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The Optimist 

The Optimist

I can feel the heat tingle in my belly. The fear begins to pull at me, it’s almost hilarious. I can’t help but let out a laugh. It’s full of breath and sounds like it’s coming from someone else. It makes me look around. Nope, Just me. My gut sings its biological warning all throughout my capillaries. The pain is so acute it’s euphoric. I turn my head and see myself in the large mirror above the bathroom sink to my right. I look transparent. How did it come to this?

But I know the answer.

I grabbed the already unattached roll of toilet paper and began ripping off pieces to clean my open wound. This dance again. Despite how it seems, it’s not a chaotic dance. Not a primal jerking of the hips against a strange ass on the roof top of a shitty downtown bar while whiskey rolls through my veins and a cacophony of robotic mash parading around as music drags its claws along the soft surface of my sweaty skin. No, this is a waltz. I may sweat as anxiety grips me by the throat, but I maintain a certain level of elegance and precision as I sway to the tide. She will be watching soon.

The truth is; I’m bleeding, more than a little. But if I use too much toilet paper, she could find out. If I walk out of this bathroom like a city boy fresh off the boat from the sea in storm, she could find out. I must stop the bleeding and keep myself together, discretely.

Holy red trickles through the thin white paper and crusts my knuckles with control. I look like I’m wearing ruby rings. Red is such a pretty color.

The bloody tissue can’t be thrown away of course, the toilet is the only option. The toilet can’t be overloaded so much as to clog though, too risky.

Ooo that hurt. I can’t forget to wear clean socks to bed tonight. Do I have clean socks? Is the basket clean or dirty? I can’t remember.

I step down carefully from my seated position on the laminate bathroom counter top and whip out the box of band aids I keep in my mini chest. The box is getting low. I need to stop by the drug store tomorrow and pick up more.

Then again, maybe tomorrow I won’t need them. *

I woke up holding my whole world. She, warm in my arms and fit like she should. Not in the sense that she has the perfect size body, she just fits correctly, she makes me whole. Her chestnut hair with a tinge of dark cherry was all over my face and a little in my mouth. I didn’t mind. I usually describe her hair like that but to be honest she has died that hair of hers so many times it’s a color all its own. I rubbed her milky white arm that she’s been trying to tan for months now. God love her it hasn’t darkened a shade. I wonder why someone with that arm allows someone with this hand to stroke it.

She gained consciousness, rolling over her lithe body under the soft sheets and attacked me with those blue eyes. She always gets this look in her eyes when she first wakes like a fey creature approaching mortal men lost in the woods. She has such a lazy elegance about her.

A languorous smile tickles the end of her lips. “How’d you sleep?” I ask.

“Not as well as you,” she smiles ruefully. “Was I snoring again?”

“Never,” she stuck her tongue out a me and I bit it. I grab her ass and pull her close while kissing her like the world is ending. “Stop it,” she says. I don’t. “I have to make breakfast. I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” I say giving her the look.

She punches me playfully and rolls out of bed.

Her lips are moving and I’d be willing to bet words of some kind are coming out,

probably even words directed at me. All I can do is stare. “Are your listening to me?”

“Of course.”

She narrows her eyes, “You get your ass in the kitchen.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She makes threatening eyes at me once more and walks off to the kitchen. I look

around her bedroom after she’s left. It’s so easy to forget the truth when she looks at me. Things feel fine. I feel strong.

With nothing but myself and the lingering smell of lavender oils in the room I compose myself (attempt). Deep breath in. Hold. Slow release. Repeat: Deep breath in. Hold. Slow release. Her room has such a good energy. Large canvas hangs all along the walls. Two of them are by local Denver artists, the other three are hers. She says that she aspires to some day be as good as the other artists that hang on her walls. This is of course humble nonsense.

Small circular mirrors hang throughout her room at heights just too high or just too low to properly see your reflection in. She has no bookshelf, instead the front left corner of her room has piles of novels and journals filled to the covers with drawings, poems, and self reflections written in narrative form. Not a single self help book can be found in the collection.

No piece of clothing sits on the ground, no spec of dust rests its head on hard surface.

This is representative of the rest of the one bedroom apartment. She could design a room half a world away and I could sniff it out at a glance.

The heat of the bed feels so nice I don’t want to get out and face the cruel air of the day. Who knows how much longer I’ll have this. I try to recognize this as a moment I will look back and miss. I can see myself at some dirty dive bar in the future telling an acquaintance about this girl I used to know. About these being the good times I wish I had back over the sound of cue balls rolling along scratched felt and muffled speakers playing a song nobody is listening to. Yet I feel it hard to truly except how fleeting this moment is. Brevity is a bitch.

I begin to make her bed even though I don’t grasp the concept. Why make the bed? Who is this for? She owns enough pillows to field a football team. We sleep with two. Every night the rest are placed along the wall, every morning they provisionally return.

In the bathroom connected to the master bedroom (also known as the only bathroom) I splashed some water across my face. Today is a big day and I needed to focus. They’re all big days. I’m running out of time.

Is she mad at me? Was I weird this morning? Too forceful? Is she in the kitchen right now picking me apart? Wishing I wasn’t here? I’m never cool anymore. I need to pretend to be cool more. How did I used to do that?

I practice my ‘I’m okay’ face in the large bathroom mirror until it stops looking like I’m passing a kidney stone, and then get my ass in the kitchen.

The second I left the bedroom a smell, both familiar and pungent accosted my senses. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

“The eggs are going. I’m gonna jump in the shower, can you watch the bacon?” she asks stirring the pan in nothing but her panties and my t-shirt. She’s always stealing my clothes (Apparently when I steal her clothes it’s considerably less sexy. According to her.).

I took the long wooden utensil from her hand and poked at the eggs languidly with my mind far away. That smell though. It wasn’t the eggs or the bacon. It reminded me of the past. Of dad. To the right I could see the slow cooker was brimming with vibrant anticipation. I peaked behind me; she was standing there wearing an impish grin like a teenage girl, thrilled with herself. I pulled back the top to the slow cooker and saw that it held several pounds of pork cushion that had been cooking all through the night.

“Where did you get it?”

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know.” She is beaming.

“You’re too good to me, Keys.”

She stepped in close. “And don’t you forget it mother fucker.” She stole a kiss and

skipped off to the shower. Keys was the nickname I gave her a little while after we started dating. It’s not just some cute pet name, it has significance. Significance she is still not privy to and bugs me incessantly about the meaning. Maybe I’ll tell her when I find a job.

I could hear her sing off key as beads of water fell through her strange grace. I looked around at the creatively decorated apartment that she welcomed me to over a years ago. No matter how much I want to make it feel like home, I know the truth: I’m a stranger, the bad guy in a child’s cartoon just waiting for someone to lift my mask.

Keys returned with wavy hair combed pretty and corporate. Her skirt was long and boring, her button down shirt looked foreign. Those heels of hers though sang with authenticity. No matter how long she keeps this job, no matter how high she works her way up in the world of neckties and corny jokes, to me, she will always look like a punk rock girl wearing her mom’s clothes for an interview.

We sat down with eggs, bacon and spinach (she always makes me eat vegetables) at the table that’s in both the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room (foyer? Is that a thing?). She ate viciously, as she tends to do. I don’t envy those forks. I ate slowly, just watching her and taking it all in.

She looked up to me with juice from the runny egg yolk dripping from her chin, “Is your car at Maggie’s?”

“Nope, I didn’t go last night.”

“Good,” Keys rose from her chair and put on her suit jacket. It looked out of place on her intimate shoulders. “Promise me you’ll finish your food after I leave?”

“Promise.”

She put her hand on my face and leaned in real close, “I know today is going to be a big one for you, your going to kill it. You’re going to come home with so many job offers we’ll have to stay up all night weighting the options.” She kissed me. “You’re The Guy and don’t you forget it,” she stared deep into my eyes with purpose and held her gaze. “The gym interview is today, right?”

“This morning.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

She brought my head to her chest and held it there like a mother before her son

marches off to war. I tried not to hold her as tight as I wanted. Clingy isn’t a good look. She slowly released me and made her way to the door. All the things I wanted to say ran through my head. All the truths that have been bubbling beneath the surface, too timid to dawn their face to all that might see.

I love her more than she loves me. Sometimes I wish I could love her less, even things out. I try focusing on her faults. I know she has them. Maybe I could start writing them down?

After the door shut I crept over to the window and watch her drive away. My feet pained me as I walked. I left the blinds just cracked enough so I could watch, but still hidden enough so she wouldn’t be able to see me watching her from our first floor window. Despite being hidden by the blinds, I crouched so only my eyes poked over the window sill, for safe keeping. Your boyfriend watching you leave every morning from the window like a golden retriever isn’t a good look either.

Cool! I realize. I totally forgot to be cool! Did I say anything witty at breakfast? Did I make her laugh? I don’t remember her laughing.

In the parking lot, Keys looks back in my direction before she enters her car. I throw myself to the ground as fast as I can to avoid being spotted. Could she feel me looking at her? In my haste I flailed out and knocked the blinds making them dance with guilt. Bad start.

I consider sending her a text message explaining myself. Explaining I wasn’t watching her like a psychopath, but instead cleaning the blinds so she could come home to a nice apartment. No, she does all the cleaning. I’m not sure I even know how to clean the blinds. Water? Bleach? That green bottle that she is always doing something with?

Maybe I could text her that I watch her leave every day to prevent her from being attacked and sold into the Denver sex traffic ring. (Heroic?) No that makes me sound like a psychopath too. Especially after the last text message incident:

Last week I saw a text on her phone. It was a missed text, from me. My name in her phone was my name. First name and last name. This is, of course, basically her breaking up with me. I though I was in her phone as: ‘The Guy’ which is adorable, and her changing it is equivalent to being Photoshopped out of a meaningful picture.

It’s worth noting, it turned out that the name in her phone in which the text message was from, was not me, and from a girl named ‘Mandy’ I forget her last name. Which is admittedly not very close to my name.

After her car was off into the warm October morning, I walked over and smelled the pork cushion. It was always my dad’s favorite. I wondered if tonight was a special occasion I had forgotten. An anniversary of some sort? Then it dawned on me: it’s my last meal, a goodbye present.

*

I hate job hunting. I hate the term. Saying hunting implies that I have some type of power. Job begging is far closer to the truth. Someone seeking employment in general has no power. I feel more like a gazelle running in a herd of hundreds, trying to look appetizing enough for the lion to eat (pick me! I’m delicious!).

I have to mold myself into whatever piece of clay would best fit in the corporate wall until all signs of me as an individual are lost. The questions asked of me on applications and in interviews force my deceit.

On one of my most recent interviews I was actually asked if I have ever told someone something I knew wasn’t true. What kind of sick fuck came up with that? ‘Oh absolutely sir, I lie to whomever I need to for self gain. I lied to my mother when I was fourteen years old and I told her I didn’t know why the bathroom towels were so hard now, knowing damn well they were heavily crusted with my seaman, and I lied to you when you asked if I’m a good problem solver. I’m a terrible problem solver. I get sweaty and start blaming people.’

They literally want you to lie. Job begging is just a perpetual state of being overtly judged and nitpicked like a dog in show. You walk in to employer after employer, dropping your soul on the counter and watch it get brushed to the side like leftover table scraps. Sometimes nicely, sometimes they don’t even take the time to acknowledge you exist.

Honestly, I never thought I’d be in this position. Growing up I always knew how I would make my living. Just like my dad; I was going to be a butcher. I was practically born one. All my first memories were of dad and I in the shop. He immigrated here from Austria when he was nineteen years old with nothing but the shirt on his back and a mustache that could make a straight man blush.

When he first showed up to the shores of this proverbial slab of dirt, he had no clue how he would make it. All his friends back home bailed on the voyage. He was alone. He spent three weeks in the back of a van on his way to Denver with nothing but hungry men that didn’t love him and an auspicious fire burning hot in his empty belly. They stopped only to sleep in cramped motel rooms while my dad ate portions too small to fill a child.

Once they finally made it to Denver, he slept his first two months in a three hundred square foot shoe box in the city with twenty eight other immigrants. When he first met the man he affectionately called ‘that bloody lunatic’ his ribs were like xylophones and he smelled like body odor and dissolving dreams.

The lunatic took my father under his wing and showed him how to run a business. He was a butcher. The man knew everything there was about the industry. He loved it. He was it. He showed dad what made a good cut of meat, what made each cut special, how to prepare them, how to preserve them and how to hunt them down in a sporadically saturated market. More than anything though, he showed my father how to run a show. It wasn’t my father’s product knowledge or ability that made him pick the bony nineteen year old Austrian. It was

his smile. It was the way he held his then lean waistline as he bellowed out strong guttural laughter. It was the way he pulled at with his mustache and squinted his eyes as he playfully mocked you.

My father’s mentor had him on the payroll for six years. My dad saved every penny he made and, with the help of a small business loan, opened the shop off Curtis street. It’s now an artisanal soda bar.

I could develop dementia to the point that the faces I know every crease of lose their names. I could drink brown liquor and eat drugs until I forget myself. I could hit my skull with a hammer until all that remains is memory mush, and I would still remember when my father first began taking me to his store.

I went to work with him for the first time when I was seven years old. It was gross. I feel in love instantly. The smell of the freezer, the hum of the ghetto rigged electricity, the look people would get in their eyes when talking to my father. He was such a free spirit. The words he said under his signature mustache were irrelevant (he was often hardly listening to himself). The way he laughed deep in his ever expanding gut was enough to bring people in off the street.

My dad was kind. My dad was fun, but more than anything my dad had the type of ferocious honesty that made you feel like childhood friends after meeting him just moments ago. They say that friendships are made in minutes. My dad never needed that long.

His shop wasn’t loud and full of décor. He had no interior designer, no ‘brand’ he was trying to covey. It wasn’t dressed up in paint and pretty lies. His shop was him: simple and honest. A long counter ran along both sides of the shop and the back like a rectangle missing its bottom half. On the wall their was nothing but a clock and a chalkboard list of his inventory that was meticulously updated on a daily basis. Meats did not have hollow names cultivated by marketing teams. There were three sections: Beef, Pork, Poultry. We were the only place I knew in town that served goose. Just like the old country. Below each was the current options and fair prices.

The not so well kept secret on the menu was his schnitzel. He even prepared it. An Austrian gift from the old country to the new.

The sign outside read: Butcher Shop. When asked to list himself in phone books or papers, my father put: Butcher shop. Marketing was not on the list of his strong suites.

It didn’t matter. Word of mouth and return customers was enough to keep the lights on and dress me in clothing to pretend like I was cool enough to hide in the herd of public school chaos.

He embodied the American dream to me. The way he ran the show by himself with juicy hands and rosy cheeks. Sitting next to his table on my little hand made stool, I would watch him slice, package and press. Nothing dimmed his brilliance, nothing tamed his fire. Even after mom left, I could tell he missed her but he didn’t change a thing. He didn’t pine for her like a lugubrious teenager, nor did he pretend she didn’t exist. He spoke to me about her with honesty. He acknowledged the truth.

Other kids hung up pictures on their wall of artists, athletes and their god. I had no need for such things.

Dad would always sit and talk romantically about the day he would pass off the shop to me and he could just sit on his ass and drink whiskey and play that damn harmonica of his. Our future was set.

Then came the chain gang. When the grocery store first moved in I don’t think either of us payed much mind. I was in high school and the landscape of Curtis street was much

changed. Paper boys and slow paced commuters were replaced by brake lights and shanty towns with the tattered tents of sun scorned humans that had lost hope, fighting the blue and red lights of gangsters forcing them to move down the unwelcome road.

Downtown Denver was no longer a small town at the base of the Rockies. Tall glass windowed buildings crawled with sunken eyed men looking for any way to make their name something that sat on hungry tongues. People worked long hours and only satiated their bloodshot eyes with coffee beans and false promises told by fortunate fools.

People began to cook less and less. The lifestyle made no time for it. Quality relinquished it reign to convenience that could make change for a five. People lost touch with what they put in their bellies. Dinner with the family gave way to twenty nine minute breaks and something you could microwave in your study while the woman you used to know made your creations ‘be quiet’ because ‘daddy’s working.’

It wasn’t all at once. I crept slow like an enemy in the fog. Dad made little adjustments and cut cost when he could. He treated it just like he treated losing the woman he loved. He didn’t hide it from me. He didn’t tell me everything was fine while shedding quiet tears in the dark. He told me things were tough. He told me his plans. I was his business partner.

I never worried, how could I? My dad was too great to fall.

He maintained through the turbulence and in some ways even thrived. Everything was going to be fine.

Then dad had his stoke. He dealt with it just like everything else. I remember sitting in the back of the shop on a cold winter night. I had just broke into tears. He grabbed me by the back of the head and said just what I needed to hear, he always knew what to say. He was the one that had a stroke yet there he was, comforting me.

Then came his second stroke. And his third. I think that charm of his was too much for his heart.

After he passed I started growing out the hair above my lip. I was twenty three. Many of the regular customers were becoming more sporadic and the local businesses that ordered in bulk were dwindling.

This was when I realized how different I am from my father. All the same people that would spend an hour with my father, came into greet me with darting eyes and excuses for quick departures. I was not only not my father, I was charity. I could hear myself becoming the topic of poignant conversations over grocery bought dinners. I watched sales decline with dull eyes and icy finger tips. I wanted to do something to combat it, but my world was nebulous and hard to touch. I was far past the point that a pragmatic man would begin to feel the dread, yet I had none. I was barely there.

Then she came along. I still remember the first day she busted through the shop’s door like I dreamed it. It was spring. I was in my third year running the shop alone. She was wearing a robins egg blue button down and a long professional skirt that could be best described as: boring. Her hair during that time was dirty blonde. She was frighteningly beautiful.

Not just her appearance, her energy made my asshole pucker and my tongue swell to a useless size.

She stumbled in holding parchment containing the letter head of her marketing agency. I held a list of cuts of meat and quantities written down in frantically sincere penmanship. “Can I Would you be able to What would I ” She looked at me like a drowning women looking for something that floats, defiant all the same. “It’s a cooko work type of thing.” Her eyes big and frazzled.

“I could do that.”

“By tonight?”

I struggled not to laugh, “By tonight.”

A wave of relief washed over her face. “Well I guess you’re what I’m looking for.” I stuck my hands in the sink and turned on hot water.

“You’re The Guy?”

“I’m The Guy.”

I remember trying not to peak at her as I slid my gloves onto clean hands.

“So this place is weird.”

“Ya?”

“No, not like you or anything. I’m sure you’re fine. Just this place. I didn’t know

butchers existed anymore other than like in scary movies and stuff.” She looked around at the barren walls. “Are you weird?”

“Kinda.”

“Cool,” she nodded her head. “Me too.” She played her thighs like bongo drums. The shop hummed. “I’m guessing no women work here?”

“Why do you say that?”

She took a deep inhale through her nostrils, “No reason.”

She left that night with a grateful smile as the warm Denver winds ran through her

temporarily blonde hair. My father taught me how important professionalism was. If I flirted with every attractive female that came through, women would become hesitant to step foot through the doors. Nothing is worse than being known as ‘the creep’ and I couldn’t let that be another one of my father’s sentiments that I let fall flat to the dirty Denver pavement.

The second time Keys came to my shop I was surprised. The night before I had let a bottle of whiskey whisper in my ear until the loser birds sang mockingly into the early morning twilight. (My dad used to always call them loser birds because if you stay up long enough to hear them, you lost the next day. Or you’re a loser. I can’t remember.)

She walked into my shop wearing an off white sun dress and a smile so clever I felt busted for things I never did. “Hello there,” she said to me.

Sometimes when I know I’m outmatched, I stay silent.

“I was interested in prepping some meals for the upcoming week. I want to be healthy. I’m trying this new diet. I probably wont last a week. Anyway, are you still The Guy?”

I felt strings pull at the corners of my lips, “I might be.”

It became a thing after that. Keys would come in once a week asking about lean meats for meal prep and curious if I was “The Guy?” I was half convinced she went home and threw away most of what she bought from me. Her presence perplexed me. Why here?

Part of me felt like she came in to flirt with me. But the part of me that looked into her big blue clever eyes and began to hear more and more the way she saw the world understood the obvious truth; girls like that don’t like guys like me.

She was an artist; she sketched, painted, read, wrote free verse weirdness and walked with a delicate grace I didn’t understand. She was quick witted and mean. She also seemed to sense how injured I was. She never poked me where it hurt. She listened to things and remembered. She would come in the shop after work with a wild energy under her words and ramble about nothing at me for minutes until she realized what she was doing.

She was wonderfully human. I was a sinking ship.

We waltzed in careful trepidation for just under four months until one of us proved not to be a coward: “I painted some stuff. It’s weird. Nobody will like it. It’s hanging up in a

warehouse in the Santa Fe art district this weekend. Nobody’s coming,” she was calm on that fateful morning but her blue eyes were blazing. “Wanna come?”

That night was full of all the moment found ubiquitous in love stories. I kept waiting for her to introduce me to her boyfriend, he never came. It seemed I was interviewing for the job.

We began spending all our free time together. I was a man drowning in financial failure, yet somehow, my lungs found no trouble finding breath.

We first officially started dating in June. I was ruined by September.

Despite my thriving personal life, I watched the shop begin to climb into the coffin. Rent continued to raise, sales continued to drop. I had failed my father. I had failed my childhood. I had failed the whole middle class and every immigrant with a dream they held between bloody calloused fingers. What could be done though? How could I compete? The superior quality of my product was irrelevant. People are already going to the big chain grocery store for everything else. Why make a specific stop at a place that’s more expensive, not made ready to eat and at a dangerous deficit in mustache presence?

I hear the artisanal soda bar that bought the place is doing great. It’s owned by the same conglomerate that owns the grocery store.

That September Keys asked me to move in. That was thirteen months ago. Things were so pretty when I first moved into her apartment. “Not my apartment,” she would say. “Ours.”

At some point though, the handsome sculpture of your boyfriend who lost his business melts in harsh winds to the truth of your unemployed deadbeat roommate that sleeps in your bed smelling like failure and your coconut conditioner.

Of course I could get a job at the grocer that put me under. I could be a charlatan in the deli section behind glass stained with the hand prints of upper middle class housewives just trying to fill the time while the kids they love and also hate are at school. I could grow out a mustache and slice preserved meat for twelve dollars an hour, roll that green apron over my bony neck and piss on the grave of the man that made me. I could take everything he ever worked and for blow it into the cosmos like a million grains of sand on lips wet with brown liquor. I could be That Guy. But I’m an Optimist.

*

I slipped on the rug getting out of the shower and hit the hard bathroom floor with a thud. I hold myself on the bathroom floor and whimper. I would never whimper if she, or anyone else was here. But nobody is here. The whimper is not for sympathy, I’m not looking for pity. It’s just nice to whimper alone on the bathroom floor sometimes. There will certainly be a bruise on my right hip tomorrow.

The tiny bathroom can’t take the heat so despite the running fan over head, I wiped steam off the large bathroom mirror to reveal my foggy reflection. The mirror is the only thing that isn’t small in this bathroom, it covers an entire wall. I have mixed feelings about it extending past the sink and over the toilet. The ability to see my dick as I piss really makes me realize what an ugly alien mushroom creature that thing is. The flaccid penis is such an unfortunate sight. On bad dick days I have no choice but to look away.

After shaving my face nice and close and combing my hair that’s too short to comb (it’s soothing) I began trying on different shirt-tie combos. The white shirt has had such bad luck as of late, so has the blue, and the gray plaid. The maroon shirt saw the “I can be who you

want me to be” fiasco and will be burnt the moment the county lifts the fire ban. The off white shirt has also had very bad luck.

I tie my yellow tie over my plain black shirt. Both were picked out by Keys. It looks good. I recognize it to be a strange thing to wear a tie to an interview at a gym, I don’t know what else I would wear though. If I had muscles I could wear a polo shirt. I could impress everyone with how much time I spend lifting weights in the gym and eating beef or spinach or steroids or whatever muscle guys eat, and all the girls would say “that’s a hot guy.” (Sorry ladies, I’m taken.)

Before Keys saved me, every nice shirt I wore made me look like a kid at freshman homecoming wearing his dad’s dinner jacket and wondering if he was going to get to touch some over the shirt boob (over the dress).

October in Denver is gray and usually cold, but anyone who has spent time in this bipolar state sitting under the Rocky Mountains knows that she’s always off her meds. Bright sun greeted me as I gingerly stepped onto the hot asphalt of the parking lot. A good omen perhaps.

My small two door pickup truck was made in the year of our lord: 1984. For its age it’s in great condition; the blood red paint has few chips, the gray interior has few stains, and the speakers work well, not great, well. There is a divot in the dash in front of the passenger seat from an unfortunate mishap caused by my scrawny ass trying to unload a side table by myself, then subsequently punching the dent for safe keeping (there was a wrist injury and a parking lot melt down I’d rather not address at this moment. Ask the neighbors, they remember.).

Hiding this charming bruise on my dashboard is an old polaroid picture of my dad and I at the shop when I was kid. He’s wearing that charming mustache smile. It didn’t used to be a polariod and it’s not really as old as it looks (my girlfriend is artsy).

The old pickup and I have developed quite the relationship in the last thirteen months. It sings to me and tells me news while I drive around all day humiliating myself. My pickup and Key’s bathroom are the only places I feel control these days.

Sitting in the drivers seat I take a deep breath, hold it, and let it go slow. I repeat this ten times. It allegedly helps with anxiety.

I think of the day the universe has in store for me.

There is a collections of YouTube videos that show large snakes swallowing much larger creatures whole with unhinged jaws (a particular deer video haunts me). Why these videos exist I’m sure I don’t know but I’ve seen so many of them they get suggested the second I pull up the app. I keep my phone locked.

In these videos, when the snake first gets a hold, the larger animal usually thinks it can get away. It’s confused. What is this creepy little thing doing? Why does such a small creature think I can be lunch? This isn’t the way they go down, after all, they still see the sunlight. There’s no sunlight in death.

Then the snake swallows a little. The larger animal begins to panic and struggle. It kicks and screams and gives its full power to jerk free of this living nightmare. The snake swallows a little more. The animal uses every piece of energy now to get the hell out of this situation. It looks around for something to save it, anything. The screams turn almost human (those might just be my screams). The snake swallows a little more. The animal then begins to realize its inexorable doom. It does not kick, it does not scream, the fear in its eyes is replace by a blank stare as its body goes languid and waits silently to be fully engulfed.

As for me, I haven’t stopped kicking or anything. I still see sunlight. But as I look down this morning, my ankles are gone.

Driving down the sunny street I can’t see a thing. My sunglasses are so dirty with finger prints it looks like I’m driving in the matrix. I attempt to clean them with my tie while steering the big hunk of metal with my knee (I’m not what you would call a ‘rule follower’. Keys has always liked bad boys.)

Putting my sunglasses back on I notice that my tie did almost nothing to help the situation. In my rear view mirror I see a police officer following behind me, closely. He (she?) then does the trick where he (she?) slows down and falls back while waiting for me to continue driving like a maniac and presumably running my plates.

I’m going to jail. I’m getting pulled over and going to jail. I know for a fact that I spilled weed in here last month and a quick search would find at least two nugs. Maybe more. Wait, weed is legal. You definitely can’t have it in your car though. Can you?

While I debate what gang I would join in prison (anything but the Nazi’s or white nationalist or patriots or whatever the hell their called these days) I notice the lights of the cop car illuminate as it careens off to the side of the road. I’m safe. It appears the cop noticed a homeless person existing.

I try my deep breaths again.

Then, with nothing on the radio, I retreat further inward:

What if right now Keys is sitting in a meeting at work. A long expensive looking wooden

table lined with uncomfortably modern chairs sits in the middle of the room. A man in a suit that costs my six months rent stands in front holding a clicker to control the PowerPoint he spent very little time preparing. The PowerPoint is detailing out how to manipulate people into spending money they don’t have for their current client. Across the table from Keys is some douchebag with an ambiguous title like ‘Project Manager’ or ‘Project Analyst’ or ‘Vice President of Something Pretty’. He’s flirting with my girlfriend. He always flirts with her. He knows about me, maybe not me in particular but at least that there is a me. It doesn’t stop him. It only makes him push harder. She usually just shrugs him off but it’s been building in her recently. Her boyfriend is a freeloading deadbeat and this ‘Project Manager’ could buy her things. Pretty things. His money could allow her to create the art she wants and quite this job where she takes her passion and talent, distorts it and turns it into a cheap commodity. He might even be able to actually make her laugh. What if right now Keys is sitting in a board room giving the ‘Project Manager’ the look to let him know all his hard work is about to pay off. What if she’s planning her getaway. Ooo that would hurt.

*

Pulling up to the gym the clock read: 10:11am. My interview isn’t until 10:30am. Being early helps with the anxiety. However, there is no crueler form of torture than sitting alone in a lobby waiting for an interview. It’s important to convey a positive image. So I find myself sitting up uncomfortably straight and over dressed, staring at nothing while trying to make my face sit somewhere that resembles happy and not crazy. It’s a fine line.

Everyone in the place knows why I’m there. You can hear judgmental whispers and see the current staff sizing you up out of the corner of your purposefully dull and hopefully not crazy eyes. ‘Do I want to work with this asshole everyday?’ ‘Is he going to sit there with that dumb grin the whole time?’ ‘I bet his girlfriend picked out that tie. She’s probably thinking about cheating on him.’

Considering the amount of perspiration that this fun little dance will induce, I decided to sit in the parking lot for a few minutes and listen to the radio.

On talk radio this morning two guys with perfectly cultivated zany voices were reporting on the days big story: A black man was killed over the weekend in Minneapolis by a police officer. The victims name is Eric Floyd. He was suspected of selling candy on the street outside of a sporting event without a permit, specifically jelly beans.

The police had the wrong guy. Floyd, a father of three, was on his way to work when the officer pointed his gun at the innocent man’s head, forced him to the ground and put his knee in Floyd’s neck in a ‘carotid restraint’ until he no longer drew painful breaths.

One of the zany men thought it was ‘so sad, and all over an allegedly fake check.’ The other host had to remind him that, ‘No. That was the black man that was shot two weeks ago in Philadelphia. This one was selling jelly beans.’

They began to move on to the next segment which involved ranking the top five best lip injections among celebs. The rating was based on believability and sex appeal (spoiler alert: a 16 year old will take the top spot) when the host has to backtrack for a moment: ‘So sorry everyone. My producer wanted to make one quick clarification. I said that Eric Floyd was the one selling jelly beans. He was not. They had the wrong guy.’

For some reason this wasn’t helping my anxiety. Looking down to see the snake half way up my shins, I decided to attempt drying my armpits with a fast food napkin, slap on my dumb gin and headed inside.

The moment I entered through the gym doors a pungent aroma accosted me to such a degree it made me close my eyes for a moment. The smell is an amalgamation of rubber, iron, body odor, ill-advised perfume (for cute boys), and another smell that could be best described as: hunger.

The gym is busy with the sounds of expensive shoes slapping treadmills, garrulous middle aged men trapping acquaintances in unsolicited banal conversation while ignoring all signs of distress in their victims, almost naked women getting irritated at the watching eyes, and the manly bravado filled grunts of men trying to make eye contact with the almost naked women, who are irritated.

“Hello,” I said to the women behind the front desk. “I’m here for a 10:30 interview with Garrett.”

She looked at me saying nothing. Her face wore a looks of supercilious disinterest. She was both too good and too bored to deal with me. She was maybe old enough to drink at a bar but I doubt it. She was gorgeous, like some type of dystopian achievement of science through selective genetics. She didn’t look to have an ounce of fat on her. Although she was looking directly at me, I wasn’t sure she saw me. I began to look around and sweat when she finally spoke:

“K.” Smacking her gum she seemed to type something on the computer.

So here I am. Again. In the lobby of a business I don’t know. Sitting on the edge of a chair. My stare: straight. My grin: dumb. My armpits: live a river.

I tried not to look around too much. I didn’t want to seem impatient in the likely event I was being watched. A quick glance at the digital clock above the treadmills showed a time of: 10:34am. I had been sitting like this for about ten minutes.

There was a time in which I had standards in the kind of job I’d take. The kind of pay I was looking for. I can almost remember what that felt like.

A muscular bro with wild blonde hair and a tank top so tight I wondered how he was breathing, passed in front of me and approached the female human perfection working the front desk. I eavesdropped:

“Hey there, pretty girl.”

She looks up, saying nothing.

He flexes, “How’s your day?”

She makes a face of indifference.

“Totally. Me too.” He flexes. “So what do you do when your not here, pretty girl? What’s

your story?”

The beautiful young women wore the same look as when I spoke to her, “Whaduya

mean?”

“Like, what do you like? Do you read?”

“Like articles and stuff?”

“Totally. But no like books?”

“I like Netflix.”

“Totally. Netflix is awesome. It’s so great. I love it,” he looked down to his bicep, flexed

it and continued. “I read a lot of books. I like Ernest Hemmingway. I’m a writer or whatever.” “Like motorcycles?”

“Huh?”

“You ride, like, motorcycles?”

“No like write. Like really riveting observations from my mind or whatever.”

Silence.

“Motorcycles are totally awesome though. I seriously love motorcycles. For real, they’re

dope! Hey, want to go get dinner sometime?” Painful pause.

“Uh, I don’t know. I’m just really busy and stuff.”

“Cool. Cool. Me too. Super busy. But, well, if you find time, you have my phone number,” the bro pointed at her computer and smiled.

“No I don’t.”

“Ha ha no, like in the system, you’re so funny.”

“Oh. What’s your name again?”

The bro’s face went pale with offense. He grabbed his chest like he was choking. With

a horse voice he said: “It’s Michael Gubbins,” then after another attempt to gain his composure he added, at an oddly loud volume, “pretty girl.”

“Mark?” It took me a second to realize someone was speaking to me. “Are you, Mark?” A deep voice full of energy asked. I looked up to see a short wide shouldered man with more veins than I’ve ever seen on a human being. He wore the classic red polo shirt showing what a monster he is. His hair was somehow abrasive and spiked high with shiny product.

“Actually it’s Max,” I said grasping his thick hand.

“Of course, Max,” he squeezed my hand hard and looked deep into me, “Garrett. Let’s get to know each other, brother.”

I followed Garrett back to his office in silence like a virgin being lead to the private area of a strip club. We walked through a grouping of open desks in the front right corner of the gym surrounded by half size fake wooden walls (cubicles), creating a more business (ish) atmosphere among the rubber. “This is the bullpen,” he told me as we walked through. He clapped his big hands at a trainer on the phone, “Get em, Colby! Make those calls!” He then

looked over his shoulder at me and said, “We’re like a family here. We raise each other up. This is my tribe.” (Aggressively prolonged eye contact)

Garrett’s office was in the corner of the ‘bullpen’ and looked so nice it was out of place. His desk had pictures of him on stage, shirtless and orange, at what I can only assume is a bodybuilding competition. Another picture of him shirtless at the lake. Another picture of him shirtless at a park. Even a picture with his mother on a couch, also shirtless. The clock above his desk read: 10:42am.

“So tell me, Max, what do you think of my gym here?

I’ve learned its always best in this situation to tell the interviewer what they want to hear. Humor them. Low level management is always drunk on the idea that their staff and atmosphere is a product of their creation, despite their marketing being from a box and their words from an email.

I told Garrett how impressed I was with his creation.

He took a healthy gulp of brown liquid (something that most certainly started as a powder) from a shaker bottle and flexed his shoulders. “So, Max. Let me start off by telling you a little about the gym. This isn’t just some place you come to work during the day, punch out and go home. Here at the gym, we’re more than that. We’re a family, a tribe.” Garrett pointed a bulging finger out his office window. “I could walk out into that bullpen and trust fall into any member of my tribe, and do you know what would happen?” He stared intensely into my eyes. After a moment I realized this was not rhetorical, he wanted an answer.

“They would catch you?”

He nodded his head with pious passion, “They would catch me. One hundred. Now tell me, is that the kind of place you want to work. Is that the kind of commitment you want to make today?”

I knew a simple ‘yes’ would not be sufficient. This brutish loon wanted to see some passion from me. Being that I felt none, hopefully bullshit would work: “You know, Garret, what you have here seems like something that’s so hard to find these days. Everyone just wants to make money to pay the bills. That’s no way to live. I want to feel that or well, this is something I would love to be apart of.” It’s hard to smile when your soul is melting, I did my best.

“Yes, Max. Yes.” Garrett picked up his shaker bottle again and as he poured the food substitute between his bleached teeth, he looked out at his gym in reverie.

“So why are you here?”

“Uh, well, why am ”

“Why fitness? What makes you want to guide people through their fitness journey?

What made you come in today to join the business of changing lives? Because,” he lets out a terrible laugh, “that’s what we do here. Being a membership consultant (salesmen) you will be on the front lines. You are the first thing they see, the Sherpa that guides them up the fitness mountain and helps them start their new life of health and happiness. This isn’t about muscles. I mean, sure, it’s a little about muscles. And to feel greatness inside, it helps to see greatness outside, but really what we do here,” he pauses for dramatic effect, “is change lives.”

The problem at this point is I hate him. Coming in to take orders from this ‘tribe leader’ would crush my soul flat in a week. Also, a white dude calling his people a ‘tribe’ is…in bad taste.

I turned around and looked through the office window to see the Greek Statues with clip boards roaming the gym like lions in red collars. I looked down to my body that could be

best described as: soft and scrawny. Are they laughing at me? Are trainers in the bullpen asking each other why the hell a guy like me is interviewing at a gym? ‘Who the hell would buy a membership from that guy?’ Was this question poking fun at how out of place I am? Is Garrett suppressing amused giggles as he plays with me like a carnivore playing with his helpless lunch?

What am I doing here? I don’t belong. What would dad think? How embarrassed would he be knowing it’s come to this? Part of me wants to stand up and walk out. I almost do it until I remember the why:

Behind pretty words and kind gestures, I see her soul. I see the way she shifts in her seat during long silences at dinner. I hear the words she’s holding back. Keys once held me tightly in the palm of her hands. Now, I’m in her fingertips and sliding. If I come home another night, jobless and hopeless; she’s going to let go.

The snake swallows a little more.

I begin telling the my judge how much I want to help people become the person they want to be. Achieve their goals. Be That Guy. I see him shift in his seat. I notice how vacant his stare is. Is he even looking at me? Realizing I need to change course, I go in the direction of family, ‘tribe’. I give compliments that make me cringe and express disingenuous desire under a drowning smile.

His expression does not change. I wonder what he’s thinking about right now? Maybe what he’s going to have for lunch? Or what his workout will be today?

The more I feel I’m not impressing him, the more I ramble. I begin saying every cliché I’ve ever heard. I hear my voice rolling at a more rapid pace than I can control. I’m not even sure who’s talking anymore. I make pseudo confident statements and smile at him.

He stares back, waiting for me to stop, bored. *

Lucky I wore black today. It’s doing a half way decent job of concealing the lake of sweat I built up during that interview. That may be the most sweating I’ve ever done in a gym. Garrett told me he would be ‘in touch’ and allowed me to show myself out. The beautifully cold female at the front desk was looking at her phone as I walked out. Someone said goodbye to her as they exited through the glass double doors. She didn’t hear, she was too bored.

I sent Keys a text to let her know I was out of the interview and I ‘feel like it went really well.’ I thought I would leave out the part that I wont be getting that job.

The sun was still sitting high in the sky and slightly obscured in cloud cover. The pickup and I drove down cracked Denver asphalt as the radio sung through the speakers. It played a pop song about sex by a barely legal teenage girl and written by a man in his fifties.

I pulled into a parking lot I knew too well. How did I get here? My autopilot always takes me here. Despite this not being my intended destination, I find my self exiting the truck and making my way in.

Walking through the automated sliding doors and into the garish florescent lights, I favored my heels. When I applied pressure to the balls of my feet anywhere near the toes, it felt like thousands of infinitesimal shards of glass punctured my skin.

Old people walked around with shopping carts taking as long as they pleased. Younger people stuck behind them tried to slow their pace with shameful irritation. People in

professional attire spoke into Bluetooth headphones with stressed out voices and delusions of power. Children cried for sugar and mothers cried for them to ‘please stop crying.’

Awkwardly on my heels, I navigated my way through the produce section where a group of women in workout attire talked shit about a woman that wasn’t in attendance. A guy I saw at the gym inspected an apple for ripeness while pretending not to check out gossipy ass in tight yoga pants.

Smelling something kind of like my childhood, I gazed upon the deli meat. It was all overly preserved and more sodium than protein. A man in a green apron and a hat that said: ‘Deli’ stood behind the counter. “What can I get ya?”

“Is your department hiring?”

“We are. Been short staffed for over a month. Applications are online but I can get the m”

“That’s okay, thanks.”

I’m sure he gets paid enough to have more roommates than dollars in his savings account. I started to sauntered off, then stopped. “Do you have a menu of your specialty cuts of meat?”

“Yep. What to see it?”

“No,” I paused for a moment. “Do yo carry pork cushion?” “Pork what?”

*

Hunger was building in me. I looked at my phone to see no missed texts. She’s probably just really busy at work. I bet so busy. Busy busy busy. Maybe I’ll just pop by Joe’s. Maybe she’ll just so happen to be there.

I made the drive, not in a frantic haste, just efficient. Pulling into another parking lot that looked no different form the last, the clock read: 12:09pm. It was full of cars and people speed walking, trying to get a quick sandwich on their lunch break. Joe’s is walking distance from the marketing firm Keys works at. She comes home sipping flavored tea from a Joe’s cup most days of the week. I didn’t come here to stalk her or anything. It wasn’t far and I could really use some lunch to build up the strength to go back out there and torture myself again. That’s all. And if she’s here, she’s here.

Before getting out of my car, I tried to look through the windows and see if I could catch a glimpse of the chestnut cherry hair I woke up tasting.

Sitting at a high table by one of the large windows with her back to me, I saw Keys eating lunch with a handsome man in skinny tie.

The snake swallows a little more.

What if I walk in and she doesn’t notice me. What if I stand there in line and have to listen to another man make her laugh the way I used to, before she started forcing it. What if while waiting I think I catch her looking at me, but her eyes dart away quickly. After I get my sandwich, I stand directly in her line of vision and smile. She looks at me, takes in my presence, and looks back to him. I then quietly sit down to eat my sandwich alone. What if I have to eat my lunch today pretending not to watch the love of my life on a date three tables down. Ooo that would hurt.

Leaving the natural sun light for its artificial stepbrother, I feel her presence to my left. The side of my face burns hot and I try to pretend like I don’t see her. I look anywhere but her table.

Joe’s is busy and the line is predictably long. Not just busy with humans, it’s aesthetically busy as well. The inside is a classic corporation marketing an ‘edgy’ campaign. Cups, napkins, and signs on the wall have cheeky little phrases written on them like: ‘Hot dates fueled by Joe’ or ‘What you do late at night and think nobody sees…Joe sees. Joe sees everything’ or ‘We know you’ve been hitting the gym for summer, but please wear a shirt in the building’ or the classic ‘Joe fucked your mother while your father watched’. Cheeky little slogans like that.

It’s the marketing tool of ‘humanizing corporations’. This of course being already accomplished on a legal level. They figure if the local teenagers walk by on their way home from school and see something slightly edgy, they can get them addicted to their fake bread and overly processed meats young. Worked on me.

The long line inched forward with methodical efficiency. People were not pleased. Undernourished humans can be lethal. People shifted their weight back and forth as they check their phones and subtracted from the time they clocked out. I could hear the conversations at the counter as orders were being placed with tight lips and hurried tones.

I listened, not to the respective orders, but to hear how people were treating the staff. Two employees were behind the counter wearing matching black uniforms and latex gloves. One male, one female, both looked fresh out of high school. The female was taking orders and beginning the sandwich, the male was applying the desired toppings and ringing up payments.

People took their hurried hunger out on the young female, giving her soft snarls and gnashing of teeth behind silly sounding sandwich orders. “One sex on the beach club.” (You bitch!) She smiled and asked what else could she do for them. I heard one misunderstanding between her and a customer a few spots ahead of me, misunderstanding being inevitable in such conditions, and the customer spoke to the young women like a dog. The young women responded with a smile and an apology.

The problem is that people can’t differentiate human beings and the service they provide. They come to a place like this and see the person in uniform as synonymous with their occupation. ‘This is sandwich girl.’ They don’t see a person. They don’t wonder if waiting in line might be a little easier than being the one handling that line. They don’t wonder if it’s been a tough day for this person, this young person. Are they okay? Are they doing their best to block out struggles happening in their real lives, far away from where they wear uncomfortable hairnets and stained aprons? Was it a genuine struggle to lace up their shoes and face the day? Do they feel loved? Sick? Hurt? Whole? No, there is no time for such thinking for these people on their lunch breaks. The machine is hungry and so are they.

When it came my turn, I smiled big and said please. I too know the snarls and gnashing of teeth.

After handing over my credit card, I stood there for a moment and summoned the strength to turn around. That could be just some coworker of hers. He’s quite well dressed, with any luck he’s gay, or married, or only likes blondes. No that last one wont work, she could be a blonde again in forty five minutes. Just let him be anything but the man that takes her away.

I approached pretending not to see them, then looked at her abruptly and made my best ‘what a coincidence’ face. She looked at me like I was dangerous and out of my mind.

She was not Keys. Not only was she not the love of my life, she looked nothing like her. On closer inspection her hair was much darker and her complexion was that of a Latina women. The man in the skinny tie looked over his shoulder to the crazy person that was disturbing his lunch companion.

I sat as far away from them as I could. She had looked so much like her in the window. I took in a deep breath. Hold. Slow exhale. I did this nine more times.

Tasting the sweetness of fake bread, sugar, maltodextrin, something that passed as lettuce, and salty cold cuts, I reconsidered my approach. I was so out of place at the gym. I should be focusing harder on places more in my wheelhouse. I could be a cook, or really do anything in the restaurant industry.

Dad would like to see me cooking.

I could even get an application here and get yelled at right along side the other two. On second thought, that would be awkward when she breaks up with me. She loves this place. I checked my phone to see if maybe I hadn’t felt the vibration.

There is an online job board that I check to look for job openings in my area. I had already book marked an electronic sales job that was on my list for today, but I had time to make a few more stops. Scrolling through the list of jobs that pay 30k a year and are looking for a college graduate with a decade of experience in the field (I wasn’t old enough to drive a car a decade ago), I found a post for a restaurant less than five miles away. Both for the kitchen and a waiting tables. The post was only three days old. All I needed now was a little more ‘I’m okay’ practice in the bathroom mirror and I was off.

*

The city streets were relatively empty and calm before the coming storm of break lights and horns. The sun was no longer demure in cloud cover and fully exposed itself again to the earth. It made me sweat. I turned on my barely existent air conditioning in the pickup. I didn’t help.

Sweating like a man in detox, I pictured what it would be like coming home tonight with good news. Telling her triumphantly of the second income entering her home with pork cushion in my teeth; once a last meal, now a celebratory one. Watching the respect come back into her eyes, feeling her grip me tight again.

I wonder if cooking or waiting tables are the kind of jobs that successful women are proud to tell their friends about. Like, if they’re all sitting around having drinks after work at happy hour, does ‘my boyfriend is waiting tables’ have a good ring to it? Or does it hold the kind of connotation that makes the other girls all grow quiet and say something reassuring like ‘I’m sure he can turn things around.’ ‘Ya, my cousin was dating a loser too but she stuck with him and now he owns a company that makes reusable napkins.’ ‘Oh, wow,’ the tipsy gaggle would say in unison ‘I wish my boyfriend cared about the environment.’

The smell from the restaurant permeated all throughout the parking lot. I think it’s the french fries.

By this time I have the whole thing down to a science. Kind of. I filled out the pointless application no one will ever read while sitting at Joe’s and attached my resume so I can go in and talk to the hiring manager, put a face with the name and with any luck, suffer another interview.

This technique hasn’t worked yet, but I’m an Optimist.

The restaurant has a clean upscale feeling when you walk in. A hostess with long wavy hair stood behind a sparkling obsidian podium wearing a short black dress. “Table for one, two?”

“Actually I was looking for the hiring manager. Are they here?” “Is she expecting you?”

“No, but I saw the job posting and ”

“Applications are online.”

“Right. Ya, I filled one out. If she has a second I just wanted to introduce myself I could come back if there’s a better time?”

She looks me up and down. “One moment.”

The hostess walk off and I found myself in a familiar spot. This is much like the waiting I did in the lobby earlier. I want to present myself a certain way as I stand there awkwardly, fighting the crazy in my face. However, this situation is slightly more bearable. I much prefer standing to sitting, and nobody is watching me. Despite being slow, the restaurant is semi filled with late lunchers and go-getter alcoholics getting an early start on the day. The staff is too busy to judge me.

The door of the restaurant opens up to a charming little waiting room that sits on a higher level. Behind the host stand is a small set of steps that leads to the main level that holds the rest of the establishment. The bar is in the middle and goes all the way around in a sphere shape with tables layered out in all directions. The staff wore black and white attire and the customers wore jeans and sweat pants. I pictured myself in one of those slick black ties, skinny like the guy I scared at lunch.

As the hostess returned I did my best to look normal.

“Do you have any experience in the industry?” She asked.

“Well, basically.”

She raised one eyebrow.

“I owned my own butcher shop. I can cook, I have customer service experience ” “Have you ever worked in a restaurant?”

“Well, no. Not a restaurant necessarily but ”

“Okay, well the manager is busy right now. I’ll let her know you stopped by though.”

She smiled a delightful smile.

“Okay. Um is there a better time to come?”

“Now is fine. I’ll have her call you.”

“Okay. I I think my experience is really relevant.”

“I’ll let her know. She’ll be in touch, I’m sure.”

“Would you like my name?”

“She has it.”

“How?”

“Hhmh?”

“I’m, Max.”

“Wonderful.”

“Do you want to write it down?”

Her silent smile was just lovely.

“Okay, well, I really think ”

“She’ll be in touch. Thank you.” Her smile was positively radiant.

I stood there for a moment trying to think of something. The hostess was no longer

looking at me, still smiling.

*

Returning to my pickup, I had no confusion about what happened in there. The hostess was sent to screen if I was a good candidate before the manager wasted her time. She was sent to see if I had experience in ‘the industry’ and evidently ‘owner of a food business’ didn’t fit the bill.

What a self righteous thing it is to call it ‘the industry’. Those waiters looked stupid in their skinny black ties anyway. (I looked them up on amazon and found one for only $21.95!) I felt my phone vibrate the second it returned to my pocket and an excitement shot up

my spine. Double vibrate. Thank god, she finally texted me back. I pulled out my phone to a marketing text that wanted to give me 20% off my next sandwich at Joe’s Deli if I had five minutes to rate my experience. Still no reply from Keys. I took the survey.

What if I pulled up Facebook right now and Keys was tagged in a picture with her boss, embracing him in his office. The caption would say ‘she gets me through slow days’ or some bullshit like that. She always complains to me what an old creep he is and how uncomfortable he makes her. But he is powerful. I am not. After coming home day after day to someone so egregiously lacking that quality, it became more appealing to her. What if today is the day that she wondered if all those things he claims to be able to do for her might be worth it. What if right now she’s under his desk on her knees, ponytail swinging up and down laboriously in the windless corner office as he moans with accomplishment. What if she likes it. Ooo that would hurt.

I went to her Facebook page, no updates. I took a second to stare at a pictures of her I’ve seen a million times. It’s her profile picture, she looks so pretty.

I’m not in the picture.

The snake swallows a little more. Looking down I can barley see my belly button. My reptilian grim reaper constricts and I take ten deep breaths. They do not help.

The electronic store is a bit of a drive away and would certainly be a commute in rush hour. I felt half way confident. It’s always the imperfect opportunities that pan out.

The job posting was only a few days old and it was doubtful that the position was filled already. The opening was for a sales position, of course, meaning all I would have to do is trick one person into thinking I’m ‘good with people’ for a twenty minutes, half hour tops. The posting asked for applicants with a tech background. It’s 2020, doesn’t everyone have a tech background? I may not be writing code in Silicon Valley, but I’m sure all they need is someone to up sale products and jam superfluous warranties down the consumer’s throat. I can do that. I can be the warranty guy.

Cloud cover was now rendering the sun completely hidden. Colorado weather off its meds again. I hate when people say if your don’t like the weather in Colorado, wait thirty minutes. It’s true though. Autumn shadows covered my pickup as I drove down gray Denver streets. I turned the radio to an afternoon talk show. The show has two male hosts and one female. The name is something not particularly clever to that effect. The show isn’t particularly good. I listen to it everyday.

Today they were, of course, discussing the murder of Eric Floyd.

One of the male hosts was speculating about the anticipated toxicology report: “I’ll tell you what, and write this down now, I’ll tell you what,” he says full of energy,

“This report wont come back clean. I’m telling you.” Murmurers from the other two.

“And, again quote me on this, they’re going to find weed in Floyd’s system. Over and over again these guys that get killed by the police end up being on drugs.”

“I wouldn’t mind being on some drugs right now,” says the other male host who plays ‘the cool guy’ role on the show.

Laughter.

“But tell me this,” the female host chimes in, “does that matter?”

“Well,” the male host says, “There’s a difference between an innocent victim, and

someone on drugs.”

“But why? Whether Floyd was stoned or not, he shouldn’t have been killed while

minding his own business on his way to work.”

“Haven’t you heard these reports about Eric Floyd though? He was no angel.” A playful

sound effect is made by the producer and the male host continues, “Have you seen the police records? This guy has been arrested three times!”

“Sounds like a gangster,” the ‘cool guy’ says.

Laughter.

The male host begins to list them: “Minor in possession as a child, possession as an

adult, AND a DUI last year. Does this sound like the victim to you?”

“Yes,” the female host says, “He was going to work. And I’m sorry but who hasn’t

smoked pot? Or drove after a few drinks? Is that excuse for murder?”

“Hey hey hey, of course not. That’s not what I’m saying here. I’m only pointing out that

this guy was no angel. Everyone makes him out to be some victim, some great guy. Then over and over it turns out these guys were all high on drugs and went berserk on the cops.”

“Berserk? I’m not sure what you’ve been smoking, but pot makes me giggly and eat all the ice cream. Not to mention…we don’t know he was on anything. And if he was, that is completely irrelevant to the situation of him being the victim of a racist mistake by the people who are employed to protect him.”

The airway goes silent for a moment.

“When I’m stoned, you best believe there ain’t no ice cream in the freezer next morning.”

Laughter.

“I guess we’ll have to wait for the toxicology report and the autopsy to make our judgment.”

“Autopsy? The cop had his knee on his nec ”

“And why does it always have to be about race? Racist mistake? Would it be okay if it were a white guy? Don’t white lives matter?”

“Did someone say they don’t?”

“I just think ALL lives matter. Ya know?”

“Ya but you’re missing it. All lives can’t matter until ”

The male host cuts her off to let the audience know what to expect after the break. The

female host clearly forgot why she is on the show. She is the ‘women’s perspective’. She is here to talk about sex.

“After the break, we’ll tell you what celebrity is in big trouble with his wife after video surfaces of him….and the nanny?”

“That nanny is sexy too.”

Laughter.

The commercial break begins with happy music as a child’s voice asks his mother

what she’s ‘doing at the park? You never make it to the park anymore.’ The gleeful mother

informs her child that she was able to make it today ‘all thanks to Gleeaprex, I’m not sad anymore.’ There is then a long list of side effects, followed by a paid actors voice telling us, ‘If you feel like you’re nothing but a purposeless bag of bones moving far too slowly towards sweet demise, ask your doctor (who was paid handsomely by one of our sexy young reps) if Gleeaprex is right for you. Gleeaprex, hooray!’

I felt my phone vibrate several times on the drive. None were her. Just my needy apps trying to get some attention. Instagram alerts me every time nothing happens. It annoys me and is something I could easily put a stop to, all I’d have to do is turn off alerts in the settings.

It’s nice to be needed.

Tech World is exactly what you would expect an electronic store to look like. I walk into the large building through two automated sliding glass doors into conservative pop music playing in dull florescent light. The store booms with dramatic bass from the home theater system section as a man tells a salesmen about the kind of theater he wants to build in his vacation home (he’s using the equity). In the distance I can here another man trying to sound like he knows more than the employee while his girlfriend looks at him with big doe eyes. An adolescent whines to his mother about having the last generation tablet while clutching the new generation in his uncalloused hands. This probably irritates his mother but she’s too full of Botox injections to show it. She just stares at him with a still face that looks to be made of shiny silly putty. Next to them an elderly couple poke at the same tablet like it’s a piece of alien technology that could explode at any moment. Their faces tense with fear. In the video game section two young children mercilessly slay German and Japanese people with Thompson submachine guns. There is so much going on in this place I thank my genetics I’m not epileptic.

“Welcome to Tech World,” said a short round man in thick shiny glasses. I smile and tell him hello.

“What are you looking for?” His voice is dry and monotone.

“I’m looking to see if the person that does the hiring is in?”

“Looking for a job?”

“Yes, I am actually.” I smiled big.

“Applications are online.”

“Right, I already filled one out. I was just stopping by to introduce myself and put a face

with the name.”

“Hmmm. Is she expecting you?”

“Uh, well, no.” He seemed to be irritated with me. I smiled a softer smile and continued,

“I just wanted to say hello. Can you see if she has a second?”

“I don’t know.” The dorky little dick looked me up and down, then walked away. Unsure what just happened or if he was even going to get the manager, I decided to

wait patiently, and of course, grin at nothing like an idiot.

As far as comparisons go, if this guy’s interpersonal abilities are the bar, I should do

fine. I’m way better at pretending to be nice.

So for the third time today, I loitered the entrance of a place of business in awkward

silence. Awaiting my judgment. Pain shot through my feet exacerbated by the force of standing on them normally. Nobody wants to hire a flat footed duck.

If I get the job I’ll be standing a lot more, but maybe if I find employment, I wont need wounds.

I looked around the store and tried to envision myself spending forty hours a week here. Would I look just as dorky in those white button down shirts? Would she think I look handsome? Would the sight have made dad proud? Sad? I hope they hid sweat.

To my left was the television section of Tech World glowing with seduction. Rows of displays held smart TV’s and dazzling 4K TV’s showing such brilliant colors they looked fake. All of them were showing the same movie: A superhero movie, of course. Culture has become obsessed with these masked beefcakes in capes.

Past the cinematic beauty and gargantuan budget, these films all have an underlining theme; the protagonist is a regular guy then, he starts to have something out of the ordinary happen to him. In the first act there is always a pivotal scene. It comes in many forms but they usually find themselves with their soon to be mentor asking them, “Haven’t you always felt different from other people? Special? Like you were meant for something more?”

This is what hits home, what makes people dress up in costumes and line up at overpriced theaters. Everyone feels like they were meant for something more than working in nine to five monotony under dull florescent light. A life of sporadic sunlight through cracked car windows. A life where everyday you wear the same thing and say the same words and see the same people. A life where you look forward to a weekend that is too short and a paycheck that is too small.

The movie is at the part where the ‘love interest’ has realized that her boyfriend, or maybe husband, is the wrong man; maybe he abuses her, or cheats on her, or just plain doesn’t see her. She is now realizing that the mysterious guy she can’t figure out from ‘around town’ is actually the guy she’s seen on the news, the controversial vigilante saving the city, the hero, her hero. They are about to kiss and live happily ever after (until the sequel where new conflict must arise).

The good guys are winning. The bad guys are losing. The people are cheering. Everyone is beautiful. Even the extras engaged in fake conversations in the background look like models.

I’ve seen this movie. I know how it ends. The story is recycled over and over and packaged nice and pretty for mass consumption. Pandering, of the most egregious nature.

This is not art.

Art should tell the truth. It should talk about the things we think, but don’t let loose from tight lips over cordial dinner parties. It should take a look at the world we really live in. Not the pretty version of ourselves we project and cultivate on social media. The honest part of ourselves that we hide and pretend isn’t there. The part of ourselves that we hold close because if anyone ever saw it, they would leave us. The part of ourselves we know is the reason we are unlovable.

This is why we feel so alone. We look around at our peers as they pretend to be this creature that’s an amalgamation of the over corrections of their scars. We belittle weakness wherever it pokes through. We scroll all night through feeds of pretty lies in perfect lighting. We watch television shows of people ascending to greatness and movies of people saving the day. Then we look at ourselves. We seem pathetic.

Where are the stories about us? Stories about people that are trying to learn from their mistakes, but don’t. It’s hard, and maybe this time will be different? Stories about people that are trying to swim against the current, but aren’t doing too well. Not moving, not drowning, just doing their best to stay afloat. Spending all day gasping for breath while trying to smile.

Where are the movies about the guy that doesn’t get the girl. The guy that sits at home looking at a picture of her with the man that beat him, wondering if he could ever be

enough for someone. The movie about the girl that stays with the wrong guy because what if no one else could ever really love her. Sure, she could find an endless parade of assholes looking to mash their parts into hers, but maybe their isn’t a guy out there that could ever see behind the skin to the complex individual she really is. The individual that can’t be summed up in 280 characters.

Where is the movie about the worker that gives everything they have to a company, stays late and comes in on their days off only to see the boss’s nephew get the promotion they were promised.

These are the kind of people I know. I don’t know any vigilante billionaires.

The rich and powerful rule the world. Sometimes underdogs do win, but usually they don’t, and usually it’s not even close. It’s good to inspire hope. Escaping is fine. But when art reflects reality, it provokes a different type of beauty. Not glamorous or something that fits well into a thirty second trailer. It does something else; it eases the weight people walk around all day with pretending isn’t there. It makes people feel not so alone.

And in that, there is hope.

*

I saw the thick shiny glasses first. He marched with trivial importance like a boy in grade school full of ammunition and ready to tattle on every popular kid in the building. The brilliance of the superhero movie bounced off the short round man’s glasses and reflected something neither blinding nor somber.

Following slowly behind him, two women were engaged in conversation. On the right was a tall lanky women with long sandy blonde hair cut in a style not fashionable since the 90’s, maybe ever. She wore flip flops and a long skirt that could be best described as: also not fashionable. Despite never seeing her in my life, I felt quite confident that her name was Karen.

The women she was talking to was a little shorter with a darker complexion. Her hair was cut tight to her head and her body had the look of someone who ran track in her younger years. She was making lots of hand gestures and seemed to be soothing Karen. If I had no context to the location of this conversation and just saw these two women in front of a green screen I would have though the women with the darker complexion to be talking Karen into putting down the gun.

The man with the glasses walked right up to me and looked anywhere but my eyes. He said nothing.

The two women continued to talk:

“I just think it needs to say that, you know?”

“And as I said,” the women with the dark complexion had such a smooth voice it made

me stand on my painful toes. “It was written right,” she pointed at the fine print on the advertisement in Karen’s Hand, “here.”

“I know it’s just ”

“I understand, Ms Appleton. The last thing we ever want do at Tech World is mislead you.” She smiled naturally. Her voice was the sound satin would make if it could talk.

After making some pretentious noises of defeat, Karen Appleton began to walk out the door, reluctantly. The women with the dark complexion didn’t show the slightest sign of irritation. “It’s always good to see you, Ms. Appleton. Come back and see us again soon.”

She then turned her gaze to me. “Now, is this the man looking for me, Demitri?”

He confirmed, holding his posture at strange attention. Like the kid in his high school’s ROTC that really thinks he’s at war.

She stuck out her hand and smiled out the side of her mouth, “Simone.”

It’s always hard to know what kind of pressure to apply in this situation. Growing up I was taught to always give firm handshakes, but you shake a ‘lady’s’ hand delicately. They are, after all, delicate creatures.

“Max,” I said extending a limp hand like a dead fish. Her shake was firm. Bad start. “I hear you’re looking to talk to me about our open sales position?”

“Yes, thank you. I think I would be a great addition to your team and would like to

schedule and interview with you.” I’ve found hard sales like this to be necessary.

“Have you?” Simone looked back to her salesmen with a raised eyebrow over her

sharp eyes. He wasn’t looking at her. “How about now?”

“Now is perfect,” I said trying to keep my face normal.

She chuckled with that smooth voice and told me to, “Come with me.”

I followed Simone down to the far right end of the store and through glass double doors

with a sign saying: ‘Employees only’. The area behind double doors held all the usual suspects: a copy machine, a water fountain, a women on the phone using a disingenuously elevated voice that we’ve collectively decided is how we all talk to each other professionally for some odd reason (even though no one in their right mind would ever speak to a friend that way), a man watching the women on the phone using a disingenuously elevated voice that we’ve collectively decided is how we all talk to each other professionally for some odd reason, and even a comfy chair (it looked like it reclined!).

Hung on the walls were posters about workers rights and safety next to a poster of a cat holding onto a tree branch and telling people to ‘hang in there’. Next to the cat, was a poster of a methodically diverse group of individuals in bland business attire all standing in a line with their arms around each other. The caption on the bottom of the poster read: ‘Teamwork’. Next to the team was a poster of a man wearing beige and holding an outdated time card, ready to punch out on a machine that reminded me of the industrial revolution. The caption read: ‘If you’re thinking about killing yourself, please punch out first. Remember, suicide on the clock is time theft’. The man in beige looked very happy.

Simone walked through the place like it was hers. Not with arrogance, it was an ease. She pulled out a key and unlocked the wooden door of her office. The office was the nicest place in the building. It was nothing flashy. It’s style was clean and practical.

She sat in her chair slowly and took a drink form her water bottle. She then looked around and played with little trinkets on her desk. Pictures on her desk showed a very similar looking high school girl, and multiple of her with an older man that appeared to be her father. The silence grew.

Simone moved without effort. I did my best to use this time to gain some resemblance of composure. I never get immediate interviews like this. She must be serious about hiring someone. I can’t fuck this up.

She pretended not to watch me.

When she began to speak, she made a show of beginning her words. “So, do you have a copy of your resume?”

“Well, no. Not like it’s it’s online.”

“Right, right.” Simone looked around the room before returning to my eyes, “If I was looking at your resume right now, what would I see to make me think you’re qualified to be apart of our team?”

“Well, I worked for multiple years as a small business owner in the restaurant business.” I paused for a moment. “I was a butcher,” charming smile, “It was all sales, really.” I’m attempting to learn from the restaurant experience and many before it. The truth is malleable. Make it look pretty.

Simone had a way of looking at me like she knew what I was about to say. “And how would you use that sales experience here?” She asked me.

“By not being a salesman. I’d be their friend.” I can feel these being the kind of

answers that she’s looking for. The kind of lexicon I’ve picked up living life so long in the museum of gutters.

None of this is about telling the truth. It’s not about learning who I am as a person, and most of all; it has literally nothing to do with if I would or would not be good at the job. This is about seeing how committed I am, how well I could do as a company man dressed in people clothes.

“Exactly,” Simone says. She sits quiet for a moment then sits up and stares uncomfortably deep into my eyes. “At Tech Center, it’s not just about filling the day. It’s about caring for each other. It’s about achieving our goals.” She looks around for a moment, leans in and continues like she’s about to relinquish confidential information. “Here at Tech World, it’s more than just a job. We’re a family.”

She smiled slyly out the side of her mouth and continued. “What do you want, Max?”

The question was direct, yet ambiguous. Her satin voice was so soft and smooth it made me want to tell her the truth. The truth that I just want to feel stable. I want to tell her I can’t sit through another one of these, feeling the pit of hopeless desperation in my chest. I want to tell her I just need to buy some time so I can keep falling asleep holding the best thing that’s ever happened to me and waking up in the middle of the night smelling lavender oils with a numb arm. I want to tell her how much it would mean to see respect in the eyes of the women I love again.

“Ya, um, you know. I want success.”

“And what is success, Max?”

Tricking you. “Being the best version of myself.”

Simone smiled, wide. This is the first time I’ve seen both of her canines at the same

time.

I hate myself for these answers. I think of my dad being a fly on the wall right now. I wonder if he’d even recognize me. I hope I’m not letting him down.

“Now tell me, Max. Before we continue, is there any questions you have for me?”

I know my answer to this question can’t be no. I need to come up with something to ask her. The first thing that crosses my mind is Eric Floyd. How does Simone feel about it? As a women of color, is she struggling to fake a smile through her anger? Has she heard any of the talk show I just did? Am I being racist to even think she needs to have a specific reaction? Does she think I’m racist? How can I show her I’m not racist? What question shows I like black people?

A vibrate tickles my left leg and shoots through my spine. I have received a text.

My next thought is to say something bold; ask her if she thinks I’m right for the position. Ask her if she is ready to save me from this hell. After another day of this, my nerves are shot. I’m so tired. Is it appropriate to tell her how tired I am?

“What’s your favorite part about working here?” I hear the question asked by a distant voice, but I don’t recognize it.

She answers. It’s full of buzzwords and long confident pauses. I like her. She seems like someone I would like to hang out with when she isn’t fully consumed by the beast.

“How would you like to take a tour of the store with me, Max?”

As I walk behind the striding women through rows of laptops I wonder if this tour means I’m hired. I try not to let the thought excite me too much.

All I want to do is check my phone. Read her words. My left leg feels like it’s on fire. “What do you think?” Simone says gesturing at the laptops.

“Uh, well, It’s a very nice selection.”

“Thank you,” she stops and pivots my direction. “If you were a salesmen, what would

your recommendations be?” Her eyes are curious an unreadable.

I look at the laptop to my left. Then the one next to that. Then the one next to that. The

first thing that pops out to me is; lots of silver. They’ve all got a very silvery thing going on. Or perhaps these are considered chrome? Maybe I could make a suggestion for something that would go with her outfit?

No, that’s sexist as shit. That would imply that a women doesn’t know anything about the technology other than its color.

The problem is; I don’t now anything about the technology other than its color.

“Well,” I begin. I looked to the little description tags. I see numbers next to letters that I’m sure must have some type of meaning. ‘GB’ and “GHZ’ and ‘eMMC’ and ‘DDR4’.

What language is this? Latin perhaps? My Latin was always shit.

I recognize a few things like ‘storage’ and ‘processor’ and ‘graphics card’. I even feel like ‘Ram’ is something I’ve said before to Keys, pretending to know things. “Not enough RAM, babe.”

Doing my best to put together some half way convincing bullshit, I looked to the women with a satin voice. A smile plays on her lips. I realize how long it’s been since I’ve spoken.

“Let’s try this another way,” she says. “If I was a college kid looking for a device for my school work, but I also love playing video games in my free time, what is my best option?”

This, is worse. So much worse. Before, I could have came up with something pretty that meant nothing. Now, there is a right answer. And I don’t know it.

Sometimes when I’m outmatched, I do the only thing there is to do; tell the truth.

“To be honest, I don’t think I could give a good recommendation at this time.” I do everything in my power to make my smile charming. “But I’m a fast learner, and if you give me the chance, I guarantee I could give great recommendations in no time.”

Simone smiles wearily, “I’m sure you could, Max.” She sticks out her hand. “I’ll have a decision by the end of the week, I’ll be in touch.”

I realize what’s happening. I have to do something, something impressive, something to show her I’m cool and better than what she just saw:

“Can we schedule a second interview, Simone?”

“Not right now, Max. I need to look over everything. I’ll be in touch.”

The snake swallows a little more.

I feel heat behind my eyes and taste salt as I swallow hot tears. “I’m sorry about I’m

really better than this. If you just wanted to give me another chance ”

“You did just fine, honey. Just fine. It isn’t a no. I’ll be in touch.”

I stand there, not moving. Simone is walking away. I try and think of something to say. I

call out, “If you give me another chance, I’ll let you down. Won’t! I won’t let you down!” Simone does not look back.

“Won’t!”

*

We all like to tell ourselves that we are living a life of purpose. A life that makes others both jealous and curious. A life that makes people stalk you on social media and wonder what you have that they don’t. We do whatever we can to propagate such nonsense. Even if we aren’t fooled, that’s fine. Our own willing psyche craves the deception.

Sometimes, however, failure is clear to all. Even yourself. Everyone has a defense mechanism:

Mine is alcohol.

It makes me slippery enough to shimmy the snake down a little. I never shake the slimy bastard, but my belly button misses the open air.

I pulled into the parking lot under the setting autumn sun. A chill was now in the air. All I had wanted to do before was check my phone. Now, I feel it heavy in my pocket like a letter with news I already know.

I begin to picture what it might say:

What if I pull out my phone and read the words I’ve been waiting for. The text would be long. What if she begins by telling me how much she used to love me. Maybe she even references a time we both fondly misremember. She tells me all the reasons why what she is doing is painful. The text isn’t overly wordy. Nor is it ambiguous. It just says what is must: she doesn’t love me anymore. What if, right now, sitting in my pocket is the thing I fear the most. The thing I’ve been waiting for. What if Keys has finally decided to make the right decision for herself and dump me, over text. What if my key to her apartment is nothing more than a relic of a time that never existed and I’ll chase for the rest of my life. What if right now I’m a single man and I don’t even know it. Ooo that would hurt.

I pull out my phone to see that she had in fact texted me. It read:

I’m glad the interview went well! Can we talk tonight?

The snake swallows a little more.

That it bad. Very bad. Even worse than I expected. I don’t know what it means, but

bad. Very bad indeed. I call her back and it goes to voice mail. I text her back asking what’s going on.

My head begins to run even worse than before. I realize how badly I need to walk through the door of her apartment in an hour or two with good news.

‘I’m hired’ type of news.

So you can imagine that I was as surprised as anyone to open my eyes and see my toes still in the same parking lot and pointed towards the dive bar I know all too well.

It was beautiful. I stood outside for a moment staring at its serene repose under the Rocky Mountain October twilight. A drop of rain kissed the tip of my soon to be red nose. Maggie’s is an Irish pub. It’s definitely a dive bar. It can usually be found filled with

downcast alcoholics and degenerates. And me.

The ceiling is low and most likely still dating asbestos; it thinks he can change. The

walls were painted forest green some time in the 1980’s and now look like a dead garden. It has all the appearances of a place that is ripe for a soon to be committed crime, yet is surprisingly clean.

The setting sun shot at weird angles through the half drawn curtains, making scattered beams of light expose out dated carpet and people with red faces wanting to be anywhere but home.

“Hi there, stranger,” a beautiful young brown eyed women with a caramel complexion said from behind the bar. Her hair falls past her shoulders in perfect tight ringlets and when she smiles I remember why I come here.

“Hi, Hunter.”

“Is that the unemployed Austrian?” I hear a voice call from the backroom.

Hunter smirks.

“Hi, Molly.”

I’m kind of popular.

A green eyed red head with half her head shaved and the other half in a thick braid

pokes her head out. “Hi, Max. Good to see you, love.”

Hunter slides me a double whiskey neat without a word and leans her tattooed arm

against the cracked wooden bar. “Any good news?”

I tell her of my day. Not a pretty version, the truth.

As I speak I have to tilt my head up so she can hear me over the snake’s jaws. That

reptilian asshole has really got me.

She says a few nice things and leaves me to it. Hunter never tries to fix me. She

doesn’t fill me with bullshit.

I hear the crack of a cue ball missing a shot against old tattered felt, “Shit.” The song

playing on muffled speakers sounds like something Hunter would never pick.

I peak at her out the corner of my eye; she’s cleaning glasses in the sink. Molly walks past her and Hunter checks out her ass. Molly catches her with a devilish glance and pops it

in her direction. It all happens in a matter of seconds, then they continue what they were doing. They are the cutest couple I know.

Hunter walks back up to me after the glasses are clean, half lost in love. “Have you seen this shit?” She asks pointing behind her head.

On the television above I see the president. He’s wearing a red tie and despite the coats of fake tan on his face, he still looks pale, sickly even. He is speaking on what happened in Minneapolis today. He is speaking on the murder of Eric Floyd.

“Can you turn this up?” I ask.

She does.

He seems to be speaking about the people protesting Eric Floyd’s death:

“Listen,” he says. “This is a sad day in American history. The looting, and the rioting,

and the, the looting. Okay, listen, this is not how we if these thugs think what they’re doing is okay. They are dishonoring the memory of Ethan Floyd. If he were here right now I think he would agree with me. This is very bad for the blacks. Very bad. And I promise you this,” the president leans to the right and slides his little right hand up the podium, then puckers out his lips as if he’s awaiting a kiss. “If the riots don’t stop, the military will be showing up with guns blazing,” his words slur so badly he almost needs an interpreter. He tries to punctuate the last sentence with a strong hand gesture but it ends up just flailing.

One of the presidents advisers leans in and whispers something.

“Eric?” the president mutters, “What did I say?”

Questions open up and one of the journalists asks if the rioting started before or after

police shot tear gas into the crowd.

“That is a disgusting question and it’s fake news like that that’s,” the president tries to take a sip of his water and can’t raise his arm. He then tries to use his other hand to raise the hand with the water cup. This fails too. He abandons the water. “Next question.”

The next journalist asks how he feels the police did handling the situation.

“They were heroic. And how they’re dealing with this evil terrorist group ANTIFA heroic.”

“Mr. president, you continue to call this group ANTIFA a terrorist organization. Isn’t it just a leaderless movement against fascism?”

“We don’t yet know everything about them, but yes, I believe so.” “And that’s bad?” The reporter asks. “A movement against fascism?” “There is no greater threat to the American way of life.”

I turn my head from the TV, trying to shake what I just saw. I would think this ill spoken illiterate is destined to lose the upcoming election in a landslid but the opposing democratic party has decided to put all their eggs in a basket that can’t remember it’s a basket. Also he molests young girls on stage so, at this point it’s a toss up. As far as elections go though, it’s pretty ordinary.

I see that Hunter hasn’t even been watching. She’s shooting little spurts of water from the bar spout up into the air above Molly’s head, trying to make her think the roof is leaking from the rain that has now replaced the sunshine outside.

No more beams of light shoot through the blinds. The bar is now solely lit from inside.

Molly looks up a few times before realizing what’s happening. She turns around too in love to be irritated. “You’re gonna get us in trouble,” she says motioning her head to the camera on the ceiling.

“Oh, that thing doesn’t work,” Hunter says. “It hasn’t worked since before we were born.”

Molly giggles.

“And if it does, you know the old man would just enjoy the show and touch himself.” “Do you think he can still get it up?”

Hunter leans in real close to Molly and before kissing her says, “Maybe not like he

used to, but for you…”

Why couldn’t I have been a lesbian?

“You two are so cute it hurts me.”

“Thank you,” Molly says pulling on Hunter’s hair.

“Hey hey hey,” Hunter stares at her, “you’re going to mess it up. Then how will I get all

those tips from lonely men?” She lowers her voice, “San Juan is in two months.” They kiss again.

“Speaking of cute,” Hunter turns to me. “When are we going to see Keys in here again. It’s been awhile.”

The moment she finishes the question I feel a buzz in my pocket. It sobers up all the whiskey in my blood. I feel a dryness in my throat and down the rest of my drink. I want to tell them never. I want to tell them I’m a dead man walking. Hell, I want to ask it they’re hiring.

“Soon,” I smile as well as I can. “Can I tell her?” Hunter asks. “Huh?”

She and Molly are now leaning against the bar, both looking at me with conspiratorial charm. “You told me not to tell anyone and being the amazing friend that I am, I didn’t. But…you should totally tell Molly.”

I look to my glass and she pours me another. “It’s silly.”

“No it’s not. I like it.”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Tell her.”

“Tell me!”

The look in both their eyes is overwhelming and I give in like the people pleaser I am.

First I take a drink.

“I don’t know, I guess I just call her ”

“No no, start with the story. Tell her how you came up with it.”

“Well,” I begin. “It was our third date. I had known her for a little while before we started

dating so the first three dates all happened in just over a week. I was late to pick her up because I had lost my car keys. I always lose my car keys.”

I searched their eyes for a moment to make sure I wasn’t boring them and continued, “I remember on the drive to the show, oh yeah we were going to a comedy show, I remember thinking that I would one day lose my car keys for good. I wondered what the process would be to get another key. How it probably costs a fortune and I could never afford it.

“So I picked her up and apologized the whole way there. She was understanding. She always is. When we got to the show I walked up to the guy working the counter and asked to buy two tickets. He looked at me like I was an idiot. ‘It’s sold out, sir. And the headliner is already on stage.’ He was a real dickbag about it. How was I supposed to know to buy the tickets in advance?”

The two of them swap a look.

“So we walk back outside and all of the sudden it’s a hurricane.”

“Mountain hurricanes are the worst.”

“Shut up, Hunter. Let him tell it.”

I take a drink.

“So we’re standing under the overhang of the building looking out to the rain and I can’t

look at her. I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe how badly I messed this up. I really liked her and now she knows what a loser I am. I can’t bare to look into her eyes and see her seeing me. Then, thunder billowed loudly in the dark sky and I jumped, startled.

“I hear her giggle. I look over to see her staring at me, not with disappointment, but rapt delight. ‘I really messed this up didn’t I?’ I asked her. She shook her head and told me she was having a wonderful time. I asked her if she wanted to try and do something else. She nodded her head. She was beaming.

“She then closed the gap between us and stood up on her tip toes. Her eyes just stared at me until I kissed her. She always knows how to make me feel better. After we kissed she darted out into the rain and stopped in the middle of the parking lot. I stood there, not moving. She stared back at me and just let the rain soak her. I remember thinking in that moment that ‘I can’t fuck this up. I can’t lose her.’

“And so, just like my keys, she is the one thing I can’t afford to lose, but inevitably will. She is my Keys.”

The whole bar is silent for a moment.

“I always thought it was just like she was the key to your heart or something.”

I cock my head, a little offended. “You think I’m that corny?” Hunter laughs at me, “You’re such a hopeless romantic.” “Hopeless something.” I feel the heavy text message in my pocket. “And she still doesn’t know?” Molly asks.

“Nope.”

“Why don’t you tell her? It’s so cute, I’m sure she’d love it.” “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

I brought the whiskey to my lips and finished my drink.

*

A dying generator that’s been losing the battle exponentially for years soothes the silence. Anything to avoid the silence. The wonderful and chaotic buzzing of a collective letting go. Kind of. Brown poison reapplied with assiduous repetition spills into various blood streams. Not the first time. A wood I don’t know scratches an arm I can’t feel. On it, death lies belly up. Legs twitching. Wings trying. It will never fly again. It’s twenty four hours are up. Do I have the decency to end its misery? Does its size and lack of kinship diminish its pain? Does a species my species considers a nuisance matter in end?

Another drink. Slouching in a lonely place that feels like home. Voices begin to carry from sunken eyed faces and yellow stained teeth. They’ve been waiting all day for this. Waiting all day to let go. Waiting all day to breath. Waiting all day to forget.

Shimmying the snake a little down my torso I breath in the old cigarette smoke stuck to cotton and fermented grain spun with fire dripping from pink carbon. The former is sickening, the latter is the closest thing I know to god. I breath my deepest breaths of the day. Inhale. Hold. Slow breath out. No counting to ten this time. No need. I still do though. Habit.

Surveying the sacred house of sunken faces I feel no closeness to its occupants. No desire to engage or look or know. Here I am, home, alone. Repose and true. An ineffable calm. No foes. No test. No faux family with too much beauty and too little love. Nothing to contrive, not even a smile.

Sickness swings in the open air. Looking down I see my feet kicking right along. The reptile has slid so far down I see my belly button. Eyes stare at my pulled up shirt. Wistful music plays into the wistful air covering up wistful thoughts. Another drink. Nobody here to fix me. Nobody here to save me. Nobody here to tell me pretty lies I’ve already heard.

Not even them. Those two. The only ones that really know me these days. Serious brown eyes look into serious green eyes. Eyes in love. Eyes saying what words cannot. Brown eyes smell my thirst and drop more brown liquor into a clear glass that wont last long, without breaking conversation. Sometimes it’s nice not to talk. Sometimes it’s nice not to feel. Sometimes it’s nice to dissolve into yourself in a place you’re not alone. Yet you are. Another drink.

A quick thought goes to my impending loss. My fall from grace. My sky is falling and the guy two seats down is eating chicken wings.

Glass boxes on the wall show darkness. Not coming, here. A task looms, approaching faster and faster as the fog increases. An electronic rectangle beats against my leg like a bass drum. Heavy and bright enough to show through the khaki. My trucks wheels vitiated by my decisions. With cheeks too florid and arms too tired to operate a big hunk of metal death

flying at high speed down uncertain concrete, there is only one option. An option I know too well.

I push the vicissitude of my destination away and call upon a skill. A skill of selective sight in which I don’t read a word of the message I worry will break my interim serenity, and me. A suddenly quick and decisive thumb slides past and finds assistance:

‘Your ride ‘driver’s name’ will be here in 9 minutes.’ Another drink.

*

My phone buzzes telling me that my ride is outside. I finish my drink, sign my check and say goodbye to Hunter and Molly.

“Bring her by soon, love!”

Before I leave, I look to the fly dying its slow death on the bar. I hadn’t put it out of its misery. (Coward) It no longer twitched it legs. Maybe time did what I couldn’t? I stick out a wobbly finger and poke it to see if its fight was over. It struggles, even more languidly than before. I decide to be a man and smash it before I leave. It doesn’t deserve to have to keep swimming in its misery.

I clench my fist and smash the bar. I miss. It continues to struggle as I feel its legs lightly tap the tip of my fist. Hunter looks at me with curious eyes. I smile a tired smile and walk out of Maggie’s Irish Pub.

Lyft cars are usually well kept, nice and decently new. I would know. However, the car sitting in front of the pub that I assume to be my ride, is a Corolla that has dents and scraps all over it. My app told me it would be a white car. It looks more: ‘once white’ to me.

“Max?” The driver asks as I climb in the back seat.

I nod.

The second I get in the car my senses are accosted by an overwhelming smell of

gasoline. I can almost taste it. “What’s that smell?”

“Smell?”

“Ya, it smells like gas.”

“Um.” He does not finish his sentence.

I pull out my phone and take a deep breath. Then another. Then eight more.

The time had come. I must read it.

The text read:

I’ll tell you when you get home. Are you close?

I try everything in my power not to overthink how absolutely terrible that text message

is. That’s the break up text. I know the break up text, and that’s the break up text. Not in the sense that that specific text is breaking up with me, I know it’s not, I’m not crazy, no, that’s the text alerting me I am about to be broken up with. A text to allow me to prepare myself. A mercy text.

Maybe she needs to talk about something else? Somebody else? I found myself hoping for a dead relative. Maybe we could get in a car accident. Or a meteor could fall from the sky and drop right in the heart of Denver. On second thought, she would die too so that’s no good. Maybe, like a really small meteor. It would just hit us, and maybe the Mustang in front of us with the loud bass. Ya, a really small meteor would be good.

I might even make the paper. I’d probably get less sympathy than Mustang guy, but I might have this weird Lyft driver beat.

Denver moonlight shot through the car windows and danced along the quiet street. It was no longer raining yet the roads kicked up water onto the windshield. I felt the driver staring at me in the rear view mirror. I was too in my head to care.

Why can’t I get a job? What do all these assholes have that I don’t? I’m not even trying to get a good job anymore. These interviews I did today were fall backs, worst case scenarios and I can’t even get that right. What’s wrong with me? Why is Keys still with me? What’s wrong with her?

I should have swallowed my stupid pride and taken some terrible job at any deli that’s hiring. Why do I find my dad so judgmental in death? He was never that way in life. He would want me happy. Whatever that means.

I should’ve been a better boyfriend. I should’ve been more romantic and told her more how important she is to me. Why don’t I do that? I’m so goddamn mopey sometimes. I’m like some lugubrious middle schooler just in love with my sadness. Why am I like this? I should’ve cooked more. One of my few talents and I do it maybe twice a week. I’m basically a househusband anyway…is that a thing? Househusband? Probably not. Fucking patriarchy.

What if when I pull up to the apartment there is a car parked in my spot, her reserved guest spot. It doesn’t upset me because I didn’t bring my truck home anyway but when I get to the door, I hear a voice. A man’s voice. When I open the door there is a handsome man in her kitchen. She yells at him ‘I told you to stay in the bedroom’ and he retreats. Not before I see how much better he is than me. What if the thing she needs to talk about is that she’s in love with somebody else. What if he is in her bedroom right now, sitting on what use to be my side of the bed. Ooo that would hurt.

The snake swallows a little more.

I had worked him all the way down to my belly button in the bar but with one big gulp from its unhinged jaw, I could barely breath.

“We’re lost.”

It takes me a minute to realize the driver is talking to me. I was so in my head I didn’t realize that we had made our way to a strange neighborhood.

“We’re lost?”

“We’re lost,” the driver repeats. His eyes look wild around the edges.

“How can we be lost? Aren’t you just following the map?”

“I don’t know, we’re lost.”

I helped guide my driver home. The neighborhood was unfamiliar and I was still half

drunk (a little sloppy) but the map was not. It clearly showed us the way.

It felt nice not to be the craziest person in the car.

The driver asked if he could ‘count on a five star rating’ as I exited the vehicle. I didn’t

say a word and slammed the door.

I’ll probably give him a five star rating. It’s the man’s livelihood and I’m a softy. Colorado, being bipolar as ever, decided to rain again. Not a little, it reminded me of

our third date outside the comedy club. I walked slow in the heavy rain. Each deliberate step shot hot pain from my toes throughout my feet. The alcohol dulls the pain a little, and the emotions dull the alcohol. I’m now sober and sloppy and dead on my feet.

Allowing the rain to soak me, I began to find poise alone in the moonlit Denver dark.

The truth is that when she splits us in two, as she’s about to do, she’s going to see that her half is much larger than mine. I’m just a sliver. Maybe she already knows.

As I passed my parking spot I notice it to be empty. Good start.

I enter the building and feel a smile pull at my lips. A hysterical giggle is bubbling in my belly and I release it out into a hall of neighbors I don’t know.

It will all be over soon.

The scent of lavender oil fills my nose.

Finally at ease, I grasp the handle and open the door to her apartment.

*

Before I could get both feet through the door I had Keys wrapped around me in a wild delicate embrace.

“You smell like a rough day,” she says with a wry smile. I feel my smile grow wider than I want it to.

“So how’s Hunter?”

“They were both there.”

She cocks her head and pouts her lips, “I love them.”

Keys plants another kiss on my face and walks over to the table waiting with two fully loaded plates, “The pork cushion is so good you’re going to love it.”

I sit down slowly. The table is small and circular. We sit right next to each other. She’s less than an arm length away and I feel the heat of her.

“You wanted to talk?” I tried to wait to bring it up.

Her smile goes distant for a moment and when she comes back her eyes are poignant and burdened. “Ya. So,” she begins. “I was given a new project today at work. They want me to head a team putting together new graphics for a major campaign.” She looks around the room for a moment.

This is where she tells me she met someone on the team. I see how tough this is for her. I don’t like to see her in pain. I decide to help a little bit. “That sounds huge for you, Keys. I’m so happy for you.”

“Ya it is. It’s a huge step for my career, which is good, even though I’m obviously going to quit that place and become famous and not some corporate sellout hack who gives their artistic abilities to evil men their whole life.”

“Of course.”

“And I was really excited and said yes immediately.”

“It’d be strange if you didn’t”

“Right.”

We smile at each other. I hate seeing how hard this is on her. Even when she’s

struggling and not really saying anything and twitching nervously about, she looks ethereal, like she’s floating. Keys wasn’t made for this world. It has her trapped like a butterfly in a mason jar.

“The thing is, and I didn’t know this right away, obviously, or I would have told them to the company is….them.”

“Them?”

“Them. The them we don’t speak of, even though I know you go in there all the time but I never bring it up because I’m basically the best girlfriend in the world and super understanding and your lucky,” she winks. “But yes, them.” Her face goes dark with a smile that isn’t a smile. “I’m heading the marketing team to make money for the company that took

everything from you.” She looks at me with those poignant eyes. A thick tear rolls down her cheek.

I realize what the look in her eye is. I know it well. It’s worry that she is letting me down. The laugh in my belly now isn’t hysterical at all. I don’t let it out.

Instead I lean in and reach out to wipe the tear. I leave my hand on the side of her face. “You’re going to do amazing.”

“Are you mad?”

Now the laugh can’t be stopped.

“I hate you a little, but I’ll manage.”

I expect a punch or a slap or some type of attitude. Instead, she turns her head and

kisses the palm of my hand. She leaves her lips there. “Any good new from the day?” She asks softly. “Nope.”

A moment goes by.

“I got you something.” She reaches a hand below the table and pulls out her phone. She pulls the pop socket, drops it flat on the table and flips the phone in my direction.

Her screen reveals a confirmation email for two concert tickets. They read: RPS. “What?”

“Yup.”

“RPS?”

“Yup.”

“What!”

“Someone at work was making fun of them like, ‘look at this band coming to Red

Rocks. Who the hell names their band Rainbow Kitten Surprise. How weird,’” during her impression she does her ‘douchebag voice’ which she is amazing at. “And I was like, uh…a group of guys my boyfriend has a crush on which borders on infidelity. That’s who.”

As she is speaking I realize that it’s October. Red Rocks is an outside venue and won’t open back up until next summer. I look back to the phone.

“It’s next June?”

“I know it’s a ways off, but they just announced it so tickets were crazy cheap, plus my work discount, I had no choice.” Chestnut hair dripped into the deep pools that are her intelligent blue eyes. Her face shows so much expression with so little movement. “You like?”

I feel my eyes get wet and I can’t speak. I slide in close. I don’t kiss her, I just put my forehead on hers and hold it there. I run my fingers through her hair and breath. I breath better than during my exercises, better than when I was drinking at the bar. I tell her “I like” and feel her open her eyes and peak at me, but I’m not ready to move yet.

“You’re My Guy,” she whispers.

It all becomes so clear in this moment. This is why I do what I do all day. This is why I can withstand the humiliation, the dehumanization, the begging and dancing and waiting.

She is the reason I’m not in the belly of the snake and she is the reason I’m insane. Love like this and crazy are a package deal. They grow together. And It’s nice to feel this crazy. It means I have something worth losing.

I hope dad can see this.

*

We ate the pork cushion. She made a side of mashed potatoes and asparagus with a spinach salad that I was forced to eat or else I’m in trouble. It’s the nicest dinner we’ve had in weeks.

I finished my food and Keys pulled out a colorful book that could only belong to the collection of Kurt Vonnegut. The book is blue: Cat’s Cradle.

As I made my way to the bathroom I heard her cackle out loud and sing along with a song in the book: “‘Where’s my good old gang done gone?’ I heard a sad man say. I whispered in that sad man’s ear, ‘Your gang’s done gone away.’”

I love her.

Stepping into the bathroom I turn on the light and lock the door behind me. I try and turn the handle several times to make sure it’s locked. After turning on the water to the shower I didn’t need, I got down on my knees and opened the cabinet below the sink. At the top of the cabinet, behind the piping to the sink, where the cabinet ceiling meets the wall, there is a little crack it the top of the wood. It’s painted all white and hard to see. But I know just where it is.

If you pull at the crack, a thick sliver of the wooden wall separating the sink from the drywall comes off. Back there, in my spot, I keep my mini chest. It’s a dark stained wood with black metal lining. It was dad’s.

I open the chest and pull out the small knife that sits inside. The knife was also dad’s. He brought it from Austria. It was dear to him. Unlike the store, I’ve actually been able to hold onto it.

I felt the forming bruise on my hip as I sat down on the lament counter top, swung my body parallel to the large bathroom mirror and stuck my feet in the sink. Peeling off my sweaty socks one at a time, reveals my war torn feet. My feet look like a piece of art that nobody really understands but they feel. They’re covered in strange shapes and bumps and discolorations. Pieces are missing (small). Wounds that’ve been reopened enough times that they’ll never heal correctly. My feet look like I dance through landmines.

And I guess I do.

My feet look like a man at war with himself.

Pulling apart my toes I find a spot on my left foot in between my second and third toe.

Delicately, I place the knife between my toes and cut open the skin.

I first push through the snake skin, then get to the good stuff.

Ooo that hurt.

I jump at the sound of a hyena’s wild laugh in the room, terrible and hysterical. I realize

it’s me.

Holy red trickles out and spills into the sink. I realize that not only did I not grab the

toilet paper, I forgot to pick up bandages at the store. There are still two left and I make a mental note to set a reminder in my phone after I wash off the blood.

I’m careful not to use too much toilet paper. I don’t know what Keys would do if she knew about this. She has enough on her plate.

What if after my shower I walk out into an empty bedroom. I don’t hear her loudly reading in the living room so I go investigate. I find no sign of her in the living room which is also the kitchen which is also the dining room. I can feel the energetic depletion from the small little box we call home. What if as I look around the little apartment in confusion I realize there is a note sitting on the table. I read the first few words and don’t finish it. I don’t need to. She didn’t have the heart to tell me. She found someone new, someone better, someone not so broken. His nickname for her is better than mine. Cuter and less desperate. He’s better

looking and has a better job, which is to say he has any job. She’s staying at his place tonight while I pack up my things. The note wouldn’t be mean or harsh, she isn’t like that. It would just tell me she hopes I enjoyed my meal and my present, they were to say goodbye. She hopes I can find someone to give the second ticket. What if right now, as I wipe slow drying blood from between my toes, she is walking out the front door and out of my life. Ooo that would hurt.

Pulling away a piece of toilet paper that has just a small smudge of toe blood, I painfully disinfect the wound and put on my second to last bandage. Then, stepping down softly from the counter top I walk over to the steaming shower to run my hair under the hot water. Coming out of a ‘shower’ with dry hair would be a rookie mistake.

My feet sing with pain as I put my weight on them. They hate me. Tomorrow will be sure to have lots of painful waits in lobbies of jobs that don’t want me. Foot pain is the gift that keeps on giving.

But none of that sounds too much in this moment. After I lost dad and the store began to free fall I never thought I’d have something in my life I didn’t want to lose so badly. It hurts to think about. Walking around with something so precious is the most draining thing I’ve ever done in my life.

So it’s nice when I can control the pain. When I’m the one that gets to decide. So often in my life I haven’t had any say in my pain, it comes when it will.

The universe is a giant child swinging an axe around a world it doesn’t see. Things that took lifetimes to build crumble in moments. We have so little time. Everyone in love will either see their other half die, or fall out of love and into a melancholy tolerance. Many long term relationships are just two souls disappointed in the other and scared to leave. Emotional torment is just the price of the ticket but if I can gain some power and choose when I hurt, if I can inflict it myself, at least I have some control in the chaos.

I keep having this reoccurring dream: I’m in the middle of the sea in storm. There is no land in sight, no boat. The storm doesn’t bring tidal waves, just bumpy currents and heavy rain. I drift precariously around as waves throw me.

I’m looking for anything to grab a hold of when I see something slowly approaching. It’s a shark, swimming along the surface. It’s not preparing to attack. It doesn’t even notice me. It’s just passing by.

I climb upon the shark’s back and grab on the best I can. It’s slippery. My hold is tenuous at best. Once I’m straddling the dangerous creature, I wonder what I’m doing? Why?

Is this a good decision? Doubtful. Is it dangerous? Certainly. But at least it’s something.

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