“I bought a new car.” Instead of inquiring about its model, its make, what accessories I splurged on, what color I chose, Tanner bites into the other half of his Italian mixed submarine sandwich. We call him Tanner because he’s the spitting image of the Tanner family from Full House. He’s what Danny Tanner’s son would have been. No drugs, few women, no troubles. And he’s the cleanest person I’ve ever met.
“Dada,” he says in his typical manner, waiting for the food in his mouth to reach his stomach. “What did you buy?”
And I echo, “A car.” Tanner stares at me as if I need to fix my cowlick, his eyes fixated on my forehead, my crown, burning a hole through the back of my head. He doesn’t say anything. “A blue car,” I inform him.
“How…creative?” Another bite, another bout of silence. I ordered the full sandwich, Tanner the half order, and I’m waiting for him to finish.
“It’s a beast. A Mazda 626.” He doesn’t know the car, or he doesn’t agree with my assessment of the situation. Tanner swallows, but doesn’t have anything to say and takes another bite.
I sip the last of my cola (no ice) and skulk my way to the machine. Scanning my surroundings, I diligently abut my cup against the lever beneath cola, and gently press the rolled rim enough to get a flow. I chuckle as I read the words “no” and “free” and “refills” as more and more plastic is reacquainted with the sugary liquid. When I turn around a cashier is helping the newest customer, and completely ignoring me.
Tanner’s chewing when I return to my seat. He still has several bites, several segments of quietude, left on his plate.
Tanner swallows and asks, “How are you and the money?” Two months ago fate placed nearly two hundred million dollars in my lap. The government reduced it to nearly half of what God intended, and I donated most of what remained to an Internet pornography studio. Tanner doesn’t seem to understand my reason, my logic, my this-is-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life. I want to desexualize the world one vapid, surgically enhanced breast at a time. If people need to be aroused more than they probably should, it should be because of poems and short stories and finger paintings and such. Not, well, the archetypical, biological stuff.
They (I use they like there’s some mysterious coalition of strangers out there with a master plan that involves giving everyone constant erections)—they were dumbfounded when I sent them an e-mail with the subject “Donation,” and even more so when I informed them that this wasn’t about my subscription. At the time, I knew nothing of the industry, more or less—I was well-informed about what they did, you know, have sex in front of a camera—but the thought that there was some strange, unique process to the matter lingered in the back of my mind. Maybe it’s different when there’s a film crew in the room. Maybe it’s different when you know there will be thousands of emptier souls enjoying your performance exponentially, and then having no interest in you whatsoever.
And this is why Tanner refuses to talk to me. He’s always been the curt, laconic one—the only thing, more or less, that he’s ever wanted to talk about is the fact he has nothing that he wants to talk about—but now there’s a reason for his silence. In this fickle world, where someone like me can suddenly be in charge of so much, I’m giving Tanner a purpose, to be my guidance, and he doesn’t even want it. He just wants a reason to be bitterer than the beer he drinks.
It took him a few days to ask me if he’d get his cut. Apparently, friendship is a decent vocation, and after sixteen years without pay, and with the interest, and with the pension he now deserves because he’s retired our friendship (yet he still needs someone to eat meals with) he’s entitled to approximately 14.2 million dollars (he’s done the math).
But, really, this is what Tanner is upset about: Since my donation, I’ve become a mogul of the unspeakable underbelly of contemporary sexuality. Rather than let the studio executives and producers pocket my alms, I revamped their entire organization and now control the fate of numerous life-seekers trying to find their essence by fornicating on velvet in front of a camera crew. Upon my request, I could star in a film, with any actress of my choosing. Upon my request, they’ll film any scene I desire. I could be living the so-called dream so many mates have tried to convince me is the ultimate lifestyle, but all I ask for is a free copy of the weekly newsletter I started. Instead of glossy, airbrushed spreads, we allow these stars to express themselves creatively, and print their short stories, their poems, their paintings, and photographs of sunsets, landscapes, resting puppies, and so forth, photos that they have taken with their own cameras. And every Saturday, when the issue is due to arrive in mailboxes across the country (and soon the world), subscribers are welcomed to read four weekly articles: a star’s opinion on the latest political, social, or economical debate, a mini-biography of one of their favorite stars, an interview with someone from the industry (disregarding any gratuitous inquiry), and a star’s reflection on a significant moment in his or her life (again, disregarding any memories associated with sexual experience). So if someone still has the urge, he’ll have to learn to enjoy poetry and the arts.
Back to reality. I grab Tanner’s tray after he takes a bite, two more still in his hand. He follows as I bus the tray and takes a bite when we exit the eatery. He holds the final bite until we reach the car, my car, the blue Mazda 626, with accessorized hubcaps, with state-of-the-art speakers, with leather seats, with the best engine the system will allow, with a perfect wax job, and with stacks of pornographic DVDs in the trunk (none of which feature nudity, another move on my part), and takes his final bite before opening the car door. He finishes and swallows before I can start the engine. Yet still, the entire ride to my apartment, we sit in silence, and listen to NPR in the best sound quality available.
There’s nothing in my apartment that screams “millionaire.” There’s nothing in my apartment that’s a high culture statement. My couch was bought used. My television only broadcasts basic cable. I have a nice collection of hotel art. When the refrigerator door opens, the light illuminates milk, condiments, cold cuts, and domestic beer.
Unfazed by my new home, Tanner sits down on the couch (the middle cushion), puts his feet up on the coffee table (without asking), and turns on the television (some sitcom from the early 90s). I ask to be excused and lock myself in my bathroom.
A urinal was installed upon my funding, alongside an exorbitant tip slipped to my landlord. I stare at a recent photograph that hangs above the urinal while I discharge—a picture of me between two of the hottest Internet porn stars (one wearing a loose sweater that completely hides her figure, the other wearing something slightly revealing, exposing her shoulders to the air). I flush and sit on the nearby toilet lid. A basket of pornographic magazines, magazines I funded, sits on the other side of the toilet, next to the shower. Unlike my weekly newsletter, these magazines do contain images of the stars, but most are self-portraits, or women taking photographs of other women (in a non-erotic way, naturally). The typical image found in these magazines: full-figured women helping an old woman cross the street, feeding soup to the poor, or helping a bewildered man find his lost puppy (and no, there is no pun intended).
On top of the pile, my most recent magazine: Camus and Dickens. I open the pages to the centerfold—three women sitting in a coffee shop, discussing Faulkner. One holds The Sound and the Fury, another As I Lay Dying, and the third reads from a short story collection.
A knock at the door.
“Hello?” the voice asks.
And the voice says, “I have to…go.”
I set the magazine back in the basket. I stand up. I walk over and unlock the door. After I step aside, the doorway remains clear and open. I stare at Tanner staring at me staring at him.
“Feel free,” I tell him, and walk into the living room. He follows.
“No,” he informs me. “I have to…leave.”
“Where?” I turn my vision away from the television and watch Tanner staring beyond me, presumably at the commercial I can hear. Some voice is telling me I no longer need to worry about the immobility that is contingent with old age. And if I act now, I no longer need to worry about hearing loss.
“I…don’t know,” he says. He makes his way to the door. The lock stops him, and he stares at me, as if it’s my fault.
“Dinner?” I ask this and realize that integers have labeled every meal we’ve ever shared together.
And he says, “I’ll have the number four?”
Tanner and I order a pizza. It’s not a home-cooked meal, but it took more than a mere utterance to bring food to the house. I actually had to communicate, talk to another human being in order to eat, survive. We decide on cheese pizza, an understanding of our mutual distaste for nearly every topping imaginable.
A knock at the door.
I tip the delivery boy a hundred-dollar bill. Tanner admonishes me. Tells me that I’ll lose my money at an alarming rate. Really though, he’d rather I tip him for spending time with me, or being my friend, or being an ear to archive the sounds I make and, hopefully, interpret them in a meaningful manner. But when he refuses to echo my thoughts, or share his own, there’s no point.
“I plan on…dying young?” Silence. Tanner chews the first bite of pizza. Instead of conversing between bites, we watch game shows. We watch people spin wheels, guess letters, feign intelligence.
A commercial informs us that we can make thousands of dollars through classified ads. I scribble the phone number down on the back of the pizza box, in case Tanner’s premonition comes true.
I ask Tanner about my current plight, a desperate attempt, push, into forcing someone to have an interest in my life. But, as always, Tanner just sits there.
One slice sits alone on the greased cardboard. Tanner tells me it’s mine. I tell him I’m not hungry, but that I am thirsty.
“Drink?” I say. He shakes his head no and reaches for the last slice, dabbing the cheese with his napkin before putting the tip of bread, sauce, and cheese into his mouth. I come back to the table, two domestic beers in hand, one open, one sealed tight, and the can opener in the other hand.
I sip and Tanner chews. Sip, chew. Sip. Chew.
And I clear my throat loudly before swallowing the contents of the bottle. I crack open the second beer and hiss in sync with the escaping carbonation before placing the neck to my lips. And I sigh and say, “I miss my drug days. I miss being miserable. Life was better drugged and poor. There’s a reason I bought an apartment after winning the lottery. There’s a reason I bought such an economical car. It was easier to get women, drugs, whatever I wanted, as a poor man. Your desperation is an excuse for your pathetic nature. Economic deprivation justifies greed, selfishness, promiscuity—but when you’re rich everyone watches you, and everyone wants to be your friend. Everyone expects you to change the world. Society ignores the outsiders and scrutinizes the rich. I’d rather feel pain than nothing. I’d rather be lost than have nowhere to go.” I lose my train of thought.
A commercial informs us that in exchange for three easy payments, we no longer need to worry about the human condition.
And Tanner just gnaws at his crust in silence.
“I don’t believe in women.”
“What?” Dada looks at me like something’s stuck in my teeth, but he’s not going to bother telling me.
And I say, “I don’t…think they exist.”
And Dada echoes, “What?” We call him Dada because his name is Dan Darsh. He thinks cynicism is an art form. He thinks he’s painting the world with indifference and sarcasm. He thinks he’s sending out soundwaves of absurd enlightenment. He thinks his life is God’s magnum opus. But all Dada does is watch professional wrestling, eat fast food, and call me so we can talk in person.
“Tanner, you are the living end.”
I could make another taco with the debris on Dada’s plate—a hodgepodge of meat, vegetables, and sour cream—but I’m full. Dada fingers his plate, most of his index finger covered in sour cream, a few strands of grated cheese sticking to the adhesive condiment, a few grains of ground beef burrowing underneath his fingernail.
“That’s…odd,” he says. “Women exist.” The taco-on-a-stick swoops down into his mouth, more debris finding a home in Dada’s poorly kept goatee. The rest of his face is clean-shaven, but he needs to trim the hairs around his mouth so these things don’t happen.
“No,” I correct him. “They…don’t.” He stares at me staring at his sour-cream-covered chin. I don’t bother telling him anything’s wrong with his image. “That one over there.” I nod towards the cashier. “She’s…faking it.”
“They all do,” he says, grinning. The mess on his face spreads with his smile.
“She’s…phallic?” Dada twists his neck so his vision is on the cashier. The sour cream clings tightly to the hairs on his chin. When he spins his vision back towards me, he rubs his chin to clean himself, or it’s just an autonomous action on his part. Something to do while he watches the vapid parking lot behind me.
“Maybe…” I say, staring at, I don’t know what, “women are an illusion because we can’t… find a purpose…for our…member.” Dada is scribbling on the placemat that comes with the tray. He’s trying to guide a cartoon character to the main course of order number two (or what should be called numero dos).
“Try…the jumble?” I suggest. The words “taco” and “cola” and “happiness” are exceedingly misspelled somewhere near the maze Dada’s working the tip of his crayon through. Happiness is just that easy—we’re just having trouble spelling it.
Dada and I leave with the cartoon character lost in a maze. The rat can’t find the cheese no matter what you do. Ring a bell, electrocute it, offer it sex—none of these methods work. The specimen is still lost, wondering why the walls were built in the first place.
We get in Dada’s car, also known as his mother’s Ford Escort. He’s twenty-six, two years older than I am, and still living at home. Naturally, his mother acknowledges his struggle to be somebody, and lives with him in silence. Her objections, her complaints, her struggles, die in the ears of her friends after passing through the steam of coffees and hot chocolates. Dada sits in the driver’s seat and I sit in the passenger’s seat. Buckling my seatbelt, I notice the white piece of plastic groping the top of the bold, red E. The car will be puttering by the time Dada pulls back into his mother’s driveway.
The first intersection is red. Dada honks. The giant lantern hanging above the pavement ignores him, swinging in the soft wind with nowhere to go, bound to the ground by its neck, with the illusion of freedom as it floats over traffic. Dada honks admonishingly, the driver behind us showing us what his horn can do. Dada turns around and shows him a middle finger, and nothing else happens.
“Don’t…do that,” I tell him. My concern is the maniac driver with a baseball bat as his passenger; or his cousin who uses a handgun as the paperweight keeping his registration, insurance information, and other important documents ordered in his glove compartment. The lights smile down on us an ominous green, much brighter than the red bulbs. But we pass through it too quickly to fully grasp its beauty, its essence.
We pull into the local department store’s intimidating parking lot. Somehow, someway, there is always a hodgepodge of SUVs, motorcycles, minivans, luxury mobiles, a trailer or two, economically-friendly cars, and environmentally-friendly bicycles parked in the seemingly endless, two-vehicle thick columns. Yet, still, when we walk through the sliding doors, and past the grinning senior citizen, we always see the same people—lost, poorly shaven souls wandering aimlessly, wondering what to buy next.
Sometimes Dada needs to pick something up for his mother. A bath towel, a new blender, cereal, batteries, cans of domestic beer, ammunition, a squirt gun, laundry detergent, oatmeal, an iPod nano, the latest romance novel, sunglasses, Scotch tape, pastries, license plate covers decorated in pink and purple flowers, plastic footballs, bottles of domestic beer, light bulbs, ping-pong balls, ping-pong paddles, a ping-pong table, a soldering iron, meatballs, a Czech-to-English dictionary, cases of domestic beer, a baby blue blouse she saw in the Sunday paper—stuff like that. Personally, the fact one can buy a four-pack of Guinness and crayons on a Saturday morning with no hesitation has always vexed me. What is wrong with the world today!
But today, as always, we’re here for smoothies. Dada orders the Choco-Coco-Collusion, which comes in a series of collectible cups decorated in pictorials of America’s greatest conspiracy theories. Dada already has the moon landing and JFK. Today the cashier hands him a cup covered in pictures of Al Gore, a computer, and cyborgs. I’m waiting on the Fruit Punch Punch-Out—a homage to the boxing video game. Each cup is dedicated to one of the boxer’s Little Mac defeats in order to advance in the game. I already have King Hippo, Glass Joe, and Don Flamenco (although you fight him twice in the game, the company has released a cup that covers both bouts). Rumor has it that the customer who receives the one and only Mike Tyson cup wins one million dollars.
“What would you do?” I ask. The cashier hands me a cup, and I pull back the sticker covering the boxer. Slowly but surely I can add Soda Popinski, whom I always thought was a much harder challenge than he should have been for such an early fight.
Nevertheless, Dada breaks away from Al Gore’s countenance and looks at me with this mawkish grin like he knows Ale Gore personally and is part of the greater plan to solve the world’s problems through the Internet.
“With a million dollars?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” he says. Sip. “That’s not that much.” Gulp.
“Um,” I say. Slurp.
“We’ve been conditioned to fantasy. Kids used to dream about being firefighters or movie stars or giraffes—now they need to dream about saving the world. Young adults, you and I, we used to dream about buying a house and having a beautiful wife and well-behaved kids, maybe a dog or a cat or something, but now we have to dream about becoming the next breakout artist or contriving the latest Internet meme. Adults, like, people over forty, they used to reflect on happy times, but now they need to dream, too. I mean, with modern medicine, they might live to be one hundred and fifty. That’s plenty of time to accomplish something great. But with six billion people roaming around with their thumbs up their asses, there’s not much room for brilliance.”
“So…a million dollars?”
“That’s my point. People used to dream about a million dollars falling into their laps, which is good and all, but people like Bill Gates and Oprah have ruined that dream. Now people need to dream about being a billionaire so that they can actually accomplish something with the money.”
“You wouldn’t spend it on yourself?”
“Any way I spend the money is for myself. I’m the subject of that action, I don’t necessarily have to be the direct object.”
Dada’s tongue and teeth are a disgusting brown. By the look of his face, my own mouth is surely a brighter red than its natural hue.
“Well,” I say, “I could at least be an indirect object in your pursuit to spend a million dollars. You know?”
“What would you want?”
“Um.” Fast food is the only thing I buy. Perhaps if I had more money in my pocket, I could think of something to pursue, but with the financial troubles that Dada and I have, finding enough crumpled dollar bills and fallen change to buy a taco or a hamburger or whatever suffices as a plight. Although, sometimes, I wish there were something greater I could pursue. Y’know, like, Olive Garden or something?
Back to reality. We leave the department store, traverse the molded concoctions of metal and plastic and rubber, and stop at the convenience store between where we just were (somewhere) and where we are headed (nowhere). Dada browses the aisles and grabs candy, condoms, a newspaper, and shuffles the bunch to fit a case of cheap, domestic beer under his left arm. I see nothing I want, nothing I need, and walk empty-handed behind him, hands in pocket.
As Dada approaches the counter, the cashier notices the case of alcohol and scans Dada’s poise, gait, wardrobe, and cranium accessories (his beard, his baseball cap, and the general indifferent expression he carries), and assesses whether or not to card the man. Seeing the semblance of an adult in front of him, the cashier informs Dada of the total, and blankly stares at his crotch, looking for a wallet, or something else, I don’t know.
“Ticket,” Dada nods. The cashier shuffles two feet to his left, and without changing the position of his hand, dangles his fingers over the lotto machine.
“Okay,” Dada says, and looks at me.
“Your birthday,” he asks.
“Um,” I say.
“Five, Eleven, Thirty-two,” he tells the cashier.
“That’s…not it,” I say.
“No. It’s my birthday.”
“Is it?” I ask. “You’re…thirty-two? Or, seventy-something?”
And he says, “No. What’s your birthday?”
“Twenty-four, seven…one hundred and eighty-six?”
“That won’t work,” he says. Dada looks over at the cashier, who must have entered the first two numbers I said because he informs Dada he’s still short one number.
“Your pick,” he tells him. The cashier punches a number, hits another key, and the machine prints Dada’s ticket. Dada pays him the additional cost: $10 for a small piece of paper, paper with which you can’t even wipe your ass.
In my apartment, I watch reruns of past-their-welcome television programs that play on basic cable in the afternoon. These programs failed in their first run, yet some fan has convinced television executives to broadcast the twenty-eight, forty-nine, however many episodes on a constant loop at two in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I drink cheap beer, but cheap, imported beer. A Radiohead CD sends a mellow mood throughout the giant room that is my living area, that is my kitchen. A cold, once-hot Philly cheese steak sits on the coffee table. And then the phone rings.
And the voice echoes, “I won.”
“Oh.” Rustling behind the phone. Screams. Chants. Panting?
“Did you watch it?” it asks. I turn my vision to the television. Some commercial trying to tell me I no longer need to worry about the emotional instability that’s contingent on my premenstrual syndrome. Finally.
And then the voice tries to convince me that I no longer need to worry about money, about women, about life, about drugs. About anything, ever again.
“I won!” it says, again. “Who’d have thought? Me. Dan Darsh. Winner of one hundred and eighty-six million dollars.” It’s Dada. He must have won the lottery, or robbed a bank.
“Good…luck?” I tell him. There’s this thing about lottery winners. They’re envied by many, but still lonely, and still miserable. The only people who want to win the lottery are those who haven’t won it, those who haven’t played it. The only people satisfied are those that play it and lose—an admonition that life still sucks, one that somehow eases the fact that no matter what you do, no matter what you have, it’s not right, it’s not what you need. Something’s always wrong. Something’s always needed. Money can’t buy happiness because happiness doesn’t exist. Lotto winners are forced to realize this truth of humanity and become the most miserable people on the planet.
“Do you want to go get food?” I ask.
“I’m going to donate it,” he tells me. “The money.”
“All of it?” I ask. He explains that he doesn’t know how much money he’s won. There may be other winners. The government will surely take its portion. He’ll certainly blow most of it on ornate cars, houses, and women.
“I’m donating sixty-nine million dollars to Internet pornography.” He doesn’t say anything else. Click.
I hang up the phone. I turn off the television. I clean the melted cheese off the oak table. And then I assuage myself with the typical, archaic images of women and stuff like that that I stow beneath my bed before falling asleep.
Ryan Dunham is currently a doctoral candidate at Ohio University in the Media Arts and Studies’ Mass Communications program. He earned both his B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Binghamton University. His work has previously appeared in Helix Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, and Ricky’s Back Yard, and is forthcoming in The Bookends Review.