Home > We're All Damaged(4)

We're All Damaged(4)
Matthew Norman

“Why, exactly, did you think that, again?”

He pauses. I can hear New York City behind him. A police siren and some talking. “I don’t know. You’re both kinda short. You like white-people music.” Byron is black—and very big and very tall. He was a linebacker at Rutgers once, and now he manages the Underground and makes broad, sweeping generalizations about Caucasians. He apologizes, like it’s his fault that she didn’t show, which it is, of course. I didn’t want to go on a blind date with his sister’s new roommate. Not even a little bit. But he kept badgering me, and you can only tell your boss to shut up so many times before he’s bound to get pissed. “How is it over there tonight?” I ask. “Busy?”

“Apparently it’s National Bachelorette Party Night. I’m up to my ears in appletinis and dick straws. Summer in the city, yo.”

“Sorry I’m missing that,” I say.

“Don’t be. Save yourself.”

I watch Jeter gorge on cereal. His tail sways back and forth. “So listen,” I say.

“No,” he says. “You’re not quitting, are you? Shit. Are you that pissed about the date thing? You can’t quit. You’re, like, my third-best bartender.”

“I’m not quitting. I’m—Wait, third? Really?”

This is a shocking revelation considering how many free drinks I pour myself on a nightly basis—not to mention the fact that I’m unable to do even the simplest math in my head.

“Yeah,” he says. “Number three. I like that you’re just a bartender, you know. Too many wannabe actors and models in this town. Singer-songwriters and shit. You’re a bartender. I respect that.”

“Actually, I used to sell insurance,” I say.

There’s a long silence. “You mean, like that little lizard on TV with the English accent?”

“No. Not that kind of . . . It doesn’t matter. Anyway, I’m not quitting, but I have to go back home for a while.”

“Ohio?”

“Omaha.”

“Right. Omaha. Why? You kill someone? Gotta lay low until the heat dies down?”

I look at my reflection in my microwave. The foreign guy was right. My face . . . It really is very much fucked. “My grandpa’s dying,” I say.

Another silence. “Well, now I feel like an asshole.”

Jeter is done eating. I know this because he flips the bowl over and hisses at me. I open the door and he takes off. “Sorry,” I say. “You’re right. I should have led with that. But I have to go. I don’t really know how long I’ll be. Is that OK?”

“Dude, we’re not splitting the atom over here. I got it. We’ll cover you. Go home, be with your family. But I do need you to promise me something.”

“What?”

“It’s simple.”

“OK.”

“You gotta stay away from the girl.”

“What?”

“What what?” Byron says this in his white-person voice, which sounds nothing like me or any other white person in the history of Caucasiankind. “The ex, Andy. Theeee ex. She’s dead to you. Dead.”

“Fine. Deal. I don’t want to see her anyway.”

“I wanna hear you say it.”

“Say what?”

“This is what I want you to say. I want you to say, Byron, the bitch is dead to me.” It’s his white-person voice again, and I wonder if white people are allowed to be offended by this sort of thing. Seems doubtful.

“I’m not gonna say—”

“Say it. I’m not letting you off this phone ’til you do.”

“I could just hang up on you,” I say.

“What are we, savages?”

I lean against my sink, which is about three feet from my couch/bed. I’m tired, and half of my face is pulsating, which probably isn’t a good sign. Stupid Jeter is outside my door again, scratching like a tiny third world refugee. “Fine,” I say. “Byron, the bitch is dead to me.”

“Damn right she is. You fuck a fireman behind your husband’s back, you go to the top of the dead-to-me list. Bolded and underlined.”

“Paramedic, actually,” I say, for some dumb reason.

“What? Like a . . . a fucking ambulance driver? I thought you said a fireman.”

“No. A . . . a fucking ambulance driver.”

He’s quiet again. “Well, shit, man. That’s even worse.”

Not sure why, but he’s right, it is worse. I grab a handful of underwear and drop it into my duffle bag. Some T-shirts, too, and a pair of jeans. And then, apropos of God knows what, Byron asks me if there are any black people in Ohio.

“You mean Omaha?”

“Shit. Yeah, that’s what I meant. Omaha. Any of my folks out there getting it done in the heartland, eating corn and steak?”

I’m actually used to questions like this. A few weeks ago, a girl from Jersey asked me if we have Bon Jovi in Nebraska.

“I met one once,” I say. “He was from Chicago, though . . . just passing through. I’ll call you when I get back to New York. Cool?”

“Wait, wait,” he says. “What’s he like, anyway?”

“Who?” I say. “The black guy? I was ki—”

“No. Your grandpa. You guys close? He a cool guy or what?”

This question cuts through something—something the conversation with my mom didn’t. I sit down on my coffee table/kitchen table/nightstand. “He gave me my first beer when I was twelve,” I say.

“I’ll drink to that,” says Byron. “Respect to your pops, cracker.”

For a while, after I hang up, I pack more random crap and try to ignore Jeter. I throw in some sneakers, a belt, and more socks. I grab the Cap’n Crunch box off the counter and take a few handfuls. I open one of the Japanese beers. The scratching gets louder, though, so I finally open the door.

“What?” I say. “Jesus. What do you want?”

Jeter is sitting on my shredded welcome mat, staring up at me. He’s purring and his eyes are big and dewy and vulnerable, and it actually looks like he’s smiling. Beside him, in a tangle of blood-matted fur, sits one expertly decapitated mouse.

“That’s sweet,” I say.

And then he hisses at me and vanishes into the lonesome night.

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