Only onions posed a problem. The mushy plums could go—buying them had carried over from when Maris was still in town. Bill would buy a pound or two, maybe forgetting she had left, or wanting to remind herself of her, as if that would help anything. Hell if he knew one way or the other. Keeping them around wouldn’t bring her back from Atlanta, or wherever she lived now. The tomatoes could go as well, the hothouse Beefsteaks turned into mush, the grocery-store hybrids that never ripened to begin with. When did people start throwing tomatoes at bad actors, anyway?
A dispersed salad was lining up. A moldy peach and a handful of black walnuts from the park, would add variety. No eggs—an innocent paint job could get ruined.
Bill set the TV tray of produce on the balcony as a bat shrieked by; the mosquitoes it fed on had been in the air since twilight. Bats had their job, he had his.
Tonight that job involved choosing onions. Vidalias were the golden mean, golden with the sulfur of their Georgia soil, the Mama Bear, just right option. The best had the size and heft of baseballs, and he could lob like them like a warning shot near a car cruising for crack or hookers. Once or twice he had come close to tagging dealers tagging their lieutenants around, then slipped inside before “motherfucker” and its variants spangled in air with several parts of speech. Stupid bastards.
The pleasure of condescension ended as blood and shame rushed into his temples. He was missing the point as much as they were. The point was to love, not judge. If he wasn’t going to teach them something he could just as well stay inside; anything else was vanity. That particular onion couldn’t revive a shriveled body in Sudan, or whatever starvation’s stop was on its never-ending world tour, but throwing it for no good reason was waste, an insult to nature. If he wanted an onion later and didn’t have one, there was no one else to blame. With onions came choices.
Bill set out the tumbler, for his purposes a shot glass. Squat, heavy-bottomed, it must have started life in one of the proverbial better department stores, or an upscale bar, passing through homes and being chipped en route to the thrift shop where he’d found it behind a thicket of mismatched wine glasses.
He pulled the bourbon out of the cupboard from between the black beans and the ramen packs. Cutting corners on food and housing had stretched out his money during the leave of absence while he sorted things out. Still, all his cutting corners and sorting things out might end with nothing to show for the trouble. Next week was the deadline for going back to work or resigning. Fish or cut bait. Everybody, even a copywriter—especially a copywriter—could be replaced. It would come down to whether he had enough money to hold out for another job, and more time to think. Figuring out the finances could wait until tomorrow. Running the numbers drunk sounded like a bad idea.
Tonight wasn’t making them any worse. Drinking at home was cheap, and there was only one bottle in the house. The studio apartment “house” five blocks from the nearest laundry. There was wine to go with dinner—jug red worked with all kinds of canned soup as well as omelets—and beer for coming home after errands, like getting beer, but only one bottle of spirits at any time.
The time for beer and wine, though, had passed. It was nine o’clock.
The first shot went down fast, then the second. Aligning his throat and the glass sent the whiskey straight down, like tipping a can of oil spiked with the spout or oil trocar, or whatever it was called, into the crankcase. There had never been time to wonder about the word before. The rest was implied. Before things with Maris fell apart. Now there was time to study words and everything else. Outside, a few rounds popped but hit nothing, with a pause between shots: only a semi-automatic. You didn’t have to become the beast you fought, but you did end up becoming a kind of zoologist.
Before things with Maris fell apart. If they’d been married there would have been goods or money to divide. A surrendered stereo, or so many dollars a month, would have served as a symbol of separation and of penance. There was only blame, which didn’t split into percentages.
Some must have belonged to Maris. She could have been something other than oblique (or was it opaque—he’d have to look that up) with his attempts to start The Talk, capital T, capital T, or what his friends called the “what are we?” talk. His friends had already decided. If it looked like a duck, and walked like a duck, then you probably had a duck on your hands.
Ducks were harder to identify up close. Once she suggested returning to a vegetarian restaurant they had tried a few nights before. It wasn’t going to happen. Anonymous beans and grains, paste and sawdust under a veneer of curry, still lay on his tongue. His answer spat them out. “Not that crap again.”
She laughed and looked across the kitchen table. “Are we having our first fight?” Quack?
They had ordered in a pizza, and sat only inches apart on the couch. For an hour he stayed on his side of the invisible plane between their cushions, and after that hour he left.
There was no telling if anything could have been salvaged. Within a week a neighbor, already half-drunk, had invited him up for drinks, and they fell into bed without dinner. There was no time to call Maris and see if she would have cared; besides, he had something coming to him after all his frustration. For a month there was no time to call, but only to erase her messages from the answering machine. When the neighbor stopped answering her door and telephone, the affair dissolved into itching, recrimination, and an edge of Kwell in the shower’s steam.
Then came Maris’ turn not to answer calls, or notes left on her windshield. When he tried stopping by, only on even-numbered days to show he had some restraint, she apologized for having no time to talk. When she finally did have time there was no choice but to propose on the spot. She answered at once. “I think you should leave now.” If the police came, they weren’t going to help him.
Several months later they ran into each other at a department store, and Maris was not the first to ask if he had AIDS. No, as Bill told everyone, truthfully, he had only lost weight. Informed, she retreated into the lingerie section.
That evening a recorded message declared her number changed and unlisted. Another car was parked in front of her house, and new furniture was outlined in the front room’s amber light. Another weekend without eating followed, and Monday began with vomiting, dry heaves at first, then an emerald of bile. The bottle in the house was never Chartreuse.
Time for a refill. Then another, and a choice of ordnance. Close by was a wizened tangerine, shrunken in its peel like an old man in his clothes. Its porous three or so ounces could cause problems with terminal velocity and being knocked off-course by wind. Navel oranges, with cork-thick skin and moist segments, didn’t present this problem, but they were worth eating, which he’d done for the last month. It would have been ten weeks, the longest streak except for a two-day lapse near Maris’ birthday—or was it the neighbor’s, whose name had dissolved after the second drink?
Bill was ready to go for the knuckleball, so definitely the tangerine. His hand wasn’t big enough to wrap that way around an orange. So he had made the right choice, for once, of what to keep and what to throw out, or immediate versus deferred gratification. Did that come from an ethics course or an econ course? Either way, it was the opposite of how he’d handled things with Maris, and the distinction didn’t help at the moment.
Live and learn; then live, whether or not there was any chance to apply what you’d learned. Or you could stop living. That was also an option. For pussies. How could you know if you’d learned anything without waiting to try it out? You didn’t leave a mountaintop, or the moon, without at least trying to plant a flag.
That would be like ignoring the woman who might have loved you, inscrutable as she was, and sleeping with someone else. Both answered only to the self and no principle beyond the self, which amounted to no principle at all. A professor had once laid out the difference between two schools of ethics. One went for results, the end justifying the means if it came to that, but results kept slipping into the future: when would you know the final results? The other approach meant doing something because, whatever the results, it was the right thing to do, like the walrus-looking old man in the oatmeal commercial said. Not that it was right to think of anyone as walrus-looking.
Bill aimed the tangerine in front of a cruising SUV that swerved, then slowed. A tinted window rolled down at a stately pace. One voice shouted something garbled, and another said, “Hey, watch where the fuck you’re throwing shit.”
A low-caliber round nicked a cinder block on the next floor. Was this their warning or just bad aim? A quick read of the day’s crime news suggested that most of the punks out there couldn’t shoot worth a damn and just kept pulling the trigger until they got lucky.
Still, throwing the tangerine may not have been a great idea. The SUV sped up and turned the corner before a sure answer suggested itself. The questions and answers were always a step behind events or, in the case of Maris, months behind. How could anyone know what was the right thing to do?
The law dealt with intent, what you were trying to do. But that went back to consequences. How could you tell if the intentions were any good?
There had been time to read about the issue—huge, gaping vistas of time—once both Maris and the neighbor were gone, with no successor in sight. Rehearsing introductions and pick-up lines at home didn’t help. The words, sometimes read from index cards, stopped in his throat. Worse, he said what he was thinking. “I just made the mistake of my life.” Then came the tears, the fucking tears, again. There was no way to go out, or go to sleep. That left reading to see if there was anything to learn from that mistake.
The Desert Fathers had covered ethics in biblical language: discernment of spirits, testing all things, holding fast to what is good, and so on. The right thing could be done for the wrong reason, like rescuing a drowning child to be known as a hero, and a man who resisted temptation could still be wretched. Was a man who stayed out of brothels primarily to protect his reputation any better than the man of no reputation who went in?
Bill only threw fruits and vegetables near the johns, whose demand drove the trade, and not the hookers. He didn’t want the johns debase the women, or themselves, by seeing people as only a means of pleasure. The women had it bad enough already. Presumably none of the girls had listed this as what she wanted to be when she grew up.
After shot five, maybe six, he lobbed a few bruised apples in front of the dealers’ front men, all under eighteen for catch-and-release in court. Some of the shorties were already six feet tall, but they still had time to look for a new line of work before they could be tried as adults for slinging their goods or taking a shot at someone, like him.
Which he had avoided so far. Seeking out martyrdom was acting from pride, or a love of praise, even if you didn’t live to hear it. If nobody could figure why you were pitching groceries off a balcony, it merely made for a stupid death, like the man in Manila who had been shot in an argument over whether the chicken or the egg came first. The stories never said what side he took.
Dealing with what presented itself was another issue. The SUV turned left onto the street and stopped in front of a fire hydrant. Two men stepped out. The guns were no surprise, only the banana clips. They were good for at least fifteen rounds.
Bill jogged into the kitchen, then jogged back out to wait.
There was no time to call the police. He tossed an onion in front of the men. Bill then crouched behind the railing and came up with the mesh bag. He threw again so that the men would stop and think, and again after that. Onions arced and dropped to the sidewalk, choice after choice.