'This Charming Man'
An old TV, sitting on a greasy-looking shelf, played in the background in a local greasy spoon diner on the edge of town. The diner was alive with the sounds of knives and forks sword-fighting; people taking deluxe bites out of reasonably priced burgers, and washing them down with complementary milkshakes.
“The Pudgiwara Corporation today said they were very sorry for dumping the one thousand tonnes of toxic waste in the bay and they said they’d never do it again.” The news anchor furrowed his brow sincerely before moving on to the next segment. “In other local news, a young boy of fourteen was arrested after a prank backfired outside his suburban home. The boy, who is yet to be named for legal reasons, was tricked by his friends into believing that another biological outbreak, similar to that of the one in Arkham, Louisiana, was underway. Police state that the boys school friends wore make-up and ragged clothing and pretended to be the undead. The boy fearing for his life retrieved his 22. Calibre rifle he received for his third birthday and slaughtered them all in his back yard”
“Hahahahahahahahahaha!” Incongruous laughter broke out. It seemed that all the knife and fork sword fights ended abruptly. But the laughter went on regardless as the story played out.
“The fourteen year old boy then, fearing for the fate of his family, went into his suburban home and strangled his entire family to death with a draught excluder”
“Hahahahahahahahahahaahahahaha!” A dirty hand, topped with dirty, chipped nails, scooped up a clod of hamburger meat from a steel bowl as he laughed.
“What’s going on out here?” A fat sweaty man in an apron, and not a lot else, came out of the back. A confused look on his face, he stood next to a middle-aged redhead waitress with a face like a leather riding saddle.
“Some crazy guy. All he ordered was a bowl of raw hamburger meat. He’s just been sitting there eating it. Then he just started laughing,” the middle-aged woman said, her face wrinkling up in places never before thought possible.
The fat man’s sweat patches grew under his apron. He started to look like he belonged in a sauna or in a tropical plant house as he breathed heavily.
“The boy is currently under observation at Hellspass psychiatric hospital.” The man’s laughter began to run down like the motor of a car sliding into park. A greasy hand touched the arm of his salvation army coat and the slow come-down took a sudden bump.
“Hey, buddy, you’re freakin’ people out. Can ya keep it down? People are trying to eat,” the fat chef said, in an apologetic tone, as he furrowed his brow into painful ‘v’s, which seemed to stretch all over his slippery bald head.
“What’s that?” the man said without turning his head. A chunk of unchewed hamburger meat fell from his mouth onto the semi-clean counter. He turned his bloodshot eyes in his skull.
“I heard what you said.”
“I just can’t tell what I’m looking at.” He picked his teeth with a dirty nail and sucked his gums, dislodging raw meat.
“Look, buddy, we aint looking for no trouble. I think
you better just pick your sorry ass up and leave - right now!”
“Did you make this?” The strange, homeless guy squeezed the hamburger meat in his hands, letting it ooze through his bony fingers. He had shoulder-length mousey brown hair, with a long beard completing the homeless chic. His features were thin and gaunt, dark eyes hidden under heavy lids. He wore a long, olive drab army jacket that went all the way down to his ankles, hiding the fact that he was wearing plastic bags tied with string around his feet instead of shoes. To complete the ensemble: a threadbare shirt and pair of pants that looked like they'd gone missing from an old people’s home washing line. Printed across the front of the jacket was a name written in bold dark green lettering. ‘CARPENTER’.
“What’cha talking about, buddy? That’s raw hamburger meat. Aint nobody ‘made’ it. Drifters like you don’t belong here; it’s time for you to move on now!”
“You know, I used to be just like you”
“Get ou-!” A glob of hamburger meat cut off the chef mid-sentence. The slimy, gelatinous meat by-product got into his eyes and nose. It felt like a fist made of lumpy snot hitting his sinus wall. He felt disorientated, giving the dishevelled man ample time to kick a bar stool. The chef fell forward as the stool hit his shins, tripping him. Carpenter rose like a jack-in-the-box on angel dust from his stool to slam the chef’s dirty face into the counter.
He pressed the chef’s face into the off-colour lime green diner counter, spreading blood and raw meat and spit all over it. The chef strained as he began to get light-headed, his skull pressed against the hard surface.
“You know it’s rude to interrupt someone when they’re eating.” Carpenter squeezed the chef’s head with his forearm against the counter. The veins on the chef’s head stuck out like rail-road tracks, pumping hot kitchen grease. Carpenter took his other hand and ran his finger up from his face taking up some of the hamburger meat. Getting under his nails, he sucked his finger.
He took the pressure off and sat back on his stool like he got up to get the salt. The chef stuck to the counter with blood and sweat and hamburger meat. Peeling off, his unconscious body hit the linoleum floor of the diner like a sack of dried hams. He parted stools and chairs and brows as he fell. The diner fell silent. Food went unchewed in open mouths; coffee cups shook; babies continued crying; the dishevelled man went back to watching the news and laughing.
TJ stared out of the rain-slicked passenger side window of his mom’s Prius. The sun began to break through the clouds, driving the rain off the glass like scattering cockroaches. This seemed to offend him. He sat with his neckbeard in his hand, elbow resting on the car windowsill. Rolling his eyes trying to look at the inside of his skull.
“What did you have to do today?” TJ’s mom said as she drove with her elbows, applying some dark red lipstick in the fold-down car mirror.
“Just some stuff,” TJ sighed.
“I think this would be a good time for you to look for a job. There are some stores hiring for the holidays; you could ask around. You might even meet a girl or two, get yourself a cute little summer girlfriend; what do you think?”
“Uh huh.” TJ daydreamed and licked the roof of his mouth like a dog trying to eat peanut butter.
TJs mom drove down a main road that lead out of town but it was blocked off by a large tanker truck. Men in environment suits were mopping up some kind of spillage, rolling out strange barrels with odd markings on them. Some were milling around, trying to look busy, like road workers on a lazy summer afternoon. She stopped her car and craned her neck a little.
“Huh, why is this road closed? Must have been a spill or something,” she said as she closed her makeup case.
There was a tap at the window. A brick wall of a man with a military rifle across his back appeared out of nowhere, blocking out the sun with his broad back.
“Oh!” TJ’s mom said as she rolled down the window for the imposing man.
“Sorry, Maam. This road is closed. Had a bit of a gas leak is all. It’s nothing to worry about. I’m afraid you’re gonna have to turn around.” His voice was tight and professional.
“That’s no problem; we’re just on the way to the mall. My son’s looking for a job; we can take a side road; it’s no problem at all.” TJ’s mom swooned as she looked up at the macho He-Man-type, suddenly forgetting how to drive a car.
“Oh, sorry, I’ll just be going,” she said, red blotches beginning to appear through her concealer.
“You have a nice day, Maam, son,” the soldier said as he tipped his hat to each of them in turn without bending down. TJ looked over with a sneer of distinct disdain for authoritarian father figures. And anyone his mother flirted with.
She turned the little hybrid around, almost knocking over a mail box, and scooted off quietly like one of those cars from the Jetsuns, poofing out little clouds of harmless gas, like bunny farts or something like that.
They took a side road out of town. His mother continued to talk to herself while TJ stared at nothing.
“Honestly I don’t know why you bother wasting money on this stuff. You should be trying to get a real job, not buying weapons, it’s weird. No girl is going to want to date someone that collects ninja stuff or whatever. And This youtube nonsense never made anyone any money. You should be looking for a girl to settle down with, and a job so you can support her while she goes out and buys shoes or something,” she said as she drove the glorified vacuum cleaner of a car down the dirty back road.
“Shows what you know. Pewdewpie makes a million dollars every time he says ‘bros,’” TJ murmured into the passenger side door.
“Poopy-pie? Who’s Poopy-pie?? You should be spending your money on some new clothes or something.” His mom idled the hairdryer at a stop light as his attention wandered in an out of listening to her enjoy the sound of her own voice. Occasionally she read street signs out loud just to break the silence.
TJ smelled an odd diesel smell, insulting the otherwise clean air the Prius farted out behind them. An obnoxious low growl and mocking high-pitched laughter. He turned to look across the driver’s side and out of the window. A strange collection of people came sharply into focus.
“You should sell that sword and buy yourself a suit so you can find yourself a job somewhere.” His mother kept talking, completely oblivious as spiked-leather-clad bikers sat a mere foot from the driver’s side window. Looking like they just bust out of san Quentin for an unplanned camping trip in buttfuck nowheresville.
They were of varying descents: a mix of white and Hispanic looking meatheads. He saw the word ‘Los Angeles locos’ repeated in patches on their jackets, between chains and tattoos of knives and needles and guns and grenades. ‘Oh jeez, they’re probably gang-bangers,’ TJ thought to himself, adding the mental caveat, ‘Oh shit, that’s racist.’
There were ten or fifteen of them. They looked like they rolled right out of east L.A. or the set of a Mad Max movie. The one at the head of the pack wore dark aviators and a red bandana with a laughing, moustachioed devil on the front. The man himself was emblazoned with a similar moustache. A light skinnedMexican with a Fu Manchu moustache at the head of the pack. A scantily clad senorita clung to his back. His shaded eyes fixed on the road ahead with an unwavering resolve.
The woman on the back giggled as she looked at TJ, the sad sack that he was: some fat, neckbeard, twenty-something, being driven around in his mom’s hybrid, probably on the way to buy frosty chocolate milkshakes and adult diapers: someone who would never have sex with anything but a microwaved watermelon while his mother was out at her pilates class.
She laughed and drew eyes on him like a firing squad. His face turned a distinct purple colour as they pointed and laughed. They then proceeded to lift their crop tops, flashing several sets of pierced and tattooed tits in his direction. TJ's mother was still completely oblivious.
She only noticed the lights had changed when they sped off like dogs chasing cars, throwing a jumbo slurpy cup behind them. The impact of the slurpy cup on the windscreen jarred TJ’s mom out of her self-induced bullshit coma. The icey blue liquid exploded as if an alien had blown a load all over the car from a passing UFO bukkake party.
She leaned out of her car, honking and then shaking her fist. TJ tried to stop her, whispering that they might see and come back, but they were already long gone when she got back in the car and put the windshield wipers on. She drove on as if nothing happened, but TJ couldn’t shake the feeling that they were here for a reason.
He continued to daydream as the evening sun grew bloated in the sky, wanting to roll over and scratch its ass. They got to the mall mid-afternoonish. It was just getting warm enough to enjoy the cool open spaces of the mall outside of town. He didn’t feel bad about not getting a sweaty ass crack in the local mom and pop mini-mart closer to home.
“OK momma’s gonna go look at shoes and cosmetics and girly crap like that. You can do whatever you want and we’ll meet back here in an hour for frosty chocolate milkshakes, OK?”
“…OK,” TJ said. trying to age enough within that pause to stop liking chocolate milkshakes.
They went their separate ways, his mother browsing and fingering various items of clothes she didn’t need or want. TJ went to the knife- sharpening guy in his little kiosk next to the key-cutting place, despite it being the same guy working in both places.
He looked over the sword with a little magnifying glass like a jeweller, trying to give an air of science to what was going to be an hour of rubbing a sharp bit of sheet metal with a rock.
“Yeah, I can fix it, but you’d do better to buy yourself something a little more durable. You get what you pay for, or maybe you just hang it on the wall and stick to swinging your dick around, KSCHHHHHHHHHH” said the knife shop guy as he swung an imaginery lightsaber from his crotch. He was some ex-military wannabe with scraggly hair and lopsided pecs in a new looking motley crew T-shirt. His veiny neck popped out the top as if his head was trying to escape. His joke fell completely flat. “Err, so it’ll be around twenty minutes. Just go get some cheese fries or something”.
TJ left his katana with the knife-sharpener guy and began the long walk to the time-wasting isles. He stood, sipping a jumbo slurpy, ‘blue’ flavour, reading the backs of various DVDs he liked the cover of: anime and horror, anything with robots, tits or zombies in it was worth three minutes of his time.
He idled for a few minutes, slurping and resting the cool base of the slurpy on the top of his belly. A condensation ring formed on his XXL Green Lantern T-shirt. He’d spent a few minutes going over the same word a few times: “Splurged.” That’s made up, he thought to himself as he said it a few times under his breath then read on:. ‘Big-titted Russian zombie Nazis from Ben Affleck’s basement.’
As he said it a few more times, he started to notice what was distracting him: a noise he’d learned to fear throughout high school. He’d blocked it from his consciousness from then on. It was that chalk board screeching sound of tennis shoes squeaking on linoleum floors. The sound of effort in sporting endeavours sent a bead of sweat from the Fruit of the Loom tag on his shirt all the way down to his cavernous ass crack. It was as if his ass. from muscle memory, could feel his underwear tighten all the way home. He lifted a reticent eye, keeping the other on the big-titted zombies as he tried to look as inconspicuous as possible.
The place was pretty much deserted on this lazy summer afternoon. The town was sleepy at the best of times. The financial crash had hit it pretty hard and a lot of businesses had left. People had moved out to bigger cities looking for work; it was a dying well. The aisles were empty of all but a few tumbleweeds of people, littered about, passing time. The noise continued.
TJ craned his neck and felt some strange compunction to follow the noise. He walked towards the sporting goods isle of the small-town up-market chain mall.
Turning a corner, he saw a ratty pair of Converse All Stars straining against the linoleum floor, leaving little black marks from their soles as they danced around in a vicious flurry of steps. He felt like he was watching a bullfight in a basketball gym from the waist down.
His eyes peeled up and she materialized in that instant. Every piece he saw as he scanned up slotted into place as if she was that orange-haired chick from Fifth Element. Her legs were bare from her shoes up: long but sinewy legs, smooth and soft-looking nonetheless. Dotted with light bruises and plasters, they moved powerfully, with the delicacy of a ballet dancer and the unrelenting force of a cornered animal. His eyes crept up her supple legs to her ripped jean shorts, past her exposed belly, soft and white like freshly kneaded dough, and dusted with a thin layer of sweat. She wore a loosely fitting white top that clung under her arms. It revealed a green and purple bikini top beneath. Her neck was thin and elegant. it looked delicate, like the handle of a china cup, which made her shock of toxic green hair all the more obnoxious. It hung in a loose bob at the nape of her neck.
She rested on an aluminium baseball bat, her chest rising and falling faintly. She kicked the bat out from underneath her lithe frame and began to twirl it like a cheerleader spinning a baton at the head of a manic diesel-punk marching band.
TJ swallowed a hard, dry lump. He fought his feet as he gravitated towards this verdant vixen, flailing back and forth violently. A sudden screech of shoe rubber set his teeth on edge. A pleasant shock drove up his spine, licking the hair on the back of his neck. He was thrust back into that gym class: shirts and skins basketball, where everyone saw his boy-girdle. The bat stopped an inch from his face. He felt static from the aluminium on all the little hairs on his top lip and he couldn’t breathe or say anything. He felt like he was staring at the bottom of an elevator shaft, getting closer despite standing still. His pores betrayed him and they began to leak. He clenched his ass like he was trying to open a can of pickles with his buttcheeks and prayed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster not to let out a fart.
He closed his eyes. She began to lower the bat. He felt the static pricking him and clinging to the fine little hairs in the parts of his face where a beard wouldn’t grow, tingling in his neckbeard. A swift shifting of air. Metal swept over him. It made a sound that his mind interpreted as a lightsaber cutting through some chubby ton-ton flesh.
He opened his eyes as if unwrapping himself as a present for a spotty-faced teen who expected a pony in the bumpy misshapen package. She stood before him with the bat across her shoulders in a somewhat, he thought, ‘masculine pose,’ which nevertheless put him on edge, if not for the aggressive stance then for the delicate, beautiful, faintly European nature of her features. She had high cheekbones, softened by patchy applications of atonal makeup. A turned up nose gave her an obnoxious, pixie arrogance. But her lips brought it together in a subtle, anaemic pout. From the front, she looked like a French aristocrat given a punk make over: Marie Antoinette guest starring in the Rocky Horror picture show.
His eyes turned down towards her chest, but he got distracted: she wore a distinctive necklace with a little icecream sundae charm, with what looked like a lime green sauce topping it.
She blew a disaffected green quaff of hair out of her shiny face and looked at him as if she expected to break him open like a piñata and find smaller neckbeards all the way down.
A silence built steadily as she put one hand on her turned out hip and took on a boyishly defiant pose that he likened to Peter Pan meeting Wendy for the first time in her bedroom. That would be if Wendy had forgotten to put on deodorant and really needed to pee after her slurpy. Like right now!
She breathed out, then seemed to let out a breathy laugh and shook her head, smiling cheekily. “Fuck off!” She sighed before turning on her heels, making that hateful shoe rubber squeaking sound one last time before disappearing from his shallow pool of vision. He stood there alone for a minute and then breathed out, letting out a little squeaky fart like a full stop.
Having returned his sword, the knife shop guy gave him a disparaging look and told him that he had done the best he could but TJ would have to refrain from buttering bread with it. The sun was setting on a day that seemed too long. Rich auburn fingers spread out over the sky dragging night behind them in the mall parking lot. He met his mother by the entrance. Smiling, she held out several small non-descript bags that interested him so little that he instantly forgot he’d seen them and looked again. She waved at him, shaking the bags.
“Did you do your thing?” she said.
They approached their car, taking in the rich afternoon scents of small town America: barbecues maybe, or burning cedar. There were the sounds of long haul trucks struggling up mountainous paths to who knew where and the sickly sweet smells of homemade pies all bragging to be the best in the state or the country or the world or wherever.
The parking lot was almost empty. The town seemed like it was picked clean, ready for a great deboning. They approached their little hybrid, turning their noses up at the faint smell of diesel and the echoing sounds of planes going overhead dumping out their excess fuel.
TJ got into the car without saying a word. His silence and the definitive slamming of the door rang out in the empty parking lot. It told her everything she needed to know. He was tired and irritable and just wanted to rest his eyes on the steady rolling of the scenery. She occupied herself with reading the signs she passed out loud to herself and humming along to a song she had heard at the makeup counter because her radio, made of some chinese chocolate box plastic, had crapped out months ago. Despite the fact that this still annoyed TJ, he tried to focus his frustration on the earth sliding by.