FICTION: Bad Things Happen to Good People and the Rest Get Ham Sandwiches by Joshua Smith

I press my pen down against the paper again and grind the fresh tip aimlessly into a dull nub, as the noises of the mundane curdle my mind to soup.The traffic groans by on the street beyond my room, and the old radiator clicks like echolocation. I feel a sharp, painful twang in my teeth as I bite my pencil until it snaps in my mouth, leaving small fragments of wood around my lips.Spitting and brushing away the fragments, I sit at the window, watching my neighbor, Calvin,as he rolls up to the stop sign at the end of the street, waiting to make a right out of the neighborhood. His turn signal flashes frantically in his small, jalopy truck. Somebody once told me that means they need a new battery; that it was going to die soon. I notice my shallow breaths, and imagine what it would be like if I just decided to stop.

He’s a good one, that Calvin. The type of good you begin to pity. I remember the first day I met him when I was moving into this apartment just over a year ago. He spotted me unloading a moving truck by myself in the July heat. He was tall, and built like how you would want a fireman to be built; someone who you knew could carry you out of a burning building if you needed it. He had the honest eyes of a man who had seen hardship, and conquered it. The subtle, wise crows feet that melted off each of his eyes told a long story of how he cherished simplicity. His posture ached with the guilt of a lifetime churchgoer. His father’s voice most likely still echoed off the walls in his mind reminding him to do his chores for free, and not to ask for an allowance. But the bright, childish glow in his face also told the story of how his mother gave him the money when his father was gone. There was an eagerness about him to help, a seemingly altruistic, natural goodness that shined through him. He wanted to help, but not to count the sweat rings on his hat at the end of the day in some sort of dogmatic gloating, but because he truly wanted to. He would have done the chores for free naturally.

I saw this, and began to put on a show. As he looked over to me, I pulled every pitiful flop in the book. I figured he’d be helpless against the ability to play the Good Samaritan, but he’ll also most likely try to get friendly with me, most people do. People like me;I’m a good first impressionist. I get invited a lot of places that I don’t end up attending. I hear the words “comfortable,” and “good friend” used a lot with people I just meet, until I get bored of the compliments. There’s an infinite amount of people to meet during your lifetime, why waste it on a few?

I pushed a box with my shoulder and flexed my legs and pretended to strain. I winced and grimaced and even pushed out a few awkward grunts. He looked over a few times, now more concerned; his eyes squinting, brow furrowed, and lips pursed like when someone watches a puppy trip down a flight of stairs.

I’m getting to him, I thought.

So I brought out the big guns, and slipped and fell to the floor of the truck while pretending to push a box that would have blown away with the wind. As I looked up from picking myself off the floor, I could see him jogging over.

“Hey, brother” he started while I inched the box closer to the lip of the truck with my foot. “Hey, man, I can’twatch you struggle in this heat. Damn truck must over a hundred degrees. You gunna have a stroke out here, man.”

“Oh really,” I said. “I haven’t noticed.”

“I’m Calvin,” he said as he stretched his hand out toward me. I tentatively grabbed his calloused hand. His grip reeked with integrity.

“John,” I replied.

“Well alright, John—Uh, your buddies taking a break inside or somethin?”

‘No, just me,” I said breathing through my words, hoping he’d bite.

He took a pensive look at the ground and into the moving truck as he took the curled baseball cap from his head and wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Look, if you don’t mind dealing with listening to me talk, I can help.”

I almost felt bad about that one. Almost.

“I ain’t a creep, I promise.” He laughed “ I see you only have about a half a truck left.”

“No, no, I couldn’t do that,” I said as I wiped the sweat from my eyes, glancing at him the perfect paradox of nonchalant and defeat.

“Those eyes don’t lie,” he laughed.

I smiled and thought: Perfect.

We cleared the rest of the truck out quickly. His strength and societal guilt really came in handy. I knew which boxes were heaviest and I put those on the side he was pulling from. After we finished, he asked if I wanted to come over for lunch. I felt a great introverted pang to run away from being invited anywhere. But the words, no thanks, disappeared off my tongue and into the air as I followed him back his house. If he’s a cuckold, then I’m a coward, I thought. At least he enjoys his burdens. He made us both ham and cheese sandwiches. I saw that he used five pieces of ham on my sandwich and only three on his. I knew this because I was thinking about how he hadn’t washed his hands yet. As he put the sandwich down next to me I scowled slightly. On the way back to the fridge for a soda, he slipped and dropped his sandwich on the floor and it separated like a deck of cards.

“Shit. Oh well,” he chuckled. I turned my nose away from the sandwich and to the front door.

Calvin turns out of the complex and I begin to think about what a dreadfully ordinary day it is. Cars turning in and out, neighbors walking about,small talking with each other about where they are in their lives now, waiting for their answer to change. I look down at the parking lot below and travel my eyes across the legs of a few young mothers walking by with their strollers. I watch a teenage couple sitting close to each other on a set of steps outside while they share a cigarette. The girl’s hand squirms just inches from his, and keeps brushing her pants in an attempt to stave off her anxiety.

A quick glance at my watch, and it shoots me daggers with its glance back at me. Six hours at this table, and not a single thing has come to mind that is even worth jotting onto paper. I take a deep, refreshing breath until my sternum cracks, which dampens the experience. I swig some cold tea that I made when it was still light out, and switch to my laptop.

Well, it’s not really my laptop. It’s my girlfriend’s. I don’t have the ability to buy a laptop. I’m lucky that I’m dating her, or I wouldn’t have access to the Internet. She’d kill me if she knew that was the only reason I dated her: her laptop. She’s the kind of girl that hugs you from behind when your making dinner, or when you’re eating, or when you’re wiping the graphite dust away from short nothings, quotes, anecdotes, philosophies, poor twists, clichés, and bad plots. I’m the kind of person who’d drill a hole in your TV with a screw gun and laugh when you come home and try to figure out how it happened, or whether it has always been there.

I stare at the blank document screen while I run through philosophical bends of thought that would make a story deep and interesting, and maybe find a publisher that would begin their email back to me with “Congratulations” instead of “Unfortunately.” My eyes start to burn and feel puffy and swollen like two large grapes. I have that strange feeling when my eyes grow heavy and flare, while the rest of my body screams for dancing, and my heart hammers like a restless child.

The wind poured through the old, ill fitted windows and slithered through my neck like the chill of fear, and tauntingly over my ankles.

I look back over at the entrance of the complex and see Calvin align back in his parking space by his apartment. He has what looks like an oxygen machine in the seat next to him.

I believe Calvin has been taking care of his wife the last few months. I haven’t seen her leave the house but one time, and I think she might have been hairless, but I didn’t have my contacts in that day. I do know that he hasn’t worked in forever because I sit in this chair and attempt to write everyday, and watch Calvin’s car either sit dormant in his spot or scamper away on quick trips to the grocery. From my window, I overheard him choking up to another resident:

“Well at least I get to say goodbye, a lot of people don’t get to do that.”

He stops mid stride and rolls his eyes and lets out a barely audible sigh. He quickly drops off the machine inside and gets back into his truck and nudges into the intersection. His blinker flickers like a humming bird’s heart. “Almost dead,” I mutter again.

How do I feel something? I ask myself. How do I know when I’m doing something right? On such an ordinary day, how can I be inspired and raptured away by the goddess of sentience’s tendrils of empathy? I want to capture everyone’s heart with a story so touching and deep, so symbolic that it moves the masses towards societal change. And it will all be my doing. I look back at my disorganized mess of literary devices and bite through another pencil.

I hear my kettle begin to shriek over the howls of the lonely dog next door, whose owner I’ve never seen. My building is quiet; the kind of disturbing quiet that makes tiny noises all the more piercing and annoying. The kind of quiet one loathes when clicking keys and scribbling passages that feel as inauthentic as life-mirroring prose, and as heavy as the dread that reverberates in my neck and buzzes in my skull like a bee trapped in a jar, plinking in futility off the glass in panic when I have those brief moments of knowing who I am.

The radiator taps morse code as I stand up to turn off the kettle and pace a wake through the crumpled papers on the floor and over to the bathroom. I pass the clock on the wall that I took the battery out of so it always shows mid-day. I like mid-day best because mid-day doesn’t open the floodgates of responsibility like the morning sun, and doesn’t grip me with existential dread like the fragile minutes before witching hour, but I still choose not to look at it, for I had nothing to show. I let myself down again. It seems that every bit of anything worth capturing, anything I wish to convey comes so easily while pondering in the shower, or rubbing stuck cheese off plates in the sink, or battling crosswinds while balancing bags of milk and bread on my bike handles back and forth to the grocery, or while people-watching with my closest friend whom I could easily watch die in a fire,but seems to pull anecdotes from me like a siphon.

I wish I could permanently etch those ephemeral moments with him into manuscript, but it vanishes into the dark matter of the spaces I can’t grasp, and into the darkest depths of alleyways I’ve never been, for the cut in the brick is so subtle and unsuspecting, and blends so well into its surroundings that one would never propose it an alley; just a memory of a full brick wall against the edge of the sidewalk,or an unbroken row of businesses. The only memories of this alley are the chill of the air that slices the tip of the nose, a stray thought, the sway of a woman’s hips in heels on a Friday night, a worry crossing the mind, a screeching plane, the scraping of my own two shoes against the concrete, but never the obvious alley. It is forgotten, and soon doesn’t exist.  It is both there and it is not. It is like asking the dead what it was like to be alive and the alive what it’s like to be dead. It is lost.

I switch back to writing on paper again. There’s something about writing on paper; when you float through a graceful W like two neighboring valleys, when rounding off a perfect O like the face a woman makes to put on lipstick, and the strange adventure a Q brings. It all feels so rewarding, like you’ve really accomplished something. Not like the heartless, ghost-like feeling of a computer.

I hear the shuffle of feet outside of the hallway beyond my front door and listen to the bitch next-door cackle on her cellphone. She is the kind of girl that yells when she speaks, she always has to adjust her clothes, for they were always too tight, and somehow slipping off at the same time. I sneak her over sometimes to have sex, which is the best part of my life right now, but she’s so dumb that I’m ashamed.I don’t know her name, and she’s never asked me mine. I just call her thong girl.

I scribble that entry out thoroughly with black marker and rip the paper to pieces the size of popcorn and sprinkle them in different trash cans throughout the house. That one’s too private. I can’t lose this laptop.

My gaze turns back to the window. It is the peak of rush hour and the intersection in which Calvin sat was teeming with the anxiety of drivers,tightly pressed together like books on a shelf, almost so much that I could hear the nails creaking on each side from the pressure; their bumpers whispering to each other their quarrels. Calvin’s left turn signal blinks frantically as he edges out of traffic and peeks around the row of cars ahead of him in order to make his turn. I gaze at the outline of his bushy beard and watch his lips move slightly to what is most likely an old country song. He bobs his head back and forth childishly. I can see in the seat next to him are some toys and wrapping paper.

I look at the time on my laptop and it is seven o’clock.  I had done nothing but procrastinate all day. How can an ordinary day capture the truth? I’m not anything; I have nothing important to say. Maybe I’m a fool. Maybe I shouldn’t deceive people. Maybe I shouldn’t cheat, lie, resent, or recluse. Maybe my elitism is folly. My hands start to sweat thinking of doing anything else.Am I a bad person?

I look back up at Calvin slowly turning into the complex. The world seems to go into a strange silence and my mind glitches for a moment as a teenager in an SUV came over the hill like a kamikaze. Calvin didn’t see it coming, and didn’t have a chance. The SUV hit his truck so God damn hard that I feel it in my chest as it rattles through my spine and into my feet. That is what I imagine the dropping of the bomb in Hiroshima sounded like.  I watch Calvin’s body eject from the vehicle and fly over a hundred feet into the brick wall of his apartment building, just below his bedroom window where his wife lay in bed. His head hits first and crumples like tin foil and explodes like a watermelon being hit with a sledgehammer. The rest of his body whiplashes around and slaps the building so intensely that his body seems to disappear into the wall and liquefy into slop. His clothes exist only to hold what little solid matter there was left of him into a few chunks trapped inside a pair a blood-soaked jeans and a ragged long sleeve shirt.

Nearly the entire complex is outside at this moment and witnesses his demise. However, thong girl continues walking into the building, texting someone. The teenagers kept smoking their Marlboros and making-out, the Russian family downstairs is still sitting on the stoop playing some silly foreign game, and a plethora of residents walk about the streets in the complex unperturbed, and of course I gaze from my window next to my failed mess of pretentious scribbles.

“How unfortunate,” I mutter.

The management staff calls for maintenance, and they wick his body off of the side of the building with a squeegee and slap it into a mop bucket. His remains are poured into the storm drain in the parking lot and the rain that starts to fall begins to wash his stains off the brick.

People like him will always be poured into the storm drain.A good man’s soul will always be eaten by evil, but a man can also become rotten enough so that even the devil himself won’t take a bite. As for today, it will all be lost into the dark matter of our brains. Forgotten in the darkness of the alley so unsuspecting that it was never an alley at all, just a notion, a whisper;a drowning thought in a roaring sea of chaos.

photo-on-5-24-16-at-5-51-pm

Joshua Smith lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania with his loving girlfriend, Maddie. When he is not dribbling ideas onto paper or reading someone else’s, he might be going for a run, or putting it all back on with sushi.

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