We were bored and sick, working shit jobs for sometimes sixty hours a week to pay off the infinite bills that accumulate when you have those sort of shit jobs, the sort that don’t have any benefits or Christmas bonuses or anything like that. Even after the hospital’s financial hardship discount, appendicitis wracks up a good ten thousand dollars. You end up paying for each nurse who takes your blood pressure, each doctor who pokes your stomach, each inch of plastic IV tubing and each drop of morphine and sodium chloride solution that trickles down it. You pay the couple of quarters it costs to wash the sheets after you crawl from beneath them, blinking and stiff, like the first gasping Paleozoic fish that somehow dragged itself onto land and started breathing. And then you miss out on two weeks of income because these are also the sort of shit jobs that don’t give sick pay.
But at least you’re alive.
“The real kicker,” Mark says as I’m peeling away the sticky bandages. It’s my first day back to work and he’s looking over the letter I received from the hospital’s billing department. “The real kicker is that, with this new job, you’ll be over the income limit. You’ll never qualify for any help from Uncle Sam.”
Mark is right, and he should know. He and I share two of the three jobs that we each hold. Just before the appendicitis, he helped me land this new one at the elementary school down the street. I was saving money with hopes of moving out of the gray area between the student ghetto and the real ghetto. The neighborhood wasn’t too bad when I was in school, but it’s getting worse. I’ve had three bikes stolen in the past two months. The newspaper reports break-ins just about every night. Not long ago, a woman was raped in an alleyway just two blocks over.
At this new job, Mark and I are basically paid to hold hands with a couple of the developmentally disabled kids at the after-school program. We walk them through whatever activities the teachers have planned, cheat for them at alphabet bingo and make sure they don’t fall behind with their macaroni collages. My kid’s name is Gus. He has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and can’t speak. I’m not sure of the diagnosis on Mark’s kid, but he’s in sixth grade and is probably old enough for tenth. His name is Troy. Every time Mark turns his back, Troy has got both hands down his pants, jerking off like it’s the end of the world.
We’re walking home at the end of the day when Mark starts in on a familiar rant. “Those kids are living the life,” he says. “They do what they want and we take care of them. Jerking off in public. In school, nonetheless. In front of children. If I jerked off in public, I’d be arrested. But since I don’t, I get to spend my afternoons making sure that this kid doesn’t. Sometimes I can’t help but wish I was retarded.”
“You’re crazy,” I tell him.
“At my other job,” he says, “I shovel elephant shit out of cages for twenty hours a week. And it’s not like there’s nothing else to do,” he adds. “There are plenty of other chores at the zoo. Mopping, feeding. But no. It’s always shit-shoveling. It honestly takes that much time. Twenty hours. There’s just that much shit.”
“It’s a trade off,” I tell him.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I’d rather be jerking off any day of the week.”
I wonder if, given the chance, I would trade places with Gus. Then I wonder who in their right mind decided it was okay for Mark to work with children.
The other job we share is with this environmental agency. We go door to door for a few hours every morning, trying to get people to donate money for this cause or that cause. We’re supposed to split up, hit different houses, but nobody ever donates anything so it doesn’t really matter. We walk around together, turn in our blank forms at the end of the day, and nobody is the wiser.
One way to make begging strangers for money more bearable is to fill our water bottles with vodka.
“We’re with the Environmental Interest Research Foundation,” I slur at eleven in the morning. “Would you be interested in donating to any of the following projects?” I thrust my clipboard toward this yoga mom with a little more conviction than is necessary. She glances down, doesn’t take it.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Mark says. “It’s for a very, very, very, good cause.”
“Who did you say you were with?” she asks.
I’m crinkling the latest hospital bill, which is folded up in my pocket. “The Environmental Interest Research Foundation,” I repeat, hitting each syllable with methodic annunciation. It’s normal that we get a little tipsy during our rounds, but we’re not usually this bad.
“I think I donated last month,” the woman says.
“Come on, lady.” I throw a thumb in the direction of the SUV parked in her driveway. “I think you owe a little extra.”
She scoffs, pushes the clipboard right into my stitches. The door slams shut. When I’m through wincing, I lift my shirt and Mark inspects my belly, makes sure that everything is still in place. We move on, but we are not without vengeance. Before the end of our shift, we pass by again, piss our names across the side of her house.
“We only graduated a couple of years ago,” Mark is saying. “I promise, there is nothing creepy or pathetic about this.” It’s Thursday night and he’s convinced me to come with him to a college party in a nearby basement. We arrive and Mark makes easy conversation while I stand next to him and drink. He’s right. We did only graduate a couple of years ago. There are plenty of people here that I recognize, whose names I know but who I have never cared to talk to.
I spot Natalie and I’m a gentleman, so I wave. Natalie and I dated for about two weeks back in college. She writes poetry about her vagina and when we weren’t drinking or fucking, I was usually nodding my head absently while she described the latest conversations with her therapists, her difficulties forming lasting relationships, or her excitement about having finally met a decent guy who really listened and really cared and who she could see herself being in a serious relationship with for a long time.
Natalie waves back so I go over and say hi. She tells me that she’s working on a graduate degree for some kind of mixed media digital art thing. She has a fellowship with a stipend that covers her living expenses and has a gallery opening next month in Brooklyn where she lives for free during the summers, house-sitting in an apartment owned by one of her professors.
“So what are you up to?” she asks. “Are you in grad school or are you working or what? I can’t believe I ran into you. I can’t believe you’re still around. How have you been?”
I take a long swig from my bottle.
“I’m fine,” I say.
We park against the wall. At first, we’re yelling so that we can hear each other over the noise of the party, but after a while, we’re just yelling because we’re drunk. We polish off my bottle and pretty soon, I’m all smiles. Natalie asks what I’m doing after this and the next thing I know, we’re pushing through embolisms of people toward the front door, stumbling out across the lawn. Her fingers brush against mine and then, somehow, we’re holding hands.
On the porch of her house, we kiss, her breath is suddenly a warm presence against my neck. We stomp upstairs, collapse into bed, not bothering to turn on any lights. Her tongue storms past my lips and teeth, the weight of her breasts pressing and dragging against my chest as we fumble our way into partial nudity. I open my eyes and feel like I’m going to vomit so I keep them closed, let my fingers slip beneath the back of her underwear, groping shamelessly in the soft fat of her thighs. It’s just like old times.
I wake up a little over an hour late for work. Natalie is still asleep. I roll away from her, lie as still as I can. I think about calling in sick. I think about quitting, about going home and eating an enormous breakfast, drinking gallons of orange juice. Then I think about my empty fridge, the stolen bike that I need to replace, my rent that is due next week. Utility bills that still I owe from three months ago. Student loan payments. Hospital bills.
“What’s wrong?” Natalie groans. Her room is a mess and I’m throwing things around, trying to find my clothes.
“I’m supposed to be at work.”
She sits up, rubs her eyes. “Will you be in trouble?” She lights a cigarette while I wriggle into my pants. “Here,” she says, and leans across the bed, pulls a clean shirt from the laundry hamper. She throws it to me and I let it hit the floor, keep looking for my own. “Where do you work anyways?” she asks. “I’ll give you a lift.”
“Fundraising. At this environmental agency.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Like that slave-wage door-to-door thing that college kids always get suckered into?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Like that. I don’t suppose you want to donate anything.”
She stares at me for a long moment, then rolls over, grabs her wallet from the nightstand, holds out a twenty.
“I wasn’t serious,” I say.
“That was sarcasm.”
She’s still holding out the wrinkled bill. “Just take it,” she says, pursing her lips and exhaling a cloud of smoke. I wave it away. Then, she gives me a sideways glance and a mischievous half-smile sneaks across her face. She licks her lips, presses the bill to her mouth. When she holds it out again, the ghost of last night’s lipstick is circling Andrew Jackson’s head like a bloody halo.
“Go save the whales,” she says.
I roll my eyes, crumple the bill in my pocket, and leave.
Mark and I are pale zombies, trudging through the breezy spring. I scribble the twenty dollars from Natalie down on my sheet and when we turn in our paperwork, the fact that someone actually donated distracts the supervisors from my tardiness.
At the after-school program, Gus and I color at the picnic tables while Troy gallops around the playground, Mark moseying behind. Gus draws lazy purple arcs that swoop past the edge of his paper and onto the surface of the table. His arms are like brittle twigs, the crayon poised delicately between his stiff fingers.
“I can’t believe she gave you twenty bucks,” Mark says when he sits down.
“I don’t think she had the rainforests in mind when she coughed it up. You should have seen the look she gave me. Like I was the old dog at the shelter who nobody wants to adopt. Pure pity. Either that or I’ve been made a whore.”
“You have three jobs, man. You’re already a whore.”
“Yeah, well, it’s never been quite so literal.”
“No offense,” Mark says, “but why on Earth did you go home with the one girl who you already know you don’t like?”
“I don’t know. We were drunk. It just happened. It’s not like I don’t regret it. I guess I just wanted for something to be easy.”
“Jesus,” Mark says. “Harsh.” I give an acknowledging shrug. “At least you’re no longer drifting around in the same boat as Troy and I,” he says, and as if on cue, there’s a scream from the playground and we spot Troy, pants around his ankles, going to work beneath the tube slide. Mark swears and takes off after him.
I keep drawing: an oblong sun, a crooked house, some stick figures. Gus has pushed his paper to the ground and is just scribbling on the table, a mural of waxy lightning bolts, writhing and collapsing in on themselves in mangled, beautiful heaps.
* * * *
My third job, the one I don’t share with Mark, is a weekend gig, mopping floors on the night shift at the hospital where they cut me up.
Tonight, I swab the wing where they keep the comas. Only the tick of the clock and the timid sighs of the reception nurse rise above the hum of fluorescent lights. Every room is exactly the same. Two beds. A curtain. A black monitor perched atop a mound of buttons and dials, tubes and cords dangling near the floor or draped across gray and sleeping bodies.
I clean the entire wing until I come to an empty room at the end of the hall where I close the door and lean my mop against the wall. I touch the stiff sheets on the bed, the cool metal railings that fold out on either side. I press the button on the hand sanitizer dispenser and a gob of white foam plops to the floor. I lay on the bed, stretch my legs. I know I’m in the wrong part of the hospital, but laying in the dark, it feels as if any one of these rooms could be the one I stayed in after my surgery.
I close my eyes and imagine being in a coma. Friends and family visit and hold my hand. Lonely nurses bathe me and tell me about their problems. I don’t do anything but lay there and people care about me. I felt safe here, waking up, after the surgery. Fed. Stitched. Drugged into sleepy recovery.
Staring at the window, I watch an airplane blink its way across the night sky. Like this, I manage a couple hours of sleep.
Monday morning, Mark gets called into the zoo on emergency because one of the elephants has diarrhea. The zoo pays him the most out of his three jobs, so he calls in sick to both the environmental agency and the after-school program and I’m on my own for the day. On my way out of the house, I find two envelopes in my mailbox. A three-hundred dollar radiology bill and a letter from the hospital threatening to hire a collection agency. I get through one block of canvassing before it starts raining.
In a few awful gulps, I kill what booze I’ve got. I don’t bother knocking on any more doors, just walk with my head down and my clipboard under my jacket, trying not to admit to myself that I’m heading toward Natalie’s house. She answers the door, brushing her teeth, in a tee-shirt and boxers. When she sees me, she laughs and I catch some minty spittle on the cheek.
“Got your clipboard,” she says. “What’s today’s cause?”
“Health care crisis.”
“I thought you worked for an environmental thing?”
“I do,” I say. She raises an eyebrow and I just stare at her. “It’s raining,” I say. She spits some toothpaste into the grass and lets me inside.
“Have you been drinking?” she asks.
“It’s ten in the morning.”
“That late already?”
She lets out a nervous giggle. “Hang on,” she says and she disappears into the kitchen. In a couple of minutes, we’re gulping down bloody marys.
When we kiss, it is hesitant at first, the shy affection of two teenagers on a first date. But soon, we are sprawled across the couch, the taste of toothpaste still cooking in her mouth, our lips and hands navigating each other hungrily. Afterward, we lie, breathing, her fingers circling the stitches on my abdomen.
“What happened here?” she asks, and despite my instinct, I tell her my whole sob story. I tell her about the surgery, about the bills, about the stolen bike and then about the other stolen bike. We lay still for a long time. I get up to use the bathroom, splash some water on my face, stare at myself in the mirror.
“I have to go to work,” I say when I come back out. At the door, she runs her hand through my hair, kisses my forehead. Later, I reach into my pocket and find another twenty.
Mark calls me late after he’s finished at the zoo.
“I smell like shit and I need vent,” he says. It’s after midnight already but we decide to wander around the neighborhood with a bottle. We find our way into the cemetery, marching between graves, dew wetting the cuffs of our pants. “I gave the zoo my two weeks,” Mark tells me. “I don’t care if I won’t be able to pay my fucking loans, I can’t do it anymore. Four of us with shovels and it took everyone staying an hour late to clean up after just the one elephant. It was like Niagara Falls.”
I want to tell him that I went back to Natalie’s, that I hate my jobs too, that I’m terrified of the future, and that unless I win the lottery, I’m fucked for the next ten years, minimum. But none of that is news, and there’s an exhaustion in Mark’s voice that keeps me from interrupting, that lets me know something new inside of him has broken.
“We’d clean up one pile only to find that three more had spilled out somewhere on the other side of the cage,” he says. “It was like Hercules battling the hydra. And someone must have forgotten to put up a sign cause there were all these families with little kids who came to see the two o’clock elephant show. The kids were just fucking crying, man. Just fucking crying.”
We wander until the bottle is empty. Then, Mark heaves it up into the air. I watch the bottle soar upwards and there’s a moment of silence as we stand, waiting for the shatter of glass, for the sound of destruction that would satisfy our mood. But it never comes, the bottle disappearing instead somewhere into the darkness.
In the morning, we canvas our way downtown. We don’t drink anything, just ring doorbells and do our jobs. After three hours, we’ve made two dollars. We sit down on the curb and Mark takes off his baseball cap, wipes the boozy sweat from his brow. We’re both still wearing yesterday’s clothes, fresh with grass stains from stumbling around in the cemetery. A guy in a suit walks by, bends over and drops a crumpled bill in Mark’s hat.
“First dollar I’ve made that hasn’t been from begging,” Mark says.
In the evening, before my shift at the hospital, I walk to Natalie’s house, practicing a break-up speech in my head. I try to remember what I said the first time I ended things with her, back in college. On my way, I stop at the corner store for a six pack and pay with the twenty that Natalie gave me yesterday. I crack a beer and sip while I walk. It’s garbage night and there’s shit everywhere. An empty trash can rolls lazily in the street and the wind drags plastic bags through the gutter. Nearby, the cry of a siren swells, fades.
Ahead of me, an old guy pushes a shopping cart full of empty cans. He pokes through the recycling bins, picks the crumpled strays from the lawns of the big college houses. I gulp down my beer and put the can in his cart as I pass.
“Toss it in there, toss it in there,” he says, smiling. I walk a bit further, then stop, turn around, and offer him the other five beers. “Hey,” the guy says, “my lucky day. God bless.” He parks his cart, sits down on the curb, cracks one open.
When I arrive at Natalie’s, she answers the door and before I can say anything, takes my hand, says, “I’ve got something for you.” She leads me down the driveway, around the side of the house, to the garage, where she bends down, lifts the garage door, the wheels squeaking in the track above her.
Dusty columns of sunlight shine in from the tiny windows. Two bicycles are propped in the back corner, one leaned against the other. Natalie moves the first bike out of the way, wheels the second out into the driveway.
“My friend who rented this place before me left it. He moved to California and couldn’t take it with him.”
“You’re giving me a bike?”
“It’s just gathering dust. And you mentioned the other day that yours got stolen.”
“Yeah,” I say, “twice.”
“And besides, it’s too big for me. I can barely even get my leg over it.”
“You should sell it,” I tell her. “It’s in great shape. You could get money for this.”
“Honestly,” she says, “It’s either yours or it’s just going to sit here for whoever moves in when I leave. I didn’t even remember it was in here until I was cleaning the garage out last week. You’d be doing me a favor just getting it out of the way.”
“I don’t know,” I tell her.
“Hop on,” she says. “Test drive.”
I take the handlebars, climb on. The chain clanks into gear and the bike lurches forward down the driveway. I swing out into the road, pedaling soft at first, then hard, gaining speed. The whole thing squeaks and tremors as if it hasn’t been ridden in years. I stand up, pedal faster, squinting against the wind as I cruise past the guy with the shopping cart, still sitting on the corner. He lifts his beer in salute as I go by. At the end of the street, I squeeze the brakes, let the bike ease to a stop. I put my feet down on the pavement and stand, panting. Then I turn around and ride back to Natalie’s.