Drew and I used to live three houses apart on Segura Road. We would stroll through the summerly neighborhood to Thrifty for ice cream. On the way back home, the trips always felt shorter, like the trips from my grandmother’s house. She lived over 100 miles away, past the Cayuma valley. For two hours, I would sit in the backseat, while my parents fought over having to see Grandma. Only one of us three wanted to go there. He was driving the car. They would fight on the drive back home, too, but they were worn out by the end of the weekend. So the trip back felt shorter.
Anyway, I moved away to college; so did Drew. He was accepted by USC on a football scholarship to play quarterback. As for me, I couldn’t decide on a major at Cal State, Fullerton. My plan was the fifty-year-plan: to keep taking classes and accumulating degrees without ever having to work a real job. I would die with 25 Bachelors and Masters degrees and over $1,000,000 in debt.
I returned home for my first summer vacation from college. That first week, I went to the old Thrifty. Instead of ice cream, I picked up a refill of Prozac. Everything in the neighborhood appeared the same: the shops, the trees, and the houses. Something about that town, however, had changed. I could feel it.
In the second week, he showed up to my parents’ door, uninvited. Drew said he had tested positive and dropped out of school. He had to move back in with his parents. After quitting the steroids, my old friend looked soft and woebegone.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“What time do your parents get home?”
“Like six o’clock.”
“Let’s sit by the pool…” He pulled out a Phillies blunt. “…And smoke this.”
I had never smoked weed.
Drew said he had to piss. He took the blunt with him to the bathroom.
Out by the pool, the blunt tasted funny. It burned my throat. My Adam’s apple had caught on fire. The heat in Bakersfield was over 100 degrees.
“Let’s get ice cream,” he said.
“I can’t think of anything better to do.”
So, we strolled through the neighborhood, like in high school. By dusk, the heat only got worse. Whatever was in that blunt had caught up to us. We passed a cyclops taking out the garbage; naked sea nymphs trying to lure us into their houses; pairs of red and yellow eyes watching us from inside the sewer drains; we even passed a chimera (it could’ve been a German Shepherd). I tried to convince myself that none of them were real.
“What the hell is happening?” Drew said.
“Did you see the cyclops?”
“What about the naked women and the eyes in the sewer?”
“I saw them, too.”
We had crossed some meridian where the cars, the houses—the whole neighborhood—changed colors. Yellow homes turned pink. A mailbox turned from blue to yellow. Other objects lost coloring, period. We even crossed a squirrel with zebra stripes.
“Shouldn’t we just turn back home?” I asked Drew.
“We’re almost there. I can see Thrifty from here.”
I could’ve walked back alone. But who was Odysseus without his crew?
We had to fight through a swarm of lightning bugs. The more aggressive ones latched to our skin. People who passed by could only see us flailing our arms to get the bugs off. We were buzzing at the lightning bugs, too: bzzzz…bzzzz…
We passed through the automatic doors of Thrifty. Something about fluorescent lights made the lightning bugs more visible.
“We died,” Drew said.
“Is that what it is?”
“Ben, this is death.”
“Fuck,” I said. “What do you think we should do?”
“What else does a dead person do? He goes on living.”
That was what we did. Having gone that far, we rode it out. I seemed to be followed by other people. They showed up in my periphery, and they disappeared. I had to dodge them, so I cut and ran to different aisles. At any second, I could’ve passed out. What the hell had I smoked? Why was my throat still burning? I was shamed by my parents. They damned me through the speakers at the Thrifty:
“Is this what college did to you? You come back with a ring in your nose, and bleached hair, and tattoos. You used to be a good kid. Look at you now! You’re just another bum drug addict. We failed you; you failed us. Now get out of our house!… Clean up on Aisle 9.”
My mind had scuttled to somewhere in the store. It had left me, for sure. I could tell by a sharp pain in my right ear. This whole time, I had guessed that my mind had been living in my brain: a computer chip underneath all that wormy material. But it could’ve been at my ankle. Wherever it once lived, it had been smoked away.
I followed the voices from my mind to the Hallmark section. It had to be in one of the cards. I began opening each of them. They kept whispering to me: “I’m right here…I’m right here…”
In the next aisle, Drew lay on his back and grabbed up at lightning bugs in the fluorescent tubes:
When they sounded closer, the voices would call from somewhere else. I began pressing my ear to each card, and pulling every birthday card from the rack, and stuffing them in my right hand.
“Is he your friend,” a woman asked. I turned around to a short and tired Hispanic woman.
Drew kept pinching at the air, bzzz…bzzzzing.
“His parents just separated,” I said.
“Please pick him up before I call security.”
Now, he weighed about 220 pounds. I couldn’t pick my friend up, so I dropped a stuffed alligator on him. It made him scream and jump back to his feet.
“Come on. Let’s get the ice cream.”
All the way to the ice cream counter, we were shadowed by the lady.
“Watch these two,” she said to the man at the counter.
He wore not an apron or a wedge cap, he wore a pharmacy coat. Old Man Druffers had given me the Prozac the week before. Both Drew and I were still cognizant enough; we could assimilate the reason for being there. But I was too distracted by those tubs of unsettling colors; the pink in the Bubblegum ice cream; the yellow in the French Vanilla ice cream; the green in the Pistachio Nut ice cream; the brown and white in the Rocky Road ice cream…
What was this concept of color? What was the purpose? The colors in the Rainbow Sherbet communicated to me, not in words but in feelings: the feelings said, “get out before the truth is revealed.”
Colors were there to warn me.
“Young man, what do you want?”
“I want you to be free.”
I heard the snap of a finger. The voice came from Old Man Druffers. I looked up. He was glaring at me. I couldn’t speak.
Drew kept bzzz…bzzzing. He was scratching the lightning bugs off the glass, leaving traces of his fingers on the frost.
Old Man Druffers didn’t appear to understand my existential crisis in front of the Rainbow Sherbet. After all, he gave out drugs; he didn’t perform shamanism (not in Thrifty).
So, what did he mean by that question? What did I want? I wanted a lot, and none of it was in those tubs of ice cream.
“What is this stuff we put in our mouths?” I asked him.
“This…food. Who made up ice cream?”
“Just tell me what you want, Young Man. I have a migraine. Customers are waiting.”
“I just don’t know.”
“Can’t you decide on something?”
Two years into adulthood, I still couldn’t decide on anything.
“He’s still looking, Pete. Bzzz…bzzzzz…”
“Oh, good. Your friend can speak human,” he said to me. “And it’s not Pete,” he said to Drew, “it’s Mr. Druffers.”
“I’ll deal with you donkeys later.”
He pushed past a set of squeaking, sliding doors at his knees. We were left in silence between each other, with “All I Need Is A Miracle” playing through the PA system.
“Mike and the Mechanics,” I said.
“This is Mike and the Mechanics.”
“I hate Mike and the Mechanics.”
The rest of the store was quiet. The cashier went out front for a cigarette. No one else was tending the open register. Somehow, Thrifty had too few people who worked there. Out of seven checkout lines, only one of them was open.
Old Man Druffers rang up three old ladies and went back to us, all six-foot-whatever of him. Men of his height weren’t supposed to live that long.
“All right, I’m giving each of you donkeys ten seconds to make up your damn minds. If the time is up, you’ll have to leave.”
“Triple scoop of Chocolate Chip, bzzz, Pistachio Nut, bzzz, and Rocky Road, bzzzz…bzzz.”
“And for you, Plato?”
He began counting. I was pressured by him, the voices in the Rainbow Sherbet, and the Hallmark cards, even Drew’s bzzzing.
“I’ll order for him,” Drew said.
I was unaware of which flavors Drew had ordered for me, and I never heard Old Man Druffers asking me to pay him. Oh, well. We were slurping up ice cream that was melting in a psychotic pharmacy full of voices and lightning bugs. The fluorescent lights buzzed louder at a frequency that made the chimera in the cold/flu aisle roll over. That Hispanic woman had raised its volume to a repellent level.
A man near us, in a motorized wheelchair, sucked at his ice cream on a sugar cone, too. I was flustered by the act of eating.
“We shove this stuff called food into these stretchable holes on our faces,” I said to Drew.
He poked his finger through the top scoop of his triple-scoop—the Chocolate Chip—inspecting it for more lightning bugs.
“Doesn’t that scare you in the least?” I asked.
“Man, you’ve been at college too long,” he said.
I had been gone for a year.
“We can’t survive without this food. Once there’s too much food in our bodies, we push it out this other hole, the hole between our legs. After that, it looks much different. It loses its color. This Mint Chip will turn brown; it won’t smell anything like ice cream.”
I looked down. This stuff called ice cream was already dripping to the floor. I couldn’t feel the coldness on my hand, nor could I taste the ice cream itself. Regardless, I kept stuffing it in my mouth, in a spell of hyperphagia, breaking it down with my teeth and my jaws, in this false pleasure.
Drew had wandered off, again. He was at a newsstand. I must’ve annoyed him with my doctrine on human sensation. He picked up a magazine about baseball cards and began communicating with it.
Then, in front of me, this particular man showed up and began stacking paper towels up on a shelf. He looked a little over 40. He wore a shirt for Thrifty. A man of a certain age didn’t belong in a collared shirt with short sleeves and a name tag on it.
At some point, the rolls lost balance. They were like wooden blocks in a game of Jenga. He ducked at the avalanche. I couldn’t look away. He appeared to be educated enough to fix teeth or do taxes. Maybe he did so in the past—either months ago or years ago—and he was hobbled by some devastation. It could’ve been malpractice or a major audit. Whatever the reason was, this was his inferno: to be harassed by paper towels. Or he had been working for Thrifty since my age. He could’ve been stricken by a severe psychiatric disorder. Every person was dysfunctional in some way (the Lord knew I was). My father had an irritable bowel, yet he kept going on the eleven-o’clock-news. Who knew what disorder this man had?
The name tags at Thrifty showed how many years each employee had proudly served the company. I was decent enough to withhold myself from asking. For peace of mind, though, I did try to read his name tag, to find out his title at the store. If it said Regional Manager, I would’ve felt a little better.
“Um, Sir, are you the manager?”
But he heard nothing.
My mind, from somewhere, was goading me to keep asking the question.
But he still ignored me.
My vision was blurred. I stepped closer until the man came back into focus. His left earlobe had my same scar as when I had sliced myself with a guitar string. His nametag had his name and nothing else. BEN. My God, he was me. He was undeniably me.
Drew stopped next to me. For once in the store, he stopped buzzing.
His mouth was open. He stopped eating his ice cream.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“That guy looks like me.”
“That guy, he looks just like me.”
“What does it say on his name tag?”
He squinted his eyes: “It says Drew.”
But how? We looked barely alike.
I looked down at my shoes. The ice cream had fallen off the cone and onto my left shoe. It dripped off the laces.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Drew said.
Looking back one last time, I saw that unfortunate man staring down at the puddle of ice cream. He looked at me and shook his head. I never wanted to see that man again, but I would, the next week.
He had killed our high. Neither Drew nor I could put words to our thoughts. I had even managed to leave the store without paying for the birthday cards. Maybe the Hispanic woman failed to notice, or she just wanted us to leave.
The neighborhood had been restored to its original colors. The squirrels looked like the same old squirrels. The cyclops had vanished, so had the naked sea nymphs and the eyes in the sewer drain. My mind had returned. Even if they were around, Drew and I were too disturbed by that man.
“That’s reality, Drew, An avalanche of paper towels falling on your head. Whatever doesn’t kill you only embarrasses you in front of other people.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, that man was rejected. He was weakened by something. What if rejection gets worse, the older you get?”
“What if he’s just a fuckup?”
“That’s it. I’m graduating college. There’s no reason he should work there at his age. Thrifty should hire only teenagers.”
“What about Old Man Druffers?”
“Druffers is a pharmacist, and he’s a widow.”
“Yeah, but he’s a crank.”
“Ah, let’s not dwell on it,” I said, which sounded hypocritical, seeing as how, twenty years later, I would still remember him. Maybe I was overdramatizing. His life could’ve been better than it seemed to be.
“Think of it like this,” I said to Drew. “Which would you rather do for a living? Would you rather stack paper towels or defend murderers in court like your dad does?”
“Stack paper towels,” he said. “But if you would’ve asked me the same question ten years ago, I would’ve said the other.”
“Anyway, how is it possible if he looked like me, too? You and I look nothing alike.”
“I don’t know, but I’m never doing this again.”
“Using bug spray.”
“Wait,” I said. “What bug spray?”
“Your mom’s in the bathroom.”
“You sprayed the blunt with RAID?”
“Lumpy told me to try it.”
“Just because he’s your dealer, it doesn’t make him an expert. Fuck, man, we got brain damage.”
So Drew and I never smoked formaldehyde again. That was the positive side of this outcome.
The next week, Drew was running out of weed. We got stoned off the last nug, and we rode to Lumpy’s house. On the way, I was nodding off at the steering wheel.
At the light on Ming and Ashe, he pulled to my left. I could feel his presence. Looking over at him was like peeking at my report card from the eighth grade. (Mr. Spagnola would accuse me of being homophobic.) I could still see that black and smudged F in English.
The man was sitting up rigidly behind the steering wheel of a real shit box (his hands on 10 and 2). The shit box was without a make or a model—as if it were sold at a black-market dealership behind a Costco (where they sold Halloween pumpkins). It was white, too, with burn marks all over the hood.
Yes, he still looked like me.
“Don’t look, but he’s to my left.”
“The guy from Thrifty.”
“That poor bastard,” he said. “I know what he’s thinking. I got a shit car, a shit job, a shit wife; I got shit clothes, a shit haircut…”
“Do you still think he looks like you?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy from Thrifty. The paper towel guy.”
“No, it ain’t.”
The light turned green. I waited for the man to put his shit box in gear and rumble ahead, but the car stalled. He tried to buck himself from the seat as if it would rev up the engine.
“Should we help him?” I asked Drew.
“Nah, Lumpy’s in a hurry.”
So I drove through the intersection. The man shrank in my rearview. He kept shrinking and shrinking until he no longer appeared.