room in high school.

But there’s nothing like getting sized up by an 80 year old man with coke-bottle glasses and velcro tennis shoes.  He jutted out his stubbly lower jaw and scanned me with yellow eyes.  Then he shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and coughed dismissively.

I was vexed.

The next day I deployed all associates to the food line.  Normally we had one person making sandwiches, one for salads, one for soups.  Tonight I had ten employees crammed into the line.  I was gong to ring up every single customer.

As a result, we had a line to the door all night.  Customers were griping.  All of my cashiers were asking why they couldn’t help me out.  I kept telling them I was trying to apprehend a criminal.  Told them to leave me alone and do as they were told.

Mr. Horne came in around 8.  He stood near the doors, surveying the scene.  He knew I had him.  He shuffled over.

Oh good evening Mr. Horne so good to see you again.  Say it’s kinda chilly outside might be nice to have a hot cup of coffee.  Or would it be better to have tea?  Sheesh I dunno what I’d choose if I were in your shoes.  If I had to pay for it… Ya know?

He ordered a small cup of coffee without comment.  I avoided eye contact like a shy toddler.  Urging him to steal a cup.  Kept my eyes on the register long after his receipt had printed.  Long after he left.  The next customer asked if I was okay.

After the rush Nate, our salad guy, flipped out over chicken.  He was prone to tantrums about this and that, as salad guys tend to be.  Wanted to know why the chicken was always improperly portioned.  The corporate checklist said chicken was supposed to be prepped into 1.75 ounce portions.  But our chicken was always weighing in at 1.25 ounces.

Mr. Horne moved like a Russian gymnast.  He somersaulted to the register.  Grabbed a second coffee cup.  Back at his table.  All in a matter of seconds.

I excused myself from the chicken conversation and stormed over to Mr. Horne.  Said I’d caught him red-handed.  Had security cameras to back me up.

Other customers were staring.  I snatched his hot tea and threw it away.  Told him to get out and never come back or he’d be arrested.  He nodded.

Mr. Horne had no defense.  He said he understood the consequences of his actions and that he’d never return.  Then he asked if he could use the store phone to have his son pick him up.

A woman got up from her table and handed him her cell.  She told me she wouldn’t be returning to the Java Shack.  Said I should go back to manager school.

I told her that I wasn’t in manager school at all.  I was studying history.

I went back behind the sandwich line.  Nate picked up where he left off.  The corporate checklist said to weigh chicken portions at the start of every shift, and those portions should be 1.75 ounces.  He said that our portions had been 1.25 ounces for several weeks.  Asked me to reprimand our prepper.

I took Nate aside and explained to him that Dawn wanted us to keep chicken portions at 1.25 ounces or smaller.  She felt that the corporate rule of portioning at 1.75 ounces was absurd.  So, the prepper was doing as he was told.  This franchise portioned chicken at 1.25 ounces.

Nate grumbled about that being bullshit as he walked out of the office.  I turned to the security monitor and watched him stock his station.  Then I noticed Mr. Horne shuffling out the front door.  I smiled.

I’d done my part for the greater good.