Short Story: All the Bad Stuff
“I don’t know
How it’s going to end
But I hope that we
Can meet again”
I waited outside the theatre, but they didn’t show up. I was a few minutes late, but I’d have expected Andy to wait for me. It would be at least another thirty minutes before the movie started. Maybe Leanne had gotten impatient and dragged him inside.
I bought a ticket and went in. It was already pretty busy, mostly kids with their parents. There was no sign of Andy and Leanne. I went outside, found a phone and called him. His machine came on. He always screened his calls.
“Hey, this is Andy. I’m not here right now, but then neither are you. If you were, maybe I would be too.”
“Hi, it’s Ken. You’re not here either. Are you home? No? Okay, maybe you’re on your way. I’ll see you.”
I went back inside. The trailers were showing. I sat down and spread my jacket across the two seats next to mine, claiming them for Andy and Leanne.
The place filled up. A few minutes before the movie started, a woman nudged me. “Excuse me. Are those seats taken?” She had a girl of about ten with her.
“Kind of. Not really.” I lifted my jacket from the seats. She sat down on the seat beside mine, the kid sitting on the other side of her. “I’m waiting for a couple of people,” I told her. “But it doesn’t look like they’re coming. You’ll have to give them the seats if they do show.”
“Yeah, no problem.” She was in her mid-twenties, with long dark hair and what I recognised, in the light from the screen, as a Jim Rose Sideshow T-shirt.
The movie was just about to start. “Okay, you’ve got the seats,” I said. “I’m going.”
“Since you’ve paid, you should stay and watch the movie.”
I laughed. The movie was The Lion King. “You need to have a kid with you to get into a movie like this. I was supposed to meet a friend and his daughter.”
“Well, I’ve brought a kid. You can share.”
I was surprised. I’m not the Elephant Man, but I’m not Brad Pitt either. Women usually only go for me after we’ve talked a lot and I’ve managed to convince them that looks aren’t important. And this one was cute.
“Okay,” I said.
The movie wasn’t bad. Total fascist message, of course, but with some okay songs and animation. I didn’t follow the story too well — I just sat there and tried to believe my good luck. Or what seemed like good luck. Could I be getting it wrong? Maybe it didn’t mean she was into me. Maybe she was just weirdly friendly. Maybe she was just weird. Throughout the movie, she looked at me periodically and smiled and shared her bag of M & Ms with me. That seemed promising.
When the movie ended, we went outside into the lobby. I looked at her. In the darkness, her hair had just looked dark. Now I saw that it was a shiny black. And she looked amazing. I wondered if she was looking at me and deciding that what had looked intriguingly grotesque in a darkened theatre was actually pretty gruesome in daylight.
We just stood there, smiling. The kid stared at us, not smiling. “What’re you doing now?” I asked.
“I have to get Caroline home. Are you doing anything tonight?”
“I have to work.”
“What is it you do?”
“I’m kind of in movies.” I grinned at her. “I work in a video store.”
She laughed, and asked which one. I told her. “Maybe I’ll call you there,” she said.
“Great. Or call me at home.” I wrote my name and phone number on the back of my ticket to the movie. She got out her own ticket, wrote on it and handed it to me. I looked at it. Her name was Shari.
The video store wasn’t artsy. It was in the scummy part of town where I lived, and the stock — action, porno and splatter — reflected the discerning tastes of our clientele.
I was quite a star to our customers, or at least to the more sociopathic among them. I know just about everything there is to know about splatter movies, especially low-budget, straight-to-video-with-no-theatrical-release ones. I’m also pretty good on obscure foreign stuff, particularly Japanese splatterpunk. My expertise was held in such high regard by the local thugs that many of them no longer chose their own movies, but asked me instead. It was a dangerous neighbourhood, but I was under the protection of the gang that controlled it. They loved me because I’d recommended the Japanese classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Their leader was so impressed by it that he changed his name from Drillboy to Tetsuo.
I started playing up to my celebrity. I’d go to work dressed entirely in black, with either a skull or an upside-down crucifix dangling from my ear. Everyone who worked in the store had to wear a badge with their name on it. The boss let me change my name to suit my persona. My badge had originally said Ken. Now it was The Prince of Darkness.
On that Saturday night, I worked from five until midnight. Towards closing time I was debating whether to head downtown to a club or go home and watch Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, which I’d finally managed to get a copy of after a long search.
Then Shari came in. “Hi,” she said, like there was nothing unusual about her being there.
She was wearing a leather jacket and tight black jeans. A watch cap with a baseball logo clung to her head, her long hair spilling from under it. She looked at my apparel. “I didn’t realise you were a goth.”
“I’m not. It’s part of my job to look like this. I run the horror section.”
“I like scary movies.”
“What brings you down here?”
She smiled, embarrassed. “Instead of calling you, I thought I’d come by and say hello. So hello.”
I smiled back at her, trying to think of something to say.
“Did you find out what happened to your friend?” she said.
“Yeah. After he picked up his daughter from his ex-wife, his car blew a gasket. Speaking of daughters, is the girl you were with today yours?”
“Caroline? No. I’m her honorary big sister. I do volunteer work at this organisation that matches you with a troubled kid for you to hang out with.”
“What do you do for involuntary work?”
She laughed. “I’m a dog-groomer.”
“A person who grooms dogs.”
“Yeah, no shit. I mean where do you get a job like that?”
“I work at the animal hospital. People bring in their mangy woof-woofs, and it’s my job to tidy them up and hope they don’t tear my throat out while I’m doing it.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. It’s a good no-brainer. I just go into robot mode and daydream.”
“Listen, I get out of here at around midnight. Want to go do something?”
“We could go to a club. Or, if you want to watch a movie, I live near here…”
Then I got flustered and started to babble. “Oh, and that isn’t a line. I’m not coming on to you… Or rather, I am, but only if you want me to. If you don’t, you can still come and watch a movie with me…”
“Okay.” She was grinning.
“Do you have housemates?” she asked as we walked to my apartment.
“No. I live by myself. That’s why I chose this part of town — rent’s cheap. I can just about afford a place to myself. If I lived anywhere else, I’d have to share.”
It was a cold night. In my living room we could see our breath. I lit the gas heater. “My ears are frozen,” said Shari. I clapped my hands together to warm them, then put a hand over each of her ears. We looked at each other’s faces. She smiled. Never all that quick on the uptake, even I got the message. We kissed. Then we knelt on the floor in front of the heater and kissed some more. She’d taken off her jacket but was still wearing her cap. As we kissed, I pulled the cap off and stroked her hair.
We never saw the movie.
I don’t like to rush into things — I believe you should know someone for at least a week before you move in together. That’s how long it took for Shari to quit her apartment and move into mine.
Two days after our first meeting, I had to take a day trip to another town, to visit a friend who had just found out that he had cancer. I asked him whether a cure was likely. He said that the chances were remote, and that he was trying to accept that he was going to die. I knew no way to comfort him.
On the bus home, I felt scared for him and for myself. I was also worried about how I was going to eat the following week. I’d had just about enough money to get through until the next paycheck, but the cost of the bus ticket had wiped out nearly half of it.
As the bus passed a long stretch of coastline, for the first time I took no pleasure in the sight of it. The water was almost still and the sun seemed to be sinking into it. But this time the beauty wasn’t enough. Usually just a glimpse of it could put me in an instant good mood, but now I realised — I’d always known, but never realised — that you can’t escape to the sea. This isn’t Han Shan’s China or Thoreau’s America. That’s all gone now. If you decided you’d had enough and went off to live by the sea or up a mountain, you still couldn’t get away from the need for money. They’ve made it so that money and sustenance are the same thing.
When the bus arrived in town, I got off and decided to walk home. It was cold, but I was fretting too much to be able to stand still at a bus stop. I didn’t have a car, and I couldn’t afford a cab.
On the way home I ran into Franny. He saw me before I saw him, or else I’d have tried to avoid him. We used to play in a band together, and after that we washed dishes together in a restaurant kitchen, but I couldn’t deal with him anymore. He’d always been erratic, but these days it seemed as though the alcohol that he practically lived on had driven him mad.
He was standing near a public phone, waiting to use it. “Ken!” he yelled, spider-like in his huge black coat, eyes bugging out of his skeletal face.
“Where you going, man?”
“Where you been?”
“Visiting this friend of mine. He’s got cancer.”
Franny shook his head, laughed, his long hair flailing. “Fuck cancer. Fuck everything.”
As easy as that. How simple the world of the booze casualty.
I was suddenly close to tears. “No, Franny. Fuck you.” I walked away from him. When I looked back he was laughing, giving me a clenched-fist salute, a We-Know-The-Score-Pal salute. I flipped him the finger and kept walking.
I stopped at a deli and got some bread, pasta and pesto sauce. When I got home I found Shari sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk outside the door of my apartment. She was reading a book, and she didn’t see me until I kicked one of her feet.
She looked up, smiled hugely. “Hi!”
“Hi. How long’ve you been sitting there?”
“About twenty minutes. I was going to wait another ten, then give up and go.”
“You should be careful. It’s rough around here.”
“Nobody hassled me.” She stood up. “One dude thought I was begging. Gave me some change.”
I unlocked the door and we went into the apartment. “You should have told me you were coming over. I’d have given you keys.”
“I wasn’t planning to. I just had a sudden notion to see you.”
I put my arms around her. Warm smell of dog fur and shampoo.
“How was your friend?” she asked me.
I told her. She didn’t say anything stupid, any of the things people normally say in that kind of situation. She didn’t say anything. She just listened.
I cooked some pasta. We ate it and went to bed. Before I fell asleep she pressed her mouth to my forehead. “I’m going to kiss you, and when I do all the bad stuff’s going to go out of your head.” She kissed me, and it mostly worked.
Sometime during the night I woke to find her stroking my hard cock. “Too tired,” I mumbled.
“I know. But you don’t have to do anything.” She stroked me until I came all over us both. Then she held me tight and told me to go back to sleep and I did.
In the morning she had to go and groom some dogs. I didn’t have to work until the afternoon. She got up at seven-thirty, made two mugs of coffee and came back to bed.
“Do you want some breakfast?” I asked her as she handed me a mug.
“Nah. I have to rehydrate first. I’ll get something on the way to work.”
“This is going to sound stupid, coming after I’ve known you for four days. But I think I love you.”
She looked at me for a second, then laughed and took a big slurp of coffee.
“Yeah, that sounds pretty dumb. Not as dumb as me, though — I know I love you.”
She moved in the next day. She’d been sharing a place, and we wanted to live on our own. Rather than look for someplace central — which would be expensive and a hassle — we decided to live in my happy hovel in the heart of slumland.
Our friends thought it was weird, us doing it so soon. But I never had any doubts. I once had a pretty intense relationship that lasted two years, during which I never once considered the possibility of us living together. After a few days with Shari, the idea of us not living together seemed weird.
I didn’t have to get used to it. There wasn’t any sense of novelty, of something new. It seemed natural, as though it had always been that way. I told her so, and she said it was the same for her.
Only one thing was strange: suddenly we had two of just about everything — TV, VCR, stereo, etc. Hers and mine. We decided to mark our co-habitation by getting something that had never belonged to either of us alone, something that was entirely ours. I would have said that applied to most of my shirts, jackets and sweaters, which Shari now wore more often than her own stuff, but she was adamant about the necessity of ritual. We had to get something that had no history.
We got a wrought-iron candleholder. It had a gothic design and held two candles. We both liked it. I said we couldn’t ever break up, because we’d both want the candleholder and you can’t saw wrought-iron in half.
I often talked on the phone with Colin, whose cancer was now beyond treatment. He said he’d realised that nothing that had ever happened to him really mattered. Everything now seemed to him to be at the same time laughably trivial and intensely important.
“Are you scared?” I asked him.
“Kind of. I’m not scared of what’ll happen to me after I die, like if there’s an afterlife or whatever. I don’t even care that much about what happens to me then. I just don’t want to go. I want to stay here. I don’t want to leave the bands and the books and the movies I like, and I don’t want to leave my friends. God...” He laughed miserably. “I’m talking like I’m only moving to another town or something. Listen, man, I’m getting maudlin. I’m gonna go, okay?”
“You can get maudlin if you want.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather not. Come and see me soon, okay?”
“Yeah, of course. I’d come more often, but I haven’t got the money for the bus. But I’ll come next week sometime.”
“Have you seen Neil?”
“Not in a while.”
“If you see him, tell him to come and see me. He hasn’t been in touch since I got really bad.”
The truth was that I had run across Neil once or twice, but I wasn’t going to tell Colin. Neil was an old friend of his from college. He was an actor, and he wasn’t getting the sort of work he wanted. He’d told me that he couldn’t face going to see Colin because he was depressed about not getting work that was creatively fulfilling, and seeing Colin would depress him even further.
One memory of Colin that I took refuge in while he was dying: a few years earlier, when we went to France together and ended up in Cannes during the Film Festival. We didn’t see any movies, since the festival is by invitation only. We just hung out in the sun, in that weird wonderland atmosphere a place always has if it’s summer and there’s a festival going on. We drank and talked about maybe making a splatter movie on Super Eight.
We shared a cheap room, where we went only to sleep. Colin had brought his guitar with him, so we did some busking. He was a good guitar player, I was pretty bad. Neither of us could sing, not that we let it stop us. I had brought along a Walkman and some tapes, including Rock Animals by Shonen Knife, my all-time favourite band. Colin wasn’t keen on them, but he figured out the guitar parts on a few of their songs and tried to teach me to play them. I managed to learn “Music Square,” a song Colin hated. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Colin said it was like the Carpenters with Japanese accents.
Colin got laid. I didn’t. He always found it easier than I did. He was a handsome guy, and when he got some sun he looked like a Californian surfer. But it wasn’t lack of looks that kept me from getting laid. It was that I didn’t want to. It was enough just to be there. It wasn’t a lack of interest in the women I saw and sometimes talked to in cafes — but it was enough just to see them. Fucking wouldn’t have added anything.
One evening I was out busking on my own. Colin was with a woman somewhere. I was sitting on a low wall near the sea. As I clumsily played “Music Square,” a woman walked past. She had tangled brown hair, wore a white tank top and a long skirt. She looked at me. I smiled at her. She smiled back. She was painfully lovely. She hesitated. Then, when I didn’t stop playing and talk to her, she carried on walking.
I went on singing:
“I am very happy tonight
I could see the beautiful stars
I’ve been waiting for a long time
To come on Music Square.”
The woman. White cotton against brown skin. Hair falling over it. Her smile before she walked away. Lovely young essence of her. The jangling of the guitar.
The way Colin ate tortilla chips. The veins on the backs of his hands.
Late at night. Shari cuddled close to me. Kissing all the bad stuff out of my head. All that she’s made of, that I’m made of — blood, bowels, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, brain, bladder, pancreas. Nothing perfect or eternal.
Hey, death. Hey, death. Fuck you.
There was a woman who came into the video store a lot. We used to banter, though we didn’t have much to talk about movie-wise. What can you say to a person whose favourite movie is Field of Dreams? I got the impression that she was into me, but even if I was single I wouldn’t have been interested. She looked like Tom Hanks.
Then one night I started coming on to her. I didn’t know why I was doing it. She invited me to come to her place when the store closed. I said I couldn’t, that my girlfriend would be expecting me home. She told me to come over the next morning if I wanted. She said she didn’t care that I had a girlfriend. She didn’t seem callous or nasty, just lonely and desperate.
I went to her place as soon as Shari had left for work. It was so sad; at eight-thirty in the morning she answered my knock wearing make-up, short skirt, black tights. So desperate to impress.
It was surprisingly good, right until I came. I came in her mouth, sitting on her couch with her kneeling on the floor between my legs. She tried so hard, stopping to recite, “Yeah, do it for me, give it to me.” Then put my cock back in her mouth.
As soon as I came, everything changed. I was so sick with guilt I could have converted to Catholicism. I got dressed, saying I had to go. She asked when she’d see me again. I said I’d be in touch. She smiled tightly, letting me off easy.
All day I walked around like fucking Raskolnikov. I was supposed to work in the afternoon, but I called and got someone to swap shifts with me.
I wasn’t going to tell Shari, but I had no choice. She knew something was wrong with me, and she knew I was lying when I said I was all right. It began to frighten her.
“Whatever’s going on, I want you to tell me. Is it me? Have I done something wrong?”
When she said that, I couldn’t not tell her. At first she thought I was joking, that I couldn’t really have done it. When she realised that it wasn’t a joke, she cried for a long time. I kept saying I was sorry. When she’d stopped crying she asked me, “Do you want to be with her?”
“No. I don’t even know her.”
“Why did you do it, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t be stupid. Or treat me like I’m stupid. You must know.”
“I don’t. I can make something up if you want, but the truth is I don’t know. I’m not even attracted to her looks.”
She started to cry again, but anger choked it back. When she spoke I could hear the rawness in her throat. “Okay. You fuck around on me and you don’t even know why. Great.” She gestured towards the door. “Get out of here. Leave me alone for a while.”
I told her again that I was sorry. Then I got my jacket and left. I went and saw a movie, then went to a diner and ate. It was only about nine o’clock, and I was too ashamed to go home and face Shari again. I sat in the place for another two hours, then walked home slowly, hoping she’d be asleep by the time I got there.
She’d gone. So had most of her stuff. The candleholder was gone too. There was a note, just the phone number I could reach her at.
I called it. The woman who answered had obviously heard the story. She wasn’t friendly. “Just a minute,” she barked when I asked to speak to Shari. I heard her call, “Shari — it’s him.”
“Hi,” said Shari.
“Where are you?”
“At Ali’s. You met her once.”
“I’m staying with her till I find a place. I couldn’t keep living with you.”
“You didn’t have to move out. You can have this place if you want it. I’ll move out.”
“No. It’s your place. I’ll find somewhere.”
“I thought of it as our place.”
“The only thing that was ours is the candleholder.”
“I noticed you took that.”
“Yeah. I think I’m entitled.”
“I suppose so. Like I said, you can’t saw wrought-iron in half. I’ll miss it, though.”
“Will you miss me?”
“I love you.”
“You’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
“Shari, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m going to hang up. I don’t want to start crying again. It makes Ali feel bad.”
I’d lived with Shari for eight months. Prior to that, I’d lived without her for almost thirty years. But, with her gone, things didn’t seem normal. I didn’t fall apart; I went to work, and I dragged myself out to meet friends. But I couldn’t make any plans or even think about what to do next. There was a feeling of things not being in their proper place, as though the order had been somehow disrupted. I felt like I was living in a state of flux, and though I told myself that it was permanent and I had to get on with it, it didn’t seem like anything I would get used to.
Colin got worse. He became too weak to even talk on the phone for very long. He was in constant pain, and he only kept it from being agony by swallowing heavy doses of the liquid morphine prescribed by his doctor. He didn’t want to die in a hospital, so he’d moved into his mother’s house.
I have no religion, but I started praying. I didn’t know who or what I was praying to. I didn’t give it a name. I just knelt and clasped my hands and thought about Colin and tried to do him some good.
I got on a bus and went to visit him, knowing it would probably be the last time I’d see him. It would be a few weeks before I’d be able to afford the bus fare again, and his mother had told me he wasn’t likely to live that long.
It was late afternoon when I got there. A hot day. I was wearing surfing shorts, a Butthole Surfers T-shirt and a Mickey Mouse baseball cap, which didn’t strike me as being inappropriate until just before I arrived.
His mother let me in. She’d never liked me much. Colin had told me that she thought most of his friends were weird, especially me. It didn’t seem to occur to her that he was in the company of his peers.
Poor woman. These days she seemed glad to see me. She sat me down in her kitchen and told me, “Colin’s asleep. Let’s have some tea and see if he wakes up.” She made the tea and asked about my life. I told her everything was fine, that Shari and I were okay. I kept it ambivalent; I didn’t want to dump on her by telling the truth, and I was afraid to come on like Mr Happy in case that made her feel worse.
She went upstairs to check on Colin. “He’s still asleep,” she told me when she came back. “I don’t really want to wake him, Ken. He was in awful pain — he was crying from it. So he took a lot of morphine.” She paused, thinking the same thing as me, that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to him face-to-face. “He’d want to see you, though. Do you want me to wake him?”
“No. I’ll call him. But is it okay if I just go in and see him? I won’t wake him. I’ll be really quiet.”
She nodded, not liking it.
He looked dead, but he wasn’t. His breathing was heavy. All that pain. Crying from it. I stood by his bed, looking down at him. Cannes. Shonen Knife. Neon rain. Late night movies, years of them. Tortilla chips. His tan. His veins. His guitar. Beer. Tea. Liquid morphine.
I bent over him and whispered, so quietly he couldn’t have heard it even if he’d been awake, “I’m going to kiss you, and when I do all the bad stuff’s going to go out of your head.”
His forehead was warm and dry against my lips. I stood and looked at him for a while, then left.
A couple of days later, Shari showed up at my apartment. “I brought you something,” she said, as I let her in. She was carrying a big canvas bag.
We sat in the living room. She opened the bag and brought out the candleholder. “Here.”
“But it’s yours. You’re entitled to it after what happened. You said so yourself.”
She smiled nervously. “Yeah, but I know you really like it. So I brought it for you.” She held it out to me.
Something about her doing that tore me open. I clenched my teeth and tried to swallow it down, but I couldn’t. I cried, covering my face with my hands, almost roaring. Shari came over and put her arms around me, holding me, rocking me against her. She kissed my hair, my hands. Then she took my hands away from my face and kissed my eyes and cheeks, licking my tears. We held each other and didn’t let go.
Footnote: This story was first published, sort of, in 2005 in the Soft Skull Press anthology Homewrecker. The publisher accidentally left out the last page, causing readers to write to me asking for the ending. They also didn't pay me the money they owed me for the story, and, as far as I know, they similarly ripped off the other contributors too, even though they sold various foreign rights. By “they” I mean Richard Nash, a.k.a. Richard Eoin Nash, who was running Soft Skull Press at the time, and was legendary for his ineptitude and lack of ethics. The editor of the anthology, Daphne Gottlieb, was not at fault. Richard Nash, who ignored emails from me requesting payment, left Soft Skull Press and continued his misadventures at Red Lemonade Press, and is now, hilariously, “a leadership coach.”