The truth was…well, nobody really knew, but everybody had their fair share of assumptions. This, as Malcolm told me, was why the world was as crazy as it was.
But let’s start earlier—before the gang got together, before we all became such good friends.
See, Malcolm lived in an apartment with Tedi for upwards of a decade. As far as anyone knew, they loved each other, but as most young folks know, these days the definition of “love,” wavers. Look no further than my next statement for an example:
Tedi approached Malcolm on a Saturday morning and said as though ashamed of it yet incredibly excited, “I need more than this, Mal.”
Malcolm stood there, his hair still messed from bed, yet to be spurred by a cup of coffee and still suffering from his rock-hard morning wood. “What changed?” he asked.
Tedi went ahead to say that nothing had changed, and that everything was the same today as it was almost eleven years ago, “Back when we stopped waiting tables!” she cried. “Back when we’d have fun and drink until two o’ clock in the morning, and then screw!” she said. “Back when it was exciting to take Birth Control! Now I’m almost thirty!” Tedi said. “And I haven’t done anything with my life.”
Of course Malcolm disagreed, keeping to himself that he knew they’d both gotten fatter and somehow we’re impoverished despite working better paying jobs with better hours and reasonable bosses, and receiving higher tax returns. And then he said aloud, “You can only do so much when you can get fifty packs of ramen noodles instead of a pound of ground beef, you know.”
Tedi argued, “But we don’t do anything, that’s the thing.”
“Well, it costs $30 to make a decent supper.”
That was the last straw.
Tedi left Malcolm’s apartment with bells on that Saturday morning and moved back home with her parents. She was twenty-nine years old and elected to give University a shot, studying…well…absolutely nothing in particular. She posted a lot of stuff on Instagram, though, and surpassed forty-thousand followers in a relatively timely manner. She wore leggings a lot and began going to the gym.
For Malcolm, nothing changed. He had the same apartment; he wore the same clothes—often times a black tee with blue Levi’s 541s. He wore low top Chuck Taylors and drank a lot of beer. He had a thing for pizza and local restaurants. He read a lot, wrote a bit, and worked a job that got him nowhere, and would get home at the end of the day to tell himself that It’s just a job, and then he’d spend his nights thinking about how much he hated it.
His mother would ask him if he ever thought about going back to school.
“I’m twenty-seven,” Malcolm would say. “And a McDouble costs $3.”
“But surely an education will earn you more money, would it not?”
“Marginally,” Malcolm muttered, then going on to note how going to school these days was a gamble, a total crapshoot where you may or may not come out better-off in the end. Your odds were pretty low if you were studying anything outside of school-worthy vocations, like Medical School or Law. Plus, Malcolm’s issues weren’t with whether or not he was educated—no. Malcolm saw no place for himself in the world, for there was no place for him. Unfortunately, what Malcolm loved didn’t pay. What did Malcolm love, you ask?
Well, Malcolm didn’t know.
It all started going downhill on a Wednesday night, see—a Wednesday night when Malcolm came home from work to find that someone had stolen his couch and his Dyson Bigball Turbinehead. They left the used Kleenex, though, and other assorted garbage found beneath the cushions. The thieves were decent enough to leave a note, though:
“Thanks,” it said. “Hard times, hope you understand,” it read.
You’re welcome, Malcolm thought. The $5000 to his name would soon be halved, and he looked out the window over a city that didn’t know he was there and wondered how different his life would be if only he had the balls to work with that.
The next day:
Malcolm started his commute. It was a regular commute, as most commutes are. He’d back out of his cramped parking stall, wiggle out of the parking lot, and then hit the road before 7:00 am. He’d drive straight down Main Street, hang a left on Redwood, cross the bridge, possibly pick up a coffee at the 7/11 if time permitted such a treat, maybe he’d get an apple fritter or something, too. Either way, coffee and possible donut factored in, he’d find himself wrought with exhaustion the moment he entered the office. He’d receive the typical Good mornings, on Mondays, and the subsequent How was your weekends? and then he’d say,
“Ah, you know.”
And then on Tuesday he’d get the expected Good mornings! with an added dose of jocularity, given that “Well, at least it’s not Monday,” and then Malcolm would say,
“Yeah, yup, that’s right.” He may or may not laugh a little bit. It all depended how fed up he was with the person who greeted him or how wide their smile was.
On Wednesdays came the Happy Humpdays! and then the It’s halfway to Fridays!
“Yuppers!” Malcolm would often return, teeth clenched until Thursday where, as it would go every Thursday, the people of the office would exclaim,
“Good morning! One day till Friday!”
“Really?” Malcolm would say, winking every time, and people, every time, would smile all the same–the same as every Thursday before as though they were rounding these bases for the first time.
They’d exclaim “HAPPY FRIDAY!” on Fridays, and Malcolm would do his best not to kill himself, returning their greetings with. “Happy Fridays,” of his own, and then it would be Saturday, and then it would be Sunday, and unfortunately Malcolm would rise on Monday to have the same insipid conversations with the same insipid people in the same insipid fucking gig ad infinitum and he might order pizza one night of the week or stop at a pub on the way home and get drunk enough to forget he was alive, and his commute was all the same, and yes, we’re still talking about that because it wasn’t supposed to change, but it did, all thanks to another dead Boomer.
See, Malcolm was forced to divert down Ontario Avenue because of that dead Boomer, releasing another home to the market that would sell for upwards of a million, realizing the Boomer’s estate capital gains north of $750k, adding to their oodles and oodles of cash. This led Malcolm, to his delight, another 7/11, where he helped himself to a cup of stale decaf. He added three Irish Cream creamers.
“Those give me the trots.”
Taken aback, Malcolm looked to his left from where the incredibly gruff voice came. The man, Malcolm noticed, was hooded, short, and had an impressive beard. Malcolm asked for clarification.
The guy replied, “You know, the shits,” the guy said, and then the guy blew a sloppy fart through his lips.
“Would you recommend the Hazelnut?” Malcolm asked.
The guy said that Malcolm shouldn’t get his coffee from 7/11.
The guy was young, maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven, and his hood hung low over his eyes. His hoodie was baggy, heathered-grey, but he wore flip flops, socks, and jorts.
“Righto,” Malcolm said. He then lidded his cup and made way to the cashier, neglected his apple fritter—for today, at least. The charge was $5, and he started home, leaving the stranger behind in the store to his own devices. Right turn, left turn, no turn, no turn, left turn, home—
And goodness did the world look different from this angle, the sun blaring with all its strength from the west, reflecting off the floor-to-ceiling windows of his apartment building, making it easier for him to see…a neighboring building that he swore hadn’t been there before. I mean, his apartment even faced that direction, and the thing would’ve been level with his balcony. Malcolm parked his car in its stall, left his car in his stall, and started towards his apartment, eyeing the building he’d never before seen…
People were living in it, it appeared—young people, like him, a millennial, and some people younger, Gen-Zs, who were practically millennials: it didn’t really matter because they were both prisoners in a world that despised them because they were younger and better looking than the generations that came before, notwithstanding their discouraging dearth. On the porch of this dilapidated structure stood a guy wearing a robe, drinking a foggy orange beverage that didn’t look unlike an India Pale Ale, drank from the proper glass, too. The guy saluted Malcolm as Malcolm passed. Malcolm could see through the walls of the place, and there in the foyer stood a young woman in the throes conversation with a young joint-smoking man, and the pair were laughing, certainly high as kites, skunky aromatics of the devil’s lettuce wafting.
Malcolm looked to the fella in the robe and inquired, “Why have I never seen this place before?” bemused, and the berobed fellow said bluntly,
“You never looked to your right when you left your building. Watched you do it every day, almost.”
“Right,” said Malcolm, standing there, a little bit like an asshole, no less bemused than before. “So this place has been here…for…”
“A very long time, yeah,” said the guy. “Yo, Dano!” he called, and a few moments passed—indolently, mind you, but they passed, and they passed uneventfully. That is…until Dano appeared, who shouldn’t have been there because Dano was the dude from 7/11, the dude with the jorts; the dude with the beard and an aversion to Irish Cream coffee creamer.
“Ah, you can finally see it, can you?”
“I mean, you finally looked in the right spot, I guess…”
“Come in for a beer, guy. Got a dude living here who brews his own—some of the best there is.”
“Best IPA in the world, man,” the berobed fellow added.
Malcolm noted, aloud, that there was Nothing to the place, as it had no roof, its walls were mere frames, and everything was black as though burned, charred beyond capabilities of providing habitability. “You guys know there’s a shelter down the road, right?” Malcolm said. “I’m sure they got some coffee and soup.”
“No need for a shelter, bruv, this is home,” said the IPA guy.
Malcolm appreciated the guy’s humility, nodding, and then scoping his apartment. “Maybe another day, yeah?” Really, Malcolm meant: Yeah, never.
“You should probably just come check it out right now,” said Dano. “Erin!” Dano called. “We might have ourselves a new guy. Just give her a second, she’s a pretty busy lady.”
“Nah,” Malcolm said. “It’s all good— just gonna head in.” But it was then when Malcolm saw it. He saw the familiar arm; brown, and ratty, and crusty. The arm reminded him of life-changing free porno and the fact that he’d never surmount the swathe of Swedish furniture. He asked if, up on the second story, that thing hardly visible through the window was his couch.
“Know a girl named Tedi?” Dano asked. Malcolm said that Tedi was his ex-girlfriend.
“Your ex? What a shame. Got quite the can on her. Probably best you’re not with her anymore, though—doesn’t seem to be the type to settle on a single dick. She sold us the couch. Bought it off her for two-hundred bones.”
“Can I have it back?”
“Got two-hundred bucks?”
“It’s my couch.”
“We bought it, sorry. You can come check it out though, over the beer we’re still offering you.”
“If I have a beer with you guys, will you sell me my couch?”
“If we get drunk enough, maybe. Then again I also do a lot of dumb shit when I get bibulous.”
“Lead the way, then,” Malcolm said, and followed. He dreaded, before entry, scaling the stairs to the second level, for surely they couldn’t support his weight. Little did Malcolm know, though…
But it was just a neglected building, as you’ve been told. The wind coursed through it as though nothing were in its way. Erin, who Dano had called when outside, appeared out a doorway, pushing through an unseen door, bottle of beer in hand, a frosted cup in another. She held both items out with a charming smile; Erin was tall, six feet, probably, kinda like a young tree approaching adulthood. She had green eyes, emerald-like. Malcolm thanked her, and then wondered how they were getting electricity, and where they kept their refrigerator.
Dano urged Malcolm to sit once in the room with his sofa.
Malcolm did. Afterall, it was his couch. Dano sat next to him, said nothing.
Walls were wet, old, totally not worthy of standing or fit to provide a healthy shelter; the roof was full of holes, blue sky visible through unpermitted, windowless skylights. The floor bowed like a less-than-taut skipping rope, and somewhere—unseen—water drip-dropped to the floor in plinks and plunks into what sounded like a significant puddle. “How do you all live here?” Malcolm asked.
Dano chuckled, sipped his beer, combed his beard with his sausagey digits. “In here,” Dano continued. “I see what I don’t see out there.”
Which would be a whole lotta nothing, Malcolm thought, but then Dano went on:
“Out there, people don’t see what we see in here; out there, people rarely see that we’re even here. No other way to put it; look no further than yourself as an example. We’re right outside your window, man, and you’re seeing us for the first time. What happened today so different than any other day?”
“Took a different route home,” said Malcolm.
“Sometimes a little change is all you need to change it all. A paradigm shift, as per Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“Right,” Malcolm said.
“So change your paradigm,” Dano said. “Look at this place as if it’s home.”
“You’re halfway there already, man. You’re drinking beer on your—your old couch,” Dano adjusted. “You’re practically home already.”
And upon Malcolm’s next swig, to his surprise, across from him was a wall he was sure wasn’t there before—before, he was able to see his apartment’s eavestrough. The wall was painted a soothing burgundy, and drapes hung from a window—which seemed, again, quite new. A ficus tree sat in the corner, and then Malcolm rubbed his eyes, thought about how unreal all of this was, and when he opened his eyes, everything was as it should’ve been:
Completely normal, that is—Dano sitting next to him, one leg crossed over the other, bearded, still, stout, still, his voice still gruff and phlegmy in that inhabitable colonial home.
“See, paradigm shift.”
Malcolm argued that he didn’t shift his paradigm but Dano refused to concede any ground. “Seeing things,” Malcolm said. “Just tired.”
“Honest,” said Dano with great inflection. “You were being honest. You were looking through the eyes which caught this place just a few minutes past. Do it again. Be honest with yourself. See what you don’t want to see, guy. Let it happen.”
“I’ll give you $300 for the couch,” Malcolm declared.
“Don’t really need they money, mate.”
“Then do what’s right and just let me take it back.”
“It’s our couch. We bought it fair and square.”
He was getting nowhere, that much was obvious. Malcolm sat on his couch, peering out the top story window into his second-floor apartment, so barren, so bacheloresque, his television nearly as big as the wall. He said, “I’m just gonna go now,” feeling strange, odd, quite unobservant. He finished his pint and handed the empty glass to Dano who bid a terse farewell as though withholding words. Malcolm started down the stairs, past Erin, the tall girl who said, “Going already? Shucks…” Malcolm didn’t stop. He nodded his goodbye to the IPA guy, and the IPA guy nodded back, and then Malcolm stood in the doorframe that shouldn’t have been—that hardly was…
His ex-girlfriend, Tedi, had pulled into one of the apartment block’s visitor stalls and was marching to the apartment’s front door, turkey-sized buttocks wobbling within restraining Lulu Lemons.
“Over here, Ted,” Malcolm called.
Tedi didn’t budge, though her cheeks wobbled onward like precariously filled water-balloons.
“Ted,” again Malcolm called to the same avail as just before, and then felt a light shove on his back.
“Try again, bruvkins,” the IPA guy said.
And Malcolm did just that. “Ted!” he called, hardly any louder than the two times prior,
And he wrangled her attention, her hams stopping where they were, though shockwaves still rolled across their vast expanse beneath their elastic “limitations”, and I say limitations in air quotes, because her pants were doing minimal limiting, as I’m sure you can imagine.
“What the hell are you doing, Mal?”
“You sold my couch to a hobo?”
“Then why the fuck is it in this house?”
“In what house, Malcolm?”
Malcolm turned around. He saw the house, or…lack thereof… “That house,” he said, pointing over his shoulder, and Tedi galumphed, shrugged her shoulders and gestured to the apartment.
“I forgot the vacuum bags,” she said. “I got to shoot a couple videos tonight.”
“And you need the vacuum bags?”
“Started an OnlyFans, pays well.”
“I’m gonna run in, I’ll only be a couple seconds,” Tedi said.
“Yeah, yeah, go ahead,” said Malcolm, not really giving a shit. There wasn’t much left, aside from the TV, and Tedi couldn’t carry that on her own, and it was only filled with bad news anyways. Malcolm gladly watched Tedi and her caboose chug deliciously across the parking lot.
The house was still there and Dano stood in the doorway with an unopened beer clasped in his hand. “People struggle to see folks like you and me,” he said.
Malcolm ferociously massaged his temples, squinted his eyes as though he’d been pepper sprayed. The house was still there, and Malcolm swore there was now more framing to it, the windows, now, intact, and a door upon the hinges, open, Dano standing on the doorstep, beer proffered. “Want a glass?”
“Yeah,” said Malcolm unsurely, but…curious, he could admit; he felt…odd, kind of like he were a child again, on Christmas morning, or even his birthday, or about to head in to see The Lord of the Rings at the cinema for the fifth time. He thought, No, this isn’t real, and then the dilapidated house took on a coat of red paint, and the windows were lined with white. The gabled roof a comfortable brown, and a chimney stood stolidly on the left, smoke rising to the clouds above.
“I’ll get you a glass,” Dano said, patting Malcolm’s back, and Malcolm leading the way back into the house.
The walls were painted alabaster and the doorframes were left their natural brown beneath a sheen layer of linseed oil. There were photographs on the walls, pictures of people Malcolm had never before seen, though one of these pictures was of Dano, the IPA guy, and Erin, plus a few others who you, reader, will meet later. They stood in front of the house, arms all around one another and each of them smiling horizon-wide, naturally happy, contagiously happy, living lives as though they were actually living them. Taking the beer into his hand was like holding a snowball.
“People are barbie dolls in other peoples’ dollhouse,” said Dano.
“Huh?” asked Malcolm, scanning the room, taking it all in, and then Dano went on:
“Life’s a window that looks into a world that isn’t. We see the bullshit of that statement and see the world for what it is.”
“A bunch of sticks and glue,” said Dano. “It’s what you make it.”
Malcolm peeped into a room to his right. A great room, of sorts, with a fireplace beneath a mantlepiece beneath an art piece. It was very abstract, this piece of art—you can make of it whatever you will, because that’s exactly what it was and how it worked. A leather sofa sat against the wall, a beer fridge next to one of the arm rests, an armoire next to it housing more photographs and an Audio Technica Turntable. There was a selection of records next to it, in wooden crates.
“Nah,” said Dano. “You’re seeing as clear as a human could possibly see.”
Malcolm sipped his beer.
“You’re telling me that people are unable to see this place…?”
“Most people, yes. They’re too busy cooperating.”
“And that means…what, exactly?”
“It means that they’re going about the path that was cut for them. By no means is there anything wrong with that, it’s just that once you see what’s beyond the shroud that’s placed over your eyes at such a young age, why put it back?”
You wouldn’t put it back. Malcolm knew the answer. Unless you want to do the entire life-thing, which tends to neglect young people, old people, sick people, kids, children, babies, especially if they’re poor. Or if you’re a woman. Or brown. Or black.
“You gonna move in, reclaim that couch of yours? We’ve got plenty of room.”
“I got…” and then Malcolm stopped. A job I don’t like, he thought. I got a shitty apartment furnished with my first, once-lauded futon, and a big-screen TV. I got bills, a cupboard full of canned beans and beef ramen. I’ll never get a house, and inflation’s at 10%–my last raise was about 9% less, and my rent went up 3%. I’m living about as much as my grandfather, and he died in 2016.
“I just met you,” Malcolm said.
“So what? We got plenty of time to get to know each other, there are others for you to meet, too, and there’s plenty for you to see.”
“He gonna stick around?” The IPA guy came out from around the corner to what Malcolm figured was the kitchen, as he was holding a big tin bowl of Fruit Loops, eating with a tarnished spoon that could’ve doubled as a ladle. “Alex’s room’s available.”
“What do you say, guy?” Dano asked. “Wanna join us?”
“What is this?” Malcolm asked as sternly as possible. He sipped his beer.
And Dano thought for a generous few moments, the IPA guy returning to the kitchen wherefrom the crunching of the sugary cereal kept audible through both wall and cheek and tongue.
“We’re just a bunch of idiots doing our best in a world that can’t see us, that’s it,” said Dano. “We’re the people who know that we don’t got lives ahead of us, but lives to live today.”
These words struck Malcolm like lightning, and again, he sipped his beer. It was a good beer, and Malcolm would gladly drink more. A door slammed shut behind him, and coming through it was a woman the width of a freezer, short red hair, pretty face, lotta makeup. “Have any of you guys seen the rump on that fuckin’ broad?”
Malcolm made way to the door, opened it, peered through it. There retreated Tedi, vacuum bags in hand, and she didn’t so little as look in Malcolm’s direction, and Malcolm didn’t so little as call her name because he didn’t want to…and I imagine you know why. “I can get my couch back, though, yeah?” he asked.
Dano nodded. “Of course,” he said. “We share, though.”
“Sure,” said Malcolm,
And it was then when Malcolm decided, Yeah, I’ll give it a shot—for a night, though.
“Let’s see what happens,” he whispered to himself.
Let’s see what happens…