A handful of adults ranging through early adulthood and up through their mid-twenties and into the shallows of their thirties stood hovered atop a coffee pot. The coffee pot, see, was not cooperating.
Malcolm said, “I can run to 7/11.”
And then Malcolm received five certain “Nos”, his focus then returning to the recently produced swill: brown, thin, housing freshly ground bean-floaties that whirled through the muck as though caught in a maelstrom.
“It did say Blonde Roast,” Malcolm said.
“The coffee’s not supposed to look blonde, though. It refers to the bean—the light roasting the bean undergoes. There’s more caffeine in the lighter roasts, you know…”
“Give it a taste, Mal,” Dano pleaded.
“Nah,” Malcolm said. “Someone else should give it a try. I think I’ll run over to 7/11 on my own.”
“Nope,” Dano expostulated, fingering the calendar which hung burdensomely on the refrigerator. “This week—this first week of March—you, Malcolm, are in charge of brewing our morning coffee. You gotta stick to that.”
“His coffee’s shit, though, Dano,” Erin said. “I got no problems taking over this week. He and I can switch. He can do the vacuuming.”
Malcolm looked up to see four sets of worried eyes peering right back at him.
“Might be a…might be a little early for the guy to start thinking about vacuums.”
“Why’s that? He scared of ‘em or something?”
“Erin?” pipped a delicate voice towards the back of the room, where Werdud stood.
“What?” Erin asked Werdud, who quickly answered by explaining, “Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend is Tedi Dyson.”
It appeared as though Erin didn’t know who that was, and it was Dano who enlightened her:
“The girl from the OnlyFans video,” Dano said. “The video with the peacock feather and the unicycle and the Kraft Dinner and the Dyson Big Ball Turbinehead.”
“She’s still alive?”
“And thriving,” Dano added discreetly—winking, too.
“That sucks,” Erin said.
“Right,” said Malcolm, longing to change the topic. “Why don’t we just get a French Press? That’s what I used when I lived next door,” said Malcolm. “And it was fantastic every morning. None of this…soupy stuff.”
“Extra work, extra cleaning.”
“Well, how about we spend the rest of the day wasting the rest of the coffee in the house until I make everybody the perfect pot?”
To everybody, to Malcolm’s disdain, that sounded like a terrific plan, and so they burned through the remainder of that fresh pound, and then half of another before Malcolm produced something bearing rough semblance to drinkable.
“I’m still getting more water than cherry blossom,” said Khori.
“Do you taste the cherry blossom?” asked Werdud.
“It’s there, but hardly,” Khori replied. “My palette identifies the flavours as water, dark chocolate, leather, cherry blossom, and then a faint tinge of butter.”
“Did you say leather?”
“Correct, yes. Leather.”
Nonetheless they tried various 1oz scoops and varied the grind of the coffee, too—coarse, medium coarse, three-quarter coarse, not coarse at all, fine—and had added to the percolator differentiating amounts of coffee, and it seemed that the more coffee added, the better, but still it wasn’t up to the snuff of the house, according to everyone, unfortunately, and as Malcolm laboured into the latter half of the second pound of the day, out of desperation he added a pinch of cinnamon.
It did the trick, each eye in the kitchen widening at that mid-afternoon hour, all still in their pajamas, exhaustion fleeing them like aqua-life dispersing at the early tremors of a shifting tectonic plate.
“I’m identifying notes of corn on the cob,” said Khori.
“And juniper,” Khori said again. His musings went ignored, but he went on to make his housemates tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. “I added gherkin pickles,” he said. No one gave a shit…until…three hours later, if you really want to know.
As for the afternoon, it went by as any other. The sun went up and then the sun went down, and Malcolm spent two o’ clock to four sitting on the porch with Dano and Colin—the IPA guy—musing folks coming and going from Malcolm’s apartment building. They drank beer and ate popcorn in that void between total fantasy and reality, and that void was the apex of bliss. It was wonderful, actually, watching people enter and exit the apartment as though they knew what they were doing—they definitely didn’t, each carrying invisible burdens upon their backs that were truly weightless—wholly imagining—though accepted, taken-on, killing.
It was Dano’s bowels which expired at that third hour, so he left to let one fly. Colin went in to fetch another IPA. Malcolm was beginning to think the guy had a drinking problem. Eleanor stepped from the house, took Dano’s seat. She had 16ozs of wine in an 12oz glass.
“D’ ya miss it?” she asked, one foot crossed over the other, eyes forward towards the apartment Malcolm formerly considered home.
The truth was it didn’t feel as though Malcolm had really left. All was normal, like a sheet of blank loose-leaf paper, though that paper is graffitied with a swath of invisible ink, covering its entirety. Malcolm shared these thoughts, loosely .
“So you don’t miss it…”
“I guess not, no,” said Malcolm, quickly countered with another inquiry.
“Have you gone for a walk yet?”
“I need more wine anyways,” Eleanor said, rising, taking Malcolm’s hand into hers and peeling from the house’s porch with a glass of red in hand.
Ill-prepared for a stroll, both Eleanor and Malcolm—Malcolm wearing what he’d been wearing for the past week, Eleanor wearing hot-pink sweats, flipflops, a black tank and a beige cardigan,—they strolled despite their outlandish appearances. Eleanor was like a cold, like the flu but not sickly in the least, smiling, always, but serious, like she knew something—that’s the best way to put it, contagious to follow, see. She bounced with every step like a rubber ball, and her smile outbeamed the sun and blinded those averse to glee, which of that ilk there were many, and still are many, which is truly a shame, but not unreasonable, seeing that our blemishes are highlighted each time we open our eyes, our mouths, our minds…
But Eleanor led Malcolm, and Malcolm was eager to follow, happy to follow, glad to follow his companion down the street as though he were being towed by a tugboat lolling up and down and overtop white-capped oceanic waves. Eleanor’s head moved with her feet, short hair bobbing like it were pretend, an ornament of sorts. She said, “’scuse me!” to a man at the end of the parking lot who had given his labrador agency to defecate on the sidewalk. The labrador went unbothered, it’s eyes bulging from its skull as it squeezed a big one out.
It was a busy afternoon in the low-town suburb, maximum cars on the streets as rush hour honked at its peak, folks cussing one another out through rolled down windows. I’m sure you can imagine them and all their red faces. Eleanor and Malcolm traveled quicker than folks in cars, and either of them, I’m sure, felt the disdain of the commuters. Malcolm remembered his job, and for the first time in a week, really thought about it.
“What do you do for work?” he asked Eleanor, and Eleanor brusquely chuckled.
“Bookseller,” she said.
“What does that entail of?”
“I work in a bookstore,” she said. “Part-time, mind you, but a job’s a job, I guess. I’m fine with what I got.”
Malcolm thought, Hmmm, and then thought about books. He could use a good book, he could use to turn off the television in his new bedroom, through the window behind it his old apartment whose rent will be withdrawn inside two weeks, pantry and cupboards stocked with canned soups and beans and chilis and tuna with a frost-kissed pizza in the freezer. The chicken in the meat-drawer, passed, the bread, likely mouldy. I should probably give work a call, he thought, then…realizing quite suddenly that Eleanor was nowhere to be seen, nor did she appear to any of Malcolm’s calls. He was alone on the sidewalk, aloof, among the cars and the honks and the cusses and sneers and the general misery found among people who had unrecognized things in their life, left alone to rot in the shadows of an invisible and terrible sun while screaming for a little attention all the while…
And then, with the accompanying squish, Malcolm stepped in labrador doo. He slid the length of a Subway sandwich, fortunate to regain his balance with the aid of a phone booth, no phone inside it. He wiped the shit from his shoes on the curb as coolly as he could while many cars honked, Malcolm feeling as though he were in the spotlight, the honks and sneers and cusses and such now directed at him for soiling city property. People would forgive the dog for shitting so errantly because everybody liked dogs, and dogs got all the attention before real humans because dogs were so cute and loveable and they got you plenty of attention on the internet and they were a welcome distraction from who fucked who and who killed who and which country invaded that country and what the president did. The dog who delivered this log wasn’t even that cute; it had a black coat and it had salt and pepper hair around its black-toothed mouth, ears pinned back and tail taught as the doo slid smoothly from its butt, making a face no living thing should make while letting one fly for a shit could never be so satisfying. Malcolm’s Chuck Taylors trailed brown as he started homeward, Eleanor still nowhere in sight, surely walking like a downhill boulder to the wine store, a couple miles that way…
When he spun around he stepped into a wall, though. The wall was Eleanor.
“Thought I lost ya for a second there, bucko.” She gave him a light push on his shoulder. “Lost your train of thought or somethin’?”
“No matter, buckaroo, let’s get a move on,” and again they started walking.
“Liquor store’s the other way,” said Malcolm.
“Nope!” Eleanor pipped, waddling, hair bobbing, still, ten-pound purse slung over her shoulder like an infantryman’s rucksack, change and keys and stray pieces of Juicy Fruit gum jingling within. It could have gone as a tambourine, and…and then things started to get pretty strange…
See, it all had something to do with doors, at least that day; doors and…focus, Malcolm discerned, recalling days-past and losing track of Eleanor before he stepped in a labrador’s societal contributions. The following was Malcolm’s confirmation that doors were suspect, as Eleanor stepped into a Public Washroom, leaving the door open behind her. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t dawdle, Momma’s getting thirsty and kinda hungry.”
Warily, Malcolm followed, and was delighted to find that the Public Washroom wasn’t a Public Washroom at all but a hallway that led either right or left—Eleanor turned left, blistering away, pushing through a door on her right in under a dozen paces. It opened to a pub with that typical pub smell, including the constant, haunting waft of urinal cake.
“Erick, I’ll take a crate.”
The barman popped up from beneath the bartop like a plucked turnip. “And what will Khori say?”
“I doubt he’ll mind. I’ll take the red—a shiraz, if you got it.”
And the barman Erick sighed and set into the kitchen for what Eleanor requested.
The bar, the pub, the whatever you wanna call it, was dimly lit despite the windows, glass frosted, daylight shining through from an outside oblivious to its presence. “Khori owns the place?” asked Malcolm, in that pub, dimly lit, sparsely populated. A selection of intricately patterned scarves were pinned to the walls behind the bar, as too were countless liquor bottles standing on antiquitous wooden shelves, a neon bar sign reading, The Temporary Gentleman above it all, illuminated hot pink.
“Yeah, Khori owns the place,” Eleanor affirmed, pulling out a chair, sitting in it, plunking her purse on the bartop. “So how you liking it?” she asked. “How do you feel? You regret anything yet?”
“Gotta figure out what to do with my job, I guess,” Malcolm answered, and Eleanor was shaking her head.
“You owe ‘em nothing. Who cares.” She spoke quickly, as though not really wanting a conversation. Malcolm found himself feeling the same, all right with not delving into details of his present, as thinking about…
beyond, stung; what existed not yet a week past, which still existed that very same day, struck him like it were a foul smell.
“Figured I’d show you ‘round a bit,” Eleanor said. “Khori’s place is one of the better places to go. Might be a little biased, but, hey, the guy’s one of the better cooks who’s ever lived.”
Malcolm noted that the tuna salad helped Khori’s case, and then Eleanor went on to note that it was all in the gherkins. He gestured to Eleanor’s significant glass of wine. “Special privileges?”
They were, Eleanor said. “It’s a friend thing,” she said. “Couldn’t get away doing this anywhere else.”
“Reasonable,” said Malcolm.
“Unfortunately,” said Eleanor, smiling wide as Erick the barman emerged from the back with a crate of wine bottles. He had an air of scorn about him. Jealousy, probably, or just an inability to understand Eleanor’s ins. Or…an ignorance—that was equally as likely.
“Wish I could get my wine for free,” he said.
“Erick, love, we’ve had this conversation before. I’ve told you, remember? We can get married.”
“Yeah, in your wildest dreams.” Erick rolled his eyes, released the case and headed back to the bar where a patron awaited a fresh pour. “Whisky again, Benny?”
“You’re on carrying duty, new guy. Come on, let me show you around.”
The case of wine was quite heavy.
And so they returned to the streets. Eleanor was kind enough to hold the two doors they passed through, displaying mild interest in who Malcolm was, putting forward subjects such as Tell me about yourself, and You ready to go home yet? She never came across as wishing for such an outcome, as her inquiries came more so as genuine curiosity over a form of a passive fuck off, Chuck, no one wants you here.
“I like it,” Malcolm told her.
“Do you like it enough to stick around?”
Malcolm did, and he shared this, and Eleanor said a brief, “Glad to hear it,” and they walked. They’d been walking for a while, away from the house, too, mind you, and the sun seemingly sunk lower with each step. They strolled just off Main Street, the main drag, and nothing at all stood out of the ordinary.
That is…until at the intersection of Isabel and Rupertsland. See…amid the traffic, cars and trucks a-honkin’ at one another because they all had bad days and had to get home to cook their children supper, there was a man in a top hat astride a Bengal tiger the size of a handi-transit bus. They were in the middle of an intersection, and Malcolm noted that all the streetlights were out and folks were skirting through the large tiger’s legs, swerving around them at the ankles, and swerving around the other cars, too, all almost as though the drivers were willfully ignorant of the fact that at an intersection where the stoplights are down, one must treat the intersection like a four-way stop. Once at the crosswalks, though, it was more of a four-way…go, as cheesy as that statement is. I’m sorry, I’m just telling the truth.
“Go, Phineas, go!” the man astride the tiger urged, slapping the Bengal’s bottom so as to spur it enough to—at the bare minimum—vacate the intersection.
Phineas the Bengal tiger purred and sat back on his haunches. How did Malcolm know that Phineas the Bengal tiger was a male? Well, Malcolm made it clear to me that when Phineas the Bengal tiger sat, his testicles spread to either side of his nubby tail, and a child started crying; a grandmother clutched her chest and fell face-first into a garbage can—no one stopped because they had better things to do, like cook supper and get further away from their jobs. For godsakes, another child—a boy, to Malcolm’s suspicions—called at the top of his lungs, “Look, mommy! Beachballs! Really! Furry! Beachballs!”
But the majority of folks saw nothing more than several dead traffic lights and shitty drivers who, to each drivers’ surmise, likely received their licenses from a council of baboons. Or maybe they just got their licenses from other countries, as per the thin contemplations of the angry ones…
Malcolm knew, instinctively, that no one could see the tiger nor the man upon its back, smacking its bottom and pleading his mode of transport to “Pay attention, cunt! We’re causing a right-out ho-down!
Phineas didn’t budge and didn’t appear to possess any desire to do so, nuts still spread over the intersection like pumpkins in a pumpkin patch, puzzling the curious people.
“They can’t see it…?” Malcolm asked.
“’ course not,” Eleanor answered. “You ever seen something like that before this?”
Malcolm, of course, claimed he hadn’t.
“Gotta be of sound mind,” Eleanor went on, straight passed the befuddled intersection and left down the next block, Trafalgar Avenue. “You see it now because you know what’s around.”
“Why do you figure I can…see things…all of a sudden?”
“Probably just fed up. Something broke, I’d bet. Your humanity broke. At least that’s how I’ve heard it put from a friend of mine you’ve yet to meet.”
He still felt quite human. Malcolm was tired, the hour was still early; he was hungry, he wondered—briefly, mind you—what BREAKING NEWS notification would be emblazoned across the bottom of his television screen on the CKYS News Channel. He wondered what the forecasted price for a barrel of oil was, and was sure it would be high considering the going price for a litre of gasoline was in excess of $2, no joke, and rising, surely. Who was fighting who, Malcolm wondered, in a world that’s apparently learned from six million murdered jews, and excess of 120 million dead soldiers and civilians. There was even a day to memorialize these fuckups, these catastrophes, yet folks still warred and had problems with people who didn’t know their names because they were from a different place where the real problem, these days, lay between the gap of generations, we, the young, led by they, the expired, leading the world as though the world’s not meant to change despite its constant rotation through the cosmos in excess of 100,000 miles per hour—a spaceship home to billions, our tomb, while we should be looking at the stars, aiming to have our young buried by their young, somewhere better, somewhere beyond…
Malcolm felt a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t wanna lose you, bucko, come on, don’t get distracted, now.”
“Sorry,” Malcolm apologized, wobbling with the wine crate in his hands. He felt as though he deserved a chili cheeseburger with these efforts, bacon on the patty, a whole lotta mayonnaise and pickles and fries to keep it all down—gravy, too, it goes without mentioning, because Malcolm trusted his metabolism, and rightly. Before Malcolm could ask where they were going, or if Eleanor would take the wine from him for at least a little while, Eleanor took the crate without asking and passed Malcolm her large suede purse. “Got a little heft to it,” she said, not lying—the thing may as well have been a condensed wardrobe with a bowling ball in it to boot. “Couple more blocks and I figure we’ll head home. Wouldn’t mind showing you the bookstore. You read much?”
Malcolm said that he did read—a little.
“Fond of a particular genre?”
Malcolm was fond of fantasy but didn’t know how to think of that now. “Non-fiction,” he answered. Eleanor understood, veering down a back alley, past a big blue dumpster and to the doorstep of bookshop towering four stories between two loading docks of unknown businesses because their shopfronts were streetside. Books and shelves and trinkets lined the windows, and few folks meandered about within through the glass. A sign hung from the door, no name upon but a single number, the digits, 2, 4, and 9. That’s two-hundred-forty-nine, if you need me to piece it together. Eleanor opened the door—
Met immediately by a man who was leaving the shop at that exact moment, bumping into her and sending her backwards a step, wine bottles within the crates clattering with semblance to windchimes that promised delights beyond simply dainty sounds.
“Ah, Eleanor,” the man said as though from a higher and better place. “Not working today?”
“I guess not,” Eleanor replied. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m here. You didn’t see me in there, did you?”
“Hmmm, I see you have some more wine? All for yourself? Gonna keep the neighbours up some more?”
“Maybe one of them, but that neighbour just listens too closely, don’t you figure?” And then she smiled ruefully through a smile as brisk as steel in a cool breeze.
“What if this neighbour has sensitive hearing?”
“Too bad for them, I guess.”
And the man hummed again, peering at Eleanor and then Malcolm from under the ridge of his sharp brow. The man was mostly bald, or…getting there, I guess, as the hair atop his head was so thin it may as well have not been there at all. Fuzz, is a good way to describe his hair, so blonde it was nearly impossible to see, making his head look like it were blurred out somehow, someway, or smudged.
“Who’s the friend?” asked the man.
Malcolm introduced himself in the way he’d introduce himself to people older than he, with a tinge of respect, a great deal of reservedness, and passiveness, and an eagerness to learn from someone who knew more than himself…
The man was Edward Piggles, according to the man; inhabitant of the basement suite at 222 22nd Avenue—home, in other words, Malcolm’s new home, this of which he grew increasingly sure of as the day waned and the intrigue piled on. Edward’s canvas book tote was full, hanging low to the ground, nearly dusting the grime off the back alley’s cracked concrete. “I’d appreciate it if your gang kept the volume to a dull roar tonight,” Edward shared. “I want to fall into a book and forget about my ill circumstances.”
Eleanor pulled Malcolm into the bookshop, saying, “You got it Ed,” as they entered, the shop, the door shutting behind them following the quaint jingle of bells in the frame. The bookstore felt like home, which is everything a bookstore should be, though nothing about it was normal, per se. Bookstores could never be so fantastic.
A spiral staircase stood in the center of the room, wooden; of a tri-centenarian sequoia, steps anvil-heavy and the railings wound like springs up and up and up four stories, platforms leading stairway-to-floor on each level in varying position, and the shop was packed. Children frolicked in corners, on matts and slides and beanbag chairs, and adults sat on benches, reading, or standing at the shelves, flipping pages, reading either synopses or prose, or eventually—ideally—both. Most people were garbed curiously, as though they were at home perusing their own bookshelves. Folks were kempt, yes, but bore an air of candidness that Malcolm came to realize in that moment, the world that saw, lacked. The shop smelled of aged wood, and page. Eleanor, wine crate in hand, led the way to the checkout counter. A lanky woman stood there, hair fine and tied back in a ponytail, eyes lime-green and equally as refreshing.
“Want some part-time work?” Eleanor inquired of Malcolm, putting him on the spot. He really didn’t, but…unfortunately, lived to please.
“Sure,” he said, puckering his anus, flexing his muscles and wincing as though he were sucking the cashier’s limey peepers.
“Don’t be so coy, bucko. You need to do something here. You’ll get fat, otherwise, and probably die early.”
“Yeah, it’s all good,” Malcolm dismissed, smiling at the considerably gorgeous checkout-lady, who, to many titillations, smiled right back, and Malcolm smiled wider.
So, to avoid aimless dialogue which has an obvious ending, Malcolm was offered a position at the Bookshop called Two-Four-Nine. He feigned inquiries toward the curious name because the business’s name’s business was its own business, and that was fair.
The walk home was a long walk home, Malcolm, employed with not a hint of the world beyond on his mind because there was nothing to see where everything was, as it was evident. They approached 222 22nd Avenue at the six o’ clock hour, Dano and Colin on the porch, still with beers as Khori stood in the entryway, working on a mug of something in a mug. The crew were overjoyed to see Eleanor and Malcolm heading thither, Eleanor placing the wine crate on the porch and releasing a tired exhale. She plucked her new copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the wooden box, flipped the pages, sniffed them, tucked it under her arm and went inside. Malcolm followed, passing through his roommates on the doorstep. Eleanor was at the end of the hall when he opened the door, traveling quick.
“Your purse,” Malcolm said, and Eleanor met him halfway to retrieve it. “Thanks a lot, eh?” Malcolm said, and Eleanor, cheeks red with her book in her arm, returned Malcolm’s statement with a staccato nod, and then asking, “Did you ever see where I left my wine glass? I’ve misplaced it…”
Malcolm laughed. He didn’t know, and as a matter of fact had forgotten that she’d left with a wine glass, the vessel filled to its brim and then some, red spilling down its edges and staining her fingernails purple which were still stained at that moment.
“No biggie,” she said. “Got all I need right here.” She flourished Neverwhere like a cutlass.
“Nighty-night, bucko,” she said, and climbed the stairs to her room, where the door shut, and beyond this point nothing further about Eleanor’s night is known.
So, Malcolm went out to the porch where the others awaited. He accepted a beer, opened it, poured it into a cup and the head was thick, the beer murky-yet-golden and warming and good. He sat with his friends, unseen and unheard, as the world went on, ignorant towards such contentedness because the world, to most, was never supposed to be heaven.
Malcolm had a very good night, and had eggs for breakfast,
And he got the coffee right on his very first try.