49, 50, 51.
Cove frowned, set down the deck. 51. So close but still a miss. Couldn't even play solitaire to keep his mind off things, couldn't even try to without causing another concern. Couldn't even bring himself to throw the deck away, seeming harsh to waste so much for one flaw, so small, even if it broke the whole thing down to uselessness. Incomplete. Just like his life.
Cove looked up from his slouch through the greasy window—it made him think. After a moment's repose, he lurched up and darted through the kitchen doors to the corner closet, digging with fervor through the tin cans, storage bins, brown paper boxes, phone books, til he found the typewriter in the very back, shoved in with the junk at a careless angle. He set it down at the nearest flat surface, pulled up a chair, found a page of suitable paper and rapidly began to type...
Harvey cursed the jukebox. The Four Tops—he'd catch their music anywhere, even over the din of the crowded bar. But now, as ever, Harvey ached hearing the tunes he'd grown up loving so, any affection he'd once had for them gone and lost in the cloud-thick miasma of the painful memories Natalia had abandoned him with when she'd left him, that wonderful band’s records the forlorn score of their torrid, star-crossed love affair. But little did Harvey know, as he got all sorrow-drowned and drunk that night, what would happen to him the very next day, when—
Karl bit his lip, set down the book. Last page torn out of the sturdy binding. How shitty. Some awful rube must've needed to scribble a phone number and panicked, or just hated the ending enough to damn it to the void. Or maybe they were just sadistic. One crucial page gone and the whole story's ruined. He checked the scrawl inside the front cover—Jay Drongowski, St. John's College. What a fucker. Why leave a book you've ruined to charity, like it serves any use to anyone. Or maybe he was innocent. Karl was still, of course, shit out of luck. As usual. Always getting the scraps, the junk, the hand-me-downs, the short straw, the crank pile, the wet towel. Pretty fitting. You read a book for an escape, but you can't escape the endless no-good curse of your rotten life. You get nothing, God spits. P-tew. He knew he couldn't toss the worthless product out the window without feeling like a Nazi, so he chucked it on the floor with the other junk.
Karl looked up at the tiled ceiling, the metaphorical void, daylight from the setting sun stretching across the corkboard. 353 pages of effort, and a fuck you at the end. It made him ponder things, why me sort of things. Got his brain screws turning. Hardly a minute went by before he leapt up off the bed, dug around underneath it, looking through the lone socks, corn chip bags, magazines, drumsticks, til he snared a legal pad and pen with ink. These in hand, he sat down on the floor cross-legged and hurriedly began to write...
25, 35, 40, 45, 50. E6. Creak-crank...
...nothing. Dejected, lorn and pitiful, Halberstram pressed his head onto the plastic window, feebly slapping the sides of the machine, eyes on the candy bar left dangling at the very rim of the unforgiving hook. The merciless machine. He drew back from the glass, a sweat and grease spot where he'd set his head remaining, looking left, right, even up to God Above for just a scarce amount of clemency. “O why shan't I have the candy,” he moaned aloud, head bowed to his untied shoelaces. In a minor burst of anger, he threw his hands atop the damned automat, lifting his legs off the floor as he tried to pull it forward with all his mild might, to rock it hither and thither and then BRRRRRRRT! a burst of alarum! A scolding from the vicious robot, the inanimate bastard that mugged him of his money and left him nothing but false promises, and shame.
Down the hallway, Dolores and Agatha were peering out their offices, eyebrows askew above their spectacles as they regarded the source of this commotion. He could only imagine their thoughts. O Halberstram, such a moppish dolt, what a fool, puny little dum-dum Halberstram, no candy for you. Dum-dum. He waved back, pathetically, making noncommittal noises with his mouth that came out all as moanings, as he swayed uncomfortably back and forth, unwilling as yet to leave the scene of the scandal. He fished in his pockets for another coin, finding only 1, 2, 3, paper clip, gum foil—nothing! O what false denial, all unfounded and unjust! Why, O Jesus, why me?
On the verge of utter mental collapse, Halberstram stewed in his own inadequacy. What else was he incapable of doing right? He evidently couldn't even obtain a bloody candy bar without falling face-first into failure. A single tear rolled down his cheek—what was meant to be a midday distraction from the unrelenting grind of it all had now become entirely its own ordeal, and despite himself he found his mind once again, for the umpteenth time today, fixated on inchoate thoughts of workplace suicide. What a bitter turn it would be—the sad sack English adjunct with not a prospect in the world, found dead in his tiny office due to the most cosmically inconsequential of trials. It was almost poetic.
And then a thought struck Halberstram. Almost? Why, it's positively DOSTOYEVSKIAN!
Tripping over his trouser-legs, Halberstram darted away from the infernal machine back down the hall to his office, where he dug furiously inside his desk amidst the safety scissors, dental floss, cellophane-wrapped packs of tissue and keyring baubles for his leatherbound book of poetry, and his favorite ball-point pen...
Poke the fork in. Yellow orb deflowered. Yolk hard as a rock.
Tom sips his coffee. Hot, too hot—the perfect temp. How hard is it to poach an egg, he wonders. Sheila could do it. Marnie too. Even dear old Mom. Who's back there in that kitchen, some deaf-mute blind and dumb...
Glance cast across the counter, some stranger counting cards. Sad look on his face. Like the whole damn world's against him. He's seen him before, behind the counter, running the joint... They say he's some kinda storyteller. Never said a word aloud, as far as Tom could tell.
He settles back in to his steak and eggs. Done wrong, but well enough. Tom takes a bite. No need to get all philosophical about it.
Sarah Szabo is a child of America. An ardent student of liquor, internet memes, and Greek history, she lives and works on the second floor of an old brick building just off Route 66 in northeastern Oklahoma.