I’m sitting on the couch. She’s sitting in the chair on the other side of the living room. That’s how it goes, I guess. I tap the ash over the glass ashtray on the coffee table, even though it doesn’t need it. I take a drag and tap it again. She doesn’t like for me to smoke when she’s here, but I think that given the circumstances, I should be forgiven this time.
I look at her, and see that forgiveness probably isn’t an option at this point, and smoking in the living room is pretty much the least of my problems. The least of our problems.
I look at her and she looks at me, and the cigarette makes a tiny flare sound in the silence. I tap it again, and a bit of charred paper floats into the empty ashtray.
“So how’s it going?” She finally asks. It’s a terrible question, but you have to start somewhere.
“Are you joking?” My voice is a little louder than I expected. A little more defensive.
“You don’t have to jump down my throat. I’m just trying to talk to you.”
“His family is trying to get me prosecuted, did you know that? They’re trying to get me locked up.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“So, yeah, it’s not going so well,” I say. I lean back on the couch, take a drag off my cigarette, and then lean forward to tap it over the ashtray.
“What are you going to do?”
“Get a lawyer, I guess. I don’t know, really.”
She shifts a little in her chair—that’s her nervous habit, is shifting around in her chair every few seconds. Mine’s tapping my cigarette even though it doesn’t need it.
“I meant, how are you taking it? His death.”
“How am I taking it? I don’t really care.”
“What? Everybody dies, Jenny.”
“I just think you could be a little more sensitive.”
This isn’t going well. The truth is, I don’t really know how I feel. I think that as a whole, human beings are pretty selfish. I’m no different. So when she asks how am I taking it, my first instinct is to say something about the fact that it wasn’t enough that the jerk made my life miserable when he was alive, now he’s screwing it up even after he’s dead.
Or maybe most people aren’t that selfish, and maybe I am different. Maybe I’m just an asshole, I don’t know.
“I’m not glad he’s dead or anything,” I tell her, and then wonder if that’s even the truth. “But I think it would be pretty hypocritical of me to start talking about how I’m going to miss him or whatever.”
“I’m not saying you have to say you miss him, Derrick—just show a little compassion. Think about how his family feels.”
“They feel like suing me, apparently, and they feel like trying to get me thrown in jail. Please excuse me for being slightly apathetic to their cause.”
See? This is what gets me in trouble. This is what got me in trouble. My mouth starts going without permission, and I’ve been practicing being a smartass for so long that my brain doesn’t even have to get involved. It’s just blah blah smartass remark blah, and suddenly I’m in deep shit.
She stares at me, and it’s a cold, horrified stare. I know what she’s thinking, and I don’t blame her a bit.
We met at the office. One of those things where you pass each other in the hall, maybe run into each other in the break room. I finally worked up the courage to ask her to the movies, and she said no. She suggested coffee, and I agreed. Over time, we worked our way up from coffee to a movie; from a movie to dinner and a movie; from dinner and a movie to sex and beyond. We’ve been together long enough to say I love you, but not long enough for either of us to know who it is, exactly, that we’re loving.
We’ve been together long enough for her to feel comfortable telling me that she doesn’t like it when I smoke in my own living room, but not so long that I don’t get an erection when I see her naked.
Right now, she’s wondering what she was thinking. Right now, she’s wondering if she’s in love with a monster. I don’t feel like a monster, but maybe monsters never do. I’ve got my breaking point, though, and Jenny is getting dangerously close to it.
She stands up. “I can’t believe you. I really can’t.”
I look at her. I’m looking into her eyes, but I’m also looking at her as a whole, memorizing her, I guess. It’s a pretty safe bet that this is the last time she’ll be willing to stand still long enough for me to look her over. It’s too bad, really, because she’s dressed like shit. Plain gray ankle-length skirt, ugly black shoes, and an over-size sweater that’s the same color as her skirt. I never would have asked her out, but one time I saw her reaching for copy paper, and as her shirt lifted up some, I realized she had a rocking body underneath all that bulky fabric.
Her hair’s down, at least—usually she wears it in a bun. You know in those movies, the shy, lonely librarian? How she takes down her hair, yanks off her glasses, and she’s suddenly a goddess?
That’s Jenny. Sort of. She isn’t really shy or lonely, but she dresses the part. You take down her hair, lose the glasses, and get her out of her clothes, she’s what strippers aspire to be when they get all that surgery done.
Long blond hair, sky-blue eyes, and a great rack. Ass that can make your knees weak. When she walks around in her panties, I’m walking around with a hard-on. She’s not much in the sack, but there’s potential. She’s willing to learn.
I look at her, and she looks at me, and I wonder what she sees.
I’m not an ugly guy. I’m quite attractive, really. I’m not egotistical, I’m just extremely shallow. If I was ugly, I’d know it, and I’d try to change it. I go to the gym four times a week, I eat right, and I use hair gel. My clothes aren’t worth nearly as much as I pay, but they’re name brand and they look good on me, so I’m okay with paying entirely too much for them.
She’s not seeing any of that, though. She’s seeing the insensitive bastard who’s making a jokes at a time like this. The bastard who doesn’t care about the dead guy.
“What do you want me to do? Say I’m sorry? I said I was sorry, Jenny! I sent him an email. He didn’t check it, that’s not my fault.”
“A man’s dead, Derrick, and you’re resp…”
I go to the gym four times a week. I eat right. I use hair gel. I wear expensive clothing. She isn’t seeing any of that, though. She was going to say “responsible.” She’s seeing a monster.
She’s with them. I should have known. Maybe I did.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I di-”
“Get the fuck out of my house, Jenny.”
“I meant partly responsible.”
“You’re lousy in bed and your underwear’s ugly. You give head like a high school freshman. And listening to your opinions about what we should do in Iraq makes me want to chew through my wrists.”
Her jaw drops. I wonder if she realizes that tears are already forming at the corners of her eyes.
I light another cigarette. “I’m pretty sure I said get the fuck out.”
She grabs her purse and strides to the door. She holds it together pretty well, but just under the slamming door, I hear a sob. Quick recovery, though, as she screams “Asshole!” loud enough for everyone in my building to hear.
I walk to the door and snap the deadbolt, and then it’s back to the couch. I tap my cigarette over the glass ashtray, even though it doesn’t need it.
That’s how it goes, I guess.
He always smelled like onion, that was one thing. Not his breath—his breath smelled a lot worse than onion. His breath smelled like a rotting shark carcass full of stewed sewage. His breath smelled like not only had he never heard of a toothbrush, but that he had spent his time drinking water from a drainage ditch full of dead cats while not hearing about a toothbrush.
But even if he wasn’t talking—which was a rarity—he still smelled awful. Like onion. Onion left in the refrigerator too long, where when you pick it up, there’s a slimy puddle underneath, and you just now realize that it’s leaked all over all of your fresh vegetables that you just brought from the grocery store.
He didn’t understand about personal space. He didn’t understand about physical boundaries or about how some people don’t like it when you lean in, like, two inches from their face so they can feel your spit hitting them in the face when you tell your stupid, racist jokes.
He didn’t understand that sometimes people didn’t want to hear about his heart surgery or his stomach surgery or his motherfucking colon surgery. No, not even just the part where they put that camera up in there and they showed you the video later.
His name was Yancy. I think it was short for something, but I never cared enough to find out for sure, and that was one of the few parts of his life story he didn’t dump on me. Yancy Miller, and that’s the kind of beer he drank, and he’d always make a joke about “A Miller for Miller,” and then he’d laugh like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard of.
Nobody liked him. I mean, nobody. A few of us from the office would talk about going out for a drink later, he’d invite himself, and it was a good time ruined, right there. He was a gossip, a liar, and he’d claim your ideas as his own.
He was an asshole, and everyone knew it, but nobody ever told him.
Until I did.
Believe it or not, I’m not a bad guy. Maybe bad guys never think they are, I don’t know. Sure, I have my breaking point, but it’s hard to get me there.
I’m a pretty nice guy, really. People like me. People ask me out for drinks, they ask if I want to go out to the lake this weekend, all of that.
When people talk about me, they use words like, “funny.” They use words like, “nice,” and “calm,” and “charming.” They use phrases like “good worker,” and “good head on his shoulders,” and “helluva guy.” I’m not blowing my own horn, here, I’m just trying to explain.
When people talk about me, they don’t use words like “asshole,” or “shithead,” or “monster.” They don’t use phrases like “thoughtless jerk,” or “practically a murderer,” or “hope he rots in Hell.”
Not until today.
It had been building up. It started out with the project at the beginning of the summer. We were all gathered around the table, Mr. Harding standing there, telling us all about how big this account is, how we’re all really gonna have to pull together and get this taken care of.
And Yancy was over there, nodding his head like he was having some sort of fit, and voicing affirmations at random times, like we were in a church instead of a conference room. I half expected him to fall to the floor and start speaking in tongues.
I wasn’t even having a hard time ignoring him, though, because as Mr. Harding spoke, I realized that I had this. I mean, this gigantic project, the one that we were all going to have to put our heads together to figure out, I had it.
I knew exactly how to solve the problems, I knew exactly where to find the resources we were going to need, and I knew exactly how to have this project finished way before deadline.
Mr. Harding started talking about how this can go both ways—careers can be made, or heads can roll. By the end of the summer, I was going to have my own office.
The story is too long and too dull to get into, so let me sum it up: Yancy fucked everything. I had it set to go. I had the presentation perfect, I had everything mapped out, and I had my name all over everything. Yancy stumbled into my office at some point, nosy as ever, and decided to help me out.
Honestly, I don’t think he was trying to sabotage me. I think he was just that stupid. He changed outsourcing companies, he changed projection dates, he changed vendors. Instead of the new and improved shit that I had been prepared to launch, Yancy changed it back to the ones he remembered—who were all over-priced, under-equipped whales of waste.
I got lucky—I just ended up looking like an ass as opposed to getting fired. I was just the laughingstock of the company instead of unemployed. The promotion was gone, no matter what happened. I had blown my chance to impress Mr. Harding, and the one shot I had at a one-on-one presentation was history.
As I sat at my desk, wondering what the hell had just happened, Yancy walked by, and said something about how it was probably a good thing that I didn’t get that promotion—I just didn’t have an eye for detail that a guy’d need for this business.
“I mean, you had almost everything in that report wrong, did you know that? No telling how bad you would have bombed if I hadn’t helped out.”
I didn’t freak out then. Maybe I would have, but it took several minutes for the information to sink in, and by then, he was gone. Already down the aisle, bugging someone else.
I managed to hold it in for almost a week. A week of his terrible funk, of his stupid jokes, of his mundane conversations about his wife, or his dog, or his motherfucking colon. A week of knowing this goofy bastard had cost me my promotion.
And then, one day, he called me Casey.
“My name’s not Casey, Yancy.”
We were standing there in the break room, me, Yancy, and probably five other people. Jenny was there, I remember that.
He smirked around at everyone standing there. “It’s a joke. You know—like the mighty Casey has struck out. That poem about the baseball player who was supposed to be so great, but then struck out?”
I lost it. I don’t remember what all I said, I really don’t. I’m sure that it was mostly inappropriate. I remember telling him that each time he went in for surgery, we passed around a collection bucket so that we could pay the doctor to botch things. I remember telling him all about his lousy breath. I may have made mention of the fact that any time he touched anything in my cubicle, I washed it off with alcohol pads as soon as he left. I think I referenced his fat ass, his labored breathing, his neck acne, and the fact that people tried not to breathe when stuck on an elevator with him. I probably talked about his parents—his mother specifically—and I may have wondered out loud about how did she manage to find a dog desperate enough to inseminate her. I think I said something about how his lame attempt at making Viagra jokes just came off pathetic because it was pitiful to think of his poor wife having to screw him.
I don’t remember what all I said, I really don’t.
When I finished, everyone was looking horrified. I’m not a bad guy, I swear. But maybe bad guys never think they are. We all have our breaking point, right? When I finished, everyone was looking horrified, except Yancy.
He was crying.
Mr. Harding called me into his office, gave me a big speech about getting along with co-workers, and sent me home for the day. Something about having to have a discussion with the higher-ups about keeping me around.
I went home, drank, and wondered if I would be gainfully employed by the end of the week. I told myself not to worry. If I lost my job, I’d find another. I’d had a complete melt-down in front of my co-workers. That’s as bad as it can get, right?
While I was home contemplating job options, Yancy was home contemplating suicide. While I was telling myself that it couldn’t get any worse, he was telling himself that it wouldn’t get any better.
I went home and drank until I passed out. Yancy went home and drank until he had the courage to blow most of his brain out the back of his head.
I went in the next morning, hung over and clueless.
And that’s when I started hearing the wrong kinds of words and phrases. Words like “asshole,” and “shithead,” and “monster.” Phrases like “thoughtless jerk,” and “practically a murderer,” and “hope he rots in Hell.”
They didn’t like him, either, that’s what sucks. They bitched and moaned and hated him just as much as I did. They just never said anything. Not to poor Yancy—he was too fragile for that kind of thing. But Derrick? Screw Derrick. Say whatever you want to Derrick: call him a dickhead, call him heartless, ask him what it feels like to be responsible for someone’s death.
It doesn’t matter, and why not? Because Derrick can take it. Derrick’s hardcore and mean and he’s not a softie like Yancy was. Is that what they were thinking when they said the things they said, I wonder? I don’t know, really. I don’t care, either.
I didn’t try to get any work done—I just used the office printer to print out some résumés, and used the company computer to look for a new job. I was only there for two hours—Mr. Harding came in and explained that I needed to leave for the day because I was too much of a disruption. He didn’t say I was fired, but we both knew it.
I hit a bar on the way home, had a few drinks, and then stumbled home and had a few more.
Jenny showed up not long after that. I threw her out not long after that.
I look around at the empty bottles and think that maybe I shouldn’t be drinking so much on a weeknight. Then I remember that it’s not like I have work tomorrow, and I laugh and take another drink of whatever, and I light another cigarette.
There’s a pizza box on the coffee table. I don’t know where it came from. I look at all the empty bottles and think that maybe I shouldn’t be drinking so much on a weeknight. Then I remember again about the not having to go to work tomorrow.
Still, that’s an awful lot of empty bottles, and I should probably lay off. I realize that I’m missing a little time.
There’s a terrible smell coming from somewhere, and I wonder if I threw up.
I’m curled at the base of the toilet, cold and sick. Too much to drink. I don’t remember coming in here, and I know that I should get up, but I can’t remember why. I’m just about to pass out again when I remember what yanked me up from my alcohol induced unconsciousness—I left a cigarette burning.
I pull myself to my feet, unsure of where I left the cigarette. Unsure of pretty much everything, really. I stumble into the living room, sniffing for the smell of burning apartment.
There’s no smoke, but there’s still that awful smell. I can’t place it immediately, and there’s a good chance that it’s coming from me, depending on what kind of pizza it was.
I examine the ashtray and find a cigarette that has burned itself out. Stupid, but at least I didn’t burn myself up. Like my grandma used to say, “Somebody up there loves me.”
Obviously, right? I mean why else would I have lost my job because some annoying dickhead killed himself? Someone up there has to love me. And that’s when I realize what smells so bad. It’s onion. I flip open the box of pizza I don’t remember ordering, and the smell is almost enough to make me throw up.
There’s not quite half left, but what remains is absolutely covered in onion. I wonder if I ordered it or if someone had it sent as a mean-spirited prank.
Another wave of nausea hits, and I sprint to the bathroom. I make it to the can, but my aim isn’t too great, and I end up puking down the side of the toilet.
I’m not puking up any food, though—just the burning, watery nastiness of booze. I let loose a couple more spasms of nastiness, and then dry heave for a bit.
I’m finally beginning to feel a little better, but the onion smell is unbearable. I decide to smoke one more cigarette to maybe get that smell out of my nose.
I toss the remaining pizza into the trash and tie the bag closed, hoping that it’ll help with the smell. No good.
I flop down onto the couch and light up a cigarette. I’m about to tap my ash when I notice the piece of paper. It’s in my handwriting, but it isn’t my handwriting. The onion smell is getting worse.
It’s a note, written in my handwriting, but not written by my hand. I drop it and stand up. I have to get out of here. The note, the onion smell, I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t want any part of it.
I can’t find my keys. I pick my jacket up and shake it, hoping to hear the familiar jangle sound from one of the pockets. I hear the sound, but not from the pockets. It comes from across the room.
I turn slowly, the fear eating through my intoxication, the hours of alcohol consumption offering no refuge.
And there he is, smiling his crooked-teeth smile. Holding my keys.
He shakes my keys, and I hear them jangle in my coat pocket.
“No,” I say.
He holds up a pill bottle, and I suddenly taste the powdery bitterness in my mouth. He laughs his obnoxious laugh, the one that’s loud and grating and awful, and he’s holding up a tequila bottle and I can feel it running down my throat.
I try to scream, but he’s suddenly holding up a piece of pizza, and all I can taste is tomato sauce and onion.
He holds up the note, and the words flash through my head, so sorry for what I did can’t take the guilt any longer Yancy was such an incredible gift and I ruined it for everyone. Not my words, never my words, but words that will be accredited to me. Everyone has a breaking point, and I guess I have reached mine.
I try to say something, anything, but I can’t. I want to say “no” again. I shake my head, instead. I fall to the floor, unable to control my body.
I look up, ready to beg, ready to plead, but he’s gone. I can’t breathe. My arms and legs feel like they’re glued to the floor. I see a prescription pill bottle on the floor by the bathroom door, and I wonder what kind of pills were inside.
My cellphone’s on top of the coffee table, if I can just…
I manage to fumble it down and hit redial. The last thing I hear is Jenny repeating the word “hello” over and over again. The last thing I feel is his hot, nasty breath against my cheek, promising to be there for eternity, and I know I have found my breaking point.