(Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, eating the worm.)
Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, September 5, 2010
“Hey.” The short line in front of him at the familiar shop down the street from his office had moved quickly. More than most days, today he needed the perfect cup of coffee. “I’ll have my usual.”
Fifty-two minutes earlier…
Naked, in someone else’s bed, in a bedroom and apartment he didn’t recognize, Anthony Null went from a dead sleep to wide awake the moment he heard his watch alarm go off. Pushing himself up onto his elbows, he paused for only a second before swiveling onto the edge of the bed, his bare feet pleased to feel the cool of the floor. He pressed the big button on his watch to shut off the sound. Disoriented, he looked around to see his suit and other clothes strewn about the old hardwood.
“Shit.” Checking the time, he realized it was Alarm 2 that had gone off, his backup in case he didn’t wake up when the first alarm went off. “I’m going to be late.” Throwing off the sheet, Anthony had to go to the bathroom, but thought it best to put on his underpants, “Where are…,” first, and then his suit pants before venturing out into the hallway to the bathroom, wherever that was.
There was cable news playing too loud on a TV somewhere, suggesting someone else was there, but he’d look into that in a moment. First things first.
The door on his right was open slightly, enough to see a white tile floor. Pushing it the rest of the way, he was headed for the toilet before he realized there was someone in the shower. Not just someone, but a young, very fit woman he could see clearly through the shower curtain. In fact, the only thing blocking his view was a school of tiny cartoon fish. Pushing her hair back with both her hands, the young woman stared back at him, smiling as she did.
“Hey,” she said, sliding the shower curtain open without a hint of modesty. “It’s ‘Bette.’ ..My name is ‘Bette’ and, don’t worry,” she added, “I can’t remember your name either.”
“Anthony. ..We’re we..?” He was trying to remember, but she was spectacular looking, and he couldn’t concentrate.
“No. I was with Jack. ..I don’t know who you were with, except that she seemed nice, but left early to go to work.” Un-phased by the encounter, Bette continued to wash herself, more than a little water spraying out onto the floor. Somehow it made sense, that it would have been impolite to pull back the curtain between them.
“Is, uh, there another bathroom?”
“Getting the point, Bette smiled. “Got to go, huh?”
“Can you wait a few minutes?”
“No. This is it. As for privacy, I think we’re passed that. I’ll.. How ‘bout if I turnaround and pretend not to listen?”
“That’d be great.” It wasn’t, but then it was an emergency, and he figured he’d probably never see her again although, when he would think about it later, that would be a real shame.
Now she did close the curtain, and turned around as promised.
“Are you sure we don’t know each other?” It was nervous conversation, but he needed the distraction.
“Positive,” Bette assured him.
“Good,” he said awkwardly while he finished up. “I mean, I wouldn’t want it to turn out that we worked together, or something.”
“Yeah,” Bette mocked him, as if she cared. “This could really change the whole workplace dynamic.”
“Hey,” he was done and flushed the toilet. “Nice meeting me,” Anthony watched as she leaned over to turn off the water that was suddenly too cold.
“‘You.’ Nice meeting ‘you.’”
“Right.” Anthony smiled and laughed at himself, not moving an inch while Bette stepped out of the tub and reached for a towel. “You were that close to finishing?”
“Hey,” Bette wiped the water off her face and began drying her shoulder-length blonde hair. “A girl can have some fun, can’t she?”
“Well, thanks for the bed.”
“It’s not my place.”
“Tell you truth, I haven’t a clue. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how Jack and I met? Hmm. Well, anyway. Nothing I can do about that now. …Anthony?”
“What? ..I can’t seem to move,” he smiled back at her. It was one of those first moments, the instinctive flirt that stays in your head forever.
She stopped, her hands together holding her towel just below her breasts.
He shrugged and shuttered at the same time. “Oh, God. I’ve…” He paused to take a breath, his shoulders returning to their usual position. “..I’ve got to go. Maybe…”
Bette made a small kiss with her lips, and he sighed and smiled back at her, realizing that asking for her number would only spoil the moment for both of them.
A few minutes later, he was running down the stairs. There may have been an elevator, but he couldn’t find it. Out on the street, in the middle of a block he didn’t recognize, Anthony realized he had no idea how far he was from the office – or what happened to his briefcase. He was pretty sure he had his briefcase with him, but it wasn’t in the apartment, so far as he could tell in the few seconds he’d looked for it.
“Taxi!” Waving frantically, he caught the attention of the one dropping off a fare at the corner. It turned, and came over to pick him up.
Not waiting for it to stop, Anthony had the back door open and slid in. “How far are we from 33rd and Madison?”
“Uh, this time of the morning, maybe 20 minutes.”
“And from the 1800 block of Coulson?
“Less than 10. It’s on the way, sort of.”
“Okay.” Worse than being late would be coming in looking the way he did. “I’m a mess. Take me to Coulson.” And they were off, throwing Anthony back against his seat. “Hey!”
“What? I thought you were in a hurry.”
“When we get to my apartment, I need you to wait. Will you do that? You can keep the meter running, but I’ll need 15, maybe 20 minutes inside.”
“Sure, but I’ll need something up front, just in case you don’t come back.”
“Fine. I just need time to wash up and change my clothes.”
A few minutes later, “There… The gray stone on the right with the flower boxes. ..Here’s $20,” which was way more than the meter. “I’ll be right back. You’re going to wait, right?”
“For 20 minutes, but that’s it.”
Two steps at a time, Anthony was up the front stoop, past the large, heavy front door and into the hallway. Up one long flight, fumbling through his pockets along the way, he realized he didn’t have his keys. “Fuck!” Back down the stairs, one at a time as fast as he could, Anthony pounded on Mrs. Smerinsky’s door. She was the super and would let him in. “Mrs. Smerinsky?!” No answer. He pounded again. Still nothing.
“Can I help you?” From behind him, it was the voice of an older man Anthony didn’t recognize. He’d just come into the lobby of their converted townhouse holding two plastic bags of groceries in one hand, his keys in the other.
“I’m looking for Mrs. Smerinsky. I’ve locked myself out of my…”
“So, what, you think she’s hiding in my apartment?”
“Do.. do you live with…?” Having seen Mrs. Smerinsky first thing in the morning, the thought of her cohabitating with anyone was, well, hard to grasp.
“Son, I don’t know who you’re talking about. Now are you going to get away from my front door, or do I need to call the police?” The man had reached into his pocket, exchanged his keys for his cell phone, flipped it open and was poised to hit the “9” with his thumb.
“Are you the super?” Anthony was confused.
The man paused. “No. No, there is no super in the building. Just a number we call if we need anything. ..Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Taking out his wallet, Anthony checked his driver’s license and read it out loud. “1824 Coulson.”
“Right address son. Do you live here? I don’t remember seeing you around, but then I’ve only just moved in a few days ago.”
“I, uh…” Anthony was interrupted by the sound of his cab beeping outside. “I’ve got to go. Sorry to bother you.”
Back out on the stoop, Anthony reassured the cabby, in a manner of speaking. “Hey. I said 20 minutes!” he shouted down to him. Turning back to ask the old man for a number he could call, but the man was gone. “What the hell,” he mumbled to himself and let the front door chunk shut behind him on his way down the stairs, fearing the cabby would take off without him.
In the back seat, Anthony looked back at the front of building and the number in stone above the door, and then at the back of the seat in front of him, rubbing his day old stubble under his neck. “Okay. Let’s go. 33rd and Madison.”
On the way over, Anthony took out his driver’s license again, his credit card, his library card, coffee show rewards card, employee ID, medical insurance card, a couple of receipts, everything he had in his wallet. It all looked familiar. It all looked right. Sitting there, he put everything back, and his wallet back into his front right pocket where he kept it for safety. “My cell phone.” That was in his left pocket. Checking the address book, there were numbers, thank goodness. People, pictures of them, and numbers. Names and faces he recognized. “Hello,” he dialed his parents.
“Yes,” said the woman with the Hispanic accent.
“Hi,” Anthony said carefully, not recognizing her voice. “This is Anthony. Can I speak to my parents please?”
“Sorry. No one home. Take message?”
“Sure. Tell them they’re son called, and that I’ll call them back.”
“I will tell them,” she said, but then hung up before Anthony had time to ask a question.
“I didn’t know my parents had a housekeeper,” Anthony said out loud, but to himself, and let his mind go blank. It was surprisingly easy, and the first moment of calm he had had that morning.
“Wait. See the coffee shop on the right, the place with the yellow awning? Let me off there.”
Moments later, Anthony managed to relax in the comfort of familiar faces behind the counter. There were three people in front of him. Still in denial about his apartment, he chose to pretend it was just a normal day. With luck, no one had even noticed he was late for work. “Hey.” More than most mornings, today he needed the perfect cup of coffee. “I’ll have my usual.”
“Right. ..Sorry, …”
“Anthony. My name,” he said slowly, “is ‘Anthony.’”
“What is that you wanted, Anthony?”
“I’ll have,” he said, disappointed with the lack of recognition, “the large vanilla latte made with the Brazilian blend? It’s… what I always order.”
“Great!” the excessively perky clerk blurted out. “It’ll just be a minute,” and she started to leave to make his order, but then turned to say, “Sorry. I promise to remember next time,” smiling directly into his eyes.
Jaywalking across the street to his office building, Anthony took a reassuring sip of his latte through the flap in the lid and began worrying again about his briefcase. Up in the elevator to the seventh floor, Anthony slipped into the small lobby through the open door someone leaving held for him. “Thanks.” With no one at the receptionist desk to say hello, he headed for his office.
“Excuse me.” A short, stocky woman coming from around the corner where he was headed stopped in front of him. “Can I help you?”
“Hi. You must be new. I’m Anthony Null. A bit late, but then it’s been one of those days, to put it mildly.”
“Sorry to hear that,” she said in a very professional tone, “but I’m not new here. Where are you going?”
“To my office. Down the hall to the right, third door on the left.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where’s Marilyn, the receptionist?”
“My name is Mrs. Johns. I’m the receptionist. There’s no one,” she stopped to think for a moment, “named ‘Marilyn’ who works here. …and there aren’t any offices to the right, on the left.”
“Excuse me,” Anthony brushed past her, “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” Standing there, around the corner to his right, Anthony could see all the way, over the open carrels that filled almost the entire floor, to the windows on the other side.
“Mr. Null, are you sure you have the right floor?”
“This is the seventh, isn’t it? I must have stepped off the elevator on the wrong floor. I’ve really got to pay more…”
“Yes. This is the seventh floor.”
His coffee in his left hand, Anthony stared into the vision of people working at their desks, talking on their phones and to each other, working at their screens, one guy blowing bubbles with his straw into what was left of his milk shake, two girls looking at him from where they were sitting on a coworker’s desk. With his thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand, Anthony pulled at his lower lip, oblivious to Mrs. John’s trying to get his attention.
“Mr. Null,” she said forcefully.
“Mr. Null, can I call someone for you? Perhaps you’re in the wrong building altogether?”
Anthony turned, and looked down at her. “You’re probably right. …You’re probably right,” he said. “Thank you.” Walking through the double glass doors, he took the elevator down to the ground floor, walked out of the building and turned, for no particular reason, to his left, and began walking in that direction. Near the corner, an attractive young woman crossing in front of him from his right, almost walked past him.
“Anthony?” She was pleasantly surprised to see him. “Hey, I almost didn’t recognize you, in the suit,” she chuckled.
He returned her smile, but didn’t, couldn’t respond, her face, her long, auburn, wavy hair unfamiliar to him. But she had stopped and he kept walking toward her.
“Hey,” she reached out and laid her hand on his chest flirtatiously. “You should have called,” she toyed with him, feigning disappointment, “but I forgive you. Nice guys deserve a second chance.”
Cocking his head slightly, Anthony started to talk, but she interrupted, actually putting her finger over his lips and tapping them twice.
“I’ve got to run. Call me.” And she moved away, into the people walking down the avenue.
“Whoa! Hey!!” Anthony started running after her, looking for her hair in the crowd, and then seeing her in street, getting into a car that must have been there to meet her. Looking out the window, she saw him again and waved as they pulled into traffic. Staring at her, Anthony pushed his way between people into the street and started jogging after her, thinking maybe she’d be caught in traffic, but the avenue was clear and she was gone.
“Now what?” Anthony whispered to himself, his voice lost in the noise of the street. “What do I do now?”
“Anthony?” The voice from behind him was familiar.
“Bette. I.. I’m so glad to see you.”
“Com’on. We need to get out of the street.” Pulling on his arm, they pushed through the row of people at the corner, waiting to cross. “Let’s go this way. There’s someplace I want you to see.”
“How did you find me?”
“Your briefcase. Here.” She handed it to him, and held his arm with both her hands as they walked away together. “It was under the couch in the living room. Your business cards had your office address. I was on my way there when I saw you running. ..So how’s your day been?”
“To be honest, not so good. ..Yours?”
“I know this doesn’t make any sense, but nothing’s right. Nothing I remember is what it was, what I remember it being. Sounds ridiculous, but..”
“No it doesn’t. I don’t work where I did, where it says I work on my business cards. I don’t think I know where I live. No one,” and then he stopped to think while they kept walking, “no one except this one girl, woman, the one I was chasing after, so much as recognizes me.”
“Anthony, that girl in the car. That was the girl you were with last night.”
“At least I have good taste in women.” It was his vain attempt at humor, but it did get him a friendly squeeze.
A few blocks down that street, and two blocks to the left, they were standing in front of Montezuma’s, the neighborhood grille with a bar and loud music, although it was way too early for any of that.
“This is where we met, isn’t it?”
“Bette, let’s go back to the apartment.”
“I have gone back. I was on the sidewalk, and then thought I would go back and leave a note. I couldn’t lock the door without a key, so I knew I could get back in, but it’s locked and, when I jiggle the door, thinking it’s stuck, turns out there’s some Russian family living there. I looked over the shoulder of the woman who came to the door, and it’s not the same, not the same as it was just few minutes after I left. ..I tell you, Nullman, I’m seriously worried I’m losing my mind. ..I’m not even sure you’re real. I mean,” she was beginning to babble, “who has a last name like ‘Null.’ That’s what, mathspeak for not even ‘zero,’ for ‘nothing.’
“Hey.” Anthony interrupted to calm her down. “I am real,” he reassured her. “And if you’re going nuts, I’m going there with you.” And he leaned over to give her a kiss on her cheek, which turned into a serious hug, friendly at first, but with a tinge of chemistry toward then end.
The rest of that morning and that afternoon, the too of them did their best to make sense of their situation. Everything in her pocketbook, in his wallet and briefcase. Every number in their cell phones. They had some cash, almost $200 between the two of them. Thank good ness for that, because their credit and ATM cards were useless. No one recognized either of them. Not family. Not friends. At 8:15 PM, they were back at the grill, and at the booth where they thought they had been sitting the night before.
“Hey, guys.” It was ‘Angela,’ or so it said on her name tag. “Here’s some chips and salsa to keep you busy.” The basket and small pot with a handle came down hard on the colorfully tiled surface of their table. “Careful. They’re hot.”
“The chips,” Bette stopped short of picking one of them up, “or the dip?”
“Both, actually. So what can I get for you tonight?” Their waitress seemed to recognize them, but she was probably just being friendly. Just in case, Anthony thought he would give it a shot.
“Did you,” he asked her tentatively, “work here last night?”
“Sure. I waited on you guys, you two and another couple. Well, actually, I’m not sure who was with who. What, you don’t remember?”
“No,” Bette answered. No we don’t.”
“Sure. You were doing Mezcal Tobalá shooters from a couple of old, old bottles Pablo brought up from the basement and opened for you. Said they were 400 years old, but you can’t believe of what that kid tells you.”
“Who?” ‘Pablo,’ ‘Diablo,’ whatever. Some name that ends in an ‘o.’” Angela put her hands on the corners of their table and moved over the table to be closer. “He’s the owner’s nephew, I think, who was filling in for ‘Jesus’… Hey babe!” she paused to wave at the guy with the dark curly hair, back at his usual station behind the bar. “Damn he’s cute. ..Anyway, ‘Heyzus’… Don’t you love the way that sounds, you know, differently than how it’s spelled. Anyway, Jesus had the night off, so Pablo was filling in for him. ..Between you and me,” Angela whispered, “I don’t think his all that crazy about white people. Thinks he’s the descendent of some Aztec princess, to hear him talk, and God’s gift to waitresses. Not,” she added with mild disgust.
Anthony and Bette looked at each other, and then back at Angela, their clueless readily apparent.
“Thing is,” Angela continued, “I’m not all that sure what that old Mezcal, had going for it, but it pretty much wiped the four of you out. ..And you,” she pointed to Bette, “you were the one who dared him to drink the worm in his bottle – which he agreed, if you did too. Heck, half the people in the bar were cheering you guys on.”
“You’re kidding?” Anthony didn’t believe it, and neither did Bette.
“No, it’s true. I’ve been here for a year and I’ve never seen anyone really do it, but you two stepped up. ..Truth be told, maybe it was the light, but I’d say those worms weren’t entirely dead yet. Seeing you two chug those last couple swallows without so much as gagging was… was very impressive. …You guys don’t drink much, do you?”
“I thought,” Anthony was pretty sure he knew what he was talking about, “the worm was a gimmick some marketing guy in the 50s thought would get peoples’ attention?”
“Yeah,” Angela agreed, “I’d heard that too, but those bottles Pablo dusted off were the real deal. No labels, just something painted on the glass in some old language that Pablo was mumbling while he held the torch up to each of them,” Angela pretended to be holding one of the bottles in her left hand, slowly swirling the other around its imaginary bottom, “you know, before he opened them up, which wasn’t easy. Something, he said, about bringing the worm back to life. ..Hey, but the kid’s full of it. What does he know?”
Anthony took breath, so deep he actually coughed. Looking at Bette, he figured they had nothing to lose. “I tell you what,” he started, getting ready to suggest they play it again.
“Wait,” Bette interrupted him. “What were we eating?”
“Oh, gosh. ..Yeah. You had two, I remember, two guacamole cheeseburgers. I remember, because you,” she pointed to Bette, “kept stealing bites. That’s why he ordered the second one. And there was a soft taco sampler for four on the table. “
“Okay, same deal tonight.”
“You sure?” Angela was apprehensive.
“Let’s do it,” Bette was determined. “What else can go wrong?”
“Look, I’m the last one to blow a party, or risk a big tip for that matter.. I don’t mind telling you, but you four were very generous. The food’s good, but let me have Jesus whip up something different in the drinking department. How ‘bout it?”
There was a pause. “Done,” Bette agreed for both of them with resolute relief.
A few minutes later, she was back with two martini glasses filled with an almost glowing amber liquid. “So what are these?” Anthony asked her.
“Half apple brandy, half cherry liqueur. They’re called ‘Forget Me Nots.’ Very tasty, easy going down, and no worms! Jesus thought you might like them.”
Picking up their drinks, Anthony and Bette looked over at the bar where Jesus was looking back at them. Raising their glasses to thank him, he smiled back and, oddly, threw them a kiss. They turned, clinked glasses, and took their first swallow of many that evening.
7:00 AM the following morning. Anthony’s watch alarm was the next sound he remembered hearing. “Shit.” Alone, naked in a bed he didn’t recognize, Anthony got up and headed out to find the bathroom, not bothering to put on more than his underwear. “This is gross,” he mumbled, wondering if three day old jockey shorts would be his personal best.
This time there was no TV playing. It was quiet, except for the sound of a shower running, the door to the bathroom wide open.
“Hey,” Anthony said cautiously to the unidentifiable form behind the frosted shower doors.
Slowly, the door nearest the shower head slid open. “Hey.” It was Bette, her smile evolving into giggling.
“What’re you so happy about?”
“I’ve already called my mother. You should check, but everything seems to be the way it should be. And I called your office number and got your voice mail. Apparently you took yesterday off.”
Closing his eyes, Anthony took a deep breath, but then had second thoughts. “Wait. So whose place is this?”
“It’s mine, Mr. Rumsen. This is my place.”
“That’s my last name! I mean, that is my last name. How did you know that?”
“Because it’s on the business card I took out of your briefcase yesterday. At least it is now.”
“Wow. ..Wasn’t your hair a lot longer yesterday?” Anthony was wondering about her short, short blonde hair that would barely need drying.
“Oh, yeah? So weren’t you a white guy?”
Stunned, Anthony looked at his hands, only to find them still as pasty as ever. (“It would help,” his mother was always reminding him, “if you didn’t work so much and got some sun now and then.” Something about Vitamin D, but then he had more pressing stuff to think about right now.)
“Gotcha!” She laughed at and then with him. “I cut it for an audition this morning. Decided it was time for a change. How ‘bout it?” She turned her head quickly from side to side.
“Nice, but I think you’d look pretty good…”
“You know what I think?” Bette, who was never one to waste time, stood there, one hand on the shower wall, the other on the edge of the door she’d pushed upon, the water from the shower running onto her back and over her shoulders.
“I think you should tinkle and then get your ass in here.”
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