Painting by David Phillips
HAPPY FOR OUR CHANGE
by Corey Eastwood
We have an anti-fatigue mat to cure your weariness and make you happy for our change.
Kyle crumpled the wrapping paper and looked at the so-called mat then at Peter whose cheeks were still flushed from the cold. He could tell by the expectant smile on Peter’s face that there was a punch line in the Japanese characters printed on the flimsy piece of fabric that called itself an anti-fatigue mat, but looked, to Kyle, suspiciously like a hand towel. Peter was waiting for his cue to translate, but Kyle didn’t ask, because he didn’t care. He was still brooding over a negative review of the poems he’d recently published on a friend’s blog, in particular over a line which called his work affected and phony. The criticism had shaken him and he’d decided that the best way to combat it was with sincerity in both his life and writing. This prevented him from asking for a translation but not from thanking Peter and apologizing for not getting him anything.
Issue #43 soundtrack: Christopher Paul Stelling "Ghost Ship"
“Don’t worry about it.” Peter said, “Merry Christmas. It’s my pleasure.”
“Yes,” Kyle thought, as he took the anti-fatigue mat out of its packaging, “All yours.” In the three years that Peter had been away teaching English in Japan, he’d always returned bearing useless trinkets. One year it was a notebook that said, Our writing pad for your intelligent thoughts, another, a key chain that read, Do Good At Life; objects that were born loveless and died that way, but were momentarily bestowed with affection while Peter carried them across the world.
“This character means admiration!” Peter began without invitation, “And this one, ‘Respect!’ I love it!” he said, beaming. “125 million people live in that US-obsessed country, and these kinds of mistakes are a dime a dozen. Their best efforts always end up sounding childish and laughable.”
“It’s nice of you,” said Kyle, “I’ll use it as a handkerchief for my suit tonight.”
They were in Kyle’s apartment, drinking wine and listening to records while they got ready for their friend Helen’s holiday party. The party was themed and the e-flyer read: Holiday party 1941 Style. Brooklyn-specific period costume mandatory. Old-Tyme drinks (including coquito and mulled wine) and snacks will be served. Live swing band at 10:30 bookended by DJ Beste Freundin spinning nouveau-cabaret.
Kyle, who’d always had an affinity for the uncomplicated fashion of old, and who’d worked for years as a manager at a vintage clothing store, had a closet full of classic suits. He’d invited Peter over to catch up and get dressed before going to the party. For himself he chose a double-breasted suit with a matching felt fedora. For Peter he had a red zoot suit he’d taken home years ago but never had the heart to wear. When told about the zoot suit, Peter, who was part Italian-American and had grown up in Connecticut, agreed enthusiastically, saying he’d go for the Italian immigrant aesthetic.
“I’ll be my nonno,” he said in a bad Italian accent.
They tried on ties as Peter told stories about his time in Japan (which mostly centered around the love-making skills and fidelity of Japanese women) and speculated about the party; who would be there and what would be served.
“I don’t know about coquito,” Peter said. “I don’t think there were many Puerto Ricans here until after the war effort really got rolling. And the Jews, sure there were plenty in ‘41, but if Helen’s thinking Hasidim, she’s wrong. The Satmars didn’t arrive here until after the war and the Lubavitch have always been in Crown Heights. I am excited for some latkes though, and those jelly donuts they make—ah, you have to try them.
“Speaking of Latkes, did I mention that I’m in love?” Peter asked as he spooned a wad of pomade from the jar. With his slicked hair and pointy mustache, Peter looked like a pudgy Dali. Behind him Kyle stood fixing his tweed tie and looking at himself in the mirror. Again, he understood his role in the conversation, and again, more out of a desire to be true to himself then to slight his friend, he said nothing.
“Her name’s Ania,” Peter went on undeterred, “and she’s gorgeous. Big in the Warsaw art scene, and just visiting for a week. Have you ever been with a Polish woman? Really? Ah, you must.”
Kyle didn’t respond. He put his hat on and asked Peter if he was ready.
The season’s first snow had spent the day melting but was beginning to freeze again. Despite the cold, Peter insisted they walk in order to work up an appetite. They headed east on Broadway underneath the elevated tracks. Headlights glided off the slick pavement, murky water leaked from the platform above. As they walked, Peter commented on how much he loved the tracks.
“They make New York feel like Chicago,” he said. “Like old Chicago, or my image of it, at least. Or, I know it’s ridiculous, but even more than old Chicago, it feels like real New York.” The subway rumbled overhead allowing for a contemplative pause in conversation and Kyle agreed silently. He was pleased by the authenticity of his surroundings.
As they approached the bodega that sold fancy beer, a few kids—two black and one Hispanic, none any older than 14—stopped them and asked if they wanted to buy a USB cable.
“What is thisa forra?” Peter said examining the cable. “It is too much thicka for catching the fishes. No bene, no bene.” He laughed, handed them back the cable, then joined Kyle who’d hurried inside when he heard Peter talking in character.
After some debate in which Peter argued for an Italian import while Kyle suggested something darker, they remembered that neither of them was planning on drinking beer and, pleasantly unburdened, chose a German bock.
They’d turned off Broadway and had walked two blocks when Kyle was hit. The blow landed on his back and his first thought was that it was a fist attached to an arm attached to a man who wanted to hurt him. He spun around and was greeted by two snowballs—one whizzed by his head and the other exploded on his shoulder. He looked at Peter, who was doubled over holding his face, then the attackers: the kids with the USB cable plus more, maybe—the number, along with their ages, grew with each retelling. He grabbed Peter by the shoulder and they took off running, followed by the kids, who abandoned their pursuit when they reached the fallen 6-pack.
After three long blocks, Peter and Kyle stopped to get their bearings. There was a gooey substance on Kyle’s arm and thinking it blood he began to search for the wound. But Peter’s jacket, covered in white flecks of eggshell, explained the hardballs and the goo. Evidently they weren’t the only ones celebrating Halloween on Christmas.
Peter’s face was red from the snow and a small but bloody cut above his right eye. His zoot suit was wet and yolk melded with the gel in his mustache. Fighting back tears, Peter said he was going home to clean up, and before Kyle could respond, he dashed into the street and hailed a livery cab. To avoid looking each other in the eye, they hugged goodbye.
Kyle watched the cab drive away then cleaned himself off with the anti-fatique mat and continued walking to the party.
Waiting in the coquito line, Kyle thought about how easily children can make adults feel like children. He felt out of place there, amongst the unsoiled party goers in their suspenders, berets and trousseau dresses. With walls papered in lime-green paisley, restored tin ceilings and ornate lamps in place of overhead lighting, the apartment’s aesthetic was as old as the fashion. Normally Kyle liked Helen’s place, but tonight it horrified him. He wanted to go find the kids and a stoop where he could drink his German beer with them; or better yet, invite them here to show them how they’d misunderstood him. He was only dressed up for a costume party.
He got his drink then went looking for food. The DJ was finishing her opening set as the swing band set up their instruments. At the Hanukkah table a couple he didn’t know was in line in front of him adding Kosher goodies to their plates of treif and discussing the neighborhood back then.
“Can you imagine,” asked the guy whose pince nez were threatening to fall off, “how much tension there must have been with the Italians and Germans living side by side with the Hasids?” Kyle considered explaining that the Satmar hadn’t yet arrived, but said nothing. He wasn’t in the mood to defend history.
Along with dirtying his suit, the snowballs and eggs had broken Kyle’s confidence. Self-doubt, self-awareness and the criticism—that word, phony—ate at him. The slanderer had posted the comments anonymously, and Kyle suspected, given the small, insular readership of the blog, that he or she was in the room. Returning for a refill he wandered into a conversation with a skinny woman dressed as Rosie the Riveter. She talked about the movie she was making while Kyle failed to pretend to listen. It could have been Rosie, that guy with the candy cane-colored cane, the woman with the netted veil covering her eyes, his friend Jean, Roslow, Mark. Any of them.
The difference, Kyle thought, while sipping his coquito and completely ignoring Rosie, was motivation. It’s what separated him from them. They dressed like it was 1941 because irony was a distraction from their emptiness. Kyle dressed that way because he identified with a time when painters painted, filmmakers made films and writers wrote books. He had no use for tweet art, music made on ibooks and novels about Gchat and soy smoothies—he desired real art born from the struggle of living real lives. Yes, he published his poetry on a blog, wasted time on You Tube and checked Facebook more than he cared to admit, but unlike the rest of them, he didn’t like it that way. Unlike them, he thought proudly scanning the room, I am unhappy here.
Rosie eventually stopped talking and Kyle excused himself for a refill. He was tired and decided he’d have only one more before leaving. At the coquito bowl he bumped into Helen, whom he’d yet to speak to, and a blond friend she introduced as Ania.
They shook hands as Helen asked about Peter. Kyle had decided to explain the events as they happened without leaving out a single humiliating detail. But as he began talking the story told itself differently, and he realized that he didn’t want to stop it. Now it was an attempted mugging; a fight; a street battle from which Kyle had valiantly escaped unharmed. The story was as good a defense against phoniness as any he could imagine.
Near the end of his account Helen was called away to clean up a spill and he was left alone with Ania. She wasn’t nearly as pretty as Peter had described, but that wasn’t the point. She looked him in the eye and asked brokenly, “Do you feel that there is a comfort of an old time in this place?” Kyle smiled at her—removing himself from the last shackles of sincerity—and said, “Yes. Actually, I do.”
After a big swig of coquito he wiped his mouth with the anti-fatigue mat then asked Ania if she’d like to dance.
Corey Eastwood is a writer and Book Thug Nation bookseller from Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Metazen, Dark Sky Magazine, Pear Noir and Shelf-Life Magazine.
David Phillips moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in search of an audience for his abstract paintings, and now works from his studio in Venice. He is represented by the Downtown Art Center Gallery of Los Angeles, and has been featured on CBS, The LA Times, and Seventeen Magazine. Visit his online portfolio at wino-strut.com.
Christopher Paul Stelling is a NYC-based songwriter. His debut record Songs of Praise & Scorn is available for preorder and will be released on 2/21/12. Typically, he lives in an apartment above a liquor store with his girlfriend and their cat Stinky La La, but will be spending the majority of 2012 on tour. Visit him online at christopherpaulstelling.com.