I'm staying with Chris because I punched Tommy. Tommy was my friend and my roommate and I punched him while he slept and I punched his dog while it barked. After that I didn't have a friend, or a home, or three jobs cooking shitty bar food, so I opened my closet and loaded up the Volvo. I grabbed whatever was in front of me, filling my arms with flannels and jackets in the middle of summer.
Instinctively I took the on-ramp to go north on the expressway. The Volvo did zero-to-sixty in like a minute-and-a-half. My muffler and the entirety of my winter wardrobe were in the back seat, and when I could finally take my foot off the gas, finally think over the sound of the engine, I realized what I had left behind.
There was my old phone with my pictures of Amy on it. There was my passport, which I need for bars because my driver's license expired. Most importantly, I forgot my carabiner with the key to the apartment as well as the key to my parents' house.
In my rearview, the city's skyline sparkled in the dark. It was four in the morning and I kept driving until I hit the exit for my parents' neighborhood. They live in one of those Chicago suburbs where the houses look like grown-up versions of trailer homes. The streets are wider than they need to be and everyone's got at least one car with a Bears sticker on it. I considered knocking on their door but immediately decided against it.
My old elementary school was a couple miles away, and I still remembered the streets my bus used to take to get to it. I followed the route and parked in the lot. I reclined my seat and tried to sleep until the sun rose. The teachers pulled in and they looked at me like I was going to jerk my meat or kill them or maybe do both at the same time. I needed somewhere else to go, and even though I really didn't want to, I called Chris.
I drove back to the city and I've been staying with Chris for a few days now. He's got an old mattress in his kitchen that he was too lazy to drag to the dumpster and that's where I sleep. In the mornings, he puts on his tie and heads to the cell phone store, and then I have the place to myself. I rummage through the dirty clothes on his floor, find his laptop and try to put it back exactly where I found it when I'm done. He may or may not know that I've been traipsing through his room, stalking my ex-girlfriend on his computer, moisturizing my elbows with his Eucerin.
Chris and I met through music, but really we met through the internet. I've known him for almost four years and at least since high school it's the longest friendship I've had. This is something that gives people pause, this lack of long-term friends, so like many things, I keep it a secret. But there's no denying that the history of my life is a timeline of self-imposed failure. It's followed me to the present, propelling me to the point where now I'm crashing with Chris in his nasty apartment. Currently I'm sprawled on his compacted and sweat-stained mattress in the middle of the kitchen. I have a sheet that I'm attempting to lie both on top of and beneath at the same time. It's like a taco shell and I'm the lettuce and beans. The ceiling fan is wobbling above me and Chris has just emerged from his bedroom. He's cooking breakfast and telling me the fan won't fall but his logic is all wrong.
"The fan's been wobbling like that forever," he says.
"But the longer it wobbles," I say, "the closer it is to falling."
Chris is wearing a robe because he finds pants too constricting when he eats. It's red and has pockets over the hips where he keeps his cigarettes and a lighter. He steps over me on his way to the fridge and I avert my eyes because I don't know what he's wearing underneath.
"I see what you're saying," he says. "But the fan just wobbles."
"But do you see what I'm saying?"
"I see what you're saying."
"I'm going to move the mattress," I say.
"Your destiny is in your hands."
He pulls out a carton of eggs and steps over me again to get back to the stove. He turns on the burner, gooses the flame and drops a slab of butter into the pan. The butter starts smoking as he pushes it around with a fork.
"We need to get your mind right," he says. "Fans. Feuds with roommates. You need to orient to the future. Start thinking potential. Self-actualization."
He cracks two eggs into a bowl and uses a fork to mix them.
"Like you," I say.
"Like me and I hope you too," he says. "We're talented individuals but all of our ability is internal. We need to convert it. Make it external because right now we're being defined by all the things we don't want to define us. It's like we're wearing sweaters and we just rolled around in a leaf pile. We need momentum. Velocity. We need to get on our bikes and ride at such a speed that the wind will blow the leaves from the wool."
I drape my arm over my eyes because when Chris talks like this it makes me want to shove him in the oven. Him and me, we're not the type to achieve a velocity to blow leaves from our sweaters. For one, I sold my bike. For two, neither one of us made it through more than a year of our respective community colleges. We met because we wanted to be musicians but all our songs sounded like shitty covers of My Bloody Valentine and no one besides our drummer's girlfriend came to our shows. We're shit peas in a shit pod and the similarities don't end there. We're both not tall and not short. Our hairstyles draw comparisons to Prince Valiant's medieval bob cut. We wear random shirts from the thrift store that are usually yellow and when we go out, the bartender sometimes gives Chris my tab and Chris's tab to me. I'm aware of all these things but Chris isn't, and this is basically what he needs to know, so I try to tell him in terms he'll understand.
"Chris," I say. "We're birds of a feather, a flock of two. We can't make a triangle to reduce wind resistance and that's why we're so slow. We could fly single file but who would lead? Neither one of us is leadership material."
He pours his eggs into the pan and they hiss as they hit the Teflon.
"I have many leadership qualities," he says.
"Who do you lead?"
"I lead myself and that's all that matters."
He lets the eggs cook, drops two slices of white bread into the toaster and butters them when they pop. The eggs finish and he scrapes them onto a plate. He turns off the burner and with the eggs salted and peppered he pours a glass of orange juice and sits down. It's a healthy breakfast, but the kind that someone would make if they had never made one before.
As Chris takes unnecessarily loud bites of toast, I start thinking about Tommy burning my stuff in the alley behind the apartment. I imagine him dousing all my worldly possessions in lighter fluid and dropping a match. I start piecing together a recovery plan.
One: I'm going to need a can of pepper spray because Tommy's dog is terrifying. A pit bull-cane corso mix. Rescued. The only reason it didn't tear into my throat the other night is because I snorted half a gram of coke and was afraid of nothing.
Two: Unless I can get a spare key from the landlord I'll need to enter by force. The front door has two deadbolts but the back door only has one. It opens onto an alley where Polish construction workers cut two-by-fours and copper pipes. I could try to kick it in but a better option would be a Sawzall. Cut around the knob and the deadbolt. Give the door a nudge. Enter and recover.
Chris takes a gulp of orange juice that's so big it makes him breathe hard. The fan keeps spinning on the ceiling and I visualize where it would land if it fell. The little square table where Chris is sitting would get hit, and like a knucklehead he's on the side where he'd get clonked too. The mattress is mostly out of the way but my feet are still in the danger zone. I move my legs to the wall.
"Don't you have work today?" I ask.
"Mental health day," he says. "I'm getting my life together."
Twenty-nine years of leading himself and isn't the trajectory clear? But Chris has a talent for bullshitting that surpasses all his other talents combined. He tells people he's a musician. He convinces everyone he's read all the authors he only knows from Wikipedia. He bullshits himself and he bullshits other people and he tries to bullshit me and the sad truth of the matter is that oftentimes I really, really want to believe him.
Chris finishes his breakfast and stacks his plate on a pile of dishes in the sink. He locks himself in his room and as I listen to water trickle from one dirty dish to the next, I smell him smoking. A couple hours later he emerges to pee. He's still in his eating robe and I'm still on the mattress.
"Time to get going," he says.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"It's not a physical going."
He brushes his teeth in the doorway of the bathroom and spits and drinks from the faucet to rinse. He goes back to his room and I watch the fan wobble and think about Tommy again. I make a mental note to check the alley for cinders before sawing through the door.
Chris and I spend the day watching the local news channel. We sit on the couch that has two Sharpied lines beneath the cushions for the number of girls Chris has slept with on it. He hogs his computer and when I ask him what he's looking at, he shows me a picture of herpes.
Chris lives in a shitty neighborhood but with the money he makes in commission at the cell phone store he can afford an apartment all to himself. It allows him to be as filthy as he wants to be and the floor in the living room is covered with books he hasn't read past page ten. Their covers are dotted with dried marinara sauce and they make vacuuming impossible. The kitchen floor has so many crumbs that when Chris and I finally get moving, I have to sit down at the table and brush off my feet before putting on shoes.
For dinner we get jumbo slices of pizza and Chris buys a six-pack of High Life on the way home. We eat and once we're full and a little buzzed, I drive us to the Rite Liquors on Division. It's a scummy bar slash liquor store as well as the site of memorable moments in my life like the time I bought an eight-ball of rock salt and got a blowjob from my friend's sister. The bartender doesn't like me but he knows me and he doesn't check my expired ID. Chris and I start drinking and I watch him plow through one Old Style after another. I'm not feeling great so I take it kind of easy, but Chris is going through them pretty fast and he's beating me two to one. He tells me to cheer up, offers to buy a round. I'm watching him because I know that always, inevitably, he reaches a point of intoxication where his filter shuts down and things get weird. It begins with him scrunching his face at me and then, instead of a torrent of bullshit, he'll say something deeply upsetting in the form of a question. "When was the last time you woke up happy?" he might ask. "How come you don't talk to your dad?" So now, when I look over and see him make a face like he just dislodged some nasty glob of food in his teeth, I know it's that time.
"Whatever happened with Amy?" he ponders, making it sound like something he's just curious about.
I swivel my barstool in the opposite direction because Chris knows exactly what happened with Amy. We dated for maybe five months but then I started thinking about how I once had a scholarship to go to college but I still dropped out. I started thinking about how Amy had a scholarship to paint in Michigan for a master's degree and I knew she wasn't going to fuck it up like I did. She said she saw something good in me, but the only good I see in myself is the honesty to admit that I'm the total scumbag that I am. I have good enough taste not to like myself, but that isn't redeeming if you think about it, and it was only a matter of time before Amy figured all this out, so I figured it out for her.
"Why do you always sabotage yourself?" Chris asks, scrunching his face again.
Chris is a total dirtbag but he's smart. He knows all this stuff about Amy, but all he actually knows is that I boinked the chick from Starbucks while we were dating.
"Come on," he says. "Actualize."
I peel the label off my Old Style and figure if I just wait a little while Chris'll nod off over his bottle. He does this so reliably that both his front teeth are chipped and I'm sure one day he'll crack them down to nubs.
I give it a few minutes and Chris's eyes start to droop. But then I see a curveball coming. A girl squeezes in next to him and raises her hand to get the bartender's attention. She's wearing sandals and a long flowy dress and it's clear she's in the wrong place. She asks for a cocktail menu and the bartender tells her they have vodka, gin, and whiskey. She considers the options and Chris swivels to face her. The bartender leaves to let her think and Chris leans in close.
"Do you like music?" he asks, his words slurring so the sentence takes twice as long as it should.
I know exactly where things are going, so I hop from my stool and jump ship. I flip through the jukebox. I watch two well-known drug dealers play a game of pool. I play the winner and lose.
Cases of mistaken identity have been an issue in the past, and what I've learned from Chris is that if you're going to be friends with an erratic and maladjusted individual, choose one who doesn't look like you. I intentionally lose track of him but sure enough, when I step outside for a smoke, I'm not more than three drags into my Parliament when some frat boy in an Iowa shirt breaks from the other smokers and heads straight for me. His face is all tight and it's clear he doesn't want to bum a cigarette.
"Wrong guy!" I shout, but he tackles me anyway and I hold him close so he can't do too much damage. He yells something and the girl from the other side of Chris is there, screaming at him to stop. The guy's got his knee in my stomach and I know he's getting enough room to start swinging, but just then Chris stumbles out of the bar and sees us on the ground. The girl realizes her mistake and she pulls the frat boy off me and directs him at Chris. He pushes Chris and Chris falls over and it's pitiful, like when someone crouches behind you and their buddy puts a shoulder to your chest.
Who knows what Chris said to that young woman, but it was vile enough to deserve a tackling. He's blinking like he just stepped out of a movie theatre on a bright day and we're both on our butts. The tackler hails a cab and I get up and shout through the window that he better pray there aren't any stop signs. I keep banging on the glass until Chris says something that makes me stop.
"Three nights and you've already done it," he says.
I turn around and see him there on the sidewalk. His legs are splayed in front of him and a strand of hair is pasted to his cheek.
"I'm finally at your level!" he shouts.
It was the most disturbing part about the whole incident.
The next morning Chris emerges from his room and drops pop tarts into the toaster. He's wearing his eating robe and I get up from the mattress and open my pack of cigarettes. They're all broken from the tackling and Chris sees me throw them away. He hands me one from the pack in his robe.
I sit in the chair beside the window where Chris sometimes smokes and dicks around on his phone. I light the cigarette and let my arm dangle down the side of the building. My Volvo is parked on the street and I lean out to take a look at it. I wanted something classy but since I cook hamburgers for a living I have a car with visibly rusted wheel wells. It's the color of a faded denim shirt and a couple months ago, somebody got the crazy idea that it contained something of value. They smashed the passenger window and I sealed it up with strip upon strip of duct tape. Now if anyone wanted to steal anything, all they'd have to do is unpeel the tape and pull the lock on the door.
Chris is standing beside the table, flipping through an open newspaper and turning the pages with enough force that it sounds like they're going to rip. I'm still processing the previous night and even though it's his apartment, I want him to leave.
"Aren't you going to work?" I ask.
"So another afternoon on the couch."
"Gotta start my application."
I take a drag and wonder how long it'll be before my gratitude for Chris letting me stay with him is trumped by my inclination to throw the toaster at his face. I exhale out the window and try to be supportive.
"An application for what?" I ask.
"Their adult program," he says. "It's taught by the same professors as the undergrads and the degrees are indistinguishable."
The toaster pops and Chris pinches the pop tarts into his hand and drops them on a plate. He sits down at the table and keeps flipping. It's the free paper with all the sex shop ads and he stops on a page of them.
"Plus there's tons of boner potential with all those college chicks," he says.
"But you'll be with the adult education girls."
"Same campus as the undergrads. I'm going to eat in the cafeteria."
Chris bites a corner of a pop tart and drops it back on the plate to let it steam. He flips to the next page and there's bondage gear plus an ad for a bong shop. But on one side there's a crossword puzzle that Chris has clearly gotten to. It's a mess of ink and most of the answers are written in the margins. Some of the boxes are completely blacked out. Chris squints at the page like he's looking for something and starts on the second pop tart. The crumbs sprinkle the paper. They start to collect in the fold. I realize he's not going to flip until I give him a verbal pat on the back so I do it.
"Good job on that crossword," I say, nodding at the paper.
"You didn't want to do it did you?"
"No no. You're the brains around here."
He rubs a booger of strawberry filling from his lip.
"Well let me know if you ever want to do one," he says. "I'll save it for you."
With that, he keeps flipping through the paper and I throw my cigarette to the street. A school bus passes in a cloud of diesel exhaust. It looks like it sat outside a meth house in Indiana for twenty years, but now it's painted white and stenciled letters on the side read "Mt. Zion Church."
I figure it's going to the underpass down the street. A couple years ago somebody thought they saw the Virgin Mary there on a wall covered with soot. The Tribune picked up the story and since then the faithful have been coming from all over the Midwest. They crowd the sidewalk wearing suits and dresses that are thirty years past their prime. They cross themselves and pray. They weep. But the Virgin was just a water stain and the water kept seeping through the concrete and with time it distorted the image. The last time I walked by she looked like a jellybean.
"They're still praising God's miracles down the street?" I ask.
Chris leans back in his chair and pulls a cigarette from his robe.
"Fucking idiots," he says, flicking his lighter.
I lie down on the mattress and follow the blades of the ceiling fan so they go from blur to still, blur to still. It starts to give me a headache so I watch the smoke from Chris's cigarette.
It's funny how we're drawn to ourselves, even those of us who hate ourselves. I guess I feel better around people like Chris, but if I had a choice I wouldn't be friends with them and I don't blame them for feeling the same way about me. Usually I stage some sort of debacle to drive them away. Hence Tommy. Hence the punching.
I sit up on the mattress and pull my legs toward my chest.
"I need pepper spray and a Sawzall," I say.
Chris jabs the air with his cigarette and clomps to his room. I hear drawers open and close. When he comes back he plunks a canister of pepper spray on the table.
"There was this cat in the alley," he says by way of explanation.
"I've got a circular saw."
"Corded or cordless?"
"I need cordless," I say.
He shrugs his shoulders and walks over to the fridge. I head to the bathroom and take a piss. I use the bar soap from the shower to wash my hands before I squeeze a dab of Chris's toothpaste onto my finger and brush my teeth. When I'm done I open the door and Chris is standing in front of the fridge. He's got a carton of orange juice in one hand and his cigarette in the other. I don't know what to say to that so I sit down at the table beneath the ceiling fan. I brush the crumbs from my feet and put on my shoes.
"You going somewhere?" he asks.
"To get my shit back."
"Hold on," he says. "Give me five minutes."
He gulps down some more orange juice and puts the carton away. He takes one last drag from his cigarette and chucks it out the window.
"This is a one-man operation," I say.
"I just need a ride."
"You've got legs."
I look into the living room where his bike is leaning against the wall. He talked about going "carless," riding to work and losing weight, but his bike is way too clean to have ever been used, and now he probably spends as much money on Uber as he does on rent.
"But I have three pillowcases of dirty laundry," he says.
"I thought you were going to work on your application."
"It's not due until next week."
"You need to get going," I say.
"It's not a physical going."
I leave Chris banging around his room and get in my Volvo. I drive to my old apartment and park in the lot of the bowling alley across the street. Tommy's car isn't there and I figure he's checking IDs at the yuppie taco place in Wicker Park. He was the one who got me my jobs and when I punched him I went from three depressing jobs to zero. I knew that's what would happen and I guess that's what I wanted, but not exactly like that.
The landlord for the apartment owns half the block and that includes the bowling alley where he leans against the counter while lackeys pour beer and hand over shoes. The parking lot has two rows of spots and he parks old junkers there and tries to sell them. Up front there's a Cadillac that somebody's graffitied and an SUV with a flat tire. Both have sheets of lined paper in the windows with "FOR SALE" written in black marker.
I lock my car by hitting the peg on the door and walk past the half-assed attempt at a used car lot. I reach the sidewalk and turn toward the bowling alley. It looks like it was built in the '50s, with a ten-foot-tall bowling pin hanging over the door that says "BOWLING" in dusky red letters. The windows are small and square and each has a neon sign advertising a domestic beer.
When I walk in, the room is so quiet I hear the door shut behind me. No one is bowling and no one is talking. The only customers are two old guys wearing sweatshirts even though it's not sweatshirt weather. They're drinking a pitcher of beer by one of the lanes and the landlord is behind the counter by the taps. In front of him is a display case with candy bars and when he sees me he starts whacking his thumb against the glass. The floor is linoleum and my shoes squeak as I walk. When I get to the register I say I lost my key but the landlord shakes his head.
"Get a copy from your roommate," he says.
His voice is three notes higher than normal people.
"He's out of town," I say.
"I don't have my set on me."
"I'm locked out."
"Come back tomorrow."
He keeps whacking his thumb and his shirt is open and he's wearing a gold necklace. His glasses magnify his eyes so he reminds me of one of those funny looking goldfish. He's quiet and it's clear he's done talking unless I demand he's not.
"Where am I gonna sleep tonight?" I ask.
"That girl with the breasts," he says, pushing his glasses up his nose.
"Amy," I say.
"You guys used to come in here and she was bad at bowling."
"Where is she?"
"Out of town."
He keeps whacking his thumb and I tap the glass with him while I think of something to say.
"I need a Sawzall," I say.
"Lobsters, steaks, Sawzalls. My pants are on the floor they're so full of money."
As I pull out of the parking lot and accelerate, my engine sounds like it's going to explode. I drive back toward Chris's place and soon enough the overpass is ahead of me. It's a good twenty-five feet above the level of the road and from my angle I can see the sides of eighteen-wheelers floating by. As I drive beneath it, before I pass back into the sun, I hit a red light and beside me there's a line of thick support pillars. Between them I see the bouquets of flowers. I see the candles.
I put my car in park and when the light turns green I don't go. I turn on my hazards like the church buses do and get out and hop up the curb. The Virgin Mary is still on the wall but somebody's constructed a plexiglass box to protect her. She's about chest level and I cup my hands against the box. The concrete around her is dirty and the jellybean is gone but in its place somebody's painted the original image. It looks like a hooded figure in a cloak, if that's what you want to see. I imagine the faithful dropping to their knees, praying to latex paint and concrete.
Around my feet the flames of dozens of candles blink in the wind. Some are short while others reach my shins. I squat down and hold my hand over one of them. It's in a tall glass with a picture of Mary on it and she has a halo beaming above her head. I can hardly feel the fire and when I hold my hand flat over the rim, the flame goes out and smoke wisps between my fingers.
My phone buzzes in my pocket and I pull it out and see it's Chris.
"Chris," I say.
"I crammed dryer sheets beneath my door my room smells so bad."
"What about your application?"
"The laundry situation needs immediate attention."
I sit down cross-legged and pick up a fake rose.
"So you haven't started it yet," I say.
A short breath and then it comes.
"Well," he says. "I called the admissions office and I've got to tell you, the lady I spoke to wasn't at all supportive of my interest in their program. She wrote me off like I was some inveterate failure and I don't need that shit. Their program is for promising adults. I know I've fucked up a few times but that doesn't mean I don't have promise."
I hold the stem to one of the candles.
"It's not her job to coddle you," I say.
"I realize my transcript sucks but that doesn't mean I can't turn things around."
The flower ignites and I watch it burn. I think about Chris's trajectory. I think about mine. I think about the other night when we were both outside the bar on our butts. I want to believe him. So bad. I want nothing more than that.
"But Chris," I say. "That woman probably gets calls from delusional dirtbags like you all the time. She knows you're never going to follow through on your plans to turn your life around. She knows you're going to fuck it up like you've fucked up everything else and she's not going to jump through hoops to help you apply because she also knows you're going to put it off until the day it's due and then call about an extension. She probably has access to all the graduation data and knows exactly how many losers like you actually make it through the program. She knows you better than you know yourself and she's sick of you without ever having met you and she's probably definitely right."
I throw the flower at the wall and there's nothing but silence on the other end of the line.
"I'm hanging up," Chris says, but I beat him to it.
I figure I should give Chris time to cool off and I get back in my car and take the on-ramp for the expressway. My engine roars as I accelerate and I picture Chris at the kitchen table. I imagine him sitting in his eating robe, working on a crossword puzzle, the fan spinning above his head.
I wonder how much it hurt him to hear that. Did it hurt as much as when I punched Tommy? Is the mattress already leaning against the wall? Is it in the dumpster? Maybe Chris is so delusional he's already rationalized it, confined it to the part of his brain that constructs bullshit arguments to make him feel better about himself.
Traffic snarls and my mind drifts away from Chris. It returns to all the stuff I left at Tommy's and I make an inventory. There's my old phone and my keys. There's my passport, but there's also my scholarship letter from way back when. There's my hard drive with all the rehearsal recordings from when Chris and I played music. There's the journal that Amy gave me and my laptop with its broken screen and the papers I wrote in my one year of college. There are the books of matches from every bar where I ever worked.
I wonder what would happen if I left all of it there for Tommy to spit on, for him to throw out the window.
It takes about an hour but eventually I get off the expressway and end up back in my parents' neighborhood. I drive to my old elementary school and it's late enough in the day that classes are over. All the students are gone and I park in the lot and shut off my engine.
My key is still in the ignition and I grip the steering wheel. Year after year and I only ticked over a little bit at a time. Decisions that didn't matter until they did. It happened so slowly that I didn't realize where I was until I realized I didn't want to be there anymore.
I squeeze my steering wheel. I squeeze so hard and close my eyes and imagine time as something physical. I picture a gray rod, thick as one of the candles at the underpass and as long as the antenna on my car. I imagine grabbing each of the ends because I swear to God, if I could hold time, I would grit my teeth and bend until the two ends cross.
Title image "Homespun" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.