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Twenty-seven

So you were thinking, where is this thing going? And now you know.

Nowhere.

Welcome to the club.

I told you before, you left brained son of a bitch, you’re in the drift now.

What is life, anyway, after the chemicals are balanced, the food is taken care of, the money is handled, if it’s not about a person’s romantic life? In my case, women. After all, I don’t do anything. I don’t have a job. I just fuck around, get in trouble, drink, track my moods, think about these damn people, with all their ordinary activities. They haunt me with their ordinariness.

So I’ve got this ex of mine, Gracie, who is arriving back from Europe as we speak. And my potential lover, that woman who smiles like hell, if she could only get it together – Althea. That childish band teacher who, like me, finds fucking easier with a good buzz – but likes to tell on her friends. And now this woman in the stuffy office on the third floor of the courthouse, a kind of magnet woman with a sting, a news anchor type with the heartbreaking upper body and the ranging lower. Dot. Shit. Sometimes I give a great deal of thought to that science teacher I had in the ninth grade. She’s still at it, and I still see her around town from time to time. So, she’s not the attractive youngster she was then, but the attraction is still there from my end, as strong as ever.

And The Wimp, one that should be more important than she is, who, thanks to the manifestations of my mental disorder, hates me, hates me, hates me.

Throw in my mother, Your Honor my brother, my other brother and my sister, my shrink a dink dink, and what have you got?

Hospitalization?

Fuck no!

What you’ve got is an interwoven mess, threads coming from everywhere. The threads form a certain piece of cloth, and this cloth is a life. My cloth is bumpy. It contains bubbles, and gaps. The colors are skewed. The shape is lacking; no center exists.

Think about yours a little. It’s worse than this. You just don’t give it any fucking thought.

So I was put to work. Upstairs in the theater, lit by a single hundred watt bulb hanging from a wire, a reminiscence of my father’s final hour.

And I began with the sweeping. Years of dust rising in clouds. The dust and me. The clouds and me. This place was huge. One sweep, a little mopping, a little drying, and it was ready for another sweep, more dust and clouds.

Time remaining: forty-six hours.

Here came Jerry Baker, the theater director, clomping up the stairs. He greeted me like I was scum, like I was…yikes!…a cyu-moon-it-ee service worker. In other words, he didn’t greet me at all, just looked at the floor and said that it looked okay so far.

“I need to prioritize a few things on the list,” he said.

He stood and thought, made a few scribbles, while I broomed the dust from one side of the room to the other. It was about ten o’clock at night.

“I might work all night,” I said.

“Fine,” he said.

“I’ll keep track of my hours,” I said.

“I’ll keep track of your work,” he said.

Night was the best time to do this shit because it was more quiet, less traffic outside. The upstairs here had a nice big window that overlooked the run-down downtown business district. Actually, night was the best time to do anything.

Did I mention this? Gracie’s restaurant was just around the corner, just out the back door, actually. The downtown is old, and big, compared to other towns in the South. But it’s still small. Everything in it is close to everything else.

“I put some paint and brushes on the floor across the hall,” Jerry Baker said. “And there’s a pack of steel wool in there. When you get done with this, get to work on those clothes racks. Get the rust off, and then paint them. Spread out some newspaper so you don’t get paint on the floor.”

I’ve never been much of a painter, but Jerry seemed to have confidence in my abilities. Earlier in the evening, he had given me a tour of the building. He gave me my own key, so I could come and go as I pleased, logging my hours when I worked. The tour included the dingy room full of clothes racks. I dreaded that job. That room had no windows.

“So I just paint them? All the same color. All over?”

“Yeah. That’s it.” He smiled. He smiled because he wasn’t the one who had to do the painting. “Somebody donated those racks. They’re real old, been stored for a long time. After you paint them, we can use them for costumes.”

“You know,” I said. “I was kind of framed. I’m really not a criminal or anything.”

“I don’t even ask,” he said. “Just think of it this way. It’s show biz. It’s not the glamorous side, but anything you do for the theater is show biz. You might even decide to come help some more after you finish your time. That would be great.”

I looked around, leaned on my broom.

“There’s a lot of dirt in this place,” I said. “I’ve already mopped it once, and now look at this.”

I pointed to a nice pile of freshly swept dirt.

“This is nothing,” he said. “We’ve spent weeks cleaning this place already. You should have seen it before.”

“Wow.”

“It’ll never get clean, until the floors are replaced, the walls redone.”

“That’ll take some money.”

“We want to use it in the meantime for rehearsal. So get a few more layers of dirt off. You’re doing well. Remember, show biz.”

He slapped the paper down, stuck his pen back in his pocket, and left. He plodded down the long wooden stairway, gave the front door below a hard slam. This old building didn’t shake a bit. Big trucks in front, noisy as hell, caused the windows not the slightest rattle. It was too solid. But the sounds – both the ones on the street and the interior noises, every step of the foot, the thud of the door – they rose up the stairs and into this room with all of their perfect intricacies intact. Good, wasn’t it? That a future theater would have such good acoustics.

This could not be an accident. Design, my friends, design. This job was created for me.

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall?–

If design govern in a thing so small.

At midnight I took a break, walked around the corner and into Gracie’s restaurant for a drink. Guess who was there? Gracie was back. And she was sitting at a table with, guess who? The pretty woman from the courthouse.

So, did Gracie clobber me? Tear my eyes out? Give me a piece of her mind? Wrap her lovely hands around my neck and choke me? Nope. She and the courthouse woman had a good laugh at the site of me. I was dirty, embittered by hard work, and tired. A rare site. They invited me over.

I pointed at the door.

“Been working at the theater,” I said.

They laughed again. Apparently, my reputation as a non-worker made this whole thing funny, a topic for conversation.

“We know,” Gracie said. “Jerry just left.”

“How’s it going?” said the community service woman.

I nodded, considered the possibilities. I could get a drink of water, say I was going back to work. I could have a couple of beers and say I was going back to work; but I feared that drinking and working could be held against me in a court of law. And, I could say I was calling it an evening, and have a few beers.

“Four hours down, forty-four to go,” I said.

I went to the bar and got a beer, came back to the table.

“May I join you?”

Now, I knew, Gracie knew I had been busted down at the beach, caught with a little bag of dope that had been planted in my room by a crazy woman. This community service woman – she knew about the other, that I had been jerked out of my house-sitting situation by court order, found to be an unfit parent thanks to that very same band teacher.

“I hear you have a new girlfriend,” Gracie said. “By the way, Rachel’s not in the band anymore.”

“Just as well,” I said. “She wasn’t practicing her instrument.”

“Piano is better,” said the community service woman. “Band is a big waste of time.”

“There’s no girlfriend to it,” I said.

“That’s not what I heard.”

“You heard wrong. That woman’s nothing but a blabber mouth. Not only that, she set me up to get busted, on purpose.”

The two of them had another good laugh about this. Luckily, I had caught them both in a relaxed mode, stirring their little drinks.

“So, let me guess,” I said. “You and Artie got married in Rome?”

“Venice,” she said.

“Ah, how romantic.”

“Artie and I aren’t like that. I left him in Venice.”

“The Italians did it to you? Pinched your butt so many times that it broke you up?”

“I just left him in Venice. He wanted to travel for a few more weeks. I needed to get back.”

I took a swallow of beer, looked at Gracie.

“I would love to be in Venice with you,” I said.

This caused a trifle of a smile. I took another long swallow, trying to get some of that theater dust out of my throat. I know I’m a sarcastic asshole, too alienated for real life, but something serious had to be said. This was Gracie.

“Listen,” I said. “About The W… – about Rachel. I’m truly sorry. Really. I embarrassed her. The whole thing was ridiculous. I am so sorry that I fouled it up the way I did.”

Does this help? That I’m able to apologize? If it does, I could apologize for my whole life, itemize each infraction. Come to think of it, I’ve been doing just that for a long time.

“She’s okay,” Gracie said. “Really, she just got real emotional, but it’s not that big of a deal, not after what she’s been through.”

That said, I ordered another beer, and another, and allowed the conversation between these two to drift into other areas, off me and my problems.

As we all know, absence, and beer, make the heart grow fonder. Mine grew fond, for what it was worth. Actually, my heart was bursting with love for both of these good women. The community service woman was so beautiful, especially when she wasn’t butting heads with me and my case. That was a straight out physical attraction. Not that we spoke to each other. I was the onlooker at the table, as usual, while she and Gracie spoke. And Gracie, of course, was a mixed-bag of love, sex, history and companionship, the whole thing about a life becoming whole again.

The community service worker left before I did. She extended a pleasant, civilized farewell to me when she left, didn’t talk to me like I was another common criminal. After a few beers, when she rose from the table and ambled to the door, even her lower body didn’t look so bad at all. I thought I should follow her out, put the moves on her, offer to show her the work I had done in the theater around the corner. It was a nice, peaceful place up there at night, a good place to visit, really get to know another person. Shit. Who am I kidding? To her, I was public enemy number two.

I left before Gracie. I went out, walked the streets for awhile. It was one of those nights where it rained a little. Not a solid, hard rain. The kind of rain that comes in easy showers for a few seconds and then stops, hangs there for a few minutes, drops a few drops every minute or so, and stops again. Not too cold. I took it all the way to the edge of town and back. Opened the theater and went back upstairs, spent some more quiet time in my new domain, sat at the big window and watched the street. No news there. All the bums were down at the shelter asleep. An occasional car. A little mist against the yellow streetlights. Some garbage trucks. The street cleaner. The street. A bunch of old buildings. And me.

I stayed there most of the night, walked home as a few cars, headlights burning, trickled out of homes. People going to work. I got in my apartment, took my medication, ate a cheese sandwich, took a shower and got clean – went to bed.

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