I had been homeless for three days, and I decided to go to the mall to get a new shirt. I had loved my shirt once — a faded blue V-neck t-shirt — but it had accompanied me in my homelessness and thus I associated it with my homelessness, and now I hated it. Luckily, it hid sweat well. I had been wandering around for three days in the middle of August and had thus become very sweaty.
But wait. First things first. How did I become homeless and how does anyone become anything? I had been living in a halfway house, but then I started secretly drinking vodka in the basement. I don’t even like vodka that much, but all alcoholics resort to vodka in the end. Vodka is not supposed to have a scent. “No smell,” people will say. These people are lying. Vodka has a scent.
I got caught and thrown out and then met up with the ex-wife of a famous hipster novelist. She took me to a hotel, had sex with me, and left me at the hotel. Abandoned or ditched me is maybe what she did, though it was my fault for being there in the first place. She kindly paid for the hotel room for two more nights, and even got me switched to a smoking room. A smoking room! Of all the sweet mercies in the world. Also she slid $80 under the door to pay for my cab fare out of there. We were in the middle of nowhere. When she slid the money under the door, it was folded in a piece of notebook paper, and I unfolded the paper tentatively, expecting some sort of dreadful note, an invocation, a list of all my flaws. But there was only my name. “OLIVER,” it said.
I stayed at the hotel for two more days. I would walk to the local liquor store and the 7-11. Using the two stores, I concocted my new drink, a mixture of Diet Amped energy drink, and vodka. I named this drink “Damped Vodka,” which would have been mildly amusing if there had been anyone to tell it to. I spent the rest of my days drinking and pacing back and forth in the room. I smoked cigarettes and watched black and white movies on the Turner Classic Movie channel. It was the only channel that I could bear to watch; everything else was too loud, too bright, too modern and real. A few of the old movies were in Technicolor, but mostly they were in black and white. I watched the flickering black-and-white people. I left the movies on all day and all night, but I only would watch the television with the sound off. Later on I realized I was doing this because I was afraid of being alone. I wanted to see people, but I was afraid to hear their voices, their judgments. But I turned the volume up at one point when the movie Show Boat was on, because I recognized the film. It was the scene where Paul Robeson is sitting on the edge of a dock, overlooking the Mississippi River. He sat on the dock, and he was singing. He sang the song Old Man River—
♪ ♫ Ah gets weary
…And sick of trying
Ah’m tired of living
And scared of dyin’,
But Old Man River
He jus’ keeps rollin’… along. ♪ ♫
Oh god, I thought, and pressed my hands to my forehead, knuckles first. If I could just faint or maybe just die right there, in the Best Western Hotel in the middle of nowhere, I thought. But who dies in hotel rooms? Cool people, maybe. Richard Yates. Sid Vicious. But desperate transients and hopeless winos, they die in hotel rooms too, probably. And I didn’t know which one I was but probably I was not the cool person. I put down my disgusting Damped Vodka. It was time to get out of that hotel room, I decided. So I left.
I left the hotel and headed back to where I started. I used the $80 and took a cab to a train to another train to a bus, and checked myself into a different halfway house. This all took two and a half days. I had nowhere to sleep during this time. I was constantly convinced that I was going to die while I was doing all of this.
I entered the new halfway house, dumped my duffel bag of stuff in my new room, and got the hell out of there. I wanted to get out of there quickly as possible, because the new halfway house scared me. A friend of mine once asked me: “How many people in your halfway house are criminals.” “Uh, all of them, I think,” was my reply. That’s what halfway houses are like. I rushed out of the house as quickly as I could, making up an excuse about errands. As I rushed out, I realized I had been wearing the same shirt for three days. A faded blue shirt. I hated it now.
So I decided to go to the mall to get a new shirt. I hopped on a bus. My life did not seem to be progressing very well. A year before, I had done the exact same thing, with the shirt, and the mall. This whole drinking and being a broke writer thing did not seem to be working out very well for me. I pushed the thought away.
When I arrived at the mall, I went to a Starbucks before going to the department store, so that I could sit down and maybe think for a second and get some iced coffee and plug in my laptop — because even in the midst of being homeless, I like to maintain the pretense that I am still a middle-class hipster. I bought the iced coffee. I plugged in. I perused various websites. All of a sudden there was a girl. “Would you like a free cookie?” she said. She stood next to me with a tray of cookies. What a thing to have happen!
Ridiculously, I was on a diet. What kind of a homeless person is on a diet? I wanted to lose ten pounds that I had gained from my drinking. But now, I was confronted with this cookie. I wanted to stay on my diet, but I was too surprised for negation. I had been looking down at my laptop and this girl had come out of nowhere, with her black uniform and her tray. To say “no” to the girl would have taken some build-up on my part, to be a grumpy cookie-refuser like that. I had no time and I secretly wanted the cookie, and anyway, what kind of homeless person refuses a cookie?
“Sure,” I said. “That’d be great.”
She handled me a cookie with tongs. Oatmeal raisin, it looked like.
“And,” she said. …And?
“And would you be interested in one of our catering menus?” she said.
So! It was all a con. A ruse. A free cookie to rattle my senses and get me to take a catering menu. Goddamn capitalism. Well, I wasn’t about to fall for that.
“No thanks,” I said.
She walked away. I munched on my cookie. Oatmeal raisin. Accepting free food made me feel sad though. It also confirmed my homelessness.
Midway through my cookie, I saw that the girl was going around to all of the tables and reciting her same little speech to them. Of course she was. Most people accepted the cookie. Very few people accepted the catering menu. As I stared, I noticed that the girl was saying her two lines in exactly the same way each time, in a musical, faux-British-y kind of way. It was sing-song, like a song, another sad song:
♪ ♫ WO-uld you like a free COOK-ie?
And WO-uld you be IN-ter-RESTED in one of our CA-ter-ng menus? ♪ ♫
As I watched this, I started to despise her. She was a teenage girl with dark hair in a ponytail, and as I watched her, I despised her. Startled at first, I had thought she had plucked me alone out for free cookie-dom; I had thought I was special in that way. A dumb thought, but a real one. But I was nothing to her and her she was repeating her lines like a goddamn cyborg. Soulless. A robot. An empty shell of a person.
But then I watched her for a little longer, and I started to sympathize with her. And then, I started to understand her. Who, after all, would want to walk around offering cookies as an inducement to take a menu? She had signed up for a job after school, and this had happened. The manager had taken her aside and said, “Now, one of the job functions is this.” He had been staring down at her as he said this. What could she do? She did her job to the best of her ability.
And then I understood the accent. Why, I would have done the same thing. If you have to repeat the same line hundreds of times to strangers, obviously you’re going to develop a rote way of doing it. And the faux-British part. I realized I would have done that too. As I watched, I realized that she was acting out the lines. She didn’t want to be there, failing to give menus to people. She was acting it out as a way of pretending that it wasn’t really her, that she wasn’t really there.
And so I had this realization, and then I finished my coffee, wiped crumbs from my lips, and went to Macy’s to buy a shirt. I bought a black t-shirt. On my way out of Macy’s, I realized that I was running late for my bus, and I started to speed up my walk. I wasn’t really running late for it at all, but I am paranoid about missing buses.
As I headed down the main hallway of the mall, I passed an attractive girl who cried out to me: “Can I offer you a free sample!” Two in one day! No, I did not want a free sample, but she had jolted me, and I was passing much too close to her to refuse, and anyway, why all this effort? Why all this effort to refuse free things? I took the free sample. It was a very tiny plastic sachet filled with some sort of liquid or cream. The kind where you tear off the end and then squeeze.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” she said. The girl was standing at a kiosk in the center of the hallway. She had an indistinct European accent — a real one, this time. It sounded like she was from no country in particular. Maybe she was from Latveria, home of Doctor Doom. She was dressed in that slightly off way that foreigners dress. Like someone who had observed our customs from afar.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said. But she was already grabbing my hand. You only have five seconds to be bold in these sorts of situations, and I had failed to be bold.
“Can I ask you a question? How well do you take care of your hands?”
I stared at my hands like a dumb ape. How well did I take care of my hands? Not well at all. They were hands. What was I supposed to do about them? In an average month, I probably spend about ten seconds thinking about my hands. My hands are just dumb taskmasters. They’re nothing to me. I use them to type and to eat. They’re like slaves, or oxen, or an old broken-down horse on a farm. I care not for my hands, is what I’m saying.
She was holding my hand and rubbing lotion into it. I grimaced. “Not… very well at all. I guess?” Confident, confident. I have get more confident, I thought. Lack of confidence is why I drink, I thought. And drinking is how I got kicked out of my house and became homeless; all of which led to my hand being grabbed by a stranger.
“Look at this,” she said. “You’re very tan, but look, freckles. You should take better care of your skin, no?”
I am very tan because I was homeless for three days! I did not shout. Sorry about the freckles! I did not shout.
She wasn’t just rubbing lotion into my hand. She was massaging my hand and part of my arm now. It felt good. It was supposed to be sexy. It was sexy. It was no coincidence that I was able to see down her shirt a little bit as she recited her spiel. Capitalism. All planned out. She never let go of my hand. It was no coincidence that I could see down her shirt a little, as she recited her facts about the “healing power” of the “laboratory tested” lotion that she was pushing, and it was no coincidence that she was cute and had a foreign accent. All part of the plan. If only she knew that I was homeless, or living in a halfway house now, but basically homeless, and that I had no money, but I was far too embarrassed to reveal a thing like that.
“And it will provide a shield against the sun,” she said, and then I broke away. I realized why I had liked the first girl and why I hated this second girl. The first girl was very bad at her job. The second girl was very good at it. The first girl didn’t, inherently, want to be a part of all this. The second girl did. She would do well and peddle her lotion and eventually be promoted to Lotion Manager, and then head of Tri-State Lotion Sales. The first girl still felt like a person to me. This second girl did not. …Girls, girls, I thought, my whole life is girls. Sleeping with girls, getting trapped talking to girls. Desks and girls, I thought. Years and years of sitting at desks, writing, first in school, then in life, and then girls. Will there ever be an end to them, these girls? And nothing made sense. How could I be homeless and then be here at the mall? Time and place no longer made sense to me. Nothing had unity anymore. How could this girl be massaging my arm? Couldn’t she tell that I’d been wearing the same shirt for three days? I could not think and I could only think this thought: I cannot think.
“A real shield against the sun,” she said.
“It sounds fantastic but I’ve really got to go! Late for my bus.” I was still not late for my bus. I tossed the plastic sachet of lotion back into the lotion basket. I broke free of her slimy grip.
“Are you sure you won’t consider this further?” the girl said, and then something happened. The whole time that I had been homeless, this had started to happen. Other people, objects, would melt into atoms or nothing, even as I stared at them. My eyes would unfocus against my will and I couldn’t see things right anymore, and the world would collapse into Brownian motion, pointillist dots, colored billiard balls flashing in front of my eyes.
“Your complexion,” the girl says, And as she’s speaking, all of a sudden, the whole building explodes into stars in front of my eyes, and that’s when I know that it’s time to get out. I jog down the rest of the hallway. I exit the building. I catch my bus back to the halfway house. I return to the beginning. I begin all over again.