Come On, Charles!
"What is it?" asks Charles, setting down his mug. He leans forward to examine the structure of glue and carefully sliced cardboard sitting on the table in front of him.
I can't help but roll my eyes. "It's an Intentionator!" I say. It clearly says INTENTIONATOR on the side. Come on now, Charles.
He gingerly grasps it, turning it over in his hand. "It looks like an x-ray machine crossed with an electric chair. What does it do?"
He's just frustrating me now, probably on purpose. "Nothing," I say, drawing out the syllables. "It's a model." Charles's mouth looks perturbed or scared perhaps.
"I suppose you're asking what a functional full scale version would do."
He nods. "Well," I say, "a functional full scale Intentionator would reveal the true intentions of anyone who sat in it. It's supposed to look like an electric chair because I want the person who sits in it to be scared. They have to brace themselves. Telling the truth can be painful, yes? So they must be properly prepared. I'm utilizing the societal implications of the electric chair as a psychological device."
Charles sets down the model, resumes his coffee. "So you're saying, the person who's getting their head pried into is supposed to feel like they've done something wrong."
"Like they deserve to be punished."
"But you're playing merciful god and not killing them."
"You're an idiot," says Charles. I can't help but pout. "Stop making Angry Eyebrows," he says. "It makes you look like a cartoon with a little dark cloud hovering over your head."
"I like cartoons," I say, maybe a little too defensively.
"I know," says Charles.
I am having a memory, so I make my dramatic flashback face. It involves looking angrily/thoughtfully at the nearest security camera or cobweb. It's supposed to look like I'm remembering something heavy and I'm looking to God for help. I have been told I just look hungry and confused.
SARAH AND I ARE CURLED UP ON MY FUTON WATCHING ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE. I THROW MY HEAD BACK LAUGHING RIOTOUSLY AT MISTER PEABODY AND SHERMAN. HO HO A TIME TRAVELING DOG HA HA! SARAH LOOKS LOVINGLY AT ME AND FLUTTERS HER THREE INCH LONG EYELASHES WHENEVER I SHARE TRIVIA. SHE JUST LOVES TRIVIA. OH, HOW HAPPY WE WERE, HOW HAPPY INDEED.
"Andy!" says Charles. I look around frantically, bewildered by my surroundings. Ah, yes. Back in the coffee shop. "You were talking out loud."
"Yelling, actually." He massages his temples.
"I apologize, it wasn't intentional."
"Right." Charles puts on his denim jacket, the one covered in patches from every roller coaster he's ever ridden, and rests his chin on his palm.
"I hate coffee shops," I say. "Chatting here makes me feel like an asshole. Every time I try to think about what I'll say next I get distracted by adorable baristas. And yuppies. With babies."
"Don't you like the smell of the coffee?" my brother asks.
"I guess." I scrape at a dried glob of glue on the bottom of the Intentionator. "Why do they all have babies anyway? And Bob Dylan sunglasses. It's a bloody conspiracy!"
"If you don't like coffee shops, why'd you ask me to come here then?" He drains the rest of the coffee in his red mug.
I slide the cardboard model into a spraypainted black shoebox with INTENTIONATOR written on it in white lettering. The "I"s are lightning bolts. "Because my apartment is… under construction."
"Oh Christ." Now Charles is making Angry Eyebrows. I wish I had a small mirror to show him the little black raincloud. But as Mom used to say, fighting fire with fire just creates accidental wildfires. I will try to be nonchalant. I am trying to fight fire with water.
"Don't be so dramatic Charles. It's just that I'm working on an invention and it takes up a bit of space."
"Is it the Intentionator?" he asks.
I watch as he stands, picking up a blue messenger bag and slinging it over his shoulder. Come on, Charles, don't leave yet! "Yes. And it's one other thing too. It's the other thing that's really a space hog. The Intentionator is just about the width of a sofa."
"Dare I ask about the other thing?"
"Nope. It's not quite ready for you to… understand fully."
"You're being patronizing."
"I'm being honest, I mean let's face it. My inventing capabilities are light years beyond yours. I was building a computer when you were making a dollhouse out of cardboard boxes." It is difficult to resist being a jerk. I can remember the smell of his rubber cement drying, the second floor of the house propped up with popsicle sticks and coffee stirrers. Amateur.
"I'm worried about you," says Charles. "You've been a little… strange since Sarah left."
"Well, if you ever need anything."
The bells dangling from the doorknob jingle as he leaves. My teeth feel fuzzy from the artificial sweetener in my coffee. I'm not quite ready to leave yet, not because of the coffee shop, it really is awful here, but out of reluctance to face the smell of the late summer air, and the inevitably difficult process of unchaining my bicycle. I had it stolen once and I don't plan to let it happen again. I pull out my journal, a simple black notebook with unlined pages, full of sloppy notes and sketches. Flipping past the plans for my latest creation, I land on a blank page, and begin.
August 15th, 2007
I have many thoughts.
1) What happens to the things you type without some sort of word processor open? What does "word processor" mean out of context? I think computers see everything, so somewhere in the depths of my hard drive is a file filled with every letter I've ever accidently typed outside of a document or a URL or a search box. "Hello." "Is there anyone out there?" "Is this a safe place?" "Blink once for yes, twice for no." "Andy Andy Andy Andy Andy." "Hello."
2) How do we move our muscles? How does a desire to move my foot translate to a twitching toe, a clenched calf, a flexed bicep? What if our mental signals got crossed like the radio transmissions from an RC car? And then I could operate your left arm, and you could operate mine, and for a moment we would lose all control of just one limb? And I would be inside you, and you would stroke my hair and then when we had sex it would be just like mutual masturbation. You touching you. Me touching me.
3) Returning to an earlier pondering, I guess all humans are word processors. I, as an English speaker, am a word processor. I am like an inbox and outbox of verbiage. People lay things in my ears like earwig eggs, they hatch, I process them, and then I turn them into some sort of negative or positive energy.
4) Why can't I eat without things ending up all over my face? How does one get spaghetti in one's eyebrow? How does one get chocolate under all of one's fingernails?
5) What lies between? What is the average of On and Off? Where is Sarah?
One week after meeting Andy at Seattle's Best Coffee, I have a particularly painful dentist appointment. When I get home, I dig through the freezer for an icepack for my aching jaw. The phone starts ringing in the living room just as I settle myself at the kitchen table. I wait a moment to see if Bryn will pick it up, but it just keeps going. She programmed the cordless phone to sound like first two notes of the Flintstones song. She says it wasn't premeditated; she just liked it better than the incessant one note brrrrrring of her childhood home. But I can't help but bristle when the phone rings. Partially because it reminds me of my sadistic dentist's drill. Mostly because I know that the second my phone call finishes, I'll end up whistling that stupid song for the rest of the day. It is in no way dignified for a man my age to be singing FLINTSTONES MEET THE FLINTSTONES THEY'RE YOUR MODERN STONEAGE FAMILYYYY FROM THE TOWN OF BEDROCK SOMETHING SOMETHING I FORGET THE REST.
The phone rings for a fifth time so I jog over to grab it, indenting the CALL button just in time to hear a deep breath and then Andy's voice speaking urgently and precisely, as usual.
He exhales. "Charles."
Another inhale and exhale. And he wonders why women find him creepy. "Are you home?"
Moron. "You called the house line."
"Shit. You're right. Well you could have answered the phone outside." I can hear him pacing across the floor tiles in his kitchen. Maybe tripping on something. Or wrapping the curly cord around his hips.
"Why does it matter if I'm home anyway? Am I supposed to be indoors for this?"
"No, makes no difference, I just wanted to know."
No need to egg him on any longer. "What's going on?" I ask.
Andy pauses for a moment. "I just got home."
"I know. I have caller ID."
"Come on Charles! You're missing the point!"
"I've figured out how I'm going to win Sarah back."
Christ, not again. "Andy, she's gone."
"No, she's not GONE, she's moved out. She could be back here in a matter of days. And she will be, if you help me."
He can barely contain the excitement in his voice. "I want to take my work… to the county fair."
"Is there another fair?"
"There are tons."
"Well I want to take it to Pomona. It's close."
"And it's by Sarah's house."
"Right. Anyway so I'd submitted the plans for the Intentionator last august, it got approved in January for the invention tent. The fair's in two weeks."
"Iduno… I've got work. Besides, I thought it wasn't up and running yet."
"It isn't technically, never got a hold of those crystals. But I could bring the model in. And I've got something else in the works that could be revealed at the fair."
"Does it work?"
"I think so."
"Untested." The neighbor is mowing his lawn and the air smells like cut grass. "Are you in?"
I can hear Bryn's fingers flying across a keyboard in the office a few rooms away.
"What about Bryn?"
"She'll be fine, I promise. Just… do this for me."
I hate to leave her side, what with just under a month until her due date. But beneath his sharp diction, there's something in Andy's voice begging for help.
"Okay, I guess I'm on board," I say. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will probably regret this.
I waited as long as possible before checking the messages on my answering machine. Every day I'd come home from the office to see a new red number flashing at me. It hit twelve before I caved in, and while I wish there was some sort of significance to that number, there wasn't. I'm not religious, so the apostles couldn't have had anything to do with it. And I hadn't even waited twelve days. I'd waited three. Which meant that, on average, four people had called me a day. Or maybe two people called me twice a day. All I had to do was hit PLAY to find out. And as chic as it seemed to not care about voicemail, when I got to twelve, I couldn't resist anymore. I don't want to give a shit who had called, who had missed me. But I give a shit. So, I finally hit play.
Six messages were from my mother, sounding decidedly more panicked with each call. I made a mental note to return her call last. When it comes to my parents, I'm a bit of a sadist. Especially when they're desperate to hear from me, then I really like to leave them hanging. The next five were from my best friend, Jackie, babbling about a double date she was dying to bring me on. The last message was from Andy.
"Sarah." A slow exhale. "Are you home? It's me. Andy. Remember me?" Oh Christ, not again. He always sounds so nervous. "I'm calling because…" another heavy sigh, "because I invented something for you. And I want to show you. You should call me back so I can tell you how, I really can't wait to show you, you'll love it. It's new, it's this… balancing device." I can hear him pull the phone away from his head and cough. "For, um, light switches? Remember that one day? We tried to balance the switch between on and off but couldn't get it to balance long enough to find out what happens… Maybe you don't remember; you must be busy, what with your new job and life and maybe a new boyfriend… I'm sorry. I hope he doesn't check your messages for you. That would be so awkward. Bye."
A high pitched tone and the message ended. I sat at my kitchen table for a while, turning over a dirty spoon in my hand. I picked up the cordless phone and dialed Jackie's number.
"Hey, it's Sarah."
"Sarah! Where the fuck have you been?" Despite her language, there was still something playful in her voice.
"Around," I said. "Listen, I want you to set me up on that date."
"Cool," said Jackie. "Ben wanted to go out Saturday afternoon, he's got some family thing that night and works Sundays."
"What's he do?"
"I think he's a priest."
"No, I have no fucking clue. But there's a Weird Al concert at the fair on Saturday at two and he got really excited when I mentioned I owned 'Bad Hair Day' and 'Poodle Hat' so I said I'd come with."
"Didn't know you were a fan."
"I'm not that proud," she said.
"Who's he bringing for me?"
"Some friend of his, Diego. Sounds foreign."
She offered to pick me up at 1:30 and I agreed and promised to wear something low cut. When Saturday rolled around I slipped into a blue floral sundress and a pair of worn brown cowboy boots. It wasn't exactly low cut, but it was comfortable and not entirely hideous. The doorbell rang and I dropped the denim jacket I'd been considering bringing. Jackie stood solitary and backlit in the doorway, looking rather Orange County in a pair of white short-shorts and Rainbow flip-flops. Her fuchsia top fell open to reveal a hint of leopard print on her bra as she leaned against the doorjamb.
"Where are Ben and Diego?" I asked. She took off her oversized black sunglasses and folded them shut.
"We're meeting them there," she said.
Parking was a nightmare. After being directed by some sullen teenage boy to the farthest lot possible, we trekked back to the front gate and waited for the boys. We talked about work for a bit and just as I was about to tell her about Andy's message, she interrupted me with a squeal.
"Ben's here!" She took off running, her sandals smacking back and forth between the pavement and her heels as she stepped. Ben was tall and slender, and not bad looking. But totally average looking in every other way.
"Ben, this is my bestie, Sarah." Jackie smiled at me brightly. Ben extended his hand and I took it.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
"Right back to ya," said Ben. "You two ready to go in?" The three of us started walking towards the ticket booth. I leaned over to Jackie and whispered furiously.
"Where's Diego?!" She shrugged in response and whispered back.
"Late, I guess; calm down."
We veered left just past the entrance to check out Centennial Farm. In a dark stall in the main barn was the biggest pig I'd ever seen. I climbed up a step stool to look over the wood railing. The thing was the size of a couch and looked about as comfortable as one. It looked so sad and tired in its pen, glossy black eyes staring into nothing.
"Tastiest lookin' bean bag I've ever seen," said Ben. He pushed Jackie to the next exhibit, walking behind her like a proper boyfriend, arms wrapped around her waist, chin resting on her head.
Children rode patiently on llamas. A few yards away, a man was trying to convince his pig to win a race with an Oreo on a string. We passed the largest pumpkin, a massive zucchini, and a pile of glossy corn with the bright green husks peeled back. The air smelled like dirt and fertilizer. Ben glanced at his watch.