Josh Stevenson

Josh Stevenson lives in the Inland Northwest with his wife and kids and a dwindling interest in NBC sitcoms. He posts short fiction here every Monday and Friday.

Paid Off

For a long time I’ve wanted to be the kind of person on whom nothing was lost, because I once read something in a book on writing fiction that told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I should be the kind of person on whom nothing was lost. Even though I’m easily convinced, and bought this line in my mid-teens, I’m still not great at paying attention. I’m better at paying overdraft fees incurred from not paying attention.

Not paying attention means not catching the setup and payoff of events in your life. I know people who can make a story out of picking up a pizza, just because they’re attuned to setup and payoff at every moment. I can pretty much only catch setup and payoff in jokes or movies or novels. The events of my life dangle like drawstrings on racks of sweatpants in an Old Navy. The floor manager of my will cannot master the wandering sales clerks of my attention to get them to tie up the loose ends of the sweatpants in my life.

There’s a movie called Almost an Angel with Paul Hogan (the actor who so movingly portrayed Crocodile Dundee). I watched it when I was 10 and it impressed me in the way that only very mediocre art can.

 

I remember these things about it, without the aid of internet resources:

(1)  Paul Hogan robbed banks dressed as Rod Stewart

(2)  He somehow thought that he’d died and become an angel and now had to do good works to redeem himself

(3)  There’s a scene in a church where I think he’s trying to give some of the money away

(4)  A guy in a wheelchair gets stabbed or shot in the leg and bleeds to death in 15 minutes

(5)  Somehow he’s trapped under an elderly couple’s bed and almost has to listen to them have sex

 

I’m sure that everyone with an intact sense of shame has experienced those moments where a movie veers into territory that the room views as taboo. When I say room I mean the broader, larger collective consciousness governing the room.

Sometimes the attitude of the room can be a specific person’s presence during the offending content that makes the difference, but many times there’s just a prevailing sense of the moral climate of the room, and in these instances a corollary impression that this moment we’ve come to offers an affront to that climate. Paul Hogan cringed under the bed as the old woman proposed something obscene to the old man, and we all cringed in front of a 15 inch TV/VCR Combo in a sweltering Pennsylvania farmhouse living room. The frequency of the room changed, and we all became aware of the exact same frequency.

Several days later, a boy who was staying with us that summer, threw a Koosh ball at me. You should know what a Koosh ball is. It’s a ball made of a multitude of dangling rubber strings, all emanating out from a ball at the core. It looks like a headless porcupine, or one of those globes that generate static electricity. It is not painful in any special way to be hit by a Koosh ball. Koosh balls have never been implicated in a grisly murder, and only rarely in any event or instance not officially classified as “delightful.” But getting hit by a Koosh ball was a freighted moment.

The boy who hit me with the Koosh ball was from inner city Philadelphia, and his name was Jeremiah, and he was black. I knew that it was wrong for me to resent Jeremiah. He reacted poorly to dishwashing machines and rats. I understood that because he was poor he deserved my deference, and that his being black shouldn’t play into any of my considerations at all. I was annoyed with him because I believed that he had no place in my house, for reasons that I have no solid explanation for. I was annoyed at him for being in my house as soon as he got there. We could analyze this feeling and find, perhaps, its root in my being the oldest child and constantly having my territory invaded by a perpetual stream of younger siblings, but it’s not a fruitful investigation. My patience was like the rubber string of a Koosh ball, stretched thin until it broke.

I picked up the ball and chased him out the front door. He fled around the side of the house and into the back door. He locked the back door. I saw him do it through the glass of the door’s window. This kid who I’d let stay in my house had now locked me out of it. I felt a vibrating fury. I walked up to the door, raised my hand to knock on the glass—knocking was my intention—and instead broke through it, cutting my wrist bad.

The blood didn’t spray, but pulsed out. I remember thinking that the flesh under the skin, probably a layer of fat, looked like a pizza stripped of its cheese. Jeremiah stood stunned for a moment, spattered with glass, and then quickly unlocked the door for me. I ran inside. From the moment I saw the blood, I had one thought, which I now voiced. My mom was on the phone talking to a friend, and I said: “I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding. A person can bleed to death in 15 minutes.”

I’d gathered the information in the setup, and now it was paying off. The fact that a person can bleed to death in 15 minutes I’d accepted— without qualification. It seemed to me that the word “can” was more like a “will” or a “must.” “You will bleed to death in 15 minutes,” was more what the lesson sounded like to me.

That’s not the only thing that paid off. I now became sensitive to the frequency of the room. And the frequency of the room was not positive. I tried to combat the negative feeling. I said, “I’m going to be okay, right, mom?” My mom said, “I don’t know,” which yielded a horrible feeling.

And another element paid off, but inversely. In a mediocre story like Almost an Angel, the moral universe has a definite cause and effect. Paul Hogan commits crimes, he’s punished and must redeem himself. I was angry with Jeremiah, who was fatherless and poor. I was angry and resented him for invading my home. I paid for it. But I did not, to my knowledge, ever redeem myself, unless it happened sometime when I wasn’t paying attention.

Fed with the Burger of Tears

There are sad things you can do that, as long as you do them on purpose, aren’t sad.

One of the saddest things you can do is buy fast food, park your car, and then eat the fast food while listening to an improving podcast. I mean improving in the sense that Jimmy Gatz used it when he sought to read “one improving book or magazine per week.” It’s media you consume in order to become a better person.

Eating chicken tenders with sweet-and-sour sauce in a parking lot, alone in your car, is sad because it’s lonely and self-destructive. Listening to an improving podcast while doing this is worse, because your pattern of recent choices is proof you’re not actually trying to improve yourself and probably can’t picture even the vaguest lines of the road to improvement.

If you happen to find yourself eating fast food in your car while indulging the fiction that you’re improving, it’s sad. But if you do the same thing on purpose, it’s funny. Or, at least proportionally, it’s funnier than sad. The sadness is there like sea salt on caramel, defining the limits of the sweetness and making the remnant feel like something you earned. It tastes sweet in spite of the salt.

Not too long ago, my wife’s dad died. In the week of his death, combining the upheaval of recent events with the gray sheet of funeral preparations and moods, I found myself both bereft of a lunch and hopeful that eating something irresponsible would make me feel better.

When I’m recovering from difficult times—beset by man’s suffering and final end—I’m overtaken by the desire to eat a gross burger.

My younger brother, Gabriel—the angelic allusion has not escaped me—has a quiet intelligence about important things, like which foods are the most self-destructive. And it was he who tipped me off to A&W.

Maybe you live in a place where A&Ws are popular enough to stand on their own. In our town the A&W hamburger joint stands like a proud beacon, drawing the human consumer like a moth by the power of its own light. The light of our A&W is refracted through a gas station and convenience store. Gabe believes that the synergy of hunger, an empty tank of fuel, and a strong desire for a variety of conveniences may draw weary travelers and needy inhabitants alike—and that this shotgun method of urban development may yield a fruitful harvest.

I added to this the idea of sitting in the parking lot and eating burgers in a car that smelled like a war between stale cigarette smoke and an air freshener (vanilla) had registered substantial casualties on both sides, and neither had won. But only a fool would bet against cigarette smoke.

I said, “It’ll be fun, because it’s a sad thing to do.” Gabe, who is wise even in his youth, recognized that this would be fun. With some people you might say this and they’d cock their heads and look at you and make a face like someone poured bitter herbs on their toothbrush without their knowledge or consent. But Gabe’s expression was one of instant realization, as though I’d poured delicious caviar on his toothbrush. I said, “Doing something sad can be fun,” and Gabe understood this, and I accounted it to him as righteousness.

So we went through the drive-thru and parked, and much faster than you’d have any reason to expect, I had already finished my fries. Frenzy over, in my right mind, I felt a twinge at the knowledge that this isn’t how adult males ought to behave. I know that somewhere men who had killed an animal, whose faces darken and lighten according to the fire’s whim, are enjoying their meal, and although they eat with their hands, they do it decorously, because they have self-respect.

The inheritable traits available to Gabe and me, in terms of simple genetics, are all variations on self-deprecation. That’s why, in the moment that I say, “I’m a worthless human being, partially because I just ate an entire bag of fries in under twenty seconds,” I believe that exactly then I can take pride in the person I am, because I’ve become a person who doesn’t take himself seriously, and who can stand back and enjoy the cosmic joke that is man. The setup is that he is spirit, and the punchline is that he’s animal.

Eating my hamburger took thirty seconds. Eating a hamburger in thirty seconds requires focus similar to that required in the execution of a high-wire act. When eating an A&W hamburger, a sudden, errant consideration for life and limb can bring about a disastrous self-awareness. If you stop to think, you might also stop eating the hamburger. If that happens, you might be spared various levels of intestinal distress, and your mind will be free to roam its pastures of melancholy, hands in pockets, eyes cast down.

I was lucky enough to drown the better angels of my nature for the half a minute it took to finish my burger.

There are meals that come in courses. Meals that use broths boiled for 24 hours, cuts of pork kneaded daily for a week. Meals in which humans share their humanness and become open and vulnerable with one another. You could call my hamburger a meal, but then you’d have to call piss marks in the sand a work of art.

This burger is not the only step in my grieving process. I’m not a complete idiot. It’s a quick home remedy that I’m indulging this once. But now I’ve consumed a meal in less time than it takes to prepare any other known food, except perhaps the noble cheese-stick, and it doesn’t feel funny or fun or hilariously self-aware.

Then I look up, and my brother, Gabriel, is finishing his burger, too.

The relief I feel as I see this and realize I’m not alone—and the recognition I see on his face as he realizes I’ve just done the same completely disgusting thing he has—fills me with fraternal warmth. That hamburger, in that moment, becomes a meal, as the patient miracle of eating together accomplishes all of the things it’s supposed to.

In A Moveable Feast Hemingway recalls drinking white wine and eating oysters and feeling empty: “As I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

That’s how it was for me, except I wasn’t alone.