Thursday, January 11, 2007

Failure to Thrive

He was feeling old now and harassed by both his wife and his body. He hated that not only could he not pee straight or heavy anymore, but that his wife constantly badgered him to sit on the toilet, rather than stand and “pee all over her fucking floor, like a dog,” as she put it.
“Marla,” he called out in a not too demanding voice, standing with this thing called manhood dangling in his fingers.
She yelled from down the hall, as she waded through her walk-in closet that had little room left for walking anymore and would one day collapse and kill her.
Meantime she searched not for something that she needed, but just something that nagged, giving her a chance to talk, if only to herself. “Fuck, where is it?
She stepped back from the dark chasm; it’s one light bulb, long burnt out. “Fuck.”

Roger couldn’t pee. Instead he zipped up, flushed for effect and stared at the mirror. He turned on the vanity lights, his gaze wandering, looking for his reflection, but the mirror, over the years had become Marla’s shrine to optimism and dreams. Pasted with quotes of greeting card inspiration, New Yorker cartoons and cut-out pictures of women with beautiful hair.
Marla always wanted this movie star look but couldn’t stand the smell of hair care products and so her hair, although long with possibility, hung limp as drool to her waist.

“Marla,” he yelled.
“What?” she yelled back. Twenty-five years in this rented place and they’d spent most of their time trying to hear one another from room to room.
He stared a moment longer at the mirror, at the brittle papered promise of greatness, and then he closed the door, stepping into the dusty, dark, hallway.
He could hear her now. The same thing she’d always asked. “Did you pee?”
“Did you hear me flush?”
“Is my floor clean?”
“Thank you Roger.”
He stared at the front door, then grabbed his coat and dug through the change bowl, trying to be quiet.
“Use the pennies,” she yelled from somewhere. She could hear, smell, sense, anything to do with their money.
“I’m going out,” he said, not loudly, but only enough that she might hear something, so that he could at least defend himself without guilt when he got home.
She always asked where he’d been, but she didn’t really care; in fact she waited for the day when he’d come back and tell her he’d been having an affair or maybe he’d been drinking. Something, but he never did.
She trusted his ineptness at anything; she called it failure to thrive, a term of doctor-speak that she’d picked up at her job in the medical records department at the hospital.
Roger collected ten pennies and change from the bowl, and stuck his notebook and a pencil in his pocket in case any thoughts flowered in his mind. His day was filled with notes to self––post-it notes were his vice.
He opened the door and stepped out, unsure of his footing as though he were landing on the moon for the first time, then, as he pulled the door closed, he remembered.
“I love you, “ barely escaped his lips and hurried through the closing door, up the stairs and dissipated in the warm air of three portable heaters, going full blast.

“Roger, Roger?” She knew he was gone. “Fuck.”
She even knew that he said he was going and she knew that she didn’t hear him, that he said, ‘I love you,’ as he closed the door. She knew all of this but it didn’t matter. She was still pissed. It gave her something to do.
She closed the closet door, putting her shoulder to it to get the latch to catch. “Where the fuck could it be,” she said as shuffled down the hall in her dirty brown slippers.
She stopped at the bathroom, tilting her head just so to catch the light around the toilet, noticing to her satisfaction, a clean floor.
Roger glanced, furtively, behind him as he walked. Smudgy farts propelling him down the block towards the gas-n-go.
The bathroom door was cold and locked, so he went inside the station to face the mechanic who knew he didn’t have a car.
The mechanic’s name changed with his shirts. “Phil,” with his dirty fingers and yellow teeth looked at Roger.
“Large coffee.”
“Thanks.” Roger laid out the change––ninety-eight cents to the penny, putting the extras in the tray next to the register.
The air in the shop smelled of oil, rubber and dying cars, hoisted towards the heavens. Phil scraped the change off the counter, tossed it into the register, slammed the door shut and stepped outside.
There was just ninety-eight cents worth of coffee in the pot, which barely warmed his hand when he picked it up, but he poured it into the styro cup and took the same slow cautious sip he’d always taken, only to have the warm liquid pass almost unnoticed down his throat.
He turned and watched Phil outside, exhaling, his head a cloud of smoke as it seemed to come from every orifice.
He’d watched Phil smoke a cigarette so many times before and never had the urge, but almost sensing the frail man of fifty-two watching him, Phil turned around and looked through the window as Roger said, in that weak voice of his, “Got a smoke?”
Phil thought he heard what he heard, but he opened the door. “Do you need something else?” Roger had second thoughts but blurted it out, pointing at the pack of Marlboros he knew to be in Phil’s shirt pocket. “Could I get s smoke?”
Phil looked at Roger and then his eyes swept over behind the counter and he pointed to the packs of cigarettes on the rack. “ four-eighty-five, plus tax.”
Roger shrank into himself at this denial and then suddenly, with a big smile Phil pulled out the pack, “Just fuckin’ with you. Sorry man.” He held out the pack.
“Sorry man, but it’s a reaction, like instinctual or something, ‘cause so many stooges come up here and see me smoking and it’s like I gotta think, you’re a pimp, you’re driving a hot car and you got a stylin’ cell phone. Buy your own fucking smokes.”
Roger pulled a cigarette out of the pack and said, “But I don’t drive a car.” Phil looked at Roger, “Yeah, but you pimpin’ drinking my great coffee.” And with that, Phil pulled out his lighter, laughed, and extended its flame to Roger, who inhaled and coughed and the two of them laughed.
Roger took a chance asked “Phil,” what his name was and Phil looked down at the name knitted in his shirt and said, “Lihp, no Phil . . . Phil today, gone tomorrow. Gonna be Johnny tomorrow.” And Roger put out his small hand to Phil, “Roger,” he said.
“Alright, alright Roger, my real name is Theodore but there aren’t too many gas pumping black dudes named Theodore, so I get to be the white dude, Phil.”
“Can I call you Theo?”
“Sure, just as long as you don’t act like my mom.” Theo Smiled at the thought.
“Actually, if I was in trouble it’d be Theodore, hard on the T-H, hard on the dore and hard on me, like your mom calling out, Roger, get in here. Didn’t you know you was in a hurt when she called you by your whole damn proper every syllable pronounced name?”
“I still know that.”
Theo looked past Roger, through the glass, towards the bathroom. “You came here to use the bathroom didn’t you Roger, ‘cause it’s open now.” A short fat bald man with a newspaper waddled across the weedy parking lot to his car.
“Don’t worry, I got everybody’s number. Dude there had the cup just before you and a refill.”
“Roger turned towards the bathroom. “We like good coffee,”
“I’ll make a fresh one, on the house for you.”
All that talking had made him forget he had to pee but it came at him as soon as he saw and smelled the bathroom with its lovely trough urinal––no chance of a miss-hit.
His gritted his teeth and his knees almost buckled and fingers fumbled and then, angels floated above his head and the graffiti on the wall came into focus and the stench increased and everything was good and elevated, but relaxed and he thought of Marla, back home doing something to keep going in the circles she liked to go in and then he thought he’d like to have another smoke, maybe even buy a pack.

He felt tall again, in spite of being only five four and thin as a straw. He stared at his reflection in the empty towel dispenser, then stepped outside and walked into the gas station office.
“Alright, the man Roger is looking good, feeling good, needs a coffee and a cigarette.”
“Can I buy a pack of Marlboros?”
Theodore smiled. “Is that a question, or . . .”
“Okay, give me a pack of Marlboro, please.”

Theo slapped the pack of smokes on the counter as Roger pulled out and opened his wallet, but instead of taking a bill out of the fold, as Theo noticed a lack of green in there, Roger emptied one of the card slots and searched out a finely folded ten dollar bill.
“That’s some origami you got there, Roger.”
He placed the multi-folded bill on the counter, “Thank you Theo.”

Roger nervously picked up the first pack of smokes he’d ever bought as Theo rang through the register.
“Tax man says it’s an even five dollars leaving and coming back at you.” He placed the bill on the counter and slid it towards Roger, who wrestled the cellophane off the package then looked at him. “Cigarette?”
Theo came around the counter and pointed to the two cups of hot brewed coffee.
“Been working hard, so yeah, I think I need another break.”



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