by William Michaelian
To avoid any misconceptions, letdowns, or hard feelings, let me state up front that I am an unpublished writer. Yes, I am the lazy, irresponsible, disheveled young man your daughter should not — in fact, must not — marry. But, not to worry: She’d think I was ugly anyway. Be that as it may, I like to say my life is the stuff dreams are made of. True, the dreams are bad dreams. Mostly, they are about the prostitutes and ex-cons who live here in the Fulton theater district, as it’s so aptly called, and the thirty or so people I’ve run across who think they’re Vincent Van Gogh.
I live in a converted garage three blocks from Fulton. My landlady is a repulsive German woman who’s as dumb as an ox. But please don’t think I am ridiculing either German people or oxen; it’s just that this particular person is stupid and has a noticeable accent. I want you to picture her as she really is, rather than as some sanitized, blenderized, glow-in-the-dark, politically-correct Betty Crocker of the 1990s. The hell with that noise. My landlady is crude. She chews her cud. I’ve never seen her not chewing. Sometimes there’s a wormy, half-eaten apple in her hand, or a piece of untrimmed, unwashed celery, but that is only by coincidence. When she reads her mail, she chews. When she takes out the garbage, which isn’t often, she chews. Her mouth is large enough for two opera singers. Imagine two ponderous, heaving, big-breasted Mozartian divas standing side by side chewing, and then move them to a dairy barn and you’ve got it.
Before we go any further (you may have already sensed that I have plenty of time on my hands), let me say this: for reasons that are purely humanitarian, I have decided not to use my landlady’s real name in this work. For I bear her no malice; on the contrary, I am quite fond of the old bat, and I think of her almost as the mother I never had. She’s even let me borrow money on occasion, and never pressed me for its return. As you can imagine, a stray twenty now and then can mean the world to a struggling writer. It can mean the difference between eating and not eating, for instance. In more dire cases, twenty dollars can mean a steady supply of cigarettes and coffee, both of which are key to a writer’s spiritual development. That much said, I will refer to this simple peasant woman as Mrs. Thikmalt and leave it at that.
On the particular day I have in mind (you should have known I’d come to the story eventually), I had been pulling weeds for twenty long minutes in Mrs. Thikmalt’s garden in exchange for laundry privileges when I decided to walk the twelve blocks up Fulton Street to the old City College in hope of finding a book in the campus bookstore that I hadn’t read. I also went to spy on a sweetly morose, dark-eyed girl named Leanne Earle, who is an art student at the college, and who works part-time in the bookstore keeping the sketch pads and colored pencils in order. Leanne is nineteen, and is descended from heaven. She is every young writer’s dream — the modest girl who pores over your words late at night by the fireside, and who smiles knowingly at their subtlety and brilliance, and who, at three in the morning, when you come in from traipsing all over the dirty city doing God only knows what, makes you hot chocolate and puts you to bed and then crawls in beside you and kisses your cares away. In other words, Leanne is a lovely girl in every way, and one can only hope a little on the nasty side, which I would regard as a mark not of low morals but of what I assume to be her artistic temperament.
I was pretending to read a book entitled Postmodernism, Skepticism, and the Beats when Leanne emerged from a store room. She noticed me right away. In immediate agony, I rustled the pages of my book, and forced myself to look down at the print. Though I had admired her for the past several months, I’d never said a single word to Leanne, nor she to me. I had learned her first name by reading the tag pinned to her blue City College apron, and her surname by masquerading as a classmate who urgently needed to find her to give her some notes. This was the extent of our relationship. She knew who I was, of course. It was impossible not to, since I tend to be loud and argumentative when I’m chatting with friends, and since these chats usually take place within earshot of Leanne.
As lightly as a feather, she passed through the room. She was bearing an armload of coffee mugs engraved with the college logo intended for a glass shelf near the entrance. She was smiling, but only with her eyes. To me, her smile seemed rather sad, as if it betrayed a certain degree of resignation. When she blinked, her great, dark lashes seemed like a pair of shutters shielding her soul from the world’s cruelties.
She put the mugs on the shelf. She arranged them tenderly. I knew she was making sure the logos benefited from the daylight spilling in through the front window, so they’d be more likely to catch the eye of students as they entered the store.
It was the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever witnessed.
As soon as she was finished, she was accosted by a pale man in his forties who acted as if he might be the store supervisor. He was armed with a clipboard, and I knew at a glance he was very insecure. For no reason, he picked up one of the cups and looked at it, even though it was right there in front of him in plain view. Moving his lips like a cartoon character, he addressed Leanne’s forehead, saying, “How many more of these are back there?” To which Leanne gave the perfunctory reply, “I’m not sure. A box or two.”
“Could you check, please?”
He put the cup back on the shelf, and, accountant that he was, left it in a position completely at odds with the others.
Guided by instinct, Leanne closed her eyes. When she opened them again only a second later, she looked not at the display, and not at her supervisor, but out the window and into the dappled sunlight beyond, where a fountain splashed beneath a bright yellow ginkgo and where a small group of students were sitting talking.
I reshelved my book and walked to a small table in the center of the store that was covered with pocket calculators.
Leanne left her pale supervisor without saying another word. Then, on her way back to the store room, she passed within five feet of where I was standing.
She opened the door and stepped inside. She closed the door. For the next five minutes, I kept watch over the calculators.
Finally, Leanne opened the door. She had removed her store apron and was holding it in her hand. She looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.
She glanced around the room and found the supervisor kneeling by a cardboard box and making notes on a sheet attached to his clipboard. Without hesitating, she walked over to where he was working and held out her apron. Confused, he stood up. He opened his mouth to speak. But, before he could do so, Leanne held a finger to her lips. Then, in a voice full of feeling, she said, “I pity you. I really do.”
The supervisor took the apron.
Leanne left the store.
I followed her outside and caught up with her at the fountain.
“You did the right thing,” I said.
“Oh?” she said. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t? Why not?”
“Because. I need the money.”
“Let him keep his damn money,” I said. “He needs it worse than you do. Money is all he’ll ever have.”
“I know. But — ”
“Look,” I said. “Are you hungry? I’ll get you something to eat.”
Leanne reached over the edge of the granite basin and swished her fingers in the water. “All right,” she said.
“What would you like?” I said. “Where shall we go?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Say, how about a chicken salad sandwich? Do you like chicken salad? They make good chicken salad sandwiches in the student union for a dollar and a quarter. Unless you’re vegetarian, in which case I’ll just shut up.”
Leanne looked at me and smiled. “I’m not,” she said.
“Neither am I,” I said. “Actually, I’ll eat whatever you put in front of me.”
“Do you want to go over there, then?” I said.
“It’s up to you.”
We left the fountain and set off for the student union.
As it was nearly three-thirty in the afternoon, the cafeteria downstairs was almost empty. A TV suspended from the ceiling in one corner was showing Yellow Submarine.
Leanne and I picked out a small table near a window looking out on a patio area. The table was covered with crumbs and cracker wrappers. I pulled a napkin out of the holder and brushed the mess aside so we’d have a decent place to eat. Then, using the last three dollars and fifty cents I had to my name, I went to the counter and paid for two neatly wrapped chicken salad sandwiches and two cups of coffee.
We started to eat.
“Where do you live?” Leanne asked me a few minutes later.
“In Mrs. Thikmalt’s garage,” I said.
“Mrs. Thikmalt?” Leanne said.
“Uh-huh. It’s in the theater district.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “But it’s not that bad. Though it does have its elements.”
“What about Mrs. Thikmalt?” Leanne said. “Is she nice?”
“Well, I’m not really sure.”
“You don’t see her?”
“No, I see her all right. In fact, I see her all the time. My window looks directly into her kitchen. At midnight I can see her standing at the sink, eating pork chops and watering her plants.”
“Does she charge much rent?” Leanne said.
“I pay a hundred and seventy-five a month,” I said.
“Really? Is that all?”
“Why? What are you paying?”
“Two ninety-five? You must be living in a castle.”
“It’s a two-bedroom.”
“Oh. No wonder. But why two bedrooms? Do you have somebody else staying with you?”
“I did, until about a month ago.”
“What happened?” I said.
“Well,” Leanne said, “this girl, Christine, was — ”
“A little weird?” I interrupted.
“How did you know?”
“Easy,” I said. “You were reading the Roommates Wanted list they have up in the library lobby, and that’s how you met Christine. She seemed like a nice girl at first, though a little flighty. But you both needed to save on expenses, so you rented a place together. Things were going along okay, though she was untidy in the bathroom, and then one night you came home late and found her in your bed with a young man you’d never seen before. The young man had a goatee and a five-color hairdo, and looked like a type designer from San Francisco. In shock, you left the apartment and spent the night on a friend’s floor with her burping cat, Jezebel. When you finally worked up the courage to go back two days later, you found the place trashed and Christine was gone. To avoid trouble with Merle Spencer, your alcoholic apartment manager with the holey T-shirt, you spent the next twenty-four hours disinfecting the walls.”
“His name is Larry.”
“Ah, Larry! I know him well!”
“Anyway,” Leanne said. “That’s why I shouldn’t have quit.”
“No. What you shouldn’t have done was started in the first place. That guy you gave your apron to is an absolute moron.”
“His name is Mr. Melban.”
“Oh, Jesus,” I said. “Spare me.”
“Mr. Arthur Melban.”
“Stop it. With a name like that, I’m amazed you worked there as long as you did.”
“I need the money,” Leanne said.
“I know, I know. You told me.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I’m the one who’s sorry. The world stinks.”
I sat there, angry at the stinking world.
“Sometimes,” Leanne said.
“Sometimes?” I said.
“But not always,” Leanne said. “Sometimes, I think the world is a pretty nice place.”
“Oh. I see. I wish I could share your optimism,” I said.
“So do I,” Leanne said softly.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “And?”
“And, I want to hear whatever else you were thinking.” I folded my hands, placed them on the edge of the table, and sighed heavily. “Go ahead,” I said. “Say what’s on your mind. I deserve it.”
“You’re crazy,” Leanne said.
“Tell me about it,” I said.
“Is the world really so bad?”
“I told you, I think it stinks.”
“You mean, you’ve never been happy?”
“Happy?” I said. “You mean as in ha-ha and ho-ho?”
Leanne looked away.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
A terrible minute passed, during which I was sure our conversation, and with it everything else of value, had ended.
“You need to be happy,” Leanne said finally.
“I’m trying,” I said. “I just don’t know if I’m suited for it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“All right,” I said. “But it won’t be easy. It might kill me.”
With some difficulty, I managed to untangle my hands and get them back into my lap, where they landed like yesterday’s fish.
“Good,” Leanne said. “Now. Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Ask away.”
“What’s your name?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Isn’t that rather personal?”
“Mine is Leanne.”
“I know,” I said. “Leanne Earle.”
To my relief, the fact that I knew her name didn’t bother Leanne at all. If anything, she was even a little pleased. “Well,” she said, “if you know my name, then it’s only fair I should know yours.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “In theory, anyway.”
“So to speak,” I said.
“Why so to speak?”
“Because, it’s more complicated than it seems,” I said. “For instance, which do you want to hear first — my real name, or my pen name?”
“Oh. . . . Either one, I guess. No, wait. Tell me your pen name first.”
“All right,” I said. “It so happens I use several pen names. I just sent a short story to Harper’s and used the name J.R. Kramer. Essays I sign as Eldon Stanley. When I do movie and music reviews for Burnt Elves or Sidetracked — those are just two throw-away entertainment guides — I call myself Milo Freeman.”
“You’re Milo Freeman?”
I nodded. “You look surprised.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “Anybody can be Milo Freeman. Milo Freeman is a horse’s ass.”
“I had no idea you were a writer,” Leanne said. “That’s neat. Does Harper’s publish your stories?”
“Are you kidding? I live in Mrs. Thikmalt’s garage, remember? You need letters after your name and a great big vocabulary to be published in Harper’s. It also helps if you have a sport coat with elbow patches.”
“Oh?” Leanne said.
“It’s the same at The Atlantic,” I said. “And quite a few of the name literary magazines, too. It’s kind of a members-only thing.”
Leanne thought about this for a moment. Judging by her expression, she seemed genuinely disappointed.
“Can you tell me your real name now?” she asked finally.
“Oh, that,” I said. “It’s Wendell. Wendell Grimes.”
“No it isn’t.”
“You’re right,” I said, and I held out my hand. “I’m Al Rollins.”
“No you aren’t.”
“Uh, Emmanuel Lathmore?”
Leanne shook her head.
“What about Phil?” I said. “You can pick the last name.”
“Never mind,” Leanne said. “If it bothers you that much, I give up.”
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s just that I was born a nobody, and I plan to die that way.”
Leanne laughed. She pushed back her chair. “Thank you for lunch,” she said.
“You paid for my lunch. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re not going, are you?”
“Well, I thought I might. I have a class at four-thirty.”
“Oh,” I said. “Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
“I mean, I hate to see you go. Are you okay?”
“To tell you the truth — whoever you are — I’m a little embarrassed. Other than that, I’m fine.”
“May I at least walk you to your class?” I said.
“If you want,” Leanne said. “If you’re sure you have the time.”
“I have the time,” I said. “Believe me, I have the time.”
I looked out the window. The patio cement was dirty, and at the bottom of the stairs leading back up to ground level was a flattened-out burrito wrapper. For some strange and purely idiotic reason, the scene made me think of fried eggs.
“Milo,” Leanne said, “I — ”
“It’s Dave,” I said.
“No,” I said. “I really mean it. My name is David Jensen. That’s who I am. Good old, boring, down-in-the-mouth David Jensen.”
“Thank you,” Leanne said.
“Whatever,” I said. “You wanted to know my name.”
“I’m not thanking you for that.”
“What are you thanking me for, then?”
“For taking care of me.”
“Oh. It was just a sandwich.”
“I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Leanne said.
I looked outside again.
“If I go back to my job at the bookstore, will you hate me?”
“Why would I hate you?”
“Because Mr. Melban is there.”
“Piss on Mr. Melban,” I said. “Do what you have to do.”
We both laughed.
Inside, though, inside, both of us were crying.
Someday, I thought. Someday, there will be no Arthur Melbans and Milo Freemans. There will be no entertainment rags sitting on street corners and in hotel lobbies. There will be no rotten writing and cheap computer graphics and sappy movies reviews. Someday, there will be no snotty magazine editors who think each word must be ironed and starched and pressed and neutered before it is worthy of their hallowed ink. Someday, there will be no such thing as money. The beggars in the theater district will be out of a job, and everyone who is sick will be able to go to the doctor. Someday, we will no longer pretend we are insurance salesmen, or real estate agents, or government clerks, or mall managers, or hairstylists, or toenail artists, or any of the other things we say we do because we love it when the truth is we hate it and would drop it in a minute if we weren’t scared of starving to death.
Someday, I thought. Oh, yes! Someday, I, David Jensen, a poorly dressed, unpublished, junior college dropout living in the famous Fulton theater district, might even earn the friendship of a young woman as pretty and beautiful and sad and clean and innocent and in need of love as Leanne Earle.
We stood up.
I helped Leanne gather our lunch debris and throw it away.
I walked her to her class.
Through the window in the door, I watched her sit down at a desk so small it didn’t even hide her knees.
There were voices in the hall, and the shuffling of numerous feet.
A binder snapped shut.
Then, a few minutes later, the hall was empty.
I was alone.
I was as alone as I’ve ever been in my life.
I was as alone as I have always been, only more so.
I went outside.
I remembered I still had some weeds to pull, so I went home to Mrs Thikmalt’s.
When I got there, I found her in her driveway feeding a stray cat.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.