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Barry Jay Kaplan
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todd.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright

So Todd Calls

 

by Barry Jay Kaplan

 

 

The room I was staying in at the time I’m talking about was a very small room, one with a corner window that looked over the elevated subway line two streets away, but when the train came by regular as clockwork—especially at night, I timed it, it was every 22 minutes and that says something about the transit system and also about my nocturnal habits which come to me as a combination of insomnia and fear of the night, a bit unspecific but there’s moans, there’s shadows, there’s my thoughts, and a certain stench—that whole room trembled like a little girl and me in my undershorts and shirt sitting up on the side of the bed, the sheets clamped in my fists, my teeth tight, my breath coming in short whistling gasps through my nose, which I usually equip preemptively with plenty of prescription spray so when these attacks come where I can’t open my mouth, at least I can breathe.

 

I haven’t been out of the place since I lost my job, except I didn’t lose it. No. Bitch fired me. Bitch said they were reorganizing. Bitch said the company was expanding here and contracting there and I was caught between the two. I wasn’t being pulled in both directions, though. I was dropping through the middle of her reasoning. Bitch said I’d find something. Bitch said I had a lot of qualities. Said keeping me on wouldn’t send the right message at this time. Gave me the whole we-love-you-you’re-great thing. The whole let’s-stay-in-touch thing. Everybody hates each other. They’re all trying to make money. But no one wants to call anyone on it. They’re not hiring anywhere. I mean, not hiring me. She said it wouldn’t look good. I’m quoting. Keeping me on with all the losses. She has the last word. She said it would send the wrong message. Someone always comes out bloody from these things and I don’t want it to be me! Things are shaky enough as it is. I pictured what she’d look like after my fist made contact with her face. Erase that mask of girly blush she slaps on and replace it with the true manifestation of bitch rage which is blood. What I did was sulk out. I walked to the elevator and said “Boo” to no one. A company man to the end. Main floor, then out into the streets where I was sucked up by the mob. What a way to end a career.

 

I still follow the project I was working on. I can’t help it. I was invested. I was involved. I said I hated my job but what else was I supposed to say? I was there every day. I came in on time, no I came in early. I’d show them they had nothing on me. There was no way anyone was going to say I’m not right for what they hired me to do. The guy comes in on time. No, the guy comes in early. He’s here when I get here. He’s here when I leave. What a guy! He’s committed! He’s involved!  This is a strategy I use so no one can hold the rules against me. Inside my mind I’m thinking what a bunch of saps. What, being an employee makes you something special? Most of the others—blanks, boobs, bores, bozos, I could go on all day but for the most part I’m a regular guy, the guy you like, the guy who’s all biz and no trouble, the one no one suspects would pull a stunt with a pistol and a grudge, and that suits me fine. Confession: my mom used to smack me if I was late for dinner and the habit stuck. I’ve got the scars. Check one for Freud.

 

Revenge is like a flower. That’s from a poem by J.R. Austerlitz, a poet in the spirit of Baudelaire, with a little old German stingy logic thrown in. Revenge is like a flower. J.R. didn’t specify but I think he must have meant you add water (beer) and it blooms, it spreads open its petals and the dark dank smell of moist earth fills the room, seeps into corners and settles in for good. I’m familiar with that. It freaks me out at night. It’s one of the things that keeps me up. It calls to me. It wants me to lay down in it, to roll myself up in it until I stink, and I resist but it promises me I can sleep and that thought is so attractive I have an orgasm just considering it.

 

There is a set of boards stacked up in the hallway outside my room that I have to climb up and then down to get to the kitchen, boards I inherited from the previous tenant who perhaps had some practical use in mind, a potential penitential something, an object he was going to build to immolate himself, a construct that would clarify the thing going haywire in his brain, or maybe that’s just me and my wacky imagination. Worse things could happen, they say, but I don’t want to know what. Tick tock, tick tock. My skin is itchy, I broke the clock. I’ve got a fever, but where’s my sock? Tick tock.

 

So Todd calls and he says, did you hear the great news about Gordon? I said no, what’s the news. So Todd says, he got the job at Apollo. He got the job, I repeated and had to sit down, I felt so heavy. So Todd says it again, he got the job, and adds, it pays twenty. It pays twenty, I said, leaning back against the wall, leaden. It pays twenty. Huh, I said. So Todd says, aren’t you happy, and I said, what for would I be happy. For Gordon, Todd says, and his voice is hard as enamel. I know Todd, I know that tone, you could slide down the gutter on that slick. You don’t know, I told him. You don’t know what my life is like. You don’t know what I’ve been going through. You don’t know anything about me. So Todd says that everyone he told about Gordon said how happy they were. This is something I can’t substantiate and don’t believe and who are these so-called “everyone” and what’s it all got to do with me, anyway? Fuck Gordon. And fuck Todd.

 

So Todd repeats it, that everyone is happy for Gordon, everyone but me, and I was about to say—and then Todd ends the connection. By the time I collapse on the bed I’m hot with rage and burst into tears, which are hot too, and after a while of desperate racking sobs, during which I realize I have lost Todd as a friend, and Gordon too, and of course all the people who are so happy for him, all of them lost to me once they’ve heard.

 

Then I hear the train and I look at the clock, right on time, and I smell that dank smell rising from the corners of the room, and you know what? I know just what to do.

 

 

 

Barry Jay Kaplan’s recent fiction has been published in Chiral Mad, Descant, Kerouac’s Dog, Bryant Literary Review, Upstreet, Talking River, Perigee, Amarillo Bay, Storyglossia, Brink, Apple Valley Review, Drum, This and others. His stories “His Wife” and “India” are Pushcart Prize nominees. “His Wife” is also one of five stories selected for Best of the Net Anthology 2008. “A Man of the World” was nominated for the Million Writers Award for 2010. His novels include Black Orchid and Biscayne.

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