To make Chicken Sheets’s day better, Citizen Jim goes to a lot of trouble. Maybe way too much trouble.
Friday morning was pure, unmitigated hell. Frost on the windshield for the second day straight. Sun in my eyes driving to work. Almost killed by a monstrous pickup truck moving into my lane on a one-way street.
Forgot my cash.
Forgot my banana.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot at work I was convinced that nothing else could possibly go wrong.
“Boy, were you ever wrong about that,” said Citizen Jim. He chuckled, then covered his mouth with a bandaged hand. “Sorry–not sorry!”
“You need to shut it, zip it, and lock it,” I said, “or I’ll call the cops so fast. And I’ll tell them everything.”
“Fine!” said Citizen Jim. He crossed his arms over his chest, his usual pre-pout movement, but he forgot about the third-degree burns on his fingers, palms, wrists, and forearms–as well as his chest. As a result of his forgetfulness he let out a maniacal, googly-eyed but completely silent scream, his mouth open so wide and at such an angle that I could easily count the Pynchon-inspired “Post Horns” on his boxer shorts (there were 49).
After everything that had gone wrong on the way to work, I was pretty sure the law of averages would dictate that joining Tippy Lou’s dice game in the break room might yield the first good news of the day.
It did not.
I borrowed two dollars from Coal Smithy, Tippy Lou’s “muscle” before, during, and after the Friday craps game. Smithy made me agree to the usurious interest rate of 250-percent, due within two days of any wins or losses with her money. When we “shook on it,” she almost crushed my fingers.
“Haha! That was a mistake,” mumbled Citizen Jim. “You should have known better than to ‘shake on it’–especially since you said Smithy looks just like that cuckoo-crazy Lulu Canon you used to date.”
“Hindsight, Jim. Cut me some slack here,” I said.
“Just tell the story,” he said.
Yes. The story. I took the two dollars Smithy loaned me and within five minutes had turned it into $120–a $120 debt to Smithy that is (and that’s before tacking on the 250-percent interest).
I hurried off to my seat with my head full of the sound of Smithy’s right fist repeatedly pounding her left palm. I sat down pale and shaky as a priest in a confessional with the Town Whore.
“The Town Whore?” Citizen Jim yelped. “You know only two things in this world scare me–the Zodiac Killer and the Town Whore! Why do you always have to drag the Town Whore into it?”
“I know you’re scared of the Town Whore and the Zodiac Killer, but they’re probably both dead, now.”
I nodded. “I would almost bet on it.”
“Oh, my! Until I paid back that hot-tempered little loan shark of the ginger persuasion, I wouldn’t be betting on anything if I were you,” Citizen Jim said.
I took out my cell phone. “Do you want me to call the police? Why are you practically begging me to have you arrested?”
“Why don’t you quit giving me such good openings to butt in and point out your ceaseless stupidity?” Citizen Jim asked. “You aren’t even close to the good part.”
About that he was totally wrong–there is no “good part” to this story.
I thought the best thing for me to do after getting settled at my desk was to say a few decades of the rosary. It would get my mind off my crappy morning and the money I was going to have to scrape together by Sunday if I didn’t want Smithy rearranging my face and my pristine skeletal structure which was (and would be for at least two more days) unmarred by broken limbs, busted vertebrae, or cracked ribs.
While saying the Apostles’ Creed and the first Our Father, I’d sent Citizen Jim a couple of text messages about my awful day. I’d only just finished saying my second Hail Mary when I heard back from him.
“ON MY WAY STOP LANDING ON ROOF AT 1 PM STOP YOU MUST GET OUT BY 1:15 STOP MAKING SENSE STOP DESTROY THIS TELEGRAM AFTER READING STOP”
I paused in the middle of rolling my eyes to scan the ceiling, pondering what on Earth Jim meant by “landing on the roof” and wondering if I should heed his warning to be out of the building by 1:15.
Considering the fact that Jim’s idea of humor could very well include a parody of a cold war spy’s communiqué to a contact, I wasn’t sure whether I should take the message seriously. (The Talking Heads reference threw me, of course, but it’s likely that Jim simply couldn’t help himself.)
Perhaps there would be a rope ladder hanging over the ledge of the building ready to whisk me into a helicopter. Or maybe Citizen Jim would just be landing on the roof to be covered in a billowy nylon parachute, a picnic basket tied to his waist containing an awesome lunch for me.
“I can’t believe you couldn’t read between the lines of the telegram I texted you,” said Citizen Jim. “God, you’re an idiot!”
“I’m being called an idiot by someone who thinks using all caps and the word ‘stop’ at the end of each statement turns any written message into a telegram,” I said. “That makes as much sense as turning an office building full of innocent people and treasured cubicle pinups into–”
“Oh my God—shut up about the goddamn magazine pictures in your cubicle!” shouted Citizen Jim. “You don’t appreciate a damned thing I do for you!”
“You’re right. I’m so sorry, Precious Lamb,” I said. “And I’m sorry I was too stupid to figure out what your textegram was trying to tell me.”
“I accept your apology, as short and vague as it is,” he said. “But as we all know, you can’t fix stupid.”
Believe me–after knowing Citizen Jim for more than twenty years, fixing stupid is something I quit attempting a long time ago.
Here’s what happened.
There was a line at the break room microwaves at least five-deep when I walked in there at one o’clock. Unfortunately, I’d brought a Lean Cuisine meal for lunch and was starving (and just let me point out that I hadn’t eaten an unthawed frozen dinner since 2002 when I experienced a major depressive episode brought on by a failed love affair).
I didn’t even get to start cooking my lunch until ten after one. As I was pulling the cellophane off the hot tray, I got a text from Citizen Jim: “I HOPE YOURE IN YOUR CAR BY NOW STOP DRIVE STRAIGHT HOME STOP DESTROY AFTER READING STOP WAIT STOP GET ME A LARGE CHILI FROM WENDYS STOP ALSO SOUR CREAM STOP AND EXTRA CRACKERS STOP PLUS A SMALL CHOCOLATE FROSTY STOP ADD MALT TO IT WHEN YOU GET HOME STOP”
“What’s burning?” someone behind me asked.
“I smell it, too,” said another voice.
Then the fire alarms sounded.
“I don’t think it’s a drill,” a man beside me said to Smithy, who’d been following me all day making gestures to indicate my possible injuries and subsequent death if, I suppose, I didn’t pony up payment for my $300 debt by Sunday night.
Before I could look away, Smithy said, “I’ve got a drill right here,” and waved her fist under my nose.
But there was no time to react to her–a stampede had started, with twenty or thirty people trying to squeeze through the same narrow doorway at one time.
The building was being evacuated at what seemed like a snail’s pace while people were shoving, screaming, and pushing to get out, if not fainting from the closeness of so many bodies. Finally, the doors began hemorrhaging associates, some of whom staggered around coughing, while others were clutching at and dragging co-workers to the ground.
I got another text as soon as I reached the center of the parking lot: “I SEE YOU STOP EXCLAMATION POINT STOP DRIVE UP TO THE CURB OUTSIDE SMOKER FRIENDLY STOP WHEN YOU HEAR ME HIT THE ROOF OF YOUR CAR TAKE OFF STOP EXCLAMATION POINT STOP”
As I ran to my car I looked up to see a figure running, dropping and rolling across the expanse of the plaza roof. The dropping and rolling weren’t helping–Citizen Jim was still on fire when he leaped off the ledge on top of my car. My phone vibrated with a new text message: “STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP” it said, and I slammed on the brakes, watching in horror as Citizen Jim flew through the air like a flaming torch with arms and legs. He landed ten feet from my front bumper.
“Then you tried to run over me!” said Citizen Jim, wincing as he lightly touched the gauze wrapped around his head.
Never mind that my magazine pinups of Kate Winslet and Gwen Stefani were lost forever in the fire now consuming my office building.
“For the last time, that was not me! It was a Lay’s potato chip truck delivering to the grocery store you landed in front of,” I told him.
“Well, you sure didn’t do anything to stop it from killing me,” he sulked. “Thank God that hobo on the bus stop bench threw his flea-infested Snuggie over me or I would’ve ended up looking like something on a spit at a luau! And oh, how the fleas on that blanket bit me! My God but I still itch!”
I didn’t get the whole story out of Citizen Jim until he was bandaged up like a mummy in the ER. And it was true that he’d done it all for me. And it’s also true that not many people would try to burn down their best friend’s workplace on a Friday just to end the person’s awful workday a little early, thereby extending the weekend.
“But there is one thing I failed to do,” Citizen Jim admitted.
I knew exactly what that was when I moved the curtains to peer through the living room window. And Smithy was still parked in that black van with a cobra painted on the side. She’d never lowered the binoculars mashed against her eyes.
She just watched. And waited.