A Favor to Mike


Mike is coming over to drag me from my apartment to a jazz show downtown.  I haven't heard of the band and don't care for crowds.  He said he'd pull me away by the handful if he had to.  He was that serious.
      I told him I'd rather do what we usually do—mix a batch of screwdrivers and turn the lounge chairs to face the interstate, listen to traffic.
      He said I was trapped in the city life.
      Not the one with family-sized sedans and light brown trousers for the weekend.  He meant I just live in the city, shop on the net and get out as little as possible.
      Across from my apartment complex is the interstate, and traffic buzzes like a hive everyday.
      The complex is on the south part of town, wedged between a mall, cinema and Catholic high school.  St. Anthony's.  The people on this part of town are mostly young couples and new families.  I met one guy here in the complex, Ed, who was sixty but lived here because his credit wasn't good enough for a house loan.  He said there were quite a few people like him in the complex.  They met on Fridays to play cards.
      Better than a retirement home, he said.
      The only thing I remember about retirement homes is the smell of mentholated dirt.
      I haven't run into him since.

      The complex is called The Preserve, but what everyone calls it, because of all the toddlers, is The Pregnancies.  The main office has a nursery off to the side; the ceiling is painted with monarchs and hummingbirds.
      Mike has a family and lives on the other side of the complex.  He and his wife have looked for houses nearer to the city, but haven't had the down payment to move.  I've recently renewed my one-year lease for another.
      Mike works at a bookstore, one that specializes in old books.  Not rare, just old.  His wife works for the city, an accountant or something like that.  She doesn't talk about it much, and I don't ask.  The idea was, they get jobs, make some money, have a couple of kids and buy a house.  Afterwards, they would buy a hot tub, build a deck and invite all their friends over for cookouts and family for holidays.  They had the kids and jobs, but nothing else fell into place.  This gives Mike plenty of time, and he spends it over here.
      I drive into town three days a week to teach at the community college.  The drive takes twenty minutes, longer with traffic.  I don't care much for my job and wish the drive lasted hours.  On my way in, I wish for a wreck, a stalled car, anything to block the lanes.  Some days, I get my wish and see a car smashed and resting on its side.  I try not to look.
      I teach a composition course and draw everything from a textbook.  I'll keep doing it until they hire someone more qualified.

      I thought I would mind Mike coming over as much as he does.  But, he spends most of his day reading obscure novels, and we usually have that to talk about.  In the evenings, we sit around smoking cigarettes and occasionally walk down to the pool.  Mike points out the college girls and tells me which ones I should talk to.  One day, two brunettes came up and asked if we had a cigarette.  Mike turned around without saying anything.  I gave them a couple and smiled.  They introduced themselves as Linda and Tish, college students.
      Mike went back to my apartment and was waiting at the door.
      But most evenings, we sit on my balcony and drink weak screwdrivers.  Mike closes his eyes and tries to guess what types of vehicles are driving across the interstate.  I keep mine open and tell him when he's right.

      "I'd rather pitch a tent on the interstate than go back home sometimes," Mike says.  "But, I'll just stay here instead."
      When the booze gets low, we head down to Irene's Liquor Store on Magnolia Drive.  The building is made with heavy stones and was built when this part was still considered the country.  Irene works from open to close behind the register.  The story goes that her husband owned the place but was hit by a two-by-four during a robbery and never regained consciousness.  Irene took over the store and changed the sign from Hank's Liquor Store to Irene's.
      Irene has deep-set eyes and a voice that sounds like gravel peeled from hot tar.
      If the sun's out and we've had a couple, we walk to Irene's.  Sometimes the cars honk when we cross the street.

      I'd like to get used to living in an apartment—the people next to you having the same floor plan, the same view when they wake.  It's Tupperware for the middle class and their furniture.  When anyone asks, I tell them it's not a bad place.  But, when you talk to your neighbors, they only say what's breaking:  refrigerator doors, washing machines, bathroom sinks.  It's unsafe for their kids, they say, to live in a place falling apart.
      There's no distance here, no real feeling of space.
      It's a recurring dream, the same walls in each apartment.
      What I can't forget while living here is that just because your place is empty doesn't mean you're alone.
      Earlier today, I answered the phone and talked to a lady who was trying to reach her grandson.  She said his name was James and his wife just had a baby.
      "Is it a boy or girl," I asked.
      "That's why I'm calling," she said.
      We talked for thirty minutes until she got uncomfortable.  She apologized quickly and hung up.
      Mike came by after that and told me he saw those two co-eds walking by his apartment in matching sports bras.  Mike talks a lot about women and their underwear.  He wanted to know why I didn't get their numbers.  I told him I already had people calling me that I didn't know.
      "I'll mix the drinks," Mike said.  "But you should try and meet some girls while you're living here.  I would if I wasn't tied down."
      To keep things interesting, I'll tell Mike about the few women I've dated down here.  I'll call one a nymph and tell him how she shivered when I licked her earlobe.  He'll lean back in his chair, take a long drink and close his eyes.  I told him about one girl that was watching porn when I went to pick her up.  She didn't turn it off when she invited me in.  Mike says his wife won't even watch him when they have sex.
      When they do make love, he comes by the next day and tells me about it.  Last week, he told me that after they were done, she cried for twenty minutes.  He took a shower and checked on the kids.  They depress each other—both dealing with the scene like drunken motorists.
      "When she does that," Mike says, "I can't even breathe.  I have to get cleaned up and look at the kids.  They seem to be the only reason our bodies ever touch."  It's like that for them, good only through product.

      These women, the ones that take the time to dress down and jog, it's not like I don't see them.  I've been looking for them since puberty, probably before.  The problem is:  there's not much beyond seeing.
      I want them to be different, to change conversations like halter-tops.
      Mike wants them all the same.
      But who are we to say what we want?
      I think Irene has the most going for her.  She keeps a good job and doesn't put up with any nonsense.  Last weekend, Mike and I walked down for vodka and heard her screaming from the end of the block.  We looked at each other like cartoon characters and picked up our pace.  When we got there, Irene had a broom in her hand and was swatting at a couple of feral cats digging around in the dumpster.  "Get the hell out of here, you little bastards!" she said.  "You'll give somebody rabies."
      Mike and I watched Irene throw rocks at the dumpster.  Each one clanged on the metal and the cats finally scurried off.  Irene turned around and saw the two of us there, arms crossed over our chests and smiling.  She picked up another rock and threw it at us.  Mike had to duck or it would've pierced him in the forehead.
      "You two probably got rabies," she said.  "Or something worse."
      I'm hoping to tell this story at the jazz bar tonight if Mike starts pointing out women to talk to.
      It might break the ice.
      We'll probably sit in the corner, though, drinking and nodding our heads to the slow bass lines while we bitch about the price of alcohol.

      All right, the truth is I want to leave my apartment and see the city.  But going with Mike feels more like a favor than a night out.
      At the very least, I can look forward to getting home.  Mike will have to go to his place and make peace, and I'll be left with a stack of student papers.  I'll put on an old Beatles album and drum out the rhythms, picture myself on tour, backstage, tuning guitars.  Then I'll carry myself to the bedroom like heavy luggage and sleep it all off.
      I looked at a brochure today for houses near the lake.  It would be a longer commute and I can't afford it anyway.  Each picture showed a two-story building with floor-to-ceiling windows and a two-car garage.  The caption under one read, "Perfect for a new family."  The lawn was manicured and a sales rep leaned against the For Sale sign stuck in the yard.  He had short, dark hair and bright teeth.  I thought about telling Mike to check it out, but decided not to.
      For now though, I'll stay in my bedroom, listening to the voices behind my walls.  Right before I fall asleep, I picture myself standing in each of their apartments, having dinner and watching television.

      Sometimes, I tell Mike about wanting to find another place.  The joke is:  Mike doesn't listen.  I'll tell him I need to move, find a better job and start something with value—find a house on the lake with a writing desk and keep my binoculars in a chair next to me for bird watching.
      "I thought about getting binoculars," Mike says.  "I could always know who was moving in next."
      The truth of it all, though, is neither one of us would know what to do with ourselves if we left.  That's probably why we moved here.  
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