By Attila Zønn
In the darkness of his bedroom, Bruno Klaxen awakes but lies still under the covers. His eyes are closed. He wonders if there’s been a cosmic shift during the night? A realigning of the unaligned? A justifying of the unjust?
He feels no changes — he’s still a loser.
By his calculations, he has fifty-two years left before he occupies an eternal berth in a cold ground if all goes smoothly past disease or accident. He knows he won’t pass the age of eighty because no male in his family has lived to be eighty-one and why should it be different for him? He wakes every morning with this deep emptiness; carrying a long face into his short life. What else was there? What burst of euphoria could catapult him into a different frame of mind and shake off this perpetual funk?
He’s running out of time.
He knows there are many things to accomplish yet he can’t think of one thing he wants to accomplish. He believes there must be a purpose, but he doesn’t know what it is. He has no purpose, that’s the problem, and every day staggers on and there’s another day lost. Only 18, 900 days left and after tomorrow, only 18,899 and on and on and less and less.
Time flies when you want to live forever.
He’s thankful that his suffering job makes the days last longer. Sure, there are probably lots of people who feel like him, but who gives a shit about anyone else? In this universe, Bruno struggles alone.
He throws off the covers, plants bare feet onto a cold parquet floor and lifts himself into that weekly morning drudgery—getting ready for work. He’s an expert at keeping quiet so as not to wake his old mother who if roused will surely appear to ask him if he’d like her to make breakfast. He doesn’t understand why his mother still asks this question since for the many years he’s been going to work he has always responded with, “No, I’m all right Ma. Go back to bed.” He doesn’t want breakfast or chitchat or pampering, he just wants to get dressed and get out and grab a coffee on the way to the factory, where he’s the relief man and shop steward. Or as he often refers to himself—The Walking Complaint Box.
He stares into the bathroom mirror at that face that keeps changing. Does the skin around his jaw appear droopier than the morning before? Are the folds over his eyes starting to droop? He squints and counts the creases around his eyes. There’s one more crease per eye than there was yesterday, or is there? How many did he count yesterday? Those eyebrows. He has his father’s eyebrows. They’ll get bushier until they finally curl up at the ends like an owl’s horns. He looks at his brown mop. Thank God he still has his hair.
He stares at the big picture; the amalgam of all these failings. There he is; Bruno Klaxen, going nowhere fast.
He’s always felt that somewhere inside there was an artist, trapped in a straitjacket, buckled and constrained by mundane daily ritual and responsibility. At one time he thought he was a writer. He likes the sound of words like crux and gist and juxtaposition. He was going to write a novel and resolved to write a chapter a day.
Easy enough. Get all relaxed and start writing.
Those were the first words that came to him. But where was she going? After a week of wondering where she was going, he decided he needed help. He bought a book that would show him how to write a novel. There were so many of these books at the bookstore that he couldn’t decide which. So he closed his eyes and pulled one off the shelf.
Being in possession of this book was like holding the answer to the riddle of life. Knowing this book was in the plastic bag lying on the passenger seat as he drove home infused him with great enthusiasm.
Nothing can stop him now.
He settled on the couch and opened the book with the same reverence he’d give a sacred document. He skipped the introduction because he feels introductions are pointless, as are prefaces and prologues, and began the book proper with the first sentence of the first chapter. He read that a novel consists of 60,000 words or greater.
And there he stopped.
He thought of the two words he had created over the past week, and how he still didn’t know where those words were going and now he faced this gargantuan number that blinked in his mind’s eye. How was he going to do it? Where was he going to get all those words? He didn’t have that many words in him. Was it a mountain too high?
His enthusiasm morphed into depression, and for a while that was okay. He justified it as an artistic feeling—if you’re always happy then you have nothing to complain about, therefore you have nothing to write because writing was the only way a writer could exorcise his demons. He waited at the keyboard many more days, but a solution never materialized.
One night in Carlos’s basement he shared his writing dilemma with Carlos. Bruno said he probably needed to get a thesaurus. That would help with all those words.
Carlos passed him the joint and said, “What do you need a fucking thesaurus for? Don’t you know how to speak English?”
Bruno took a hit, sputtered a cough, exhaled and said, “Yeah, but my vocabulary isn’t extensive. I need to work on that. You shouldn’t repeat the same words.” He handed the joint back to Carlos.
“Who says?” said Carlos.
“It’s part of the technical aspects of writing. That’s what they taught us in English class.”
“Bullshit. The story’s what matters. You can use the most brilliant set of words, every one can be different, and all your sentences can be perfect but if your story sucks nobody’s going to take the journey. ”
Carlos put a hand on Bruno’s shoulder and said, “Brunes. Don’t let the words get in the way of your story. Tell it to me like you’re talking to me now. Tell it like you’re trying to convince me that what your saying is interesting. It doesn’t have to have a point, it doesn’t have to surprise me at the end. Shit, it doesn’t even have to have an ending. It can trail off, leave me wondering, that’s all right, as long as you kept me interested while you were telling it. And, uh, throw a bunch of ‘of courses’ in there, even if its not obvious what your ‘of course’ refers to, it gives the narrative a professional feel.”
Bruno had never thought of putting ‘of courses’, though he had read it in many narratives, and it did sound very professional.
“What’s the story about?” said Carlos.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it a long time now, and just today I got this idea. It’s about a woman, and she’s walking home one night—”
“Hold up. That’s a mistake. You’re not a woman. How are you going to personify your character if you’re unable to get into its mind? Write what you know is what they say. How are you going to get into the mind of a woman? Oh, sure, you can guess, make assumptions from exterior observation, but how do you really figure out what a woman is thinking? You’re a man. Make your character a man. So, what happens to this man?”
“As he’s walking home one night he gets attacked by a vampire.”
Carlos stared at him. “Really?” he said.
Bruno shrugged. “It’s a work in progress.”
“You’re going to write horror?” he said.
“It’s a work in progress.”
“The horror genre, and especially vampires, has been exhausted.”
“But I like horror. I want to write about what I like.”
“Okay but even so, a vampire preying on a man is not as engaging as it preying on a woman. I mean that’s classical, that’s sexy.”
“So it has to be a woman.”
‘All right. It’s your story. Write it.”
But that was the problem. Bruno didn’t know how to write it. And the added pressure of Carlos asking, “So how’s that story going?” every time they got together created more of a block.
Bruno would respond, “It’s a work in progress.” And Carlos would shrug till one day he finally stopped asking.
Sometimes Bruno went into Carlos’s garret and watched him paint. It was only a small room in the basement, but Carlos called it his garret.
“All great artists have garrets,” he said, “to isolate them from distraction.”
Bruno sat beside him while Carlos applied brush strokes to the canvas. It didn’t look like a hard thing to do. Each brush made a different effect, and if Carlos could do it—in that instant, Bruno considered becoming a painter. There weren’t any words involved, just paint and brushes. He was already fucked up mentally and socially, and you really didn’t have to know how to draw, and when he was a kid, he did like painting by numbers. A few brush strokes here, a splash or a drip there, sitting with your easel in an alley somewhere, and maybe one day a well-connected critic might walk by and see his work and declare him a new found genius. And people would look at his work and see things he’d never intended. And he can stand there, aloof, and act like what he does is no big deal while people tell him he’s great.
But then he thought: how could he live an artist’s life? He couldn’t see himself living downtown, riding a rusty old bicycle to the open-air market to buy a pear and a plum, because that’s all an artist could afford. No, he would never be satisfied with that life.
So he let out a big sigh like he always did when he finally gave up and became the writer without a story and the artist without his art.
He turns the hot water on, watches it swirl down the drain and sees it all going downhill after thirty. Like a lava flow down the side of a volcano, you can’t run fast enough from it—it swallows you, you’re forty. Step back, your head still spinning from turning forty and your fifty, ten years away from some cute young cashier asking you if you’re a senior, and most of your life is gone.
All you’ve got is memories.
But what memories does he have? He’s never allowed for memories; good memories that other people have. This was his time for creating memories. You’re supposed to accumulate memories from the time you can remember to the time when you start looking back because the future is shrinking. And those abundant days that you squandered in your youth are now numbered, to where the end could come at any moment, and you’re living on the knife’s edge of old age. He thinks: To an old man every day is a gift, but if it all ends, he doesn’t care. The old man is tired, and when he thinks of death, he thinks let it be quick, and dignified, not sitting on the toilette.
Bruno shakes his head.
He stares at his face in the mirror and whispers, “Shut up!” Then brushes his teeth, washes his face, and prepares himself mentally for the day that will soon accost him once he flips the lock, pulls back the front door and steps out into uncertainty. As he dresses he wonders what could go wrong today? He knows from experience that it’s never as bad as it turns out to be, and at some point in the day, usually by mid-afternoon, he’ll look back and think, That wasn’t so bad, and then he can look forward to a nice dinner and the placidity he feels after 5 p.m.
When the night comes, there are no expectations. No live stresses. Just the memory of a day spent, home and the comfort of the familiar but now he asks himself if he’s so concerned of fleeting time why the hell is he thinking of night when morning has just broken and why must he think negative so that something positive might happen? He answers himself with that’s the way he is. He was born that way, and no lame little resolutions will ever change him, and when he’s eighty, he’ll die that way.
At six a.m., morning breaks cold and windy and with Bruno’s first breath out the door, his nose hairs instantly freeze. He hops into his cold car, and after a weak but insistent effort the engine comes to life, and as Bruno rubs himself into the hard cold seat, he remembers that there’s a new doughnut shop in the neighbourhood. He smiles because now he can get his favourite cup of coffee en route to work without going the long way.
Coffee is not all the same. People who don’t drink coffee will tell you that coffee from this place is no different than coffee from that place. But in the morning, if coffee memory isn’t stimulated, you end up having a shitty day.
He approaches the corner and is doubly happy when he realizes his brand of gas station shares the same corner as his brand of coffee. What convenience!
There’s a Drive-thru, but Bruno won’t take it. Drive-thrus are for lazy-asses, and in the past, he’s been dealt too many drive-thru disappointments.
He’s fifth in line, and this allows him time to absorb the atmosphere. He admires the innards of this coffee house; the cleanliness of freshly finished construction.
When the line advances he becomes aware of the server; a pretty girl with auburn hair and black cap.
He appraises the beauty before him:
He lifts himself onto tiptoes and watches her move to the doughnut rack:
He likes the way her ponytail sticks out from the cap and swishes and swooshes. He wants to grab it and give it a tug.
When it’s his turn, their eyes lock, and in that instant, all Bruno’s shortcomings and uncertainties are swept away.
She looks down at the counter.
“What’ll you have?” she says.
You, he wants to say but says, “Large black coffee please.”
She makes it.
He drops exact change into her palm, and as he walks away, he looks back.
He’s just seen a goddess.
Within minutes he’s at work, and as he backs into his reserved parking space, he realizes where he is but can’t remember getting there.
It’s Bruno’s habit to arrive thirty minutes before his shift. He spends it quietly in a desolate cafeteria. He’s been doing this since his father got him a job here when he was seventeen, when everyone realized that Bruno wasn’t going to college or even if he was going to finish high school.
Bruno argued that what he was learning in school wasn’t interesting, and he could never absorb what wasn’t interesting, yet he was able to absorb everything in this place—every machine, every procedure and it makes Bruno laugh sometimes when he realizes that the job he hates the most is the thing he does the best.
Here in the cafeteria, Bruno is at peace.
He sees people arriving at work in the nick of time, donning their work face and then getting right at it.
Bruno is unable to get right at it. He needs to warm up. He likes to sip his coffee and think about the shift ahead. But he’s not thinking about his shift right now. The coffee girl has taken over his mind. He thinks about the coffee girl all through his shift. She helps him alleviate the monotony of his insufferable workday. There’s hope now. The vision of the coffee girl has made him numb to the scourges of time.
Over dinner, his old mother recounts episodes from her youth. She does this a lot, laughs with herself as she remembers, and Bruno smiles at her but he isn’t listening. He stares at the kitchen window and thinks about the coffee girl. He looks at the clock and knows his morning is eleven and one-half hours away. He goes to bed early, tries to bring on sleep but can’t stop thinking about her, and sees her—her supple skin with a hint of freckles, arriving atop a great white steed, slipping down from that equine back to bathe in a clear lake surrounded by swans. She’s naked, and he’ll have his way with her. It’s all good now because he doesn’t know her yet. He could go on like this, imagining what it would be like to touch her, but eventually, he’ll want to touch for real. For now, fantasy is good. It’s safe. He doesn’t know if there might be a conflict in personalities. She could turn out to be a little bitch—a possessive, conniving little bitch full of attitude and complaint; a gnawing, grating little whiner who’s always telling you what shirt to wear and if you don’t do what she wants she’ll pout and give you the cold shoulder. Not too long ago Bruno had a girlfriend, and now her face flashes before his eyes. He shudders. What a waste of two years. How pathetic he was bending to her every whim to make her happy, and in the end, neither of them was happy. He was miserable trying to satisfy someone who couldn’t be satisfied. What if this coffee girl was also insatiable? He realizes he’s fondling himself and decides to take it further; he masturbates, comes quickly, then falls asleep, now encouraged by a purpose.
Over the span of a couple of months, Bruno is now part of the 6:10 am crowd. He sees the same faces every day; the big guy with the red beard, the woman who counts out the exact change while she’s standing in line, then counts it two more times. There’s a guy who drives a dump truck and parks his vehicle diagonally across four parking spaces. There’s an old guy with white paint-splattered pants and a dark blue jacket with the inscription on the back: Terry’s Interior Design. He sees them, they see him, and sometimes nods are exchanged. There’s only a ten-minute window here. If he arrives outside that window, as has happened to Bruno once or twice, it’s a different group; strangers. But what these people have that he wishes he had after weeks of patronage is a great rapport with the girl of his dreams. She smiles at them, says good morning. They don’t even ask for their order. She knows what they want and prepares the order automatically. And she pours their coffee with an elegant flair. Then she says, “Bye, bye, have a nice day.” Bruno wants the same treatment. He wants that familiar friendliness. He wants a relationship with his coffee server, but it isn’t happening. Every time he steps up, she won’t look at him. He has to ask for his black coffee. It wasn’t a difficult order—a black coffee. That’s the first one they learn in coffee school, isn’t it?
Gary needs a ride.
“Just this one time, Bruno,” he says, “The wreck’s in the shop. Tranny trouble.”
“Okay, sure,” says Bruno.
He picks Gary up on Monday morning. Gary’s a guy who’s always in a good mood. Because Bruno can’t be infected by someone’s good mood, he finds good moods on Monday morning excruciating especially when accompanied by how was your weekend chitchat. Gary is a chit-chatter. At the factory, he sees people over quick minutes and shoots the shit, and all’s well, but Bruno has never had a prolonged conversation with Gary before and now he can’t wait to drop him off at work.
They pull up to the doughnut shop and Gary gestures to get out.
“What do you want?” Gary says.
“It’s okay, I’ll get it,” Bruno says.
“My treat. Least I can do for the ride, brother.”
“No. I’ll get it.”
Gary opens the passenger door.
“I’ll get it,” Bruno says.
Gary continues to step out of the vehicle. Bruno clamps a hand on Gary’s arm and pulls him back from the door. Gary shakes away Bruno’s grasp and scowls.
“Hands off, brother!” he says and points a wide-eyed stare at Bruno.
“Sorry,” Bruno says, “but I said I’d get it. I’ll get it. What do you want?”
Gary sits back in the vehicle and shuts the door. He stares at the windshield for a moment then says, “A jumbo, triple-triple, an apple fritter and a raspberry bran muffin.”
Bruno smiles and says, “So you like cake for breakfast?” Gary, without looking at him says, “That’s what I like.”
Bruno can’t imagine starting his day without a dose of the beauty with the black cap and pony-tail; her elegant way of moving about, the way she pours coffee like it’s an art, the pleasant tone with which she addresses the customers—but damn it! Why doesn’t she address him with that tone? She stands there mute when it’s his turn. She keeps looking down at the counter.
There’s a tangy scent in the air that overpowers the aroma of coffee. Is it her? Is she doused in perfume? Bruno has a problem with over abundant perfume on a woman. It should be illegal. It’s criminal to subject people to noxious scents of vanillas, peaches and strawberries. But is this overindulgent waft of tanginess coming from the girl of his dreams or the big woman to his right? He looks at the girl of his dreams and embraces her image: lighter than air, softness personified.
“I’d like an extra-large triple-triple—have you got raspberry bran muffins?” She nods. “I’ll have one, and an apple fritter and a black coffee.” As she prepares the order, he wills her through his mind. Look at me, look at me. I take a black coffee. Black coffee.
In the afternoon Gary tells Bruno he’ll be getting a ride home with Brian.
Bruno says, “Hey, no hard feelings over this morning is there? I don’t know what came over me.” Gary smiles and says, “No problems here, brother,” but an abrupt turn of the shoulder and Bruno’s uncanny perception of body language tells him that there is a problem.
The next morning Bruno approaches the counter, and the girl of his dreams is waiting for him. She looks straight at Bruno, eyes gleaming, a large smile on her face.
She says, “Jumbo triple-triple, an apple fritter and a raspberry bran muffin, right?”
Suddenly off guard, Bruno gives an involuntary nod. She makes it, takes his money and says, “Thank you. Bye, bye, now. Have a great day.”
Bruno is stunned.
What just happened? Why would she remember a one-off order of multiple items yet could never remember the black coffee he’s been ordering for months? And she said have a great day too, not her standard nice day, she said great day.
All day Bruno wonders about this sudden change in the coffee girl and comes to the only possible conclusion—a black coffee is a boring order, therefore, Bruno is a boring guy. The coffee girl doesn’t want to be with a boring guy, and if Bruno wants to have any chance with her, he must change. But Bruno doesn’t like cream in his coffee. When he used to take cream in his coffee, it made him belch. He can’t eat pastries either. They give him heartburn. He can’t go through life belching and suffering from a rotten gut because he loves this girl.
Is it? Is that why he’s so obsessed? Is that fluttery feeling when he sees her—is it?
When you’re in love, you’re supposed to feel good about it. You shouldn’t have doubts, but Bruno is racked with doubts and what his next move should be. How do you communicate your feelings with someone you see only once in the morning? He could say something when she gives back his change, but he doesn’t want anyone else to hear. And what if she doesn’t like him. It might embarrass her, then he’ll have to find another coffee shop because he sure as hell won’t come back here again.
Carlos Rodriguez, the proprietor of Vicky’s Tattoo & Billiards, has been in prison. He blames his early life on unguided youthful exuberance and a compassionless judicial system. It wasn’t just one thing that fucked up his life, it was many little things.
“Little shit,” he says, “all coming together to make one big turd.” Like —“having an asshole for a father, a hopeless drunk of a mother and the biggest problem anyone can have—no money. Having no money can really fuck you up, man.”
The bad started when he had to get from Toronto to St. Catharines to see his sick grandmother—she was the only one he could ever rely on. But he didn’t have any money. He had to steal a car, and just before the Burlington Bridge the OPP pulled him over. He explained his situation, but the cop was a, “typical pig, cynical and compassionless. That was the beginning of my downfall.” He shrugs. “But what’s done is done. Can’t change the past. You can only learn from it—hopefully. ”
His grandmother left him a building that contained a convenience store, a dry cleaners and another space which Carlos turned into a tattoo parlor. There’s an upper level, and it’s the pool hall. His daughter Victoria, a buxom fake blonde, manages the pool hall and there’s an old derelict named Rick who helps set up the tables. Carlos pops up whenever he isn’t pricking ink into someone’s skin. He can’t get a liquor license so his patrons are mostly teenage boys, whom he can easily control with a perfected stare when they get rowdy as he stands behind the soda bar in perpetual glass wiping mode. With his white cut-off T-shirt, shaggy goatee and long hair pulled back into a pony–tail, he looks intimidating, but if he likes you, he can be very friendly. He likes Bruno. Bruno reminds him of a friend he had when he was a teenager—Del, who died one sunny afternoon trying to hop a westbound freight train. Carlos had been there. He’d seen the two parts of his friend divided by the track and dead eyes staring skyward.
His muscular arms are tattooed, beginning with crude sketches at the wrists, blossoming to flowing masterpieces at the shoulders. His arms display his evolution as an artist, he says, they are his renaissance. Being an artist saved his life. Privately he paints nudes. All his women have two vaginas and the men—he can appreciate beauty in both sexes—have two penises. Bruno once asked him why his figures all had double genitalia. Carlos told him that it was his depiction of the duality of man.
“But why two penises?” Bruno asked.
“Emphasis. ‘Cause it’s all about sex. Everything about man has to do with sex. Ambition is one big hard-on looking to get satisfied. We’re created from an act of sex then from the day you’re born you start searching.”
“Searching for what?”
“The tit,” said Carlos. “Then you’re crawling around, wondering where the tit went and you start sticking everything in your mouth hoping it’s the tit, then they send you to school, and you’re searching again only this time you’re searching for acceptance. Even though you don’t realize it, wanting to be accepted is sexual. Think about it. Then, once you’ve established yourself as either a leader, a follower or a low life, you’re searching for the tit again and trying to get back in the womb as many times as possible before it closes on you forever. It’s all about sex, man. There’s no doubt about that. ”
“Slip her a note.” Carlos says, in answer to Bruno’s dilemma with the coffee girl.“You’ve got to go for it. Slip her a note. Don’t wait. You know how many people sit on their emotions and have regrets the rest of their lives? It’ll free your mind and keep you going and if she rejects it, fuck it. Rejection is good for you. It gives you confidence.”
“Rejection builds confidence?”
“Sure, if you’ve got the mental strength. So she rejects you. So what? Who is she? Are you going to base your life on one person’s perception of you? No. You look at it, you say, where did I fail and how can I fix it? Maybe you don’t have to fix anything. Maybe it’s just her. You can’t please everybody. Be yourself to some extent, but that only goes so far. Sometimes when people are themselves, it isn’t very attractive. At first you have to attract, then create the bond, then you can be yourself. You don’t fart in front of her on the first date is what I’m saying. That’s how you get a woman, and don’t think you’re being dishonest, cause every time they doll themselves up they’re being dishonest. If there’s no bond, there’s no reason for someone to stick around when life gets a little rocky, and it will. Once you make the connection, people’s little idiosyncrasies will be over looked. No one is perfect though it seems everyone out there wants perfection at a glance.”
“Is it that easy?” Bruno says.
“It’s as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. Listen. Brunes. Buddy. I can be pretty astute when it comes to seeing someone’s inner soul, so I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. This isn’t a criticism. You are who you are and you know I don’t have a problem with you but sometimes you’re too damn gloomy, and when you’re like that you send off the vibe that you’re unapproachable. Be approachable. Slip her a note.”
to be continued…
Copyright©2016 by Attila Zønn