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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Where'd Everything Go


This story is a piece I started working on over a year ago, but only recently began polishing it into something real. The ending is a bit contrived, because I don't haven't figured out where the story ends, however I think you'll still enjoy it.

Where'd Everything Go


It’s kinda disturbing to wake up in the morning and find the front door of your apartment broken open. Like the man once said, you feel "unstuck". What have I woken up to? Is this a combination of Oz and Wonderland? Or am I just hung-over hallucinating? And if I'm still in Kansas, why is there a gang of winged monkeys attacking me?

But as soon as I see the same beat-up Nintendo set, rabbit-eared T.V., and lazy-boy armchair, I know nothing’s happened. Nothing ever happens. The guys didn’t even take my Chrono Trigger cartridge. (It’s worth at least fifty-sixty bucks on eBay.)
I check to see if the fridge has been cleared out and then fall into my lazy-boy with a Stella. Sure, the padding sticks out, leaving flakes all over your back when you sit down, and the metal springs poke your ankles like skin stealing daemons, but you just can’t beat free furniture left out in the street. People throw away the best shit — period.

"Mike?"

I look over towards my busted front door. Her frizzy brown hair looks just like a wild-fire when the sun shines on it from behind. "Hey, Su, come on in."

She grabs a seat on the floor, zeroing in on me with sniper-like precision and says, "Why’s your door just hanging open like that?"

"It got stuffy."

"The hinges are broken." Su has a bad habit of pointing out the obvious.

"Must have used too much bicep," I say, flexing my arms — which spills some of the Stella on the floor. Foamy puddles disappear in my brown shag carpet like it was dead grass needing to be watered.

She laughs at me — a good sign — "Okay... well you watch out there tiger. Don’t want the landlord to throw you out, do ya?"

"Nah, he’d never. Mr. Yamatoshi loves me. Thinks of me as a second son."

"You mean third son, right? 'Cus, doesn't he already have two kids?"

See what I mean about the obvious? "Whadda ya want, Su?"

"I've come to collect."

"Uh-huh. Since when did you get into the loan-shark business?"

"Mike, you owe him a hundred bucks."

I start taking a long pull on the bottle. Never make a bet over a game of Tetris with a twelve year-old. It just ain’t sensible.

Su magnanimously lets me finish. I can tell she’s been up for a while. The make-up looks pretty decent — for her — and she even put on a sorta-skimpy outfit: a pair of jeans with lots of holes in them and some tube top sporting the logo of a random band that I've never heard of. Too bad she’s not into the phallus.

"Well, Su, shit, you think I’m gonna waste a hundred bucks to pay off some little suburb brat?"

"A bet’s a bet Mike, and he is my little cousin’s boyfriend."

"Didn’t think chicks had a code of loyalty..."

She lets out a little fake laugh that everyone seems to have nowadays, "Ohoho, don’t even try getting chauvinistic on me you pencil-pricked inbredneck with balls the size of tangerines."

I blink. "Did you just call me an inbredneck?"

She leans forward and starts giving me a smirk someone should slap a patent on. I can see the cracks in her lipstick line. They stand up like little daggers ready to flay me alive, but now it’s put-up or shut-up. "I don't have the money. And y’know it's redneck, right?

"Not for you. That'd be an insult to rednecks everywhere."

"That makes absolutely no sense, Su."

"If you can’t understand it, then you’re not ready to," she says all philosophical.

We stare out my still-open door. I make a mental note to fix it before Mr. Yamatoshi comes back from Vegas tomorrow. The sunrise hits the twisted brass hinges, sending sun-sparkles and little rainbows over my carpet. It looks like a mud field with Lucky Charms poured on top. I can hear Su take a long sigh, trying to fill the silence. Or break it.

"So, Mike, you want me to tell Carter you’ll pay him back in installments?"

I laugh, "Installments on a hundred dollar bet... If it wasn't necessary, it'd be pathetic. Yeah, I guess you can tell him that. I mean, the only valuable thing I’ve got left is my console collection and this arm-chair."

She gives a little chuckle, "Not even worth getting robbed."

"Whadda ya mean?"

"Obviously you got robbed, Mike. Sort of." Su turns around to look at me again. I really get annoyed when she does that. It’s like I’m some kinda insect. It reminds me of those people who collect butterflies and put them in those little scrap books. The twitchy wings and feelers just lying there, with a couple of big pins sticking out and all the person does is just look at it — it's fucking sadistic, man.

"Mike, How long have we been friends?"

"Umm, I dunno, like six years?" She’s making me nervous and I upturn my bottle of Stella only to realize I already finished it.

"More like seven, but whatever. I'm worried about you. When are you gonna do something with yourself? You graduated from college with a Masters, and even some swanky job opportunities — but here you are, living in some dump drinking that Belgian piss and playing video games."

"Hey!"

Su cocks her head at me, "What?"

"Stella is not Belgian piss. I rather like it."

I can tell Su's disappointed. She gets up and walks over to the door, giving the leaning slab a playful push, and takes another good look over at me, boring deep with her eyes like an azure-drill.

"Make sure to save some money to pay off Carter. I don’t need my cousin calling me a home wrecker. See you at work later, Mike."

Her hair catches the last bit of sunrise, cascading along my door like glowing snakes and then I can hear her thudding down the steps. I shake my head a bit and head over to the fridge to grab another bottle. Just when you’d think people would be a little sympathetic — me getting my place broken into and all — but nope! I still have to listen to a lecture.

I’ve finished the Stella and look over at my wall-clock to see it’s almost eleven.
Fuck! I grab my toolkit and hunch up to fix the door before I forget completely. What Su said keeps running through my head the whole time.

Deep thoughts like that are hard to ignore. But I’m not wasting myself or anything. All it is is that I enjoy my free time, and there isn’t any reason to go around running like a hamster on a tread. But nobody appreciates that idea. People want you to be ambitious, want you to do something. Everyone seems to think there’s more to life than just living.

"Finally finished. You're a fucker, aren't you?" I stand back to appreciate my handiwork. Looks like it was done by a retarded ten year-old with ADD and bad motor-skills, but it'll do till I can get some cash for a proper fix. Mr. Yamatoshi won't notice. He's bespectacled worse than frosted-Noir-fiction-glass.

As I finagle the door closed, The Unpronounceables two apartments down wave to me. "Hiello Mike! Ov to verk?"

"Hey Mr. & Mrs. Stiecolowiskymmbiddle," I mangle out awkwardly, "Yeah, off to another day slagging mid-price electronics."

Mr. Unpronounceable gives me a thumbs-up. Mrs. Unpronounceable just scowls. "You zee vront door?" She points to my interpretive repair-job.

"Yeah, yeah. Broke it down like the Hulk. Must've been a sugar rush. I plead the Twinkie Defense."

They stare at me in obvious incomprehension. I'm sure if I spoke — whatever it is they speak — they'd see my obvious charm. Damn language barriers.

I wave to break the awkward. "Well, gotta go."

"Byes good!"

As I leave I can seem them settling back into their tattered blue lounge-chairs like a couple of wrinkly statues.

It must be something to get that old with the same person. What that something is, I have no idea, but it must be... something.

My apartment complex sits on the corner of dilapidated USA, also known as East Los Angeles. Cracked sidewalks and brown grass are only part of the quaint charm; we've also got a resident hobo, Mr. Tarquin Biscuit-Barrel. I usually call him Mr. T2B. But at this time of afternoon, he's probably waist deep in a dumpster, hauling scraps out of rubbish.

"Another ticket." I grab the offending violating from beneath my wipers and throw it on the pavement. The state pays its budgetary-mishaps through my enforced contributions via traffic laws of bullshit. I settle in to Gretchen, my car's completely appropriate nomenclature and start her up. The four-door sedan's engines whine like suburban 17 year-olds; all four cylinders chu-chu-chucking.

"C'mon you little bitch. Just turnover already." Still nothing. "Please, baby? Daddy needs to get to work..." I keep twisting the key. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," my furious words seem to breathe life. "Yes. Yes! YES!" Gretchen revs up. I put her into first and pull onto the road.

Driving along you see a lot of weird shit. Watching life out the window of a car is better than the History channel. Along Whittier boulevard Chicana strippers drip tacos all over their fake tits and leather-daddies hang off the doors of barely-opened bars. The air is still visible, bright red and hazy purple. Pollution makes for wonderful scenery.

Can't stop thinking about what Su said. Dunno why. My life isn't so bad. Besides the burgle-fail and my rather embarrassing hundred-dollar debt to a twelve year-old, I'd have to say I have a good life. Car, job, decent chair, good booze in my fridge, and a wonderful collection of eccentric coworker-friends who keep me entertained. What more could a guy want?

A girlfriend would be nice. But then again, this is L.A. Any girl that would have me as her boyfriend probably is, or was a man.

I zone out on the road, letting my thoughts run around faster than how I keep changing the radio station every five minutes. Nothing good's on. It's either crap in English, crap in Mexican or, rarely, crap in Chinese.

Actually, it's just crap in every language, kind of like the United Nations. One-hundred ninety-two nations, and nobody can understand a fucking word the other is saying. That's why we've got more McDonald's per capita than schools.

Gretchen bumps along into a parking lot the size of Siberia, and just as desolate too. The smooth asphalt unmarred by any kind of use, but perfect for Turkey Vultures looking to catch an updraft, hoping some beleaguered shopper will get caught on the melting blacktop.

I park in a handicap stall to avoid the risk of walking. I might never make it back. Look out La Brea! One day these strip-lots will be the new tar pits. Future generations will look back on us and wonder how 21st century man could have survived in such hostile consumer conditions.

As my feet scuff across safe concrete, the neon-sign blares above me, emblazoned with Helvetica hot-pink: Game Paradise. Each time I read those words, somehow my soul dies a little inside, squeezed by an invisible hand of franchise capitalism.
Inside there will be the peaceful whirr of Freon air-conditioning, fluorescent lighting, and IKEA-style shelves filled to the brim with bargain-discount entertainment systems, sometimes packaged to include promotional games ranging from First-person shooters (FPS) to sword & sorcery.

There will also be coworkers: Brendan) resident zombie survival expert, and all-time West Covina hot-dog eating champion, Kim) who is never called "Kimberly" for reasons unknown but will straight-up slice you from ass-to-mouth if you do, Carlos) token minority as well as permanent stockroom organizer, our manager Steve) the next-step in dork-evolution, from his child-predator glasses to his Payless shoes with Velcro-straps because he really can't bother with laces, and finally Su) the only lesbian I've ever met that wasn't a butch-dyke deserving of a spray-n-wash.

They will be talking about the ultimate meal for a late-night grind while playing Warcraft (Dr. Pepper and pepperoni Hot-Pockets), what Japanese manga has the largest mainstream following (Dragonball, by Akira Toriyama), or who has the highest score on Centipede (Carlos, 7,111,112).

They will not be talking about sex, drugs, rock & roll, or any mainstream sitcom pre-1998. They will not be eating franchise-food. They will not be wearing clothes from JC Penny or The Gap. They will not be doing anything that could be accidentally construed as "normal".

I breath out the sigh of a man desolate in a slumburban wasteland. Nobody will guess that I was robbed without the courtesy of anything even being taken. Wage-slave geeks know nothing of felonies. I enter the automatic double-doors into purgatory.

Brendan waves at me, "Hey Mike!"

"Ayyyy Mike!" Carlos slips into vato for the duration of our conversations. It makes him feel ghetto and authentic.

"Hey dudes," I look toward the new-stock window-displays, "Hi Kim."

"Mike."

Kim isn't much for inflection.

I walk to the backroom to change into my uniform. Steve calls them "weskits" but we all know them as vests. Mine still has a stain. My finger is insufficient to remove it. The door opens and Steve's head pops out of the office like a gopher.

"You're late Balzac." He taps his watch for emphasis. Steve makes up for Kim's lack of inflection.

"Yeah, sorry boss. Had a break-in at my apartment and —"

"I do not care about your personal-life. Just clock-in, and then go reorganize the bargain-bin." He slams the door with a magical turn of his toupee.

"Yes, sir. Right away, sir. Anything you wish, sir. May I have another suck of your ever-golden engorged cock, sir?" A sudden laugh puts my hackles into action. I take a pretend-fighting stance to see Su on a snack-break.

"Hey." She bites off another hunk of a grande burrito.

"Hey... Steve's a dick."

"Figurative or literal? Sometimes I walk past him too quick and his face metamorphosizes into a very bald penis."

I crack a short smile. Su has the best humor, especially when she riffs off my misfortunes. "You on break?

"Nah. Just hanging out. You know we don't have lives like normal people."

My exhale ends in, "Amen. Well, I'm off to the land of fifty-percent off and OCD."

Su laughs and tips her soda-cup to me, "Cheers."

I settle down at the bargain-bin and begin to organize. The quiet rhythm of A, B, C, D, turns into chronological by sale-date, and then reverse clock-wise from producer. These little idiosyncrasies are what keeps insanity at bay just one shift longer.

Meanwhile, Brendan and Carlos argue about the differences between joysticks and hand-held controllers.

"The stick offers full mobility for your wrist, and greater flexibility for your character."

"I don' see how dis would be help-ful when you playin' Tekken. I wan to feel the remote in mah thumbs."

"For the ultimate in gaming control," Kim darkly interjects, "go with possession."
They both jynx it. "Huh???"

Su yells from the backroom, "LASER GUIDED MOTION DETECTOR."

Even Steve gets involved, academically pointing to the carpel-tunnel reducing effects of fingertip buttonry. "It's really the future of gaming innovation."

At this point, I have no choice but to involve myself. "Excuse me. Excuse me! EXCUSE ME!" Their heads whip in my direction. With a little throat clearing, I elucidate the situation, "The only sensible gaming controller will always be the basic GC five-color five-button. What other hardware allows for multiplayer FPS and single-player RPG-style enjoyment with backwards compatibility to every known system from the manufacturer? Industry domination is forthcoming, once the proper connections are made between easy-to-use functionability with compatible title releases."

They stare with open-mouths, like cavernous maws awaiting a virginal sacrifice. It's then that I realize there's a kid in the store with a Nerf-gun pointed right at my head.

"Where's. My. MONEY!"

I duck behind the cardboard cut-out of Mario as two darts imbed themselves in the cheap material like a hot knife through jell-o.

Steve screams in a strangely beautiful soprano, "Run for your lives! He's got a double-barrel!" only to be struck down by a sudden barrage.

Pandemonium ensues as my coworkers fend off repeat-fire with random video-game titles. Brendan whacks at Nerf-balls using a copy of NFL Blitz. Carlos shields his head behind two versions of Baldur's Gate, only to be struck in the nads by a stray dart. Kim somehow manages to disappear in a flurry of Sega Genesis titles.
Looking through the crotch of Mario's legs I can see the gleaming soda-stained teeth of Carter's maniacal twelve year-old face. He notices and pumps another round in my general direction. The shots miss, but unfortunately Mister Mario wasn't so lucky. No more hanky-panky with the Princess for him.

As my coworkers tremble behind the checkout counter, cowering in completely rational fear, some sudden force enters the room like a lightning bolt of Zeus.
"Hold it!" And there stands Su, majestic as only she could possibly be under the circumstances, grabbing Carter's Nerf-death-gun mid-cock. "I'm only going to say this once: put down the foamy dart-launcher and walk away."

"You can't tell me what to do! Where's Mike? Where's my hundred dollars?"

"I'm here you crazy kid." I stumble from the wreckage and reach into my wallet, pulling from it my last hundy. The crisp bill reminds me of paper-airplanes and new slacks. Su looks a little sad as I hand it over.

"Thanks, loser!" Carter dumps the toy-gun and eagerly inhales that new money smell. "You're lucky you paid up now. Otherwise it would've been more than just your apartment next time."

"What? You broke into my place?"

"Yeah, It was easy. Just had to bribe that hobo who's always hanging around."

"Carter, what the hell?" Su does the hands-on-hips, but it doesn't seem to intimidate him much. "I told you I'd talk to him. What do you think you were doing?"

"This was business between men. So stay out of it!"

"Oh you little brat... You can forget about my cousin. When I tell her about this, she won't touch you with a three-foot cattle-prod!"

"It's okay Su, don't worry about it."

Her face falls a little, and forms those lines on her forehead that she gets when she's confused. "But Mike —"

"It ain't worth it. A bet's a bet, and besides, it's better than watching Steve scream himself wet."

"Excuse me!" Steve shambles out from underneath a fallen shelf, his crotch noticeably darker.

Su looks from Carter to me. "How are you gonna pay your rent, Mike?"

"I'll figure something out. Let's just clean the place up and go home."

Slowly, but surely, we fix the displays, reorganized the games, and found Kim relaxing in the stockroom completely unfrazzled by tonight's events. Steve shuts himself in the office while Su barely says a word to me. As we stand outside the doors, waiting for the boss to finish his numbers, Brendan asks me, "So you really bet that kid a hundred bucks in Tetris?"

"Yeah... I was 'tussed-up."

"That little fucker mang." Carlos scowls at the sidewalk as Steve locks up.

"Okay everyone, have a safe drive home." He glances at me through his glasses, "I'll see you tomorrow Balzac. You have some explaining to do."

"Yes, sir." I wave to Su's retreating back and take another ticket off my windshield before driving home.

1 footnotes:

Mira said...

First of all, sorry for my late comment. I know how awful is to post your writing and not getting any (positive or negative) reply.

What I like about this story is the fact it feels larger and longer (lol :P) than it actually is. You managed to describe this guy, his world and the people around him without using much of descriptions. That is a great thing (because I like long & detailed stories).

I also loved the colourful characters.

As for the ending (or "ending"), true, it doesn't have any explosive ending, but I thought that was the point. (Right? Riiiight?)