Soft Exit – Justin K. Louie
March 9, 2022
After the shift I went down Moorpark, clutching tips in my pocket. I hadn’t let go of the bills ever since counting out. I hopped along the cracked pavement like some dumb kid with a blank check. I was happy to be off but the street noise and bright LEDs snapped me out of it. The regulars tipped alright but there’s a general attitude fogging up this place. Self-congratulatory back pats symptomatic of some neurological pollutant. Bootstrap hero thoughts like “Hey, I deserve this.” Maybe I do too. Maybe I worked a guillotine in a past life, dropping the blade, pissing atop piles of heads with a fleeting joy.
There was a couch waiting for me after the trek home. Home was the second floor apartment I’d been staying at for the past several years. It belonged to Troy’s mom, who was living in Australia, so it was in possession of Troy and, by extension, Jenny, who’d been seeing him ever since they’d discovered fucking. They were a few years ahead of me in high school.
Troy managed the cafeteria at the Apple headquarters and Jenny was a CNA for a rehabilitation clinic. Jenny didn’t want to accept money for the couch but I insisted. We agreed on two hundred a month and Troy nodded along stoically, in rare passivity or silent protest, who knew. Two hundred to live in San Jose was more than fair—it allowed us to pay our dues, one foot in adulthood, the other in some after-hours Safeway parking lot doing whip-its.
I got home at midnight smelling of grease. I kept the lights off and found my way to the couch. No one was asleep. Troy and Jenny were going at it in the other room. The walls were thin and they were loud, and I pretended I was deaf, sunk into the seat cushions. I watched the ceiling fan’s weak vortex.
Bathroom sink clatter, then the bedroom door. I was up in the dark with a bottle of Seagrams. Jenny shuffled to the kitchen.
“When’d you get in,” she said, opening the refrigerator.
“A few hours ago or something.”
“Get any sleep?”
“Konked right out, man.”
“Right on, bro.” She was fidgeting, haloed in refrigerator light. She was in sweats and an Unknown Pleasures shirt, which dwarfed her. “How’s work?”
“Learning something new every day.” I took a pull of gin. “You?”
“Got hit on by a ninety year old after I changed his diaper, then he called me a bitch. It was very intimate.”
“Ninety years. That’s too old.”
“Think fast,” she said, throwing something.
I caught a Capri Sun pouch out of the darkness.
“Thank you, mommy.”
“Ugh.” She slunk off to the bedroom. Her hair was wild, as if she’d gotten electrocuted in some Looney Toons dimension. “Sorry about the noise.”
It didn’t take long for them to start up again, in argument this time. Maybe it was something about sharing each other’s air for so long that mashed all the buttons on their control consoles, before the sweat could even dry. Maybe Jenny was tired of wiping the asses of old people, only to come home to a younger, needier one.
I stepped out, planted myself on the concrete. The freeway was across the street, walled off. Careening sound distortions over the divider drowned out accusatory tones and grunts, reverberations of past lousy shifts and lives, the future clambering towards us. I didn’t have to kow tow to anyone. No obligations. No orders. I could be subsumed in the noise wash of transit, let it gaslight me. I could be anyone, tell myself anything before it all faded into night.
Troy had the day off and I called the diner, told them I was sick. Troy snorted some mescaline. I ate two psilocybin mushrooms. We strolled down Steven’s Creek, just a couple of sweaty idiots.
The street was constipated with vehicles, people broiling in their own messes. We passed the surplus store and Troy started laughing.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I saw Anne Coulter,” he said.
“It was hot, I forgot where I was, but she crawled out of a gutter and dogged me for several blocks.”
“Her eyes were all sunken in. Two sucking black holes. I think she was trying to tell me something.”
“She try to sell you her new book?”
“She was speaking, but with no sound.”
“Mouth all flapping like an airplane toilet.”
“Whatever, she’s got her own thing going on,” he said. “Find a way to make money by shitting on people or shut up, don’t knock her for living the dream.”
We walked into Barnes and Noble, past the ruins of a Gamestop. It was huge inside: aisles of overpriced books, reference stuff, computer science, philosophy. There was a Starbuck’s café in the center. A bunch of people sat at tables, staring at their respective screens.
“What,” said Troy.
“I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“Right,” he said, scanning the shelves. He was looking at Raymond Chandler books. “Where’s the good crime shit at?”
I grabbed a James Ellroy book and tossed it at him to shut him up. It hit him in the chest, ruffled his stupid thrift store Hawaiian shirt, fell to the carpet.
“You alright there?”
He avoided eye contact, fixated on the carpet, crossed himself in a panic. The slight lag in my vision projected an upside down cross vigorously traced with his hand movements.
He put an index finger to his mouth and hissed at it.
“You conjured her again, man.”
People were staring as we left. Troy found a trash bin along the sidewalk and vomited into it. We continued on, the sun beating us down.
“You know, they have a right to be here,” he said, wiping his mouth. “Those people back there.”
“I mean, yeah, sure.”
“They get paid more than you do because they know what it takes and go for it anyway. All that boring, numbing shit. I know these people, man, you must respect what they do.”
“Oh, I must. What do they do?”
“Write code? Analyze shit? I don’t fucking know, I just feed them” he said. “You, however. You could get a better job, change your circumstance.”
“I’ll wash dishes for a couple years on campus and then… ascend.”
“Initiative, baby,” he said, eyes closed, “Show it.”
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You mope around. You stink up my couch.”
“I’ve got a high school diploma and some community college credits—what do you suggest?”
He shrugged, said, “Pull your head out of your ass. For starters.”
“But that’s where all the dreams are.”
After successfully tuning him out, I lost myself in personal visions: Jesse, following me, blood pouring out of a large crack through his face. Jesse, standing there, smiling through broken teeth. Jesse in the pediatric ward, with brain bleeding, a tube pumping his lungs full of oxygen. His forehead up against a hissing saw, to relieve the pressure in his skull, Jesse, my stepbrother. The physical sense of pushing him out the window, the little shit. I jolted back to the street and walked faster, with Troy trailing behind, talking as always, “What, are you mad now? You fucking pussy.”
It was my last daytime shift at the diner. Anita wanted to switch me to graveyard, on account of losing a server. Some kid with a cheesy arm-sleeve and spotty beard named Tyler. We all clocked him for about two months, but he only made it a little past one. He came and went, another notch on the Mini Gourmet bedpost.
I yukked it up with the nice families in my section, swilled the industrial-grade coffee, which wasn’t bad. Cliff came in, took his spot on the counter. Cliff was easy, never said a word, stared into empty space, nodded off for an hour with his beer, always left a five-dollar tip. I appreciated Cliff. We joked about how he was our future, if there’s one to be had.
Some guy wearing a backwards Giants cap came in with his girlfriend. She had a squeaky voice, doted on him, asked him unthreatening questions while he played with his Android. I spent less than a minute in their presence and already felt the walls closing in, the booths rushing my vision in a blur. I had to remember that everyone phones it in eventually. Nice run in the hamster wheel until an aneurysm or cancer or the train comes, head on. There’s nothing to be done. They left after his chicken fried steak and her split pea soup. He wrote a zero on the gratuity line, complete with dollar sign. I stepped out for my thirty.
Santa Clara Valley Medical loomed in my peripherals across the street. I sat on the curb by the flower shop and checked my phone.
“Hi, it’s me. I hope this is the right number—I got it from one of your old friends on Facebook. I promised not to tell who. Anyways, I don’t want to do this on the phone, maybe you can meet me. Call me when you can. I love you. Let’s talk, okay?”
And the next one, with heightened drama.
Five more messages.
I got up and stomped the flip phone, grinding it into the cement. I sat back down next to the guts and powdered glass, watched the sky shift from violet to blood red. I tossed the remains in the trash after break. Anita eyed me in her curious way, looked back down at the glass she was cleaning.
“Broke my phone,” I said.
“Don’t forget about tomorrow.”
“I’ll be here.”
“Good boy,” she said.
I got off as a group of bikers pulled in. Exhaust pipes rattled off obnoxious staccato farts. Grand announcements were made. Barrel-chested thumps. Sagging skin, limp tattoos. Big dissolve-a-body-in-sulfuric-acid energy. I was truly glad I didn’t have to look any of them in the face. But they were of the notorious Mini night crowd. I’d be fielding them from now on. I stopped by the liquor store on Magliocco, got a handle of vodka with tip money and headed back to the apartment taking pulls from it.
Jenny was smoking outside, leaning over the metal railing. She looked like she’d been there a while. I called from the stairs. She turned her head in my direction, waved. She grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from the floor, held it out.
I accepted, offered a bag of chips in return. “These were free. Courtesy of the nice Korean lady at Lime Tree Liquors.” She bypassed the chips for the bottle, drank, coughed, passed it back.
“How do you do that?” she said, lighting me with her bic. “How do you compel people to give you free shit?”
“She asked me how my parents were, so I guess nothing is free.”
“What’d you tell her?”
“I usually nod and say ‘yes’ and ‘okay’ until everyone’s happy.”
“So,” she said, “she asked you how your parents were and you said ‘yes’ and ‘okay’?”
“Something to that effect. And then the chips.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Me neither. Maybe I remind her of someone. A nephew or something.”
“Aren’t you, like, Chinese?”
“A show of faith, then. Maybe.”
“Unbelievable,” she said.
My face felt hot. I crinkled open the bag of chips.
“How are they? Your parents.”
“My mom actually called today. She seems fine.”
“That’s not bad. How’d that go?”
“It didn’t,” I said. “Jesse has to wear a helmet for the rest of his life and he’s only twelve. I have to get another burner. Apparently it’s not enough to scrub yourself from the fucking Internet.”
She stubbed her cigarette out on the railing. My head was buzzing and I felt a confessional wave coming on. “I don’t remember feeling bad about it,” I started, stumbling through a version of what she’d heard before, that I’d maimed my stepbrother when I was supposed to be watching him, that I meant to do it, even when I was squeezing his head together, keeping his brains from spilling out. Mom went with the ambulance. My stepdad, Ray, hung back to “grab a few things”. He could tell I was high. I was manic, soaked in sweat. He had good hunches but bad timing. No charges pressed on account of him strangling me within an inch of my life, face smashed up against the carpet stained fresh with Jesse’s blood. It was less than I deserved. I’m still here. And so’s Ray. So is everybody.
I capped the bottle and set it on the ground. My hands were trembling. Jenny was a polite listener. I knew she was trying not to stare.
“So that’s done with.”
“You know you can stay as long as you want or need, always,” she said. “But, I say this with love, don’t get too comfortable.”
“Might be too late for that.”
“Today was my last day at Cedar Crest. Now that is a place for ‘too late’ among other things. But we’re not there. We’re not at fucking Cedar Crest,” she said.
“Oh hell yeah, you quit?”
She stared through me.
“Do you know what I mean?”
“Leaving the clinic, huh?”
“No more soiled sheets, no more phantom potty smells. But I don’t mind—that’s the job. Nobody else will do it,” she said. “I’ll miss my patients. It’s the others, the nurses and therapists. Staring down their noses at me, like I didn’t expect to touch human shit or train for any of it. They’ll end up discarded, like anybody else.”
We were up against the paneling by the door. The sky was a greased over black. We looked down at the cigarette butts.
“I’ll clean these up,” she said.
“I like it. Cute little mass grave.”
“I don’t want to piss off the neighbors, they’ll tell the super. I’ll take care of it before I leave.”
“Where are you going?”
She told me about her grandpa in Arizona, how he didn’t have much longer, how her family was crazy but needed her. I asked her when she was leaving and she said she had an early flight, at three in the morning, in a couple of hours. She’d been waiting for me to get back from my shift. She’d been planning, packing discreetly for the past week, figuring out what to leave behind.
We went inside. She brought a suitcase and backpack out from the closet by the door. I offered her a ride to the airport but she told me she had it covered, that I was drunk and she didn’t feel like pulling me from wreckage. I would’ve had to use Troy’s car, anyway. I’d have had to dig his keys out from under him, passed out in his room, dreaming his big boy dreams.
Jenny went out with a dustpan. I stood wobbling at the open fridge, took out a box of Mountain Cooler Capri Sun pouches. I made it to the couch and sat down, stomach acid like lighter fluid settling, waiting for ignition. My guts could’ve torched the whole complex. I counted my breaths, felt the heart palpitations, accepted them. My hand tremors calmed. I could feel her watching me from the door. She was ready to leave.
“Couple more hours until departure, right?”
“I plan on getting drunk at the airport bar,” she said. “My ride’s on the way. Get over here.”
I walked over to her.
“Stop that,” she said, pulling me in, “like your dog died or something. Don’t put that on me.”
“That’s it, then.”
“You’re going to be okay,” she said.
I came to on the couch, spinning. My brain hadn’t caught up with the room. I knew Jenny was gone. Troy was throwing a tantrum. I looked over at the kitchen, squinted at the neon smudge of the digital clock. The floor was littered with broken glass. He broke some more shit in the living room, grabbed the vodka, limped back to his room, started throwing things around. I heard dry wall caving in. I guess I knew it’d happen sooner or later. I drifted out and away from the couch, the room, to the middle of the Arctic Ocean, lying supine amidst my at-sea burial, boat engulfed in flames. Total peace. Nothing left to do but burn.
We took a bus downtown and walked to Cinebar, numbing ourselves to the day. Google would own everything soon enough, deploy their assassins to dispatch us with sinister tech, hacked phone apps to emit brain-melting frequencies. You could overhear people use words like ‘incubator’ in regards to the valley, like it’s this giant vat of great minds. The lasting image they’d like to bestow upon us rubes is that of computer chips, hills and forests replaced with green CPU boards. It’s been prophesied. The coming reality. The mayor sold us out but who gives a shit. The great denizens of San Jose, just a bunch of fucking Legos.
According to Troy, evolution and entropy are one and the same—we’re all headed towards the same nowhere. He’d gotten more buzzy and self-righteous ever since being “suspended” from work, for showing up loaded after subsequent warnings. I’d noticed his open laptop back at the apartment, stuck at the UPS store application page. “It’s whatever,” he told me, “My mom will just wire me money.”
It was 4 PM, months after Jenny left. Troy didn’t speak a word of it, and I didn’t press him. He’d accrued mysterious injuries: patches of weird skin, black eyes, strange limps. Less meat in the face.
“It’s dead,” said Troy.
I looked around. The bartender was a laconic man with well-groomed facial hair, looked at his phone beneath the counter. Friday the 13th played on the raised HD screens. Some poor idiot was staggering around in an attic or basement, movie-guts hanging out. A couple of guys were playing pool.
“That’s why we’re here?”
“No, I’m waiting for someone.”
“Oh. Well, I like it when it’s dead,” I said, jinxing the bartender.
People started coming through the door. The bar got crowded. Leather jackets, body odor, ear gauges. I saw Troy’s pill guy by the bathroom, got a whiff of public restroom stench. “I won’t schmooze. It’ll just be a minute.”
I stepped out on Second Street and avoided eye contact with the people milling about the entrance. Troy emerged a minute or so later, hobbled down the street. “Let’s get some food,” he said. He opened a Ziploc bag of blue pills, popped one into his mouth, washed it down with whatever was in his flask.
“I’m feeling Taco Bell, you want Taco Bell?”
He reached into his jean pocket and handed me these big, linty mushroom caps. I ate them right away.
We slogged it over to the nearest Taco Bell, its glorious signage filling our eyeballs. We descended upon the doors, just a couple of dumbasses with all the time in the world. Inside, its people seemed melted in with the décor, beckoned us to join the miasma between fiery Dorito hard shell crunches. We got everything to go.
When we got back to the apartment, I cleared a space on the dining room table, swiped stacks of unopened mail to the floor, our long-dead smashed-screen phones. A clean slate, truly. We dumped forty dollars’ worth of Taco Bell on that table. Troy slurred a blessing, “We are grateful for this, the fatted calf. For ours is the kingdom of heaven—“
“We have Pepto-Bismol, right?”
“Silence,” he said to me. To God: “Amen, dude.”
The apartment was in bad shape. The refrigerator was full of rotting food; it secreted a foulness that joined with the mold in the sink. The smell of our haul made everything worse. I opened a window, which did nothing. Too much clutter. There were several opened tubs of dried out spackling paste on the ground, not enough for all the structural damage. It was as if Troy was renovating our squat with escape routes, fist- sized wormholes that led outside to the same chemical trail skyline and traffic jams, brownnosers and con artists.
After eating I laid on the couch, taking in sounds. The distant freeway. The rattle of the ceiling fan. My guts squelching, coiling like a snake. I started to drift. I shut my eyes, focused on the overall noise, opening myself to its Gnostic bullshit wisdom. Troy muttered something from the kitchen.
I heard him again, a smacking of lips, a loud crash.
I ambled over. He was on the floor beside a kitchen knife trailed by black dots. Both wrists stared up at me—gaping snaggletoothed smiles spitting gouts of blood. I retched in the sink, grabbed some stiff towels, bent down to compress the wounds. I could feel them wriggling under the dampening fabric. He muttered again, face pale, eyes fixed, the darkness pooling on linoleum:
“Unreal. Just fucking unreal.”
I grabbed the keys from his pocket, got outside fast, my legs fighting semi- paralysis. I banged on the neighboring doors, called for anyone, an ambulance. The cement beneath me warped. My heart thudded to the sound of Jesse hitting ground from the second story window, resounding crack like a delayed snare hit. I nearly ate shit going down the steps leading to the parking lot. I found Troy’s car, got in, turned the keys in the ignition. Click. Of course. Empty gas tank. Battery dead from disuse.
I ran towards Moorpark, towards Santa Clara Valley Medical, the pavement glinting, shards of glass caught in the final lights of dusk. I weaved through cars in the street. Trumpet blasts coalesced to a deafening apocalypse. People shouted in anger and shock from their vehicles. I realized I was covered in blood but I didn’t care. My lungs were burning. My legs were oiled and working. My feet pounded ground. I thought of Jesse, running around in the park, in the grass with his helmet on, mom watching, her eyes peeled for danger. Ray lost in the garage, calloused hands on his waist. Jenny drinking beers in the desert, absolved of us. Troy sawing into himself, to the bone, seeing what he was really made of. I passed the Mini, past the shift I didn’t show up to, the ones I’d never show up to. I was on fire, well past the hospital and parked cop cars, just moving, and I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop for anything.