In which CitizenJim arrives during a pop-up sale of pottery made by Chicken Sheets’s friend Candaleeza, and makes a fool of Chicken Sheets.
It’s probably very telling—and not in a good way, I realize—that the thing I remember best about the novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is the passage which recounts all the supplies delivered to the POWs in Dresden due to a clerical error at the Red Cross:
The Englishmen had hoarded these so cunningly that now, as the war was ending, they had three tons of sugar, one ton of coffee, eleven hundred pounds of chocolate, seven hundred pounds of tobacco, seventeen hundred pounds of tea, two tons of flour, one ton of canned beef, twelve hundred pounds of canned butter, sixteen hundred pounds of canned cheese, eight hundred pounds of powdered milk, and two tons of orange marmalade. They kept all this in a room without windows. They had ratproofed it by lining it with flattened tin cans.
Though it bears no true resemblance to the situation in which I found myself on Friday evening, that scene did come to mind as soon as I opened a package I pulled from my mailbox when I got home from work.
Some people take Ambien before bed and realize the next day that at some point in the middle of the night they got up and ate half a pumpkin pie, six Hawaiian bread rolls, three boxes of Cracker Jack, and a turkey drumstick. I once knew a man who got drunk and, at two in the morning, bid on a piece of art by Andy Warhol that was being auctioned online by the Andy Warhol Foundation. Because he was drunk, he bid recklessly. Because he bid recklessly, he won the lot. Then he had to scramble the next day trying to convince the Andy Warhol Foundation—on whose board he sat at the time—that his winning bid had been a grave and very unaffordable mistake.
These are all unfortunate—yet somewhat understandable, or at least explicable—breaches of sanity. But I don’t have a similar set of circumstances to explain why early one evening while I was completely lucid and stone-cold sober I purchased from a seller on eBay a lot of Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils—fourteen packages with two pencils in each package.
Even a previous explanation (in an earlier Citizen Jim story called “Double-Barreled Desire”) regarding my deep, abiding love of the Pilot G-2 mechanical pencil doesn’t hold water or explain why I would, seemingly, take leave of my senses long enough to order twenty-five dollars’ worth (this includes tax and shipping) of mechanical pencils from an online auction service.
If I felt silly ordering two “extra” Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils from an internet retailer a few months ago, I wasn’t sure how far into the territory of stupid I should feel, now, as I tried to figure out where to store twenty-eight additional Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils, as well as the extra tube of lead (with twelve pieces of lead per tube) and the two replacement erasers that were in each package.
I hadn’t been so vexed since my days of working in a grocery store when I discovered a frozen chicken product described as “chunk-shaped.” To this day, I haven’t been able to determine what the exact shape of a chunk is, or where it might fit into the geometrical universe. I feared I might be seeking a place to store all my Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils and their spare accouterment for the remaining decades of my life.
On Saturday morning I was still ruminating on this while helping my friend Candaleeza set up a sales area for her pottery in my front yard. Honestly, I was so lost in thought that I was barely helping her at all.
In actual fact, I was inside the house watching YouTube videos about the history of the Irish Republican Army as a means of distracting myself from buying anything off of Amazon.com or Target.com or Walmart.com or any of a dozen other dot-com retailers.
The truth of the matter is that my impulse purchases during this pandemic were starting to eat into my skimpy cash reserves. I wasn’t sure what I would do if some emergency came up and all I had at my disposal to solve the problem was the refurbished iPad I’d bought a couple of weeks before, or the new comforter whose arrival I was anticipating in the next few days.
Not long after I turned my full attention back to YouTube, I started reaching for my debit card to make a donation to Friends of Sinn Féin, through which Americans could show their support for Irish Republicans without being branded a full-on terrorist. Before I could enter the expiration date on my bank card on the website form, I heard a terrible crash.
I immediately felt guilty for not helping Candaleeza, because now it sounded like she was dropping many of the beautiful objects she was trying to sell. I made my way outside, determined to sacrifice my self-distraction to assist her for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. Once I opened the door all the noise suddenly made sense.
“Uh-oh, here she comes,” said Citizen Jim. He wasn’t even whispering. “Act like I’m just a regular customer looking at your wares.”
“And to what do we owe the terror of this visit?” I asked Citizen Jim. I looked at Candaleeza and asked, “Did he break some of your pottery? Am I going to have to pay for it, now?”
Neither Citizen Jim nor Candaleeza answered me, probably because they were suddenly too busy looking at each other and laughing their heads off.
“See? I told you!” said Citizen Jim. “Didn’t I tell you she’d come out here all smart-mouthed and accusatory?”
Candaleeza shook her head in apparent amazement. “You did call it, I have to admit,” she said. “But how did you know?”
“How did he know what would make me come outside acting all smart-mouthed and accusatory?” I said. “Ha! Because doing things to elicit a smart-mouthed and accusatory reaction from me is the sole purpose of his life on Earth.”
“Don’t forget that I also can predict that somehow you’ll always try and turn everything around and make it about yourself, no matter where you are or who you’re with or what’s going on that has nothing to do with you,” he said.
I looked at Candaleeza and shook my head. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Actually, I’m fine. I just can’t believe he predicted what you would do and exactly what you would say after you did it,” she said. “He even told me you’d apologize to me for whatever you assumed he was doing wrong.”
“How much do I need to pay you?” I asked.
“For what?” Candaleeza asked.
“I heard him breaking your pottery—that’s why I came outside!” I said.
Citizen Jim stomped over to where I stood and threw his arm out in the direction of the yard. “Do you see any broken pottery out here?” he asked.
It was true: I didn’t see anything in the yard or on the sidewalk except dirt, grass, and bricks. “But—I mean, I heard—”
Citizen Jim clapped his hand over my mouth and shook his head. “Stimpy, don’t you know by now that the best way to get through life is believing nothing that you hear and only half of what you see?”
Candaleeza pointed to the screen of her phone. “It was just a sound effects app I downloaded,” she said. “He told me you’d assume the worst and jump to all kinds of conclusions before you knew what was actually going on. I didn’t believe him.”
“You were right not to believe him,” I said.
“And why is that? You did everything I said you would—and you did it exactly when and how I said you would do it!” Citizen Jim said.
I laid my palm against my forehead and closed my eyes. “I’ve had a few weird days—can you just give me some peace?”
“Yeah, this lady here told me about your car,” said Citizen Jim.
“No I didn’t!” said Candaleeza.
Citizen Jim nodded. “That’s true. She didn’t, but I already know, so.”
“And how do you know?” I asked.
“I hotwired it before dawn this morning because I needed to go get Mama breakfast from Pancake Island down at Gulf Shores,” he said.
“Oh my God! You stole my car?”
“Nope—I couldn’t,” he said. “Something’s wrong with your steering wheel. Could hardly turn it! It was like trying to steer a boat with a sea cow caught in the rudder.”
“If you’d asked me I could have told you the power steering pump is screwed up,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to wake you up because I know how awful you are in the first hour after your eyes open in the morning,” he said. “Also, you owe me a hundred and seventy dollars.”
I turned to Candaleeza. “Did he make you play that stupid dice game he made up called ‘Lucky Thirteen’?” I asked.
Candaleeza shook her head. “Actually, he helped me put out my pottery and even offered to go to the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Greeno Road and pretend to get hit by a car.”
“What the hell?” I said.
“He said once all the people got gathered around—”
“But before the cops showed up,” Citizen Jim said.
“Yeah, he was going to tell everyone who tried to help him off the street about my sale.”
“Oh, Precious Lamb! That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard!” I said. I told Candaleeza, “This is why he’s my best friend and the person I love most in the world.”
“If you love me so much why aren’t you forking over that hundred-seventy bucks you owe me?” he asked, snatching away his hairy, ape-like hand when I tried to grasp it.
“What do I owe you money for?” I asked.
“That Uber ride to Pancake Island and back,” he said. “Unless you want to be the one who tells Mama that she doesn’t need breakfast from Pancake Island.”
I absolutely did not want to tell his mother any such thing, and not just because I thought she might slap me into a year’s worth of next weeks.
“First of all, that restaurant you’re talking about is called Island Pancake House,” I said. “And second of all, I can’t spare any money. I have to buy another car.”
“Oh, so you can buy out warehouses full of mechanical pencils and comforters you don’t need for your bed and crates of Blow Pops and pirate ships full of Yorkshire Tea, but you can’t spare some pocket change to help me out?” Citizen Jim asked.
I shrugged. “Sorry. But I’ll let you ride around in the next car I buy if you want to.”
“You better hope the next car you buy is invisible, because if I come here and it’s sitting in the driveway I’ll cover it in raw eggs from the headlights to the tailpipe.”
“I feel like I shouldn’t be here right now,” said Candaleeza, backing away from us.
“No, I’m glad you’re here,” I said. “I’m glad someone is here to witness what he puts me through every time he invades my living space.”
“Oh! Oh oh oh! I see how you really feel,” he said, then looked at Candaleeza. “I’m glad I have someone to witness how she treats me every time I come here and try to love her in my own way.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t be here,” Candaleeza said. “I think I’ll just pack everything up and see if I can do this somewhere else.”
“You oughta go next door—I bet that fit bloke from Winchester, England would help you out,” said Citizen Jim. “But I need to make an impulse purchase first.”
He lifted a piece of crockery that was shaped like a bowl, but too small to hold anything more than a teabag, or a handful of change. “How much is this?” he asked. “And do you think if I throw it and hit Chicken Sheets right between her eyes with it that she’ll come to her senses and pay me back that money she owes me for the Uber I had to hire to drive me to Gulf Shores and back this morning?”
Candaleeza—who is a couple inches taller than Citizen Jim—plucked the tiny bowl from his hand and said, “This one’s cursed,” she said. “And I don’t think you can afford anything else I’m selling.”
“Yeah, okay, I see whose side you’re on,” said Citizen Jim. “That’s fine. I don’t need to lob a cursed piece of pottery at Chicken Sheets to pay her back for being such a witch. I got other means and ways of showing her some comeuppance.”
“That’s good to hear,” Candaleeza said. “I’d hate it if you damaged her brain and she couldn’t write any more Citizen Jim stories.”
“Ha! I guess you don’t understand that she’s already brain-damaged or she wouldn’t be writing these stupid stories,” said Citizen Jim.
I looked at Candaleeza and nodded. “It’s true,” I said and winked.
“Don’t let that wink fool you,” said Citizen Jim. “She really does think she’s perfectly normal—another lie she tells herself to make it through the days and nights.”
“At least I don’t lie every time I open my mouth,” I said.
“This is between you and me! Leave President Trump out of it!” Citizen Jim yelled.
Candaleeza started walking toward her car. “I’m, er, just gonna leave this stuff here until you all are finished talking. If you sell anything before I come back, just throw the money into one of those honey pots.”
At least I think that’s what she said. I could barely hear her since Citizen Jim had put me in a headlock and was tightening his grip every time he shouted, “Say you’re sorry! Say I’m the king! Say it!”
I was definitely sorry that our way of having fun had made my friend so uncomfortable. But I was also glad to not be thinking about what I could possibly do with all those Pilot G-2 mechanical pencils still in their packages on my kitchen counter.