t had been twenty-one months since Mike W was gainfully employed. He’d quit everything—his cushy toll-booth researcher position for the D.O.T.—and drafted a 29-page proposal with accompanying Power Point presentation, pitched it to public television.
It was a history of local (90-mile radius) abandoned train stations. By accident, he’d happened upon some old shit in a drawer in the basement at work. By the end of the day, he’d convinced himself he wanted to make a documentary. He envisioned a televised four-part series, connected somehow to a gallery exhibit, he hoped, featuring interactive train replicas, and little figurines doing train jobs, or waiting patiently on a platform.
This gallery, if Mike W had his way, would have a table, with a tablecloth, and on top of that wine glasses. Glass ones, not plastic. Full. Free for attendees. Mike W would deliver a speech. Not a long one. Because when you saw the work as a whole, if it didn’t hit you in the face immediately, then the speech wasn’t going to help you.
The public television people deemed it a cinch, primarily because there was no political tone, just old train stations. Even though he was an amateur, they regarded Mike W’s vaguely municipal work history as a sign of integrity. A floor-waxing polish company and a chain grocer gladly underwrote it all.
So for six months Mike W was hard at it. Sincerely. Kept his wife up at night chatting about self-discovery. Even his neighbors got involved. They flagged him down in his driveway, sweaty from mowing their lawns, uncrumpling black and white somethings or other, saying, “Look what Tammy’s husband Chip found down in Osseo.”
Mike W signed up a local college kid, Brenton, to be his cinematographer. Sure, their medium was just videotape, and thus far kid’s main concerns were returning spent kegs, and his struggles with softball-fielding and Milk Dud consumption, but Mike W played a hunch. Buried underneath the mitt-punching and chocolate caramels, he was confident that Brenton had an eye for this stuff. A hunger for documenting.
George Ghimb, 54, was a guy Mike W knew from having drinks at the city’s budget golf course. Ghimb was good at crosswords and the word jumble, or at least placing the newspaper that contained them underneath a sweating glass of Christian Brothers, so Mike W enlisted him as a researcher, sent him trolling the archives at the University. Ghimb retired from the postal service with a toxic pancreas, and the controlled climate and quiet drudgery of the library suited him.
When the first really big check arrived, Mike W got sorta flashy, had railroad hats made with the title, “Station to Station” embroidered on them, handed them out to whomever would wear one. He also bought an expensive foreign jeep to scout sites. That was a mistake. The thing broke down almost immediately. The engine repairs and Mike W’s pride sucked up most of the rest of the advance. Parts had to be shipped in from Hungary.
His wife was a teacher, so for nine months a year she was off Mike W’s back teaching 15 year-olds Spanish tenses. When the train station doc. stalled, Senora P, as she was known to students, footed the light bill and kept food on the table, but gradually froze Mike W out—including not fucking him, even though biologically she was CODE RED and needed to fuck in order to stave off going psycho.
Senora P (she never took Mike W’s last name, and by the way, the P was pronounced Spanish-style, “pay”) had been down this road before with Mike W. He lugged home do-it-yourself sheds whose walls wound up unadjoined, leaning against pine trees in their backyard. He signed up for condos in central Florida whose elaborate cleaning schedules demanded they travel twice a year to scour grout and vacuum in the everglades. So now, she wasn’t grooving on his Werner Herzog routine.
Mike W projected his unhappiness about this onto the broken jeep and masturbated in the shower a few times a week. Though he had little aptitude for it, he sporadically attended charcoal drawing classes in order to perfect some train station images he wanted to place in the documentary. He mainly wound up challenging the instructor in an attempt to impress his classmates, who were other adults who’d lied to their bosses and hired babysitters and didn’t appreciate it.
Since the money he promised Brenton dried up, when the kid graduated college, he reluctantly left town for chiropractic school. Brenton suffered doubters in college—two kids who were supposed to be his friends—who tried to convince him they wouldn’t amount to shit, unless it involved partying. They loved this role. Not being shit, to them, fit like an old pair of fuzzy slippers.
Brenton privately chafed about this. He banked on the documentary to be his “No, you’re wrong,” statement to these t-shirt wearing, ruddy-cheeked putzes. In his mind, Brenton occasionally reconfigured the doc. so it skewed more Matthew Barney, instead of a boring PBS history of rural train depots. Either way, he wanted to see the thing through, but Mike W’s cash was gone, and his parents’ check book was closed. Wandering off to chiropractic school was glum evidence his friends were right.
George Ghimb saw the work stoppage as an opportunity to start drinking heavily again and was subsequently banned from the university library. He spent his days sneaking back into the archives, leaving perfect, unwrapped sticks of butter in stacks of rare original documents, and making legal complaints against area pet owners. He called the police on a parakeet. Parakeets are small creatures; they don’t commonly disturb people in other houses.
“I don’t like the idea of it,” Ghimb complained to the responding officer. “I’m itching in places I didn’t even know about. And my pancreas.”
The bird, a shabby make-a-wish type deal for a boy afflicted with M.S., was swiftly euthanized. Following that, Ghimb’s neighbors couldn’t do more than greet him with a scowl. More than one of them dreamt of lashing out, but Ghimb was rat bin, unpredictable, with a healthy federal pension fueling his whims. A stray punch might destroy all they’d worked for. Ghimb thus careened freely between his ranch home and the library at all hours of the day.
The only thing left for Mike W was Brenton’s girlfriend. She was stuck in town with one more year of (therapeutic) Mathematics courses, and paid her tuition by working part-time at a gas station close to Mike W’s house. Mike W measured his time with Brenton as soldiers would. Their nine months together felt like a decade. This closeness spilled over to the girl, who was pretty hot, coincidentally, and Mike W regarded her more of a confidant than she really was.
Once his wife was safely out of the house each morning, Mike W woke, washed his semen down the shower drain, donned his Minnesota Vikings’ Nico Noga replica jersey. He walked to the gas station for a two-liter of Diet Pepsi and a USA Today. The girl stood behind the counter half the mornings, wearing the gas station’s cherry-red polo. She accessorized with the woven cloth necklaces favored by jam band supporters.
Initially, she liked Mike W. Thought Brenton’s opportunity was the shit. She slowly realized—after many nights on Brenton’s thinning futon, enduring his anxieties, staring up at the popcorn ceiling—that Mike W was no visionary. Mike W, Brenton opined, was like a grown-up college kid, only with less going for him. Seeing Mike W now, thumbing through the gas station’s cashew racks, the girl understood this. She gradually and irredeemably soured on him.
This was not apparent to Mike W. With no desire to work on the movie, he started fixating on the girl. Dropping in to the gas station to purchase more cashews, check out the girl, fantasize about reviving the documentary.
He’d lean against the counter for twenty or thirty seconds, eyeing up the girl, before saying, “Hmong.”
The girl would stand there, wrist-deep in a bucket of Now & Laters, waiting patiently for him to tease out the details.
“Hip-Hop,” he’d continue after twenty more seconds, waving a salty index finger in the air. “Festival...What do you think?”
“What do you mean exactly?” She’d ask.
“A Hmong Hip-Hop Festival. With their traditional robes,” he’d say. “Only I don’t know if they have robes. We’ll look that up, put Ghimb on it. Toss in some wicked beats.”
“Now, this goes down at the train station. Any of the train stations. Incorporating the Old World with the New Old World, get it?”
“It’s for pop culture appeal. This is a benefit. An all-ages benefit show, with sodas.”
“For more funding. Then we get Brenton out of back school,” he’d say, even though he did not want to get Brenton out of back school. “And we stitch this thing together.”
“That easy, huh?”
“I think so.”
“I’m gonna write this up, then. Deliver a presentation.”
But instead of writing it up, one afternoon Mike W took the city bus to a pawn shop, traded an old university training camera Brenton left behind for a used ten-speed. He also made some half-hearted pleas to the D.O.T. for part-time work. And he started making more trips to the gas station, paying closer attention to the girl’s shifts.
He could have paged through a campus directory for the girl’s address, but instead Mike W got the idea to just follow her home. He started loitering outside the gas station waiting for the girl’s replacement to show up--often pretending he was a stranger--fiddling with paper toweling or an air hose, or scrubbing his bike with windshield cleaner.
One day Mike W finally tore off after the girl, after she pulled her Ford Escort out of the lot. He’d oiled his chain, and tried to stay fifty yards back, pedaling in a manner he hoped was fairly discreet.
She drove down the big hill a block from the gas station. Mike W coasted behind but couldn’t keep up. The next day he simply rode to the bottom of the hill at the appropriate time and waited, but she never drove past. She had the day off. Mike W sat there with one foot on the curb, and the other on a pedal and slowly pieced this together. Swore quietly to himself. Got goosebumps replaying the missed connection in his head.
“Almost,” he whispered with a shiver and a half-grin. He was proud he took the chance, but that gave way to a sense of relief. Or maybe guilt. He didn’t really know what the fuck he was trying to prove. And he didn’t have any idea what he’d say once he found out where she lived. Thus far, he’d only imagined them cuddled up on a couch, watching TV, in a house furnished with shabby collegiate sofas and blinking beer signs, feeling sorry about betraying Brenton and Senora P, but not sorry enough to keep them from fucking and watching more TV.
He pedaled into a nearby hiking trail, purposely steering the bike’s thin-rimmed wheels through the trail’s chuckholes to punish himself for the stalled documentary and wasting time pursuing the girl. He also kept an eye open for poorly hidden porn. The woods’ ever-shifting ecosystem occasionally yielded pornographic treasures squirreled away by area teens. But nothing leapt out at him.
He saw a bong instead. It was red. A fiberglass two-footer, peeking out of a hole in an elm near the path, at an angle that half-suggested a flag should be attached to it. Mike W coasted off the trail. He leaned the ten speed against the tree, climbed onto the cross-bar, wriggled free the smoking apparatus.
The water inside was murky. Filmy. Little unidentifiable flakes sloshed to and fro. Mike W wasn’t certain if it was rain water or the real stuff. A cursory sniff didn’t help. Cricket buzzing came and went. Clouds drifted overhead. A jogger crunched closer on the gravel. Mike W quickly tip-toed deeper into the woods, enduring thigh scratches, a painful roll of his left ankle.
The bong’s stem was stripped of its bowl. No goodies. Mike W remembered Todd Pineapples, the dealer-hero of his youth who donated most of his front teeth for a higher purpose--teaching the neighborhood kids curb endos. Todd had solutions for moneyless pockets, harsh mall workers, weedless bongs.
Mike W periscoped an eye back down the tube, then brought it to his lips. He guzzled the water, and smacked his lips enthusiastically, as if to convince himself the flavor was decent. That the high he might get would show him a new point of view for the documentary. Inspire his ass. He belched loudly, then bit at the fleeing bongwater molecules escaping his mouth.
His guilt subsided a bit. He concluded that bong drinking, along with adultery, were the types of risks he was going to have to take with his life now if he wanted to get inside that gallery. Make a speech. He swung his arm in a loop-to-loop and let the bong fly, not caring where it landed.
He pedaled further downtown, battling a growing light-headedness. He refused to acknowledge the niggling idea that Senora P was home from work by now, probably angry that Mike W hadn’t left a note, nor paid sufficient attention to Snorkles, their Golden Retriever who was most assuredly scurrying impatiently across the kitchen linoleum, begging for a piss.
Mike W passed a pizza place he took Senora P to sometimes. Once, when the whole city seemed excited about the project, they’d let him wheel in a dry-erase board and he plotted crucial twists in the documentary, while Brenton and Ghimb whaled down pitchers of Miller Lite. Now, his forehead felt cold, damp. His blood sugar was fucked. He got off the bike. He yanked on the door handle. It didn’t budge. A teenage cook inside noticed, pressed his face against the shop’s picture window, then stepped back and pointed to his watch.
“How much longer?” Mike W asked. He needed hot tomato something. Cooked food. Carbohyrdates. Protein. Melted cheese.
“‘Nother hour,” the kid mouthed.
Mike W nodded his head in understanding. Then he tried the door handle again, anyway. He wanted to make sure. He felt it prudent to further articulate his need for a pizza, garlic bread, whatever. It still didn’t budge. Just made a thud-thud sound as the deadbolt wiggled in its chamber.
The kid-cook had begun dispensing himself a large plastic tumbler of Mountain Dew. Mike W’s tugging on the door made him set the soda down, snort, shake his head.
“What the hell?” The kid laughed.
“Come on!” Mike W stomped his foot. He flared his nostrils a few times to let the kid know that he knew something was already in the oven.
The kid’s mouth opened wide and black and his chest, large from a diet of teen pizza worker experiments (double dough, quadruple cheese, all remaining unfrozen sausage in inventory) heaved repeatedly.
Mike W squinted in at the kid. All the florescent lights were on, so it wasn’t difficult. Mike W saw the wave of baby fat wiggling below the boy’s chin. The flour splotched on the boy’s cheeks. He took in his heaving laughter, the boy’s apron tightening with each gasp. Finally, his documentarian eye caught something else, as well. Something bigger. More profound. Mike W saw the makings of a real asshole.
He turned from the restaurant, still dizzy. The world was shit.
He got back on the bike. His stomach was empty. The bong water guzzling delivered no tangible high, just confusion, and a high-pitched whistle thrumming between his ears. The front of his brain felt like a worn kitchen sponge, speckled with carrot shavings and spoiled tartar sauce. There was no real traffic to dodge, but Mike W’s bike kept pulling towards parked cars. The alignment was fucked.
Mike W fought to keep the bike from crashing. Maybe, he concluded, he was a little high after all. He got paranoid about his equilibrium. Then he got stuck wondering if he was mentally pronouncing equilibrium correctly. It felt like too many syllables. His handlebars scraped an old Dodge Omni. Mike W veered into the road, up onto the opposite sidewalk. He got off the bike and walked it. He wrestled with a laundry list of immediate concerns:
1) He’d never fix the bike.
2) He’d take a look at the bike.
3) He wouldn’t know how to fix the bike.
He stepped off the curb. Checked for traffic. Walked across the intersection.
4) The bike was a garage sale shitter, anyway.
5) The completed documentary would put him on a Gary Fisher mountain bike.
6) Who still drove a Dodge Omni? The owners of all of these parked cars were supreme fuckers.
He got back on the sidewalk.
7) Biking around the city on a garage sale shitter when you owned a foreign jeep was bush league.
8) Fuck the jeep.
9) Fuck the Gary Fisher.
A derelict strolled past him in a state of contentment Mike W envied.
10) A sausage pizza would have been magic.
11) Had the jeep worked, he would have discovered where the girl lived without all this bullfuckingshit.
12) Heck, he would have given her a ride home from work. He would have covertly gotten down on all fours, crawled under her Ford Escort, located important wires, grabbed the wires, yanked hard on them...
He stepped off the curb. Didn’t check for traffic. Walked. A passing car honked. The teenage boy riding shotgun scowled.
“Fuck you,” Mike W yelled. He worried they’d circle back. The car kept driving. He stepped back onto the sidewalk.
12 continued) ...dusted himself off, walked in the store, paid for and opened a Mountain Dew, like that fat pizza-teen was guzzling, then engaged in simple conversation.
13) He would have walked her outside at shift’s end, waited while she couldn’t get her car started.
14) Casually offered her a ride in the jeep.
15) The jeep! The jeep! A fucking Hungarian nightmare! It could have been a mobile rendezvous spot in which to talk and later pork this girl.
He passed a chocolate shop that had already closed. He shook his head. He should sue the shit out of these people. Of course, no lawyer would take it on, because they were pussies, too. This was a prime example of why the downtown was drying up. Shitty business practices. Here was a guy, he thought, who would have been glad to plunk down some money for some thin mints, and these chocolate-selling fuckers did not possess the vision to grasp this.
16) Everything he owned with wheels was broken.
17) Except the lawnmower.
18) Everything that he owned with wheels that was transportation was broken.
19) The documentary was never going to get finished.
20) Fucking pizza.
21) Fucking chocolate shop.
22) Fucking lawyers.
23) Fucking bike.
He wound up at the city library. A municipal monstrosity. A concrete shoebox on stilts with terrible parking. Mike W got off the bike and delivered a kick to the front tire. It bounced off a pebbled wall and bit into his leg, leaving a black mark on his shin.
This was no way to enter a library, he thought.
Mike W spit on his hand, rubbed at his leg. The spit only made the spot spread. And his bongwater-laced saliva smelled like cat feces. He turned and sent his heel into the tire again. The tire swung back into his leg.
“Fuck you, tire,” he scolded. He took a step away from the bike again, then pivoted and pinched some foam from the handlebar grip, let it disintegrate in his fingers. The whistling in his head was god-fucking-awful.
He walked inside the library. The air conditioning gave him an ice cream headache. Amped up the whistling. Walking across the foyer floor—a combination of carpeting and slatted steel that allowed for slush drainage in the winter—he encountered a thin, bearded librarian. The guy was wearing a peach-colored cardigan and Station to Station rail cap. Another poor son-of-a-bitch who believed in him, Mike W thought. He greeted Mike W with a smile and a nod.
Mike W’s shame welled back up. The librarian was probably smarter than him, paid his bills on time, understood that makers of documentaries did not stalk their unpaid cinematographer/chiropractic student’s girlfriends, nor deplete the woods of its bong water.
“How ya doin’?” Mike asked, preemptively. Makethisfast, makethis fast, makethisfast, he thought.
“I’m well,” the man said, grinning back. Mike W’s stoner paranoia confused this as a challenge. Like “…as opposed to you,” was coming next. It didn’t.
“What’s cooking, Ken Burns?” The librarian continued, earnestly. Maybe the librarian, Mike W thought, was the perfect first person to notify. Let him know the dream was over. Cry, if need be. See what his response was. He wanted to tell the librarian he was having trouble even steering a bicycle these days, that’s what was cooking. Marinating in a roasting pan alongside an intense desire to woo a math-therapy major who worked at a gas station.
Instead, Mike W opted to lie. “Just doing some research,” he said. “Funny discovery. Most Amish Indians were afraid to cross train tracks in Trempeleau County.”
“The Amish and the Indians,” Mike W corrected himself. “For various reasons. They both had superstitions that still manifest themselves in curious ways.”
The librarian stood there. He maybe bought what was said, adjusted his Station to Station cap. The whistling in his head jellied Mike W’s knees. He needed to settle himself. Recalibrate that blood sugar. Get a snack.
The librarian cleared his throat. Mike W excused himself, and fumbled awkwardly through his pockets. Fished out a crumpled twenty. His only twenty. He held it out to the librarian like it was a nut that needed cracking. “Got a dollar?” He’d leave the exchange rate up to the librarian.
The man smiled wryly, familiar with the problem of needing a single when you only had a twenty. He unfolded his wallet. Forked over a starched, crisp dollar bill.
“I’ll get you back when—” Mike W explained, grabbing the dollar.
“No worries,” the librarian interrupted.
“Sometimes I’m so busy with this thing, I forget to eat.”
“God speed.” The librarian pressed his palms together, bowed.
Mike W went to the basement vending machines, satisfied that his dopey line about the Amish didn’t shake the librarian’s confidence in him. After all, he wouldn’t have offered up the dollar if he thought Mike W was a fraud.
The food vending machine was filled with library-friendly snacks. Little granola clusters. Peaches that had been dehydrated. A vegan gummi confection called Eco Pandas. Then, in a poorly lit spiral in the upper right corner of the machine, Mike W spotted a sleeve of Chuckles. He took this as a sign. Victory.
He pressed B-11. The candy fell. He pocketed two dimes change, made his way up to Sports Reference on the second floor.
On the stairs, the crinkle of the cellophane in his pocket reminded him the Chuckles were a consolation prize. That he’d been denied pizza. This angered him briefly. Then he grew angry with his own anger. He patted the Chuckles through his jeans and reassured himself that pizza wasn’t too far off. He’d call Senora P and convince her to meet him. He’d actually work at conversation. Drum up some curiosity about her day. Save the marriage, at least until he had the girl won over.
In Sports Reference, he scanned the shelves for appropriate time-killing reading material. Popped a couple of the Chuckles. No one would bother him up here. He found what looked to be a very interesting NFL Legends book, and flopped into a rust-colored leather chair that had no discernable frame. He cracked open the book. The type was huge. Aimed at new readers. Or Dummies.
He decided to read the book, anyway. He felt like he should start from scratch. Right this moment. Put training wheels on his life. Build confidence. This book was a symbol, like the discovery of the Chuckles. Simple, sure, but part of the new foundation he hoped to lay. One step at a time.
Except the book sucked. Its chapters were on guys like Wesley Walls, Doug Flutie, Moose Johnston. They weren’t exactly legends. He contemplated getting up, finding a new book. But the AC finally felt good. His legs were tired. And Mike W realized that he was very, very high.
He sighed and investigated the remaining Chuckles. His Chuckles. His ownership of these Chuckles. He was at the reward stage. He’d endured lemon. Tasted like Pledge. He’d been disappointed by licorice. Wasn’t licorice-y enough. Now he had red. Cherry. A winner on anyone’s tastebuds. He considered sliding his index finger into the cardboard sleeve, clawing it out. He moved the NFL Legends book onto his left knee, out of harm’s way.
He woke when it was dark outside. Sitting up, he looked out a window and saw a couple of taillights on cars heading towards a bridge on the street below, then a blurry reflection of himself. He resembled a watercolor painting of a very sick werewolf. The library’s fluorescent lights shut off and on in bunches. The PA system played a symphonic version of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” with the strings awkwardly adding new, prolonged syllables on the “a-ga-in-n-n-n” part of the chorus.
Mike W felt no smarter for struggling with the book. He was not high anymore. His head was not whistling either. He shut the NFL Legends book tightly, pudgy Chuckles bookmark still in place. He eased down the stairs, passed through the library’s bar code detector, felt paranoid it would buzz. It did not. An asshole had drained the air out of his front tire, so he walked the bike twelve blocks to a service station.
He filled the tire. He rode the bike through the city. Up the hill. It was way too late to invest anything in the notion that sharing a pizza with Senora P would fix the evening. He was ashamed for imagining Snorkles’ death, and the fight that might accompany it.
Senora P was in bed when he got home, facing the wall. The dog lay in his gingham bed on the floor, facing the wall. Mike W retreated to the kitchen. The chirp-chirp-chirp from the microwave, in which Mike W was melting cheese over corn chips, almost inspired them both to get up, for different reasons, but neither did.