catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 25 :: 2009.12.25 — 2010.01.07


Clutching Dust and Stars

Legalize happiness

This is Chapter Eight of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one, two, three, four, five, six and seven), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.

It was good to be writing again. He had delusions of future grandeur-and he was fully aware that they were delusions. Probably. If he could find a way to get it out there, anything could happen.

Working at the copy shop had given him one idea-pragmatic and less than glamorous, but workable. The obvious starting point was to produce a sheet of writing and run a bunch of photocopies.

His first plan was to open up a few of the Herald newspaper boxes and insert his pages into the stack of papers by hand one morning. That plan had evolved. Now he was planning to design a page that looked exactly like the front page of the Herald, but with fake headlines and photographs, and affix it to the inside of the display glass on the boxes.

He just had to decide what to write about, and what pictures to put on the front. This one wouldn’t even need much in the way of text-the headlines were the most important, and then a few lines of text, but there would be no complete story, since it was just a front page.

He had a handful of magazines spread out in front of him. Libraries were wonderful places. He had control of one table, his books and papers and magazines organized in an arc around him like the walls of a child’s fort, so no one else tried to sit beside him. Personal space was important to him when he was doing research, though today might not qualify as that: the books and magazines all had to do with writing, but he hadn’t read any of them. He had spent most of the time skimming, and then arranging them to maximize the intimidation factor of his spread, and then he sat staring out at about 45 degrees for the last hour, pen in hand but rarely moving. He had a few recent editions of the paper for inspiration.

He looked at his handwritten scrawls, attempts at headlines.


He wasn’t at his most creative. There was no sense forcing it. It was always tough to come up with anything when there was no direction. It shouldn’t be hard to fill a single page with text, he just needed to get started.

He pulled the cap off of his pen with his mouth and chewed it, drawing a small series of scribbles in the corner to make sure the ink was still running. The paper had a front page article about the transient homeless population that came in summer and largely disappeared from sight in the winter.

The mayor of Bellingham unveiled a modest proposal yesterday to help solve the issue of homelessness in the city. He outlined a solution which involves the systematic slaughter and packaging of anyone who lives in the streets. Opponents of the idea say that it lacks the brilliance of Swift’s original concept, proposed in Ireland in the eighteenth century, which limited the age of potential candidates. Meat taken from an old man who has lived in the streets most of his life would undoubtedly be stringy and tough. “Obviously, we’ll need to come up with a system for grading the meat,” says the mayor, “and not all of the meat would be prepared for consumption-there are other options: dog food, glue factories.”

He reminded himself that first drafts should not be judged too harshly. He did a quick sketch of the front page to get a sense of the number of stories and photos he would need. A few more lead-ins and a photo. He skimmed the paper again, flipping through until an article caught his eye. It was about a new theater that was opening north of town-the kind of non-story that he would have had to write about in another life.


He crossed it out.

“It’s awful,” says Bellingham resident Bridget Matthews. “I am constantly watching television, or going to the feelies, taking my prescription drugs, or hearing about things that have no bearing on my life, and yet, once in a while, I find that my real life keeps seeping in. It’s, like, so annoying! Can’t they make this stuff powerful enough to just knock me out completely?” Scientists developing Soma say that it is just a matter of time before it disintegrates a person’s mind completely. ’We’re in such an instant gratification society these days," says Mitchell Plummer, a leading Hollywood scientist, “everyone just wants the Soma to render them comatose in two seconds flat. The truth is that it works better if it’s a slower process-they need to take the time and subject themselves to the television for hours each day, or go to every new feely that we produce. Nothing good comes without a little hard work and plenty of time!’”

Good enough. If he wrote another story or two, and fleshed these out a bit, he could get this printed at work that afternoon. It would be a little tight-but he already had the layout template ready, so he just needed to do the typing and tweak it.

Last weekend, Dave had come up again, without Cindy or Tad this time. He had taken a disk with a bunch of software on it and installed it on Rob’s computer. He had been excited about the idea and had taken a copy of the Herald to mimic, creating a template for Rob to use.


They had gone on a hike that afternoon. They drove up Alger Hill to the lower overlook, where the hang gliders took off from. Dave was funny when he went hiking, because he liked to go barefoot. This time he convinced Rob to try it as well, so they rolled up their pants and walked across the gravel of the parking lot in their sandals. Once they got to the trailhead, they strapped the sandals to Dave’s daypack and started out.

“Be prepared to endure the stares and comments of ‘the shod,’ because they will come,” he said.

It was amazing what a different experience walking in bare feet was-he usually didn’t have to think much about the texture of the path, the temperature, the moisture. Feet are remarkably sensitive for being walked on all day. He loved the moss.

“Why’d you kiss Cindy last weekend?” Dave asked the question out of nowhere, on the tail end of a conversation about how well Rob’s leg was doing.

“I didn’t kiss her, she kissed me.”

“Right. That’s not what she said. What did you say to her before we left, anyway?”

“What did she say I said?”

“All I know is that the whole ride back to Seattle, I don’t think she said one word. She was just sitting there in a bad mood.”

“Shut up. You’re making that up.”

“No, not really. I talked with her on Tuesday and she said you had told her not to come up anymore.”

“Well, not quite in those words. I just didn’t want her to think that there was something between us, so I told her that it might be better for both of us to keep some distance between us for a while.”

“This is what you said after you kissed her.”

“She kissed me.”

“Right. She kissed you.”


He closed his notebook. His mind was not on headlines anymore. That situation probably did look bad from the outside-one of those “it’s not what you think” moments. He couldn’t really explain how some of the things had happened with Cindy. They just seemed to happen. He had actually been proud of finally saying something to her about it until Dave had mentioned it like it was something to be ashamed of.

And what about Natalie? What was going on there? Dave had asked him, but he honestly couldn’t answer. That night with the train had been very strange. They had spent most of the evening together, walking, looking at art, painting grafitti on trains, sitting at the coffee house. It had felt like a date, one hundred percent. And there was that little matter of the kiss that his mind kept coming back to. He wondered if he should have walked her to the door that night. But that had been a week and a half ago and they hadn’t communicated much in the interim, partly due to schedule conflicts and partly because he was testing her to some degree. She failed. She never called or came over.

He pulled out a package of photographs. The first shots were all pictures from moving, and a few of the group of them the night before he left. Cindy, smiling. Here was Natalie, wearing a look of terror beside the train. The picture was dark and her face was almost washed out completely by the flash. Behind her, the painting was barely visible in the shadows. She had made a sun, or a flaming star with the yellow. He was impressed. He hadn’t expected her to go along with it. He flipped through the next few pictures. You couldn’t even make out his artwork in the darkness, even if you knew what you were looking for-an anarchy symbol and an exclamation point. He was glad you couldn’t see it. It felt clumsy, as though he had been trying to speak a new language with a working knowledge of the curses and swearwords alone.

Here she was at the end of the roll in a series of coffeehouse shots, each one with a new expression. Don’t take that picture. I can’t believe you took that picture. What the…! And the last one, with her hand out, fingers splayed and out of focus, an eye partly visible between her index and middle finger. There was the gap between her teeth, revealed as her mouth pulled open in a wide smile of surprise. She was beautiful because she was real, and here he sat, surrounded by a world that felt fake, wanting something real.

He shuffled the pictures back together and then tapped them on the table like playing cards to flush the edges. He looked at his calendar. It was almost the end of the month-almost Halloween, as the advertisements had informed him for the last month. The commercial media was now a sort of calendar for people, the way the leaves on trees used to be. Skulls and pumpkins meant it was October. Next came turkey and then the fat man.

He surprised himself by remembering that the proximity of Halloween meant it was even closer to Natalie’s birthday. And tomorrow was the pre-Halloween costume party, which he still needed to get a costume for.

If he was going to get this typed up before work, it was going to have to be done now. He slid the stack of photos back into their envelope and put them with his notebook into his shoulder bag, leaving the books and magazines in a pile on the tabletop.


He hadn’t quite finished the typesetting at home, but he had saved it on a disk anyway and brought it in to work. It usually worked out that the evenings were slow, and Randall tended to hole up in the office a few hours after Bobbi left. The first week he hadn’t had much time to himself because Randall was training him when there was stuff to do and watching him when there wasn’t, as though he feared that Rob might suddenly go on a rampage and destroy the place. That was the first week. This second week they had begun to let him settle in and work on projects alone, and these last few days, to be alone in the store.

So, if he had a good handle on the jobs for the evening, he had access to the computer behind the counter, and he could finish his own project. It was better than just standing around with nothing to do-though if Bobbi or Randall were around, they might suggest he do something else, like pull fallen staples out of the carpet or wash the handprints and grease from the glass door.

“There’s always something to do here,” Randall had said. “You just need to find out what it is.”

He had created a folder for his files, camouflaging it by giving it a technical sounding name in an out-of-the-way directory and then storing his files in it. The last few days he had made a point of copying anything he had been working on onto a disk and erasing it from the computer, just to be safe. Randall had made it clear enough that he didn’t like him and he didn’t want to give him any dirt to bring before Bobbi, because he probably would. Rob didn’t see a problem with it: if there was spare time, why not use it? It’s not like he was neglecting his job. It’s not like he was holing up in the office and looking at internet porn.

Actually he wasn’t completely sure what Randall did in there, but two nights ago when Rob had needed to find out where the six millimeter coils were stored for a small bind, he had opened the office door, stuck his head in and asked him. And Randall had jumped high enough to knock one of his knees on the bottom of the desktop, flushing red and hitting keys in what seemed like desperation. Rob couldn’t see the monitor, but he saw the light from the screen disappear from Randall’s face and heard the beep which meant Ctrl-Alt -Delete: reboot.

Randall acted like Rob had violated some kind of protocol and threatened to write him up, but didn’t. Feeling guilty, maybe. Tonight, though, when Randall retired to the office, Rob heard an extra little click. Whatever he was doing in there, he didn’t want to be surprised again. Which worked out well, because now it took him longer to get out of the office-the sound of the lock being turned gave Rob plenty of warning. He had time to shut down what he was doing and pull up the store’s e-mail, which he kept open underneath everything so he could bring it up in seconds. It was like the “boss mode” that they used to include in computer games, a fake screen that could be pulled up by a simple keystroke and made it look like you were checking your files or doing some kind of work while the game was paused and hidden in the background.

He had the whole page set up and was just tweaking it now, preparing it for print. He had forgotten about the front page photo and had come up with a solution on the spur of the moment-he went online and downloaded a shot of a fluke from some university’s website. It wasn’t a lancet fluke, but it was a fluke of some kind. It looked like abstract art, with these hairs out the sides and little circular blobs and stringy paint strokes on the body, and what looked like a partially developed rib-cage.

What did people mean when they said of a lucky thing, ‘It was a fluke?’ He plunked the graphic in the middle of the page and typed a small caption underneath it.

Scientists fear that flukes like this one may control peoples’ inner workings, decision-making, that they can drive us like Cadillacs.

Finished. He just had to decide how many of these to print now, and whether to do it in color or black and white. He glanced up at the door of the office, then back at the screen. The lancet fluke had a nice fleshy colored background; it would be a shame to lose it. He sent it over to the Fiery to see how it looked on paper.

The color prints were technically more expensive, but he seemed to remember Bobbi telling him during those first few days that he should feel free to experiment a bit and get familiar with the equipment, the store’s capability. He liked the ambiguity of the phrase “a bit” and decided that this project fit into it. The machine started to warm up, preparing to print.

He saved the project to his disk and erased the files from the computer, pocketing the disk. The page slid out of the side tray just as Randall began to fumble with the lock. Rob grabbed the print, glancing at it briefly before turning it upside down and sliding it into the recycle bin, underneath some other pages from previous jobs he had screwed up. He moved the file from the copier’s list of recent jobs and into an archive folder, just in case.

Randall came right up to him and took a look at the display monitor of the copier.

“What have you got going out here?”

“Not much. It’s really slow, so I’m just familiarizing myself with the equipment again.”

Randall opened the top file on the copier’s list, squinting to see the tiny preview. It was a job Rob had run two hours ago, and Randall had already quality checked it by the front counter. He closed it and turned to Rob.

“What exactly have you been doing out here? It looked like you were working on that computer for a while.”

So the bastard was spying on him. He nodded easily. “Yeah, Bobbi suggested that I get familiar with some of the software that you’ve got here.”

Randall looked over at the computer, the e-mail box open on the screen. He paused for a second as though he were deciding whether he approved, then glanced at the clock.

“I think I’m going to send you home a little early today. It’s so dead that it doesn’t make much sense to keep us both here, especially on a Friday night.”

“What time does that mean, exactly?” It was an hour and a half before he was supposed to be done his shift.

“Oh, any time now. Maybe just empty the trash and the recycling and then count down your till.”

Rob didn’t say anything, but gave a slight nod down his nose at Randall, his face expressionless, and walked away to begin gathering the trash. Randall stood there in his way, as though daring Rob to question his authority, and so they brushed shoulders, neither willing to move. Randall was staring at his back, he could feel it.

He was tempted to flip him off over his shoulder, but decided not to-the hostility between them was still underneath the surface; it hadn’t broken through yet. Besides, he wasn’t really angry, and he was just about ready to go home anyway now that his little project was almost done. He just didn’t like Randall and wanted him to know it.

Randall settled back into the office, though Rob didn’t hear the lock turn. He dragged a large plastic garbage can beside the 5090 and started shoving the waste from that machine in: papers which were wrinkled, or smudged, or which had been copied crookedly. When he reached the Fiery, he made sure he wasn’t being too obvious and pulled up the list of files in the archive. He highlighted his and punched in a “20” and then “Print.”

While it was silently spewing them out, page after page in a rhythm, he erased the file from the archive. Every so often, he’d glance up to make sure Randall was still in his kennel. This was the point that was the most dangerous, because if Randall came out now, he couldn’t easily make the prints stop coming out. He went to the front counter and pulled a plastic bag from underneath it, stuffing it into the garbage bag to store his prints in. When the printer finished, he placed them, still warm, on top of the pile and continued on his cleanup route.

When he was at the cutter, he was out of view of the office, back near the break room. He pulled out his stack of prints and set the blade back. He had set these up for tabloid size paper, which wasn’t exactly the size of the newspaper window, but he figured it didn’t have to be exact. He jogged the paper so the edges were flush and positioned the stack roughly so that the extra white space on the one edge would be trimmed to make the margins all closer to being equal.

The blade came down from the top like a guillotine, but not straight down as he had expected the first time he had used it-it cut with a diagonal stroke, moving down and to the left. He waited for the blade to rise and then pulled the whole stack of papers off the counter and into the trash bag, slinging it over his shoulder.

The break room and office were connected by doors to the storage room, which had a garage-style loading door out back and a smaller door that Rob thought of as the “escape hatch” because he could duck out of it for a smoke now and then if he told Randall beforehand. He popped open the escape hatch now, pushing the rock on the steps between the door and the frame so it didn’t lock shut on him and then carried the bag of recycling to the dumpster. It wasn’t raining, but the ground was wet. He pulled out the stack of prints he had made, shuffling them back into a pile and inserted them into the plastic bag. He set them underneath the dumpster with a board from an old pallet on top as a paperweight.

Last year, Bobbi said, winds had torn the lid of the bin open and papered the neighborhood with overs from a confidential job that someone had been too lazy to shred before dumping. They had spent two days out walking with bags and picking up papers after that one, and she had an iron bar put on the top of the dumpster to hold the lid down until someone disengaged it. It was down right now-Ann from the day shift told him that only the rookies used it; after about a month they stopped.

He emptied the bag into the bin and swung the lid shut, engaging the bar to lock it in place. The last thing he needed was to have Randall find some good reason to get on him. He looked down the alley, which was dark already but for a few small lights on the backs of buildings, and wondered if he should have a smoke quick while he was still on the clock. If he was going to go home early anyway, he might as well take his smoke break before he did. Maybe the cost of the cigarette would be covered by the hourly wage.

There were only two left in the pack, and they were a little beat-up from the ride in his back pocket. This always happened once the packs were nearly empty because he’d move them from his coat pocket to his pants as they shrunk in size. He extracted the least battered one and then stuck a finger down into the pack, fishing around for the lighter. It was cool out. He wished he had thought to pull on his jacket quickly.

He bent down and pulled the top sheet off of his stack, holding it underneath the small light above the door. It looked good. Not bad for a first attempt, anyway. He started to skim the stories and had already found three typos when Randall stuck his head out the escape hatch.

“There you are. What’s taking so long? We’ve got a customer out here.”

“Oh, shit. Sorry. I was dumping the recycling and thought I’d take a quick drag while I was out here.” He flicked his filter and the remaining half of the cigarette to the pavement and stepped on it, crumpling the paper in his hands.

Idiot. First he sends me home and then he gets mad at me for leaving.

“You’ve got to let me know before you do something like that,” Randall said, as though Rob’s negligence had nearly destroyed the store. “What have you got there?”

Rob had flipped down the iron bar and let the ball of paper drop into the bin. “Oh, that?” he asked. “Some piece of trash from earlier in the day, I think. The Doc 40 was leaving a stripe across the page,” he adlibbed, glad that he had skimmed the daily log of machine problems.

He popped a piece of gum in his mouth as he walked out into the work area. An old man was beside one of the black and white copiers, fumbling with an envelope of old photos.

“Did you need a hand there?”

He looked up from his hands with an expression of surprise and then held the package out to Rob, who accepted it in reflex.

“I need to make copies of these,” he said, turning to the copier.

“Did you want these copied on a black and white copier, or on a color copier?” Rob asked.

“They’re all black and white,” he snapped, glaring at Rob.

Rob clenched his jaw. One of these types.

“You can do them on the black and white machine, or you can use the color machine in black and white mode. It’s more expensive, but the pictures come out better.”

“How much better?”

“Quite a bit.”

“How much are they?”

“Seventy four cents.”

“For each one?”

Rob nodded once, slowly and deliberately.

“How much is this one?” the man asked, jabbing a crooked finger toward the black and white copier.

“Six cents.”

“Do it on this one,” he said, scratching the back of his left hand. “Let’s do it on this one.”

Rob popped the top of the copier up and positioned two of the pictures face down on the glass. “Okay, when you put them down, put them within this area,” he said, indicating the markings on the sides.

The man was looking out the window, or at his own reflection in the window. He turned slightly as though surprised that Rob was still talking. “You just do it,” he said, brushing his hand toward Rob dismissively before turning back to the window.

“I’m not going to do it for you,” Rob said tightly, dropping the envelope on top of the copier. “If you want to place an order at the front counter, we’ll have it ready for you in the morning.” He turned around and walked away, part of him wishing to see the expression on the old man’s face, or to turn and say something else, and the other part of him beginning to wonder if he was overreacting.

He had reached the front counter when he felt a tug on his arm, surprisingly firm. The old man’s eyes were squinted, his nostrils flared. “What’s your name?” he asked. “So I can complain about you, your attitude, to your manager.”

If he meant to intimidate Rob, it didn’t work-when Rob felt threatened, he dug in. “My name is Rob, and what’s your name?” He paused. “So I can post a warning about you in the break room. And never touch me again.”

Randall emerged from the office, walking slowly and looking from one to the other. “Is there a problem?”

“Are you the manager?”

“I’m the assistant manager; the manager is not in at the moment. What can I do for you?”

Rob rolled his eyes as he pulled his cash drawer out of the register. “I’m going to count down my till,” he muttered as he walked past Randall, who looked like he wanted to say something to Rob but had given his attention to the customer and didn’t want to tear it away.

“This young man,” the voice came from behind Rob’s back as he pushed open the office door, “has a definite attitude problem.” Rob swung the door shut with his foot and it closed with a satisfying thump.

He set his tray on the counter beside the desk and sat down. He could see them through the office window; the old man was motioning toward the copiers, flapping his lips, and Randall’s head was bobbing up and down like his neck was made of rubber and someone had just smacked his head with a bat.

He pulled out the cheques and credit card receipts from the bottom of the tray and began punching the numbers into the adding machine on the desk. There weren’t that many tonight. He noticed he was chewing his gum quickly, tensely. He pulled out the twenties and began to count them. He was just finishing the pennies when Randall walked in.

“What was that all about?”

Rob didn’t look up, pretending to be absorbed in his counting. He spit his gum into the trash can. “He was being a dick.” He opened the log book and copied the numbers from the adding machine’s tape into it.

“That’s it? He was being a dick? He was a customer, and hopefully still is. I think I calmed him down this time, but he was a little steamed.”

“Yeah, well, I would have told him to take his business and…get the hell out, for all I care. If he wants any respect from me he’s going to have to treat me like a person. I didn’t sign up to kiss anyone’s wrinkly old ass; you don’t pay me enough to do that.”

Randall was standing there with his arms crossed, looking down at Rob where he was sitting. “That’s where you’re wrong. It’s called customer service and it’s what your job is all about, if you’ll recall the interview we went through a few weeks ago. You can consider yourself on probation. I’m going to have to talk to Bobbi about this.”

“Go right ahead. In fact, I’ll tell her all about it myself tomorrow.” Rob slid the cash into an envelope. Randall didn’t work on Saturdays, so Rob would see Bobbi first. “Here’s my drop. It’s $152.46 and there’s a hundred in the till.”

He didn’t care if they did fire him, but he felt bad for Bobbi’s sake, because she seemed to like him, and she was trying to be nice. It was just a matter of time before something like this happened. He had expected Randall to come up with something sooner than this. He hadn’t really done anything to win Randall’s friendship. Randall had tried to get Bobbi to make Rob wear solid blue shirts like everyone else, but had actually lost ground to Rob in that discussion. Rob claimed that he matched the theme of the tropical posters hanging in the windows-which he thought needed to be reprinted because they had been bleached by sun. Not only had she had allowed him to continue wearing the Hawaiian prints, but she had asked Randall to help him reprint the posters as part of his training.

She also asked Rob to make notes of any ideas that came across his mind for the store, because she said she and Randall had lived in it so long that they didn’t notice sometimes where things were starting to look “lived in.” He was supposed to submit these notes into her mailbox. He had counted that as a major victory against Randall.

Randall finished counting the cash in the envelope and he sealed it, his mouth turned down into a slight frown. He turned it over and scrawled his name over the flap and passed it back to Rob, who did the same and pushed it back onto the counter.

“So, I’m out of here,” he said stepping through the door. The old man was still standing out there, clutching his envelope of photographs in both hands and waiting to be waited on.

Rob pushed the door open into the break room and punched out, then grabbed his coat and his cane. He was standing in the door that linked the break room to the store, pulling on his coat, when Randall walked out of the office and toward the old man, wearing a huge smile.

“Okay! What are we working on tonight?”

Rob shook his head. He turned around, deciding to leave the back way so he didn’t have to tempt his mouth by walking near them. He pushed open the escape hatch and the sight of the recycling dumpster reminded him of his prints. He let the door close behind him and click shut, then walked down the concrete steps and pulled his bag of papers from under the dumpster.

What a way to spend a Friday night. But it stood to reason that the new guy got the worst shifts. He walked around to the front of the store, feeling like he was in a scene from a movie-a solitary figure walking with a cane, the reflections of the store signs and street lights on the wet street, the darkness crouching behind everything.

He had been walking almost everywhere lately. The leg seemed to be strengthening, but he had learned from experience and wasn’t about to push it. Walking for another month or two might even firm it up again enough for him to trust it with a gentle run every now and then.

He walked past a small clothing shop and stared at the jack o’lantern staring back at him from behind a smashed window. The window had been badly damaged but not shattered and a web-like pattern radiated out from a central point; someone clever had glued a big rubber spider in the middle of it. He had heard somewhere that Halloween had become the biggest holiday for expenditures. Or maybe it was still behind Christmas; it must be. But still, that it was second biggest was amazing. That’s a lot of costumes and candy.

He was walking toward Natalie’s house, not his own, his left hand gripping the cane and tapping it down in time with his steps. The bag of prints hung limply from his other hand as he swung it gently back and forth, accidentally knocking it against his knee every now and then.

The lights were off at Natalie’s place; it was Friday night. He stopped on the sidewalk, looking into the shadows.

“Hey,” the shadows said.


She was sitting in the old recliner on the porch, staring into the street, her knees pulled up to her chest. He remembered another time that she had done the same thing-just before they had gone their separate ways, or he had gone his, anyway. If he remembered correctly, the world had been a lot less stable that night as he staggered toward the house and found her draped in blankets on the porch of their house. She seemed to retreat to the shadows when there was something on her mind, hiding, watching.

“Is something wrong?” he asked, walking slowly toward the porch. The streetlight barely penetrated this far; everything on the porch was lit dimly.

“I don’t know, I think so,” she said.

She stopped talking, and he stood there in front of her, in front of the deck, dangling his plastic bag. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure, exactly,” she said slowly. “I think Wade just dumped Tink. Unexpected. On the phone. And I’m not sure where Tink went.”

“Do you want to go inside?”

“No, not yet. What I want is a smoke,” she said.

“Here.” He set down the plastic bag so he could pull out his pack. The last cigarette was a bent white stick in the darkness, the shaft broken in the middle, but he held it out to her. “Sorry it’s a little beat-up.”

“That’s okay,” she said, breaking off the top and dropping it on the ground beside her. “Half a cigarette is about all I can handle these days. I don’t smoke much anymore.”

He cupped his hands around the lighter and she leaned her face into the light, breathing deeply. “Whoa,” she said after a moment, laughing a little laugh. “Do you remember when you could still get drunk on cigarettes? Bzzzzz!” She fluttered her hands beside her head; he could see, faintly, her glittering wide eyes and crooked grin.

He sat down on the arm of the chair and it tilted slightly to his side. “When did she go?”

“Half an hour ago? An hour? We were getting ready to go to a movie, waiting for Wade to show up. He called on the phone, sounded nervous. I’m not sure what he said to her after I gave her the phone, but she was crying, she said he wasn’t coming tonight.” The cherry on the end of her cigarette ignited as she took a drag, an orange ember on her lips.

“I asked her if she wanted to stay home and talk, but she shook her head and ran out. I don’t know where she went.”

“Shitty night,” Rob said, and she nodded.

The silence expanded and he felt that he had to either say something or leave. “Mine wasn’t so good, either. I’ll probably get fired tomorrow or Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Well, for one thing, standing for hours at a time is a little rough on the leg.  And would you believe that tonight I had words with an old man?”

“Yes. I would believe it. You didn’t punch him or anything did you?”

“No, but I would have liked to. He was acting like I was his personal slave or something, telling me what to do and expecting me to jump at a wave of his hand.”

“And so you told him off.”

“Yeah. Unfortunately the assistant manager was right there.”

“Well you lasted two weeks. That’ll look good on the resume.”

“Somehow I don’t think I’ll put it on there.” He bent down and picked up the plastic bag at his feet. “But, there is a bright side. I got a few things printed before he sent me home tonight.” He pulled out one of the sheets but it was too dark to read.

“Here, let’s go inside,” Natalie said, pulling herself out of the chair.

She put water on for tea and they read over his front page news. The whole thing was starting to seem a little silly to him, definitely not as great as it had seemed at first. The stories had seemed funny in the library but now they just seemed juvenile. Natalie sat down by the table and set the page down in front of her. He watched her profile as she read. She smiled a few times, and he peered over her shoulder to see which part had made her smile. She was reading the article about soma.

“You spelled ‘there’ wrong,” she said, running her finger back and forth across the lines of text as she read.

“I know, I saw that later. I think the spell checker substituted the wrong one.”

“What’s this about a lancet fluke?”

“Oh, that was just kind of random. A last minute thing because I forgot about the front page photo. I read an article a while back about parasites and it has kind of stuck with me.”

He watched her read until she pushed the paper away from her.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Yeah, good. Funny. What are you going to do with it?” she asked, flipping through the stack.

“They’re all the same,” he said. “I’m going to stick them in the front of newspaper boxes so that people think they’re real for a second.” Why did it sound so stupid now?

“Funny,” she said again. “How much did it cost to print all these?”

“It was a…perk. Part of my training at work was learning how to print things. I figure it’s appropriate to practice my skills every now and then.”

“You are going to get fired.” She poured hot water over a peppermint tea bag for him. “It’s good to see you writing again, though, even if it’s so short.”

“I don’t care if I do get fired. That job’s worthless anyway-standing in front of a cash register and pushing “Go” on the copier. And every now and then the excitement of binding a stack of papers together with a coil. Oh, and smiling and groveling to every old fart who wants you to do it all for him: pull down his pants and lift him onto the glass and push the button so he can have a perfect little copy of his ass. And informing him of the costs and quality differences so he can decide whether to spring for the color copy or just pay the six cents for a standard black and white."

“Wow,” she said.

“It’s kind of depressing, you know, to try to imagine a job that’ll bring satisfaction, a feasible job I mean, one that will actually make enough money to live on. Because I can’t think of one right now.”

“Nothing at all? There’s got to be something.”

“I don’t know of it. I was just thinking, okay, so I get fired from this meaningless job and then what? I get another one?”

“Meaningless is a little strong, don’t you think? There’s got to be something good about it.”

“Well, I got to print all these for free. That was nice, but I guess that’s not really the job.”

“Look at my job-it’s the same thing. I do the till, I organize things. Where’s the glamour in that?”

“I’m not talking about glamour,” he said, trying to backpedal a little bit. “And they aren’t the same thing. My job’s all machines and production. People become frustrated more easily, more demanding.”

“I think you’re still feeling the wounds of the old man incident. You think we don’t get dicks in the store? We get all kinds. People who want the table twenty bucks cheaper than it is because of a little scratch they think we haven’t noticed before, or who get upset that you have a certain shirt only in a size that’s too small for them. You just have to learn to laugh at them.” She narrowed her eyes and looked at him with a smile creeping in. “When they’re gone from the store.”

“I guess so.” It sounded so easy when you were sitting at home, but when you were in the store and the old man was standing there saying,  “You do it…”

Natalie lifted the corner of the page. “Are you going to do these more often? Or what’s next?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll see how these work tomorrow morning. Maybe I’ll do something new.”

She nodded. “I have a feeling that if you kept doing these, for one thing you’d get sick of them, and for another, the Herald would probably try to track you down.”

“Yeah. Actually I was feeling the twinge of an idea forming just a moment ago. Maybe the next thing I’ll do is make a bunch of photocopies of my own ass to distribute to the annoying customers. I could give it to them sealed in an envelope and give it to them with a smile as they pay, and then when they open it at home there I’ll be, all life-sized and with a magic marker headline that says ‘Kiss me, you fool.’”

He was leaning over, slapping his ass repeatedly when the front door opened. He turned to find Tink staring at him, red-eyed. She looked from him to Natalie with a confused expression that melted into tears and she flung herself through the door to her room and slammed it behind her.

Natalie’s laughter had been cut off as though the door had slammed on it. She got up from the table, pushing her chair back as she stood.

“That didn’t look good. I think I was supposed to be waiting here all alone when she came back. You should probably go-I’ve got to talk to her.” She was talking quietly, as though loud noises might shatter Tinker’s constitution at this fragile time.

“Yeah, of course,” he said, grabbing the plastic bag from the table. They walked toward the front door silently and Nat stopped in front of Tink’s door, just before the carpet sample that they had thrown down for people to wipe their shoes on.

“Thanks for stopping by, hey? See you at the party tomorrow.” she was pressed up against Tink’s door and was pushing it open slowly, like she was trying to sneak in.

“I’ll be a little late, because I work…” Rob found himself standing alone in the entryway. He picked up his cane from where it was leaning against the wall and did a mental check. Shoes on. Cane in hand. Bag of prints. There was a copy of it still on the table, the one that Nat had been reading. He began to walk back but stopped in mid-step and decided to leave it in case she wanted to read it again.

Walking in the night air was always too invigorating, especially if you were feeling lousy. It left you wide awake, energized. As he made his way up the hill beside the university, he could see that the night was just getting underway: cars streaming in and out of the parking lots, people moving between buildings and vehicles, lights on everywhere. It looked like something was going on in the Viking Union but he wasn’t sure what.

The thing was that he had to get up early tomorrow to distribute these things. It wasn’t going to happen if he didn’t go to bed early. He wasn’t sure what time the newspapers got distributed in the morning but six o’clock seemed safe, and it was before most people got up. He wanted the papers to be in place first thing, so everyone who bought a paper would see it, not just the stragglers.

He rounded a corner and the hill began to descend again, down toward the ghetto, his home and his bed.


Six o’clock was early these days. He found it funny that he didn’t remember having any trouble getting up early when he was still living at home on the farm. His dad would say that it was evidence that he had sunk to a certain level of depravity; his father got up religiously at five every morning, even after moving off the farm.

He was warm and it seemed that it would probably be very cold outside of these blankets. Come to think of it, why would it matter if he put these things in the newspaper boxes early or a little later? Most of the people would still see it, just not the early birds. Besides, he hadn’t been able to get to sleep for what must have been hours last night and had lain there staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars.


When he woke again, he had been lying in a stupor somewhere between his dream world and reality for a long time, the thought that he should get up floating by on occasion but never really settling down in his brain now that he’d already made an exception. Besides, what were Saturdays for? The bad thing was that it was quarter after nine.

He threw his feet over the edge of the futon and sat there, wrapping his blanket around his body while his brain turned on. Sometimes his brain in the morning was like a car’s engine in winter-it just needed to idle for a little while before it was ready to go. The bag with his prints in it was on the floor by his feet, so he picked it up and set it on the bed beside him.

The trick now was to find all those newspaper boxes. There was one just down the street from his apartment, and probably a bunch downtown. He pulled the top sheet out and skimmed it again. He wasn’t sure why that instinct was there, but there was something about the written word, your written word, that made you want to review and review it, as though you expect to teach yourself something, or as though to ensure that no one has changed it since you last read it. He had had the same thing with his newspaper stories-he’d read them when the paper came out and then he’d read them again in the afternoon, and again at night, and they always said the same thing as they did in the morning, but he always found himself doing it.

The bathroom was twenty feet away. He stood up, keeping the blanket wrapped around him. There was a heat lamp right above the toilet, which must have been meant for standing under after a shower. It illuminated the toilet bowl like a spotlight, directly from above, and he was noticing things he’d never noticed before. His urine in the morning was a brilliant yellow, but it seemed there was sediment in it, or particles, and it swirled around in the tank like oil in water. Maybe his piss had always been like that but he just hadn’t noticed it because of the bad lighting in most bathrooms. He shook his penis off, trying to keep the infamous “last drop” from ending up in his pants. He hunched forward slightly so the blankets didn’t fall from his shoulders.

He wondered how Tink was doing this morning. Wade had never struck him as the faithful type. It would just take her a little while to adjust to him being gone, like anything else. When he had gotten contacts he had kept putting his hand up to adjust the phantom glasses that his subconscious kept expecting to be there, pushing empty air and being surprised at the absence. She’d feel an unexpected empty spot where Wade had been for a few days. But we all adjust to change, given time.

He pulled on the pants and shirt he had draped over the back of his chair the night before. He had to work in the afternoon today, so he had almost four hours to do this yet. His coat had fallen off of the door handle and was lying on the ground beside the fridge. What did he need besides tape, the prints and some quarters? That should be enough. He’d need to get change somewhere along the way, but he had enough for a few boxes.

He stuffed the bag with the papers in his jacket, trying not to bend them, and stepped into the kitchen. One of the doors on the opposite side of the room was open and he could see the guy in there, walking around in his bathrobe with the sound of the television coming from somewhere out of view. He had shelves on every wall and they were all packed full. He must have lived here for a while to get so settled. People actually lived in this house for a long time.

He hadn’t really thought much past the concept of moving in, but he wondered how long he’d last here. He kept noticing how small it was, but maybe he’d grow into it, adapt. Given time. It had been a month already but he still thought of himself as having just moved in.

He had run into the landlord last weekend, just before Dave had arrived, the first time since he had moved in. The elusive Gordon Nerburn.

Now he knew why everything was the way it was around here: old, run-down, lived-in. That was how Gordon was, too. He was wearing an old sweater with elongated cuffs that went halfway to his elbows and a huge knit collar, turned up part way like a neck guard. He had oil stains on his old brown pants and scuffed work boots, but the best part was his face. It was mostly normal, if a little wrinkly, but the wrinkles seemed to be carved from stone. The wrinkles on his mother’s face were soft, flaccid, but the knots and wrinkles in Gordon Nerburn’s face were like vulcanized rubber. It seemed wrong that the salt-and-pepper stubble could be growing out of that substance.

He seemed like a good guy, though. He was of the old school, the pioneers, making things work instead of buying new ones, or if he couldn’t make it work, just living with the old one. Rob had shown him a puddle of water behind the toilet in his room and Gordon had stuffed a wad of toilet paper where the water pipe came in from the wall, asking Rob to check it now and then, and reassuring him that sometimes “toilets heal themselves.”

He hoped nothing major went wrong in the apartment.


The first newspaperbox was on this street, just up ahead. He unzipped his jacket with his cane hand and slipped one of the papers out, holding it in the other hand with the tape. When he got to the box he leaned the cane up against it and rummaged two quarters from his pants. He looked around quickly before pulling it open, and set the print on the inside of the glass window, tearing off four small pieces of tape, sticking them on the fingers of his left hand one at a time until he could put the rest of the roll back in his pocket.

He fastened one piece in each corner, holding the paper against the glass with the back of his wrist so he could peel the tape off his fingers, and then let the door snap shut. It looked good in the window. It was a little small and the paper was too bright to pass for newsprint, but it was okay.

He took the bus downtown and found a handful more boxes-not nearly twenty, but by the time he had stuck a page on the fifth one, he had had enough. He had spent his remaining two quarters on bus fare, and instead of getting change at a store, he had begun to stick the pages to the outside of the window. The last one went on crooked but someone was watching him and he left it. They’d probably get torn down within hours anyway.

He had enough nickels and dimes to get a bus ride home again, feeling less like the conqueror than he had thought he would. Probably no one would even stop to read them. He wasn’t going to try this one again-he wanted something better. This one felt like a warm-up, not the main event.

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