A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 10

The next morning, while I was still in the shower, I resolved to not only make better use of the day ahead, but to live it with a little more — dare I say it? — dignity. It’s not that I had everything suddenly figured out. I felt like I did, but I’ve felt that way before, and I know the feeling can’t be trusted. Let’s just say I felt like trying. For the ten thousandth time, I realized that there was simply too much at stake to let things go any further. Like a man regaining consciousness after a fight, I wanted to climb back into the ring. Losing is one thing, but the world despises a quitter. Losing is a temporary condition. Quitting is final. Quitting is worse than final. The person who quits denies the possibility of redemption and self-respect. He denies life. Already conscious of my own steadily lowering self-expectations, and having been witness to a friend’s disappointment in life and in himself, a voice inside me said, “All right, pal, enough is enough. We’ve got work to do.” Despite not knowing what that work was, answering the call made more sense than wallowing in self-pity — which, besides being useless, is about as glamorous and original as picking one’s nose.

After my morning ablutions, I made half a sandwich from the cheese and bread I’d picked up the day before. Owing to the previous night’s coffee, I was already on my way to Heartburn City. I needed the food to help blot up some of the acid. I also knew it would keep me from passing out later in the day. Not ready for the gutter, though perhaps deserving of the fate, I chose breakfast, which I devoured at my usual spot by the sink. I even felt a little proud of myself for doing the right thing, and decided to revive my old habit of starting the day with a sensible meal, which I foolishly abandoned after the divorce. The trouble with not eating properly is that you get used to it. Gradually, your body is required to make adjustments, thus compromising the overall integrity of the system. As a result, one is commonly beset with unnatural cravings for things like salt, alcohol, chocolate, and caffeine — cravings that can only be satisfied by taking in large, unhealthy amounts in short periods of time. This sets a person up for the rebound effect, because once too much of a good thing wears off, the body goes into withdrawal. It’s all quite sinister, and easily avoided by eating the proper diet — a notion so foreign these days that it seems un-American.

Instead of waiting until afternoon to deliver Abe’s letterhead, I decided to get a jump on things by dropping off the job in the morning. Heading into town early also gave me time to check in with a few of the other printers I deal with on a less frequent basis, to make sure they hadn’t forgotten me — the latter prompted, of course, by the lump of unpaid bills festering on my work table. The result, much to my surprise, was three easy jobs — a business card, an invitation to a baby shower, and another letterhead.

At Abe’s I wasn’t so lucky. As I had feared, the two young women who hadn’t acknowledged my existence in his shop the day before now needed me to design a set of forms for the distributorship they worked for way out on Essex Road. I’m still not sure what they distribute — something to do with cars, I think, or car care products, or windshields, with a few gaskets, springs, and lubricants thrown in. Each product line had its own logo, and each logo had to appear somewhere on each form — or else. I suppose if I’d left one out I would have had a few of my own gaskets replaced by some of the boys on the loading dock.

When Abe told me the place was on Essex Road, we both laughed. Before the freeway went in, Essex Road was the main entrance into town. Now it’s a gritty industrial strip sprinkled with used car lots, greasy spoons, and old motels that have been converted into apartments. Prostitution and drug dealing are rampant. In a token effort, the city plants flowers in big concrete pots at some of the major intersections, but, as the pots are commonly used as urinals and trash bins, the flowers don’t fare too well. Operating a business in this high-risk environment takes courage. It also takes a bite out of the old image — cell phones and eel-skin binders notwithstanding.

The forms themselves would have been easy if the dozens of categories listed hadn’t been divided into sub-categories, each requiring its own column and set off by alternating shaded areas with reversed white type. I told Abe right off that there was no way I could fit it all without making the spaces too small to write in. “If there weren’t so many logos,” I said, “I might be able to pull it off. As far as I’m concerned, they’re asking the impossible.”

“I know you’ll come through,” Abe said.

“There’s one thing that might work,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Tell them to attach one of those little plastic magnifying glasses to each form so people can read it.”

“All right, smart guy, don’t get started.”

Meaning, of course, that I was stuck. There is nothing worse than doing something for people who know exactly what they want but have no idea why they want it that way. They think it will work, but in reality they haven’t got a clue. Hoping to score points with this or that superior, they rush their ideas into production without giving them a chance to cool. The result is ugliness combined with a lack of functionality, followed by a time-consuming search for someone to blame.

After a bit of strategizing and thinking aloud, Abe and I agreed to a few changes he thought the Essex Girls would go along with. Either way, I wasn’t looking forward to doing the job. But I was grateful for one thing: I didn’t have to deal directly with the customer, and Abe did. Weighed down by a folder bulging with logos and photocopied sheets of paper covered with stick-notes and handwriting I could barely read, I thanked him and left.

When I reached my car, which I’d parked in a parallel space two doors down, I was delighted to find my way out blocked by a large truck delivering paper to another print shop. The door in the back was open and the lift was down, and cars were having to change lanes in order to get by. The driver was nowhere to be seen. This meant he was inside leaning on his handtruck, jawing with Christine Molina, who is just about the dippiest person I’ve ever met. Anymore, I try not to deal with her. She’s very friendly, but her attention span doesn’t reach the front door. For every five jobs she gives you, four of them have something missing, and she literally has to turn her shop upside down to find whatever it is you need. Meanwhile her husband, Paul, who does the actual printing, keeps his mouth shut and stays in the back. Paul, an extremely nice guy, has a gold tooth in front and looks like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Despite these qualifications, he is a lousy printer. One job will be inked too heavily, the next will look anemic and faded, and the one after that will be perfect. To his credit, he adores his wife, who rewards him for his efforts with cute, affectionate names — my favorites being “Babushka” and “My Little Melon.”

Since I wasn’t in a hurry, and since there was nothing I could do about it anyway, I put Abe’s job in the car and wandered into Paul and Christine’s shop. I found the truck driver sitting at Christine’s desk, talking on the phone. Paul had a job going, and Christine was pouring herself a cup of coffee. She offered me one, but I politely begged off. “I was just going to call you,” she said. “I’m glad you came in. I’ve got a job for you.”

“You were going to call me?” I said. “Didn’t anyone tell you I’m no longer in the typesetting business?”

“Really?” Christine said. “You quit?”

“I certainly did,” I said.

“What are you doing now?”

“I won the lottery,” I said. “I don’t do anything anymore.”

About this time, the truck driver finished his call and hung up the phone. “So, who won the lottery?” he said.

Nodding in my direction, Christine said, “Steve did.”

“No kidding? How much did you win?”

“Twenty-seven dollars,” I said. “I’m going on a cruise.”

The truck driver stood up. “Gee whiz,” he said. “Way to go.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Speaking of going, is there a chance you’ll be moving your truck anytime soon? Or shall I just walk home?”

“Oops — is that your car?”

That thing? Nah. I’m rich, remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” the driver said. “That’s good, because I’ve still got some paper to drop off at Abe’s.”

“Perfect,” Christine said. “While you’re doing that, I can show Steve the job that came in.”

The truck driver left.

“I am busy,” I said. “I hope this isn’t a rush job.”

“Whenever you get it done, that’ll be fine.”

“Okay, then. Have at it.”

Christine explained the job. Fortunately, it had just come in and she hadn’t had time to lose anything. It was a very basic business card, letterhead, and envelope for an accountant getting ready to open his first office — the kind of job I can crank out in thirty or forty minutes.

Amazed by the amount of work I’d picked up in so short a time, I thanked Christine for the job and told her I’d have it done in a couple of days.

Back on the street, I made it to my car just as the truck driver was raising his lift. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“For the car, or making me wait?” I said.

The driver gave me a shrug, indicating that it was my choice. Half a minute later he was gone and I was on my way.

Business attended to, I stopped off at my favorite gas station to clean my windshield and put in five dollars of regular. As I’d hoped, my buddy Nate was on duty. I like Nate. A good-natured slacker with little education, Nate is America’s classic victim. From the Arco station at the busy corner of First and Belmont, he keeps watch over the city. A fountain of local information, not all of it accurate, he holds an opinion on everything and is as savvy and streetwise as they come. To his amusement and disgust, Nate has pumped gas and checked the oil for just about every big shot in town — the judges and lawyers and politicians who, through less than savory though legal means, manage to line their pockets at the expense of the general population. He claims to have the dirt on all of them, but refrains from blackmail, because, as he puts it, “I don’t want to lower myself to their level.”

Actually, Nate isn’t my buddy. I don’t even know his last name. His first name is sewn into his shirt. He shaves once a week, has yellow teeth, laughs at the drop of a hat, and has permanently greasy fingernails. Rumor has it he’s been in jail a couple of times, but I don’t know for a fact whether he has or not. I do know he likes cars, and that he buys and sells them at an amazing rate, and always for a tidy profit. Some people have sense that way. I don’t. The whole culture of buying and selling goes right over my head. Whatever I buy, I pay too much for. Whatever I sell, I lose money on. When I replace something, I don’t like it as much as the thing I replaced.

Nate, by my reckoning, is about thirty-eight years old. On a bad day, after a night of carousing, he looks sixty-eight. He’s been married twice that I know of. Both his former wives tend bar at Moffett’s Landing, a popular smoke-filled tavern across the bridge on the west side of town.

Once, when Nate was still married, I asked him how things were going. Without preamble he said, “Last night, my old lady went a little crazy and I had to restrain her. All I did was hold her wrists, so she wouldn’t hurt anybody. Later on, she called the police, and they came out and arrested me for domestic violence. That’s crazy. Since when is restraining someone domestic violence? The police found bruises on her wrists. I said, What am I supposed to do, let her hit me over the head with a frying pan? They said, You’re a big boy. You should have walked away. Like it’s that easy. Anyway, I told ’em straight out, I’ve never ever laid a hand on that woman. For all I know, she coulda put them bruises there herself.” He also said that he talked to a lawyer, and that the lawyer had said he was sure to be put on probation. To make him feel better, I told Nate that the law was always meddling in people’s private affairs.

The fact is, nowadays, our society is so paranoid and politically correct that a person can’t even light a cigarette in his backyard without some righteous and militant neighbor leaning over the fence and complaining about secondhand smoke. Heaven forbid if a parent raises his or her voice to a child, because someone who works for the state children’s division might be visiting his ex-wife’s stepchildren next door, overhear, and call in an investigation for child abuse. I’m telling you, they’re everywhere. Mary told me of one case she learned about at the hospital in which a neighbor accused an older brother of sexually abusing his younger brother because he saw them peeing together in their backyard. Never mind the obvious invasion of privacy. What scares me are the thoughts inside some people’s heads. Thanks to some sick-minded moron with time on his hands and too many talk shows under his belt, the kids and their parents were forced to see a counselor. In the process, the children were exposed to a crash course on currently acceptable sexual behavior, complete with terminology formerly reserved for readers of Penthouse and Playboy. All of this took place because a twelve-year-old and an eight-year-old didn’t want to take the time to remove their muddy shoes and use the bathroom in the house.

As it happened, Nate wasn’t in a very chipper mood. He had just changed a tire for a woman who thought gas station attendants were a subhuman species. Calling her bluff, he offered to let her change the tire herself. Taking offense, she’d gotten the manager involved, who reassured her that Nate would be only too happy to take care of the tire for her, and that there would be no charge for the service. “At least he could’ve backed me up,” Nate said. “I work my ass off, and that’s the thanks I get. People like her need to be spanked.”

While he was cleaning my windshield, I told Nate about an incident that took place years ago, when I was eighteen and working as a cook in a restaurant. On that particular day, I was helping the lead cook during the busy lunch hour. The lead cook was also the owner of the place, and very fussy about what he served his customers. At one point, during the heat of battle, a pampered woman with oversized glasses and a hairdo to match barged into the kitchen to complain about her meal. At the top of her whiny voice, she said, “I want you to know that I just had a hamburger, and it wasn’t even good enough to serve to my German shepherd.” The owner, up to his elbows in food, stopped what he was doing and ceremoniously wiped his hands on the front of his apron. “Oh, yeah?” he said. “Well, you look like a German shepherd. Now get out of here, and don’t come back!” Turning to me, he smiled and said, “I don’t need people like her around,” which I thought was a very sane and appropriate remark.

Nate laughed. “That’s exactly my point,” he said. “You let people walk all over you, and they turn into monsters.”

“Some people are monsters to begin with,” I said, rummaging in my wallet for five dollars.

Taking the idea one step further, Nate said, “They’re dirty bastards, in my opinion.”

When he finished the windshield, I handed Nate five ones. “I’ll bet your boss hates putting up with that type,” I said.

“Like hell. He loves it. The guy’s a worm. He’ll kiss anyone’s ass if there’s a nickel involved.”

By then, there were other customers waiting. I didn’t want to get Nate in any more trouble, so I laughed and got back into my car. “Well, keep at it,” I said. “You’ll get him straightened out.”

“Okay,” Nate said. “Have a good one.”

I started the engine and drove off, as usual wondering what I should have a good one of. Whatever came my way, I guess. Whatever I could get away with, assuming I was smart enough not to get caught. The trouble is, I’m not smart enough, and I always get caught. Nate is great and I am late, is about what it comes down to. Pampered pea-brains complaining about their hamburgers. Printers with ink-stained paws, putting their thumbprints in the middle of a fresh piece of typesetting. Lazy truck drivers and ditzy drones doing the dastardly dirty work of demented distributors. The lumpy world turning and me along for the ride, drunk in the caboose, opinionated, stupid, and broke, waiting to see what life dishes out next.

And I said Nate was a victim.

But, never mind. What I would really like to do is write an opera about city life. I could fill it with printers and panhandlers. The lead tenor could be someone like Nate, who would plunge his ruby-handled dipstick into the heart of anyone who dared to question his integrity. I could have a chorus of weasely businessmen attached to strings, and make them twitch while they sang “We’re in the Money.” They twitch anyway. Maybe I won’t need the strings. In the middle of the stage I would have a street, and the street would be lined with prostitutes and drug addicts wearing the masks of well-known politicians. At just the right moment, a fresh-looking and clean-hearted young woman would pull into Nate’s gas station and ask for directions. They would immediately fall in love and pledge their lives to one another. In a beautiful duet at the end of the first act, they would sing, “The eternity I have waited has melted away. With your love, I will live forever today.” Or some such. I could hire a librettist, but that would be missing the point. The point is, there is no point. Besides — why share the glory when I can have it all myself?

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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