Private Magazine

Category: advice

Please, Stand By

Christmas Eve 2020

It hasn’t been 24 hours yet so it’s still ok for me to be fuming because once midnight hits and the ghost of Jacob Marley arrives in my boudoir along with the ghosts of however many other ex fling-a-boo’s, I have to be ready.  Prepared.  Armed to the teeth. 

It’s been four months since Jason’s been, you know… In the ground.   I haven’t gone out on any dates.

(Going to the biker campground with Schmitty in his carbon-monoxide steeped pick-up does not count as a date, even though I drove that hunk of junk into the compound past county sheriffs desperately trying some artful and hilarious diversion tactics, because Schmitty was scared due to his expired registration, and the “HOGOROSA CANCELLED” sign flashing on the Thruway.  But then Schmitty abandoned me for biker crank, and I was left cold and alone in my freezing tent, which I dubbed “Camp X Ray,” and screamed into the soulless air: “I’m alone! I’m abandoned! I’m alone and abandoned!”  until an LL Bean-catalog older guy built me a campfire).

I’ve unplugged from Jason’s cronies.  I’ve found solace in solitude.  

That is, until Rusty, my ex-boyfriend from the grindcore band, reappeared back into my life. Again. 

It’s not what you think.  His bandmate diedOf Covid.  So of course I went to the memorial at Lombardo Funeral Home, stood around with Rusty and The Growler (swoon), and some other guy who happened to be there in a satanic/celestial printed mask and somewhat of a Tony Hawk: Pro Skater vibe about him that I couldn’t quite trace. 

The very next day, I already had a friend request from him, and why I actually clicked it and looked at his profile I really couldn’t tell you, other than I remembered him from the night before.  I never saw him with his mask off, reader.  But I was physically attracted… a modern phenomenon indeed. 

“Are you the same guy from [Redacted]’s Memorial last nite?” I send via Messenger. 

“Yes,” Dan says, a totally easy to remember name, thank God. “I was going to message you and say you looked familiar, like we had totally met before, maybe at the Mohawk…”

So of course I tell him about my DJ gig,  the “Mid-Life Crisis Happy Hour.” 

“I have, like, a page that you can, you know. Like.” 

“Oh that’s awesome, yeah, I would love to get together sometime,” Dan says. And he sends me his phone number.  Old Skool. 

And I go into detail about how I’m suffering corneal infiltration from the ill-fitting contact lens in my left eye, that I look like Quasimodo, but giddily declare that I just need a week with my Rx drops and then I’d love to. 

“Either on Friday, totally we can go to Canal Club 52,  I know the bartender, but might have something to attend to, but if not, on sunday we could do the ny beer project so I could get us a reservation on sunday,” Dan is texting me like a werewolf who hasn’t had sex in awhile. “After six.”

“Yes, dinner would be lovely,” I return the favor, electronically, vaguely, with a few romance-tinged emojis to punctuate the declaration, “I miss going out to dinner.” 

And then the sentence that was to be the nail in my coffin, dear reader. 

“Either night would be fine with me.”

So up until then, of course we do the usual texting all-the-time thing, and I engage in some harmless Facebook stalking.  Turns out, Dan’s street nickname is actually “Chopper” Dan since he builds custom motorcycles, and looks to have a pretty huge group of biker homies, and without his mask on he looks pretty good, although way older than me.  But I’m into his ‘look.’ I hate to admit this but he definitely looks like an older version of Billy. (Billy! Shout out to Billy, who’s probably reading this right now. How the hell are YOU holding up?)

So on that fateful Sunday night, a mild, star-filled night brewing with potential, I uncharacteristically allow Chopper Dan to pick me up.  But only because, in a strange twist, Dan lives in my neighborhood, across the street from Jason’s grave and on the next street over from Schmitty himself. And we are heading all the way out to Lockport.  

When Dan texts me that he’s “here,” I find him at my front door.  Yep, old skool. 

“Hey there,” I say.  His hair is slicked back and he’s definitely, sniff sniff, wearing cologne.  I climb into his giant truck clad in a leather minidress with vertical zipper, opaque stockings and my chunky platform boots with the grommets. 

“It’s so crazy how we were in the same movie,” I tell him.  Yes, not only did I get a hot date following the Metal Memorial of Rusty’s bandmate, I was cast in the role of “Lucifer’s Secretary” by the guy with the webzine!  Apparently I have the look they needed, not to mention a job at a law firm.  And last minute, Dan was asked to be an extra because his friend owns the bar where they filmed earlier that day! “A total coincidence to be sure.”

So we cruise up to Lockport, and I’m totally at ease. I mean, all of l these coincidences must mean Dan and I are meant to be. 

“So, what else did you do today?”  I remember Dan said he’d be free “after six,” so I figured he was with his son, who is a teen, and I figured they were out and about doing “manly things.”

“Oh, hm, nothing really.” 

We arrive at the restaurant, and finally Dan shuts off the Godsmack emanating from the speaker (wtf?) that I’ve chosen to ignore. And it turns out to be a pretty decent evening. Perhaps this was due to the 10 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants, making dates conveniently short these days, and infusing them with an easy vibe of having zero expectations whatsoever.   So far…Over our shared appetizer of boom boom shrimp, Dan admitted something shocking.  Something I reached out to my gal pal Robin, who just moved back to LA, about.

“He told me…Well, he told me he’s never read a book.”

“WTF DUDE.”

“I mean, he said the last book he finished was Dr. Seuss in childhood…”

“RUN.”

“He’s got to be fucking with me,” I’m staring up at the cracks on the ceiling of my room. 

“Don’t sell yourself short!”

And I knew right then and there, Dan would become the subject of an eventual blog.  Since he would never read it and all.  But in less than a week’s time…well, even I was surprised by the quick expiration date. 

The next day as I’m exiting the good old Main Court Building and trudging towards my car, Dan and I have fallen into a little texting tete-a-tete about you know, this and that.  Being Monday and the fact I’m fatigued from being out the previous night, I figure tonight will be a night for chillin’ solo, putting my room back together, which is in shambles…All the usual post-weekend stuff. 

“Hey, want to watch the CKY livestream with me next week?” I ask him, more to gauge his interest, and see whether or not I scared him. 

“CKY, I’m not familiar with them, i guess it would depend on what I had going on that day,” he says. “I was thinking of driving around Hamburg and checking out the light display at the Fairgrounds today or tomorrow, would you be interested?”

Shambles be damned! I guess Dan is smitten. 

“I’d love to,” I reply, “But I really need to track down a picture frame for my boss’s gift.  We are exchanging Wednesday.”

“well, I have some things to pick up for myself.  I’ll go with you. We can go to Hobby Lobby. I have a coupon.” 

“Hobby Lobby? Don’t they, like, have something against birth control?”

“Oh, geez, I don’t know anything about that.”

“Yeah pretty sure it was a scandal, uh, I swear I’m not a radical…Um, sure, I guess we can go there.” 

Yep, the old two-days-in a row means pretty soon I’ll be walking down the aisle like Stephanie Seymour towards Axl in the “November Rain” video, I mean…is there a better confirmation that he’s, like, totally into you than the infamous Two Days in a Row?

As we are about to enter The Dockside, conveniently located on the Erie/Niagara County borderline, post-Hobby Lobby, I link my arm around Dan’s.  We walk several steps… Then I take it away.  Just checking to see if we have…chemistry. 

We decide to split the poutine, and Dan orders me a pinot, along with his drink of choice…sweet n’ spicy sangria.  What?  He is comfortable with his masculinity, okay. And he has a reliable vehicle, so I will never have to be “DD” again! 

“Did you once have red hair?”  Dan shows me a picture of my Albright Knox ID from 2012 from my Facebook page.  “Is that your natural color?”

“No, definitely not.” 

“Also, you had curly hair in a picture that I liked.”

“Curly? Where?”

He shows me a selfie, a recent profile picture.

“Oh that, those are beach waves.”

Dan might be insinuating how he wants me to wear my hair…

Nah.

I don’t know if it was the wine, or the simple luxury of going out to eat, inside, with a guy who owns a reliable vehicle – but either way I wasn’t phased by much. I was willing to overlook anything. Anything.

“Have you seen Monster Garage, with that guy Jesse James? I think he’s cool but he must be a total dick. I mean, divorced like, five times? Marrying Sandra Bullock? I mean, why? She’s really not sexy…He is clearly some kind of gold digger…” I continue to carry on about Jesse James for like, five minutes.

“Jesse James yeah, we hung out,”  Dan shows me a picture of them together with Jesse’s most recent ex-wife, the Paul Mitchell heiress. “They were down in Daytona for Bike Week.”

“No WAY!” Dan looks pleased with himself.  “Sorry, I mean I never met the guy. I’m sure he’s very nice in person.” 

“His porn star ex went totally psycho,” he says.  “Smashed everything.”

“Well – he probably drove her to it, let’s be honest.” 

As the night grows dangerously close to 10 p.m., closing time, Dan picks up the check.  I offered to pay last night, and he looked insulted and said, “You really think I’d invite you to dinner and want you to pay?”

“Um, no.” 

So this time I don’t offer.  We head to Dan’s truck.  

“Joint?” I hold it up under the passenger seat overhead light. Dan didn’t even see me roll it, as I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for being able to roll joints in the blink of an eye.

“What? Oh, I’ve never smoked weed in my life.”

“What.”

“Plus it would stink up my whole truck.”

And so, I leaned in and gave him a little kiss instead.  No tongue. It was quite chaste. I have an oral fixation, what can I say.

And so – alas!  This blog won’t conclude with Happily Ever After.  I mean, does it ever?

On Christmas Eve Eve, I would not have been opposed to one of Dan’s random invitations, since finally I didn’t have to work the next day, or all weekend.  But reader,  that didn’t happen.  I got a super long text at 4 p.m., sure, but…

“Hey i have been super busy all day,  i tried to get us a reservation but couldn’t so i will have to get back to you after the holidays.”  And then a smile face.

At first I was like, “ok, cool, do you watch true blood?” 

“A little,” he says, before ghosting me the rest of the night. 

Wow, really.  I have been placed on standby.

So I said, “I really don’t know why you need to get back to me…For what?”  I mean, he didn’t even know what I had planned that night, or any other.  He will probably pop up and ask me to help organize his garage, or something.  So I said, “You can just leave me alone.”  Dramatic, yes. “Have fun at Hobby Lobby.” Ok, so a tad immature.  But I feel like he was taunting me with that Hobby Lobby business. If anyone has a Planned Parenthood connection, I know someone who needs as much educational literature mailed to his house as possible.

Yes, like Janis Joplin once said, “I am a wild airplane…And have been placed on standby.”  Actually she never said that.  But that’s me alright, a renegade airplane, crashing and burning, or at least lost somewhere near the Bermuda Triangle.  And that’s ok.  Because in the end I can’t date someone who’s never read a book, or Playboy or Hustler for the articles, and who isn’t 420 friendly, I mean…Seems like kind of a bland existence. 

READER SURVEY:  WHAT ARE UR DATING DEAL BREAKERS? Send your answers to: factorygirl1987@gmail.com

Smooty’s Funeral

The cemetery grass is vivid green and speckled with dozens of mourners.  Many are here to pay their respects today, looped around gravestones in the humid sunshine.  The crusty clouds of morning finally got the hint, and decided to clear out.  At least you can sleep now, Jason.   His casket gleams silver – locked and sealed like a meat freezer  –  suspended on huge bungee cords and reflecting in the sunlight, ready for its descent underground. 

 A delicate bagpipe melody drifts by on the breeze, whispers in my ear, and then moves on.

There’s a short stubby tree resembling a Joshua tree very close to his grave, making this sad scene very ‘U2 album cover.’  Jason’s family stone is tall, black marble, with edgy font suited for a metal show poster; both of his parents have been here many years. 

“I’m so sorry, honey,” a million of his friends are here and that’s what they say to me, and it’s all a blur as people approach and express their sympathies.   Every time I begin a conversation with someone, Aimee sticks to me like a wad of gum.  

After a second, I reply, “I’m sorry, too.  He was your friend, too.”  Kenny with the coke and his sidekick Jamie, they are here, looking forlorn.   “And look at all the people here.”

The respectable line-up of cars enveloping the chapel does not include Schmitty’s carbon monoxide-steeped pickup, thank God, nor a million scrapyard bikes lying in a heap.  The throng of mourners donned their very best.  Even his uncle – who, by all accounts, was a total dick – is here in an American flag bandanna

“Jason’s life was full of sorrow,”  begins Cousin Valerie in a voice like a sad violin. She drove from Rhode Island; Cousin Cindy and Aunt Barbara drove all the way from Indiana.  Jason once told me over a Brazilian Kiss at Texas de Brazil that he had cousins out of state. 

They are sitting casket-side beside his estranged uncle.  Cindy, Barbara and Valerie-  they saved everything; saved Smooty from being buried in a ‘graveyard for the unclaimed souls’, as the county burial investigator put it; claimed him from the county morgue. Saved everything unbeknownst to them, as I was repeatedly calling the morgue and being told I wasn’t next-of-kin, and in fact, none of us knew of any next-of-kin.  But I knew there must be. 

 “He lost both parents at a young age,” says Valerie.  “ It’s been years since I saw Jason.  I have memories of the house on Pinetree, where he loved to throw parties for friends.  He was a generous soul.”

“Hell yes he was,”  booms a Gen-Xer who’s taken a knee next to me with an ounce of Fireball raised above his head, flames emblazoned on his poly-blend button-up and a drunken smile on his lips.

“Wild African geese, kept as pets,” Valerie continues.  “Summers at the lake cottage in Attica…That’s what I remember most, and I’m sure many of you have memories that you would like to share.”  The bagpiper in tartan picks up his instrument, and begins a somber rendition of “Danny Boy.”

I’m not mentally prepared to say anything. In fact I’d rather hang onto the past.  My mind drifts away at the mention of  African geese…

It was a frozen windy day in March when Jason and I went power-walking in Forest Lawn.  I promised him there was an African goose, a Madam, who lived there. I met her once.  At the end of our power-walk, there they were, a whole gaggle beside the pond.  Their round bodies were curled up and facing the same direction.  If you get too close, one will typically hiss with its tongue projecting outward like a dagger.  In fact, his beloved Daisy once “bit his grandmother’s poodle on the ass,” according to Jason! Another funny story is that his parents went to bring their pets, Daisy the African Goose and Tucker, their dog, to church for a family photograph.  The church did not allow Daisy, only Tucker, because they feared her wildness and her unruly bowels.  Well,  Tucker was the one who peed on the floor of the church that day. Aw, Tucker, poor shaggy-haired, disobedient Tucker,  he was the one who caught the priest’s wrath. And as for poor Daisy, well, she froze to death in a snowstorm. 

And then my mind snaps back to reality.

“Who is that guy videotaping everything?” I poke Tim on the arm.  

I drove to the cemetery with him as my passenger after fetching him by the Thai food takeaway. I also went to pick up Willy, but after we all smoked a joint and cigarette apiece, I turned around in the kitchen and there stood a man I had never seen before in my life. “Hi,” he said, looking all the part amiable nerd, and it turned out to be a guy by the name of Jay “Cruiser,” who took Willy as his passenger.   Jenny from the block and her on/again off again husband, they brought Donnie Dab, one of Jason’s acid tripper cronies with a predilection for Quik Draw. And of course I know Kenny and Jamie, and Donald the Professional Plaintiff and Donald’s Son, and Aimee (barf), and Taco, plus a bunch of others here.  But the man videotaping everything remains a mystery. 

 Tim shrugs. “No clue.”   

The snowy-hair funeral director steps before the casket.  “Would any of you like to say a few words?” 

“I do!” shouts the man who had been videotaping everything.  He carries with him a cardboard sign on two metal stilts. Despite his reverence, forgive me Jason but, I have no clue who this man is. His gold framed glasses have stop-sign red lenses, which match a red polo shirt and both of which immediately call your attention to this diminutive man with a saggy beer belly and  hunched over posture.  He stomps towards the casket, then faces his audience. 

“In 1997 I WENT TO GERMANY WITH JASON,” booms Red Specs Man, He sets up his sign, pokes it into the dirt and it says “Unconditional-love.net” underneath some kind of mythological Greco-Roman image of a woman fainting beneath a domineering guy in a cape.

Red Specs Man continues his monologue. 

“I will be donating my $995,750.32 from my grandmother’s estate to Roswell Park in Jason’s name,” he says. “It’s part of my charitable giving campaign which you can read more about, on Unconditional-love.net.” 

I’m sure Jason would have wanted some of that while he was alive?  I glance from side to side to assess what effect this is all having on everyone. The funeral director seems cautiously amused, although I can’t really tell with his mask on. 

“I’m writing my life story which will be out in 2022 and there will be a whole chapter about Jason.”  Now I look Red Specs straight in the eye dubiously but he seems to be in the throes of personal rapture, Hitler-style. 

“It’s not right what happened to Jason,” he continues, the volume of his voice ever so steadily rising.  

“IT’S NOT RIGHT!”  

His words echo through the cemetery.   And then, he steps aside for the next party.

“Hey guys, I’m Aimee,” she begins mindlessly.  

Ugh. 

Thankfully, as by an Act of God, a strong wind sweeps in and drowns out her muttering.  Her flimsy Walmart sundress blows around until finally she steps aside.  The funeral director invites us all to approach the casket to bestow any final goodbyes, any au revoirs, any parting words, and the like. 

“Hell I gotta have one last drink with you buddy,” Fireball confidently struts towards the casket, another mini bottle raised skyward. 

Fireball and Aimee and Red Specs and a few others crowd around Jason’s soon-to-be-resting place. The scene around me melts into a dripping abstraction.  I’m shut out, closed off from the casket.   I allow the breeze to blow through my ruffle-hem wrap dress from the Lord & Taylor liquidation sale.  Jason would think I look chic, despite the fact it’s constantly blowing about. And of course, I donned the sloth socks he just bought me from FYE. 

When Jason went to the mall, he always bought me something.

 It’s messed up when the only upcoming social occasion marked on your calendar is your own bunnyboo’s funeral, the burial of your snuggle-bear, with whom you had so much planned and so much to look forward to.  In fact, Jason had just bought new sneakers; he told Willy “I’m walking on clouds.”   Since he was on vacation from work he went and bought Thai noodles with peanut sauce for us to make.  But instead of Thai noodles, that was the day that he passed away. 

Instead of us indulging in Thai noodles, that was the day  Detective So-and-So delivered the news. At 4:00 while at the office, I looked at my cell and saw a missed call from a random (716) number, as well as a text that said “Ann Marie this is Detective So-and-So from Cheektowaga Police please call me at this number.’

 The packet of Thai noodles now sits unacknowledged and dried up on the kitchen counter; Willy will never touch them. In fact, he already re-arranged the whole apartment and scrubbed every surface clean. His government-grade flagpole, jackhammered cement circling the base, hangs at half mast alongside the shed which desperately needs to be saged. Char hid in the basement for days, sad and lost.   Jason would brush her fur for an hour straight, and made sure she was well fed.

Fireball slaps his clammy palm on the casket like cold deli meat. SLAP.  I’m still a foot away from the grave and a foot away from my Smooty, forever.  This is the closest to him that I will ever be.  The snowy-haired funeral director specifically beckons me forward.  Fireball staggers away sideways , so I 

 so I lean down and kiss his casket.  Just a peck is all I can muster. One last kiss for my Smooty.  The metal feels so cold on my lips on this hot day, and the tears stream down, uncontrollably.  It’s the Amazon River over here, or Niagara Falls.  I’m drowning in that really big waterfall in South America of tears. And it makes me think of sloths.   

 Just two days before he died, we went to the zoo. We took mushrooms and rode the Metro and looked for Flash, the sloth.  Jason loved sloths. But we found ourselves empathizing with the depressed reindeer, and once we found Flash, drugged up and squished in a tiny glass case (all the animals were separated from each other and locked indoors that day), it all became very ‘Fear and Loathing at the Zoo,’ so we lazed around beneath My Tree on the Delaware Park golf course. Being Sunday morning, balls whizzed around our heads and Jason’s picnic that he packed in a bag labelled ‘St. Luke’s pantry,’ became something of a political statement. After various psilocybin fueled epiphanies, Pete joined us and took us to Daddio’s.  After he dropped us back at the house, I turned to Jason and said, “Today was too good to be true.” 

“We have to clear the area now,” says the Funeral Director. “The vault company needs to come in.”

“You gave me this shirt right off your back,” Taco rushes towards the grave now and swiftly removes his shirt, a black tee shirt with squiggly metal calligraphy, and throws it down in the hole.  Tears are streaming down his face, and he doesn’t bother to wipe any away.  He is openly weeping like every man could and should do now and  then.  He hugs me to his chest.

 Damn. 

Jason had the most stellar collection of band tee shirts purchased at shows over the past 30 years. He gave me one from my favorite local band, Gutted Alive, as well as his Pig Destroyer with sawed-off sleeves which was garnering negative attention during protest summer.  When I went to his bedroom the night I got The Call, I found his beloved Type O Negative shirt, threadbare and musty and worn, and his camo fatigues that were his father’s from ‘Nam. This ensemble, along with his glasses and father’s dog tags and brand new sneaks – I brought it all to the funeral home for him to be buried in.  Even though Willy pieced together a “suit”, I knew, and Jenny agreed, that his Type O shirt would be what he wanted. 

Three women from Jason’s manufacturing plant approach and tell me that work’s not the same, that they still have his empty desk same as it was and everyone is really sad.  

And then Aimee sticks to my shoulder like a wad of gum. 

“Excuse me, the bagpiper is looking for an Ann Marie,” the Funeral Director approaches.  

“Oh right, I have to pay him,” and I rush over there with my wrap dress blowing to and fro, and my envelope with $200 inside almost blows away too.  I had to get some live music here at Jason’s burial, obviously.  I wanted to put a whole band together.  

 I hide under the Joshua-esque tree and eventually go stand by Tim, and we watch the casket slowly, ever so slowly, be lowered deep into the earth. 

I find Jenny from the Block and her on-again off-again husband, Jason’s fellow obscure vinyl-listener; we often hung out in their living room.  All three of us, along with Donnie Dab, who I’ve agreed to let travel with me, and whoever else decides they want to follow – we all gradually drift in the direction of Otto’s bar. 

Swerving into Otto’s back parking lot with Donnie Dab waving a large joint laced with God-knows-what in my face, we find ourselves parked next to Donald in a giant truck, with Willy in the passenger seat and his son in there as well.   Donald always looks sketchy no matter what he’s doing. I can’t quite put my finger on how or why, really, it’s more of a vibe.  I dial Tim’s number while applying numbing eye balm in the rear view. 

“Tim, hi,” I say. “Are you coming to Otto’s?”  

“Yeah, I just think I may,” he says.  

 I emerge into the fresh air, and spot Aimee  lurking around my car like a stray.

“You have to wear masks inside,” she buzzes in my ear. 

“You’re kidding,” I say, my completely-bitchy sarcasm hanging in the air before dropping like a  dead body in a lake, totally lost on her.  

“Who is going to be my escort to Otto’s?” I take Donald’s son’s arm, who is 20 years old.  Jason and I went to their house last Thanksgiving, sat at the kid’s table and talked about crushes with the fifth grade girls. 

Now all holidays are ruined.

Donald’s son and I walk arm in arm.

“Thank you, I need emotional support,” I say. 

Our totally motley crew stomps into Otto’s dimly lit bar/banquet area, and I state my suggestion of all of us sitting outside, however many of us may turn up, as we are going to be unbearably obnoxious.

“It’s a… funeral party,” I whisper to the blonde bartender, gravely. 

“You have to order food with your drink,” Aimee buzzes around me again like a tweaker mosquito. I start wishing I’d brought Donnie Dab’s electric fly swatter. I cringe against a random pillar in the middle of the room, and discover a seemingly calm, cool, and collected guy behind it that you can tell is retired and spends most of his time in Florida.

“I like your shirt.”  It’s one of those loose linen Hawaiian ones. “Jason had just bought a black one with palm trees just like it.”  

“She’s single now, Pops,” Fireball sneaks up behind me and suddenly flips up the back of my skirt. 

“Ugh!” I give Fireball the death stare. Then I turn to his supposed dad.  “Ugh!” 

“Cool it, Jimmy,” warns Pops. 

Jimmy doesn’t care, just continues jerking around inside his own personal pinball machine called life. 

“Ugh!” I march away from both of them. 

“We need alcohol!” Fireball Jimmy whips through the room like a boomerang. 

Eventually we all settle into the enclosed patio,  a maximum of 10 allowed per table.  Willy, Red Specs, Dab and Cruiser are relegated to a faraway table which I regard as the “degenerate table.” Or is our table the degenerate one? 

The unaffiliated patrons occupying the other outdoor tables quickly get the hint, close their checks and immediately head for the hills. 

“You can sit next to me,” I pull out a chair for Donald’s son. “Since you’re my escort.”

“No – down here!” Fireball shouts at him, and he obeys. 

“You can sit by me, Tim,” I plead as he passes by.  “Please sit by me!”   

“No – down here,” Jimmy interjects, and Tim obeys. 

I’m all alone at the end of the table, misty-eyed, except for Jimmy’s Pops sitting across from me. A college-aged waiter arrives to take our orders.  

“I’m saving this seat for my friend Jenny, and her husband, they aren’t here yet!” I say, draping my arm across the two sad empty seats next to me. “Don’t want them to wind up over there…” Across the patio, the forecast at the degenerate table looks pretty grim.  Jay Cruiser’s all shmushed between Red Specs and Donnie Dab, with Willy swilling a beer and holding court.

“Hey, down here – a Corona!” Jimmy shouts, like a short-circuiting toddler.

Aimee, who kind of situated herself next to Pops,  mostly buzzes in his ear and rushes to and fro to no apparent destination while Pops sadly attempts to order a bloody caesar beneath the ceaseless din of his ignoramus son.   Aimee talks over him too and confuses the poor waiter boy who clearly has no clear idea what a bloody caesar is.

“Bloody ceasah…” Pops meekly mumbles, “Ceas-ahhhhh.”

“I want a long island iced tea,” Aimee interjects. “And marinara bread.” 

All I want is a tidal wave of pinot grigio to wash over me and take me away from this stupid, sad, embarrassing mess.  Waiter boy brings the drinks.  My perfectly chilled glass is filled to the brim with the most sparkling, the most quenching, the most majestic liquid my eyes ever did see.

“You’re beautiful,” I whisper.

A lovely 8-year-old girl and her Generation-X father plus his mother are at their own small table to my right.  She is the most composed person here. It makes me sad really,  childhood innocence mixing with utter mayhem.  The cold cruelty of the world. But maybe she’s seen it all before. I saw her, graveside, holding a floppy hat in her hands and staring down into the grave.

‘What, no alcohol on the table?”  Fireball Jimmy emerges onto the patio with a drunken sneer, like a reject from Jersey Shore auditions.  Jenny and Harry, her on/off hubby, have finally arrived and grabbed the seats to my left.  I stare down at my cobb salad so long avocado slices dance in front of my eyes, and pray that it swallows ME.

“What is wrong with that fool?” I whisper to Jenny.  She just laughs and looks uncomfortable. 

“So what grade are you in?”  I strike up a conversation with the 8-year-old girl at the table to my right. 

“Third,” she says.  

“Aw,” I say.  And I talk to her ‘grandmother’ although that designation isn’t really fair as this woman is only around 50-something.

“How long did you guys date for?” she asks.

“Only a year and a half,”  I say.  Too little time together, it’s not fair. “But in 24 hours, we’d go to the beach, a show, make dinner and watch movies,” I continue, “I guess we crammed a lot into a short amount of time.”

Aimee suddenly appears back at the table, her untouched Long Island iced tea dripping condensation next to the bread and marinara she was mandated to order.  Pops ordered for her, while she was darting about with Fireball Jimmy, standing around Pop’s silver convertible parked in the lot, smoking cigarettes and Lord knows what else. She’s back now, and looking wretched.  There is a ring of marinara sauce looped around her mouth, like the lipliner of  a diseased homeless clown.  The top row of teeth now reduced to nothing but gums rests dumbly upon her dry, mummified skin, and her expression is perpetually glazed over and slack-jawed.  So many people, when speaking of dear, sweet, parasite Aimee, say – “She used to be pretty.”  Well,  not anymore. 

 “Look, look at this,” she butts her head directly between Tim’s face and his lunch plate, shoves her phone in front of him.  “Me and Jay at Sportsman’s,” she shoves the picture into my face now, and in it, Jason looks like complete shit, with greasy hair and a bored expression.  

“Uh, yeah, I remember him telling me about that,” I brush her hand away.  “That’s not a very good picture of him.”

Now suddenly Aimee’s in the mood for a grown-up conversation, sits down across from me and asks, “So when did you last see him?  What did you guys do?”

I finish choking down a piece of dry chicken, swallow.  “I was there the night before,” I begin, “We made coconut rice, watched The Muppet Movie -”  While I’m talking, Aimee is dialing a number into her phone without looking at it and looking straight at me; her dead eyes are murky as a pond, cloudy like a neglected fishbowl sitting stagnant for decades. “He really was looking well -”

Before I can get to the meat of the story, Aimee puts her phone to her ear and seems to be listening to something, probably checking to see if anyone transferred funds to her account – so I roll my eyes and end it there.  “Nevermind,” I say. “Forget it.”

Eventually I muster the strength to pass around the Polaroids Aunt Barbara gave me.   In one, a maybe 12-year-old Jason and his father kneel in front of a Christmas tree decked in a multitude of fun-looking ornaments and tinsel.  Next to his father, who perpetually wore tinted aviators, is poor sweet white-haired Tucker the Dog.  Both men are in flannel shirts, jeans and socks.  Father and son.  

When I went into Jason’s room after getting The Call, his boombox still played the classical radio station he put on to go to sleep.  It held the poignancy of a child’s music box left behind, abandoned and forgotten, forever stuck on repeat, churning out its lonesome melody.

I called out for Char, but she was nowhere to be found. 

“There’s no despair – I love you!” Jason shouted one night I wanted to break up with him again.  Because honestly, was it all for real? Could I really trust him?  But our last night together it was still the same – making rice, watching Muppets. I guess things really could be quite simple.  But what went on outside of our little bubble?   What even killed him, anyway?  We still don’t know.  The autopsy report has not been released to Cousin Cindy yet, and the mind can wander to some dark places.  

He has sent me signs. A bluejay appeared on my windowsill three times and peered into my room. Jason was into bluejays. I read that bluejays are in fact monogamous creatures and keep the same mate for life. They are supposed to represent patience and truth.  Hmm. 

As morbid as it is I go and hang out besides Jason’s grave (which has yet to be engraved with his name). Sometimes I leave a little trinket, other times I just sit and talk or smoke and cry, and I feel his presence there. We had a picnic there, just me and him, which is conveniently located directly across from John & Mary’s pizzeria.  I almost forgot that he lives so close.  When I feel the most sad I remember that he is really only a minute away if I need to tell him something important. 

Enmeshed in Mess

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At the edge of my immediate neighborhood lies a hill upon which one district rolls into another.  On this hill are ramshackle duplexes of ill repute, washed in dirt and years of decay.  A revolving cast of probationers and ex-cons cloud its reputation.  Many vagabonds have trudged across this soil.  And it is here where I found my one true love.

At first, the beginning of Jack and I looked like an end.    We met at the Urn show, through our mutual gal pal Jenny from the Block and her on again/off again husband.  Our first dates could have been construed as morbid;  we hung out at the grave store and the haunted cemetery.   Actually, on our very first date, I had to leave him at the bowling alley.  He spent all his money on PBR and had none left for the shoe rental.  But Jack eventually became my happy hour roadie who put records back in their sleeves.  What’s wrong with having an ex-biker bodyguard for my DJ sets?  The Grateful Dead had the Hells Angels, after all.  But then one day last summer, I decided to open my heart.

Jack lives in a front, street-facing flophouse on the hill.  Although the front window is concealed by a Snoopy-print sheet. The other is cracked and broken, mended by a plastic tarp.  His living room is dark but bathed in the red glow of an old turn-of-the-century lamp.

In the back half of the house (which is sectioned down the middle) dwells Donna the Landlady, along with – rumor has it – two generations of cats and dogs.  Nearly 20 in all.  Although, we never see much of each other.  Donna’s life doesn’t follow a normal pattern.  She makes appearances like television commercial breaks.  Rather, she knocks on Jack’s door with the authority of a Sheriff.

“THUD THUD THUD,” emanates from the hall.  “BOOM BOOM BOOM”.

Then we’ll spy her bulky physique wedge itself between the screen door and the dark windy night.  I’ll move my car, and she will zip away on some mysterious errand.   One night, we swung open the door to head out to see Of Desolation, and right at that very second, Donna swung open her door to the hallway as well.   We came face-to-face theatrically, and all that was missing were guns to be drawn and a shootout to take place like the Wild Wild West, or a historical reenactment of one at Fantasy Island.

“Humph,” Donna the Landlady slammed the door, and we heard her bumbling around in there  as Jack and I continued towards the Uber idling curbside.

Another night, I opened the flimsy wooden door (which looks, on the outside, like someone attacked it with an axe), into the dark hallway.  I spied what I thought was Jack’s little cat, Saltine, sitting on the ground.

“Go on in,” I coaxed.  But behind me Jack said – “That’s not Salty.”

Sure enough, I turned and saw Salty – who is missing one front leg, she’s a rescue – perched on the kitchen table!

“Ahhh!” I recoiled back into the kitchen.  “Something’s out there!”

Jack stepped in front of me and I pushed him out into the hallway with me stuck to his back like a koala.  We peered around the edge of the door.

“It’s a badger,” Jack said, and shut the door behind him, leaving me in the kitchen.

“AHHH!” I ran into the living room and wrapped myself in the Harley Davidson duvet.  Jack returned after a minute, saying it must be one of Donna’s cats, but the creature in the hall didn’t have a tail. It turned out to be “Zeke’s mom,” the feline matriarch, but now we refer to her as Badger even though I sadly never saw her again.

In the backyard is a government-grade American flagpole with a gold eagle shining on top and jackhammered concrete encircling the base – a found object from Willie, Jack’s “roommate,” although not a roommate in any monetary sense.  He showed up shoeless in the snow and high on narcotics two years ago, and never left.  He’s been self-quarantining since before it was cool in a room with a padlock and hinge.

“Doesn’t he ever, like, go to the bathroom?” I asked Jack.

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There’s also Tim, who rides over on his bike more often than not, sometimes with leftover shrimp moo shu from the takeaway.  He lives behind Beaver’s Snow-Plowing with his elderly mother and a brother who frequently calls into radio stations with a monotone voice.

“Kevin was on WECK radio winning $100!” Jack exclaimed one day.

Up in Jack’s room, the walls are emerald green with “Country Girl” painted on in cursive, even though Jack is neither country, nor girl.  At first I scoffed and asked “Who’s country girl?”  But when you live in a flophouse on a hill, the origins of such epithets are not exactly known.

We are enmeshed in mess and in mess we are one – just me, Jack and Salty the Cat.  And Willie too, I guess.

“I’m going to go and buy you a toothbrush to keep here with your name on it,” Jack says.

“A…toothbrush?”  I read in Cosmo that 52% of men view keeping a toothbrush at their pad a sign of commitment.

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your breath or anything  -”

Willie stomps down the steep stairway sounding like Herman Munster in a black Choppers jacket and Stan Smiths with a Seneca dangling from his mouth and labret piercing glinting amongst a scratchy grey goatee.  He mutters something in his mildewy tar-stained voice.

“I’m going next door to Pinky’s,” Willie says and scratches his balls, then treks out the door.  Pinky has many male suitors; in fact she told me at the Social Distortion show that she’s descended from Italian nobility.  But as for Willie, I think she just feeds him as well as their other friend Donald the Professional Plaintiff.  (Donald was once a driver for a Medicaid van service who blasted Dying Fetus to drown out his passengers and later sued the company for personal injury after tripping on his own two feet).

My friend Dan, who provides me with “herbal refreshment” on the regular,  warned me about dating a man whose mugshot was once splashed on the pages of the Cheektowaga Chronicle. 

“You’re too glamorous for that house,” Dan says as we catch up on his couch.  He knows the flophouse scene because his brother once dodged a warrant for violating an order of protection by “living” there at one point.  Cheektowaga Police eventually caught up with him; he tried to escape via the second story window.   “Run away…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I say, and look down at Dan’s freshly-shampooed carpet.

“Are you supposed to see him again?” he asks.

“He’s waiting for me now,”  I stand to get my shoes.  “We just went to Mister Dee’s and saw a guy who looked exactly like David Crosby!”

From the couch, Dan says, “Be careful…” and his voice is laced with an ominous tone.

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“Willie met a super rich hottie on the Net!” Jack texts me as I’m mulling things over in the Airport Plaza Save-a-Lot.

“What?  He should stick with Jennifer!”

Every now and then, Jack and I will be chilling on the couch,  deeply immersed in a Sopranos marathon thanks to the library, when suddenly, Jennifer will stomp through the living room in her signature ski cap and size 11 boots.

“I’m going, I’m going,” she’ll mutter while staring straight ahead, the edges of her mouth sliding into her trademark benzocaine smile.

“Who’s that?”  I said.  Jack told me all about Jennifer and Willie’s decade-long, on-again, off-again situationship, how Jennifer was thrown from the back of Willie’s Harley, and how they found themselves in hot water when a traffic stop turned into a drug bust, and how Jennifer had twins with another man while they were supposedly together.

On Christmas Eve, we came into the living room after my aunt’s soiree and saw a lump on the couch beneath the afghan knitted by a past resident drug addict named “Bed Bunny.”   Jack crouched down to lump-level, and said, “Who are you?”

Jessica arose from her slumber, then went and sat in the dusty recliner across the room, which was once light tan but is clearly now saturated with dirt. Not long after, Willie stomped into the room with a bottle of booze and foil-wrapped food, threw them at Jennifer aggressively, and stomped up the dark stairway to his locked dungeon.  She followed him with these “gifts,” and before long, plenty more sketchy folks began to arrive – Tim; Petey, who is one of Pinky’s suiters and a Korea veteran; Donald; and even Skitchy the drug dealer slash reptile enthusiast rolled up in his pickup, with hay bales in the bed of the truck for some reason, and orange overalls on.  I thought Skitchy was pretty cute, and given how dark it is in the ‘flop, around my age.  (In the light of day it’s actually plain to see that Skitchy is, in fact, 50 years old).

“Donna’s gonna freak with all these cars in the driveway,” I said. But Jack and I are never invited into Willie’s dungeon.  I snuck a peek before while exiting the bathroom –  it resembles something out of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, with mythical silver and crystal dragon figurines everywhere, and a red couch that wraps around the room.  How or why Willie ended up with the “nicest” room, I’m not sure.  Then again, why Jack actually pays Donna to live in the ‘flop, I’m not so sure of either.

For now, I guess Jennifer and Willie are “off.”  He has fallen in love with his “super rich hottie from the Net.”  (Willie also busies himself on the ‘Net selling Pokemon cards, which I guess are fetching some coins with collectors these days).

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“He got five teeth pulled just because of her,” Jack continues.   I’m not sure which app Willie is on, but this “super rich hottie” apparently owns a junkyard in Chautauqua County.  He puts her on a pedestal.  Her photo is his phone background.  They talk for hours and hours.  ( But as of the date of this writing, they haven’t met in person).

Of course, the saga of Willie’s harem wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Tabitha, Willie’s ad hoc boo thang he met downtown at the free clinic/needle depository.  Her boyfriend’s currently locked up for petty larceny.  He stole a stick of beef jerky; I guess that’s his calling card. Nowadays Tabitha lives a nocturnal lifestyle working as a prostitute.  She sometimes rolls up in her teal Cadillac deVille, which might have been left to her in an old sugar daddy’s Will.

But of course, this is the tale of Jack and I, not about all these other people – right?

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“Just you, me and Salty, one big happy family,” Jack says and throws one of his burly arms around me, then slurps from his glass of Natural Light.  He is wearing a Motorhead tee shirt with his dark hair in a messy ponytail.

Today is an unseasonable 50 degrees, so we are chilling outside at the glass patio table playing Ratt cassettes and starting up a bonfire.  The fire pit at Jack’s is the metal drum from inside a dryer.  The delivery driver from the pizza joint next door is driving around like a madman and popping wheelies up and down Union, practically, and that’s not even to mention the souped-up BMW with a boat engine zipping by like clockwork.

“Tim’s heading over on his bike!”  I’m snapped out of my reverie; sure enough, Tim pedals his mountain bike up the driveway and over to the patio table.  He’s rocking a giant gash on the side of his shaved head, with a Band-Aid pathetically placed over it.

“My brother whacked me with a Swiffer!”  Tim’s clutching his side as if he’s returned back from war. “Yow-OW!”

Is there a name for the phenomenon of feeling like you’re watching a really funny show, but it is, in fact, your life?

“Do you have a cig?” I ask Tim.

“I had to go and get him some on Doat and Genesee!” Jack interjects.

“What about me, I want cigs from Doat and Genesee!” I say.

Next door, Pinky is saying goodbye to one of her suitors.  He is putting some things into a black Volvo with her hand on his lower back.  Once he is seated behind the wheel she leans into the front seat to give him a smooch.  I lower my all-black rectangular shades, which Jack bought for me at an Allen Street sip n’ shop.

“Did you bring the Temps?” Jack asks.

“Something better -” Tim reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out a packet of “Nine Lives.”

“What is this crap?”  Jack is alarmed. “She hates these – everyone knows that!”

Tim and I look at each other.  I shrug.  “Well jeez man fine, I’ll come back later, there was a coupon for these things -”   And Tim heads inside to say hello to Salty, and later emerges with a bag of “Ginger Loon” marshmallows that Jack procured at the Airport Plaza Save-a-Lot.  And so the night continues on like a peaceful fog drifting over the harbor.

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Tonight, Jack and I are heading to Our Lady Help of Christians BINGO.  Pregaming at the corner shanty will begin promptly at 5.  There, we have blended into the familiar cast of Bloozies (aka, Bills Floozies) always there on Sundays – “Cuddles,” “The Ambassador,”  “Peanut Butter Whiskey,” the girl who always hollers that someone scratched her Cobalt, et al.  I’ve got my pack of Parliaments nearby, because Tabitha started bumming me her Newport 100’s.  Now I carry my own for when the mood strikes.  Bad habits die hard, what can I say?

Well, this is the Wild Wild West.    Revealed by The Buffalo News to have the most cancer due to lifestyle  in the country.  Harlem and Genesee.   Skid Row.  Drunkenness to rival that of Vegas, hence the name, “Cheektovegas.”  Or sometimes, “Cheektowarsaw.”  Jack and I are chilling at the corner shanty, me with a bucket of Barefoot chardonnay, and Jack with a bucket of Budweiser, with the Bills after party in full swing.  The Ambassador and the girl with the Cobalt’s mom are slow-dancing to Ed Sheeran. Floyd the Cook with the clubfoot is slouched against the end of the bar, and suddenly takes a sideways swing at the bartender’s husband’s head, but misses.  The exertion makes him almost fall over sideways.

“Get out!” The fire engine red-haired bartender shouts at Floyd.  Her tank top says “Wine-y Bitch.”  “Go outside!”

Floyd drags his weary, lopsided, liquored-up body out the door, and stands under the twinkling Christmas lights looped around the patio.  There’s a rowdy scene outside, too, with the Gen X’ers throwing a football around and plenty of smokers settling into patio furniture.  A curly-haired lady is leaning out the door of her red Mustang, talking on her cell.   I see a guy, out of the corner of my eye, walking in the middle of Harlem Road.  He’s got a bottle in hand and is weaving in and out of traffic, illuminated by the ceaseless glow of the corner 7-Eleven.

“Oh my God!” I point.  “He’s going to die!”

The Ambassador straightens up from  leaning against the brick wall..  He’s a freckly Millennial so named because he always shakes people’s hands, especially new patrons he’s never met.  He might have a future in politics.

“Oh, he works in the kitchen…”  The Ambassador doesn’t seem too concerned.  “Must’ve just drank a bottle…”

Jack and I settle into the last patio table next to Peanut Butter Whiskey.  He’s a snow-capped gentleman who once bought Jack a shot of peanut butter whiskey.  All of a sudden, Jack’s phone rings from an unsaved number – and he actually picks up!

“Oh, uh, what’s going on?”

I lean close to the speaker.  It’s clearly a tweaked-out female’s voice on the other end.

“Hey! How rude!”  I shriek.

“It’s been a while -” Jack says, clearly uncomfortable.

“Hang up on her!”   I turn away and cross my arms.  “Weird!” Jack finally hangs up the phone.

“Who was that?” I say.  It’s not that I’m a jealous toad, just that since Jack and I are “official” now, I should be able to articulate my curiosities.

“This ex-girlfriend from years ago,” Jack looks totally weirded out.  But honestly I get calls/texts/friend requests, etc. from exes all the time, and never respond to them, much less answer a call from a random number on BINGO night. Granted, the girl sounded messed up on drugs.  So I’ll let it slide.  And who cares?  Jack and I will probably win a fortune at BINGO.

Not long afterwards, Jack and I are cozy under fluorescent gymnasium lights surrounded by BINGO dabbers, golden Buddhist cats and a ladybug Beanie Baby belonging to the older ladies at our table. One has a sequined visor on, and many are munching on the 75 cent pizza slices. Up on stage, a dusty gentleman recites the numbers on the Ping Pong balls popping around inside a giant clear globe.

“O – 69,”  the guy says deadpan into his microphone, and O- 69 lights up on a scoreboard taking up the whole stage.  You would think with all of our boards, we would have won something. But no such luck; Jack and I are still penniless, but slightly tipsy.  However, not long after the game begins, Jack’s phone starts to light up again, with that same demented ex’s unsaved number.

“Hello,” I flatly answer Jack’s phone.  Because, since we are official and this girl is apparently annoying, she should not be allowed to interrupt BINGO.

Tell Jack to stop stalking my house,” the girl slurs.   I look at Jack and narrow my eyes.

“Look, you’re interrupting BINGO,” I tell her.  “GOOD bye.” And I hang up on her.

After BINGO, I drop Jack off at the corner of Union and Genesee, instead of taking him all the way to his house.  I’m pissed at him.  And why wouldn’t I be? Even if the ex is a drugged-out mess, he needs to block her number –  immediately.

Because upon reflection, how could Jack have just been stalking her house, when I’ve literally been at his house all day?   He doesn’t have a car, anyway.  Tim later confirms this insanity of the ex defense.  I guess this “Chrissy” once started a row while volunteering at a Save the Owls tent at the Taste of Buffalo.  Well, whatever.  I suppose I will let it go.  We briefly broke up at BINGO – but I’m not ready to completely run away yet.  I’m going to wait and see if Jack proves himself to be trustworthy.

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Willie enters the living room in a Sons of Anarchy tee shirt, saying he was chased by wild turkeys down by the churchyard.

“They followed me all the way home, dude,” Willie flops into the dusty recliner, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth, and wraps himself up in the stolen hospital blanket spotted with burn holes.

Tonight, Jack and I are snugged up with Salty to watch The Masked Singer.  I head to the fridge, and look inside; despite dropping multiple hints that I need snacks 24/7, there’s nothing inside but pomegranate seeds and coffee creamer.

“Random…what’s with the seeds?”

“They just showed up here,” James pours a Hemptails into the red and white plastic wine cup I always use.  “Cube?”

“Yes, please,” I say.  “Smoot.”

After a few more sips of Hemptails, of course I have to pee.  I wander into Jack and Willie’s bathroom.  A former inhabitant excavated all the copper pipes and scrapped them for cash, so the water from the sink drips into a bucket underneath.  I’m high maintenance when it comes to the bathroom, and so are Jennifer and Tabitha evidently, because we frequently overflow the bucket until water is running all over the floor.  But for real, Donna needs to do something about, well, everything here.  Sometimes the water even drips down into the mutual hallway.

I use up the last of the toilet paper and hope that there’s more, and turn the doorknob a full 360 degrees.  It appears there is also something wrong with the doorknob;  I am trapped in the bathroom.

“Help!” I shout. “I’m stuck!”

Willie appears on the other side of the door.

“I’ll get Jack,” I spy his scratchy goatee moving through the crack in the door. “He will know what to do.”

“Ok?”

“Grab the butter knife!” Jack yells from out in the hall. “On the shelf to the left!”

Sure enough, there is a butter knife, which I slide down the crack in the door and it eventually trips the lock.  The door opens.  Jack’s standing in the dark hallway.

“I love you, Jack,” I say.

“I love you, too,” Jack says.

Um, what was that about? I go back to watching The Masked Singer.

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There have of course been times when I questioned whether Jack was for real.  Like the time he picked all the onions out of Pinky’s potato salad for me, because he knows I do not like onions.

“What’s in it for him?”  I narrowed my eyes.  I have trust issues, what can I say.

We went on a cheesy overnight Valentine’s Day getaway at Salvatore’s Rose Garden Hotel. We were totally “those people”.  The girl at the table next to us was a total prude, and lactose intolerant to boot.  What’s wrong with a little PDA?

One morning, Jack let me wear his slippers instead of my heels when I had to do a “Walk of Shame” down to the NFTA stop. We rode the bus together back to my house, and when one of the nefarious local drunks climbed aboard, Jack shielded me from his gaze.

Jack buys me stuffed animals too, like, all the time.

Oh and who could forget our “couples costume” this past Halloween: young Avril Lavigne and Carnivore-era Peter Steele?

It’s not perfect – I did stomp a bag of Ruffles in combat boots when Jack wasn’t paying enough attention to me during The Masked Singer.  Jack gets moodier and more bitchy than I ever do over which Dollar General to go to.  But I just roll my eyes.

This might be the only one of my blogs not ending with me running away screaming from whatever male I’d been dealing with…  But I would miss Salty too much if I bailed.  We are enmeshed in mess all right, James and Salty and me, and on lockdown to boot. I only wish that this summer, Jack and I will find ourselves at the beach again, listening to the sound of the waves, doing photoshoots, drinking Hemptails, and just staring distantly at the clouds floating by.

Always a Side, Never a Bride

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Jeremy the wine clerk won me over for the simple fact that I can’t  “Just Say No” to a Gen X-er who looks like he fronted a 90’s band like Fuel or Bush.   In fact, Jeremy plays guitar.

I saw him working at the wine store last week and commented that I had never seen him before.  He has shaggy, surfer hair streaked with grey, like he just washed ashore from Oakland or Anaheim, along with a deep pack-a-day voice.

“Your sign says this is $4.99,” I blow dust from a mini-box of rosé and hand it to him. “But it’s labeled $3.99.”

“Well for you, young lady, it’s free.”

“Free?” Jeremy just looks at me with sensitive brown eyes that fall somewhere between “sad puppy dog” and “pit bull on cocaine.”

“Well don’t just give it to me. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“It’s totally fine,” he says.  “You should come back when you’re done at the library.”

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Yes, it’s true, I was on my way to the library that evening to complete my life coach assignment. But, like with the best experiences in life, I got sidetracked.  A romantic rendezvous with Jeremy had begun.  And it began rather strangely.

“I fucking love you!” Jeremy shouts in the middle of the store.  We’re alone; there’s no customers.

He grabs me and kisses me against a tall shelf stocked with gin.  Bottles clang together, almost crashing to the floor.  Suddenly, our moment is punctuated by a beep.  A customer enters.  We peer towards the door.

“We’re closed,” Jeremy says.

“Oh you are so silly,” says a sassy blonde lady.  “I just want my numbers.”

I turn towards a display.  “Miss?” Jeremy yells from the register.  I set down the bottle of Everclear I’d been inspecting. “You’re being disruptive.”

“Me?” I say.

“Oh, no she’s not, she’s fun,” says the sassy blonde lady, and she leaves the store.

Jeremy walks over to me.

“I love you,” he says.

The logical part of my brain knows this is all completely crazy, because I’ve known Jeremy approximately one week.  But I can’t help falling for him.  I seem to have this effect on men.

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Since he has blown my phone up with constant adoration,  I decide to meet up with Jeremy outside of the wine store, even though there’s one very obvious red flag.

“Are you married?” I asked right away.

“Oh, we all have our issues,” Jeremy had said, then began organizing mini bottles of Fireball while examining a New York Lottery scroll and tapping his foot.

“Yeah, I know,” I say. “Issues aren’t a problem. I  love issues.  But, you know, if you’re married…”

“Look,” Jeremy locks both my palms into his own. “I just want to keep talking to you.  If it means I have to give everything up, I will. There’s just so much wrong with me.  I need to talk to you more about everything.”

Jeremy, at that moment, looked positively pitiful, a twinge of Fireball on his breath.

“Ok, ok,” I backed out of the store.  “Jeez.”  I left that night unsure of my next move. But it only took a split second for me to realize – actually, I had already fallen for Jeremy, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.

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My Pontiac rolls onto the curb, practically, as Jeremy runs towards my passenger door while yanking up his shirt to expose his “abs,” for some unknown reason.  He’s apparently been hanging out by the stop sign.  He tumbles into the passenger seat with a half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew and cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I start to drive even though his door is still wide open. But Jeremy’s lit cigarette falls on his chest and sits there until I toss it out the window,

“Yo! Can you not, like, start on fire?”

But Jeremy’s already talking a mile a minute, ranting and raving about cigarettes he needs to buy and how he had a miserable day confined to the dreary liquor store aisles.

“It’s ok,” I put my hand on his knee.  “Anyway, I’m excited for the fiesta.”

Today is, after all, Cinco de Mayo, and there happens to be a legit taqueria right down the block. Jeremy and I pull into the packed lot, up against a white fence with a subtle mural design.   The sun is strong, and the bassline of a song blaring leads our way to the back patio, where two dudes are serving cool icy margaritas.  I get mine on the rocks, and tons of people are around, with a bumpin’ sound system to boot.  The speakers throb with masculine energy as Daddy Yankee turns to Sean Paul.

Shake that thing, Miss hunabunna get busy, don’t stop just swivy yeah bust in the groove just get crunked and get jiggy, yo sexy lady come wine wit’ us yeah.”

Jeremy already made best friends with the two guys serving drinks. They both have cursive neck tattoos of people’s names.  Jeremy waves his debit card in the air, and puts down our names for a table.

“How romantic,” I hug Jeremy tight.  We wander to the very back of the enclosed patio space.  “Gasolina” blares and the sun beats down on us as powerfully as Rhonda Rowsey in a metallic bodysuit.  All is calm. Jeremy’s chain-smoking and chain-talking in my ear about how beautiful I am, and how he’s going to make me his wife.  There’s only one problem…

“Friends for right now,” I try to catch Jeremy’s eye contact, but his eyes ping around the room. That’s when I spot them – smack in the center of the patio lies the only table, and it’s occupied with a gaggle of my high school frenemies, and their significant others too!

“Oh wow, hey guys,” I tip-toe nervously up to their table. Nobody takes off their sunglasses, or smiles, or says anything at all.  “This is Jeremy. We’re on a date.” My face contorts into a mortified grin.

“Jeremy,” I take Jeremy’s hand in an effort to quell his manic energy. “These are some of my friends from high school.”

Jeremy runs up to Karey, who up until that moment remained totally stoic and unamused behind classic Oakley shades.

“So you can tell me all there is to know,” Jeremy rasps in her ear with a puff of rancid Marb smoke.  “Ha ha ha.”

“Ugh!” I turn my back on the mortifying display before me and wait for it to be over. At least I have an icy cool margarita on the rocks to calm my nerves.

“Come on, like, let’s go over here,” I yank Jeremy away from the hateful table of frenemies.  I pull him away, back under the awning next to the makeshift bar area. All is calm, all is still, as Jeremy replaces all my margaritas and chain-smokes in my ear and the sun refuses to stop shining…All is fine, until Jeremy gets agitated and spots a really cute Spanish one-year-old with a distinct resemblance to Sonny Bono.

“Hey, she said he’s fucked up,” Jeremy yells at the kid’s mom, who had been chilling and caught totally unawares. She stares at him in confusion and annoyance.

“What are you talking about,” I interject,  “I didn’t say that!  He’s making it up.”  I plead with the mom. But she already totally realized that Jeremy is an idiot.

“Yeah, she said why does he have to be so fucked up,”  Jeremy says, pointing at the kid, and I’m wondering,  Is Jeremy seriously trying to start a fight right now –  with a baby?

“Come on,” I pull Jeremy away from yet another person. “Calm down.”

Luckily the kid’s father –  also with an intimidating neck tattoo –  shows up.  Jeremy’s face suddenly shifts to Mr. Charming and he backs away with a wink and a smile.

“Were you seriously trying to start a fight – with a baby?”

But Jeremy doesn’t answer, just changes the subject to how amazing I am, how he wants to go to Costa Rica with me, but not yet, first he has to consider leaving his Old Lady.

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“Hey,” Jeremy’s raspy voice is on the other end of the line.  This is his third phone call to me today.  It’s after ten,  meaning the liquor store is closed. Tonight, I decided not to meet up with Jeremy, for once, to practice “self care” and all that.

“What’s up?” I say.  It sucks that Jeremy has me under his spell, and worse yet, I think he knows it.

“I just wanted to tell you  – ” Jeremy must be home by now, or close to it.

“I wanted to tell you I love – “ All of a sudden, Jeremy trails off and then his whisper turns into confident bravado. “ Dude, I wanted to tell you.  You got the job dude, at the liquor store!”

“What?”

“I have to go,” Jeremy whispers and hangs up the phone.  He must have been taking out the trash.

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I’m walking over to the corner beer emporium to visit Jeremy.  Come to find out – his full time gig is at the beer store where I worked over a decade ago.  And yes, caustic angry Seth, with the personality of a bottle of bleach, is still the manager.  Granted, it was my college summer job, not somewhere I would expect a mid-40’s, self-proclaimed Casanova to be working.  But we all have our issues.

“No loitering,” Seth growls, coming down the microbrew aisle. He’s the same as always, minus all the hair once growing on his head.  Stress.   I lean over Jeremy’s flimsy beer sampling booth and don’t pay attention to party pooper Seth trying to shit all over our parade.  We are in love.  I’ve got leather shorts on, it’s a hot Saturday afternoon, and I just stopped in for a 24 ounce can of Seagrams’ “Jamaican Me Crazy.”  But Jeremy is stuck inside this rat hole serving up samples of Genesee “Bock.”

“Can I taste your Bock?” I say to Jeremy.

Jeremy hands over a little foamy cup.

“I love the taste of your Bock.”  I slowly pull an ice cube from Jeremy’s bucket, and hold it out to his lips.

But before I can even trail it pornographically across his mouth, Jeremy suddenly chomps on it with his front teeth like a ferocious beaver .  He chews up the ice cube, crunching and cackling like a bipolar witch.  He smiles his wide grin and wrinkles crinkle at the corners of his eyes –  but are they from smiling all the time, or just from one too many Marb Reds?

Maybe both, I think.  He’s perfect. 

Plastered on all the walls and windows of the store are the names of customers who have donated their change to Parkinson’s Disease. Apparently many didn’t want to actually fill in their own names, so Jeremy took the liberty of scribbling “I love Annie” and “Jeremy Loves Annie” on these heart-shaped pieces of paper hanging all over the store.

“What’s up with that address you texted me?” I say.

When I was about to walk down here, Jeremy was texting me as usual and he randomly sent me the address of a house the next street over from his.  He wouldn’t explain why.

“This dude that’s in here all the time,” Jeremy says without a moment’s hesitation, “He’s having a house party and I thought it might be a good place for us to meet later.”

“Heck yeah! I am so in.”

“But nothing’s set in stone,” says Jeremy.  He is grinning from ear to ear.

“Okay.  Let me know.”

Seth glares while using his trademark Solo cup spittoon; spit-soaked tobacco drips from his slackened jaw.

“Ok Seth, I’ll take my Jamaican me Crazy and go make myself crazy somewhere else,” I say to him, and then to Jeremy,  “See ya later.”   I blow Jeremy a kiss, and I’m out of there.  I’m not even worried about Jeremy coming through with the party.  Of course we are going to meet up later.  We always do!

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But around 6:00 p.m., Jeremy totally goes silent.  I don’t blow up his phone or anything, at first, but at 10 I call him three times in a row.  Because honestly, Jeremy is always the one blowing up my phone, and now we supposedly have plans at a neighbor’s sketchy bungalow, and you ghost me?

Not to mention, I totally could have stayed at my homegirl’s Porch Fest birthday bash. I didn’t have to drive back to the ‘hood to meet Jeremy.  It makes no sense.

“You are clearly a LIAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  is what I write.  “LIAR x100000000000000000000000000000000.”

And when Jeremy doesn’t answer that, I toss and turn all night, chugging leftover “Jamaican Me Crazy” to numb the pain. But the sugar only makes me more wired, so finally I just turn on all my lights and blare all my 80’s hair metal vinyl.

Then, my phone starts ringing  – at six in the morning. Is he for real.  At this point I’m  too bleary-eyed and stupefied to care.  I am obviously trying to get some beauty rest. I bury my head in pillows, blankets, everything, but my phone keeps ringing and ringing and doesn’t stop.  Jeremy calls me ten times in a row.

And by morning, with the sun coming up over both our houses, and me with completely disturbing blood shot eyes, my homegirl Stephanie and I had planned to do a gossip n’ brunch at Bread Hive. Thank God, because I need charcoal water and rosé, stat, and a distraction from all of this drama.

I have a text from Jeremy before I even pull up to Bread Hive.

“I need to see you. Now,” it reads.

Ha! Like really, I’m obviously not available. 

“I have plans with my  friend. I will be back in a few hours,” I reply.

Jeremy is SO controlling.

“Fine,” he says. “Meet at the park.”

Yet, I can’t help but want the 411 about last night. What WAS that about?

It’s not like I don’t comprehend that Jeremy is psychotic.

“He sounds…terrible,” Stephanie says while waiting in line. “I can’t really think of anything good about him.”

“I know!” I shriek. I always feel bad for anyone having brunch in my vicinity.  My conversations aren’t 100% family-friendly and veer into the absurd.  I have to give Stephanie credit; she definitely listens with an open mind.

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Poetry by Jeremy*

 I listen to a couple of “our” songs on my drive over to the park – “Your Love is My Drug” by Ke$ha; “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” by Ariana Grande. .Of course we are meeting at our spot, the swings, where our true love was revealed that second day we hung out.

For some reason Jeremy has  the audacity to ask me to pick him up a pack of smokes.  He’ll  “pay me back.”

“I’m at Draino’s,” Jeremy texts.

Ew, Draino’s? I hang in my fair share of rowdy saloons and dumpy taverns, but being spotted at Draino’s is the lowest of the low, not even Charlie Sheen on a week-long bender would be caught dead in there!

It used to be called something else, and I went there once when I was nineteen and got a Swedish Fish shot with no ID after my shift at the beer store with the twins who worked there and had crushes on me, and then the owner’s brother started showing me naked pictures on his flip phone – barf!

Draino’s is an alcoholic old guy scene which recently dealt with an outbreak of Hepatitis C and where a local politician got arrested after allegedly running his wife off the road –  not exactly the romance I had in mind for my Sunday in the sun.

But… I’m willing to lower my standards.

“And don’t worry about the cigs, a bunch of people gave me some,” Jeremy continues.

I wasn’t going to anyways. I toss my phone into the backseat, along with my dignity. Draino’s it is.

I walk into Draino’s, which is totally empty except for some lunatic squawking like a methed-up seagull and squished against some poor, sad looking old guy in a Hawaiian shirt.

“HAR HAR HAR,” Jeremy laughs at his own joke, which typically make no sense.

“Um, hi.” I say.  But at first, Jeremy doesn’t even notice me.

“Oh, HAAAAAAAIIIII,” Jeremy slurs out.  His complexion has the grey pallor of someone who stayed up all night performing sexual favors for crack cocaine; he’s sippin’ on what looks like a 50% vodka, 50% tomato combination, with his liter of Mountain Dew nearby.

“Is this your woman?” asks the sad looking guy in the Hawaiian shirt.

“No, I’m nobody’s woman!,” I declare.

Nothing for her,” Jeremy says.  “HAR HAR HAR.”

The bleach blonde bartender has sympathetic eyes and hands me a pinot grigio that I apparently ordered telepathically.  Jeremy’s tab here has been going since 1998.  We grab our drinks and shuffle onto the front patio. Or at least, Jeremy is shuffling in some oversized loafers halfway hanging off his feet.

“I ran out in my gardening shoes,” Jeremy flops onto the patio chair.  “I slept in the park.”

“Slept?” I say.  “In the park?”

Cars zoom by, and across the street, the town park stares back at us with a vast, empty, void-like stare.

“Why?”

“Look, honey, I said times were going to get rough,” Jeremy looks at me with pleading, puppy dog eyes. “I need you to hang in there with me.”

“Am I not hanging? Hello.”

Jeremy leans so far back on the flimsy furniture, he might just fall right off the chair. He’s puffing on a cig, happy as a clam.  We enjoy a short, comfortable silence, a moment of calm in a sea of chaos.

Then I ask –

“So, um, the park? Why’d you sleep there.”

Jeremy exhales a pre-emphysema-esque sigh of despair, and begins to unravel a barely-believable saga spurned on by the fact I called him at 10 p.m. Apparently, his old lady began “laying into him” and smacked him around, so he ran off and slept in the park since six in the morning.

“What about the party?” I ask.

Jeremy continues to chain smoke and shake his head.

“I didn’t even go.”

I embrace this new level of absurdity.  I’m ride-or-die for guys who deal wine. Jeremy and I head into Dollar General for provisions to take to the park. We find some beach towels and I grab a Vitamin Water; Jeremy still is doing the Dew and going for broke.

“$7.42,” says the stoic girl.  Her pin says “manager on duty.”

“Why d’you have to be so mean?” Jeremy leans over the swipe card machine and leers in her ear.

“I can make you cry if you want,” she says, unimpressed.

Jeremy counts out a few tattered bills, and we leave the store. We cozy up under a tree. R&B music thumps from a shelter.

“Can I have a sip?”  I unscrew the Dew and gulp some down, and choke.

“Don’t drink that!” Jeremy takes the bottle away. “It’s vodka.”

“Whoa.”  I wash it down with Vitamin Water.

All is calm.  Stability is reached once again – for the present moment anyway.  Later, Jeremy will have to return to his wretched old lady.

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I’m speeding on my bike through the dimly-lit streets, with nothing except the cool breeze in my hair and lustful fantasies on my mind.  Jeremy is closing up the liquor store.  This is what my life has become – late night, 10 p.m. hangouts with my “man.”   This past month we’ve become something of an item:  there’s the signs commemorating our love at the beer store; Jeremy’s loud proclamations in Draino’s; we’re even familiar “Same Side Sitters” at the Walden Applebee’s.  And one night, he walked me and my bike home, under a theatrical spotlight cast by a full moon.

“I love you Annie,” Jeremy stood at the end of my driveway, and shouted at the top of his lungs. “I love you!”

We are often at the swings, or the slide, or engaged in some other whimsical activity.

“I’m willing to give everything up – my life is so messed up,” Jeremy said, swirling a small bottle of Fireball around in his hand. “You just have to show me that you’ll do anything for me – you have to move in.”

“But how can I move in, if you’re still married?”  I’m making a true attempt at getting Jeremy to understand logic. “The space is occupied.”

Apparently a year ago, according to Jeremy, he was separated from his wife.  Another girlfriend lived with him.  But allegedly, this girlfriend made out with another guy at her work Christmas party in front of Jeremy.  So he kicked her out. His Old Lady moved back in the same day, according to Jeremy .

“I’m not going to be like that,” I said. “You have to choose me and me alone.”

I can tell Jeremy is burying himself in lies.  Now, according to him, his Old Lady knows nothing about us, even though he first said they were on the outs and “roommates,” and each did their own thing.  But yet, she goes through his phone, and he gets “punished.”

“Why would she go through your phone if she doesn’t care and you’re not together?” I said.

“She loves me, she pays all the bills, she just doesn’t do stuff for me anymore and doesn’t do things that I want her to do,,” Jeremy said.  “I’m telling you I will give everything up.  You just have to trust me.”

Of course,  it’s impossible to trust a man like Jeremy.

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Then, Memorial Day weekend, Jeremy asks a kid at the beer store to cover his shift so we can be together and have a picnic on the beach.

“I was supposed to work from nine to six,” he says. “So just meet me at nine at the store.”

“We can’t go at like, ten or eleven?” I ask casually.

“YOU ARE SPOILED,”  all of a sudden, Jeremy snaps. He starts yelling at the top of his lungs, even though he’s on his continuous work smoke break.   “SPOILED LITTLE BITCH GIRL, WHINE AND BITCH, THAT’S ALL BOTH OF YOU DO, YOU AND HER, PLANS ARE OFF, GO FIND SOMEBODY ELSE – “ Jeremy starts coughing and hacking and I don’t even respond to any of this.

“Fine. Bye,” I say.

“BYE.”

And I hang up the phone, and immediately feel better for not having to deal with Jeremy anymore, his constant need for attention and having to go to the wine store at ten when I’d much rather do my skin care routine.

ONE WEEK LATER

I’m alone in my room and it’s the middle of the night, and I’m doing what I like to do at least one night a week, that is stay up and blare music and write my innermost thoughts. But then, when the moon is full, sometimes I feel lonely and wind up looking at all my ex’s and frenemey’s Instagrams and toss and turn and wonder what’s up with everybody.  That’s how I wound up texting Jeremy.  It only takes a second for the carefully constructed house of cards to fall…

“I just want to let you know, that I thought about things and I forgive you,” is what I send. It’s eleven, and Jeremy’s prone to passing out early, so I don’t expect him to reply, maybe ever.

“I’m bringing you lunch tomorrow!” he says.

And thus began Part II of our torrid affair, when Jeremy became more passionate-slash-obsessive than ever.

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Jeremy started taking the Genesee bus downtown every day to bring me lunch. The first day, it was so romantic, Jeremy even sent me a selfie from the bus stop. We sat out in Lafayette Square, on the statue where I always sit, and Jeremy hovered over me with two pepperoni slices from Gino’s and a Lipton iced tea.

“Just hang in there with me,” Jeremy said, dabbing at my face with a napkin when it didn’t have to be dabbed. “Times are going to get tough.”

“What are you talking about,” I looked around at the manic seagulls surrounding me. “My life is fine.”

After a week straight of two pepperoni slices and an iced tea, and being dabbed when I didn’t need to be dabbed, Jeremy started wearing on my nerves.

On Friday, I come outside to find Jeremy standing in the middle of the sidewalk playing his acoustic guitar and yelping some kind of melody.

I want to know, Can we get clean againnnnnnnnnnn,” Jeremy wails. He fits in on Main and Court perfectly.

“Wow, Jeremy,” I head towards him. “This. Is. So….Nice!”

I have to pay my parking at the underground parking office, since I always wait until the day it’s due,  and the whole walk down Court Street and around the corner, Jeremy follows behind me with his guitar and makes loud comments about my ass.

I swear, I don’t even know this guy,” is the look I give to people passing by, in a helpless “damsel in distress” kind of way, even though I know how to handle this.  Jeremy keeps singing all the way up to the parking office door. I ring the bell, and the girl comes out to take my check with Jeremy still carrying on with his off-kilter melody.

Whoaoaoawhoaohwhoahohohawhoaa,”  his voice has had better days.

I lead him into the elevator and the whole way upstairs and on the walk through the Main Place Mall, onto the street corner and crossing over towards the CVS and through the revolving door into my building and up the stairs and almost into the elevator, Jeremy continues to wail.

“Look. You could ride up with me, but there’s an important meeting going on,” I say.  The unaffected, snowy-haired security guy with tatted-up arms keeps watch.  Jeremy takes a selfie with him, and gives me a smooch which tastes like cigarettes and vodka.  I hop in the elevator and get back to work.

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Later that day, we are in Draino’s again.  Jeremy dropped his happy-go-lucky songbird demeanor from earlier and replaced it with a much more sour disposition.

“He told me he loved me. Should I believe him?” I ask a sexy urban chick reminiscent of young Lil Kim next to me.

“Yeah!” she exclaims.

Jeremy’s forehead drips with sweat, and he barely touches his vodka-and-tomato.

“HAR….HAR….”

I walk away to the jukebox and accidentally cut in front of a dude with a shaved head who already put money in.

“Oops, sorry,” I say.  “But can you play Poison?”

“Yeah, sure honey,” he says. He’s about Jeremy’s age but I don’t think he’s trying to flirt. I sit next to Jeremy again, back at the bar,  and take my hoodie half-off so my shoulders are exposed in a silky camisole.

“ZIP YOUR HOODIE UP,” Jeremy snaps.   “ALL THE WAY UP!” He fiercely zips it up himself and pulls the hood over my head and tightens the strings until I resemble Kenny from South Park.

“It’s hot in here!” I say and try to break free.

The guy with the shaved head is next to me, staring Jeremy down, and I’m all but certain a fight will break out.

“RAAAAAWWWWRRR,” Jeremy erupts like a pissed off caveman, hops up off his barstool and rushes across the room. He throws his battered arms around a thick blonde lady who resembles Honey Boo Boo’s mom, with a crazy, cracked out smile of her own, and the two of them slow dance at warp speed like a record on fast-forward, immersed in some kind of psychobilly samba on speed.

I turn to Lil Kim and, with tears in my eyes, sadly state, “He’s being an asshole.”

“Jeremy!”  She yells to him, over “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” now blaring, “Come here and talk to your woman!”

Jeremy feebly reappears.

“NO,” he says, then stomps outside clutching a cigarette.

I rush after him, into the cool still night, and stare at him in utter confusion.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

All Jeremy does is stare back with a blank, empty stare, puffing away on yet another Marb.  I grab my 12-speed Huffy that had been chilling against the beat up side of the bar, push off from the curb and take off, quickly and powerfully, the cool night air whipping around me as I descend the bridge and swerve through the silent streets.  Behind me, I hear Jeremy emit his trademark  “MMMMEEEEHHHHHHHHHHHHH”, which sounds like a herd of dying sheep bleating at the moon, fading away into the darkness behind me.