So this is it. Today was my first day of half employment. I finished a book, had an editorial meeting about Stymie, and now I’m putting off writing. I’ve got to get into the swing of this – fast.
Thank god for writing group. Last week’s randomly generated prompt: A friend bypasses an expert.
Last week’s work: Jim’s Face
So that’s how it happened. It happened just like I said.
Jim looked at me briefly before going back to his pack of old matches. He stuck them again and again, one at a time. Nothing happened. No spark.
“I must have washed them,” he mumbled, shrugging but kept on trying. A cigarette hung out of his mouth the entire time, and pulling it away in an act of defeat, a speck of blood appeared on his bottom lip – the blood rubbing itself all over Jim’s front teeth. His disappointment with my story and his bloody mouth made him look like a half-hearted rapist, slapped in the face.
I shrugged back at him.
“It’s not enough to hear the story, I guess.” I slipped my cold fingers clumsily into my pocket and grabbed my lighter for Jim.
“You had that the whole time?”
“Sure. I must have forgotten.” I shrugged again, as if I were in a foreign country, and shrugging was the only foreign word I knew.
Jim gave up his breath in order to accept the heavy smoke his cigarette was about to give him. It seemed a one-to-one trade with regards to displacement. Both would die, one sooner than the other. His lungs were a machine. The cigarette was made by machines, and now Jim’s double-breasted, pink machine would undo its workings. His fingers, a different kind of machine, would commit its remnants to the earth without ceremony; maybe some ceremony–secret, smoker’s ritual, the final suffocation of its ember before flicking the butt into the dark night. Witnesses unable to track the dead body to its eventual, and eternal space. Perhaps leaving it lit and sending it flying, a tan apparition without wings, undead yet to it’s grave. Never looking back at its last, fruitless seconds. Minutes, perhaps, of silent burning. Smoke, once a comfort to Jim, a coughing scream. Or, an ascension to heaven. A reincarnation. A smoky death for someone new.
“You forgot?” Jim smoked and stared.
“No, I told you, it happened just how I said.”
“No. About the lighter. Didn’t you see me wasting all those matches? You were standing right in front of me.” He points to some time and place behind us.
“Man, those matches were already wasted. I forgot about the lighter. It’s been in these pants since I bought them. I hate these pants. I wore them today because my other pair got burned in the accident. Who knows, maybe the accident happened just so you could have that smoke.” I laughed.
“That’s stupid. It’s just another example of how I’m the lucky one. I mean, not so often at your expense, but I’m lucky that you had that lighter. You’re unlucky that you were in the accident. Maybe your story didn’t make sense because you’ve got brain damage.”
“It’s not brain damage.”
“But, you’re saying it is something then, after all?”
“No. It’s nothing. And you don’t understand my story because some things don’t, or can’t come across in explanation. You would have had to be there, I guess. People say that all the time, right? ‘You had to be there.’ This was one of those situations. Deal with it.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be there,” Jim said in a straining whisper, expelling the words in a way that meant he couldn’t wait to say them. Too aware of our surroundings, he looked back to where we’d just been, and then side to side, stopping to look really hard for a moment at a bag in a trashcan that had been turned inside out by the wind, convulsing like a tethered monster.
“Jim,” I said, trying to draw attention earnestly to the fact that he was Jim, and I was Eric, and we were just two people, solid and absolute, standing in an amorphous sea of time and perception, “no one died in the accident. Everything is fine. My pants are ruined, that’s all.”
Jim shook his head. “I get it, I get it,” he said in a dutiful way, that made me feel like a father to him. I almost tussled his hair, but it wouldn’t really have been a joke, and if it were he wouldn’t have gotten it.
“What I imagine is so different, though, from the way you described it.”
“How could it be? All you have is what I told you.”
“That’s not what I mean. Like I said, I’m glad I wasn’t there, but if I pretend I was, everything looks so different. What I imagine seems so true, that your story feel like a lie.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, tell me what you imagine.”
“I imagine a car accident.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“I know, just let me describe it. You’re driving down a dark road–“
“You fucking know it was the afternoon.”
“Let me finish, ok?”
“Ok, man, go ahead.”
Jim thoughtfully pulled out another cigarette, and folded one hand in on itself in a flapping motion, indicating his desire for my lighter. I searched my pockets like a prospector, digging deep, and hard. Nothing. Jim’s face relaxed. His fingertips disappeared into the blackness of his pants pocket. The yellow lighter emerged from the chasm like a sunrise. He lit up and handed me the lighter.
“Alright, now. You’re driving down a dark road. You’re smoking. You’re actively smoking, and you’re maybe–no, definitely–you’re counting your cigarettes. It’s been five cigarettes since you started driving.”
“Jesus, man. What kind of delineation of time is that?”
“Come on, I do it all the time. It’s a three-cigarette drive to Marcy’s. A one-and-a-half-cigarette walk to the grocery store. You get it, man. Come on.”
“But, people smoke at in different increments of time. Some people don’t smoke at all. It’s too subjective. Just say it’s a twenty-minute walk to the store.”
“It’s relative. It doesn’t matter. It just means that you’d been driving for a while, counting your smokes because you were nervous and knew you shouldn’t be smoking. Your feelings about smoking just have to do with the state you were in before the accident.”
“I wasn’t smoking anyway, but whatever, man. Keep talking.”
“It’s nighttime. You’ve been driving for a while, and are smoking because you’re nervous.”
“What am I nervous about?”
Well, I’d imagine that you were nervous about where you’re going. You’re going home, but it’s representative of something else. You’re going home from some odd job you’ve taken because money’s been tight. I mean, you lost your job last month. You’re not used to having to skimp on purchases, because that job of yours was cake. Buying a half-dozen of eggs instead of the full dozen, because you need eggs, but can’t afford the luxury of a full dozen, that sort of thing–”
“I can’t even remember the last time I had eggs. But, I get your point.”
Jim spoke again sharply. “Eggs, milk, bread. It doesn’t matter, man.”
Jim grabbed my arm like I was a child, doing something I shouldn’t, as a quiet correction for polite company–code replacing a harsh and chiding Stop it now.
“Again, they’re representative of something else-–staples, stability, and provisions from the world. And your home is just another reminder. The emptiness of the fridge. The moisturizing shower bar soap at the sink instead of the antibacterial liquid pump kind. All of it is characteristic of a faulty foundation. Thin character of self, or whatever.”
“Wait, are you still telling a story about me?”
Jim gave an ambivalent frown. “This how I imagine the accident happened.”
“Yeah, your accident. Shut up, okay? Don’t talk again until I’m done. Let’s sit down. You close your eyes and I’ll talk. You just imagine it happening, alright?”