"So what's the story about?" asks Asher Doyle, shitbag that he is, hanging over the shelving cart shaped like a broken letter 'H'. Basically, he's a homemade monkey doll, eyes all hanging poodle.
"Well," says Jordan Smith, calm as ever only waiting for what might come next, "it's about a boy and a girl."
"Ah, yes – the boy and the girl: a classic," says Asher, "but it's an old story and everyone knows it – what's your twist?"
"To keep it new, you know – the boy and girl story – everyone knows that story. How are you going to make it new?"
"Well it takes place a long time ago," says Jordan, looking at the clock. Eight-forty-five in the morning. All of a sudden, as if he had forgotten what it meant to be working at the bookstore during this time of the year on a Monday morning, it becomes clear to Jordan that it is going to be a long day. He sighs, "you see, the boy and the girl –"
"What are their names?"
"You haven't named them yet?" asks Asher as if this oversight on Jordan's behalf was enough to merit total resentment. Grabbing a stack of books from the cart Asher starts down towards the isle marked off with the letter K, Jordan following behind him now interested in this conversation, "that's the biggest mistake. You have to name your characters – you have to get to know them."
"Well I don't know about that," says Jordan, not ready to take notes from this two-bit shelving-shift prick, yet still somewhat interested, if only to waste the next hour or so away. Jordan will entertain Asher, but he is not giving anything away, certainly not the plot to this new story he has been working on since he met Amanda. "It doesn't matter what their names are, as far as I'm concerned."
"Maybe," says Asher, filing away Jack Kerouac next to the Stephen King, "but get on with it then: what's the boy & girl story?"
"Well it happened a long time ago, like I said," oh God why was this asshole making him doing this? Why was he going along with this? "and they live in two different towns – no, like villages actually – they live in two villages separated by a river."
"Yah, alright, okay," says Asher leaning up against the corner of a bookshelf, making as if he was going to smoke a cigarette.
"The river though? It gets dried up."
"Wait, wait, wait, -- how do they meet?"
"There's problems between their families," says Jordan.
"So, the old Romeo & Juliet scheme?"
"Yah, something like that," says Jordan, "but not like they're at war or anything – more like there's a difference in technology."
"Like the guy's family has better technology than the girl's family."
"I don't get it," says Asher losing interest, making his way back to the shelving cart to get a new stack of books, "what does technology have to do with all of this?"
"Well I haven't worked out all the details yet," says Jordan, following Asher back to the cart, "but it works like this: the families used to work together, but now they don't. It's about two communities helping one another."
"I like that," says Asher, "but what happens to them? Like to the whole village?"
"Well the river dries up, because it's not just about the boy and the girl, it's about the community, and as a community, they have to work together to fix things."
"Are you talking about a multi-generational story here, like One Hundred Years of Solitude?"
"Yah, maybe. Yah. Something like that."
"Well, who is the narrator?" asks Asher, filing away the newest John le Carré movie cover, "like is it first person? Second person – which is the hardest -- or is it third person?"
"It's first person, I guess," says Jordan.
"But who is that first person?" asks Asher, "who is the narrator?"
"I am the narrator," says Jordan, proudly.
"No you're not," says Asher, "you're the writer. How can you be the narrator if you're the writer? Who wants to hear that story?" "What do you mean?"
"I mean, you're the guy writing the story, yah?"
"So you're the writer. You're writing the narrator's bits, but you are not the narrator, the narrator is just another character in your story."
"Wow, yah. I guess you're right," says Jordan. That son of bitch might be on to something. "See this is why I like you. My roommate went to school for creative writing, but he never thinks of things like this. This is a good idea. I am the writer, you're right."
"Hell yes I'm right, but this river drying up idea?"
"Yah, the river dries up. The towns – I mean, villages – they have to work together to get by, you know – share technology."
"So it's an allegory?"
"Something like that."
"Listen," says Asher, "I want some coffee – do you need anything?"
"Nah," says Jordan, "I'm okay."
Asher Doyle drops a stack of books by the shelving-cart and makes his way down the escalator towards the cafe attached to the bookstore they work in. Jordan goes to the computer, stares into the screen, waiting for a customer. His mind begins to wander. What if I am just the writer, not the narrator? Who will tell the story then? What is the narrator like? Oh, what does it matter, Asher is crazy anyway. For Jordan, the story doesn't mean anything these days, mostly because there's Amanda to think about. Amanda and getting out of this shit job too. And Amanda, who just said good morning to me before I walked down the stairs and out of the lobby of her building.
Jordan has been with older women before, of course, but never anyone like Amanda. Never a woman who knew how to touch his mind the way that she did, taking him onto her roof to paint the Philadelphian skyline before taking him downstairs to perform in the bedroom the way only a woman with her delicate experience could. He remembers the way she touched him last night now and says her name to himself "Amanda," out loud but low enough so that the approaching customer, some elderly woman with a question regarding gardening books doesn't hear him. Still he utters her name again as a whisper: "Amanda".
Amanda Hunt was in her kitchen patting the underneath of her jaw with her left hand, ever so softly, imitating an exercise she had seen on the television the day before. Actually, she could not remember where she had learned this particular exercise, it could have been on The Doctor Nobody series that was quite popular on the daytime television for the unemployed that she had grown fond of watching lately, but it really didn't matter. What was important was alleviating the muscle tension caused by the - this is what she believed – overdose of tramadol she had prescribed herself the night before. The abuse of pills? She had no other choice, as she patted the bottom of her jaw, to reconcile this fact with the presence of Jordan Smith in her life. He was, in every case and purpose, a complete distraction from her one true goal: becoming famous for her designs.
Her designs? They were elaborate, yes, but worth every penny. At least this is what the local afternoon DJ from the biggest adult contemporary rock station in the city, the same man who was her neighbor, had just conveyed to her only forty-eight hours ago. Intrigued by the designs that he had seen Amanda Hunt pulling through the lobby of their building just this past Saturday, he had agreed to throw her a house viewing party: all of his favorite people were to be invited. This was going to be her literal "in"-to the world of rich Philadelphians looking to hang something peculiar and artsy in their bathrooms and/or living rooms (perhaps even kitchens!). Amanda Hunt, elated by this prospect, could wait for the flower of her fame to blossom as she realized that the object of this current jaw patting exercise was to remain calm.
The real problem in her life was Jordan Smith.
That child could hardly hold himself in the conversation about her designs, never mind looking into the eyes of the number one DJ from the biggest adult contemporary rock station in the city! What an embarrassment he would be, sitting in some corner, unknown to her potential future clients, attempting to make small talk about... what? His bookstore job? The latest noteworthy bestseller some old woman asked him about earlier this morning? His futile attempts at writing short stories? Amanda, consciously realizing the situation she would find herself in with Jordan at her viewing, began to shift from a pat towards an aggressive slapping of the underside of her jaw. Her teeth hurt. She stopped. It was Jordan Smith, yes it was Jordan Smith who was standing in her way.
How to get rid of him? He'd already pratically moved in. His clean clothes in her closet, his dirty clothes in her laundry hamper. His special milk in the fridge. His extra-strength toothpaste in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, next to her tramadol. He'd bought groceries for this week, actually, stupid child that he was – Amanda Hunt started to feel sorry for him. Jordan Smith, she realized, was probably in love. Young and in love. What an awful thing to do to yourself, Amanda Hunt thought to herself as she walked towards the closet where she kept the large suitcase her dead bitch of a grandmother had left to her. In fact, it was the only thing her dead bitch of a grandmother had left to her, but she didn't mind after all, because it was finally going to serve a purpose.
She had to dig it out from behind some dresses she'd never wear again but couldn't find it in her heart to donate to the local AIDS thrift store; it was a large suitcase, bigger than most. The kind you might see on trains in the 1880s, or whenever it was Amanda Hunt's grandmother was alive. It was so long that, in order to keep it from popping open, the suitcase had six different clasps on it, one with a lock and key – a key that Amanda had lost long ago. It didn't matter though, she wouldn't be locking it. She began to dump Jordan Smith's clean clothes, dirty clothes, extra strength toothpaste (and toothbrush), along with his stupid special milk (she'd hold on to the rest of the groceries) into the oversized suitcase, almost laughing to herself at one point.
Oh to be young and in love, what a bad idea.
Amanda Hunt thought to herself that she wasn't being cold-hearted, that the time had come to cut herself from this distraction that she herself had created. If anything, she was punishing herself for being so stupid and simple minded. How could she have done this to herself? Let this child infect her life, eat in her kitchen, sleep in her own bed, when she had worked so hard to propagate and further her own work, her own designs? Things had obviously gotten out of hand: her constant drinking, the abuse of the tramadol, Jordan Smith. Something had to go. It would be him.
She could see it now:
He'd come walking in from work, want to give her a kiss on the cheek or something childish like that and she'd just point at the inheritance she'd received from her bitch grandmother full of Jordan's filthy rags. He'd say "what's this, baby?"
And she'd reply: "get out of my life forever."
Then he'd start crying, "but Amanda, I love you, boo-hoo-hoo."
And she'd reply: "you're ruining everything."
He'd cry some more and eventually either 1.) come to terms with his situation and leave, or 2.) attempt to physically harm her at which point she'd call the authorities and have him removed while also beginning a lengthy legal process she could talk about at parities. It was a win-win.
Amanda Hunt went back to her kitchen and poured herself a drink, taking a seat at the dining room table to wait for Jordan Smith to come home from work at the bookstore.
Jordan Smith's job was mindless. He could accomplish many tasks at once, and still have room in his mind to think about the narrator question Asher Doyle had presented to him earlier on in the morning. Jordan thought he'd like his narrator to be sort of shy, quiet and withdrawn in order to make the reader pay close attention in order to hear all of his words. His words? Why not have a female narrator. How could he convey that, he wondered as he went to clock out at the end of the day. A female narrator was a new concept for Jordan, he never thought he could write a story from the perspective of a woman.
She would be Amanda, he knew this was a good idea because he felt as if he knew her so well – it would not be difficult at all to transcribe her voice from their interactions into his words on the page. The true beauty of her personality as only he could grasp it would become real to anyone who read his work, it would be his tribute to her, and as soon as he was finished with this latest short story he would give it to her, she would recognize her voice, realize what he had done, and it would bring them closer together. It was the perfect idea.
"Whatever happens in the story," Asher Doyle had said before leaving Jordan earlier that morning, "make sure that you keep it in the present. It's sloppy to do otherwise." Yet as Jordan walked across the park towards his girlfriend's apartment – towards his new home – he thought it might be smart to disregard any advice offered to him by Asher Doyle. Who was he anyway? He acted so confident, but always smelled like baloney. The guy resembled a scarecrow in every way, and everyone knew that scarecrows could not write stories. What did he know? Only what scarecrows knew: how to stay still and look like something he was not – an actual person. Jordan Smith thought that this was a good analogy, he thought he should remember it and use it in his writing.
Through the lobby and up the elevator, he always felt like he was going up towards heaven or so otherworld, outside of the one he found himself in whenever he wasn't with her – his sweet, dear Amanda. He reached into his pocket and felt the nooks on the blade of the key for Amanda's front door. They felt so familiar to him, and yet at the same time he had a distinct feeling that he must be dreaming; that he could know someone as beautiful as Amanda Hunt and be living with her in the most luxurious apartment building in Philadelphia was sometimes unbelievable to Jordan Smith. Almost like he was lying to himself. He unlocked the door and walked into the apartment.
"Hey baby, how was your day," going to kiss Amanda – who was sitting at the kitchen table drinking, what did that smell like? Rum and coke? – on the cheek.
"Don'touch me," she says, slurring her words, deflecting his cheek kiss and almost spilling her drink.
"What's going on?" asks Jordan, now noticing the largest suitcase he has ever seen in his entire life sitting near the coffee table in the living room, a pool of milk forming underneath.
"Jordan," says Amanda, taking a moment to finish her rum & coke in one large gulp, placing her glass on the table with a confident and knowing thud, "I want you out of my life. Forever."
"What? I don't understand," ever calm Jordan panicking now. Is this a dream?
"You've been standing in my way long enough Jordan Smith."
"Standing in your way of what?"
"I'm going to be famous –"
"Oh God, what?" demands Amanda.
"You're just like the rest of them," says Jordan, making his way to the suitcase, "I can't believe I was so stupid. You're just as crazy as the rest of them."
"Is that misogynist? I knew you hated women you fucking ass—"
"No, not just women, everyone. Everyone just wants to be famous and they don't care about –"
"You get out of my apartment right now Jordan Smith or I'll call the cops and have you arrested."
"I'm going, don't worry," says Jordan, attempting to pick up the suitcase, the contents of which were soaked, and smelled of diary.
Jordan dragged the suitcase towards the door and let himself out, not forgetting to leave his keys behind as he slammed the door shut and blocked out the hysterical Amanda who had not just continued to rail against his so-called misogyny but had also moved on to the higher accusations of white supremacy and crypto-liberal fascism.
So this was it then, right? The pain that came along with being young and falling in love. Jordan wasn't sure if his actual heart hurt, or if he had pulled some muscle while trying to lug this suitcase towards the elevator. He thought he might cry as the elevator door opened to reveal three police officers, joking and laughing with themselves. He was sure that they were laughing at him.
Down the elevator, across the lobby, out the front door dragging the suitcase behind him, right onto the street. That's where he could leave his heart, he thought, right there on the street. After stopping at the bank around the corner, withdrawing $150 – every penny he had to his name – he hailed a cab and pointed it in the direction of the suburbs, his parents' house, his old bedroom, his old bed. The only bed that he could sleep in tonight.
The cab smelled like cigarettes, even though it is illegal to smoke in cabs anymore, and the cabbie asked if Jordan cared one way or the other about the radio. Jordan hardly recognized that he was being spoken to, and just shook his head yes as he stared out the window, the city of Philadelphia unfolding before his eyes.
On the radio the number one DJ of the biggest adult contemporary rock station in the city was blathering on about how his listeners should follow him on his twitter account in order to request songs and win tickets to the upcoming Lunchmeat concert. The DJ followed this by playing the latest single from Lunchmeat, a song entitled
a tattooed star on your chest
a monster the gypsies left behind.
opens a door just ajar
like in the old movies:
to the window
<broken glass on the ledge>
its who's that by my brier tree
wondering if he'd like to dance with me
Jordan Smith found himself lying in his old bed at his parents' house, unsure of when it was he ate last. Work had called; a couple of times actually, left a few messages, and then gave up. It was safe to assume he did not have a job anymore, and whatever, fuck them, who needed that shitty job anyway?
It was the heart that did this to Jordan Smith, or at least that's what he realized laying in bed staring at the ceiling. The young stupid heart that fell in love with someone he had convinced himself was different. She was supposed to be someone who would not take his heart and violently drop it on the street outside her apartment, all the way from the 23rd floor. How could he have been so stupid? These same thoughts, this vicious cycle of self-hatred kept moving through his mind. Jordan sat up and looked around his room: the large suitcase Amanda had sent him away with lay on the floor, now opened, clothes scattered everywhere.
Why couldn't he find a story the way his parents had? His mother: a nurse. His father: hired to paint walls in the hospital. Instantly in love, almost like magic. The same way for thirty years, just like in the movies. Now they just kept their distance from him, having never felt the string of young stupid love, they were unsure how - or if - they could help their son.
With no real prospects – he had graduated from college with a degree in mathematics and had no interest in pursuing graduate school – no girlfriend, and no job, he turned his attention towards writing. Jordan began to rewrite the story of the boy and girl living in two different villages separated by a river, but gave up quickly.
Then he spent a day working on a different story, this one more science fiction than anything else, until it suddenly dawned on him that he was rewriting the plot of the Terminator movies.
Another story was about an investigative reporter named Apple Myer who wanted to expose the hypocritical and evil ways of her government, but her overbearing father, who also happened to be the dictator of the country she lived in, always held her back.
Later, Jordan started writing a story about a guy named Cameron, Cam for short, who worked at a bookstore while dating an older woman who lived in a building with a magic elevator. At least it was magic to Cam, because whenever he took it up to her floor it was like he was leaving the world of the street, and entering a world of the imagination. Yet Cam is not welcome in this world of the imagination. The authorities are alerted about his presence and firefighters come to put him back on the street. While taking him down the elevator they laugh at him because Cameron was only 5'4, and so they can stuff him into this huge suitcase they have for these kinds of situations.
Stories started and stopped half-way. Nothing ever finished. Jordan was never happy with any of his ideas, could never see anything all the way through. The loneliness of the suburbs was getting to him. Jordan had never felt so alone in his life, despite the fact that he was surrounded by family and the neighbors he had known since he was a child.
"Is that Jordan?" Mr. Nelson had called out across the street on the August morning Jordan decided to finally go back outside after returning home, "Jordan! How are you?"
"Mr. Nelson!" Jordan called back, crossing the street to approach his parents' neighbor, greeting Mr. Nelson on the Nelson's porch. "Visiting from Philadelphia?"
"Yes," Jordan lied rather than getting into the specifics.
"Just a few days then?" asked Mr. Nelson.
"Not quite, maybe a few weeks. I haven't decided yet."
"Well," said Mr. Nelson, "how would you like to watch our house and take care of old Milo for a few days next week?"
"Are you going on vacation?" Jordan asked knowing that he going through the motions of a conversation, half-surprised to learn that the dog Milo was still alive.
"Yes, me and the missus are taking the grandkids to Disney World," said Mr. Nelson in a proud way that Jordan felt he could never quite understand, "but you see Milo needs someone to stay around here and feed him. Not much for walks these days, as you can imagine, but he still needs someone to open the backdoor," Mr. Nelson chuckled. Jordan feigned a laugh.
This is how on the morning of August 25, Jordan Smith woke up on the living room couch in his neighbors' house to discover that poor old Milo, the Nelson's beloved golden retriever, had passed away at the ripe age of fourteen. Jordan touched the body to discover Milo's had gone surprisingly cold overnight, rigor mortis had set in and even the dog's tail felt stiff. Jordan did not understand why he felt the need to pet the departed dog, but it just felt right. He even found himself reassuringly telling Milo that he was a good boy.
It was too late though, the dog was gone. Jordan made himself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table staring at the dead dog's body considering his options. Jordan Smith knew that he had to call Mr. Nelson. The phone number was attached to the fridge by a magnet that was shaped like a dog's paw.
Jordan went over the conversation he was about to have: "Hey Mr. Nelson, everything is fine but Milo's dead, should I bury him in the backyard?" That seemed too nonchalant. On the other hand: "hey Mr. Nelson, I have terrible news..." was too dramatic, maybe. Perhaps not telling the Nelsons during their vacation was the right way to go about this, who wants bad news while they are on vacation anyway? Jordan sighed. Even so, the dog was important to the Nelsons, and Jordan was obligated to tell them. He picked up the phone and dialed the number.
"Hello?" Mr. Nelson answered.
"Hey Mr. Nelson, it's Jordan. I have bad news."
"It's Milo isn't it?" Mr. Nelson did not seem surprised, though he did sigh, "we've been expecting it for some time now – the old man was getting up there in his age, it was only a matter of time. We are just glad you were there with him."
"Oh," said Jordan.
"But listen Jordan, you can take him to the O'Neal animal hospital in town – you know where that is right?"
"I do," said Jordan. He didn't really, but he could just google it later.
"Okay then Jordan, take Margret's car – her keys are in the drawer by the front door. I'm going to call O'Neal now and I'll pay for the cremation over the phone."
"Alright," said Jordan. The whole thing was easier than he expected. Mr. Nelson was good about it too, he asked Jordan if he was okay. Jordan said that he was sorry to see Milo go. Mr. Nelson said that these things happen, that Milo had had a good long life. Jordan almost felt like crying for a second, but he was not sure why. "Where should I leave the ashes?" asked Jordan, hitting his forehead with the palm of his hand as soon as he heard the words that had just poured out of his mouth.
"On the kitchen table, I suppose," said Mr. Nelson. The sound of the theme park in the background distracted both of them for a second, an awkward pause.
"Well, I'll see you on Tuesday when you and Mrs. Nelson come home," said Jordan looking for words.
"Thanks again, Jordan," said Mr. Nelson.
Jordan replied "you're welcome," but Mr. Nelson had already hung up the phone.
Jordan stared at the dead dog. Mr. Nelson was on the phone with the O'Neal animal hospital at this very moment, paying by credit to have Milo's body burnt to ashes. Jordan just had to load the dead dog into Mrs. Nelson's car and drive there and sit in a waiting room for a half-hour or so and then take a box of ashes back to the Nelsons' house and leave the box of ashes on the kitchen table. How to get the dog out of the house though? Jordan decided to wrap Milo's body in a blanket, a task he found more difficult that he imagined it to be. Milo never seemed to be this heavy in life, but in death he was like a large awkward stone, almost impossible to move. Jordan attempted to pick the now clumsily wrapped body up but this proved impossible. At five feet four inches, and one hundred and fifteen pounds Jordan Smith was outmatched by the dead dog Milo. He could drag the dog's body out to the car, that wouldn't be so difficult, but what if one of the neighbors saw? The thought panicked Jordan.
It occurred to him that if he had a container large enough, he could just place Milo's body in that container and drag that to the car. It was almost too simple: the suitcase Amanda had sent him away with would probably work. Jordan ran across the street to his parent's house, up the stairs to his bedroom and emptied the contents onto the floor, closed it, and brought it back across the street. It was not that difficult to put Milo into the suitcase, almost as if the suitcase had been made to carry a dog. He snapped the suitcase shut, and dragged it out the front door.
Getting down from the porch was a bit more difficult than Jordan anticipated, the suitcase plus the weight of the dead dog was greater than the weight of Milo alone. Just then, a stranger was passing by and noticed Jordan's difficulty.
"Hey man," said the strange, "do you need some help with that?" Jordan, hunched over trying to drag the suitcase with the dead dog in it across the Nelsons' porch, estimated that the stranger was probably around his age. He was taller than Jordan, but most people were.
"Yah," said Jordan, glad to find assistance in this moment, "that would be great."
The stranger walked up to Jordan and said "I'll take the other side," and both of them began to carry the suitcase towards the car. "Man, this is a heavy suitcase."
"Yep," said Jordan, not wanting to invite discussion of the contents of the suitcase.
"What's in here?" asked the stranger.
"Oh – just some computer stuff," said Jordan.
"Computers?" asked the stranger.
"Yah," said Jordan.
And as the word left Jordan's mouth the stranger immediately swiped his left leg under Jordan's legs, which gave way causing Jordan to tumble onto the pavement. As Jordan fell backwards, he lost his grip on the suitcase Amanda had sent him away with, and in one quick motion the stranger wrapped his arm around the suitcase and proceeded to dash off. Jordan stood up, and touched his scraped knee that was now bleeding. He watched the stranger run away with the suitcase containing the dead dog, and then Jordan Smith looked at the blood on his fingers and realized, suddenly, what he wanted to write his story about.