Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Double Act

Cecil had just sat down to take his first bite of his spaghetti dinner when a knock at the door made him flinch. The neat coil of noodles around his fork dropped to his plate splashing a bit of sauce onto his shirt.

He hadn’t been expecting anyone.

He slowly got up and took his time as he made his way to the door. When he looked through the peephole all he could see was the silhouette of a man standing in the dim hallway with his back to the door. Cecil suspected that the man with his back stiffly to the door was one that was not expecting an answer. If the man had even the slightest hope that his presence would be acknowledged he would have knocked again. He would have at least faced the door. This was a man without hope.

Cecil’s suspicions where confirmed when he opened the door. Startled, the man jerked his head around and his body naturally followed. His eyes wide with initial surprise seemed to gleam with hope before it was quashed by a sensible thought.

Cecil looked upon the man, who he now recognized as his co-worker Norman Stern, with surprise and wondered about the entirety of the circumstances that brought him to his doorstep on a Tuesday evening, bags in hand.

Stern was the new-guy at the office. He was known for his bluntness and lack of social tact. Quite the opposite of the man who spoke brusquely in actualities, truths and bold statements that left no room for interpretation, Cecil was a man who spoke in contingencies, conditionals, and questions that always left room for gracious refusal. Stern’s disagreeable mannerism was largely overlooked by the men due to his professional competence and especially overlooked by the women due to his rough good looks. In contrast to Cecil’s pale, timid features, Stern’s were dark and assertive. And while both men could be classified as tall and thin, there was a kind of tautness to Stern’s body that could not be observed in Cecil.

Much to Cecil’s chagrin Stern was popular with the ladies despite his bad manners.

“Good evening?” Cecil minded his manners.

Cecil had not interacted extensively with Stern. They did little more than exchange pleasantries in passing, but Cecil had heard his fair share about him from his fellow co-workers. As the office’s resident nice-guy, Cecil was obligated to at the very least not shoo away any person who came to shoot the shit.

When he or she came to talk they never had anything particular in mind, and the conversation always began rather innocuously. His co-worker would comment on the weather or annotate last night’s game or complain about work or spread the latest office gossip, but inevitably as Cecil’s contributions to the conversation waned they would begin to muse aloud. In their reflective state their words would reveal the vulnerability of the humanity within them: their hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties of love and loss, life and death in the past, present, and future.

They would talk and talk, and mumble and stutter, at this point not even looking at Cecil; and when there was nothing more left to say there would be silence. Eventually his co-worker would snap out of their trance with the full knowledge of what they had said. Their face would show controlled panic, regretting that they had said too much, that they had become too exposed; but at the office Cecil was their keeper. Cecil would assuage their fears with a smile and restore the pretense with a safe and simple comment that tied back to the original innocuous conversation starter. The co-worker would babble some meaningless affirmation, yeah, yeah, of course, sure, right, uh-huh, and leave with a canned parting remark.

But surely Stern wasn’t here to shoot the breeze.

“A pipe burst in my building and my apartment is flooded,” Stern got right to the point.

Cecil vaguely remembered him having mentioned that he lived in a not-so-pleasant basement apartment the first and only time Stern had been to Cecil’s apartment prior to this Tuesday evening visit.

Stern had been impressed by Cecil’s modest living conditions, which had puzzled Cecil considering the fact that Stern couldn’t possibly have been making less than him given his skills, expertise, and experience. At first he had thought that Stern was being polite or perhaps sarcastic, but it had been evident that he couldn’t belie his true feelings in his drunken state.

“Ni-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ice,” he had drawled as he waved his arm around like a windmill to indicate the interior of Cecil’s apartment. One might’ve thought he was imitating a helicopter in his supine position on the couch upon which Cecil had thrown him like a sack of potatoes. He had continued to gesticulate wildly, employing additional jabbing motions, as he cursed his own “fucking dank basement apartment” before passing out.

A perhaps too successful afterhours, office welcome party for new-guy Stern had left him excessively inebriated and subsequently in the care of resident nice-guy Cecil. Getting him into a taxi had been difficult, but getting Stern to tell him where he lived had proved to be impossible. He had employed a variety of interrogation techniques that included raising his voice and staring at him annoyedly, but they hadn’t ushered any results. As a last resort Cecil had put a hand on his person and rummaged through his wallet only to find a dime, a condom, a two dollar bill, a bank card, and an out-of-state driver’s license.

In retrospect Cecil realized that if Stern hadn’t been so hammered that night there wouldn’t have been a lack of volunteers to escort him home, to his or to hers; and according to the gossip mill, Stern had been accompanied on multiple other occasions. It made Cecil consider more fervently why he had ended up at his doorstep.

When Cecil had woken up that next morning after the welcome party, he had gone about his normal Saturday morning routine. He had gone to the bathroom to relieve himself then to the kitchen to nourish himself. He had just sat down on the couch with his laptop to inform himself when he considered there might be something he had been forgetting. When he realized what that something was he leapt up from the couch as if he had thought that he might’ve been sitting atop Stern without realizing it, but of course that hadn’t been the case. Cecil then searched every nook and cranny of his apartment afraid to find the man in a compromised position or, worse yet, regurgitated gifts left by the disappeared man. In the end, he had found no trace of the man named Norman Stern who had passed out on his couch the night prior.

If Stern had a habit of disappearing before daybreak, Cecil could see where that could leave at him at odds with the ladies he had known. Cecil, for one, had been exceedingly glad to not have to deal with the next-morning awkwardness; although, he had expected at least a “thanks for the trouble” from him the next Monday at work. Stern never made mention of it.

Bitter pill and bellyache aside, Cecil wasn’t about to begrudge the man his hospitality. “I suppose, if you need a place to stay you could stay here,” Cecil said as he opened the door wide and stepped to the side in a gesture of invitation.

“Thanks,” he said curtly as he crossed the threshold.

Cecil closed the door behind him.

Stern dropped his bags, a gym bag and a work bag, at the side of the entrance and proceeded to remove his shoes and then his socks. In the better light of his apartment Cecil could see that the hem of his suit pants were wet well past his ankles. Stern stood in his bare feet by the door and looked to Cecil for further instructions.

“If you haven’t yet had dinner perhaps you’d be interested in some spaghetti?” Cecil suggested as he gestured to the table on which his dinner sat uneaten.

“Sure,” Stern said.

He slowly made his way to the table, all the while moving his head and eyes in circles to look around the apartment in appreciation. Cecil understood it to be a subdued version of the windmilling he had done in his drunkenness.

Stern carefully draped his suit jacket across the back of the unclaimed chair and took a seat at the table. Cecil put out another plate of spaghetti and additional silverware. Fixated on the pasta, Stern reflexively muttered another “thank you” as one would to a waiter at a restaurant.

They ate in silence as Stern was too busy filling his stomach to engage in conversation.

When he had cleared his plate, Stern got up to place it in the sink, and like a sensible man, he ran some water over the dirty dish.

He turned off the water and before the last drip, drip, drips of the faucet he asked, “Do you have something I can drink?”

“Oh,” Cecil felt foolish for not having offered him anything sooner, “in the refrigerator. Please, help yourself.”

“Oh, you keep the good stuff,” Cecil heard Stern say accompanied by the muffled clinking of glass bottles behind the refrigerator door.

“Eh?” Stern sounded in offering as he pointed the bottom of the glass bottle toward Cecil while holding it by the neck.

Cecil found it odd being offered his own beer in his own home, but accepted the bottle with a nod of thanks.

“It’s a nice place you’ve got here,” Stern said appreciatively as he pointed to his surroundings with the open end of his bottle of beer. He continued, “I wasn’t sure I had the right place. I was still pretty drunk when I got out of here last time.”

This statement brought Cecil back to wondering about the details of the circumstances that led him back.

“So,” Cecil hesitantly began.

“Flooded,” Stern said before Cecil had a chance to compose the thought in his head.

Stern raised his eyebrows inquisitively, as if to ask, Did I answer your question? He took a swig of his beer.

“Flooded?” Cecil managed to repeat.

Stern pursed lips and nodded slowly. “Yup,” he said while continuing to nod. “Apparently a pipe burst upstairs. Gravity took care of the rest.”

“Uh, will someone be reimbursing you for your damages?”

“Well,” Stern started before he huffed amusedly and said, “I made it out okay.” He indicated himself by placing his outstretched middle, ring, and pinky fingers of his right hand on his chest, his bottle of beer still pinched between the pointer and thumb of the same hand.

“What about your belongings?”

Stern gracefully swept his left arm wide, palm up. Cecil’s gaze followed the path of Stern’s trailing fingers.

With a flourish of his hand Stern indicated the bags set beside the door. “You’re looking at them.”

Cecil let his gaze settle for a moment on two bags by the door before dragging it across the beige carpet, up the leg of the table, through the mess of his half-eaten spaghetti, across the gleam of the tabletop, where it hitched a ride with the beer in the nearly empty bottle. Up it went from the table to Stern’s mouth as he downed the rest of the beer with the tilt of his head, and then down it came, back to the table where his gaze stuck to the last drops of beer that clung to the inside of the now empty bottle.  

“I was coming back from work so I had my laptop. Turns out, aside from what I’m wearing, the rest of my work clothes are at the dry cleaner’s so that’s good. I grabbed whatever that was left that was dry.” Stern paused and again huffed amusedly before saying, “I’m hoping the flooding will take care of the laundry that’s been piling up on the floor.”

Stern’s attempt to make light of the situation made Cecil slightly uncomfortable.

“Oh,” Stern said as he remembered something and walked back to the gym bag he left near the door and rummaged through its contents. “And this,” he said smiling as he pulled out a bottle of amber liquor.

“Whiskey?” Cecil guessed.

“Scotch,” Stern specified, raising his eyebrows as he read the label.

Bottle in hand he made a beeline for the cabinets above the sink instinctively looking for glasses. Cecil thought he would pull out a couple of tumblers, but what he managed to retrieve where the only two shot glasses Cecil owned. Cecil didn’t like the less-than-savory implications of the decision.

“Good school,” Stern mused aloud as he appraised the logos of Cecil’s alma mater etched on the glasses.

Stern filled one glass and handed it to Cecil before working on filling his own. Cecil was still admiring the amber liquid in the little glass in his hand when Stern raised his own glass to hover near Cecil’s.

“To…” Stern began, but when he couldn’t think of anything in particular to toast to, he huffed amusedly, shrugged his shoulders, and tossed the drink back.

Cecil took the cue and drank his as well.

Cecil was no connoisseur of fine spirits but he could tell this was not cheap stuff.

“If you don’t mind me asking, where did you get this?”

“A gift from a client,” he answered with a stupid grin on his face.

Over the flow of the next two hours and three quarters of the bottle, the two men engaged in the kind of philosophical discourse only possible under the influence of drink.

Epistemologically, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to give a shit does it matter whether or not it made a sound?

Metaphysically, if you briefly traveled back in time right now and told your seven-year-old self that you grew up to be a firefighter, and the seven-year-old you believing that, in fact, grew up to be a firefighter, are you or are you not a firefighter?

Logically, if rock beats scissors and scissors beats paper, then why doesn’t rock beat paper?

Ethically, if it’s okay to kill a zombie and not okay to kill a person, what is the demarcation between “infected person” and “zombie”?

Aesthetically, was Janet from accounting attractive due to her nice ass or was she attractive in spite of her ugly face?

Speaking of Janet – as the amber liquid had loosened his tongue and inhibitions Cecil had to ask Stern why he had knocked on his door instead of that of one of the many ladies with whom he was rumored to have amorous relations, Janet included.

To that Stern answered with a curt, “Hey, man, I don’t shit where I eat.”

So he wasn’t sleeping with the women from work. Cecil was inclined to believe him.

In his inebriated state Stern chortled at the perceived irony of the statement he had just made. “Don’t shit where you eat? I mean, I get it. When romance sours things go to shit, but honestly working is consistently shit. And sex? Sex is… eating.” He chortled again. “You know what? Some people do eat where they shit, and they like it. And sometimes a good shit is just was the doctor ordered. You know they say shitting is one of the most pleasurable bodily experiences? Very relieving. Probably second only to cumming. Sex is…”

Cecil interrupted Stern’s verbal diarrhea of a soliloquy with a, “You know what? The only reason you shit is because you eat.”

Stern narrowed his eyes and thought about it for a moment. He nodded his head and said, “That’s deep, man.” And so it was. So they celebrated with another round of shots.

“You know what else is shitty?” Cecil asked after wiping the burning off of his lips with the back of his hand.

Their conversation turned to the philosophy of religion wherein Cecil questioned the purpose of God if He couldn’t even get his team to the playoffs. Having grown up in the suburbs right outside the city, the local team was his team, but what of Stern? From what city did he hail? What colors did his blood flow? Cecil wanted to know.

To Cecil’s questions, Stern answered with the name of a town that he did not expect anyone to recognize, so he appended that it was so many miles from the closest reasonably recognizable metropolitan area, which just so happened to have a decent team in the playoffs.

Although that little town was one that he shouldn’t have realistically recognized, Cecil recognized the name. “Yeah? I’ve been there, once, when I was in college.” Cecil scratched at the logo on his shot glass.


“Yeah.” It was the perfect segue to a story that Cecil liked to tell as an icebreaker. It was a relatable story with a familiar theme concerning the follies of youth imbued with an air of nostalgia. It had a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. It portrayed him as young, innocent and sensitive. It spoke to where he began and how far he’d come, a juxtaposition of the boy he was to the man he’d become. It was a story that begged to be one-upped.

“There was this girl I liked as a freshman in college. She had this long black hair and these crazy blue eyes.”

Stern solemnly nodded, indicating that he knew the type.

“We lived on the same co-ed floor so we ended up hanging out a lot, a lot. So fall recess rolls around and she needs a ride home. Of course, I volunteer, even though she lives 400 miles away from the school and in the opposite direction of my house. My friends all thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to spend time the girl I liked. And, you know, get on her good side.”

Stern nodded.

“The drive up wasn’t so bad. It took like seven hours or so, but it seemed like nothing. We listened to the radio, and we talked about a whole lot of random shit. She laughed at all my jokes.” Cecil paused for effect.

Stern snorted.

“When we got close she directed me down some neighborhood streets to a house with this huge weeping willow in the front yard. I parked the car, and I helped her with her bags. I thought she would at least invite me in and offer me some refreshments. I mean, it was a long drive. She rang the doorbell, and some guy came to the door. At first I stupidly thought it was her brother or something, but she just leapt up and kissed him. And I was thinking, Oh, gawd, what are you doing to your brother!” Cecil hammed it up my putting his hands to his face in feigned horror, more convincingly than he had ever done before in all his retellings despite or perhaps thanks to the current state of his drunkenness.

The whole brother thing was a lie. He had known the moment she started directing him down the neighborhood streets that they weren’t going to her house because she had said, “You can drop me off at my friend’s house.” But the story just worked so much better with the absurdity of the brother bit.

Again, Cecil paused for effect.

“But it turned out it wasn’t even her house. I found out later it was her boyfriend from high school. She just waved her hand and said, ‘Thanks for the ride.’” This was naturally the end of the icebreaker.

Cecil waited for the jeers made in good jest pinning him as a sucker. He waited for the empathetic clap on the shoulder. He waited for the genuine yet wholly unnecessary words of consolation considering the long bygone nature of story. He waited for the one-upping preceded by the customary question: you think that’s bad?

But there was nothing.

Stern with his eyes narrowed seemed to be deep in thought.

Maybe it was the booze. Maybe it was the dead air. Maybe it was the faraway look in Stern’s eyes. But Cecil continued, “I felt so stupid. It wasn’t like I had any claim on her. I hadn’t said anything about the way I felt about her, but she knew. She knew. She must’ve known. There’s no way she didn’t know, and to use me like that was… harsh.”

Maybe it was the hooch. Maybe it was the lack of a response. Maybe it was the misfortune evidenced by Stern’s bare feet and soggy hems. But Cecil continued, “I mean, it wasn’t a huge deal. I suppose it’s just part of being young, but the drive back home was bad. I thought it’d be better if I ended up dying in an accident on my way back. Then maybe she’d regret sending me off like that. If not that, at least then I wouldn’t have to see her face or my friends and their I-told-you-so faces.

“But somehow I made it back home, and I went back to school. You know, I had things to do. We didn’t hang out anymore, but it wasn’t exactly hard to move on. Because ‘moving on’ actually meant something. I had midterms to take and essays to write. I had spring break to look forward to, finals to worry about. There was the long summer break. There was sophomore year, and junior year, and senior year, and graduation, and then there was home. I could always go home.

“Driving close to 600 miles back alone was hard, but at least I had somewhere to go back to. I was going back and moving forward. What am I doing now? I get the feeling that I’m driving around aimlessly. I don’t know where I’m going. So, I work and to make money and then hope to get promoted so I can work more and make more money? It’s just like eating so I can shit.”

Despite the alcohol, despite the silence, despite Stern, Cecil had no more to say. So the still air seemed to solidify between them. It was getting too awkward, and just as Cecil was about to say, So… how ‘bout them Mets? Stern opened his mouth.

“I think I remember you. You drove that old red Chrysler LeBaron convertible?”

Yes, Cecile had driven an old red Chrysler LeBaron convertible.

“Jenny Moran?”

Yes, that was the name of the girl with the long black hair and crazy blue eyes.

“I didn’t realize until you mentioned the weeping willow. My mom called me the other day and she was so upset because a storm uprooted that willow in our yard.”

It was Cecil’s turn to narrow his eyes in thought.

“Yeah, that was me.”

So he was the jerkoff that opened the door. Cecil was inclined to believe him.

“Hey,” Stern clapped him on the shoulder, “you think you had it bad? If it makes you feel any better, she was a total bitch. She ended up cheating on me with some douchebag.”

“At least you got to fuck her.” Whiskey. Disquiet. Prick.

“Yeah,” he said as he refilled their shot glasses. A sly smile spread across his face.

“Fuck you.” Scotch. Chagrin. “You’re such a dick.”

“I suppose you might be right about that,” Stern mused as he lifted his glass and let it hang in the air in a manner that might’ve suggested a toast. So Cecil lifted his glass and opened his mouth, but when no words came to mind he just thrust his hand out to clink their glasses together.

The amber liquid sloshed over their hands, and Stern huffed in surprise. Cecil sloppily tossed back his drink. It burned as the liquor dribbled down his chin and dripped down to accompany the sauce stains on his shirt.

No comments: