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Fiction, 8/30/08

Sunlight streams in through the half-closed blinds, illuminating dust bunnies held aloft by the rhythmic thumping of a ceiling fan. It’s 11 a.m. Monday and the downtown studio apartment is eerily quiet—and its lone occupant still asleep—despite the dull roar of traffic below on Denny Way. Bathed in this dreamy luminescence, even the stacks of magazines and junk mail and piles of rumpled clothing look almost charming, like an IKEA ad with each prop arranged in perfect disarray. A thin film of grayish dust coats every surface. There are dishes on the hand-me-down coffee table, dirty but ort-free (He despises morsels to a fault—“A cleared plate is a clear conscience,” he often repeats to himself, the fat-man’s mantra—and is ostensibly considerate of starving children worldwide). Through the floor-to-ceiling windows the jagged Seattle skyline towers over Lake Union and the Puget Sound beyond; the view would be spectacular from this vantage, were anyone awake to witness it.

The silence is broken by the low-frequency purr of a cell phone, its vibrations amplified by the wrought-iron night stand beneath it. (Another thing: He hates ring tones—thinks they’re loud and strident, thinks they ruin perfectly good songs.)

He grabs the phone. It’s 11:25, it says. John is calling, it tells him, humming urgently.
“Howdy.”
“Anthony, dude…are you still sleeping? I know it’s your day off, but seriously—you’re so fucking lazy.”
“Uh…Yep.”
“Look, you gotta meet me for lunch—I wanna tell you about this chick I met last week. She’s amazing.”
“Um, OK…when? Now? Where?”
“Let’s do Joey’s. Be there at noon, OK? I only get an hour to eat, and their service is slower than shit. You down?”
“Yeah, OK. See ya.”

Anthony finally parts himself from the sheets, taking care not to disturb the orange tabby curled at his feet. Reginald is already awake, of course (being a cat, inclined to catnap), but any jostling by Anthony is sure to elicit haughty stares from the recumbent feline.
“Morning, shit head.”
Reginald blinks, yawns, stretches. He is aloof (again, true to feline form) and apparently unperturbed.

Anthony pulls on a pair of jeans, a musty T-shirt and some battered Pumas and steps into the kitchen to draw a glass of tap water. At 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds, Anthony’s physical appearance has changed little since 8th grade, nearly a decade ago. He is still unsure whether to be elated or saddened by this fact.

Leaning back against the counter, he notices, for the umpteenth time, how messy his apartment is. I’ve got no one to impress but Reggie, Anthony muses, and he certainly doesn’t give a fuck.

But this cannot stand. What if he met someone tonight? Tomorrow? Bringing her here, to this bachelor’s bedlam, would be out of the question. It’s true, he’s suffered a drought of female companionship for some time now, but to simply give up is absurd. And defeatist to boot: No one likes a quitter—unless, of course, one is abstaining from ignominious behavior such as smoking crack or stealing babies. Then it’s probably OK to stop.

Anthony sets his glass in the sink and heads for the door. Time to have a little faith, he avers, vowing to clean up this hovel after lunch. Have to start somewhere.

The lunch crowd at Joey’s is boisterous and formidable, and the pair barely manages to secure a corner booth amid the well-heeled gourmands in their power ties and no-nonsense hosiery. Plowing through a heaping bowl of chili (he will later regret this choice of cuisine, especially as breakfast), Anthony entertains his friend’s persiflage with amiable indifference. John, a dorm buddy from their years at the University of Washington, is a security guard at a downtown law firm; occasionally he tells harrowing stories of drunken bum fights and clandestine drug deals witnessed from his all-hours post. But today John raves about a girl. A girl he’s known for all of eight days, and he’s already gushing like a man gone mad. Anthony smiles and feigns interest in his friend’s so-called gold mine of a gal, unable to dismiss a lingering pang of envy. I’ll be happy for him, Anthony decides, but it would be nice to contribute some success-stories of my own once in a while.
Yeah, yeah, he thinks ruefully, somebody cue the tears and somber strings.

After lunch Anthony remains true to his word, scouring the apartment in a whirlwind of Comet, dish soap and Windex. He uncovers treasures long-forgotten and presumed obsolete, including three debit cards (all his, all expired), Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” album stowed under a couch cushion, and an amazingly well-preserved chocolate-chip cookie, its age—and provenance, for that matter—unknown.
“Reggie, cover your ears—it’s Hoover time.”
The vacuum’s deafening motor shatters the late-afternoon serenity, sending the cat scrambling under the bed like a homing missile. After nearly two hours of labor—labor of the on-all-fours, sweating, grunting and expletive-shouting sort—the apartment looks downright spotless.

With arms akimbo, Anthony pauses to admire his handiwork. It’s nearly 4 p.m. and the shadows creep up alarmingly quick across the high-rises; this transition from autumn to fall is always so dramatic, he thinks, watching the sun disappear behind a cloud bank over Puget Sound. Summer’s gone in a flash and winter descends with a vengeance, all gray skies and rain, rain, rain.

Anthony cracks a beer and settles into Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. In an hour or so he will assemble a chicken pot-pie and bake it, carefully carving out a small slice for the cat’s ceramic dish. The two eat dinner overlooking a brilliant ocher sunset—Reginald crouched on the floor, Anthony astride a bar stool. Afterward Anthony puts on Maktub’s “Khronos” and belts out each song, the occasional sour note or irate neighbor’s pounding notwithstanding. It’s his day off, after all.

At 7 a.m. Anthony’s cell-phone alarm buzzes promptly, rousing him from cottony dream-space. Today’s Tuesday and duty beckons: Anthony is a marine-life caretaker and reluctant (but skillful) tour guide at the Seattle Aquarium, a position he’s relished for almost two years. Though an overcast sky threatens to inundate him, Anthony decides he’ll bike to work—no awkward encounters with Metro folk today, thank ye kindly. It’s not that he holds any grudges against public transportation; it’s convenient, (sort of) reliable, and, most importantly, cost-effective. Indeed, buses are a boon to him, especially without a car to drive.

It’s the passengers, damn it, the irksome, clamorous, smelly passengers who frequent the downtown Metro and make Anthony cringe reflexively. They appear in myriad guises: the lecherous man sitting along the front bench, constantly glancing back to ogle female riders who avoid his eye contact at all costs; the teenaged couple, gaudily dressed, alternately making out and holding inane conversation loud enough for the entire bus to hear; the tremulous crone, redolent of cabbage and digging into her nose with youthful vigor. These are the people who appear to do nothing but ride the Metro, all day long, disembarking at seemingly arbitrary stops only to board the next bus going who-knows-where. These are the people Anthony loathes, not for their idiosyncrasies but for their sheer audacity to exhibit them in public. It’s fine to be weird, he reasons, but try and keep it to yourself, and please, act civilized on the bus! Is it so much to ask?

Extricating his 14-speed from the communal bike rack, Anthony smiles and slowly shakes his head. Fucking bus people, always riling him up something fierce.

He arrives at 9 a.m.—slightly sweaty, surely saddle-sore—and begins a cursory walk-through, giving each exhibit the once-over before the aquarium’s doors open officially at 9:30. Walking past the inter-tidal tanks, bivalve benthos and eelgrass-bed denizens, Anthony pauses at Charlie’s darkened cylinder. The juvenile Pacific giant octopus is crammed between a rock and the glass, eight sucker-disked arms coiled tight around his head like a turban.
“Charlie-boy, if I din’t know better, I’d say you’s trying to hide from me.”
With each exhibit looking passably normal, and with every creature under his charge fed until satiated, Anthony is ready for action. He’s scheduled for two tours today—at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.—and manages to pass some time chatting with a brainy lad about notothenioids and their antifreeze proteins. And it was then, at precisely 1:43 p.m., he spots her—that foxy redhead with the curls, materializing when he least expects it.

He’d seen her twice before, being dragged along by the two young sisters he assumed she was baby-sitting. Those kids were certainly inquisitive; Anthony (briefly) considered approaching them with a bit of marine-life trivia, thereby ingratiating him with said foxy-lady. But that seemed wrong, and kind of weird: “Hey, let me wow you with an encyclopedic knowledge of Puget Sound fish and invertebrates! Care to know the taxonomic differences between cabezons and Irish red lords?! It’s really quite fascinating…”
Anthony winces at the memory, wishes he had more game, needs to think quick, they’re right th—
“Hey, you work here right? Could you answer some questions for us? We’ve got a bunch.” Her eyes are brown, like his, and heart-achingly beautiful. She smiles and bats delicate eyelashes, waiting for the dumbfounded tour guide to gather himself.

No time to think, he realizes, just act. Now.
“Um, sure…what’d you like to know?”

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