Self Portrait with Palette- Paul Cezanne
by Michael James Erdedy
Greg wakes to the phone ringing. A collection agent whose inherited his first set of neglected student loans. The agent seems personally interested in recovering the debt. I don't want to make excuses Greg say after holding the phone at arms length away from his head for a while, But I'm really having a breakthrough here.
I'm blossoming intellectually. It's finally clicking. Greg replaces the receiver gently then has second thoughts and rips the cord out of the wall.
Greg has a cubicle in the bowels of an accounting department. He spends a lot of time coming up with nicknames for his coworkers, most revolving around how anal and stiff they are. Banal Bob is his favorite creation, though he doubts that the roots are the same. None of the nicknames have caught on yet. A few of his coworkers barely nod or imperceptibly shrug when Greg walks by. These are his friends.
Promptly at 9am each day, a sallow-faced boy drops a sheaf of papers at Greg's desk. The boy always wears a t-shirt with the logo of some band Greg doesn't believe is together anymore. Today he has bandanas too: one around his head, one around his leg just above the knee. Part Bruce Springsteen, part Eighties Butt Rock.
Greg's job consists of entering the figures from a large sheaf of oddly sized green papers into a spreadsheet of some kind. When he's done he compares the totals and subtotals and percentages on his screen with those on the last sheet of paper in the pile that have been calculated by someone on a different floor with the same job. If the numbers match he bands the papers with his new printout and exchanges them with Butt Rock boy for a new set. Greg hopes the next person does something different with the papers.
Greg has an efficiency apartment with roaches, some kind of schizoid, hepatitis-ridden neighbor who calls himself the prince, two tattoos, a BA in Accounting and a cock-ring which presently hurts and could be infected. And a lot of student loans that he is not particularly interested in repaying.
Today there's someone new where the pear-shaped receptionist usually sits. A new girl. She doesn't even look up from her magazine when Greg walks by pretending to go to the bathroom. Her hair is shoulder length on one side, butched on the other and only a little blacker than her nail-polish and lipstick. Her face seems familiar to Greg. He realizes after a minute that she looks a bit like Captain Kirk's love interest in the Tribbles episode.
On Greg's third walk past in an hour she looks up at him without lifting her head. He pretends to read the cover of the magazine while looking at her nipples poking through her shirt. The magazine looks hand-printed. The headline says "So?" The girl says nothing.
The mailboy wanders around Greg's desk wondering where his package is. His empty hands make small, grabbing motions up then down. Up then down.
By the time Greg settles back to work he really does need to piss. He hopes the trickle he feels in his underwear is sweat not blood from his ring. He starts to stand but the new girl is eyeing him warily so he pretends to stretch.
The new girl sits so still that a spider could weave a web from her head to the magazine. She never turns the pages. She's so still it seems to drag the room to a stop. She's so still that Greg wants to touch her.
Greg spends the lunch hour cleaning and tending to his ring and then watching the girl. She paces around the stagnant fountain outside the building flicking her hand once in a while as if she were smoking a cigarette. Her black, unlaced boots smack the pavement as regularly as a metronome.
In the afternoon the bill collector calls him at work. Greg pretends its his mother and speaks loudly, rolling his eyes for effect. I know. I should call. My phone's broken or something. Did I tell you I got a genital piercing. Right on the cock.
By 4, Butt Rock boy has become so agitated that he practically hovers next to Greg's desk, twisting the next sheaf of papers in his hands. Greg finally hands him the same stack of papers he received that morning. He's done nothing with them. He spends the rest of the hour thinking about asking the new girl out for a drink. He tastes each word like candy and spits them out like rocks. When he turns to speak to her at 5 she is gone. He leaves without punching his time card.
At home Greg flips his couch over and finds $3 in sticky coins. He feels guilt for pretending and tries to call his mom. He's relieved to discover that his phone cord can't be reattached. He eats a small jar of peanut butter and naps on the couch, dreaming of Butt Rock bob standing over him trying to wake him up and hand him papers.
Later he takes the $3 and wanders until he finds a bar that sells beer for a buck. He settles in to nurse.
At midnight the skinny girl walks in. Greg finds her timing prophetic or indicative or something. He wishes he had another dollar to buy her a drink. There are two women with her. They are both pale with Beatles bowl haircuts, stiff blue jeans and matching t-shirts that both say "Hers" with an arrow pointing to the other. Both are definitely unpretty and eye the skinny girl from his office in a way that makes him shift in his seat.
The two girls are not pretty, but Greg is aroused by them. He imagines them bent away from one another, stripping off their arrowed shirts. Greg thinks it strange how the two unpretty girls together can be attractive.
The skinny girl still doesn't notice him. Greg tries to work the skinny girl into his daydream. He concentrates so hard he nearly shatters the Budweiser bottle in his hands.
By 1am the three girls have moved from bar to booth. Greg can tell when they laugh because their backs hunch and convulse like the petals of a windblown flower. He tries desperately to remember the Blake poem about the rose. He only has 75 cents left. He miscounted. The bartender, who is bald, eyes him suspiciously and refuses to give him coffee.
When the three girls finally stand up to leave, the skinny girl looks right at him. He waves a discreet, signal-like wave at her. She pretends not to see him. They all leave with the t-shirt girls holding hands. Greg tries not to follow them.
Outside it's raining a cold misting steam. Sound seems muffled or slowed down. A car door closes and then there is just the whine in his ears. The faint clicktap of the three girls walking away begins to fade.
Greg walks. She sound of the girls' shoes is gone. Greg stops. He sniffs at the wet-rag smelling air as if to track them, then walks on faster. He tries to time his steps to his breathing like a sprinter.
The explosion hits him from behind and turns the night negative-white. He crumples to his knees and instinctively brings his hands to his face. He hears a grunt and feels a kick hit him in the stomach just above his pubic hair. He looks up in time to see one of the two t-shirt girls kick him in the face.
He falls. Turns on his side and sees the tire-iron that they used on his back. One of the t-shirt girls holds the other back like a referee. Enough she says. Behind him he hears the beautiful, skinny girl. she says. Behind him he hears the beautiful, skinny girl. You fuck she says sadly, You sick perverted fuck.
Greg just lies still as they walk away. The keening in his ears has been replaced by a the rumble of the urban mechanism, the throb of the city's hidden machinery.
When he can move again he stumbles crawls walks in the same direction he had been going. His apartment building is only a block away. He climbs the steps and opens his door. He hears the phone ringing, but it's just his ears, his body making its single call to get bailed out.
The city transitions to deep night. Greg falls asleep on his back, fully clothed, hands folded across his chest. He dreams he is a newborn, still bloody, lying in a trashcan. The refuse is warm like the womb, but his head and feet touch metal. He can't grow out but he is growing cold.
He dreams that his mother is on her way back. He dreams that he is going home.
Michael James Erdedy lives in Seattle where he languishes after receiving degrees in philosophy and literature (Degrees in Economic Futility). He has appeared in a number of small print journals, but this is his first time in any kind of electronic journal.