Eject me a Cigarette – John Fowora
March 14, 2018
“Ice cold water. One dollar. Ice cold water…”
I spit out the first sip and then guzzle as if that first sip was one of those dreams you forget. Here he comes. I get ready to greet him when he shakes his head and sweat particles fly into my unexpecting mouth. I’ve heard some things about Connolly from my uncle Darryl. Mostly positive.
“Ice cold water. One dollar. Ice cold water…”
I should get another one to rinse the Connolly-spit from my mouth, but I’m not thirsty.
“Loosies, loosies. Seven dollar packs. Loosies, loosies.”
Around a half-dozen guys hustlin’. Almost in stereo, at seven in the morning. Hustle hard. Hustle aNYthing.
I hand this one cat a dollar and he gives me two Newport 100’s. I need nicotine. Me and Connolly get back in the van and he programs the GPS for somewhere in Manhattan.
“Fuckin’ colored shylocks.” He says too comfortably.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Not ‘cause they’re colored, just because, shit…I don’t charge nobody to bum a cigarette.”
“White people don’t say colored anymore.”
“I do.” He says.
“How old are you, man?”
“What else I got?”
I smoke one of the Newports a little faster than I usually would and slip the other into a side pocket of my backpack. Sixty-two? He gets a pass. He drives a few more miles to the edge of Queens, approaching the 59th st bridge. I see a translucent, steamy haze rising from all the hot concrete, on the Manhattan skyline from here. The AC is blasting, we’re a comfortable seventy in the cab. Connolly is no longer sweating and the music isn’t music, it’s 1010 wins. The radio says:
A manhole cover flew fifty feet into the air and what looked and smelled like pus sprayed from the sewer over the restaurant and onto a jury-rigged yoga class that just started in the grass square in Battery Park. No one was injured, just grossed out. In between our seats is a medium-sized book, no more than two-hundred and fifty, maybe three-hundred pages. I pick it up and examine it, then ask:
“ ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’? Never heard of it. Didn’t take you for a reader.”
“I’m not a reader, I mean I did read it, part of it. It was given to me.”
“What’s it about?”
“I read the one I was told I had to read, then I just read some more ‘cause, well, I don’t know, it was there and I got a lot of half-days.”
“You didn’t answer the question. What’s it about?” I ask, seemingly impatient.
“I’ll give it to you at the end of the day. If you decide if you’re cut out for this shit. Then you can read the book. And make no mistake about it, this is shit. You’ll see…alright?-.”
A low buzzing, slow vibrating.
“—I just have to do this, I mean, I want to do—hold on a sec.”
Connolly holds up the index finger on his right hand near my face then brings his finger back to his face and shushes me. He speaks on his cell phone while driving onto the entrance of the bridge. His pitch is high and he smiles for the first time since we met maybe a half hour ago. This is probably his grandchild reaction. This goes on while I tune out.
Don’t want to know anything about that kind of family life.
Don’t get me twisted, I got a family and all that, I just don’t want to make one of my own yet. My one-bedroom in Flatbush, off 96th, with one-and-a-half bathrooms. I’m allowed one pet, a chocolate-lab, he’s my son, Quaato (I know, I know, ewww, but it’s because since he was about 6 months-old, he liked to lay his head on my chest and did this weird snore while I slept, like, “Quaaaaiiiidddd”). This is all that I need.
“Granddaughter, she’s six. You want to see a picture?” He says as he reaches in his back pocket for what I think is his wallet.
He swerves a bit while fumbling around and I say,
“Maybe later, concentrate on the road, my dude.”
He swerves again almost into some young Black kid, driving a late-model Maxima. The kid is texting with both thumbs which means he can only be driving with his kneecaps and he also swerves and for a fraction of a second I condemn both drivers to a profanity-laced tirade in which my actual point, between expletives, is that both drivers are walking, breathing, functioning places where shit falls from.
“Blind motherfuckin’, fuckin’…colored ” He says, then glances over at me.
It’s as if I’m not even working with him. He’s probably not really racist. One of those people who just talks to people he has to be around. He doesn’t really think. Like the newspapers. He likes the papers to decide for him. He’s closest to the New York Post, if you had to make a comparison. Connolly hands me what looks like one of those instruction manuals that fall out of the box of a brand-new television or video game system:
* * *
User reviews for the PECU 4:
“Perfect for the municipality with large homeless populations.”
“Anything and everything you know or have ever known is built on the backs of the less fortunate, on the pain and suffering of others; some of the “others” you’re cognizant of, most of the “others” you’ll never know. The ones without voices. The PECU continues that legacy reliably and efficiently.”
Page 2 *
Portable, handheld device that absorbs, then converts the pain and suffering of targets into condensed energy which is then stored in backup generators. Can be used as a primary energy source, or as an emergency generator, depending on the undesirable population size and the effectiveness of social services within a given municipality…
Fixed issues from previous units in which certain personality traits were absorbed from clients and reflected in an increase in crippling power surges throughout the city. The PECU 4’s filters are effective enough to only convert the purest pathos into green, efficient, energy star-rated wattage. A must for the profitable and cutting edge power company functioning within any municipality…
PECU (Pain Energy Conversion Unit) 4 Technical Specs on pages 4-10…
Warranty information …
* * *
Connolly makes me drive from midtown to Central Park.
I refuse to drive to Central Park.
I drive to Central Park.
“I knew your uncle,” he says.
“One of the good ones,” he continues. This fucking guy.
We find parking on 59th and Lexington and walk a block or so to the entrance of Central Park.
“The call said he was near the theater.”
The man is sitting on a park bench cocooned in his North Face snorkel that is three times too large for his frame. The hood is pulled so tight that his face is obscured completely, the drawstrings hang a bit past where his belly button would be. His hands are tucked all the way down in the deep hip pockets and the snorkel ends just above the knee. His indigo-washed denim is also too large, as are his basketball shoes which probably flip, flop and slide around his feet when he walks.
On the opposite end of the bench is a woman in her mid-twenties, dirty blond, t-shirted, stretch blue-jeaned, horned-rim glassed and lightweight-scarved reading the latest mystery novel from a recently popular Swedish author. She doesn’t look up. She doesn’t notice us. The temperature in the park is around eighty-five degrees and humid. Connolly’s breath smells like coffee, tobacco and something really wrong internally.
I’m tired already and the work day just started forty-five minutes ago.
We approach the bench, each carrying a reusable shopping bag filled with all-white athletic socks and vitamins. On our hips are smart phones, fourth generation PECU’s and multi-tools. We’re both wearing black shoes (mine, Timberland construction boots, his generic Pay-Less) khaki pants and navy blue polo shirts (mine tucked inside the khaki pants, Connolly’s hangs out of the front of his) with the Con-Edison logo stitched in sky blue.
“We usually offer clients vitamins or socks. I get the feeling this dude won’t need either.”
Sweat beads on Connolly’s forehead and his polo shirt has a Rorschach sweat wolf.
“They never told you what you was in for, huh?”
He chuckles between labored breathing. From what I can tell, Connolly always breathes heavily.
“You know what caused the blackout of ’03?” Connolly asks me as he pulls out his multi-tool, pulls out the knife and opens the snorkel from the top of the man’s chest downward. “Giuliani shipped a buncha homelesses to Virginia in like ’95 along with a fuckin’ ton of trash. In the spring. Fuckin’ seriously-”
The coat pulsates and undulates and waves. I take two steps back. Connolly is unfazed. “—and as soon as Giuliani left, they came right back, but it was all at one fucking time and the guys on top got greedy.”
Snorkel Man stops moving.
“Sent us all out with the second gen PECU and they knew those was shit, defects, but they sent us anyway and I got over two hundred overtime hours before and after the fuckin blackout, so it could’a been good to me—”
The snorkel spreads opens violently and you could see all the way inside, but there’s only darkness.
“—but I know people who were seriously fucked, business people and whatnot.”
Millions of little black maggots, little black holes spray, spiral vertically into the air. They have no distinguishable features, they could be worms, but they have to be maggots. Maggots are parasites, right? The woman finally looks up, first at us then at Snorkel Man. She drops her book onto the path and the little black maggots start to pour from her eyes and mouth. She paws at her face but then the maggots disappear when she looks away. She picks up her book and says nothing to any of us. She walks away toward the south entrance of the park. She really says nothing. Just shakes her head in disgust. Her face is buried in the book again as she walks down the path.
Like this never happened.
This is fucking happening, something is fucking happening and I don’t know what.
“There’s a dampener on our PECU’s, that’s how we ain’t spewin’.” Connolly says as he aims his PECU at the heart of the Snorkel and before he pulls the small, sensitive trigger he says, barely audible, “Thank you.”
“You should always say, ‘thank you,’” Connolly says.
Then, a shriek.
The maggots disappear.
Snorkel Man fades away from the inside of his clothing. The clothing deflates. My heart beats too fast.
I want to say, “where did he go?”
But I realize that it doesn’t really matter where he went.
* * *
Why is this unit voluntary? Why does Con Ed give anyone who volunteers a walkthrough day, and then the option to accept or decline the position with no penalty whatsoever. I asked myself this over and over again during my shower this morning and when I was slipping on my left pant leg, but then it slipped my mind during the right pant leg and the traffic report. I’m asking again, but, “Does it hurt?” Does it hurt them?” I ask. Earnestly. Goofily.
“No more than living. So you wanna do this kid?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what it is that we’re doing. What are we doing?”
“We got one more stop, I’m givin’ us a half day on account of your new Pee-tee-ess-dee. Then you can make your decision. I can text Solomon, the dept. supervisor, for you if you want when we’re done.”
* * *
“Is this a lateral move?” I ask.
“What college you went to, kid?”
“What’s that got to do with my question?”
“Nothin’. Listen, there’s no raise, no promotion, mosta them in the company won’t even know you exist. You gotta do this because you want to, othawise it don’t work. There’s gotta be, wassat-“
“Nah, well, yeah, but…I got three grand babies, all around the same age. One of them is sick. Needs a fuckin’ machine. Can you believe that? Six fuckin’ years old on a fuckin’ machine and I still chain smoke when I have a J.D. The machine needs power. All the time. Can’t fail. Shit.”
He takes out a box of Marlboro reds, lights two and hands me one. Not my usual, but, we’re having a moment.
“But, I wouldn’t agree to it if was just take. Before, they used to just take. Like it was expected, like, you fall down, you deserve whatever you get and whatever we can take. So, yeah, there’s gotta be consent, but it’s gotta be little equality to it. Tit-for-tat, ya know? That’s what the socks and vitamins are for.”
* * *
This tortured-looking young girl, probably twenty or so, doesn’t want to say her name. In fact, the counselor at the women’s shelter said she hadn’t spoken since she arrived with her assumed friend who promptly left. That was three days ago. Her dark brown hair is short and swept back. Boyish, a Puerto Rican Joan of Arc from the boogie down. Cute, even with finger marks around her neck and ‘coon rings around her eyes. The counselor told us that the friend said she was choked until she passed out by her baby’s father. The baby is staying with the Martyr’s mother, and the friend said that she can’t stay with me. The Martyr is sitting by herself in the corner of a room filled with women with similar stories, but her pain is the freshest which probably means that she’s next for whatever-it-is-we’re doing here.
And I say, “Thank you.” And she’s crying. And I’m shaking. And I pull the trigger.
At first the Martyr shakes as if she’d been tasered. Then her mouth opens as if to scream, but no sounds come out. There is no sound anywhere. The Martyr begins to fade from the ground up and the whole room begins to spew, a maelstrom of black maggots swirling like some psychic ceiling fan or spa filled with things beyond what I thought was my range of perception. Only her head and shoulders are left to fade away and my mouth is open and I’m spewing into the maelstrom. Connolly quickly turns on my dampener and the blackness stops flowing from my mouth. The Martyr is gone, faded from the chair she sat in and everything in the room is normal again. Connolly puts a hand on my shoulder and says, “let’s get outtahere. You had enough fer today.”
We sign out with the counselor who strangely enough doesn’t seem to remember the Martyr she just introduced us to not too long ago. “Whatever, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I have a ton of other clients on my caseload who don’t just up and disappear whenever they feel like it.”
Connolly pulls me by my arm toward the exit, not that I’m protesting.
He pushes the bar on the exit door.
“You gonna give me some of them vitamins and them socks,” a voice say from behind.
A woman is standing about ten feet behind us as we’re ready to exit the shelter. She sounds like a man and the hairs running down her cheeks and wrapped around her chin all say man, but we’re in a woman’s shelter, so. Connolly pulls out his PECU and shrugs.
“Ain’t you gonna ask me my name?” The woman says very loudly. She’s one of those people who lack an internal volume control. If you ask her, she’s not yelling, just having a conversation.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She approaches us with her hands in her jeans pockets, shoulders rolled forward. “Cap.” she says as I finally notice the “vintage” New York Mets baseball cap she is wearing. It probably never leaves her head. I also notice the filth on her face I first mistook for facial hair.
“You ready for this, “ I ask.
“Yeah, but eject me one of those cigarettes first there,” Cap says pointing at the cigarette box protruding through Connolly’s breast pocket.
“Eject me a cigarette?” Connolly asks.
“Yeah, you give me somethin’, I give you somethin’ back. Don’t have to be equal, just tit-for-tat. So, eject me a cigarette before you do whateva it is that you gonna do.”
Connolly smiles then pulls the trigger and says, “thank you.”
Connolly or someone else on the job has probably seen this woman before.
Sucked her dry so she could store more pain. So we all can start over again. I hand Cap a Ziplock bag filled with vitamins and two pairs of socks out of the packaging. Connolly gives her two cigarettes and lights one for her as we all walk outside into the light.
Me and Connolly are sitting in a van again. He’s driving. Darryl got me this job because my Moms saw I was struggling. I was hurting. Financially and she might’ve seen that I needed something else. Something I might find at a job. She couldn’t have possibly imagined this, although, like everyone else it seems, she might not’ve even blinked. Am I different? I doubt that very much, but these people, there’s something about these people. Nothing I saw today convinced me that this is something I should be a part of.
Maybe my problem with the whole deal is that the exchange is unequal. That tit-for-tat isn’t valid unless the tits and tats are commensurate. Maybe we’re all flawed. Maybe I’m asking too many questions. Maybe I’ll slip this PECU inside of my backpack before I clock out. Maybe they’ll never see me coming. I fuss around in my backpack looking for a hiding place. I accidentally crush the second Newport I slipped inside my backpack earlier in the day.