I wrote this story about a year and a half ago.  It was my first legitimate attempt at using first-person perspective, and to date, the only story I’ve written that wouldn’t be classified as “genre fiction.”  

I’ve had trouble marketing this story, but despite its shortcomings, I’m happy with the attempt, and I believe that I did a number of things right, even if it ultimately falls flat at certain points.   One editor in particular expressed some very kind words about the story.  They understood exactly what I was trying to say and do, and that proved to me that this story does have value, even if it’s not for everyone.  I will continue posting one story a day for the next few days, culminating with a fantasy piece that my wife thinks is of professional quality.  I hope you enjoy this, and as always, I appreciate the interest in my work.

 

Life in an Ant Hill

I felt a lump in my throat the size of Wisconsin as I pulled up to the parking space.  Gilbert’s white Mazda sat in the spot I usually took right in front of the door.  I parked nearby in my little green fiat. 

When I opened the car door an old geography textbook fell onto the pavement.  It was stained with sticky cola and bits of napkin, so I picked it up carefully with my thumb and index finger.  The big blue globe on the cover stared back at me and I frowned.  No matter how many different people, countries and cultures I could pick out on the map, nothing outside the pinprick representing Vallejo, California meant a damn thing in my life.  I tossed the book into the trashcan.   

I hated college almost as much as the salty smell of french fries and cooking oil.  The same aroma that made me hungry as a high school freshman now smelled like a three-hundred dollar paycheck and Monday-Tuesday weekends. 

I looked at the clock on my cell phone and realized I could be nineteen minutes late if I hurried.  Since that sounded better than twenty I butted the door open with my shoulder and walked in.

Susie was the first person I saw, but she seemed even more repelled by my presence than usual.  She wore glasses thick enough to spot Pluto on a cloudy night, but that didn’t stop her from squinting up at the order screen to avoid eye contact.  “Hey Greg, don’t clock in.  Gilbert wants to see you in his office.”

Don’t clock in.  Three terrible words that I’d become familiar with in my few working years.  I gritted my teeth and tried to brush the chip crumbs off my uniform.  They stayed stuck in the cotton mesh and wouldn’t budge.  I shook my head and marched to the back.  I prepared a phony grin and opened the door.  Gilbert looked up from his game of Minesweeper and motioned to the chair in front of his desk.  “Sit down, Greg.”

I sat and looked up at Gilbert’s chin.  My chair sunk down like it was pitted in quicksand and I felt like a child sitting at the adult dinner table for the first time.  Gilbert switched off his monitor and lounged back with his fingers intertwined.  “I thought I talked to you about coming in late like this.”

“I’m sorry sir.” I couldn’t tell if I was being sarcastic or not.  “I don’t have any excuses, but I promise that it won’t happen again.”

“That’s not good enough.  We need reliable employees who want to be here.” 

I turned away and tried to imagine the neanderthal who would enjoy coming in and flipping burgers for a living.  “I do enjoy being here and I’m a hard worker.  I’m good with the customers.  You know how hard it is to get people who stick around here.  I’ve been working for a couple months and four or five people have quit since then.”

“I know, but I’ve given you too many chances as it is.  I can’t stand around waiting for you to start caring.  You don’t keep your uniform clean.  You don’t shave regularly.”

“Well, maybe if you’re basing all that on today, but-“

“I’m sorry Greg.  I think you’re a good guy, but I’m going to have to let you go.”  The words grabbed my heart and I felt my jaw go limp. 

“Okay.”  It was all I could think to say.  I looked into the eyes of the junior college student who had just ended my career and I turned around.  I left the room with my body numb to the activity all around me.  The boisterous sounds of the restaurant blended together like the white noise of a waterfall rushing in the distance.  By the time I started my ignition, I already felt a little better.  At least I wouldn’t have to go to work for a while.

I tried blasting the radio, but the songs were all too crappy and mainstream so I turned it off and sang an old Offspring song about road rage.  I planned my entire day out in my head. A quick call to my friend Justin followed by leftover pizza and a limitless Halo 3 play session.  That was it.  By the time I got to my apartment and threw my body onto the couch I felt absolutely liberated.  I dialed Justin’s number.

“Hey, what are you calling me so early for?” he sounded groggy and hung over. 

“It’s almost eleven.”  I smiled and switched the phone to my other ear.  “Did you have a late night?”

“I went to bed around six.  What’s going on?”

“It’s time to celebrate.”  I raised my voice and feigned excitement.  “Gilbert surprised me with an early retirement today.”

“Dude, I’m too tired for the stupid word play.  Are you saying you got fired?” 

“Yeah.  You wanna hang out?”

“I’d rather sleep.”  After a long silence I could hear Justin’s labored breathing on the other end.  It resembled snoring and I wondered if I should shout into the earpiece.  “Give me a minute to get ready.  I’ll meet you at the little cafe next to my house.”

I frowned and thought about the Saturday crowds strutting in with their laptops and turtlenecks.  “Can we do the comic book store?  I’m less intimidated by nerds and low lighting.”

“If I’m going to be up right now, it’s gotta be either the café or that coffee shop you hate.”

“Café it is.  I’ll meet you there.”  I hung up and searched around the apartment for something decent to wear.  Most of my clothes were lying in piles and I couldn’t really tell what was clean.  I sniffed a black Metallica shirt.  Nothing but stale deodorant with a hint of cheap cologne.  I threw it on along with a pair of sunglasses and a beanie. 

The cafe was only a couple blocks away, but one glance down the sidewalk and I knew I had to drive.  A middle aged hipster and his idiot dog blocked off the entire sidewalk and I wasn’t interested in conspicuously stepping around them through the dewy grass. 

The drive wasn’t long and Justin was already sitting in the corner.  I avoided eye contact with the girl at the front but she called to me anyway.

“Hey, how’s it going today?”  Her overly bubbly greeting drilled itself into my skull and I turned my head towards her Siren call.  Long blond hair and a smile so sickeningly sweet that I expected to see strawberry syrup pouring out her ears. 

“Good.  Just here to meet a friend.”  I walked away too quickly for her to respond and then scooted into the booth across from Justin.  “You got here quick.”

“I had to rush to keep from falling back asleep.  So what happened?”

I shrugged and started fidgeting with one of the sugar packets on the table.  “I don’t know.  I got there late one too many times I guess.”

“How are you going to pay your rent?”  Justin took another sip and looked up with bloodshot eyes.  I detected a hint of schadenfreude in his voice. 

“Rent’s going to be tough.  I should probably find another job.”

“Well, you could always move back in with your parents.  It sucks, but it’s kept me from working.”

“I’m not moving in with my parents.”  I chuckled and tore the sugar packet open.  “I could probably tolerate it, but they’d be miserable.  I bet when they find out I got fired they’ll offer to pay my rent for me just to avoid the possibility.”

“They’d do that?”

I shrugged and poured the sugar into my mouth.  “Probably.  They have money.”

“Man, I’m so jealous of you.”  Justin finished off his coffee and stood up to get another.  “My parents are close to broke, but even if they had money I don’t think they’d just give it to me.  Damn.  Just thinking about sitting around and doing nothing.  That’s pretty much the dream life.” 

As Justin got back in line to grab another coffee his last sentence stuck with me.  I felt haunted by the realization that what he said was true.  The best existence I could hope for would be sitting around playing video games while simultaneously avoiding human interaction.  I rested my head on the table until Justin got back with his beverage.

“So you never really had any ambition to do anything?” I asked.

“What, for work?” Justin sat down and blew on his coffee.  He looked a bit puzzled.

“Yeah.  I mean you can’t live with your parents forever.”

“I kind of wanted to get into business for a while but I changed my mind when I started taking classes.  At this point I think my best chance is winning the lottery.” 

“It’s just weird,” I said.  I looked down at the table wishing I had my own mug as a distraction.  “We were both okay students in high school.  What happened?”

“I don’t think about it too much.  I’ll get myself together and go back to school eventually.  Things will fall into place.” 

I shook my head and thumbed through the remaining sugar packets.  “I don’t think so.  I used to want to go to Africa and join one of those humanitarian programs.  I failed one cultural geography class before I realized that I kind of hate people and would be better off spending my time drinking beer and watching football.”

“Sort of a religious awakening for you, huh?”

I began wondering why I’d agreed to meet here.  I looked around for a quieter place to sit, but a man in the back of the kitchen immediately caught my eye.  He couldn’t have been a day younger than sixty and he was gripping a mop and working harder than I had at my very best.  It didn’t even seem to bother him that he was surrounded by privileged little yuppie kids only working to supplement their five-hundred dollar allowances.

“Why is that guy doing this?” I asked as I watched him.

“I don’t know.  Everybody needs to work.”

I nodded.  “Yeah, but isn’t there a point that you just give up?  I don’t understand the drive to keep going for this guy.  Why is he putting that much effort into such a meaningless task?  This guy is at the back end of his life and yet he keeps going, just existing because he can.  His entire legacy will be that he was a janitor for this crappy little cafe.”

 “He’s probably got family to take care of.  My dad never made much money but he still worked hard because of me and my mom.  That’s just life man.”

I ignored the fact that the dude who’d never worked a day in his life was lecturing me about responsibility.  With my eyes glued to the janitor I tried to convince myself that people have to make their own meanings in life and that it was all good for the species.  The more I watched though the less I bought it. 

Justin reached around his back like there was a spider loose in his shirt.  “Hold on a second.  I’ve got a call.” 

I flashed back to my days in school and wondered if I could do it again.  I remembered my professor’s meticulously trimmed goatee and his bottle of Vitamin Water far better than the lessons.  The other students would always raise their hands to discuss topics that they knew little about.  As stupid as high school students but twice as opinionated.  No, I wasn’t going to go back to that. 

I turned to Justin but he was still on the phone.  He had a sour look on his face as he plugged one ear and zoned in on the phone conversation.  I decided to head to the bathroom read any new graffiti in the stalls.  It would be healthy to get my daily dose of reading. 

Before I scooted all the way out of the booth, Justin stood up and turned his phone off.  “I’ve gotta go.  My dad’s in the hospital.  It sounds like he had a stroke.” 

I nodded but I couldn’t think of the right courtesy response.  I bit my tongue when I saw a tear rolling down Justin’s face.  It was barely distinguishable but in his case it may as well have been a tsunami.  I swallowed and picked my brain for a response.  “I’m sorry.  Do you need a ride?”

Justin shook his head.  “Nah, the bus goes right by here.”

“Yeah.”  I held my hand to my chin.  That sounded reasonable enough and it meant I wouldn’t have to do anything.  I started to turn around but I remembered the stale smell of body odor that always permeated the public buses.  Not to mention the clientele. I sighed.  “Well, I’ve got nothing to do.  Do you want a ride maybe?”

Justin sniffled and nodded.  “Okay.  If you’re sure.”

“Yeah.  I need to get out of here anyway.” I shuffled for my keys secretly hoping that I wouldn’t find them.  I led Justin out to my car while wondering how much gas this would cost me and where I would find a parking space.  The silence during the car ride was as awkward and excruciating as a Carrot Top concert and I found myself working hard to keep from whistling.

We got to the hospital and the nurse directed us to Justin’s father’s room.  His mom was already there, looking into the old man’s eyes while she held his hand and whispered to him.  I recited movie dialogue in my head to keep from hearing her and I looked up at the television.  Nascar.  All things considered I was willing to give it a chance.  I saw Justin hugging his mother out of the corner of my eye and I wondered if I’d be safe to leave. 

“You don’t have to stay,” Justin said.  “My mom can give me a ride.”

I nodded and swallowed.  “Okay, I’ll see you later.”

I felt a small measure of relief knowing that I could go home, but my eyes wandered to Justin’s father and my legs stopped dead as if cemented to the ground.  He wasn’t that old.  Just a twinkle in his eye away from fishing with his buddies.  I could see my own father in his withering eyes.  I could see myself.  I’m not sure why I did it, but I walked up to Justin and stood next to him.

“He’s done a lot for us,” Justin said.  “I don’t know how we’re going to pay all the medical bills.” 

The tears ran down his Justin’s face freely and I couldn’t help but feel like an asshole.  Justin’s father was just like the old janitor.  A man who worked hard for his family but had nothing to show for it.  I felt bad for being so critical when I had accomplished so little in my own life.  Less than either of them.  I stepped back and turned towards the door.

“You heading out?” Justin asked.

“Yeah, as long as you don’t need anything.  I hope your dad gets better.”

I grabbed the doorknob but I didn’t feel right leaving.  Justin turned to his mother.  “I’m sorry that I’ve waited so long to start looking for work.  I’ll get a job to help pay for everything.”

“That would really help the family,” Justin’s mother said.  “It’s going to be difficult for a while.”

It was weird to see Justin vulnerable and even weirder to see him caring about something.  I felt a knot forming in my throat.  “Do you maybe want to start taking classes with me?  I can look some up online.  It might be easier if we’re both in it together.”

Justin turned to me with his head down low.  “I don’t think I can afford it right now.  I just want to spend some time with my dad and then maybe we can take classes next summer.  I need to work everything out in my head.”

I nodded and looked down at the father.  I think he could see me too, and I know he could feel his family beside him.  I didn’t really know what to say so I waved awkwardly and left the room. 

By the time I got back to my car I already felt a little better.  If I wanted, I could go home and play video games until my eyes glazed over and I started attracting flies.  Somehow it just didn’t feel right. Every time something bad happened I found a way to escape.  Maybe it was time to stop being so passive and cynical.  The new semester of school was set to start and if I hurried I could go register for classes.  I put my foot on the gas and began the drive towards the registration office.  Life is too short to wish away.     

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