Drew and I lived close together on Segura Road. We would stroll for summer ice cream at the Thrifty. The trips would feel shorter on the way home, like those from Grandma’s house.
Anyway, we both moved away to college. Drew went on a full-ride scholarship to USC. I couldn’t decide on a major. My plan was fifty years at college. I wanted to take classes for degrees for the next fifty years. I never wanted a job.
I returned home for the first summer back from college. Everything in the neighborhood looked like it had changed, from the trees to the yards to the houses. I went to Thrifty, not for ice cream but for Prozac.
Drew showed up at my doorstep. He looked woebegone.
“Welcome back,” he said.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“I dropped out,” he said. “I’m back in with my parents.”
“Oh.” I didn’t ask him why. He never explained it.
“What do you want to do today?” I asked.
“What time do your parents come home?”
“Like six o’clock. Why?”
He pulled out a Phillies blunt. “Let’s sit by the pool and smoke this.”
I’d smoked weed only once before, when I was at college.
“I have to piss,” he said.
“I’ll wait by the pool,” I said.
It was over a hundred degrees in Bakersfield. The blunt tasted funny. It didn’t taste like weed. And it burned my throat. My Adam’s apple caught on fire.
“Let’s get ice cream,” he said.
“You read my mind.”
We didn’t take a dip in the pool. We journeyed through the neighborhood instead, like in high school. The heat was muggy by dusk. That blunt had caught up to us. We passed a Cyclops. He rolled the garbage to a melting curb. Naked sea nymphs called us from their houses. Red and yellow eyes watched us from a sewer drain. Even a chimera (chained to a fence) rolled on a neighbor’s lawn. I tried to convince myself I’d imagined it all.
“What the fuck is happening?” Drew said.
“Did you see the Cyclops?”
“What about the naked women and the eyes in the sewer?”
“I saw that, too,” he said.
It was like we shared the same brain. We’d crossed a border. The whole neighborhood changed colors. A yellow house turned pink. A mailbox switched from blue to yellow. Other objects lost their coloring. We crossed a squirrel with zebra stripes.
“Shouldn’t we turn back home?” I asked Drew.
“We’re almost there,” Drew said. “I can see the Thrifty from here.”
Nothing could stop him from ice cream. 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 onto our skin. People who passed us watched us. We began to flail our arms to keep the bugs off. We buzzed at them: bzzzz…bzzzz…bzzzz…
The automatic doors of the Thrifty flew open. The fluorescent lights made us see the lightning bugs much clearer.
“We’ve died,” Drew said.
“Is this death?”
“This is death.”
“What should we do?”
“What else does a dead person do?” he asked. “He keeps living.”
Which we did—just ride it out. Other people seemed to follow me in my periphery. They disappeared. I cut into a different aisle to dodge them.
My parents shamed me through the speakers:
“Look what happened to you. You came back with a ring in your nose. We used to think you were a good kid. But look at you now: high in a drug store. You’re just another drug addict. We’ve failed you, and you’ve failed us. Now get out of our house. Clean up on aisle nine.”
My brain had escaped through my ear. I could tell by a sharp pain. My mind was a computer chip beneath that wormy material. Or my mind could’ve lived in my ankle. I’d smoked it away.
Voices in my head led me to the Hallmark section. My mind hid in one of those cards. I began opening each one of them. It whispered to me: “I’m right here…I’m right here…”
Drew was in the toy section. He lay on his back. He grabbed lightning bugs from the air: “Bzzzz…bzzzz…bzzzz…bzzzz…”
The voices called me from somewhere else. They sounded closer. I began pressing my ear to each card. I pulled every birthday card from the rack. I stuffed them in my right hand. I looked down at my shirt. Those bugs were everywhere, so I joined Drew on the floor. Together, we snatched the bugs from the air. I tried to squash them in my hands, but they multiplied.
An exhausted Hispanic woman stopped over us. “Can you get up from the floor, please?”
What if she was going to call the police on us? I stood right away, but Drew remained on the floor. He was still snatching bugs.
“Can you pick your friend up from the floor, please, before I call security?” she asked.
“His parents just separated,” I said.
Drew weighed two-hundred-and-twenty pounds. I was too weak to pick him up. So I dropped a stuffed alligator on him. He screamed and jumped to his feet.
“Come on. Let’s get some ice cream,” I said.
The lady shadowed us to the ice cream counter. She told the man, “Watch these two.”
It was Mr. Druffers. He’d given me Prozac the week before. He wore his pharmacy coat with an apron. Drew and I could still function. We could remember why we’d walked there. But that array of colors distracted me. The pink in the Bubblegum ice cream, the yellow in the French Vanilla, the green in the Pistachio Nut, the brown and white in the Rocky Road all confused me. What is the concept of color? To discern objects from each other? The colors in the Rainbow Sherbet communicated to me not in words but feelings. The feelings said, “Get out before the truth is revealed.” Colors existed to warn me.
“Young man, what do you want?” Mr. Druffers asked.
“I want you to be free.”
I heard the snap of a finger. The voice flew out of Mr. Druffer’s mouth. His eyes lunged at me. I lost the ability to speak.
Drew tried to scratch the lightning bugs off the glass. He left his fingerprints on the frost.
Mr. Druffers failed to understand my existential crisis. I stared at the Rainbow Sherbet. What did his question mean? What did I want?
“What is this stuff we put in our mouths?” I asked him.
“This food we call it. Who made up ice cream?”
“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 and I still wrestled with decisions.
“He’s still looking, Pete. Bzzzz…bzzzzz…”
“Oh, good. Your friend can speak human,” Druffers said to me. “And it’s not Pete,” he said to Drew, “it’s Mr. Druffers.”
“I’ll deal with you donkeys later.”
He kicked a set of squeaking doors behind the counter and walked away.
“All I Need Is A Miracle” leaked through the speakers.
“Mike and the Mechanics,” I said.
“This is Mike and the Mechanics.”
“I hate Mike and the Mechanics.”
The rest of the store was mute. The cashier went out for a cigarette. Too few people worked at Thrifty. Only one checkout lane was open out of seven.
Mr. Druffers helped three old ladies at the register. Men as tall as him weren’t supposed to live that long. You never see an elderly at six-foot-five.
When he returned to us, he said, “All right, I’m giving you donkeys ten seconds to make up your minds. When the time is up, you’ll have to leave.”
“Triple scoop of Chocolate Chip, bzzzz, Pistachio Nut, bzzzz, Rocky Road, bzzzz…bzzzz.”
“And for you, Plato?”
He began counting from ten. I felt pressured. The voices in the Rainbow Sherbet, the Hallmark cards, and even Drew’s buzzing conspired against me.
“I’ll order for him,” Drew said.
I was unaware of which flavors Drew had ordered for me. I never heard Mr. Druffers asking me to pay him. Oh, well. I was aware of the ice cream. It began to melt in a pharmacy full of voices and lightning bugs. The fluorescent lights buzzed at a high frequency. Mike and the Mechanics were drowned out. That Hispanic woman had raised the light volume to a repellent level. I felt blind. A chimera in the cold/flu aisle rolled over. A man sat in a wheelchair. He ate ice cream on a sugar cone, too. The act of eating flustered me. I watched him smack his lips.
“We shove this stuff called food into these stretchable holes on our faces called mouths,” I told Drew.
He poked his finger through the top of his triple-scoop. He inspected it for lightning bugs.
“Doesn’t that scare you in the least?” I asked.
“Man, you’ve been at college too long,” he said.
I’d been gone for a year.
“We can’t survive without food. Once there’s too much food in our bodies, we push it out the other hole.” My voice sounded very slow. “After that, it looks much different. Its color is lost. It won’t smell anything like ice cream.”
That stuff called ice cream started dripping to the floor. I couldn’t feel my cold hands or taste the ice cream. But I stuffed it in my mouth. I was spellbound. I enjoyed it too much with false pleasure.
Drew had wandered to a newsstand. I must’ve annoyed him with my doctrine on human sensation. He started flipping through the pages of a baseball card magazine. He communicated with it.
A man over forty began shelving paper towels. He didn’t belong in a short-sleeved collared shirt with a name tag.
The rolls lost balance like wooden blocks in Jenga. He ducked at the avalanche. I had to watch it. He appeared smart enough to fix teeth for a living. He may have done it in the past. It could’ve been months or years ago. But he was hobbled by the devastation of malpractice. Or whatever the reason, this was his hell: being harassed by paper towels. Even worse, he may have been stricken by a psychiatric disorder like mine. Maybe he’d worked at Thrifty since my age.
The name tags showed how many years each employee had proudly served the company. For peace of mind, I tried to read his nametag. I wanted to know his title at the store. It would’ve made me feel slightly better if he was the Regional Manager.
“Are you the manager?” I asked.
But he ignored me. He frustratingly picked the paper towels up from the floor.
My mind from somewhere goaded me to keep asking the question.
But he still ignored me.
My vision blurred. I stepped closer until the man came into focus. His left ear had the same scar as mine. I’d sliced myself with a guitar string. His nametag showed his name and nothing else: CHRIS. My name.
Drew stopped next to me. “Holy shit.”
His mouth was open. He stopped eating his ice cream.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“That guy looks just like you.”
“That guy, he looks just like you.”
“What does it say on his nametag?”
He squinted his eyes. “It says Chris.”
The ice cream fell off my cone and onto my left shoe. It began to drip off the laces.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Drew said.
When I turned around, that poor man stared at the puddle of ice cream. He started shaking his head. I never wanted to see him again.
He’d killed our high, not that it was a bad thing. But we couldn’t connect our words with our thoughts. I’d left the store without paying for my birthday cards. Maybe the Hispanic woman didn’t notice. Or she wanted us to leave so badly that she’d let me shoplift.
The neighborhood had been restored to its original colors. The squirrels looked like the same old squirrels. The Cyclops, the naked nymphs, and those eyes in the sewer had disappeared. The chimera was really a bulldog. Our minds had returned, although mine was lethargic. The man at Thrifty had scared those mythical creatures away.
“That’s reality, Drew. A stack of paper towels falling on your head. Whatever doesn’t kill you only embarrasses you in front of others.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that man was rejected. He was weakened by something. What if rejection gets worse?”
“What if he’s just a fuckup?”
“That’s it. I’m staying at college. I’ll take classes and accumulate degrees until I’m old like that man in the wheelchair.”
“What about Mr. Druffers?”
“Druffers is a pharmacist.”
“Yeah, but he’s a grump.”
“Let’s not dwell on it,” I said. But maybe his life was better than it appeared to be. “Think of it like this,” I said to Drew. “Would you rather stock the shelves for a living or defend murderers in court like your dad?”
“Stock the shelves,” he said. “But ask me the same question ten years ago. I would’ve said the opposite.”
“How is it possible that he looked like me?”
“I don’t know, but I’m never doing this again.”
We were almost home. I saw my house in the distance. My mind cooled off. The driveway went up a slope to my garage. I could recognize the big oak tree on the front lawn and the rocks surrounding it. My bedroom window was on the right side. A fence wrapped around my swimming pool in the backyard. Summer was only beginning. There would be more adventures before the fall semester would hold me hostage.
“Using bug spray,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “What bug spray?”
“Your spray in the bathroom,” he said.
“You sprayed the blunt with RAID?”
“Lumpy said to do it.”
“Just because he’s your dealer doesn’t make him an expert. Fuck, man, we got brain damage.”
So Drew and I never smoked bug spray again. That was the positive side of the outcome.
Drew ran out of weed the following day. We got stoned off the last nug and rode to Lumpy’s house. On the way there, I was nodding off at the steering wheel.
At the light on Ming and Ashe, he pulled to my left. I felt his aura. Looking over at him was like peeking at my eighth-grade report card. I could still see that black F in English.
The man sat rigidly behind the steering wheel. It was an absolute shit box. His hands were at ten and two. He stared depressingly forward, wearing his short-sleeved collared shirt again. The shit box was without a make or a model—as if it were sold at a black-market dealership. And it was white, with burn marks all over the hood.
“Don’t look to your left,” I said.
“It’s the guy from Thrifty.”
Drew looked anyway. “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 me?”
“Who? Him? Nah.”
“It’s the guy from Thrifty, the paper towel guy.”
“Oh my God. You’re right.”
The light turned green. I waited for the man to pop the shit box in gear, but his car stalled. He tried bucking himself from the seat as if it would start the engine.
“Should we help him?” I asked Drew.
“Nah, Lumpy’s in a hurry.”
So I punched through the intersection with my used Honda CRX. I went to return the Hallmark cards before driving to Lumpy’s house. The man shrank in my rearview until he no longer appeared.