Citizen Jim arrives in the middle of a home improvement project, accusing Chicken Sheets of dating a handyman and raging at her for making him miss a trip overseas with his wife, an alchemist/folk dancer.
On Saturday morning, events from the day before, plus the presence of Bobby, a man who was trying to fix my east-facing front door, and then the unexpected appearance of my landlady and her boyfriend (who were there to take measurements to replace the south-facing side door of my little Hobbit House), had thrown me into a state of complete discombobulation.
If there was one thing I neither needed nor wanted to have to deal with, it was the arrival of Citizen Jim. Of course, I felt terrible about this. After all, Citizen Jim is my best friend and the person I love most in the world.
There was no knock on the door because the door had been laid across two sawhorses in my front yard. There was only the sound of Citizen Jim questioning poor Bobby.
“Is Chicken Sheets in there?” Citizen Jim asked.
Bobby’s answer was frantic. “Hey, stand back! Chicken Sheets? I don’t know. What’re you talking about?”
“You play dumb pretty good, buddy, I’ll give you that. Either Chicken Sheets is inside, or you just drive around Fairhope taking people’s doors off the hinges when they aren’t home.”
Bobby didn’t give me away. He only responded to Citizen Jim with the rapid-fire banging of a hammer. I held my breath and sat still as a statue at my desk.
But it didn’t make any difference.
“I know you’re somewhere in this house because I can smell lukewarm tea, hot waffles, and frozen Blow Pops,” Citizen Jim shouted, his voice becoming louder as he got closer to where I was.
“Trying to hide from you is useless,” I called out, not getting up from where I was sitting at my desk.
He leaned against the doorway leading into the kitchen. “Are you dating that guy?” he asked, cocking a thumb and throwing it toward the front door.
I stared at him.
“Well? Are you?”
“That’s Bobby. He lives around the corner,” I said. “My landlady hired him to fix the door.”
Citizen Jim stepped out of the kitchen and glanced back down the hall toward the front door. When he returned to where he’d been standing, he said, “It’s certainly not the worst romantic decision you’ve ever made. I mean, he probably knows how to use a buzzsaw and a socket wrench and whatnot, plus you’ll never have those weapons-grade arguments every month because Aunt Martha and Aunt Flo are visiting at the same time.”
I thought it would be best to reset our conversation back to the point when Citizen Jim mentioned tea and waffles and gum-filled suckers.
“Would you like a Blow Pop?” I asked.
“Sure, if you have cherry-flavored,” he said.
“No, they’re sour apple,” I said.
“What about strawberry?”
“No, I just have one kind,” I said. “They’re in the freezer. Have one.”
“If you only have one kind I hope it’s not watermelon,” he said. “You know I hate watermelon flavored candy.”
“I don’t have cherry or watermelon or strawberry, I only have sour apple,” I said. “You can have as many as you want.”
“What happened to all the cherry, strawberry, and grape flavored ones?” he asked, moving things around inside my freezer, throwing bags of Birdseye broccoli and green beans onto the floor, as well as packages of turkey kielbasa that were frozen hard as horseshoe-shaped rocks. “There’s only green ones in here!”
“I told you I only had sour apple. I only like sour apple, so I only buy sour apple,” I said, picking up the food he was tossing out of the freezer and tossing it back in. “I order them from Amazon every month or so.”
“Boy, for someone who hates the fact that Jeff Bezos is the richest bastard in the world, you sure do like giving that lazy-eyed asshole your money,” said Citizen Jim.
While it was true that I hated being part of the machine that had, so far, made Jeff Bezos worth more than a hundred billion dollars, I did feel less hateful about the fact that I was able to order boxes of sour apple Blow Pops and hard-to-get-locally-this-time-of-year hurricane supplies from Amazon fulfillment centers. Everywhere you looked in my house there were boxes or padded envelopes from those brown and orange bricks of capitalist shit.
It was a very difficult exercise in cognitive dissonance.
From outside, we heard some grunts, a loud bang, and a few curse words strung together.
“Your boyfriend’s out there smashing up his hands and poking his eye out with a screwdriver and you’re just sitting there talking about your favorite candy,” Citizen Jim said. “I guess I’m glad you aren’t any nicer to him than you are to me.”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“You tell me—you’re the one writing the story,” he said, struggling to get the wrapper off his Blow Pop. The more he twisted the slick paper at the top, the tighter it hugged the Blow Pop.
I snatched the sucker from him and took the wrapper off of it myself, then handed it back to him.
“Well?” he asked, shoving the lollipop into the corner of his mouth and slurping at it. “Why am I here?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Considering the fact that I was supposed to be going to County Cork with my wife and a bunch of her colleagues from Alchemy Depot but somehow ended up in your kitchen, yes. Yes, I very much would like to know why I’m here,” he said.
There was no short version to share with him.
On Friday afternoon I’d received a text about a delivery from Amazon that sent my heart soaring. The bubble-lined envelope I took from my mailbox when I got home that evening contained something so wonderful that I could hardly believe my eyes when I finally held the prize in my hands: a set of two Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils!
When ordering, I chose the pencils for their colors. Since I already owned a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil with a black barrel, it delighted me to know that I could also own a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil with a turquoise barrel, and a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil with a lime green barrel.
At no point during my hardscrabble childhood in a coal valley of rural West Virginia did I imagine that one day such varied riches would bless my life.
The only reason I ordered the pencils from an online store was because they were no longer available at any of the places where I usually buy pencils. Not finding them anywhere in town threw me into a panic: what if, one day, there was no place to purchase a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil at all, ever again?
It had happened to me before.
In or around the year 2002, I’d faced the sad fact that there was no way to replace my worn-out Pentel Gizmo, a pencil I liked so much that I was once castigated by a supervisor for going to co-worker’s office and asking her if I “could get my pencil back?”
For the record: I asked her politely, not accusingly as was intimated by said co-worker when she ran—like a cry-baby who’d been knocked off her swing in the schoolyard—to her supervisor, an awful closeted lesbian with whom she had a weird “thing” going on, and everybody knew it but didn’t dare say a word because the tattletale was the wife of the head football coach and the awful closeted lesbian was some kind of vice president in charge of something my job and many other jobs depended on, but boy did we all roll our eyes when the lesbian VP bully and a nauseatingly conservative but oh-so-closeted-gay grant writer were suddenly “dating” one another, and making quite an inappropriate show of it to deflect any suspicion from the “secrets” they were both hiding in their “closets.”
Oh, but I was reprimanded for asking someone to give me back a pencil she borrowed?
(Full disclosure: given this experience, I can no longer imagine working in higher education in any capacity, for any amount of money.)
The thought of being without a Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil some time in the future was too horrible to contemplate. And it wasn’t a matter of if, but when I would no longer be able to find these pencils. That’s why I ordered back-ups.
Whereas my heart nearly burst with joy when I thought about receiving my new writing instruments, it seized up when I felt the desire rising inside me to write a Citizen Jim story with one of my new pencils. I stared at one, then the other, as they reclined on my desk, each winking at me and smiling, so happy that I was so happy, so pleased that I was pleased.
I realized there was only one thing that would make me happier than admiring my two new pencils: writing a Citizen Jim story with one of them as soon as possible. That’s when my delight flickered and dimmed, sputtering out like a flame under the lid of a glass jar until there was nothing left of it but the memory of a puff of smoke.
I hadn’t produced a final draft of the Citizen Jim novella I’d been writing during the week. I knew I shouldn’t even try to write a new story without finishing an old one, but the allure of my Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils was too strong. Since my sex drive has plummeted in middle age, I find myself increasingly grateful when any feelings of desire stir in me—regardless of their nature.
“Ugh! That’s disgusting!” Citizen Jim said, grimacing like a Republican meeting a panhandler outside church on a Sunday morning. “I wish you would’ve left that last part off.”
“You asked why you were here, and that’s the answer,” I said.
He was seated on the floor, engrossed in plucking Lego pieces from a bag he found on my writing desk, chewing on the bare Blow Pop stick in his mouth as he stacked the plastic bricks together.
“Yeah, but I didn’t know it was going to be so goddamn tedious,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard anything that boring since that time a guy came into the bookstore and told me the plot of every single one of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels.”
“I guess you probably should go, now,” I said. “I need to let this story sit for a while, and get the other one ready to publish.”
“Fine! But don’t even think about tearing apart my little Lego building when I leave,” he said. “I’m gonna add on to it next time I’m here. Maybe if I call it Barchester Tower and list it on eBay, I’ll get a bidding war started with some Victorian novel nerds.”
That was the dumbest thing I’d heard in a long time. “That sounds good, Precious Lamb,” I said.
“After that awful story you just told me, you don’t get to tell me what sounds good,” he said.
He made an excellent point. “You make an excellent point,” I said.
Citizen Jim walked through the doorway of the kitchen into the hallway, then turned around. “And another thing! If my wife comes back from Ireland and tells me they actually managed to turn the Blarney Stone into a Philosopher’s Stone and I wasn’t there to see it, I’m gonna pound you!” he said.
As he strode out of my little Hobbit House, I picked up a new Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil in each hand and tried to decide with which I’d write a better story: the one with the turquoise barrel, or the one with the lime green barrel?
(I ended up setting the new ones aside and using the one with a black barrel.)