(Update 6.21.2018) Short work — d.o.b. 5/22/2017
The drive home was supposed to be meditative. Mark started the year off with a goal of leaving stress at work and releasing thoughts of work by the halfway point — usually the McDonald’s on 78th street — before hitting the home stretch.
“One daaayyyy yer cooool. The next one yer not. Sometimes the fooooool, Others yer hot…”
Contemporary country was the only station that Mark’s car could play. The car was built prior to technologies of today. Fortunately, he did have access to a cassette player, but the gears wore out on it somewhere in the mid-90s. He hated new country.
“One daaaaayyyyy yer healthy, then one sick N bed. Today I may be famous, but terrrmerrrow I’ll be dead…”
Mark’s fingers tried in vain, yet again, to push and prod every knob and button on the radio, but he received the same results every time.
“What the hell kinda song is this?”
“You didn’t, did you?”
Sheila stopped in mid-walk towards the sink.
She turned around a faced him with a look of slight dismay sprinkled with admiration and giddiness.
“I couldn’t help it.”
Mark lifted his hands, accompanied by ‘brows, in the air (both literally and figuratively).
“It’s the only thing keeping me sane right now. It’s my test to see whether or not I’m going crazy. Unfortunately, I find out, most of the time through these tests, that I am NOT going crazy. That this shit really is happening.”
Sheila’s flirty-smirk went away.
“But ‘Telephone’, Mark,” she said in a slight grumbly voice. “You are testing your theories through a fucking kids’ game?”
Mark put his finger up, respectively, trying to avoid the rise of emotion that preceded most of their arguments. He always leaned towards logic and attempt to proceed devoid of emotion, but it never seemed to work out that way.
And it wasn’t always her fault.
She played emotions in broad strokes: good and bad. Frequently, his attempt at the “logical approach” led him to more of an emotional spike than her, which never was a good mix.
“I know, I know, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out, please. The game ‘Telephone’ is my answer to the facade of humanity in my world. I am so real most of the time, but being real is so lonely. It’s weird. And…I can’t fake it most of the time, so I feel even more lonely when put into situations that most normal people, whatever the fuck that means…”
Sheila had heard the same intro in some variation many times throughout their relationship. At times it was very frustrating, yet it was endearing also. She felt a different type of love for this raw quality of personality that he hid most days.
“I understand that people are fake, Mark,” she said, “but what the fuck are you going to do about that? People are people. You don’t have to like every one of them, and you don’t have to fake liking them. At least they will pretty much figure it out. And if they don’t, they are stupid. And if they do, who cares? It makes it pretty easy to avoid them. They are probably going to talk shit on you regardless, right? You may as well give them a reason. Otherwise, they won’t have anything on you because you are a good guy, and you know that. And I know that. And your best friends know that.”
Mark always loved, what he liked to call, her “preach”. She would go into “preach” from time to time, and usually at the times most necessary for his mental health.
“I know.” His sneer-smile — enjoyment and guilt — appeared. “It’s childish, but it works.”
Sheila strolled towards the table.
“And all you wanted to do was make sure that the gossip would get back to you in passive-aggressive form?”
“And did it prove, yet again, that you work around a bunch of gossipers that helped support your theory?”
“And, now what?”
For a few seconds, Mark looked directly into Sheila’s eyes. He couldn’t really get anything past her. He really didn’t want her to agree with him most of the time because he loved her character when it came to debating most things. It was the same independent character that he was attracted to from the first date.
“Proof, I guess,” he voice turned slightly somber. “And sadness.”
Sheila sat down and touched his hand.
“Hey,” she softened a bit. “Hey. Talk to me. Don’t retreat into your head yet. Why ‘sadness’? You can walk away from it, you know. You don’t have to subject yourself to misery, even though you know you are good at it.”
Mark felt her index finger softly rub his pinky and palm. He sat down and looked into her eyes again. He knew it was better to talk about it, but his mind always beat him up for days after.
“I’m sad because it’s all such bullshit,” he sighed. “I feel the need to remind myself that this isn’t just a bad dream. I need to be reminded that I am really participating in this world of virtue-signaling and backstabbing and fucking, goddamn ‘TRIGGERING’…”
He paused. Refocus. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of your sanity.
His mind digressed to his old sponsor, JR. “You want to be right or do you want to be happy? You can’t have both, goddamnit!
“Breathe,” Sheila’s voice arrested the daydream.
It was a silly request, but she always made silly requests.
“Reuben sandwich. No bread. No Thousand Island. One slice of swiss. Bed of greens.”
“No. Extra lettuce. And cucumber slices. 8 of them.”
“Actually…would it be too much to ask for fresh, undressed cabbage instead of sauerkraut?”
He felt his head nod. He heard his voice say, “Of course,” but he did not know if they actually had cabbage in the back.
“Oh…one more thing. Do you have any polenta?”
“We don’t serve polenta during the week,” he heard himself say. It was a lie. They never served polenta. If he only had the balls to be honest and not try to kiss everyone’s ass, the job may have been easier. More enjoyable.
But it wasn’t.
Carl walked back to the kitchen. Since the computers were down, he placed a flimsy order card on the spindle and walked over to Maurice.
“Hey, Moe. Can you handle all this for 10 minutes? I need a smoke.”
“No problem, Carlo.”
It’s CARLLLLL, he thought to himself. Just couldn’t assert himself in the simplest of situations.
Carl stepped down the grease-glide steps into the back alley. He hated the smell of rotting produce and meat and whatever the hell else sat dormant and dying in their trash bins, but Maurice never let his employees smoke anywhere else. It may have been Moe’s passive aggressive way of getting others the quit smoking now that he put them down 9 months ago.
“Hi mom,” Carl said with a drag of his Camel.
“Oh, hello honey,” his mom replied as if she was caught off guard by him calling. The only problem was that she was the one calling him.
There was a pause.
“It’s mom,” she said.
Carl rolled his eyes and took another slow, deep drag.
“Hey, listen. Your father says to make sure you go to the grocery store before coming over. He will need onions and some salsa. Do you think Maurice would allow you to bring some from the restaurant? Your dad loves his salsa, but…”
Another eye roll; another drag from the cigarette. How many times did this same conversation reoccur in the past 5 years? Carl knew he could say no to the salsa. He knew that his mother didn’t really want him to go to the grocery store. She didn’t want to seem pushy for asking.
“I’m sure he will be ok with it. It may not be today’s freshest, but he won’t charge me for the older batch and it’s just as fresh,” Carl said.
An exaggerated sigh and a “I guess that will be ok, but I know how your father isn’t a big fan of wilty cilantro. The fresh stuff tastes so much….”
Jesus fucking Christ, he thought. She continued to speak but he turned towards his own thoughts. Her explanations for why “he” or “she” liked or disliked something usually took at least 2.5 minutes of conversation. During this time, Carl frequently fell into his own thoughts. It was a skill he mastered in the past 15 years with her.