a girl, a bum, and an anchovy
Things were looking bleak. The cockroach breeding ground I was living in, otherwise known as the 5th Street Motor Lodge, served as a living reminder of how truly desperate my circumstances had become. I hadn't worked in months, my unemployment had run out, my liver was swollen and I was beginning to shit blood. The roaches were getting bolder. I didn't dare let the sheets on my bed touch the floor, lest the little bastards use them as a step ladder to encroach into the only haven I had left -- my sleep, my little daily death. One morning I awoke with a great sense of inspiration. I jumped up, threw on my clothes and bolted out the door. My plan? To check the want ads and find a job. I started down the four flights of stairs with a quick and snappy bounce to my stride. The bottom floor saw me plodding in heavy, depressed steps. My ambition must've fallen out on one of the previous floors. Inspiration never lasted long with me. It was decision time. Creep back upstairs to my tomb, where my cockroach roommates sat waiting, or open the door to the world outside. The open-air prison. The one that made men kill and women crack. I feared it worse than my own death. Maybe the cockroaches weren't so bad after all. I forced myself out. As I hit the street, I was assaulted by the ugly clamor of life on earth. Traffic crawled and heaved, steam rising from radiators and heat rising from the occupants. Hostile, purposeless faces glared out from behind clenched knuckles and strangled steering wheels. Vendors and hookers hawked their wares on every corner, selling everything from fake jewelry to fake love. It was live sewage everywhere you looked. People fucking people in the worst way. No one cared anymore. The bedlam of the city. If there was a hell, how could it be worse? In front of the hotel, an old man in a folding chair sat in front of his magazine and newspaper racks. A cigarette hung from his lips. He was balding, crouched over, and perhaps resting. "Hello," I said. He looked up. "Get out of here, ya bum. I got nothin' for ya. Git!" His voice was thick and full of fluids. "I' m not a bum, I'm a customer." "Well, ya look like a bum." "You don't look so good yourself." "Yeah, well, that's just the way things is." "I need a Times." "Well, take the goddamn thing, for Christ's sake. You want me to read it for ya too?" I grabbed the paper, reached into my pocket and found nothing. I'd left what little change I had on my nightstand. "Shit! I left my money at home." "I told ya you was a bum. Now put that thing back and git!" "Look, mister, I just need the classifieds. I'm looking for work. I promise I'll bring a quarter back. Please--" "Get on outta here 'fore I jam a boot up your ass!" I replaced the paper, turned, and walked off. I came upon a bus stop bench and sat. The sun was getting higher in the sky and it shined on me hard, with a temper, it seemed. Things couldn't be bleaker. I didn't care to exist anymore. It hurt. I hurt. The constant din of the traffic ground at me. Soot and exhaust stuck to my sweat. The noise, the faces, the steel, the old men and cockroaches -- it was all too insane. There was no rhyme to anything, no place for my thoughts or me. I was odd man out. My hand had been forced. When the bus came, I'd step in front of it and that would be it. Whoever or whatever made me would have to sort me out later. I'd had enough. I glanced down and saw the bus in the distance. When it appeared to be making its final lurch to my location, I stood, stepped into the street and closed my eyes. Nothing. Still nothing. I opened my eyes. The bus had stopped ten feet in front of me. Passengers were unloading and the driver was glaring at me. I could see him mouthing what I'm sure were obscenities. Then the whoosh of his air brake released and he cranked his wheel hard to the left to avoid hitting me as he pulled out. "Get out of the street, you bum!" he yelled as he passed. It dawned on me that I'd stepped in front of the bus at the bus stop! I'd failed. I failed where so many misfits had succeeded. I couldn't properly be run over by a bus without fucking it up. It was all too much. When even suicide becomes unattainable, where then does one go? I trudged off the street and returned to my bench. A panic hit. I couldn't pull in a breath. I felt my legs curl towards my chest, involuntarily sucking myself into a fetal position. It couldn't be stopped. Hospitals and heavy meds weren't far behind. Time passed. How much? I didn't know. The bench wiggled and shook. I had company. "Sir, are you all right?" A woman's voice. "Sir, do you need help?" I peered out from my imaginary womb. A very large, very thick, black woman sat on the opposite end of the bench. "Sir?" "I'm fine." "You don't seem fine." "I'm just resting." "Bus stops in the middle of the hot sun aren't very good places to rest," she said. "Is there something wrong with your legs?" I chose to act alive again and removed myself from the baby-like posture I had taken; my legs were cramping anyway. For a moment, I felt like a fool. I looked around. Nothing had changed. My breakdown didn't take. I decided I'd retreat back to my room, back to the cockroaches if they'd have me. There, I could disintegrate in peace. I rose to leave. "Sir?" "Yes?" "Is there anything I can do to help?" She was old, clean, fat and black. I was young, filthy, emaciated and white. Why would she help me? "Well, I hate to ask, but I need a quarter for a paper. I'm looking for a job." "Really?" "Yes." "Well, then. I can help." "You can?" "Yes. My son is the manager of Anchovy Art's Pizza Pit. I know he's desperate for a dishwasher. Will you wash dishes?" "Yes, ma'am. Absolutely." "Then I will give you a bus token and a note telling him to hire you." "Ma'am, I don't know if I look so good. Do you think he'll put me to work?" "Yes. He's a good boy and he'll do what I ask." She pulled a card from her purse, wrote the note and handed it to me along with the token. The bus was a block away. "Thank you, ma'am." "You're welcome," she said. "What's your name?" "Jack. Jack Adams." "Nice to meet you, Jack Adams." "Nice to meet you, too." The bus squealed to a stop and the doors flapped open. I started to board. "God bless you, Jack!" she shouted. I paused. "That's what I'm afraid of, ma'am." I headed to the rear bench-seat and slid in. The driver jerked the bus into motion and off we went. Buses. Inner city buses. The chariots carrying society's cast-offs. The young, the old, the mental and the decrepit. They were all there and all represented well. A slimy, violent-looking youth sat two rows in front of me. He wore tattered leather and his hair was sheathed with a gray layer of city-slime. He couldn't have been more than twenty, far too young to be homeless, and homeless he was -- I knew the look. On the seat opposite him sat a young Latino woman. Her hair was clean and shiny black. She sat quietly, looking out the window. I watched as the kid got up, crossed the aisle and slid in next to her. Trouble. The girl shifted, trying to keep as much distance as possible between herself and the delinquent. She looked scared. I got up, walked over and stood over them. "Miss, you need any help?" They looked up at me. She nodded. "Hey," I said. "She's with me. I'm going to sit here." The kid stood, stepped into the aisle, reached in and revealed a knife. I heard it click. It looked rusty and weak. "You have no idea how much I don't care," I said. "What?" "Jesus, man. The cockroaches in my room pack deadlier weapons. Look, I'm going to take your seat. If you want to stop me, you need to stick that thing in me right now." I brushed past him and sat. He looked at me as if I'd lost it. I had. He stumbled off, shaking his head. "Thank you," the girl said, smiling. "No problem. Hey, do you know where Anchovy Art's is?" "Yes, it's coming up at the next corner." I nodded. "Look, I think you better get off with me at this stop and catch the next bus, just to be safe." "Yes, I will." The bus rolled to its stop and we climbed off. "There's Anchovy Art's," she said, pointing to the corner across the street. "Thanks." "No. Thank you. What's your name?" "Jack. Jack Adams." "God bless you, Jack Adams." "I'd rather him not," I said, and headed to the corner to cross. Anchovy Art's Pizza Pit. Your one stop shop for all things grease. Art was franchised all over the greater Southern California urban mesh. I'd been to him before but all I could remember was the beer. As I entered, I was overtaken by the smell of cheap pizza. Next came the screaming. The cries and wails of young children, wild and unchecked, drenched the air. Flashes of little streaming kid-bodies ran across my field of view and high-pitched siren-like shrills, enough to disable a dog, deafened me. It was a grim and horrible scene, a nightmare realized. I made my way to the counter, hugging the wall the whole way. I didn't want to get hit by any flying snot or viruses. Some acne-laced teenager stood guard at the register. His mouth hung permanently open and his face was void of any signs of intelligence. I'd have to be direct. "I need to see the manager, please." "What?" The incessant yelping in the background made communication impossible. "The manager, please. I need to see the manager!" He stared at me, taking a moment for the request to weave its way through whatever genetic malfunction he was suffering. "Uh, okay. Would you like to order?" I hadn't started working and already I was exhausted. "The manager! I need--" "Umm, okay. I'll get him." I thanked the big Anchovy in the sky. The boy walked back to the kitchen area and re-appeared with another young man. "Can I help you?" "What?" I yelled back. "Can I help you?" I felt like weeping. He waved his finger at me, motioning for me to follow him around the corner. We went to a room behind the kitchen. "I'm the manager. May I help you?" He was well groomed and seemed well mannered. A good boy, just like his mom promised. "Yes, I met your mother. I believe she's your mother." I handed him the card. "She said you would hire me to wash dishes?" He read the card and then me. His face displayed that curled-lip expression I'd seen so often when one paused to really soak in my appearance. "Okay, you're hired. I'm short-handed. We'll fill out forms later. I need you to start right away." He looked me over again. "I need to ask one thing, though." "Sure." "I know you're going to be washing dishes, but could I ask you to go in the washroom and clean up a bit before you start? Your face and hair maybe? I don't mean to be rude. Just health regulations and stuff, you know." "Yes, I understand." I found the restroom, closed and locked the door, and stood in front of the basin. I'd been avoiding this confrontation, but there was no escaping it now. Repulsive was the word that came to mind. Revolting and repugnant came next. I was ghostly pale and my eyes, a dull yellow. The pores of my skin looked as if they held a piece of every squalid and foul welfare hotel I'd ever died in. My hair was not hair in the plural sense anymore. It was now the largest single hair follicle in the world. It'd become one. So horribly misshapen, as though I had gone straight through the windshield, skidded 50 feet across asphalt -- on my head, and walked directly into Art's. I splashed water on my face. Some areas took it; the rest rejected it, as if thrown on oil. I sat and tried to shit but it was too painful. I got up, wiped my hands on my shirt and walked out. I found the kitchen. No one looked up from their pizza-making duties. The big stainless steel machine that performed the washing of the dishes awaited me in the corner. I walked over and took my position. Next to it stood a towering, soiled pile of plates, platters, bowls and glasses. Various utensils jutted out from between the mess. Napkins, hanging off dried pizza sludge, gave it all a homey feel. I'd done this before. I felt comfortable. I went to work. Rinse, wipe, stack. Rinse, wipe, stack. Over and over until full. Then soap, latch, start. I was a master, a journeyman without peer. I washed a mean fucking dish! All was going well until my boss came with the news. "Willie didn't show today. I need you to put on the Anchovy Art uniform and walk the dining room for ten minutes. Sorry about putting this on you, but it's an emergency. Come, I'll show you where to dress." "Boss, I don't do well with kids. Really. I don't think you want me--" "It's okay. Just make a walk-through and come back. No problem. I'm counting on you." I followed him. I was leaking cold sweat and felt a vomit attack coming. I was incapable of such an act. I'd have to tell him. "Here," he said, handing me a heaped mass of cloth with a glass eye sticking out. "It's old and tattered, but it still works. I need to order a new one." "Boss, really, I can't, I--" "Hurry up, there's a birthday party going on. Just walk the lobby, it's simple." He walked off, leaving me alone with the deflated pizza topping attire. I was still in a state of shock from the suddenness of his order. I was to be thrown to the carnivorous world of pizza-gobbling, coke-drooling, nose-mining tots! Booze or buses couldn't do me in, but those little goblins from hell would. I had to do it. I couldn't back out. The lady at the bus stop was too kind, the boss was too nice, and I was too stupid. I laid out the costume, trying to get a grasp on how I was supposed to insert myself. I found the main body, put my legs through, and then pulled it up to my chest. My arms slipped into pockets that acted as the fish's two side fins. The uniform came to a tapered end at my ankles, squeezing them tightly together. I'd have to walk in short, shuffling steps. As I slipped the head on, I was absorbed by a powerful stench. It reeked with the body odor of minimum-wage workers past. Little slits in the gills acted as my sight ports, allowing me to glimpse only what lie ahead of me, nothing peripheral. A full-length mirror hung on the door. I stopped to look. I'd been reduced to a minor player in the food chain, an insignificant piece of marine life -- a small baitfish. Things were looking bleak. I went unnoticed as I waddled my way to the front lobby. I paused, took a deep breath and plunged in. As I entered the dining area, all activity stopped. Anchovy Art had arrived. A hundred eyes stared at me. I felt hundreds more from the sides. I knew what a hanging victim felt like the moment before the trap door released. The silence was deafening. I could see the atoms splitting in their little wide eyes. Fission was about to take place, and I was the detonator. Eruption. Like an army of hungry ants, they converged on me like the dead fish I was. I began to lose all sense of direction, of time and place. The indecipherable language they chattered served to confuse me even more. I felt pulling and tugging, my fins, my scales, my soul. All were being torn from me. Bits of kid-heads and faces flickered in and out of my view. A wet finger in my gill, another and another, poking and sticking. Something probed at me from behind. I felt myself losing consciousness. It was not how I intended to go out. My demise would be on my own terms. I felt momentarily charged. I straightened myself and began flinging tiny bodies off me. Using my fins, I spun around and around, hoping to clear myself of the wicked little parasites. Their appetites, ravenous; their attack, strategic. As soon as I'd rid myself of one swarm, another would hit. They kept pounding me with wave after vicious wave. I was no match for their relentless assault. I began to collapse. I was going to die on the floor of Anchovy Art's Pizza Pit, and for a moment, it all seemed to make sense. "Ronnie Perotti, STOP!" The onslaught abruptly ended. I fumbled around, trying to straighten my head so as to see who spoke those words of salvation. A little girl. "I'm going to tell my dad what you guys are doing to Anchovy Art. You know my dad, Ronnie. You better stop." Like a tiny Moses, she walked towards me and the sea of Satan's offspring parted. She took hold of my right fin and led me away to a quiet corner of the room, behind a row of video games. I slid down the wall, coming to a rest on the floor. She sat next to me. "I hate that Ronnie," she said. "He won't pick on me. I'll hit him and he knows it. He's afraid of me." I glanced down through my gills and caught glimpse of my little savior. She glowed beautiful, an angel. She looked up. "Thanks for helping me," I said. "You're welcome." Her gleam pierced me. She was a brand new little piece of life. Her eyes were wide-open windows. Eyes that showed no past and saw no future, ones that saw only today, the here and the now -- and me. She was unscathed and unspoiled, a perfect human if there was such a thing. A pink, plastic, bow-shaped clip held the hair out of her eyes. It told me someone loved her. We sat together in silence for a bit, me happy from being out of the storm, her happy with just being. "Doesn't that fish head get stuffy?" she asked, breaking our quiet. "Yes." "Why don't you take it off?" "Because I'm ugly. I don't want to scare you." "You won't scare me." With that, she reached up and pulled her hair off, a wig, displaying her smooth, shiny scalp. "Sometimes I scare people, too," she said. "I don't think you're scary. Okay, you want to see scary?" I pulled my fish head off and looked down at her. Our smiles met. As young and untainted as she was, I still noticed that same curled-lip expression I'd become accustomed to. I had her beat. "What's wrong with your nose?" she asked. "It's fat and red and gots little lines all over it." "Too much sun, I think." "What's wrong with your hair? Why is it all smashed over to the side? Did the fish's head do that?" "Yeah, I think so." "What's wrong with--" "Hey, wait a minute. What about you? Why don't you have any hair?" I knew it when I said it. I was the master of stupid comments. "There's something wrong inside of me," she answered. "I'm sorry. I'm so stupid." "That's okay. Most people just stare. It fell out because of the medicine I take. It doesn't hurt. It just looks bad is all." I started to ache inside. "Is this your party?" I asked. "Yes. I'm eight today." "Happy birthday. What's your name?" "Ashley." "Happy birthday, Ashley." "Thanks. I didn't want this party. My mom did it. I don't like any of those boys." "Me neither," I said. We sat together in silence again, her bald head and my ravaged one. Her in her yellow birthday dress and me in my anchovy suit. We were a perfect fit. "What's your name?" she asked. "Jack Adams." "That's a good name." "I guess. Well, you probably have to get back to your party, huh? I have to go wash dishes. Will I see you on your next birthday? You gonna come back?" She looked at the floor. I'd done it again. "They don't think I understand what's going on, but I do," she said, lifting her head up. Our eyes locked. "I see how they look at me. They don't have happy smiles, they have the crying kind of smiles. It's different." I put my fish head back on. I had to. "My mom says angels are going to come pick me up and take me to heaven. She says God has a special job just for me. I don't know why he can't wait, though. Sometimes it's best to wait, don't you think?" "Yes," I said. "I like waiting." "Me too." We sat quietly again. "Well, Ashley," I finally spoke. "I have to go." "Okay," she said, jumping to her feet and brushing off her dress. She stopped, bent down, looked deep through my gills and smiled. "Bye, Jack!" She began to run off. "Ashley?" She turned. "God bless you," I said. She beamed her smile at me and skipped away. Things didn't feel so bleak.
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