Fiction

Water, Work, and Women

by Kevin Tosca

 

Los refrescos? I asked, pointing at the soda machine and wanting to know if I had the right words. I wanted to learn Spanish.

Sí, he said. Te gusta?

No, I said, no me gusta. I hadn’t had a soda in five years. That didn’t mean I didn’t like them, but what it did mean I knew I didn’t have the words for.

Yo también, he said. No soda, no alcohol, no smoke.

No cervezas? I said with an incredulous and jocular something I never trusted when I heard it in my voice. No vino?

No, he said proudly, tres años.

Three years, I said, surprised, and I was. Excess, rather than abstinence, is what is usually found in a kitchen.

No nada, he added, sola agua.

Sola agua? I said, shaking my head, but shaking it a little too much.

The information was interesting, though, and so was the conversation, our longest bilingual one in two years, me and this short, older, brickhouse of a Peruvian man who had bussed hundreds, if not thousands, of my tables.

Agua, he repeated, and trabajo, and—he paused, outlined a woman’s curves with his hands—señoritas.

He smiled a sly, eminently masculine smile.

I was thirty then, and he could have been my father’s age, or older, it was hard to tell, but I knew he worked two jobs, something ridiculous like seventy hours a week, and that he had a wife and kids in Peru he planned to rejoin someday, and that he had at least one girlfriend here, in Wisconsin.

I laughed, but my laugh wasn’t the merriment kind. It was conversational oil, the false lubrication male relationships demanded. I didn’t like this oil, but I thought two foreigners needed even more of it.

He continued to smile and I had no clue what he was thinking. Was he thinking anything?

He slapped me on my back and returned to the dining room to finish his work and his day. I poured myself a cup of water, and thought about his philosophy.

Eventually, I pushed open the swinging doors that led to the dining room. There was a counter there, above where the employees kept their jackets. I leaned against it and took my server’s book out of my apron, its pages where I jotted down the notes for the Spanish words I learned or wanted to learn.

‘Wise’, I wrote. Then ‘adulterer’, then ‘chauvinist’, then ‘wage slave’ and ‘immigrant opportunist’. I wasn’t angry, not at all. As far as philosophies go, I liked his—I had encountered worse—I simply wasn’t going to let it, and that smile of his, go unchallenged. I knew mine could look just as smug.

At home, I found the translations, or the proximate translations. ‘Wise’ is easy. ‘Immigrant opportunist’ is not so easy.

I wrote them down in my book, but as I did so I realized the absurdity of what I was doing. I knew I’d never say those words to him, never confront or challenge him.

The truth was I felt sorry for him, for him and all the other South Americans and Mexicans in the kitchen. That, and that I probably had no idea what I was talking about, anyway. ‘Opportunist’? Maybe, but most likely not. I would never have the balls, or the interest, to find out, to befriend this man, to get rid of my pity and tell him that his philosophy was flawed, that it reeked of masculine and ignorant bullshit.

I tore up the pages with my notes on them, leaving me with a blank page I’d soon scribble some stranger’s order on. I tore up the other pages in my apartment, full of the words I had been collecting and studying, and threw the pieces in the trash. I was about to throw the dictionary away, too, but I stopped and set it on one of my bookshelves instead, which amounted to the same thing.

What I had left was the white page and all of its possibility, which was large, but my doubts were larger. We needed a new language. But where, when, and if.

I shut the book and went to the counter to pour myself a glass of wine, a Malbec from Mario’s part of the world. Then I sat down, put my feet up, and stared at a Renoir I had on my wall, two rosy-cheeked girls, children, in a field, lit by what even a depressed atheist could have been persuaded to call a divine and optimistic light.

 

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Kevin Tosca’s stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Thrice Fiction, Fleeting, Umbrella Factory, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle and elsewhere. He lives in France. Read more at www.kevintosca.com

 

Photo by Beryl Gorbman

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Fiction

The Unbearable Normality of Cheerios

by Kevin Tosca

 

Darren Little opened his fourth story window and felt the fresh morning air, saw the pastel blue sky, the wispy white clouds. There were no passersby. He shouted anyway, as loud as he could.

“I’m sick!”

He watched as two pigeons plucked at cracks in the sidewalk. They didn’t stop. They didn’t even look up at him.

“Sick to death!”

Soon, a downstairs neighbor yelled back.

“Shut up!” the neighbor yelled.

“I’m sick of everything!”

“I’m telling you to shut up!”

“I’m sick of you, Mr. White!”

Mr. White was a retired, bitter man who spent his days in a ratty, pastel blue robe sitting by his kitchen window, scowling at and criticizing the passing world. He only shared his invective, however, with the younger residents of the building. In other words, he did nothing.

“Take a pill, hippie!” Mr. White shouted.

“I will not be medicated!”

“Shut up!”

“I will not be silenced!”

As he said this last sentence, Darren heard three knocks on his front door.

“Open up, it’s me,” a familiar voice said.

Lester was a forty-five-year-old bachelor who lived next door. A friend. Over the course of Darren’s two years at Kandeed Gardens, they had shared many a beverage.

“Les,” Darren said, opening the door. “You thirsty?”

Lester, sizing up the scene, was struck by the fact that Darren was clothed and holding keys in his hand. He expected disarray, chaos, bloodshot eyes. Nakedness even. There was a bowl of Cheerios on the kitchen table, a spoon, and a large glass of orange juice. Everything appeared normal. Normal, he was old enough to know, could be the prelude to horror.

“Are you drinking?” Lester asked.

“Why?”

“Because it’s eight forty-five in the morning, Darren. Sunday morning. You know what that means? Did you notice how beautiful and peaceful and quiet it is out there?”

Darren looked out the window and saw three pigeons now, pecking seriously at cigarette butts and anything else they could find. Stupid bastards, he thought.

“Sunday is arbitrary,” he said. “What does Sunday have to do with anything?”

Lester lit a cigarette. He walked over to where Darren was standing and sat down at the kitchen table. On it, besides the breakfast, were dog-eared books written by dead philosophers and a week’s worth of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Lester hadn’t read a newspaper in years. He crossed his legs. His pants were flecked with color. His white V-neck was similarly flecked. He spoke calmly. “You’re pissing everybody off,” he said.

“Good,” Darren said, thinking of Mr. White.

Lester looked at Darren, twenty years his junior. The boy was slim with a clean face and a wild head of hair. His ears were pierced, a stud in each lobe, but he had no tattoos. Darren wasn’t the permanent type either.

“Going somewhere?” he asked, pointing at the keys.

“Everything is wrong,” Darren said.

Lester took a drag off his cigarette. He was tired, but capable of indulgence.

“Name them,” he said, “these wrongs.”

Darren set down an empty Campbell’s soup can for Lester to use as ashtray. He paced.

“Never-ending war, poverty, disease. Guns and nuclear weapons. Corrupt, near-sighted, egotistical idiots running and ruining everything. Our doomed planet. Sick! The whole fucking lot!”

Lester groaned.

“Why’d you groan?” Darren demanded. “Why?”

“Life,” Lester said.

“I can go on, I can keep going. Greed, hatred, fear, righteousness. The limitless, totally unnecessary suffering. We live in a world where love, where simple kindness, is an afterthought. Or worse, a goddamn mission. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the action?”

Lester ran his hand through his hair, equally as wild as his young friend’s, just grayer.

“It’s a mirror,” he said. “Life.”

“I’ll hit you,” Darren said. “I will knock you out of that frigging chair if you tell me I’ll get it when I’m older.”

“The same reflections,” Lester said. “Yep, I was like you.”

“No.”

“Sad but true.”

“No!”

Lester thought of his old rage, his confusion, his impotence. He thought of the missteps, and he sympathized completely.

“Calm down,” he said.

“I’m gonna do something,” Darren said, shaking his keys but not moving. He stared out the window. There were six pigeons now, jostling, bumping, and pecking at will. Winged, pestilential rats. Darren turned around.

“Okay,” he said, marshaling the respect he held for Lester, “if I am who you were, how’d you do it? What did you do with it all? The shit. I’m talking about the shit.”

“I stopped demanding answers,” Lester said. “That’s one thing.”

“But if we don’t question everything—”

“And I stopped taking on the grand problems of the world. That’s another.”

“But if we’re not aware of every—”

“I’ll take that beer,” Lester said, “if you’ve got it.”

Darren opened the refrigerator and handed Lester a Rogue. A bottle opener was on the table, next to Plato.

“Who’s going to answer you?” Lester asked. “None of us know what the hell is going on, not even this guy.” He held up the book and then dropped it, opened the bottle and drank. He enjoyed beer, especially good beer at nine in the morning on, of all things, a Sunday morning. Darren remained standing with his arms crossed.

“Massed man,” Lester continued, “is a hopeless breeder of stupidity. What’s worse, he believes he’s not stupid. I avoid him at all costs.”

“So you become a pessimist,” Darren said, disgusted, “a cynic?”

“Am I either?” Lester asked.

“No,” Darren admitted.

“No.”

“What then?” Darren asked, looking as if he needed to spit something foul into the kitchen sink. “A disengaged hermit? A slave? A willfully blind collaborator?”

Lester leaned back in his chair. “I am an optimist trying to find his innocence,” he said. “I’m an optimist done with labels like optimistic. I’ve moved on.”

“How can you ‘move on’? How can you do nothing when there’s so much to be done?”

“Easy.”

“Change is possible, I know it is. I’m gonna do something.”

“When I was your age, I was loopy for change.”

“Change is God.”

“Now I’m not,” Lester said. “Everything changes, it’s true, just not really.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Yeah,” Lester said, traveling back. He wouldn’t trade those years, no matter how hard and wasteful and stupid they had been. They had fashioned the man he now saw in the mirror, the man he liked to see there.

Darren gazed out the window, his eyes seeing the bluest of blue skies, the whitest of white clouds, and, now, a gathering of twelve pigeons, a small fury of iridescent brown and gray, a territorial, violent blur, a mass of the absurdest absurdity.

Lester uncrossed his legs. This moment, here with Darren, made him feel that prankster quality of life, what some call fate. He lit another cigarette.

“I paint,” he said, stating the obvious, but trying to get at something for Darren’s sake. “When I paint, I lose time and track of myself. Losing time and self are keys.” He leaned forward. “When I finish something, something I’m proud of, something that gets closer, I feel a satisfaction I feel nowhere else. That’s key, too.” Lester thought of the canvas he was working on, knew what shade of blue was missing. “I read,” he went on. “I look at art when I’m feeling lonely. I don’t deny myself the small pleasures. I drink, I smoke, I creatively waste whatever time I can’t lose. And,” he added, “I try to love Rachel as best I can.”

“Uh huh,” Darren said. “Art and love. How nice. What poetic dreamer—”

“Look,” Lester said, amused, “it doesn’t matter what I do, you’ve just got to go through it. You’ve got to come to your own terms with it, decide what kind of actor you’re going to be here.”

“I’m gonna do something.”

“Right now,” Lester said, “I feel tender toward life, like you do toward a beloved cripple.” He smiled. “Just stop yelling out the fucking window, okay? No one needs to hear that shit.”

“I’m gonna do something.”

“Do something, Darren, just cut out the gratuitous window screaming.”

“I’m gonna do something.”

“Good.”

Lester stood up, drained the last of the beer.

“Good,” he repeated, not fearing for Darren’s life, not thinking he would pick up a gun or do anything criminally stupid like that because he knew him too well, knew him as a double, a twin, a kindred misfit. Whatever he did would only be a miniscule piece of the progression that is a man’s life, important, but of little to no consequence.

“I’m going back to my apartment now,” he said. “There’s a warm, naked woman waiting for me there.” He smiled again. How simple. “Find yourself one of those,” he said, placing his hands on Darren’s shoulder. “I’m serious, and I think this is the best advice I could possibly give to you after forty-five years on this impossible spacerock: Find a warm, naked human being to share your bed on a regular basis.”

“I’m gonna do something.”

“Goodnight, Darren,” Lester said, shutting the door behind him.

Darren looked at the ugly gang of birds, and then he turned around and the first thing that caught his eye was the bowl of Cheerios on the kitchen table. He saw a familiar headline next to it: 29 Killed in Suicide Bombing. He looked at his small apartment, at the paintings on the walls, the books on the shelves, the well-watered plants. The words of his friend sounded like a laundry list of excuses. And that find a warm being garbage? Christ! He undid the belt of his jeans, unzipped his zipper. He pulled out the chair next to the one Lester had been sitting on and climbed up onto it, his pants around his knees. Standing there, on his kitchen chair, he squatted. Darren’s legs were in good shape: he ran two miles a day, five days a week. He could hold the position for the requisite amount of time.

After he was through he climbed down, made use of some napkins on the table, threw them away, lifted his pants, zipped them, buckled the buckle, washed his hands, and regarded his work. Some soy milk had been displaced, resting in tiny, off-white puddles around the bowl. Darren shook his keys and walked toward the front door. If he had a cane, he would’ve swung it; if he had a tune, he would have whistled it.

He opened the door and left it cracked. There was nothing to steal and besides, any would-be thief would have to confront that, and Darren wanted it confronted, seen, hoped it would be, needed it to be. He imagined someone, Lester even, walking in and seeing that. That thought, that imagined moment of discovery, gave Darren enormous pleasure and resolve. He hustled down the stairs. It was time to scatter the pigeons. Every last one of them.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kevin Tosca’s stories have appeared in Fleeting, Litro, More Said Than Done, The Bicycle Review, The MacGuffin and elsewhere. He lives in France. His published work can be found at http://www.kevintosca.com

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Samuel8

painting by Samuel Barrera

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