No Touching (Story A Day May)

Touching people wasn’t in the job description.

“Baltimore, Maryland! Baltimore, Maryland, next stop, next stop, Baltimore, Maryland, ten minutes, ten minutes to Baltimore, Maryland!” A stooped figure walks through the car, calling out the words that come so naturally that they slur together. “Baw-mor-mar-lan-nexzop-nexzop.”

Clarence’s belly protrudes over his uniform pants, but his shirt buttons don’t strain. They make the uniforms in his size, for which he is grateful. He doesn’t know how he obtained the gut; in the way of men of a certain age who have always been meaty and wide, it is only the stomach that really changed over the years, even as his arms remained strong and his legs carried him the distance of the train and back so many times a day. His wife likes to joke that he’s become pregnant with the weight of the world, and that he won’t give birth until he quits his job and gets off his feet.

He doesn’t think she’s wrong, but he also doesn’t think she’s right about this. He does know that touching people was never supposed to be his lot in life. And here he is, counting down the minutes to the next stop with dread, his palms beginning to dampen no matter how dry the train is kept. It is dry, he often hears complaints of it, and the daily commuters are savvy enough to bring moisturizer with them, even the men, he notices, always surprised at how his own quirks have become acceptable, such as keeping his nails trim and neat, his hands moisturized, his skin clear, using makeup when it isn’t, plucking his eyebrows out of growing into fuzzy caterpillars, these are all normal to other men now, and he remembers hiding his habits in shame when he was younger. But his own hands, so well-moisturized, now begin to sweat as he hollers the nearness of the station, and yet plenty of people are still sleeping, the ones whose tickets indicate that this is their stop.

And so he starts. The first is a lady, not a usual one, with the detachable hood of a coat resting on her head, maybe in place of a hat or because it helped shut out the noise of other passengers. Clarence doesn’t know and he doesn’t ask. He puts his hand on her shoulder and shoves roughly. He used to try to be gentle, but it meant he missed people, that people missed their stops, and the rage or despondence that result when people wake up to find themselves a state over from where they need to be is even more insufferable to him than the touching. So he’s perfected a harsh yet impersonal push that tends to wake people up for the most part. The woman is a starter – one of those who wakes up with a half-snort and an inhale of breath as if rising to the surface after too long submerged in water. “Baltimore, next stop,” Clarence tells her. She nods, and begins to get her things together slowly, sleep still weighing heavily on her.

The next is a man, an old man that Clarence sees often. He needs barely a nudge, he’s used to Clarence. He’s a smooth waker, one who opens his eyes as if he’s never been asleep, as if he was only pretending. He smiles at Clarence with his dentures and asks him how he is. Clarence says fine, fine, and “Baltimore, next stop, five minutes.” The man doesn’t need to gather anything. He always keeps his outerwear on, whether it’s a coat in the winter or a just his suit jacket in the summer, and even if it’s very hot in the train. His briefcase is always tucked between his arm and his body, and his legs are always crossed, one way or the other.

There’s a teenager at the end of the car. A pretty young woman. Clarence notices this precisely because he knows he shouldn’t notice, because she is his twin daughters’ age, and because he worries that men may look at his daughters and notice how they are pretty young women too. No one said he’d be touching anyone when he took the job all those years ago. No one. But here he is. He wishes he had a stick, something he could poke people with so his hand wouldn’t need to come into contact with this girl’s leg – which is the closest part to him and the only one visible. She’s is curled up on her seat with her upper body and head are covered in her coat, and he doesn’t want to reach up into the murky purpleness that is her coat and end up touching the wrong thing. Her knee seems the safest but most awkward place to put his hand, but he does, and he shakes roughly.

The leg jerks away from him and the girl rises and backs away, scooting herself back in the double seat towards the window, her curled hair matted with sleep on one side, her eyes bloodshot, a look of utter terror on her face. “Don’t touch me,” she says. “Baltimore, next stop,” he says, and touches his cap to her in a gesture of respect and detachment, he hopes, and goes on to the next car. Four minutes to go. Another carfull of people he is responsible for and whom he may need to wake up.

Touching was never in the job description.

Mindfulness

It’s a hard sell. Mind minus body. The lumbering meaty thing is still there, with all its joints and hemoglobin and heart conditions. It doesn’t leave you just because you decide to value that tangled web of firing neurons and chemical imbalances called a brain.

You do value it. Of course you do. It’s what makes your body tick, it’s what allows you to run on the treadmill and eat falafel¬†from a food truck at 3am with your date,

No, that’s not right. That’s your brain.

Is your brain the same thing as your mind?

It’s that kind of night. The kind where you’re asking stupid philosophical questions and waving a white flag of defeat in front of your responsibilities. You’re done. You’re through. No more tonight. You need a rest.

So how do you convince people to see your mind over your body? It’s hovering there, your mind, above and around and in between all of your bodily functions and orifices and fortunate features. But it doesn’t overlay them. It just sort of shimmers. Sometimes it gets noticed. But not usually.

No, when you walk down the street to the post office to send the birthday present you’ve owed your mother for three months now and the rent check you’ve owed for slightly longer, you are not a mind above a body. You are a theoretical person, with a theoretical mind, but mostly you are simply a collection of limbs and features that are recognized as human.

Are you?

Is anyone?

It really is that kind of night. Shut your mind off. Let your brain wander. Watch some TV. Stop thinking about that girl you saw on the train and wanted to talk to. She’s long gone. She doesn’t exist in your world anymore.

Does she exist at all then?

Does it matter?

Shut up.

Mutter

The people who mutter to themselves in my neighborhood have nothing in common with one another. They wear suits and sweatpants, dresses and sneakers and torn coveralls and band t-shirts. They smell of cigarettes or perfume or alcohol or pizza or nothing at all.
There is something about this place. I knew it when I first moved in but hadn’t been able to place a finger on it then. The realtor had shaken her head when I’d nodded, telling me she had nicer places to show me, this was just the bottom of the barrel. I told her no, no, this is perfect. I still maintain that it is. My apartment is angular, misshapen, with a corner cut out of the living room, a bite taken out by some rogue builder. The pipes in the walls clang me to sleep in the winter and the hot winds serenade through the air shaft in summer.
And people talk to themselves. I’ve fallen into the habit too. I am self-conscious to the point of wearing an earpiece, leaving one of the sides of my headphones dangling down. If anyone asks, I’m just telling my mom about my day. I’m telling her about the car that got bashed in right in front of my stoop and the dead pigeon I saw smushed in the park from who knows what vehicle. Maybe it was a hawk, I tell her, I tell the street. Maybe it was a sadistic kid. Maybe it was a cannibalistic pigeon ritual. She doesn’t say anything back. She’s not there. But no one has questioned me so far, and I think I’ll be ready to start singing along to my music soon, keeping my eyes facing forward, ignoring any stares with a secret smile.

Two out of Three

He has a big important job in a big important world. Up and coming. His bald spot is minimal. He lets his pants droop to show he is hip, he is with it, but wears button down shirts to show that he is serious. And he is. He is serious.

Sam lets the glass door swing behind him and walks through the darkening evening. The afternoons are ending earlier. It’s getting colder. He shouldn’t forget his jacket again tomorrow. His phone is buzzing in his pocket.

He doesn’t like the new girl. He liked her, before, when she wasn’t the new girl yet. Now she makes demands on his time. She should be silent as a sheep. Sheep baaa though. Bad metaphor. He’ll think of another.

Sam lights his cigarette and lets the call go to voicemail. He’ll listen to his wife later, in the privacy of home, and then he’ll call her back. A small, lonely bed waits for him in that privacy, in that home, no home at all without her. She is so far away, and he let her go away. He got a ring on both their fingers first. But now she’s gone.

There are moments when he realizes he is being too harsh. He doesn’t apologize. If he apologizes, the new girl will question his authority. She embarrassed him, on her first day, too, talking in front of the Big Dog boss, humiliating him with obvious opinions. He knows she herself is aware of it. It doesn’t change his impatience.

Sam stops at a dive bar he never goes into for a beer. He doesn’t feel like seeing anyone he knows. There’s a football game playing on the television. He doesn’t know whether it’s live or a rerun or replay or whatever they call it when they screen a game again. Rerun probably. Like old reruns of FRIENDS. What an awful show.

He comes to work early and leaves late. He is dedicated. He doesn’t see why the new girl isn’t. He doesn’t want her to be involved, to give him ideas, but he needs her there as a sounding board. He needs to talk to someone while he works. He needs to see her giving him results, otherwise why the hell is she in the budget.

Sam calls his wife back late, after he’s showered and shaved again (it’s twice a day now that he has to shave. He doesn’t want to be like all the bearded men in his office. It prickles and it makes him look vaguely religious, he thinks). Her voice is distracted. It’s a bad time for her, he can tell. He says sorry for not picking up. He was out, there was wind, he was smoking, etcetera. She tells him she thought he was going to quit smoking. She laughs. He laughs too, relieved. She’s not really rebuking him.

He has a whole weekend ahead of him but his thoughts are consumed with his project. The first one he’s heading. So much rests on this success. He has to make it work. He needs her, the new girl, he doesn’t have the time to do it all alone, but he also doesn’t have time for her, to tell her what she needs to do or if any of it is good. He figures if something is wrong, he’ll tell her. Otherwise, it’s quicker for them both to get on with what they’re doing. More efficient.

Sam thinks he’s a good boss. A good husband. A good man. Two out of three ain’t bad either, though, he thinks.

Pre-Trial

 


They say it’s passion that gets you here but I don’t believe that. It’s not passion. It’s greed.

At least, it was for me.

When I was a kid, my sister wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be as big as Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Kidman. I don’t know why she focused on those two. They had nothing to do with one another. They were both hot, sure, but she was too young to know that. I think. Who knows what girls learn. They say they mature faster than boys, and I guess I can say that’s true enough.

Anyway, in college, I had this girlfriend. The first one I’d ever had. And she wanted to make big bucks. I mean, big. She was going straight to law school and from there to some big corporation that she’d been interning with since she was seventeen. It was scary, man. It was like, she knew what she wanted to do and she was doing anything and everything she could to get there. It was damn sexy, let me tell you that, but she was kind of impatient with me. She liked me well enough, I guess, but she didn’t like the way I bummed around.

She didn’t like that I didn’t have goals. That was the main thing. That was what broke us up.

What happened was on our three year anniversary she dumped me. Right there on the quad, on our way home from the restaurant, the only real restaurant in our middle-of-nowhere college town. I told my buddies and my mom that I knew something was off the whole evening but that’s not true. In hindsight, I started to wonder whether there had been signs, so I said there were, because I looked like enough of a chump already, but there weren’t. She hadn’t said anything to make me suspect.

Even when she dumped me she said she loved me. I hate that. You can’t love someone and then tell them you shouldn’t be together. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Graduation was pretty soon too, and she knew I had big exams coming up before then but I guess so did she, so I can’t really complain about that so much.

I didn’t know what to do with myself after. I almost failed a bunch of tests. And after college, man, I was pathetic. I lived at home with my mom and my bum brothers and just watched Adventure Time and smoked weed all day. For like months.

Until I saw that she’d updated her Facebook status. She had a new boyfriend. Some dude with a LinkedIn resume about a mile long. He was older, too, like almost thirty. That’s when I had to change things.

So I started looking for where I could go that would make her find out about me and I’d always done a little bit of coding on the side, you know, just for fun really, but I suddenly realized how much people wanted to hire people like me. So I got a job by lying on my resume about how much I knew and I learned on the fly. It meant lots of all-nighters at the office, but that was fine, it was one of those cool ones where they had beer on tap and coffee machines everywhere.

Now here I am, ten years later, and she’s suing me. Believe that? Suing me. Okay, not her, a client of hers, but whatever, it’s damn near enough to be the same thing. Her clients are competitors of the company I founded and they’re saying we stole a bunch of ideas from them.

So what if I did? Everyone steals from everyone these days. And I’m rich enough that I can afford the best damned tech lawyer out there. Which happens to be her, actually, but I can’t hire her so I hired some guy who used to work for her.

The guys that work for me keep asking me why I’m not more nervous. The trial starts tomorrow and all, they tell me, and even though they’re loyal and they think I’m the bomb and all, they’re scared they’re going to lose their jobs real soon. A couple people have quit on me already.

So here I am, telling you now, this is why I’m not nervous. Because I get to see her again tomorrow, for the first time in over ten years. And I know she’s divorced. And I have a plan.

Seventy Four and Human

Seventy-four years old, the old man preserves his memories. Laboriously, he types them into the computer. This is easier on his hands than a pen and notepaper, but his arthritic fingers still ache with every hard stab to the keyboard.

When the bell rings, he stops. He is only allowed to write for an hour a day. His doctor daughter has forbidden any more. He occasionally wonders whether her medical advice is sound. Maybe she just doesn’t want him to get very far. Scared of what she might find out about him.

The old man never thinks of himself as one. He hears that seventy is the new fifty, and he would agree if he had the full use of his hands. But he has been degenerating since his early sixties and has never felt more tired in his life. He feels ill, not old.

He thinks of what he has written today. He doesn’t have a method, a system of chronology. He writes the memories as they come. Sometimes they are of his wooden toys and childhood friends. Sometimes they are of his mother’s death when he was working as a guard on a train in his late twenties.

Today he wrote about Luba, his first love. They were twelve and shared a birthday. They met on the streets of Boston, where both their families had ended up after fleeing Europe. They liked the same flavor of ice cream and the same music. They had very different opinions on kissing. Luba wanted to. He didn’t. The last time he saw her was when he graduated high school and she came to the ceremony as a drop-out watching some boy she was dating get his diploma.

This is the sort of thing the old man’s daughter doesn’t want to know, he thinks. She doesn’t want to believe he has ever been anything but hers, first her father and now her charge. She takes care of him and is a good girl, but she has never entirely believed he is human.

He hopes she will read his memories when he dies. He hopes she will understand. He hopes she will remember.

Goal Oriented

Rest when you’re dead. Carve up those calves, chisel those muscles. Make a sculptor of your will. Your body is the block of marble. The angel just needs to be freed.

Don’t mumble, stand up straight, wear suits. Make a good first impression. Crate your baggage upstairs on your own and leave it there to rot. Leave it in the attic, at the top of the house. Lock the door, swallow the key. Leave the skeletons to decompose. You have thousands of years at your disposal. You can afford to wait.

Sport a pair of sunglasses. Hide your eyes. Leave the sagging skin in bed with the rumpled sheets. Keep the smile in the corners of your mouth. The only acceptable wrinkles when you’re pushing thirty are laugh-lines.