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Fiction Adventure Teens & Young Adult

“It’s a shame they don’t have a bench on this side, huh?”`

The Hispanic man lifts his bushy eyebrows and removes the black baseball cap from his bald, shiny head, which is shimmering in the sun like a plain of hot, melting ice. We stare together at the bus stop on the other side of the four-lane boulevard. The stop features a bench, which has been designed to fit three people; or two people and one bag of luggage; or one person and a few bags of groceries; or—

In any case, there are two armrests guarding the middle seat, so that on either side of the middle seat is another seat, where you might find three people, or any combination of people and their property. The one thing you will not find on that inhospitable bench is a sleeping homeless person.

The Hispanic man, who is carrying a yellow grocery bag full of clothes and screwdrivers, grunts, and he is probably hating those two armrests as he resumes his inspection of the sidewalk beneath his tattered work boots. 

I turn to the empty parking lot behind us, then glance again at the Hispanic man, who has placed one hand on his protruding stomach. He is well-dressed, in a pink pantsuit that might, after a few hours in a laundry machine, serve as appropriate wedding attire. But his clothes cannot disguise his exhaustion, nor the sadness in his heart, and here is another of the thousands of citizens who are suffering through the terrible scripts of their lives on the bright, dazzling stage of the world.

I turn my attention back to the expanse of asphalt and lines of yellow paint. 

“There should be a swingset in every parking lot,” I say, placing my hands on my bony hips. “And every bus station. Every train station.”  

The Hispanic man is not listening. 

“There should be more things for people who are waiting in the world.”

At this, he spares me a small scoff and boards the bus that has finally arrived. 

Two years ago, my twelfth-grade philosophy teacher introduced me to the works of Henry David Thoreau, who famously states in his book, “Walden,” that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Lately, I have become fascinated by these words and their startling accuracy. These people around me, staring into the bottomless pits of their cell phones, or into the unintelligible sea of motion outside the smeared windows of the bus, we should get off together at the next stop, streaming through the doors, and we should start breaking things. We should break everything; run through the streets and smash windows and scream, demanding that our voices be heard, and we should be free. 

In my mind’s eye, we are performing these incredible acts of rebellion. I see us stampeding together in miraculous unity, tearing the pages of the scripts that have guided us for so long. We are spectacular, we—

“Yosemite. You’re late.”

Mr. Druar is at the front doors, arms crossed across his beefy, sagging chest, and his grim eyes are the death of imagination. I let my visions fade and make my way through the bustling restaurant, the hum of conversation swallowing my footsteps, into the break room, into my uniform, which is still stained with bleach, and to my station at the cutting board in the corner of the loud, sweltering kitchen. There are bits of green onion on the board and I am scrubbing it in the sink, rinsing it, getting back to work.

It’s the crookedness of my glasses that is really starting to get to me. They are still lopsided from the time we danced together at the top of the stairwell in the science building, about five months ago. My slanted perception is a constant reminder of my heartbreak and a constant impediment to the successful coordination of my hands as I slice these stupid onions. 

“Hey.”

I nod my head in acknowledgement of this hushed tone. 

“Yosemite. Check it out.”

I can’t believe it. Nicholas has brought a hamster to work. 

“Nick, what the—?”

“I actually did it,” he smirks, stuffing the furry thing into his coat pocket. 

Why?

He shrugs and his stupid pink lips spread wider. “You said it would be hilarious.”

“I wasn’t serious. Where—”

Mr. Druar has entered the kitchen and Nicholas, who will surely be the death of us all, is instantly regretting having brought his hamster to his job at a gourmet restaurant.

“Yosemite,” says the big, deep-voiced man whose presence I’ve come to dread over the past three months. Nicholas is hurrying into the change room, probably searching for an empty locker in which to store his living, breathing possession.

I let the knife clatter on the stainless steel surface beside the cutting board. “Hm?”

Mr. Druar is holding a plate of spaghetti in his left hand; his right hand is behind his back, and the spaghetti is steaming. 

“You’ve lost your touch.”

I frown and he just stands there with the steaming spaghetti, the fat around his eyes pink and fleshy. I know what he means when he mentions my touch. I am by far his favorite employee, have been for three months, and when I let him down… well, he takes it quite personally. 

He sighs and sets the spaghetti on the counter by the green onions. 

“Since when,” he says, and everyone in the kitchen is listening, “do we serve meatless spaghetti?”

I take my knife and nudge a chunk of beef soaked in piping tomato sauce. “Meatless…”

“There can’t be more than three pieces of meat on that plate,” Mr. Druar says, and his voice is rising to its usual I’m-going-to-have-a-heart-attack tone. “I mean, since when… God,” he sighs, rubbing his eyes with both hands. “You guys,” he yells, and the collective attention of the kitchen staff is his, “I cannot allow you to ruin the reputation of this business. Do you understand?”

There is the nodding of heads and the solemn pursing of lips as he, the antagonist, delivers a lengthy speech on the importance of following process and protocol and—

And there is a hamster running across the cold tiles of the floor, scurrying among the sea of solid black shoes, worn in accordance with the dress code, and this hamster’s fur is standing on end, its eyes are wide. It is on the run and Nicholas is giving chase—until Mr. Druar catches him by his skinny little arm and—

“Nicholas.”

Nicholas is nodding frantically, but there are no words in his mouth. 

“What—” but Mr. Druar doesn’t have the chance to ask his question before the hamster, blind in its terror, has scurried into the shadowy atmosphere beneath his raised boot and—

Splat.

Except hamsters do not splat; they explode, like little time-bombs of fur and gore. 

“Oh, my…” Nicholas shudders, both hands in the oily strands of his black hair. 

Mr. Druar points at the plate of “meatless” spaghetti. “Fix this.” He turns to Nicholas, who has died inside. “And clean this up.”

Later, Nicholas and I are sitting around a fire at a party downtown, sipping from plastic cups of vodka and Gatorade. 

“I mean, what a psychopath,” Nicholas says. “What a—he just stomped on him!”

Despite myself, I am laughing. “You should’ve quit, bro.”

Nicholas is shaking his head. “Nah. This place is my future, man. I’m not as smart or blessed as you.”

“I’m not smart or blessed. I’ve just come to realize a lot of things about myself and my life.”

“Uh huh?”

“Yeah. I mean… there’s no way I would have done what I did today a few months ago. But… I’ve changed.”

Earlier today, a few hours after the tragic death of Gibbles the hamster, I became entirely aware of the heavy, constant vehemence that permeates the air of that kitchen where I have spent the past three months of my life. I became aware of how much I despise the intensity and the stress of it all, and I became aware of how pointless it all is.

“I haven’t been happy for a long time,” I tell Nicholas. “And it’s time I change that.”

As I worked, I figured I should have just thrown my knife down on the floor and stormed out of the building, go learn how to make rap music or fascinating YouTube videos and get rich. But I kept chopping onions for a while longer because another side of myself argued, there are better things to serve in the world than money, and, besides, I know nothing about making rap music or YouTube videos. 

I have become consumed with the wants of this world and I hate myself for being so indecisive and completely aimless, letting these awful arguments unfold in my mind every day, trying so desperately to convince myself that I am happy and what I’m doing is worth it in some way.

Finally, I became entirely possessed and consumed by the half of my soul that desires freedom and immeasurable greatness, thrill, adventure, and I dropped my crooked spectacles into a fresh pot of spaghetti sauce and watched them disappear.

“Yosemite,” Mr. Druar said after he brought me another plate of spaghetti, this one with a pair of glasses in the meatless sauce. “You are finished here.”

And there! I did it! 

“We’re just characters, Nicholas.”

“What?”

“Characters. That’s us.”

“What do you mean?”

I just look at him and shrug; his face and everything around him is blurry because my glasses are still in the dumpster outside Mr. Druar’s restaurant. “You’ve never thought of it that way?”

“Uh… no.”

“Well. It’s the way it is.” 

The sky is clear and black above us and I can practically hear the angels as they sigh, regarding us, the unholy populous of the earth, with shame. 

“I had this thought on the bus this morning,” I say. “On my way to work. And we’re all so—I mean, all of us—we’re all so unnatural. And fake. Nobody acts the way they feel, and it’s like… I mean, no one even has the freedom to act based on their own beliefs. We’re all here, going to our jobs, hating our lives, living according to the scripts that have been written for us by our directors.”

I am laughing again, alive with the magic of liquor and the knowledge that I have finally stepped beyond the boundaries of my life.

“What the hell are we even doing, Nicholas? You think anyone in that kitchen wants to be there? No way! But we’re still there, everyday, working ourselves to the bone for some big, fat hothead, and… and it’s all just wasted time. We should be doing things that are worth being written about and recorded in history. The scripts we’ve been living by… they’re bland, and I’m sick of it. I’m done… waiting. That’s what I’ve been doing: just waiting.”

Nicholas, surprisingly, is still listening. “Waiting for what?”

I throw my shoulders up and let them fall again. “For something spectacular to happen! For some sort of manic inspiration to take hold of me and carry me away to freedom. And… it finally has.”

The fire is dwindling, a bed of coals now, and the party is like the stars above us: alive and sparkling, but distant. Everything has fallen quiet, and Nicholas is solemn, listening, really listening. This is why we’ve always gotten along. 

“Who’s our director?” he asks. 

“Well… I used to think it was God. But… it’s everyone around us. We do what is expected of us, and because it is expected of us, we expect it of others, and so… we are puppets of all those who witness us.”

Nicholas scoffs, but it isn’t a mocking sort of scoff. “That’s deep, buddy.”

I lean back in my chair, and it is sad to know I’ll be leaving Nicholas behind soon, to know that, even with the fascination in his eyes at all I’ve said, he will still be here in years to come, working for Mr. Druar and mourning Gibbles. 

“So, what’re you gonna do?” he asks. “Go win Ellie back or something crazy like that?”

I shake my head, even though the sound of her name still brings tears to my eyes. “Nah. See, I think she was right about me.”

“I do too, bro.”

I frown. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, she was.”

I sigh. “I guess so. I’m too aimless. I don’t take anything seriously. And even this… I probably sound crazy. I dropped out of uni after my first year, got this job, left it after three months… but I need that in my life. I can’t handle stability.”

Nicholas laughs. “It’s cool.”

I finish my cup of vodka-Gatorade and drop it in the grass at my feet. I am remembering the time we danced together as I rub my bare eyes. 

“I think I’m gonna head home for a while,” I say. “My dad said he started a new business with a few of his old friends, and it’s supposed to be the real deal.”

Nicholas raises his eyebrows. “You’ve been talking to your dad again?”

“Yeah.”

He nods slowly, and these are the kinds of moments that make me regret having ever formed true friendships, the way people know you and care for you. It’s exhausting. 

“And, what?” Nicholas asks. “You want to go work for him?”

“Kinda. Yeah.”

“Yosemite,” Nicholas says. His cup is in the grass now, too, and he is leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Your dad’s a crack addict. Okay?”

“Hah! So is yours.”

“Yeah. That’s why I never see him.”

Oh, Nicholas. How I pity your black heart, so fractured and delicate, full of hatred and judgement and so empty of forgiveness.

“You know what?” I say, rising from the plastic lawnchair. “I don’t really care what you think of my dad, or me, or my decisions. That’s the whole point of this: I’m not living to please people anymore, I’m living to amaze them.”

I sling my backpack over my shoulder and embark across the lawn, which is glistening with dew. 

“You think we’re characters?” Nicholas calls after me. He stands and I stop to listen. “Well, I think there’s some truth to that. We do act in accordance with people’s expectations of us, and the things we all expect of each other do suck, but they also keep us civil. We’re all actors, but you have to see that our obligatory actions are for the better. And this… this isn’t the path to a healthy future, man.”

I am staring at the Jordans on his feet, considering his words. “I don’t need a healthy future,” I say. “I just need a fulfilling one, and adventure fulfils me.”

We embrace each other and he mutters, “You’re crazy, bro.”

And sure, I’m crazy. You can call me that. I am crazy and I am shameless in my denial of the responsibilities that have been handed to me by the world, and so I am dangerous. 

“I’m dangerous,” I tell Nicholas, and I know it will be a long time before I see him again. 

I initially moved to Waterloo to live with my aunt and uncle whilst attending university, but they kicked me out of their house when they discovered I’d dropped out to work in a kitchen and sell drugs. 

That was my first step towards freedom.

When they asked me why, I told them the truth: I didn’t think school would lead me to a promising career. I was too afraid of failure to stick with it, and so I dropped out. 

I think my father suffers from a similar lack of self-confidence. I am thinking this as we crouch together by the chain-link fence with ski masks pulled over our pale faces. 

“We just need a little start-up money to really get rolling,” he told me a few hours ago. 

The fence is topped with barbed wire and the spotlights on the other side are bright and revealing, but we have a key and will only be a minute, three at most.

The wheel of copper wire is a glimmering chalice, magnificent and full of gravity. We start up the forklift and get the wheel onto the back of the truck, and the truck is squatted now, the rear axle nearly scraping the gravel driveway of the jobsite, and we’d better get out of here fast.

My father’s eyes are wide as he motions for me to hurry up and it is a good thing we removed the truck’s license plates because, based on the sirens and the conflagration of blue and red closing in on the scene, the security cameras on the spotlights are fully functional.

I am smiling as we speed away, soaking in the reality of my new, fearless self. I am, at last, my own director, and you never feel this thrilled about things that do not matter. But this… this is not some meaningless heist. That wheel of copper is worth thousands of dollars, and we’ve gotten it. We are certainly a gift to our audience; we are the spectacular heroes I used to dream of on the bus on my way to work, and—

My father slams his hands into the steering wheel and curses as the tailgate gives way, the wheel of copper like a boulder as it crashes thunderously across the road and into the ditch. He knows we cannot turn around, could never load that tremendous wheel without some expensive machinery, and so we keep driving. 

My father is furious and keeps slamming the wheel every few seconds, but I am smiling softly because, yes, I understand that freedom is made from silver and gold, but I have never needed those things because this, this is enough.

July 28, 2023 02:20

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