like pulling teeth

Fiction, 6/5/12

No question about it, things could’ve been going better for Tom that summer. For starters, he was damn near broke: paying for school and rent had been hard enough that year, but replacing the worn-out clutch on his Honda right before summer vacation had made his plight official. Then the pizzeria had canned him in July, after three months of part-time employment, but he’d seen that coming from a ways off. Those assholes. He had stopped caring about that place after the first couple weeks, after they told him he’d get only closing shifts until those pricks Vince and Harvey went back to school in the fall. The money wasn’t too good, anyway. Worse was that thing with Laine—she was skipping town for good, “pulling up stakes,” she’d often said, and their little fling had gotten tossed aside like it was nothing.  “Tom, don’t act like you weren’t expecting this,” she’d said to him, a week before she left for Europe for her new job, during one of the last times they had been together. He was getting all broke up about it and she wasn’t having any of it. “We both knew that this was going to happen.” Sad as he was about Laine, though, that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part, he thought, was that his writing work was all stopped up. The writing was coming along much slower than he’d expected—he had only one freelancing gig so far, a “human interest” piece on homelessness for some junky local rag—and it was taking all of him just to get it cranked out. He had begun to dread sitting down at his desk to work on it, much less pick up the phone to set up interviews and get good quotes and all that. He found it difficult to muster any sort of energy whatsoever for the piece. He found himself actively despising the subjects of his story, hating them for their helplessness, their inability to cope. A disgrace, Tom thought one sleepless night, staring again at the blinking cursor on his laptop screen, you are a disgrace.

______

The morning after Laine flew out he woke up early and sat at his desk to write. He was hung over but at the same time he felt somehow liberated, or inspired, maybe, to write. He pulled up the document on his screen and read over the scant paragraphs he had already written, changing some minor things. It was captious work that accomplished little besides killing time. Tom could rewrite sentences for hours, so after twenty minutes he forced himself to get up and walk into the kitchen to make coffee. He opened the fridge and rummaged around for some food. He fried up an egg and toasted an English muffin, staring out the window into his cluttered backyard with the bolted kale, the towering collard greens and cilantro, the withered pepper plants. His garden had foundered under the spotty sunlight and his recent indifference, but it had been Laine’s idea, anyway. She was the one who could make things grow, could coax life from the stony soil of his backyard. Once she had stopped coming by, things just went to shit. He rested his forehead against the cool windowpane. It was cold for late August and a light drizzle had been falling for several days, the most disappointing summer weather Tom could recall. He turned back to the stove and fixed up his breakfast. He sat and ate by the window and watched the rain bead up on the glass. It was almost eight-thirty. It was all he could do just to retrace his steps back to his desk.

______

At noon his phone rang. It was Debbie from the Homeless Coalition, calling again to set up an interview.

“Hey Tom, it’s Debbie again. How are you today?” Debbie was a case manager at the Coalition, and so was his liaison to a great deal of homeless folks seeking housing in the city. She and Tom had spoken numerous times in person, discussing potential leads and contacts for the story. She was eager to publicize her work—perhaps a little too eager, Tom thought. She was always calling him, trying to help him out with the story. With each conversation they had, Tom felt increasingly like he was letting her down in some unconscionable way.

“I’m good, Debbie. And you?” Tom sat as his desk, absentmindedly working his hand into a fist, tapping it against his chin.

“Just great, thanks. So! Let’s see…I put out a request like you asked last week, and a couple of our clients called back and have agreed to talk with you.”

“Hey Debbie, that’s great. Thank you so much. So, okay…so when can I meet with them?”

“Well, they have to call you first, that’s the thing. That’s just protocol here, Tom, I think we’ve talked about that. But they have your number—I think it was three clients that I spoke with—and I told them to call you soon, so that you can get your story done on time. How’s the story, by the way?”

Tom hated when she asked that. She did it all the time. “It’s going really well,” he lied, balling his right hand into a fist, driving his nails into his palm, then slowly unclenching. “Things are coming together nicely. The deadline’s on Monday, so I’ve just got the rest of this week and the weekend…”

Debbie waited for him to finish his thought, but when he didn’t, she said, “Well, that’s great, Tom. I can’t wait to see what you’ve put together. Let me know how those interviews go! And good luck!”

She said goodbye and hung up. Tom stood up from the desk. He walked over to the kitchen window and stared at the garden again. He had the sense of waiting in vain, of waiting for something that would not come to him.

 ______

That evening he called his friend Leonard and invited himself over. “I’m bringing Scrabble, so dust off that dictionary,” he told him over the phone. He stopped at the liquor store and bought a fifth of gin and some tonic water. He was going to cream Leonard at Scrabble and get drunk and do his damndest to forget about the mere three hundred new words he had tapped out in seven hours’ time. It had been sheer agony, “like pulling teeth,” his father used to say. He had written for the Herald back in the ’50s, back when people—everyone, really—read the papers. “It’s never easy, now is it? But damn, kiddo, sometimes it’s just like pulling teeth.” Better just to start fresh tomorrow. Tom clenched the steering wheel and drove the rain-slicked streets through town to Leonard’s place. It was a Wednesday night, a slow night for the bars and clubs on State Street. There was hardly anyone out on the sidewalks. People have the sense to stay in on a night like this, he thought. Get their business squared away before the weekend. “Fuck it,” Tom said, cracking the window a bit. He was fiending for a drink. Toward dusk the rain had stopped and the sky mostly cleared up, so that Tom could glimpse a sliver of moon slung low over the glassy bay. Driving down Chestnut, he noticed that a small crowd had gathered outside the Buffalo, under a marquee that read, “Live Salsa Music Tonite!” It would be fun, he thought, to see a band play tonight. A welcome distraction. He spent ten minutes trying to find parallel parking on the narrow, sloping streets in front of Leonard’s apartment, and by the time he reached Leonard’s doorstep he was sweating in spite of the cool air. He rang the doorbell.

“Hey man, come on in.” Leonard was wearing tight green pants and a striped V-neck shirt. He looked like he just gotten high, or at least his eyes did. His horn-rimmed glasses, bushy mustache, and combed-over hair combined to somehow give him an avuncular air, the goddamned hipster. Tom extended his hand and Leonard shook it.

“You look like you’re still in college, you goddamn hipster,” Tom said cheerily, stepping into the apartment. Leonard was four years older than Tom but looked far younger. “When are you gonna give that up?”

Leonard laughed. “Nah, man, this is just how I be. When are you gonna stop pigeon-holing people?”

“I dunno. Probably never. It’s just how I be, I guess.” He smiled at Leonard and walked over to the kitchen. “You got ice? And a lime, maybe? Let’s get some G&T’s going.” Leonard’s apartment was big and tastefully furnished, with lots of Motown-era music memorabilia up on the walls. He was a producer now, a familiar face on the local music scene. They had known each other since grade school, had been neighbors and friends growing up. Leonard’s label had been the one to sign Tom’s first band, back in the day.

“I have ice. I think I have a lime, too.” Leonard opened the fridge. “Yeah, here we go.”

Tom fixed up drinks while Leonard cleared off the kitchen table. “How are things, man? You working anywhere these days? I heard that Laine was leaving pretty soon for Rome, or whatever…” Leonard watched Tom as he sliced the lime into wedges.

“Yeah, Laine left yesterday, actually.” He brought the drinks to the table and sat. “I saw her last night at her going-away party. She’s pretty stoked, I guess.” Tom stared down at his drink, fingering the rim of the glass. “Yeah, really stoked, actually.”

“I bet, I bet,” Leonard said, pulling out a chair. “So hey, you working anywhere these days? I know you were at the pizza place for a while…Oh yeah! You’re writing, right? Aren’t you writing again?”

Tom chuckled. “Yeah, you could say that. It’s this freelancing thing, and I’m kinda done with it…” He trailed off, swirling his glass. “I’m over it, I mean. Not done, not yet. It’s a long piece for a magazine, and my deadline’s coming up soon. On Monday, actually.” He grimaced and took a slug of the gin. “It’s okay, I guess. You wanna play Scrabble, or what?” Leonard studied his friend for a bit, then shrugged.

“Alright, man. I’m gonna get you this time, I swear. I’ve been practicing on ‘Words With Friends’.” They set up the board on the kitchen table. Tom had emptied his drink and was fixing another. Leonard put some records on, and soon they were getting into it. Tom was a shrewd player. He led for much of the game, but Leonard continually closed the scoring gap with big plays. After Tom put down “rich” horizontally for lack of a better move, Leonard clucked his tongue.

“What? I set you up for something?”

“Yeah man, this just came to me. You’ll appreciate it. Check it out.” He added a “p”, “e”, and “t” to the left of the word, and an “o” and “r” to the right. It spelled “petrichor”, and landed on a triple-word tile: thirty-nine points.

“What the fuck is that? ‘Petrichor’? I’ve never heard of that.”

“Really? It’s a word describing the smell of rain, I swear to God!” Leonard held his hands palms-up. He seemed amused at this turn.

“Where’s the dictionary? I just wanna see it, that’s all.” Tom picked up the dictionary and paged through it. “I don’t think it’s in here…yeah, man, it’s not here.”

Leonard stood up to grab his laptop. “Hold on.” He brought up Wikipedia and turned the screen toward Tom. “Look. It was coined by two Australian researchers. It even has Greek roots. Pretty legit, you have to admit.” Tom leaned in and read the entry. “Huh,” he said slowly. “I actually hate that smell, you know that?” He suddenly had no desire to continue playing. “Well, good move, anyway.” His voice was thick, slurred. He stood and held up his empty glass. “I’m gonna make another, you want one?”

Leonard looked at him. “I dunno, man. I gotta work in the morning, all that jazz…” He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost eleven-thirty. We gonna finish this?” There was the Scrabble board on the table.

Tom was barely listening, pouring another drink and dropping ice cubes into his glass. “You wanna go to a show, Leonard? I saw that a salsa band is playing at the Buffalo. I think I’m going.” He had his back to Leonard, and turned to look over his shoulder. “You gonna come?”

Leonard shook his head. “Nah, man, I’m straight. I’ll smoke you out before you go, though, if you want.” Tom took a swallow from his drink and nodded slowly.

 ______

Drunk and stoned and feeling oddly drained all of a sudden, Tom walked unsteadily toward the bar. It was a good two miles away, but he figured the walk would help clear his head, maybe settle his roiling stomach. A light rain was falling, darkening the pavement. His mind drifted to Laine, to the story, to the work he was putting off. Bad thoughts, all of it. He felt empty and ravenous, now. He quickened his pace to the Buffalo and imagined how delicious a nice cold pint would be—a cool, delicious beer.  And maybe a burger, too. The bar came closer with every step.

______

“Hey, could I have another?” Tom gestured with his glass to the barkeep. He was three beers in, the remains of a burger and fries strewn across a plate to his right. The Buffalo was busy for a Wednesday. He had searched in vain for someone he knew, anyone to commiserate with, but they were all strangers. For a while he had been fine watching the salsa drummers. He tapped his fingers to the driving beat. The band carried on and couples danced, swaying rhythmically, sweaty and smiling under the stage lights. Tom stared impassively at them. The emptiness was still there, had grown in fact, gnawing at him. “Hey, excuse me. Bartender. Another, please?”

The barkeep regarded Tom carefully and drew another pint. “I think that’s it for you,” he said, placing the beer in front of Tom and tearing off a receipt. “Here’s your tab.” Tom looked at him and nodded—he felt as if he were moving in slow-motion—and then pulled out his wallet and laid out some bills. He clutched his beer and sipped at it. A clock above the bar told him it was one in the morning. Tom became aware of the room swaying and gyrating, like the couples sashaying on the dance floor. He closed his eyes and waited for the nausea to pass. From the stage, the music grew distorted and, to him, sounded too-loud and out of tune. Tom gripped the bar to steady himself. He felt that he was on the verge of losing control. He stood up from the bar and nudged past patrons to the doorway.

The spins took ahold of him then, and in the alley next door he staggered to the wall and retched violently. People smoking cigarettes watched him and shook their heads. Finally a man approached him and asked, “Hey man, you okay, there?” He had his hand on Tom’s heaving back.

Tom shook his head and got up from the ground. “I’m fine, I just…I just had too much, I think. I’m fine.” He lurched past the smokers who turned quickly away from him. He walked down Chestnut for a few blocks, toward his house, but when he realized how far away he was, he stopped. Almost five miles further. On a darkened stoop he sat and leaned against a wall. The world was spinning still, whirling before his eyes, so he lay down to try and right himself. Before long his cheek was pressed against the pavement, his body curled into a question mark, and he was out.

______

Tom became vaguely aware of footsteps. “Hey…hold on.” A woman’s voice drawing nearer, followed by a man’s: “Debbie, what…? Come on, don’t do this now. Seriously, let him be. He’s probably just passed out. I can smell the booze.” The woman spoke again, and this time she was closer, almost beside him. “No, wait, Mark, hold on. I know him. I know this guy. Hey! Hey, Tom!” A hand poked gently at his side. Tom cautiously opened his eyes, certain he was dreaming. It was Debbie from the Coalition. She stood over him, her boyfriend Mark standing uneasily behind her. “Tom! Are you alright? What happened? Can you stand?” So many questions, Tom thought wearily. Why must she always ask so many questions? He propped himself up on his elbow and realized with horror that he was awake, that this was no dream. She sensed his apprehension, the shame in his eyes. “Here, Tom, I’m gonna call you a cab. Don’t worry, okay? Just wait here, I’ll call one for you.”

“Nononono…no cab, thanks. No.” Tom sat upright and climbed awkwardly to his feet. Debbie and Mark hung back, waiting. The ground everywhere was wet; there was that goddamned smell around him—the petrichor. He gave them a weak smile. “Sorry,” he said, and then he took off running.

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