July came and I had no job. I couldn’t hold anything steady and writing didn’t pay much. I was fired a few months ago for showing up drunk but I wasn’t actually drunk I just smelled like booze. That was when I realized I walk into bars a lot to write stories. I decided that I didn’t like that my stories had repetition because repetition can make a good story a bad one. And a story couldn’t be good if it was bad.
I had an interview with an agency that sold health insurance to union workers in the 83rd to 87th district. I also had no idea what that meant. It started to rain before I got out of my car and my tie was freckled with drops when I walked inside. The man who said hello and shook my hand said his name was Jeremy and insisted that I call him Jeremy and not Mr. Blankenship. He had inflamed acne scars sunken into his cheeks, which he could have passed off as tough but didn’t. Or couldn’t.
“Mr. Waters,” he said, not so much mispronouncing it but making it sound synthetic, like I had made it up. “There’s a lot of money in this business. I’m pulling down a six-figure income and I’ve only been here two, count em’, two years.” He held up his index and pinky fingers to emphasize, like outfielders do when there are two outs.
“Is it salary or commission?”
“You betchya,” he said and opened a manila folder. I want to believe he didn’t hear me.
When he told me what the job entailed, I realized it was basically selling lottery tickets to coal miners. Buy this health insurance, we tell them, because it costs pennies on the dollar and you desperately need it, you’re old and have black lungs. On the off chance they die a particular way, and they’re not working any overtime hours, and it isn’t a national holiday, and they die wearing company-approved footwear, then the family gets a heavy payday. I imagined this didn’t happen often. I pictured myself boring these men during their dinner with the pitch. How they would get pissed at the way I talk, or what I spoke about, or just the sound of my voice. I heard Jeremy say something about sign-on bonuses before deciding I couldn’t believe in what he was selling. If I couldn’t buy it, I sure as shit couldn’t sell it.
“Could I use the bathroom?” I asked. “This is a lot to take in.”
“Of course, Champ.”
I walked past the bathrooms, told the receptionist to hold my calls, and went out the front door. I smoked a one hitter in my car and decided that everything repeats itself eventually, drove south on McArthur and combed the strip for a bar. Most of the bars looked crowded. Even the Heavy Lion and The Synch Knot had packed lots. I pulled into the drive through at White Hen and bought a pack of Mickey’s tall boys, opened one for the drive back, and smoked three Camel Lights by the time I got to my apartment. I walked out onto the deck. I leaned over the railing and spit loose pieces of phlegm into the grass. An alarm clock went off in someone’s bedroom across the street. It rang nine or ten times before they either turned it off or hit snooze. Someone threw an empty bottle down an alley and I heard the bright sparkle of shattered glass.
Eleven houses are boarded in my neighborhood. I counted. Two of them are side by side on Poplar Street just behind me. I don’t think my neighborhood is poor but I also don’t think anyone remembers it. No one believes in it. Sometimes I think about rebuilding houses even though I don’t know anything about carpentry. I imagine replacing crown moldings with a thirty-six pack of PBR, polishing the solid pine floorboards and realigning the upstairs railings. I wonder what people leave inside these houses when they move, like old Panasonic TV’s or some kid’s tee-ball jersey that he outgrew.
There’s a knock at the door and it’s Adam who lives next door with his wife. They argue when they drink together. Some nights they fight and the noise bleeds into my half of the wall. That’s how I learned that his wife only has nine toes and that Adam can’t stay hard if they’re watching The Daily Show. Once I heard her say that men only use selective listening during arguments and he asked what fucking men she was talking about.
I opened the door and Adam was holding a notebook with the front cover torn off and said he needed a cigarette. I liked Adam because he never talked about the writing process as if he understood it. Some nights we would stay up late and talk about how writing was always new, enigmatic, and evolving. We didn’t know much about writing except for that the hardest part was deleting it. We sat at opposite sides of the kitchen table and debated how many times you’re morally allowed to resubmit a story for publication if it keeps coming back as a rejection.
“Okay,” Adam said, “say you make a painting you really like and you take it to one art show after the next but it never sells. So, finally you bring it home from, I don’t fuckin’ know, maybe the seventh art show and it still hasn’t sold. Do you take it to the eighth?”
“First off, comparing writing and painting isn’t fair,” I said and got up to open a window.
“But I think if your painting means something to you then it could mean something to another person.”
“So, yes. I would take it to the eighth.”
“Wouldn’t you rather sell it on the first go-around though. Don’t you owe the audience a good piece?”
“No, you don’t owe them a goddamn thing,” I said.
“Then why are we trying to sell paintings at the art show?”
I lit up another cigarette and let my body slink lower in the chair. “Do you have anything good in that notebook?”
He thought and plucked off the tab to his beer. “Honestly, man, I don’t know.” Adam got another Mickey’s from the fridge, sat back down in the computer chair, and pulled at the hair under his nose. “A lot of the time I feel like I’m lying when I write.”
“I’ve thought about that. As long as you’re lying to the reader and not yourself I think its okay,” I said. “It’s commonly accepted that most of what is written is either a lie or pandering to you. It’s just harder to tell with good writing. Honesty and voice go together,” I said. “Somehow.”
Adam looked past the walls for a few minutes before deciding he was too stoned and wanted to go back home. He left me and took the beer and conversation with him. I packed a hitter and then spaced out trying to think of who came up with the design for the keyboard and why. Why weren’t the q and p switched? Why the zero came after the nine. Why the home and end keys were so close to one another.
Maybe it was the conversation with Adam that made me want to go, but in the morning my gut told me to visit my parents. I went down to the White Hen to buy peppermint Orbit and a pack of cigarettes and drove over to the west side of town, where it’s cleaner; where you can’t find any duplexes or Dollar Generals. I put a piece of gum in my mouth and unlocked the back door. The house still smelled like a fireplace. I saw Pops had fixed the hole in the drywall from the last time I visited. I took my shoes off at the landing and walked past my old bedroom which now belongs to my mother. I found her in the kitchen reading an article on her laptop, her glasses balanced on the point of her nose.
“What’s good in the world?” I asked.
She dropped her spoon with a clank into her oatmeal and put her hands to her chest, looking at me as if to say, you should know which ear is my bad ear by now.
“For goodness’ake, Louis,” she says, standing up to hug me. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
“Sorry. I would’ve called but I thought I’d surprise you.”
“Would you call next time?”
“Sure thing, Ma.”
I poured us a glass of milk, asked her where Dad was, and then rinsed my cup in the sink before going out to the garage. I found Pops smoking an oily cigar and jamming a Phillips-head into a pocket watch with both hands.
“Good morning, Louis,” he said without looking up. I said hello back and we sat in silence while I watched him poke and prod his way around the cogs.
“Do you have work?”
“No,” I said, “I’m waiting on a few callbacks.”
He muttered something about being proactive and getting decent hours but I couldn’t make it out exactly. He chewed on his Cohiba and wound the clock six or seven times, pulled it up by the dial, and listened for it to tick.
“You have to keep things in working order, Louis, or else they get away from you.”
My father wrapped the pocket watch inside of a handkerchief and placed it on the meat freezer next to a coffee mug full of pens.
“When are you going to pay back the money you borrowed?” he asked.
“Eventually,” I said.
“Eventually,” he repeated. He handed me the screwdriver and I put it back in the toolbox. “Do you still think you’re a writer?”
“No,” I said.
“But you’re still writing?”
He removed his glasses and rubbed the jellybean-shaped spots on his nose.
“You look tired,” I said.
“I am, Louis,” he said and jotted some notes down on a clipboard. I looked around the garage and saw a plastic tub with my name marked on the side. Once a year Pops reorganized the garage but none of us could figure out his system of organization; you could find a quilt, cast-iron skillets, and baby photos in the same box. He seemed to remember where everything was stored though.
“Okay then,” he said and put the cigar out in glass of melted ice before throwing it in the trash. “Come on inside and get something to eat.”
We went inside and Pops cooked biscuits and gravy. My mother told me about moving up to the tenth floor at her office. “I can see the whole world,” she said with a grin and her shoulders back, “but sometimes it seems so small.” Pops and I talked about literature. We tried to decide if Wallace Stevens made sense or not. Last month I bought him “The Rum Diary” for his birthday. I didn’t think he’d appreciate it but I knew he read fast and would lend me the book afterwards.
“All the guy does is drink,” he said. “That’s no way for a man to live.”
“I thought all he did was work,” I replied. “That’s no way for any man to live.”
He mumbled something and looked at the pocket watch under the table.
I helped clean the dishes and showed Ma how to open two different websites at the same time. She asked me about my old girlfriend, the one she didn’t know was now old. She asked about how we were and what we were. I told her that the path we used to be on together had dissected. I said that I still loved her but not us. Ma put her little head on my shoulder like she was worried that I felt alone.
“Time is necessary to reason,” Pops said. “And Matilda is a good girl. She’s got a heart the size of Montana.”
I walked with my Ma out to the driveway. Pops was on all fours in a fisherman’s hat and orange gardening gloves, putting new soil around the heirlooms. The car door squeaked as I got in. Ma saw a collection of empty Camel Light boxes on the passenger seat and told me she wished I wouldn’t smoke. She told me she quit after seventeen years the day she found out she was pregnant with me but I know Pops caught her plenty of times smoking Marlboros in the utility closet. I tried to think of why painting and writing aren’t a fair comparison. Maybe it had something to do with looking at the whole picture all at once instead of going word by word, page by page. Mistakes in paintings are lines and shapes but in writing, mistakes are just blurs. I looked over and saw my father pluck off a rotten tomato from the vine, shake his head from side to side, and mumble something under his breath.
Nicholas Teeter is a graduate student at the University of Illinois Springfield currently finishing his MA with a focus in creative writing. His short fiction has also appeared in The Alchemist Review.