A Short Story By
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this story are fictional and any resemblance to any actual people or events is purely coincidental.
This edition copyright 2016 by Gabriel B. Gott. All Rights Reserved.
Original edition published in 2011 on www.GabeGott.com
Akron, OH 44302
Discover Other Books by Gabe Gott at Shakespir.com.
Herman 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 his junk. He tipped the bag to his mouth and the last of the crumbs sailed out.
He had been happy, or at least he thought he was happy, for at least a short while. His insurance job had paid for a new house in a brand new development. He had even gotten to pick the largest of the four designs. He had everything. His wife was even a former model, who, although he did not know it when they met, he had actually seen when she was in her glory, in the Sears catalog, smiling, variously displaying underwear, gold jewelry, and fur jackets.
Had it been months, or years? Had any of 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 had happened on some TV show he had watched.
Hypnotized by the flashing 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. He felt around with his large mitts, but he had eaten all of the food he had brought with him. Groaning, he got up from where the couch had worn his groove, and torn plastic rained down to the floor. He thundered into the kitchen where the usual coterie of appliances lined the walls like far off mountains surrounding a wood table island, set for four, in the middle of a sea of empty wrappers and half-smashed instant potato boxes. The chairs sat ready to crumble to sawdust with the slightest thrust of pressure against them, shipwrecks just off the coast. He made his path through the garbage to the refrigerator, thrusting his head deep within the Arctic recesses.
Half an hour after absorbing the last bite of the last atom of the last edible thing in 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—
Startled awake from an unknown cause, the downstairs neighbor, supposing a dream, fell back asleep, 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 saw everything in shades of red from the sandblasting air working away at his eyes. He squeezed them even more tightly, but 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, and his throat burned, but his last scrap of will pushed him forward. His hands and knees sank into the sand like it was absorbing him, and it was, slowly, more and more, every time he hesitated. He was a lost dog unable to find his way back home again—and somewhere on his search he had lost all the instinct that mattered. Finally, unable to keep going, 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, and out of the corner of his eye he noticed that behind him lay a vast, burnt out wasteland, smoke rising towards the heavens from all directions, crumbled skyscrapers dancing in the wind like heroin-addict ballerinas. The sky glowed pink like someone had given it an Easter-egg dye job. Tumbleweeds of garbage, McDonald’s wrappers and Pepsi cans tangled with red and green Christmas ribbon, plop, plop plopped across the desert scape… 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 blurry as he came back into cognition, he slowly blinked his eyes into focus as he listened to 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 was still cold. He attempted to move, but 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. Finally, 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 more about the future day and time where he had arrived.
He searched for his phone in the garbage strewn about the floor; the kitchen looked like the cupboards and the refrigerator had binged and purged, and he found it with the battery just seconds from dying: six missed calls with six voicemails and six text messages. He threw it across the room; it smashed against the door frame and fell in fragments amongst the sea of remnants.
He showered and settled back into the spot that had contoured into the couch in his image like some Shroud of Turin of his backside. He may have been clean, but it didn’t really help; every part of his body ached like he had just been through a stoning. An infomercial advertised high definition sunglasses as Herman lounged further back into the soft leather. She hated this couch so he had gotten it in the settlement, but 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, or get greedy. Herman leaned slightly closer to the TV to get more involved in the action. His pupils readjusted slightly.
“This hot dog chain, originally founded on Coney Island in 1916, sponsors one of the largest competitive eating tournaments, which takes place every year on July Fourth.”
Herman smiled. Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs was practically his Mecca.
A black seven was printed on the cardboard placard pinned to his shirt. The ones with clipboards were the counters; there was one for each contestant, and an official timekeeper. The crowd began to settle down, ready to watch the contest. The judges all took their places, and the time keeper raised the pistol in the air. Bang! He pulled the trigger and hit the start button on the stopwatch, and before Herman knew it, he was halfway through his platter. Fist after fist of hotdog went into his mouth. He had strong esophageal muscles that with gulps of water pushed the mush and bun goo down to his bottomless stomach. He finished off the hotdogs in 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 the blankets, floating peacefully on his Tempur Pedic mattress, trophy clinging invisibly to his palms, still thrust to the air. He blinked, and again, and stretched in place.
Daylight streamed in through the missing plastic strips in his blind. He lay there in repose until his hankering for McDonald’s breakfast was so enormous that 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, if he was that hungry…
Blinking his eyes and yawning, he stood up at the side of his bed, and then, with determination to get to McDonald’s as soon as possible, dressed himself as if a zombie hoard was rolling in on him from every direction. He lumbered to 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, slamming it, holding onto the railing for dear life as he made his way down the steps, which wobbled in violent protest. He needed to talk to his landlord, the cheap bastard, Herman thought as he stepped off the last one, sighed in relief, then lumbered towards his vehicle.
He started his Grand Cherokee, which, with the rust spots here and there, looked like a box of Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream with wheels. He focused on the task at hand. 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. Although the one in the other direction was closer, he turned right because his old neighborhood was also to the left.
Tapping the steering wheel to the music on the radio, some Journey song, he zoomed past cars in no-passing zones, buzzed through school zones at 50 mph, and tail-gated an old lady in a Buick because he could not get around the constant stream of traffic coming 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.
No matter his intentions to take the food home, he always ended up sitting in the nearest parking space from the last drive through window, ripping through it like a starving cannibal, and this time was no different. His last bite went down like he was in competition, and his stomach grumbled. More, it demanded.
Arriving at Chipotle before it opened its doors, he waited just outside with the rest of the impatient crowd. As he stood there, checking his watch with frequency, out of the corner of his eye, he could see someone approaching him.
“Hey Herm,” his former boss said, slapping him on the shoulder.
“It’s a different business now than when you started,” Jerry had told him.
Herman tensed up. Jerry was one of those guys who had everything handed to him by his parents—instant potatoes, the son of an Insurance-made millionaire taking over his father’s business.
“How’s it goin’ there, Bud,” Jerry said, 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. After a long pause, during which Herman noticed the manager of Chipotle walking to unlock the door, Jerry continued without Herman’s response: “Find anything new yet?”
The manager opened the door, and all of the addicts, Herman and Jerry among them, barreled through the entrance, almost trampling him, but he leapt out of the way at the last moment, and Herman jostled past Jerry like a keen running back past an incompetent linebacker, getting a person or two ahead of him in line.
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. The one 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 as the cashier handed him his change, Herman noticed that Jerry was too busy instructing the workers to see him sneak out as fast as possible.
In his Jeep, he started pecking at his first burrito like a hungry vulture as the radio station once again played a Journey song. By the time he finished, he had mostly forgotten about the asshole. He noticed that he had downed the burrito in about four minutes, according to the Jeep’s clock. Not bad, he thought, but was it fast enough?
After a moment of silence reflection, Herman decided that he would probably 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, when there was a rapping at his window.
Apparently that bastard couldn’t just leave him alone, he thought, but then he quickly saw that it wasn’t Jerry. However, he did recognize the cheery 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 sparking in the sunlight. She was almost a grown woman; when he last saw her, she was still just a kid. Jesus. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His heart raced like a sandstorm in his chest.
“Gosh, I haven’t seen you in, like, forever! Mom and I talk about you all the time!”
He didn’t know how to respond.
“You should totally stop by sometime!”
She stood there like a mirage. A slow bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, followed by a cascade, and he began fiddling with the radio dial.
“You should just come over for lunch, or something—I’m sure mom would be thrilled to see you!”
He had to think quickly.
“I can’t, sorry.”
He saw her in his rearview mirror, standing there, a Chipotle bag dangling from her hand, watching him speed away.
Those rickety stairs made him not want to leave his apartment at all. The task of defying them again seemed daunting as he stood there, at the bottom. It seemed so far up there, and they shook and moved in fury.
He searched around his peripheral vision, but he could not see her minivan anywhere. She must have parked around the corner.
The second burrito dangled in the bag at his side; he peered over his shoulder like a meth addict about to take off running. Realizing he couldn’t outrun her, he chose to turn around and face her.
“Hi Belinda,” he mumbled.
“You’re late,” she said, glaring at him through sunglasses.
“Late? I don’t live with you anymore.”
“You have not paid your child support in several months. Learn how to answer your goddamn phone! This is your last chance.”
She ripped her sunglasses off and gave him a stare-down.
“Haven’t you gotten my messages?”
His phone was still lying in broken pieces somewhere in the junk heap of his kitchen floor. Her eyes burned like green coals squeezing themselves into diamonds. He froze, unable to respond.
“Goddamn you, Herman!”
She brushed the hair out of her eyes. Jesus, she sure looked good, but he had no money and no checks to give her. His bank had closed his empty account about 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 just to make them suffer.
“Jesus, Herman, what a shithole.”
He reached for the door just as she uttered it. Before he could respond, the stairs finally gave way and the two crashed back towards the Earth. She didn’t even have time to calculate a reaction as Herman’s shadow blotted out the sky.
Her body twitched under him, but he couldn’t move; he just lay there, staring up into space. The whole world seemed to stop around him. He knew he should get up, but he couldn’t. She stopped twitching. 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. Gggoddd, he thought, as the last of the oxygen left his brain…
His vision blurred; the sand encrusted him; he was buried except for his head. The sand swirled; his face was being eroded so he closed his eyes. Then the Earth swallowed him just like it had the countless others that had come before, and for a moment, all was at peace.