One Day Before the Due
Phil’s finger tapped on the menu like the list of food was a speed bag. Across from him, Alex whispered to the short-skirted waitress taking notes on her skinny pad of paper. No doubt she wrote words like ‘systemic’ and ‘proletariat,’ words she’d ask the definition for, prompting Alex to snort and ask for another martini instead. Every iota of heat from Joe’s poster-covered walls pressed against Phil, cooking his trembling insides at the thought of anyone taking Alex more serious than he took the rest of the world.
In the next moment, Phil’s knees hit Alex’s table as he scooched in and sat across from him. One of Alex’s empty martini glasses fell over. “Haven’t you ruined enough women here?” Phil hissed.
“Ahh, a paragon of woman’s rights has come to save her from the big, bad socialist.”
“This isn’t about that,” said Phil. “You tried to help her. Your way failed.”
Alex held his hands up and mouthed out a little ‘wooo.’
“Someone finally grew a pair. And shut it, I get enough P.C. complaints from Raymond. You want to know the truth? None of this matters.” He talked just like he did at their first meeting. “Money earned, money won, who gives a shit? Well, Ceridwen, for starters. And I guess that means me too. It’s in my nature to do stupid things and hate myself tomorrow. So let me tell you a story and get it over with.
“I did a lot of get-rich-quick schemes when I was younger- declared myself a foreign country in need of federal aid, sold water after giving out free pretzels, a lot of economic masturbation. A regular capitalist, I was. When I was 13, my mother overhears an idea of mine regarding lottery codes. After perfecting it, she tries it out for herself out of desperation that I didn’t even know she had. She takes out a loan, she buys the right tickets, and presto, half a million in her piggy bank. And it did for her what those get-ripped infomercials do for quadriplegics. Back then, I wanted money, but I also wanted my family given the respect they craved. I thought my mom had finally earned hers. But her fellow tollboothers spat on her, and everyone said she was a dumb bitch that lucked her way into money she didn’t deserve. She had bottled spring water, pools, trips to Hawaii, and tears on her pillow. Now here I’d usually ramble about how this reflects sexist economic stereotypes and how there are no ethical consumers under capitalism and what not, but I see your eyes glazing over. I gave a woman half a million. In a broken system? Yes. But what the hell have you done for one?”
The bells above the restaurant door clanged. Raymond, with a straight back and a collared shirt buttoned all the way up, walked in. He saw the two feminists and joined their table.
“She was let go today,” he said. “She was let go after you talked to her employer, Alex. When you came with your threats, she became more trouble to him than she was worth.”
Alex tossed his hair, looking away to hide his eyes. There was quiet, at least around them.
Raymond sat down. His entire body stood in contrast to the greasy, dark atmosphere of Joe’s. “Her brother stole people’s tips too. I’m coming from her residence, and I told her— let me finish— I told her to sue for discrimination. But she refuses to make things ‘worse.’ She took a lot of pills when I was there. She said it was for ‘stress.’ If you continue to interfere, you’ll only drive her to take more.”
“I’m sure you were just a big ball of happiness to her,” said Alex.
Raymond looked as angry as he sounded when Phil called him up yesterday to find out Ceridwen’s address. Raymond carried himself like a man with all the answers. Phil shivered, because he just might have all the answers any of the men might ever get.
“I see you stopped by Alex’s work on the way back,” said Phil, pointing to a spot of red on Raymond’s breast pocket.
“I don’t follow.”
“I mean,” he continued, his stomach as low as Raymond’s voice, “I mean, you obviously like him well enough to support his business, if not your arteries. We can find common ground here.”
“Yeah, Ray,” said Alex. “Find us some common ground here.”
Raymond smelled of pizza. Phil inhaled the stench of veggies trying to hide calories from the moment Ray walked in. If Alex told true about becoming numb to grease smells after years in Burger King, Phil’s plan might work. “I stopped at Watson’s,” Raymond said. “Alex’s Burger King is approximately- it’s not en route. Still, I appreciate your attempt to bring us together again, Philip. That’s the personality I’m accustomed too.”
Alex swished the straw in his martini while focusing on the sanitized surface of his table. “Why’d you visit her?” he asked.
Raymond cupped his chin with his thumb and pointer finger. “I told you-“
“In person. I imagine you have her phone number.”
Raymond sighed. “I wished to talk to her brother as well- he’s on the ground level of the same building. I used some- choice words to describe his actions…”
“Like ‘socially challenged’?”
“I spoke of harsher things, actually…“
“I know, dude,” said Alex, with a trace of a grin. “That’s just something you would say.”
Raymond chuckled, and Phil saw the chance to save Ceridwen slip down an incline, waiting for him to fly in from above and extend a hand.
After Phil interjected those two words, he weathered the stares from both his friends and the table next to him. He regained composure. “Excuse my tone. That’s all you did? Called him some ‘nasty’ names?”
“I imagine I convinced him to-“ Raymond began.
“How does that help her at all? What is she going to do with words?”
“Words can be powerful,” said Raymond. “They harm people more than physical violence, maybe even sexual violence. I try not to harm others, but sometimes the situation calls for someone to be harmed.”
“Ceridwen can’t pay rent with words.”
“But she can get payback with them. Her brother’s the true source of all this. Fix that, and-“
“You think it’s all about her brother? Does she factor into your crusade at all? If you knew what she’s been through-“
“What she’s been through.” Now the other patrons stared at Raymond. “I will only say this once. You think I haven’t seen my teachers, every single female one, get criticized for their dress or told they’re too ‘bossy’ or asked to smile every goddamned day?” Raymond spat out all his words. “You all owe women a debt for every good aspect in your lives. You want to help. But I. Knew. Her. Before. All. Of. You. I know she walks three miles a day to get from her place to here. I know the grad student who groped her ass and left a big tip to ‘compensate.’ I know things— sit down Philip, I’m not done! — I know things about her that would shrivel up your penises into debris if you ever heard a second of them! I know-“
Phil had to reel out the ‘no’- that interrupting, dishonest, target painting ‘no’- out of his dry throat, and the pain grew inside him farther than it had with his previous interjection. “Alex knows more about worker’s plight than you,” he said. Then he gulped.
“Alex doesn’t know his pimples from Stonehenge,” Raymond said.
Alex stopped sipping his martini and put it down. “Oh, of course, Let’s ask the economic opinions of a man who thinks Lenin sang ‘Imagine.’”
Phil squeezed out between the table and bench. Neither of his friends noticed— their fists were too tight and their mouths too wide to see anything but their targets. Phil walked to the door, opened it, heard the ‘cling!’ and broke away like the Flash in a greyhound gate.
Three miles distance. A pizza joint on the way. Raymond took the most economic walking route possible within the law. There was only one apartment complex it could be— the four-story building that Phil almost mistook for a crashed meteorite the first time he dropped a drunk off there. Phil ran into the street, a car smacking its brakes to stop before him. Phil’s perfect hair unraveled in the wind.
He ran under a smoggy sunset. He ran past churches trying to sit as natural as the trees. He ran over weeds that grew in sidewalk cracks.
And while his body ran through College Station, his mind went to the past and ran with Barbara. He and Barbara took one last jog before he left for Texas A&M- a jog for her, at least, a shot-putter like him never had ‘light’ exercise. She said they’d meet again when she had the time. He said he would wait, he understood. And if not now, he said, I promise to understand someday. She said no, her legs bouncing her up, her breath heavy for someone who could always run another mile, she said no, you will not understand.
Phil ran harder.
Phil’s Jell-O legs pushed him up three more steps to the apartment complex entrance and its mailboxes. Two mailboxes belonged to Yates. Raymond wished to talk to her brother as well— he’s on the ground level of the same building. Phil opened the door and heaved up the stairs.
His sweat dripped on the dark hallway carpet in front of Ceridwen’s undecorated door. He knocked, snatched back his breath, and knocked again.
Ceridwen opened the door.
She opened the door as if it were made of ancient stone. Her hands were the size of jimsonweeds. She coughed a throaty cough. She carried a glass figurine of someone old and most likely famous. Her sweatpants had wet splotches on them. She spoke with a throaty voice. She waited for an answer.
And here, Phil took stock of his friends, his classes, his family skiing trips, and realized he had nothing to say to the woman who could never go skiing and never found a real friend to help her yet. Phil listened to Alex, Raymond, and Bala give solutions, and his only contribution to this point was ‘not that.’ He didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Something inside of him told him he’d never. So with his head a mop of sweat and his blood racing towards something, he gave up.
“What do you want?” he said.
To be concluded in Part 5.