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Fiction Funny

When the shabby elevator’s doors closed, Mike forgot how to be normal, and as he noticed the whine of the machine’s old parts, he saw his Tinder date grip her clutch closer to her body. It was not the look he had hoped to cultivate. He wanted to face her - he thought it would make things more comfortable - but he didn’t dare. Instead, he stood at her side like a New York bell hop until, through no action of his own, his arms swung back and forth automatically like a desktop drinking bird. Things were not working out for him, and even after he stopped moving his arms, he regretted that he’d done it so suddenly. Standing beside his Tinder date, tongue-tied, Mike felt like he was in a one-man show and had forgotten his lines. 

Recently, Mike’s reality tossed him around like a ship in a storm. He had lost whatever had propelled him through life until a few months ago and no longer had focus or control; moments that brought him pressure crushed him, and the pattern was becoming familiar. Mike had to downgrade into his current apartment because he’d missed quota and been fired from his last job; that travesty kicked off the greatest slump of his life, one so consuming that any decision he faced - something as small as deciding what color grape to buy - challenged him like a wicked fork in the road. What’s worse, he saw no end in sight and was a month away from missing quota and being fired from his new job. As the elevator shrieked past the third floor, Mike thought if he could somehow bed the woman by his side or at least get to second base, he’d pull himself out of his seemingly endless downturn. 

Before the elevator doors opened on the fourth floor, the smell of sulfur wafted through its cracks and gagged Mike and his date. She reflexively coughed and then put the back of her manicured fingers to her nose. Mike’s eyes began to water like he was cutting onions, and he covered his nose with the collar of his shirt. She asked what it was, but he didn’t know. The stench continued to fill the crummy elevator, and by the time the doors opened, the two felt like they’d been tear-gassed. 

The hallway was humid and thick with the smell of rotten eggs. Mike panicked; his date’s face told him she’d had enough. 

Like any salesman worth his salt, he tried to get ahead of her objection, “I’m so sorry. I know it smells terrible, but I’m sure it will smell better in my apartment.” 

His date followed Mike down the hallway, but she was perturbed and kept quiet.

Mike’s apartment was at the end, where the smell was the worst, and he was in agony with every step he took towards it, knowing she was miserable behind him. When they got to his door, he became cautiously optimistic that she would stay the night; she wouldn’t have come to his apartment door just to leave. 

Inside the apartment, with the door closed behind them, Mike hoped that she’d give him a sign that things could progress. He watched her lower her hand from her nose and scan the apartment. In the glass of her eyes, he saw her looking at the ill-lit, beige kitchen counter tiles, the gray carpet in the living room, and the stucco ceiling; he didn’t like her gaze’s forecast, and to make matters worse when he next inhaled, the rank taste of sulfur made him cough. 

“I’m so sorry,” he said, “I really don’t know what’s going on.” He felt like he was apologizing for who he was as much as for the smell. He lingered into the living room and said, “Here, maybe it won’t be as bad by the window.” The window overlooked the parking lot.  

The Tinder date had her phone in her hand and looked disgusted and slightly sick. 

“I have to go,” She said, shaking her head. 

Mike begged her to stay, “Please, I’m sure it will get better; I’ll open a window.” 

But it was too late; she was already two doors down and didn’t even look over her shoulder.

“Can we see each other again?” Mike said, standing in front of his open door. 

“Text me,” She answered, but there was no conviction in her voice. Mike was confident that he'd be ghosted if he ever texted her; it was over. 

When Mike was sure that the girl was on the elevator, his being filled with desperate anger that hurled him into the hallway in search of the smell’s source. He stomped from door to door, up and down the hallway, before it struck him that the only door he hadn’t checked for pungency was the one directly across from his own, where his neighbor Keenan lived. One time Mike saw Keenan, a grey-haired Mel Gibson lookalike, wearing a Jamaican beanie with sewn-on dreadlocks, and it startled him; the two men rarely interacted. 

Another thing that bothered Mike about Keenan was the very fact that he lived in his apartment complex; the building was more of a halfway house than a permeant residence to Mike. He viewed Keenan as a nuisance and felt the need to tell him off for making the floor smell like stinky tofu. 

Mike banged on Keenan’s vinyl door with closed fists, and it swung open. It was a different world inside. Proust was playing on a portable speaker set up on the kitchen counter, and there was a clear plastic tarp laid out over all the carpet and on the furniture. Scattered around the house like balancing stones were piles of mud four feet tall, and stacked beside them were cases of mineral water of all different brands.   

The apartment was uncomfortably warm and putrid, and Mike imagined that he could see mold growing on the walls. He shouted into the void, “Hello!” 

No one answered. Mike had never entered someone’s home unannounced before, but he deemed that the circumstances justified his curiosity. He shouted again, and when there was no response, he walked into Keenan’s apartment.

 The plastic tarp crinkled under his feet as he crept down the hallway. It felt like he was going deeper into a wet cave until he came to the bathroom. Its door was open, and Mike saw Keenan on the floor; he was buried in layers of damp mud, speaking French to himself, “couloir-peignoir.”

“Keenan!” Mike shouted a few feet away from the bathroom. 

Keenan raised his head from the mound of mud it rested on, but he couldn’t get it high enough or in such a way to see Mike. 

“Who’s there?” Keenan said. 

“It’s Mike, your neighbor. What are you doing?” 

Mike watched as Keenan nodded his head and then let it drop back to the mud, “Mike, how are you doing? This is called thermal therapy. It’s a singular experience.” 

“What? Keenan, the whole floor reeks of sulfur.” 

Keenan’s head raised to look at Mike, but again he couldn’t see him, “I hope you’re just joking. I wouldn’t want to impose upon other residents.”

“It’s the whole hallway, man,” Mike said, “It smells like shit. Even in my apartment.”

Mike watched Keenan wiggle an arm out from where it was tucked; it was covered with wet mud and helped him lift out of his sludge cocoon. When he stood up, enough mud fell off of his body that Mike saw Keenan’s shriveled-up penis and his gray pubic hair. It was not a welcomed sight. Also, Keenan was in better shape than Mike, just like the real Mel Gibson, which bothered him. 

Keenan looked totally relaxed despite it all and eventually stood before Mike with a towel wrapped around his waist and his eyes closed. Mike didn’t know what to say; part of him regretted coming into Keenan’s at all; he wished he’d just gone home and jerked off like a normal person after a failed Tinder date. 

Keenan finished one round of a breathing exercise with his eyes closed, and when he opened them again, he looked like a remorseful lamb, “You’re right. It does smell too strong. I’m going to take care of this; I apologize.” 

Mike’s shoulders dropped at Keenan’s inexplicably disarming response. Keenan was egoless and willing to accept feedback. Mike couldn’t understand how the man before him seemed so much more clear-minded, and he suddenly felt the same awkwardness he had in the elevator. It rattled him that he’d ever thought it was ok to enter in the first place. 

“It’s a French spa experience,” Keenan said to him, drinking a bottle of mineral water, “I got the idea from a Self magazine article. Have you ever been?” 

“No,” Mike said. 

“I’m going to clean this up, but before I do, do you want to give it a go? I spent a few grand on all of this; it would be a shame if I didn’t share.” 

Mike couldn’t believe it; who was this man? He was completely insane, and yet, he was more centered than Mike had ever been, and he was in better shape and had more money. 

“No,” Mike said, and he hastily left. 

He spent the night hoping he would somehow hit quota and break free from his shitty apartment complex. 


***

Two weeks before the end of the month, Mike landed himself a demo with the buying team of Intelliware. He’d spent the week before nurturing the deal from a dry seed into a flower whose bloom would bring him enough money to hit quota. The most wonderful part about the whole thing was that Mike was the only person on his team that had touched the deal, and as its forecast gained percentage, he too became more confident. However, as the date of the presentation approached, he sensed there was a storm on the horizon. 

The day before the demo, the power in his apartment shut off intermittently; it happened twice in the morning and once in the afternoon. By then, Mike was so riled up from eating poorly toasted toast and not being able to finalize the prep for his demo that he called the landlord and demanded an explanation. Just as the landlord was about to respond, the power returned, and Mike felt like a donkey in a cartoon. The landlord laughed and told him he’d seen some PG&E workers around the block. There was no way for Mike to know if he was lying or not because he hadn’t been outside in days. They ended the call, and Mike tried to quell his anxiety by over-prepping for his demo.

The next day, Mike was slowly buzzed awake by the sound of a low and constant hum. He looked out his window for the PG&E workers, but he couldn’t see them. As he got ready in the morning- shaving his face and putting on his nicest light blue oxford shirt - the hum’s steady vibrations sang in his ear. It bothered him, but he tried not to lose focus of the moment; if he could crush this demo, his whole life would be better. He put on his headset, which had noise cancellation. He felt well prepared for the demo; he felt like he would win. 

Five minutes into the presentation, after Mike had introduced his manager to the buying team at Intelliware, while he was covering the crucial step of reiterating their pain and teasing how his company’s software would solve it, the power in his apartment shut off. His Zoom screen didn't even have time to freeze; he was simply logged out of the meeting room. The sudden silence was like a knife being pulled out of a stab wound. Mike became panicky - almost shaking - as he scrambled to find his phone and dial into the meeting. He hoped his boss could hold the line while he hopped back on - he wanted nothing more in his entire life - but it was not meant to be; his calendar invite didn’t provide a dial-in number as an option, so he couldn’t join his own meeting. He didn’t have wi-fi, and he couldn't get back on Zoom unless the power came back on.

With sweaty palms, he opened Slack and saw that his boss had already sent him three rapid messages in succession. They were all in CAPS because he was not happy; the buyers were disappointed.

Mike threw off his headset and tugged at his hair. He felt like the storm had hit, and his ship had a great hole in it; he felt like he was sinking into the savagery of the deep blue sea.

The hum outside his apartment pinged his ear to exhaustion, and anger boiled inside him. He wanted to smash his laptop and computer screen and throw his mouse and keyboard, but he couldn’t because everything belonged to the company. Whatever growth he’d thought he’d made over the last couple of weeks was lost. He felt that he had no control, which made him seethe, and soon he was seeking out the source of the hum.

This time, the first apartment he checked was Keenan’s, and the hum was coming from within. He made his fists like boulders and pounded on the door, but there was no answer. He banged on it repeatedly and waited, but still, Keenan didn’t answer. Eventually, he tried the handle, which turned and opened the door. 

The hum was much louder than before, and with the door open, it was clear what the sound was; in the center of the living room, there was a giant sensory deprivation tank with huge cables running from it to outlets in the room and all along the hallway.

“What the fuck,” said Mike as he approached the machine. 

Mike knocked on its steel cover, and the contraption’s hood rose like the door of a single-person spacecraft. Inside, Keenan was floating in Epsom salt. He had ear plugs in and wore a peaceful expression on his face. 

Mike tapped him awake, which startled Keenan into swallowing some Epsom salt. He coughed and flailed his arms as he searched for a way out of the tank. Mike had already begun to shout at Keenan, determined to tell him off.

“I’m not going to close Intelliware! You ruined my fucking call! I’m going to lose my job, and I’ll have to stay in this shitty apartment forever. Fuck! My life sucks!” 

During Mike’s rant, Keenan had exited the tank, and when Mike finished, Keenan stood naked before him. His skin hung off his body so that he looked like a deboned chicken. Once again, Mike saw Keenan’s wrinkled bird and grey pubic hair; he was sure he’d found the world’s worst neighbor. 

“Mike,” Keenan said, grabbing a robe, “Is everything ok?” 

“It’s not ok,” Mike shouted, “Your fucking float tank shut the power off.”

Keenan nodded, “I thought the generator would fix that.” He pointed to a generator, “but the generator’s probably taking up all the power; I didn’t think that one through; I’m sorry.” 

“Fuck!”

“Mike, is this really about your call, or is there, perhaps, something deeper that’s upsetting you?” 

“It’s really about the call! I’m going to get fired because you fucked the fucking call!” 

Keenan adjusted his hands to be clasped together at his sternum like he was praying; bits of Epsom salt dusted his shoulders, “You said your life sucks. Do you want to talk about that?” 

Mike thought for a moment if he wanted to talk about it. Where was his ship? Was he on it, and could he rebuild it, or was he already drowning? He knew his slump would continue and that he’d never navigated these waters, but did he need to talk to Keenan about it? After all, the man was a nuisance and looked like Mel Gibson.

“No,” Mike said.

“That’s fine, Mike, and I’m sorry again about the power. I’ll get rid of this tank,” Keenan said, “But I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a lesson with you. I was like you when I was young and was focused on my career. It’s important to care about something, but at my age, I’ve learned that you shouldn’t chase the money; you should chase peace.” 

“You believe you have peace?” Mike asked. 

“Yes.”

“And how did you get it?” 

“Through practice,” Keenan smiled.

“In float tanks?” 

“Yes.”

“That cost thousands of dollars?” Mike barked.

“I see where you’re going, but it isn’t about the money, Mike. The tank is just a vessel.” 

“What the fuck, man! What are we talking about? I need to get back to work; shut all this shit off.” 

“Ok, I’ll do it, Mike,” Keenan said as he moved to touch the screen on the side panel of the tank, “I’m sorry.” He pressed a button on the iPad-looking screen, “If you ever want to talk, I’m here.” 

All of a sudden, the hum stopped.

Mike snatched his phone out of his pocket, and in a couple of seconds, his wi-fi signal was back; he could keep working.

“Thanks,” Mike said without removing his eyes from his phone. 

He spent that night applying to jobs; he hadn’t been fired yet, but he knew it was coming after syncing with his disgruntled manager. He clicked on job posting after job posting, hoping things would work out for the better. Eventually, he envisioned what he would feel like once he started a new job. The image of him at sea popped into his mind, and he saw Keenan’s ship in the distance sailing away. 

June 03, 2022 18:32

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8 comments

Ace Quinnton
18:05 Jun 09, 2022

"When the shabby elevator’s doors closed, Mike forgot how to be normal" I died of laughter reading this, and I ended up wheezing: "WHAT IS NORMAL ANYWAYS?!" This story reminds me of a lyric I found in a song written by AJR. Ordinaryish people. (I highly suggest that you should listen to it). Mike is the work friend and Keenan is the hippie. The descriptive character design and the world building is absolutely magnificent! I think that you did a great job on this story, so kudos to you for writing something that might be in the post pandem...

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Elizabeth Maxson
13:32 Jun 09, 2022

This is a very unique story. Your use of imagery was effective and present throughout. The narrator feels like a tragic hero but never fully develops into one. If that was intentional, it was certainly achieved. However, I would have liked to see something remotely positive (picking the right color grapes if you will) at some point to keep the reader interested in a character in such a slump of life. Additionally, I was slightly confused at how Keenan could have so much sludge and later a flotation tank delivered to an apartment without a...

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Zack Powell
21:57 Jun 06, 2022

Now this was a lot of fun to read, from beginning to end. The opening/first sentence is so unflattering to Mike that it makes you want to keep going to see if this guy can redeem himself somewhere along the way. I'm a huge fan of flawed, messy protagonists anyway, so I was 100% on board here. I love how mundane Mike's tasks are (a Tinder date, a work presentation), but for him they're Herculean feats, goals to be toppled and conquered. It's a nice way of creating conflict and tension in the everyday occurrences of life. Plus, for his charac...

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Scott Skinner
04:09 Jun 07, 2022

Thanks for this feedback! Especially the critique, it's a solid point and something I'm going to try to work on moving forward.

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Jun 05, 2022

This was a fun read. Mike's situation isn't that funny itself -- he's stumbled into a mess, maybe a midlife crisis kind of thing, or general disillusionment with life -- but the things that leads to are great. The date was horrible and funny, and Keenan is an amazing neighbour. The kind of selfless good natured guy that keeps messing things up for you, but you can't really get mad because he owns up to it right away and tries to make up for it. He seems pretty wise too, and the ending feels ominous. I wonder if Mike can get back onboard or...

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Mike Panasitti
21:54 Jun 03, 2022

The introduction to this was hilarious. I wanted to read about a follow-up date. I couldn't picture "piles" of mud. Mini-mounds of clay might've been more realistic, but not quite as distasteful. The main character was hopelessly hapless, I think, however, he would've been more likeable had he been less verbally aggressive. A likeable response to the prompt.

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Scott Skinner
13:58 Jun 04, 2022

Glad you found some parts funny and thanks for the feedback around "piles" of mud. It's a really good point. I made a slight update to this part - I kept "piles" but I think the change might help with the visual.

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Unknown User
08:38 Jun 16, 2022

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