Issue 4

Concerning J___

 · Fiction

After she says she is leaving him, J___ is glad, relieved actually, and makes himself a hairspray-Zippo flamethrower first thing. It’s a bitch to hold and lights only one in every five tries, but damn if it can’t make a body jump when it does. I know what I’m doing, he tells her while lighter fluid drips onto his hand, though he isn’t sure he believes it himself. Chasing Dog across the living room shag as she yips at the flames, he feels full of some new mystery he decides to call freedom and later that night amid empties of high-content, low-quality alcoholic drink, he decides her never needed he in the first place.

Or was it the other way around?


Next morning the air is cold and fresh and unforgiving. She’s left for work but hasn’t left for good, as a note on the counter makes clear. Breaking up, it says, is not the same as breaking a lease. Stretching, J___ feels strangely elated, unburdened, and would like to do the adult equivalent of skipping, whatever that is, but cuts his hair instead, lopping off fistfuls unceremoniously with scissors he found in the kitchen. The new J___ looks jagged, homeless-like, and in need of a matching beard. I’m in need of a matching beard, he says to the mirror. She used to make him shave every day. Three bagels, a beer, and J___ is outside standing in the middle of a new day while Dog shits on the stoop.

J___ does not clean up after.


The headache arrives late without an invitation as J___ is in search of somewhere to go besides work. Turns out the adult equivalent of skipping is skipping your job, only at ten in the morning there’s little else to do in a small town but slave. Pubs are not yet pouring, the hour won’t be happy for quite a bit, and daytime television was always her thing. J___ browses a local hardware store for two solid hours before admitting defeat and heading to work. The fistful of washers he pockets on the way out, though, makes him feel better even if he has no use for them. Stealing is a thrill no matter what the fuck you take, he thinks, washers a-jangle in his slacks.


Boss says: I’m afraid I just don’t know you anymore, J___.

J___ says: I’m sort of between identities at the moment, Boss.


Lunch time and J___ is trying to drive away the headache with a fast food concoction where meat is sandwiched between two larger meats, only it doesn’t feel like enough. When he’s kicked out for trying to flambé the food with leftover whiskey from a flask and the homemade flamethrower he vows revenge. I vow revenge, he says though no one listens. It’s not the first time he’s been told not to return to this particular restaurant, not the first time the authorities were summoned, but last time he was here with her they were caught together in the bathroom, so the manager may not remember what his face looks like anymore. He wonders why he came back here and hopes it was just for the sandwich.

After he peels out in the parking lot the throb behind his eyes and the stiffness in his neck returns, and not even running red lights can make it go away.


Boss says: And what’s that jangle coming from your slacks, J___?

J___ says: It’s just my swinging dick, Boss. Wanna taste?


With the rest of the afternoon suddenly free, the rest of the year now actually, J___ makes it a goal to get tossed out of every bar in town, only the first one he goes to won’t ask him to leave. He slurs racial epithets, breaks glasses with increasing violence, drops his pants even, but the regulars are little more than amused. They buy him shots and eat their peanuts like they’ve been relieved of some major burden, and when he vomits on the one with the thickest neck he’s given a black eye but still isn’t shown the door. It’s like I can’t ever want what I get, J___ says to the floor, and repeats it as though trying to elicit a response or correct a mistake.

J___ doesn’t remember much of the drive home, only acceleration, the clock on the dash glowing at him, and the vague sense of nausea and honking horns.


Back at the apartment her things are all over and there is nowhere he can pass out that isn’t on top of an oversized sweatshirt or used towels or plate of day old pasta that is hers. Everything is scattered, in pieces, disconnected and fogged with memory. A hairbrush and a crumpled up yogurt coupon lying next to each other on the sofa seem episodic, chronological even. J___ is not sure who is supposed to move out now, not sure of who they are anymore, can’t even recall their goddamn names. The whole thing’s too complicated. He wants to break her things, rip them to shreds, swallow them whole.

* * *

But it’s not the end. J___ wakes an hour or two later knowing it’s not a new day, it’s the same one as before and it’s unavoidable. Events from earlier return to him in pieces that he struggles to put in order and it baffles him to think how swiftly one can disassemble one’s entire life. Or is the word disassemble? Waiting for the feeling of sickness to come, J___ is glad no one is watching. Glad his life is his own. Glad he managed not to choke on his own throw up or get too much of it in his hair. Most things can be cleaned, his clothes can be washed, and the stains removed — the whole job thing could be a problem though, he thinks as Dog licks his purple eye. By the time she gets home from work he’s more or less in order. She greets Dog and acknowledges him but not his frayed hair and not his bruises either. Her silence is concerning J___. It’s like there’s two of each of them in the room, the them from before and the them now, and the four are just getting to know each other.


As J___ and she drive Dog to the vet appointment they’d nearly forgotten about, J___ begins to think that the new mystery, upon reflection, feels nothing like freedom should feel at all. Dog looks miserable in one of those mid-size cages used for animal transportation and J___ and her look tense in one of those mid-size vehicles used for conversation at environmentalist luncheons and, occasionally, for people transportation. When he says, Are you sure you know what you’re doing? she says, I know how to take care of Dog. When he says, I meant with us, she just sighs. No one says anything about the new dents on the fender. J___ finds an unfamiliar seduction in obeying traffic laws while he struggles to remember why they agreed to go to the vet together in the first place.


Dog performs well for the most part and it’s the first time J___ can remember a trip to the vet that hasn’t caused him crippling anxiety. The two of them take turns holding her, whispering comfort, making reassuring looks with their faces, as a stony red-haired woman probes without mercy. Dog has dog eyes and J___ hesitates before attributing complex human emotions to them but it looks for all the world like she is content, or feeling something like contentment, which doesn’t seem right at all. It’s kind of disturbing, actually, and J___ can’t wait for when the whole process is finally over. Dog yips and jumps the whole way back to the car but neither of them say shush or down.


J___ says: I have something I want to say.

She says: I’ll fix your hair when we get home.


They stop for food on the way back. Behind the counter a worker, an old man, shuffles to refill the ice machine, the weight of the bucket threatening to tip him. He must be in his seventies, eighties perhaps, the skin on his arms is pocked and scarred with age, and J___’s heart positively breaks from watching him move. He wants to do the adult equivalent of crying, whatever that is. Later in the booth they see him make his rounds. He wipes tables, scoots chairs, stoops for stray napkins; the place would fall apart without this man, J___ can just feel it. And now he is moving around the dining room, offering teenagers and businessmen refills on their drinks, but no one needs him to get one. The old man is moving closer, his slacks are belted high on the waist, his posture hunched as if burdened, and in only three more tables he will be standing in front of them, asking J___ and her if he can get them anything. Watching the man approach, J___ is aware of the knot in his stomach. Across the table, she looks up and J___ begins to speak.

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