For Herblin. Thanks for all the help, old dog.
(And for Cindy…)
THE MOUSE IS feisty today,” y’all will have said. The sun will have shone [adverb beginning with s] on the soapy skin of y’all’s faces. Y’all will have opened the cage and reached y’all’s hands in, having arranged the mesmerizing, [m adj.] maze. “That’s a good mouse,” y’all will have said, ogling behind y’all’s laboratory goggles. Then
IT TOOK ME a full hour to write that. Donna made me start with, “The mouse is feisty today.” She exhorted me to be “crazy outlandish” with the point of view and the verb tenses. So I was. It was to be the first second-person-plural future-perfect-tense short story ever written. The first one about a feisty mouse, anyway. She also told me to be alliterative, absurdly alliterative. Basically she set me up to smear excrement all over innocent sheets of paper. I was feeling constipated.
So I forsook my Word Document (“excrement3.doc”) and set out for the shoddy basement of my shoddy apartment building. There was coffee in the basement, sometimes. There was also Herblin in the basement, most times. Herblin was, Herblin is, my notorious roommate. His notoriety stems principally from the salacious sci-fi sagas he’s so fond of writing, which rarely fail to make Donna cross her legs in wrath as if crushing a stubborn nut between her kneecaps. “Utterly unprofessional and unartistic,” she snaps. After three installments of “Adventures in the Black Hole” and three of Donna’s resulting discourses on the nature of art and the pleasure of fiction and the value of metafiction — Donna loves metafiction — Herblin had finally decided to try something new. His next piece was due Friday.
Mine was due Wednesday. It was late Tuesday night when I descended the stairs to find coffee and Herblin and a muse. The basement was dark and deserted. There was a light flickering timidly in a far corner, as if fluttering its eyelashes, and the television was on. I turned left and strolled to the coffeemaker with the exaggerated nonchalance of a lone nocturnal basement wanderer taking pains to assure himself that ghosts and serial killers dwell exclusively in bad movies and cheap fiction. Or perhaps: I turned left and strolled to the coffeemaker with the forced indifference of a solitary basement explorer struggling for self-assurance. Y’all will have judged which is better.
The pitcher was halfway full, the coffee ostensibly hot. I snatched one of two remaining Styrofoam cups from the counter and began to pour.
“Holy shh…!” I shrieked, turning around savagely and spilling coffee all over my arm, pants, and shoe. Then I shrieked again. The coffee was hot. “What the hell, man?”
“Sorry,” said the perpetrator. He had been lying, silent and still, on the couch in front of the television. Now he was standing. His face was round and his belly bulged.
“What are you doing down here?” I asked, wiping my pants with napkins.
“Yes. Security. Didn’t mean to startle you, son.” He grinned.
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.” I finished cleaning myself off as he looked on with a grin that meant to be endearing. I grabbed the last cup. “Don’t you think,” I started, “I mean… shouldn’t you be on the lookout somewhere? Doing your job?”
“I’m on break.”
“Likely story,” I muttered.
“Nothing.” I gulped the coffee. “So what’s your name?”
“Gradington,” he said. “And yours?”
“Gradington?” I laughed.
“I don’t see anything funny about it. What’s your name?”
“I don’t give my name to rotund strangers,” I said. He frowned, and I gave in. “Fine. I’ll play along. My name is Jim.”
“That’s boring,” he said.
“Well, it’s the truth.”
“What are you doing down here, son?” he asked, scratching his round, stubble-decked face.
“Besides getting the living bejesus scared out of me?”
“Quit calling me ‘son.’ I came down to drink some coffee and think about this goddamn story.”
“What story?” he asked, eyebrow raised.
I glared at him. I walked over to the couch and sat down. He followed, sat down on the other side. “All right, goddamn it. If you’re so curious, I am obliged to compose a short story by tomorrow night. I’m in a creative writing class at Thurman, a night class. My dumbass roommate is in the class, too,” I yawned. “Mechanics by day, Shakespeares by night.”
“Mechanics, huh? That’s a good trade.” He sighed. “Any ideas?”
“D’you have any ideas for your story?” Beneath his voice a quiet hum reached us from the television set. SportsCenter was flashing inaudibly.
“I have to start with a sentence about a mouse. ‘The mouse is feisty today,’ something like that. I’m thinking I’ll make it a story about a science laboratory, and the mouse is a lab rat. Lab mouse. You know.”
“I see,” he nodded. There was a hint of befuddlement. “Sounds… nice.”
“What’s your story?” I asked.
He shifted his weight to the tune of a creaking couch. “D’you say your roommate was a dumbass?”
“What’s his name?”
“Herblin. The Herb. Herbit the Frog. Herbal Essences.”
“Anybody named Herblin can’t be too bad a fellow, can he?” He crossed his legs and smiled. “I mean, he sounds like, you know, like the kind of guy who’s got an innocent face, a nice smile…”
“You’re right, actually. His face is innocent as hell. But he’s a chronic show-off. In this class, for example. He writes absolute garbage, stuff about aliens and robots, but he does it in a show-offy way. He’ll pull out these words, like ‘befuddlement’ or something. And you know why? He’s showing off for Cindy, the blonde who sits in the first row. He denies it, but I know. There’s this secret war going on between me and him, and the winner is supposed to get Cindy. She has no idea about any of it, of course. Not yet. And I’ll admit it: I write for Cindy, too. But at least I will admit it. I’m more manly that way.”
“I’m sure if he was writing for Cindy, he would tell you.”
“Nah. He’s a chronic liar, too.” I took my last sip and tossed the cup to the waste bin. Missed by inches.
“How long you been a mechanic?” he asked, eyes on the television.
“Look, man, I’m tired of talking,” I said. He just sat there, quiet, eyes fixed on the screen. I sighed melodramatically. “I have been a mechanic for the duration of five years. Ever since goddamn Herblin talked me into dropping out of high school with him.”
“And how long have you been writing?”
“Forever. My dad’s a writer. The fancy New Yorker type. And Herblin’s crazy dad is a mechanic, so we learned to do both. Cars and words.” I yawned nostalgically, if possible. “We essentially lived at the auto shop growing up, and Herb’s dad taught us all about cars. Words, on the other hand… we had to learn about words on our own. We read a lot, and wrote awful stories. Then we started taking these writing classes a couple years back. Laying under cars all day can leave you feeling… I don’t know. Itchy inside. So we write for sanity. And for the hell of it.”
“Lying,” he said placidly.
“Lying under cars all day.”
“Jesus! I said ‘laying’ for your sake. You’re supposed to be some kind of security guard, aren’t you? I’m not gonna go around saying ‘lying’ in front of a goddamn security guard. Do you want me to say ‘whom,’ too?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just shut up, will you?” I leaned forward, checked my watch. “I need to get some writing done, or else Donna with her rose-red fingers is going to give us another angry lecture.” I stood up and walked to the door.
“I’ll tell you my story,” he said, looking back at me over his shoulder.
“What, like your autobiography?”
“Well, no. I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you how I got to be a security guard.”
I glanced at my watch again. “Fine,” and I returned to the couch. After a couple of Let’s Sees and Where Should I Begins, he saw, and he began.
“I used to run this restaurant,” he said, “with my friend Tony. It was an Italian joint, over on Kings Street.”
“What was it called?”
“The Pizzatarian. But we had more than pizza.”
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Well, it was there. And we were raking in the dough, I tell you. It was like we’d always pictured it. Just me and Tony, and our families, running our own restaurant. ”
“How long had you known Tony?” I asked.
“Oh, since we were kids. He would always come over to my place, growing up. Over in the Italian slums.”
“Well, sure,” he said.
“What’d you say your name was?”
“My dad was only half Italian,” he explained.
“Anyway, Tony and me are running this Italian joint, and we’re raking in the dough, you know. We were the kings on Kings Street, as Tony put it. Everything was great for a couple years.”
“What happened?” I asked, with only mild facetiousness.
“Well, see, Tony started running into some trouble. Gambling and all that. And his wife wanted to leave him. And his daughter… well. Let’s just say he was having some problems at home. I had to take care of things at the restaurant. Tony didn’t show up for days at a time. And then comes the worst thing you can imagine. Tony storms in one day, just shouting away and sobbing, looking drunk, you know, and he runs back to the kitchen where I am, where I’m cooking some pasta, and he runs right up to me, you know, sobbing. But he doesn’t make it all the way to me, because there’s grease on the floor, and he slips, bang!, and he hits the back of his head against one of the metal pots on the floor, and he’s out cold.
“Well, we call the ambulance and everything, you know, and they rush him to the hospital. I’m sitting in the waiting room like a lunatic, waiting to hear how he’s doing, how he’s holding up, you know. Soon enough, doctor walks up to me and says, he says, ‘Sorry to say it, but your buddy’s in a coma.’ Well, that was the tops. And his wife and daughter, they aren’t even at the hospital, see, they’ll have none of it. So I’m the only one that pays him any visits, really. Every night after closing things up at the restaurant, I’d drive over to the hospital, see how he’s doing. It was horrible. And it was really boring, too, I can tell you that. Because he was just laying there on the bed, unconscious. Lying there, I mean. So one night when I’m really bored, you know, I think to myself, how can I pass the time? I’ve already prayed a lot. I’ve already bought a sandwich and eaten my fill. So I’m sitting there in a daze thinking about what to do, and my eye must have been set on this pickle I hadn’t eaten, over on the table, because all of a sudden this idea comes to me about making up a story, and telling it to Tony. A story about a pickle, see. I know it sounds weird. It was the first and last story I ever made up. And it was a nice way of passing the time, you know, so every night I’d sit down and tell a little bit more of the story, even though Tony was out cold. Anyway, it was really an awful story, and so one night I’m going on about the pickles, and all of a sudden — ”
“Whoa, time out. Aren’t you going to tell me the pickle story?”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” he said.
“Hm. Yeah, I’m gonna have to hear this one. It’ll make a nice contrast with all these sci-fi sagas I’ve had to put up with recently.”
“Fine,” he said. “I can’t tell you all the details, of course. It got to be a pretty big story. But here goes.
“Once upon a time — God, it’s really an awful story — anyway, once upon a time, there was this pickle named Dylan. And ever since he could remember, Dylan had lived in this dark cellar, by hisself, just him and the pickle juice he swims in. Except one day, this bright light shines up at the top of the cellar, and down plops this other fellow, this really tall fellow named Raymond. Dylan isn’t sure about Raymond at first, and even a little jealous, because, you know, Raymond is tall and has nice skin and a nice haircut. But Raymond wins him over by telling him stories about his childhood as a cucumber and how he was almost sliced up and tossed into a salad one time. So Dylan decides to be nice to Raymond, and they become good buddies. They play cards and have swimming races in the pickle juice.
“But then after a while, the light breaks in again, at the top of the cellar, you know, and this monster of a hand reaches down and pulls Raymond out, and then slams the cellar shut. So Dylan, you can imagine, he’s trembling from fear and wondering what the hell happened to his new buddy. But sure enough, a few hours later, Raymond opens the cellar door and plops right back in again. Dylan asks what the hell happened, you know, and Raymond says he doesn’t know for sure, but they should enjoy themselves while they can. So they play cards again, and swim in the pickle juice, and play catch, you know, all the stuff pickles love to do. Dylan’s having the time of his life, although he’s a little worried about Raymond, because he looks a little worse than before — you know, his skin isn’t so healthy-looking, and he’s not standing so tall. But he doesn’t worry too much, because they’re having a heck of a time playing together.”
“Where is this cellar?” I asked.
“I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it. Patience. Where was I?”
“They’re playing in the cellar.”
“Right. So Dylan and Raymond, they’re having a ball together, you know. Well, sure enough, a little later, the monster hand reaches down again and yanks Raymond out. And, sure enough, Raymond’s back after a few hours, now looking a little worse than before, but he’s healthy enough to play with Dylan. The same thing happens again and again. Eventually they can’t play anymore, since Raymond’s gotten so weak and sick. He’s gotten to be even shorter than Dylan, and his skin is all wrinkled and gross, and he’s tender, real tender. As usual, the light breaks through from the top of the cellar, and the monster hand reaches in, only this time, see, it stops all of a sudden, and doesn’t pick up Raymond. It just leaves and shuts the cellar closed.
“Now, Raymond’s on his death bed, and Dylan’s bawling like a baby cucumber. ‘Quit crying,’ Raymond says, ‘quit crying.’ And Dylan says, ‘But you’re dying!’ All of a sudden Raymond, he starts quivering, like he’s about to cry too, and he says, ‘Listen, Dylan. I gotta confess something to you.’ ‘What’s that?’ Dylan asks him. ‘Well,’ Raymond says — and his voice gets real quiet and serious, you know — he says, ‘Well, Dylan… I’m not exactly a pickle.’ Dylan gasps, you know, because he’s in shock, and then he asks, ‘Are you a regular cucumber, then?’ ‘Not exactly,’ Raymond says. ‘The truth is, well… I’m a banana.’ And Dylan cries, ‘A banana?’ ‘Yes, a banana,’ Raymond says. And he explains to Dylan, he says, ‘I was coming into your cellar so I wouldn’t get mashed into a pulp, like all the other bananas.’ ‘Mashed into a pulp?’ Dylan says. ‘What do you mean mashed into a pulp?’ ‘Well,’ Raymond says, ‘don’t you know where we are, Dylan? Don’t you know where you’ve been living all this time?’ Dylan’s eyes get real wide, and he says no, he has no idea. ‘We’re in a gosh darn smoothie shop!’ Raymond says. ‘They call it “blending.” It means death, bloody death. I was coming into your cellar,’ Raymond says, ‘because nobody ever orders the Sour Pickle Smoothie. This is the safest place in the whole shop. And every night, when the murderers were looking through the cellars to make sure all the fruits were in order, they saw me in the wrong place and moved me to the banana cellar.’ ‘Well,’ Dylan says, ‘why didn’t they move you the last time?’ And Raymond answers, in his weak little whisper he says, ‘Isn’t it obvious? I’ve become so rotten, so brown and shriveled, so, you know, so soaked in pickle juice, they can’t tell me apart from a pickle.’
“So Dylan was devastated, you know, just devastated, because his friend had been lying to him, but even more because his friend was wasting away. And just when it sounds like Raymond is gasping his last few breaths, the light breaks in and the monster hand reaches down. The hand fiddles around on the cellar floor for a second, and then it snatches poor old Raymond. And as Raymond’s being yanked out of the cellar, he shouts to Dylan with all his strength, he says, ‘Dylan! Somebody ordered the pickle smoothie! It’s for the best, buddy. Thanks for all the good times!’ And then the cellar door’s slammed shut, and it’s dark, and the echoes from Raymond’s voice keep jumping back and forth along the cellar walls.”
Silence. Then my voice. “Is that it?”
“That’s it for Dylan and Raymond,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You can’t very well start with a ‘once upon a time’ and then not end with a ‘happily ever after.’”
“Well, maybe I would have. But I never got to finish with the story.”
“And why is that?” I asked.
“Soon as I told that part about the cellar door being slammed shut, and the darkness and the echoes, Tony turns to me and he says, ‘You can’t end it like that!’ and he gives me a big thump on the head with the backside of his hand.”
“Tony?” I asked.
“Believe me, son, I was more shocked than you are. I didn’t know whether to thump him on the head or give him a big hug. So I do neither one, I just start to shout something, and he shushes me and pulls me in close and starts to whisper. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I ain’t been in no coma. I had to pretend to be in a coma for a while — ’”
“Because of his gambling debts,” I said.
“That’s probably part of it. Plus his wife was trying to get him to sign divorce papers. Anyways, he says, ‘I had to pretend to be in a coma for a while, but now you’ve gone and ruined a perfectly good story! You gotta change the ending,’ he says, ‘you gotta go back to the part where they’re playing cards and change everything you said after that.’”
“So did you?”
“Well, no! At the time I was pretty proud of the way the story was going, and I wasn’t about to change it for some, you know, some lunatic who’s been pretending to be in a coma for two weeks! So I stop visiting him at the hospital. And pretty soon he pretends to wake up from the coma, and he leaves the hospital and gets back to living life. I guess by now he could be floating in a river somewhere, I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. I’m just being honest. But anyway, after he left the hospital, we closed down the Pizzatarian. Sold it, split the money. And a week later, here I am. A security guard.”
I crossed my legs and stared at the flashing television screen. “So that’s your story, huh?”
“That’s my story,” he said.
“What do you mean for Friday?” he asked.
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“Knock it off already. Is that your story for Friday or not?”
He sighed, resigned. “Yup. That’s my story for Friday.”
I tilted my head back and laughed. “My God, Herblin,” I said. “How in the hell do you come up with this stuff?”
He grinned his Herblin grin, and the light flashing from the Mercedes Benz commercial danced frantically on his white t-shirt, his bulging belly.
THE NEXT DAY we were laying under cars and talking.
“I mean, if it works for you, fine,” I said. “But it is strange.”
“What is?” Herblin asked.
“Hand me the socket wrench, will you?”
“What’s strange?” he insisted.
“Becoming your characters before you write their stories. It’s very odd. But I will say,” I added, “I liked Gradington a hell of a lot more than I liked Horny Hopkins the Space Ranger.”
“Come on. Horny Hopkins was a saint.”
“Right,” I said.
“You do know I owe it all to you.”
“All of what?”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“I had no idea what I was going to write about. Then you spilled your coffee, and I got this image in my head of someone spilling grease all over the floor, and then someone slipping on it and smashing his head. It’s like they say. Creation is never an isolated business.”
“Who says that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Somebody.”
“Plus, I essentially stole the Dylan-Raymond plotline from that story of yours about the tablespoon, the one you wrote a couple years ago.”
“Well, they are similar,” he said.
“Are you going to dedicate your story to me, then? Since I basically wrote it for you.”
“Nah. I’m thinking I might dedicate it to Cindy. The semester’s wrapping up. It’s my last chance.”
“I thought you didn’t write for Cindy,” I said.
“Right. Could you hand me the torque wrench?”
“She does seem to like the story-within-a-story thing,” he mused. “And plot twists. So my Gradington story could work wonders.”
“You should lay off of her, you know. To be fair. You always get the girls.”
“Do you have any idea how much toil and trouble it takes to make this belly endearing to beautiful women? It takes a lot of good prose. A lot of good prose. I’m this close. I can feel it. Besides, you went out with What’s Her Name. Last year.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Look. I’m all about being fair. Just write a good story for tonight, and we’ll see who she flirts with after class.”
“Speaking of which,” he said, “did you finish writing your story last night?”
“Almost. I still have to add some final touches before tonight.”
“What’s it about?”
“You’ll see,” I said. “Do you think Donna will mind if it’s not exactly fiction? If it’s just an account of a… I don’t know. A lived experience?”
“Nah. She’ll eat it up.”
“Hope so,” I said.
“I thought you had to write about a feisty mouse.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I hope she’ll overlook that. Donna has a pretty good sense of humor, doesn’t she?”
“All you need is a good title, and you’ll be fine. She’s a sucker for clever titles.”
“Hm. Being clever is difficult. Maybe I’ll just title it… ‘Clever Title.’”
“Very meta. Donna swoons for meta. Go with it.”
So I did. Y’all will have known that already.