08 July, 2009

Adapt and Survive

Sometimes the cable went out. When you beat around and live cheap, you learn to accept certain things. That was one of them. The TV set was a piece of shit anyway, but it was my only real entertainment. I left it turned on for days at a time just to combat the silence and to drown out the noise. Noise from my neighbors. Noise from the foot and street traffic. Noise from the endless street construction. Noise from the random drunks wandering the parking lot and from the ranting religiholics who would occasionally “protest” in front of the adult book store when they got tired of marching around the abortion clinic seven blocks away. There were more than a few nights that it was the last thing I heard before I passed out, only to be the first thing I heard when I woke up the next day. I looked around. I had a few swallows of wine left in a bottle of Mogen David Loyce had given me. (It was left behind by one of her less orthodox circumcised customers.) I tipped the bottle back and emptied it. When I looked around for the garbage can, I noticed a cockroach crawling near my foot.

Most of the time, they hide during the day and only come out at night; but sometimes they get brave and act like they own everything. I hate cockroaches. I don’t just hate them because they carry disease. I hate them because I remembered reading about them in a junior high biology class. They’re brainless little fuckers that, even if you squash their heads, they don’t die. They crawl and eat and lay eggs until they die – and then the young eat the dead ones so that they can get fatter, bigger, and eggs until they die. Cockroaches only die naturally when they’ve eaten so much that their outer shell is too small for their stomach. They serve no function other than to reproduce. And if there were ever a nuclear war, they would be the only thing that survived. I saw a picture once of a lair of some gigantic Amazonian cockroaches; they got to be as big as a full grown man’s hand.

But not that one. I stepped on it, tossed the empty bottle in the garbage, and opened the door, sweeping the roach carcass out with my foot.

Then I went down to the main office and complain; I felt pretty safe doing that, since I knew Dave was working. I walked in and he smiled; he always smiled. When I told him about the cable, he told me there was a loose wire.

“What do you mean, ‘a loose wire’?”

He shrugged. “There ees a loose wire, sir. We Weel geet eet feexed.” He smiled. He didn’t blink. It was hard to be pissed off at Dave. I think that’s why he smiled all the time; it wasn’t like his job was anything to be happy about.

“Loose wire, huh?”

“Yes sir.”

“And you’re, uh, working on it?”

He nodded like we had achieved a deep understanding. “Yes sir.”

I don’t know why he just didn’t say they didn’t pay the fucking cable bill. But there was no point in bringing it up.

“Thanks Dave.”

He kept smiling and waved. I waved back.

When I stepped outside I looked up and down the street. I had a decent wad of cash left over from a job I’d had and lost. It was a particularly degrading and meaningless job as a night shift clerk in a 7-11. Mostly I sat behind the counter, but I had to broom and mop and refresh the coffee and hot snacks whenever they were empty. My boss was an impish, weasel looking guy named Lester. He hadn’t achieved much in his life besides growing dreadlocks and being a 7-11 manager – but he derived a lot of satisfaction from lording it over the heads of his employees. I ended being robbed twice and finally got fired because Lester claimed to have video tape of me stealing beer. I’d managed to squirrel away some money, in spite of myself, even after paying two weeks rent. And I had nearly all my last check. I didn’t feel like going to the bar. I started walking towards the liquor store.

On my way there, I remembered there was a little consignment shop a little further up the street past the liquor store. Maybe I can find a cheap radio, I thought. Then they can have all the loose wires they want.

The consignment shop was jammed into a small space in one of the older strip malls; I knew it was an older building because the stucco had faded to a grayish off-white and because the roof wasn’t covered with the orange tile that was crucial in establishing a southwestern motif, and it had clearly been built before the city mandated a strictly enforced southwest aesthetic for newer construction.

When I walked in, I almost walked right back out. The place was in no particular order at all. Racks of clothes and coats were shoved up against furniture. The display shelves were crammed with stuff. The bookshelves, which occupied the front corner next to the counter, were completely disorganized – except for the single shelf at the top where the bibles were. That shelf as meticulously organized by translation. It even looked cleaner. Next to the register there was a glass jar (that almost looked like an old mayonnaise jar). Taped to the front of the jar was a small sign which read: THANK YOU FOR HELPING THE CHILDREN OF ST. ALICE. Behind the cash register there was a dowdy old church matron. Small and shriveled with pince nez glasses balanced on the tip of her narrow nose. Her carefully constructed coiffeur was so silvery white that in the right light it matched the faded blue flower print dress she was wearing.

“Good day,” she croaked.

I mumbled a response and pushed my way down the first narrow aisle. Baby bottles. A ceramic statue of a sad hobo clown sitting on a tree stump and holding out a tin cup. Coffee makers with no pots. Coffee pots with no coffee makers. Napkin holders. Wooden spoon. The handle to a kitchen knife. Tea kettles. Plastic tumblers. Old ash trays. Chipped dinnerware. Shot glasses from Cancun, The Bahamas, Rocky Point, and other places where booze was requires and clothing was optional. Blankets and handmade quilts.

It was impossible. How the hell can anybody find anything in this place? I was thinking that I would have been better off going to Goodwill – but that was farther away.

“Can I help you find something?” the old lady croaked after I fought my way up the second crowded aisle of mismatched and misplaced things. She smiled, which only made her already deeply wrinkled face look more like worn out leather.

“I’m, uh, looking for radio,” I answered. “Just a small radio.”

“Ah,” she replied. “So you like music, young man?”

“Uh, yes ma’am. I do.”

After lifting her right arm with what seemed like massive effort, she pointed a narrow spindly finger towards the far back corner of the store. I started to excavate my way back, when I turned to look at the old woman to make sure I was goin the right direction.

That was when I noticed that the hand she was pointing with only had one finger on it. The middle one.

It took what seemed like forever to push my way through furniture, small appliances, baby clothes, and other random crap I couldn’t imagine anybody being interested in. When I got to the back wall, damned if there wasn’t a couple of display shelves holding different radios, old stereo equipment, and VCRs. I pushed some of the pieces around and found a small portable stereo. It was an older one, but in decent shape. It had a cassette player. The case looked in decent shape. The antenna wasn’t broken or bent. The tuning dial was readable and the knob worked. The price tag read $10.

“Cheaper than a new one,” I said out loud. I was about to take it and make my way back up to the cash register when the old woman said,

“I think there’s an empty plug back there if you want to make sure it works. No refunds, I’m afraid.”

I looked around and sure enough, there was a double wall socket. I plugged in the radio and flipped the small switch. Nothing. I unplugged it and tried the other socket. Dead.

Shit! I tried a couple of other newer looking radios. None of them worked either. I was starting to think there was something wrong with the socket, not the radios. The last one picked up to test was older than the other ones I’d tried. It was a small box that was all speaker with a round tuner dial. The dial worked. The antenna was fine. The cord wasn’t chewed or taped together. If this doesn’t work, I told myself, it’s the goddamn plug. I decided in case that I would buy the first radio – the ten dollar one – pay, and get my ass to the liquor store and back to my room.

When I plugged it in and turned it on, the radio dial lit up and sound came out of the speaker. I turned the dial to make sure some stations would come in. Then I turned it off, unplugged it, and looked at the price tag: $7. Go figure.

I wrestled my way up to the register and the old lady smiled at me again. “Did you find what you came for?”

I set the radio on the counter, and she stooped a little to read the price tag. When she punched the price into the register, I noticed that her left hand only had a pinky and a thumb. I wanted to ask. But I didn’t.

“Seven dollars and a nickel,” she said.

I put the exact amount in the palm of her two fingered hand. Then she hit the cash rendered with her single-fingered hand, put the money in the drawer, and closed it. Using her thumb and pinky like pincer claws, she tore off my receipt and handed it to me. “Do you want a bag?” she asked.

“No thanks,” I answered. Then I wrapped the cord around the radio, tucked it under my arm, and turned to leave.

“Bless you,” she croaked and smiled. I turned (almost instinctively) to thank her. She was still smiling at me. She was also waving goodbye with the single finger of her right hand.

After that I stopped by the liquor store and bought myself a large jug of Carlo Rossi. When I got back to my room, I opened the door and was greeted by three more cockroaches. They were standing there, in the middle of the floor, like they were taking a damn smoke break. I stomped them immediately. I only got two of them. The third scurried away.

“That’s right,” I said a loud, setting the wine and the radio down on the small round table. “Tell all your bug friends about me.” Then I plugged in the radio, found a decent station, sat down, and opened the bottle of wine.