A short story by
Herman O'Toole lounged back on his couch, assaulting his stomach with Jones' Salt & Vinegar potato chips. Crunch! His teeth ground up the divorces from his job and his wife. He swallowed – he had no savings and only half of the junk his wife had purchased using his credit cards. He tipped the chip bag to his mouth and the last of the crumbs sailed out; every last speck of his debts from ex-wife's overspending and his alimony to her left his bag empty.
Herman's insurance sales job had paid for the lifestyle he had wanted since before he knew what it meant. He bought a lot in a housing development, picked the largest of the four designs, and married a former model. She was the type of wife he could have ordered out of a catalog. In fact, as she was a model, he may have seen her in her glory, in the Sears Christmas catalog, smiling, proudly displaying underwear, gold jewelry, a fur jacket... She looked exactly like her pictures, and like the descriptions in the catalog, she was all about the products she displayed.
Had it been months, or years? Had it actually happened? Maybe he had never left the couch at all -- had always been there. Maybe those fragments of memories that flashed and sparkled like the last few straggling fireworks of a formerly impressive display had happened on some TV show he had watched.
Hypnotized by the flashing rambling images from his 70” Sony Wega Plasma, Herman hid in the sanctuary of the shadows half buried and surrounded by a blanket of empty wrappers, casually lit by the spastic light waves dancing around him around the room. Groaning as he got up from where the couch had worn his groove, torn plastic rained down to the floor.
Herman thundered out of the room and into the kitchen where the usual coterie of appliances lined the walls like far off mountains surrounding a laminated -wood table island, set for four, in the middle of a sea of empty wrappers and half-smashed instant potato boxes. The chairs sat looking ready to turn into sawdust with the slightest thrust of pressure against them like shipwrecks just off the coast of the island. He made his path through the garbage past the island to the refrigerator, and thrust his head deep within the Arctic recesses. He sighed and then took his Grail quest to the cupboards.
Half an hour after absorbing the last bite of the last atom of anything edible within his apartment, he collapsed across the table. Food crusted plates and silverware ran from below him; a glass crashed to the floor and sank below the surface. His chair gave way with a sudden crack. The world spun around as he tumbled backwards; a geyser erupted from his mouth when he hit the ground with a...momentarily startled awake from an unknown cause, the downstairs neighbor, supposing a dream, fell back once again oblivious.
Herman lay splayed out on the linoleum like a polar bear that had just slipped backwards on a slab of ice. The room spun around him, he closed his eyes, but the spinning continued. His limbs went numb and his mind went blank...
…he squeezed his eyes even more tightly; his hands and knees sank into the sand like it was absorbing him, slowly, more and more, every time he stopped. Herman saw everything in shades of red from the sandblast air working away at his eyes. The sun pierced through the layers of sand to his soul as he crawled along, unable to see more than a few feet in any direction. His head spun, his vision blurred in and out, he smelled only burning, his throat burned, it was swollen so that only a whistle would escape, but his last scrap of will pushed him on. Hanging his head, he noticed how emaciated he was: his flesh barely contained his bones; his organs had dried from plums to prunes. It wouldn't be long before the sun and sand broke him down or buried him. He was a lost dog looking for a bone unable to find his way back home again --somewhere on his search he had lost all of his instinct that mattered.
He collapsed in a heap. He could not even remember what he searched for or why. The sand started to pull more and more of him under. Out of the corner of his eye there was a brief clearing and he noticed that behind him lay a vast, burnt out wasteland, smoke rising towards the heavens from all directions. Crumbled buildings, skyscrapers, danced recklessly in the wind like heroin-addict ballerinas, ready to plummet. The sky glowed pink like someone had given it an Easter-Egg dye job, the air and sand blew tumbleweeds of garbage, McDonald's wrappers and Pepsi cans, wrapped up with red and green Christmas ribbon, blop, blop blopping across the barren desert... Bodies lay about, dried and broken, half buried and scattered across the sand, rats scuttling in and out amongst them, avoiding starvation by chewing on the leathery flesh...
The room around him blurred as he came into cognition. He blinked his eyes into focus and heard the rerun of Leave It to Beaver that had at some point come to occupy TV Land in the time that he was out. The floor under him had grown cold. He attempted to move, every part of his body twitched and shivered; his heart thumped and stuttered like a car engine that had just been started for the first time in years.
“Holy fuck!” he muttered, the only thought that crashed around his mind, echoes of waves of holy fucks like the remnants of a bad acid trip. He lay there for an undetermined amount of time, shuttering, struggling against oblivion.
He won the battle, at least for a time, and sat up, slowly, as to not make his head start spinning again, but determinedly, as to find out the future day and time where he had arrived. He searched for his phone and found it amongst the garbage. The kitchen looked like the cupboards and the refrigerator had binged and purged. He found his phone with the battery just seconds from dying: six missed calls with six voicemails, and six text messages.
“Fucking bitch,” he threw his phone across the room; it smashed against the doorframe and fell in fragments amongst the sea of remnants.
His alimony check was late.
He showered. He may have been clean, but it didn't really help. Every part of his body ached like he had just been through a medieval stoning.
An infomercial for high definition sunglasses played across the 70” Plasma as Herman lounged back into the soft leather couch he and his ex-wife had bought at Value City. She hated it so he had gotten it in the settlement. He thought it was conformable enough.
He changed the channel.
Alex Trebeck stood at his podium facing the contestants: a school teacher from Maryland, an astrophysicist from Cambridge and an Ohio farmer. The farmer commanded a sizable lead over the others going into Final Jeopardy.
“The Final Jeopardy category is 'Competitive Eating',” Alex Trebeck read from the teleprompter. “And we'll continue... After the commercial break.”
Jamie Lee Curtis tried to persuade Herman to buy Activia Yogurt, but he had never heard of “probiotics” nor cared to know how regular they made his bowel movements.
With great effort he thrust himself up and towards the kitchen to grab a Dr. Pepper.
He meandered through the maze of junk on his way back to his spot as Jeopardy came back. Alex Trebeck again summarized the competition, with Farmer Bob the run-away winner unless he messes up the final round. It happens. Some people slip. Herman leaned slightly closer to the TV to get more involved in the action. His pupils readjusted slightly.
“And tonight’s final jeopardy answer is 'The governing body that sanctions over eighty professional eating competitions a year.'”
Herman hummed along to the catchy final jeopardy music. He did not sweat it that the farmer would win. He turned off the TV and went to bed before Trebeck repeated what he already knew to be correct. It had almost echoed from his psyche to the TV. The episode had played out in some Freudian way, but he was consciously oblivious to it -- he was a zombie, maybe generations removed from any form of reality.
Herman had a black seven printed on a cardboard placard pinned to his shirt. The judges with their clipboards, these were the counters, one for each contestant, and there was also an official timekeeper. The crowd began to settle down, waiting, ready to watch the contest. The judges all took their places, and the time keeper raised the pistol in the air.
Ready," the timekeeper said, looking into the stopwatch. Bang! He pulled the trigger and hit the start button at the same time.
Before he knew it, Herman was halfway through his platter of hotdogs. Fist after fist of hotdog after hotdog went into his mouth. He had strong esophageal muscles that pushed the mashed hotdogs and momentary gushes of water and bun goo down to his seemingly bottomless stomach. He finished off the hotdogs in record time, WORLD RECORD TIME. When he looked up, the crowd was carrying him on their shoulders, the trophy clutched in his hands...
He woke from a heavy slumber, deep within the folds of blankets, floating peacefully on his Tempur Pedic mattress, trophy clinging invisibly to his palms, still thrust to the air.
He blinked his eyes.
He had been reasoning with himself before he had given it a conscious thought: one, he enjoyed eating; and two, he could eat a lot, and fast -- perhaps even more and even faster than anyone else he knew. Most people frowned upon binging, but, then again, why would an alcoholic not join a drinking contest? Three, he could get paid to eat! Some people went to college for eight years to do what they love for a living. He wondered if he could compete and still draw unemployment.
“Who are you kidding” a distant voice echoed. It sounded half-buried somewhere back in the sand-pit of his mind and eerily like his wife's. Ex-wife's.
The dark cloud continued to hover over him. He knew he barely had the energy to go out for pickup or through the drive through, and, more often than not, he left his meals up to delivery. Thank God for grocery delivery. The coroner will have to cut a hole in the wall to fit him out. The day Herman is discovered his downstairs neighbor will have finally determined the cause of the smell that will have been haunting for weeks. The smell will have grown so unbearable that the neighbor will finally notice how Herman’s mail has been piling up for even longer than usual…
He rolled and twisted and turned and flipped and flopped but could not get back to sleep. Daylight streamed in through the missing plastic strips in his blind. He toss and flipped and twisted until his hankering for McDonald's for breakfast was so enormous, it devoured his imagination. He pictured the Steak Bagel meal with its sautéed onions, scrambled eggs and hollandaise sauce... He usually bought a couple of extra hash browns to top it off and upgraded to an extra-large Coke to wash it all down. Sometimes he also bought a couple of breakfast burritos.
He stood up at the side of his bed and blinked his eyes, and dressed himself like a lynch mob was rolling in at him from every direction. He lumbered out of his room, into the bathroom, and then down the hall towards the kitchen. He took ten minutes to find his keys from around the rubble, and then headed out the door.
He locked the door to his apartment. The door had been a window that had been converted upon the transition from two-story house to duplex.
He held onto the rail for dear life making his way down the rickety handmade wooden steps that wobbled a violent protest of him leaving. He needed to talk to his landlord.
The cheap bastard, Herman thought.
He nearly fell as he looked around on his way down, half-expecting to run into his wife.
He started up his mint green Jeep Grand Cherokee with the rust spots here and there -- a box of Ruggles Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream with wheels. Out the driveway to the left there was a McDonald's 1.3 miles away and to the right there was one 3.4 miles away -- according to his Tom-Tom, which he had checked, out of curiosity, more than once. He turned right because his old neighborhood was in the other direction.
He tapped the steering wheel to the music on the radio -- some Lady Gaga song -- zooming past cars in no-passing zones, buzzing through school zones at 50 mph, tailgating the old lady in the Buick because he could not get around the constant stream of traffic that had annoyingly started from the opposite direction. Not bothering with a turn signal he swung into the McDonald's parking lot and narrowly dodged being hit from both directions. He sped around, swerved through throngs of pedestrians and almost hit the car in front of him at end of the drive through line.
He ate the last of his McDonald's went down like he was in competition in his car in the parking lot -- Herman won every time. No matter his intentions he always ended up sitting in the nearest parking space from the last drive through window ripping through his food like a starving cannibal.
He knew the Chipotle just down the street would open soon, and he had to go to Chipotle for the same reason that a lion has to hunt and kill a gazelle. Arriving at Chipotle before the restaurant opened its doors he was waiting outside with the rest of the impatient crowd when someone recognized him.
Herman noticed Jerry just as Jerry slapped him on the shoulder.
It's a different business now than when you started Herman remembered Jerry had told him several months ago upon laying him off.
Herman tensed up.
Jerry was one of those guys who had been handed everything by his parents his whole life – instant potatoes, the son of an Insurance-made millionaire taking over his father's business.
“How's it goin' there, Bud',” Jerry said, once again slapping Herman on the spot that still ached from the first time. He tried to look Herman straight in the eyes but Herman looked away almost immediately. Jerry started to speak, but no sound cam e out. After a long pause, during which Herman noticed the manager of Chipotle walking up to unlock the door, he finally managed:
“Find anything new yet?”
Herman stepped backwards out of Jerry's reach.
Before Jerry could respond to Herman the manager opened the door and the raving crowd of addicts barreled through the entrance, almost trampling the manager who leapt out of the way at the last moment.
Herman jostled past Jerry like a keen running back past an incompetent linebacker, getting a person or two ahead of him.
After a brief wait Herman was ordering his burritos, watching amusingly as the employees struggled to fit everything within the tortilla shells and wrap them up. He stared down the employees like they were responsible for his gluttony.
The employee wrapping his burritos joked with him about eating both. Herman eyed Jerry, who watched wide-eyed.
“I'm preparing for an eating competition,” Herman told the Chipotle worker.
“Oh wow! That's a relief! I was worried you had a tape worm.”
Glancing back Herman noticed Jerry was looking in another direction.
In his Jeep he started pecking at his first burrito like a hungry vulture, the radio station once again playing the Lady Gaga song. By the time he finished he had forgotten about the asshole. Herman noticed he had downed the burrito in about four minutes by the clock in his Jeep. Not bad, he thought, but was it enough?
After a moment of silence reflection, Herman realized he would have to do better. He wasn't hungry enough. He didn't want it badly enough. He had to really want it. He held his breath and continued talking himself up.
There was a rapping at his window.
Apparently that bastard couldn't just leave him alone.
It wasn't Jerry. He did, however, recognize the cheery, 17-year-old freckled face that excitedly stared back at him.
He tried to hold back the urge to bolt as he cranked the window down.
She smiled ear to ear, her ocean blue eyes attempting to irrigate the desert of his heart. Esperanza was almost a grown woman; when he last saw her, she was still just a kid.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His heart raced like a sandstorm inside his chest.
“Gosh, I haven't seen you in forever! Mom... I... We both miss you! We talk about you all the time!”
“You should totally stop by sometime.”
“Yeah, of course… We miss you!”
“Like, really really miss you!”
She stood there like a mirage. Her sundress flitted in the breeze, light seeming to emanate from her like she had just descended from Heaven.
A slow bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, followed by a cascade, and he began fiddling with the radio dial. He peered at himself in the rear-view mirror as she spoke to him, her words distant echoes, the sounds of buildings collapsing, bridges burning – signs of life within him, destroyed. Only the garbage remained.
“You should just come over for lunch! I'm sure mom would be thrilled to see you!”
He couldn't stop looking at himself.
“I can't, sorry.”
She peered into his open window. She stood firm, unwavering in spite of him.
“Maybe for dinner?”
“Sorry, I'm busy.”
"Maybe next time?"
He saw her in his rear-view mirror, standing there like a statue of a virgin martyr, with a Chipotle bag dangling from her hand, watching him speed away.
He always dreaded having to hike up those rickety stairs. It for some reason always reminded him of his house that his ex-wife had gotten in the settlement.
She popped out of his daydream like Freddie Kruger about to strike. He searched around his peripheral vision, but he could not see her bright red BMW convertible anywhere. She must have parked around the corner.
The second burrito clutched in his hand, he peered over his should like a meth addict running from the police.
“Hi Belinda,” he mumbled.
“You're late,” she said, her red sundress flitting in the breeze. She clutched a Pepsi can as she stood there, glaring at him through Gucci sunglasses.
“Late? I don't live with you anymore.”
She ripped her sunglasses off and gave a Hellraiser-esque stare-down.
“I’ve been calling you... Haven't you got my messages?”
He remembered the phone, lying in broken pieces somewhere in the junk heap of his kitchen floor. Oh, he had gotten the messages.
She only had short phrases like artillery fire left for him.
Her green eyes burned at him like green coals squeezing themselves into diamonds. He hesitated.
“Don't fuck with me!”
He stood there, wavering.
“Goddamn you, Herman!” Belinda brushed the hair out of her eyes, flaring her nostrils like a bull about to charge. He never knew why she insisted on having bangs that length. Trim them shorter and they'll be out of the eyes or grow them longer and tuck them out! JESUS. She sure looked good, though.
He turned around and started up the stairs. She followed him, grumbling the whole way. He had no money and no checks to give her. His bank had closed his empty account three-weeks ago. He did not know what he would do when they got up there. Every step rumbled as if the Earth's gravity had started to pull harder and harder at the stairs.
“Jesus, Herman, what a shithole...”
He reached for the door just as she uttered it and the stairs gave way and the two crashed back towards the Earth. Her mind didn't even have time to calculate a reaction as Herman's shadow blotted out the sky.
Her body twitched under him like a cockroach that had finally succumbed to the blows of his stamping foot. He couldn't move; he just lay there, staring up at the sky. For just an instant the whole world stopped around him as he lay there, just lay there. He knew he should get up, but he couldn't. She stopped. The world started spinning, faster and faster, until he had to draw his eyes to a close. His heart flitted at an incalculable rate. He twitched every time he tried to draw a breath. Goddd, he thought, as the last of the oxygen left his brain...
...his vision blurred and the sand encrusted him and he was buried except for his head and the sand typhooned around him and his face was being eroded so he squinted until he had to close his eyes entirely. He saw the soft-brown glow from the sun through the semi-opaque blinders of his eyelids. Then the Earth swallowed him up just like it had Rome, Egypt, and the countless other forgotten empires that had come before. For a moment, everything was at peace.