The Brothers Dim by Corey A. Edwards

(For Cliff, who may remember it differently (especially the little bits I made up)


In the summer of 1986, most of my peers were preparing for a new life -college, the military, a job- but I was counted among the aimless few who had no plans, no thoughts, nothing. I was floating along, dim and happy in the assumption that each day would take care of itself.

As my high school graduation ceremony receded into the past my mother became more and more eager to see me on my way in life -or at least out of the house- but it seemed hopeless. I was immune to her advice, her subtle hints; never noticing the paper left open to the help wanted-section. I had no ambition beyond trying to get drunk or laid.

The solution came in the form of my older brother, Cliff.

He arrived one day, out of the blue as usual, with some grass and a proposal. Ever wise, he waited until the full effects of the dope were upon me, thus insuring I was literally open-minded.

“Hey, Cor. How’d you like to get an apartment with me?” he asked.

“Oh, wow. Yeah! That’d be sooo cool!” I said. “But, uh, I don’t have a job.”

“You could get a job where I work.” Cliff’s latest job was that of a night-janitor at the local electronics plant.

“At Delore Industries? As a janitor? I dunno . . .” the sudden fear that I wasn’t qualified to run a mop hit me and I quailed.

“Oh, shit man, it’s easy! You’ll get in no problem. They’re always hiring people ‘cause they’re always firing people.” Cliff laughed.

“You know where Job Services is downtown?” he asked, his voice strained from holding in a hit. “Well, Clauson’s Janitorial is in the same building. Fill out an app and I’ll put in a good word for you.”

I took the pipe back from him but hesitated in taking another hit.

“Do I have to take a whiz-quiz?” I asked, using street vernacular for a common form of drug testing: urinalysis.

Cliff laughed as he exhaled a monstrous blue cloud of pungent smoke.

“Shit, man . . .”

Despite my trepidation, the business of filling out the application was almost painless and, though I felt certain they would never hire anyone whose job history was limited to gophering for his carpenter father, I received a call less than two days later asking me to come back down to the office for an ‘interview’, a session which involved less question and answer than just seeing if I could appear as instructed.

Having done so, I was given a scraper, two ugly yellow shirts, and told to show up at the plant that night; my shift beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 3:30 in the morning.

The clock read 2:12 in the afternoon -were they giving me yet another test or simply being inhuman?

I went home and tried to get some sleep but was too nervous. What would it be like?

The Delore plant occupied a mythical status in my hometown; four large, interlocked buildings -750,000 square feet of production space dominating the gentle, sloping lawn of a bunny specked hill.

People said that the company had “saved our town” when it built its plant, and I suppose that’s certain. All I knew was that the kids whose parents worked there seemed to have more of everything –more toys, clothes, smarts, luck, teeth, you name it. It had never occurred to me that one day I, too, would work there –even if it was just as a janitor.

Dusk deepened around me as I strapped a brown paper lunch sack to my bike rack and started off across town; nerves and walkman jangling.

I grew up pedaling down narrow, empty country roads and here I was, head on against the heart and headlights of a small city’s sporadic evening traffic for the first time in my life. I pumped my legs to the beat and focused on the gutter.

A Clauson’s lead was waiting for me when I arrived at the gate. My name was checked off a yawning guard’s list and then I was escorted to the security office where my photo was taken for a nametag. I was still blinking when they handed me off to my new boss –Judy.

A plain stump of a woman, Judy’s short haircut and easter-egg body marked her, correctly or not, as a lesbian in the eyes of her crew. She was nice enough but I sensed tension, a grinding unhappiness in her.

Judy was very business like, responding little, if at all, to my humorous asides, as she taught me the skills I would need as a Clauson’s representative. According to her, my two most important tools were the scraper I’d been issued with my shirts and the detail brush, a small, thin, black-bristled hand broom, which Judy handed to me. When she spoke of these items it was with a kind of respectful awe that I found difficult not to snicker at.

From the regulations she laid out at the same time, I could see that her reverence was in step with the company’s wishes:

If I came into work without my scraper I could be written up. If I lost my scraper, the cost of its replacement would come out of my paycheck and I could be written up. If I lost my detail brush, I could be written up. If I were caught on duty without either of them when they were needed, I could be written up. If I were written up three times during any six-month period, I would be fired.

I was issued a large rolling trashcan, complete with a place to hang my detail brush and extra trash bags. Judy made it clear that it was my trashcan for as long as I worked on this floor for her crew. If I used anyone else’s without permission or lost my own, I could be written up.

Judy showed me my new area -a long stretch of cubicles, a couple of clean rooms, and a separating hallway- and how to go about cleaning them. My first duty was to empty the trash. Judy showed me the location of every wastebasket in my section and how to tie a knot in the replacement trash bag so that it was snug around the rim of the wastebasket. She was careful to stress that, outside of my own cleaning tools, I was never to touch anything but the floor or the wastebasket while doing my job –doing otherwise could result in me being written up.

Judy then introduced me to the location and contents of the janitorial supply closet. It was here that I would store my trashcan while sweeping with a large, red dust mop.

Judy acted as if the dust mop was a difficult and dangerous piece of machinery for a neophyte to operate, carefully demonstrating how to move its head by twisting the mop handle in one direction or the other. She then watched, making critical and supportive comments, as I maneuvered around the obstacles she chose for my dust-mop driver’s training.

When it came time to demonstrate the proper use of the detail brush, Judy got down on all fours and explained in great detail how to use it in conjunction with a dust pan, her large, shapeless ass protruding out from under a desk like a partially-inflated hot-air balloon.

We then went over proper mopping procedure and Judy was overjoyed to find a piece of gum stuck to the floor so that she could fully demonstrate the effectiveness of that prince of tools, the scraper.

After convincing herself that I was capable of all that I had been shown, Judy left me to my tasks.

I set to with an optimistic vigor. Nothing about my new job seemed difficult nor did it tax my brain. I could think my little thoughts all night long, undisturbed by the chores I was performing. I especially liked mopping. Everything about it seemed so . . . zen: the wringer, the suds, the creak of the wooden handle as I swept the mop across the floor, the way the moist strings of the head swept smoothly over the tiles, leaving a glistening layer of cleanliness in their wake –so good.

Of a sudden it occurred to me that I might have found the perfect job for a person of my character. I could see myself continuing in this line of work until I was ‘discovered’ –or even if I never was. There was something noble about being a lowly janitor while, I felt, one was so obviously above the job.

The night flew by. Before I knew it, Judy was fetching me out from under a desk where I battled dust mice and gum wrappers with my trusty new friend, the detail brush. It was 11 p.m. –lunchtime.

I stowed my tools, collected my lunch sack, and followed my crew to the cafeteria.

The cafeteria was monstrous, easily the size of a basketball court; one end dominated by a full-service kitchen and serving area, the rest filled with the expected array of long cafeteria tables.

By the time we arrived, the cafeteria staff had long since departed and only half the light banks remained lit. There were no hot meals awaiting us, only vending machines filled with the standard selection of pop, candy, and crackers as well as a couple of refrigerated machines offering stale bagels, dry apples, the day’s soggy leftovers wrapped in cellophane, and lunch-pail pudding for $1.25.

It was good to finally have a chance to talk with Cliff. He ambled in with his own crew, their good-natured banter contrasting with my nervous silence.

“Hey.” I called.

“Hey! How’s it goin’?”

“Not bad. It’s kinda fun. Easy.” I replied.

“Uh-huh –told ya! Wait ‘til you get to run a buffer,” he said. “That’s the best part.”


“Here,” Cliff said, indicating a rack of silverware. “Every night grab a knife, spoon, and fork.” He thrust one of each into my hands.

“I don’t need these,” I said, confused. “All I have is sandwiches and chips.”

“No, dummy!” he hissed under his breath. “Stick ‘em in your bag and take ‘em home! We need silverware for the apartment!”

People settled into their familiar lunch seats and I found myself the odd man out. Cliff indicated with his demeanor that he didn’t want his little brother tagging along, so I picked out an empty table, feeling no real slight. The solitude gave me a better opportunity to observe the inhabitants of my new world.

Management sat at a head table, sycophants in tow, eating at a measured pace and talking low. The group received occasional glances from the rest of the crew –none of them friendly and only a few covetous.

Clauson’s did not shrink from hiring the mentally handicapped -people like Chris Sandaio who gossiped with his dust mop and mock-threatened his sandwich each day before taking great, snarfing bites out of it- and these folks tended to sit together during lunch, that or all alone as they chewed through their food with the same lack of zeal and awareness with which they performed their janitorial duties.

The remainder of the Clauson’s crew clumped together in their various factions –the stoners, the Hispanics, the Christians, etc- laughing or bitching as they wolfed down their meals before splitting into two further subgroups: the smokers and the non-smokers. While the former stayed seated, the latter moved outside.

Being a nicotine addict since the fourth grade, I had to follow them.

After lunch, Judy introduced me to my floor buffer, a powerful tool that is a cross between an upright vacuum cleaner and a push lawnmower. I was given a spray bottle and instructions as to the proper ratio of floor wax and water with which to fill it. Judy demonstrated the difference between a dirty and a clean floor-pad and showed me how to attach said large discs -really nothing more than giant scotch-bright pads, like the kind you use to scrub your dishes- to the mount beneath the buffer’s hood.

Plugging it in, Judy sprayed a thin stream of the wax on the floor, released the handle on the buffer and squeezed its dual triggers. The buffer began to float across the floor, Judy swaying gently behind, guiding it with ease, its wide handle couched in the ample crease of her lap. She waltzed the buffer over a small section of flooring until the tiles beneath gleamed as if they had never before seen foot traffic.

Now it was my turn.

With Judy coaching me I spritzed my wax, released the handle, placed it up against my hips as I’d seen her do, and engaged the triggers.

The buffer bucked back against my unsuspecting flesh with a startling violence, wrenching itself out of my grasp, and skittering over to thump against the wall. Judy let out a long sigh of suffering exasperation and we ran through it again. And again.

I was hopeless but seeing that I was at least able of keep my grip on the handle as it dragged me around the floor, Judy threw in the towel and left me to my struggle.

I spent the rest of the night on that 24-foot stretch of tile, fighting with the buffer like a ranch hand breaking a horse. Just when I’d think I had it, the pad would bark against the floor, pulling erratically away from me with a terrific violence I could barely contain. Once I even chuffed through the topcoat of wax I was supposed to be buffing, leaving an ugly red scar of melted pad on the tile below.

Even when I could control it, I was never sure of the effect my efforts were having. The lighting was such that the tiles remained a vague off-white unless viewed from some feet away. While Judy had buffed with a casual assurance, my uncertainty caused me to stop frequently. I’d step back to view the results with ever growing frustration and amazement, as the spot I’d been working would invariably appear duller than when I had begun. The attitude with which I had earlier faced my new job was soon just as flat and unremarkable.

The ride home was as exhilarating as the opposite had been intimidating. With the wind in my hair I zoomed down the naked black streets, slaloming across two and four lanes, from light to shadow, imagining myself the last human alive. My car would soon be roadworthy and these heart-pumping rides would cease –a change I looked forward to without realizing what I would be losing.

Cliff found us a place on the east side of town in a trio of apartment buildings clustered together around a withered lawn like three discarded cracker boxes. I didn’t have enough for my half of the deposit, but our mother gave me a loan so we began to move in.

Our place was on the second story of the western most building, one from the end; a set of narrow and perilous stairs making the move that much more difficult. At one point we discussed rigging up some kind of pulley system for the lighter objects but I think it was just the dope talking.

My belongings were limited and ridiculous: a few plates and glasses, a towel or two, my toothbrush, a mattress, pillow, sheets and a blanket, a limited wardrobe, one long bookshelf with books enough to fill it, 100 or more cassette tapes of music, some posters, a desk, and a lamp.

I found it strange that Cliff’s collection of belongings was as limited and even more impractical. Though he had been living on his own for over four years, he had no furniture and only one towel.

“Where’s all your stuff?”

“This is all my stuff.” he replied, gesturing at his pile -tools, signs, Halloween masks, toys, a boom box, a startling roll of posters, a couple of swords, two plates, some clothing, and a mind boggling array of glass, metal, and plastic gewgaws, what-nots, and other such impracticality.

“But . . . what about all your furniture? The tables, the chairs, that kick ass green lamp that stood by your front door?”

“I threw ‘em out.”

“You what?!?”

“I didn’t want to move all that crap. I just brought the essentials.”

“You threw it all out?”

“It wouldn’t fit in my car, anyway.”

“You threw it all away.”

“Don’t worry, bro. We’ll get more.”

I thought he was nuts but within a few weeks our apartment began to sprout furniture. First a ratty couch and loveseat appear, then an end table and three kitchen chairs, then a lamp and a stereo cabinet. Before I know it we are fully furnished. Cliff even produces the perfect bachelor clock: gaudy, promotional barware featuring a red LED readout above the ever-moving, illusory tricklings of a glowing waterfall.

"The hell you gettin' all this stuff?” I ask, fingering a worn but serviceable coat rack I discover in our entryway.

“The dumpster.” he replies with a grin. “Come on’n help me carry this great bureau someone chucked-away this morning . . .”

Apparently, Cliff’s moving philosophy is not as singular or as balmy as I initially thought.

Despite my buffer shortcomings, I begin to sink into a comfortable routine at the Delore plant, thoroughly enjoying my solitude. Still, one does become bored, particularly when the task at hand requires only the barest minimum of concentration to perform. Before too long I find myself snooping through cupboards, closets, and desk drawers.

Most people’s desks are as you’d expect -change, paperclips, broken pencils, and rubber bands in the little tray, a mess of paper, computer media, and office tools in the top drawer, mostly dusty hanging files beneath that, etcetera- but sometimes I was surprised.

One guy kept two pairs of muddy boots in his desk. Another’s was stocked with nothing but snacks, pop, and sportsman’s magazines. One lady had a little pink gnome on top of her desk that, when turned around, reveled itself as a detailed replica of an erect penis. My favorite was a guy who’s desk top was a riot of papers and computer disks yet the drawers below were completely empty except for a loose staple or two.

Beyond the cubicles and hallways, my duties also included a couple of production areas. Most of them held sensitive and interesting equipment, though not so sensitive that they couldn’t be trusted around a bumbling janitor.

The beakers, oscilloscopes, vats, environmental suits, chemicals, and deep sinks fascinated me. I started keeping some of stuff I found in the trash, like rejected silicon wafers or computer chips, and even began nicking little things -test tubes, rubber stamps, warning labels and the like. It was all very stupid of me –taking anything home, even trash, was cause for instant dismissal- but then, I was very stupid, and I certainly wasn’t alone. As I got to know my coworkers, I discovered that just about every one of them took something; the folks who cleaned the kitchen took home bags of coffee, sugar and salt. Custodians in the garage smuggled out oil, sparkplugs, and air filters. Folks working the offices pilfered change, candy, and kitsch from desks.

We we’re cleaning the place out in more ways than expected.

Cliff is a long time collector -by hook or by crook- of the unique and the bizarre, as well as the everyday and the mundane. Most of what he collects is used in a mind-boggling display that Cliff thinks of as home decorating. He has lived this was since I’ve known him and our apartment was no exception.

Before he even began liberating our furniture from dumpsters, Cliff decorated the apartment, a process that, like the creepings of a mutant ivy, never ceased. Banners of all hues covered our windows, a large, rainbow colored American flag effectively concealing the hallway. A mirror hung from the ceiling amid a sea of movie posters. The walls and ceiling were covered with pictures, posters, strings of Christmas lights, signs, clocks, pages cut from magazines, buttons, business cards, photo-copies, disassembled packaging, paintings, and other oddball gew-gaws until entire rooms lost their sense of direction, of geometry, becoming impossible, limitless universes of contradiction. This unique and startling approach to decorating makes our apartment a favored hangout; a place where reality suspends.

cliff's mirror
The mirror on the ceiling

My ‘comfortable routine’ as a janitor quickly became not only dull but taxing. Living in relative squalor and sloth in my own apartment, I found it difficult to get up the gumption to do my job as well as I should have. I took to stretching out every duty I had in order to limit the amount of time I would have to spend fighting my buffer, preferring to mop or wander around raiding desks for candy and small change. I was careful to never take too much, leaving enough behind to camouflage my theft –or so I thought.

One night I reappeared at a woman’s desk only to find a note on top of her Wrigley’s spearmint pack that read: “Stop stealing my gum!”

I wrote “OK” on the note and never opened her desk again.

The on-site manager of Clauson’s was a stern-jawed, broad shouldered, ex-marine in glasses named Larry -a name I have yet to discover appended to a person of my liking.

Larry would stalk about the plant with the air of a drill-sergeant, muttering, glaring out from under his light gray crew-cut, and making everyone nervous.

His wife, Wanda, whom was dubbed ‘the wicked witch of the west’, headed up the Clauson’s day crew, yet it was not rare for her to make appearances during our shift. Her outrageous choice of clothing always made me laugh. Larry at least wore a Clauson’s shirt like any part of the crew, but Wanda was ever flamboyant. Brightly colored pantsuits were not uncommon, nor black sequined blouses, and each outfit was always accompanied by a pair of gaudy heels, chosen to match and accentuate the highlighting color of the outfit: gold, orange, purple, silver, puce.

The big boss, Dick, was a non-descript, paunchy man ever dressed in the company’s baby-blue coveralls. Dick’s appearances at the plant were rare, seeming to accompany only bad tidings. Because of this, he was seen as bad juju and was roundly disliked. The only consolation being that one could hail him with the phrase: “Hey, Dick.”

Life with Cliff was great. Being brothers, we had a deep understanding of each other and rarely disagreed, much less argued. Independent, we kept our own hours, cooked our own food, and remained immersed in little habits and hobbies that kept us out of each other’s hair.

Working the night shift suited our introverted and antisocial preferences, allowing us to hit the supermarket at four in the morning and otherwise go about much of our business without fear of unwanted intrusion.

The only real difference between the two of us is that Cliff is quite a bit more nosey than I, inserting himself into situations that I walk past with a quick step and eyes averted. He just can’t ignore something that doesn’t look right to him.

Before I knew it, and much to my horror, this character flaw had him making friends and acquaintances of our neighbors. Strangers –strange to me, that is- would accost us at the complex, saying ‘Hi’, inviting us in or, worse, arriving unlooked for on the doormat.

One neighbor in particular comes to mind: a young, single mother whose apartment was situated at the other end of the building. Tamara was surprisingly nice for a girl with the appearance of someone who’d blow you for a drink, but her smile was off-putting, to say the least. Looking as if she’d been attacked by a dentist wielding a length of chain and a dull chisel, the snaggled remnants of her teeth protruded from the graveyard of her gums like canted and crumbling headstones. I don’t think she had a single complete tooth in her head. I could never bring myself to ask her what happened to them. I suppose they could have rotted away, though she couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.

Chrissie, her teenaged sister and roommate, wasn’t as pleasant. While still in possession of most of her teeth, she was less intelligent and more self-involved. Just a senior in high school, she stayed with Tamara, in theory, as a live-in baby-sitter for Denise, Tamara’s daughter. In practice, Chrissie used the apartment to ditch school, become addicted to drugs, and to fuck anyone who could provide her with the aforementioned substances.

One time Chrissie, ringing her hands and tossing her head, barged into our apartment without knocking and began circling on the carpet.

“You got any coke?” she asked, popping her jaw. “Any coke? You must have some coke.”

“Nope,” I replied, scanning contents of our fridge, “just Pepsi.”

Tamara’s daughter, Denise, was a filthy, untrained, screaming hellion lost somewhere between the ages of two and five. In the areas in which she was not spoiled, she was neglected -or even abused. Frequently half-dressed and filthy, Denise was up all hours of the night and wee-morning, dined solely on a diet of chips, pop, sugary breakfast cereals, fast food burgers and whatever else was left lying around, remained at the mercy of whatever scumbag mom brought home from the bar, and was watched more carefully by the television set than her easily angered, coked-up auntie.

Whenever I visited Tamara’s, the general squalor and hopelessness of her life never failed to amaze me.

My lack of interest in my work did not go unnoticed. I was demoted to cleaning two large bathrooms and a long hallway. Judy demonstrated the new functions I was to perform. It was my first time inside a woman’s room since a group of jackal like girls had attempted to give me a swirlie in jr. highschool. Despite this fact, I found it even less absorbing than the labs I had been cleaning. I did note with some interest, however, that the ladies room had a long, padded bench with a high back while the men’s room had nothing more than toilets to sit on. The difference intrigued me. Both bathrooms had the same layout, the same number of sinks and toilets, even the same number of ashtrays to clean, yet the women had a place to sit or even lie down.

In those first few months, despite my failings as a laborer, I managed to make more friends than enemies, the only black spot on my record coming when I had a run in with Jerry.

Jerry was our crew’s resident handicap. With an over-large, egg-shaped skull, skinny little body, glasses, and twisted speech, everyone assumed he was mentally deficient but I suspected his problems were mostly physical. He worked hard and kept to himself. Most of the crew either snickered at him behind his back, calling him ‘retard’ and ‘egg-head’, or ignored him completely, preferring to pretend he didn’t exist. He made me uncomfortable, too, but my attitude has long been to ignore the deformities, not the person; an attempt to override my instinctive reaction to keep such unfortunates from reproducing.

Jerry seemed to sense this friendly ambivalence in me and began directing occasional comments towards conversations I was engaged in or laughing at my jokes. I didn’t understand much of what he said, his pronunciation mangled by a marked inability to control the flesh of his mouth, but he acted friendly enough.

One night my buffer died in mid polish. I was baffled, inspecting the pad and sniffing around the motor to see if anything had burned out. When I followed my cord around the corner I saw that someone had unplugged it from the outlet. My confused expression must have been priceless for Jerry could no longer contain himself, his large cranium bobbing up and down on the other side of a cubicle wall as he laughed at his little joke. I laughed too, enjoying the levity’s effect on me in the middle of my most hated task.

The next night I saw an opportunity to repay the favor, catching sight of Jerry’s back as he buffed away inside one of the labs. I crouched down and approached the outlet like a spider, pulled the cord and then slipped off to a covered position to watch his reaction. To my puzzlement, Jerry seemed not the least bit amused, not even when I showed myself and called out “Got you back!” in a friendly tone.

Later that night I received my first write up from Judy for having interfered in Jerry’s work. When I tried to explain myself, horrified that she might think I was picking on Jerry because of his handicap, Judy gave me an “I don’t want to hear it” look and walked away.

After that I ignored Jerry, too.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Clauson’s Janitorial didn’t often attract beautiful female employees –a lack I, as a young male, felt keenly- so it was a great shock to the entire crew the night a stunning young woman joined our ranks. When she first appeared in the cafeteria at lunch break, those of us not in her crew were bowled over to realize she was wearing a yellow Clauson’s shirt. Her long, brown hair, pretty eyes, large, full breasts and well-shaped posterior stopped us in mid chew. She wore her shirt unbuttoned one button farther than usual to expose a sexy golden neckband that drew eyes to both its glitter and the warm cleavage it rested above.


Lunch was forgotten, replaced by ribald comments and rabid desire –or jealous biting commentary from the more traditionally blessed and sometimes even mustachioed female members of the crew.

Leave it to Cliff to not only know this girl but to snatch her up as his own within a few short weeks. Her name was Sheila and they had known each other though various friends for a number of years. She was closer to my age than his, having graduated from the same school a year before me but I couldn’t place her.

As is so often true of the gorgeous, much of Shelia’s beauty disappeared once she opened her mouth. Being Cliff’s girlfriend, she was over at the house often enough for my awe at her beauty to be eroded away by her unceasing, shallow drivel. Before I knew it, I didn’t even find her attractive.

Her invasion of the apartment started small but grew in leaps and bounds as she dragged her insane problems and shrill ideas into our home and our lives, making us miserable. Her life was a ridiculous soap opera of rival friends, loud, dangerous relatives, and bad judgment. She made us look smart.

Had it not been for Sheila, we never would have thrown the party. Cliff and I just don’t have those kinds of ideas. Truth be told, we had parties at our place all the time -but none were planned. People would show up and we’d party. It was less hassle that way.

Sheila thought an announced party would be great, though, and the idea got stuck in Cliff’s head. Hell, yeah! Why not? It even sounded like a good idea to me.

Cliff advertised the party to a select group at work -telling me to keep my yap shut, he’d do the inviting- and it was all set.

Right before the party, one of Sheila’s friends, a girl named Cindy, found a source of acid and I decided to buy a hit for the party. I’d tripped once before, in the mountains with a few friends, and thought it would be fun to do so again in a party setting. Sheila and Cindy agreed.

The party began small. Ron, a shaggy headed guy from work, arrived early and gave us a demonstration with his airbrush kit, creating a corny, alien horizon on a piece of white canvas board using only blue and violet. Others began to arrive.

ron's painting
Ron's Painting

Sheila handed me my hit of acid, cautioning: “The guy said it’s double-dipped, Corey. If this is only your second trip maybe you should just take half. You can always take more, later.”

No. I was a man, an independent man. Half-measures were for children who still lived at home. I popped the hit into my mouth and washed it down with an 18-ounce glass of orange juice. Those who saw me do this assumed I knew that citric acid is said to not only speed up a trip but also enhance its potency. I knew nothing of the sort and was only drinking the juice because I was thirsty.

More and more people arrived, one fellow toting a huge, multi-stemmed, volcano shaped bong the likes of which I’d never seen.

People in the know kept asking: “You peaking yet?” but I didn’t feel anything. Sheila and Cindy claimed to feel the onrush, searching for less nervous furniture and giggling in anticipation. Maybe my hit was a dud?

Earlier in the day, Cliff rigged a strobe light up to the light-switch in our dark hallway so that anyone flipping on the light as they searched for the bathroom would get a mind-numbing surprise. Demonstrating this little trick to a friend so fascinated him that we began to play with the effects of the strobe, spinning a half-dollar, then a bottle on a thick tile of glass until, in our inebriated exuberance, we spun too wildly, shattering the bottle on the edge of the tile.

As others attempted to pick the glass out of the carpeting I exited the dark hallway only to find that I was deep in the throat of my trip’s peak, the act of lifting the flag from the doorway seeming to set off the first wild rush of riotous sensation in my head.

Jack McIntyre, a high school friend of Cliff’s, noticed my dazzled condition and, screaming like a banshee, leapt at me, bringing his face inches away from mine and shaking it, his tongue waggling, as he uttered an unending string of cartoon sound effects for which he was known.

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to scream. I desperately wished to turn into a wisp of vapor and exit my body. Instead, I did the next best thing and sank to the floor, my arms over my head, assuming a fetal position and muttering “No, no, no, no.”

Somehow this single-incidence of sensory overload set the tone for my whole, horrible, paranoid trip. Jack felt terrible and spent years apologizing to me for his actions but I don’t blame him. My personality is not suited to the outer realms of strong hallucinogenic drugs.

Cindy and Sheila caught up with me eventually, though their trips were far more pleasant than mine. Cindy had a bit of a head cold so Cliff gave her a fresh box of Kleenex which she carried with her from place to place as she socialized.

Soon the party was going strong and I could not take the input. I considered going outside but, upon opening the door, was so horrified by the big, black openness of the night with its myriad, distant twinklings that I retreated to my room instead.

I paced a bit then sat down on my mattress and tried listening to some music but the sounds that poured forth -one of Syd Barret’s more creative guitar excursions- made me feel as if I was losing my mind.

I clicked the tape off just as Ron entered the room. Sloshed, he sat by my bed and began babbling about god. Even whacked out of my mind on acid, I’m not masochistic enough to want to listen to a drunk talking about religion but his mere presence calmed me. As he went on, I noticed that my hands left wonderful trails when they moved, an effect caused by an excess amount of light making its way past my chemically opened irises. Ron proselytized and I waved my hands, smiling.

Down near the foot of my bed, the faux wood grain on my hollow-core closet doors began to twist and coil and I could see what looked like weasels moving around under the bed covers near my feet. I blinked, nervous, looking to Ron for assurance but bits of his head and shoulder were fading out into multicolored gray smears -not unlike what one sees when blacking out- and merging with the slithery, encroaching closet doors. Having had just about enough, I got up without saying a word and left Ron to deal with the weasels.

In the kitchen, the revelers drank their alcohol, toked their hits, and engaged each other in sloppy games of bumper pool. My best friend, Hank Billings -a tall, thin guy with a hawkish face and a muppet’s head of curls- was twirling his pool stick in a big circle as he waited his turn, the trails of which stopped me dead in my tracks.

“You like that, do you?” he asked, seeing my reaction and spinning the stick faster only to lose his grip and –as always- spill a beer.

“Ungfwat.” I muttered, backing out of the room.

Back in the hallway, my eye fell on Cliff’s closed bedroom, the long, soothing rectangle of black beneath it seeming to promise escape. I slipped inside, unseen, and heaved a sigh of relief.

Despite the solitude, I still could not relax. If anything, Cliff’s room was even more a funhouse landscape than our living room, owing to the fact that it was a storehouse for those things he deemed too precious to come in contact with the general public. My blown pupils ranged over swords, toolboxes, Mountain Dew paraphernalia, clothing, car parts, magazines, flashers from barricades, a pair of large, hairy snow-boots, books, laundry, glass insulators, and more.

Coming to rest on the light switch, it occurred to me that what I really needed was a break from sensory input. Reaching over, I shut off the light and sat down on Cliff’s bed.

Being a true devotee to the good night’s sleep, Cliff covered his bedroom window with aluminum foil the day we moved in, the effect of which being that, with the light off and the door shut, virtually no ambient light source remained: I was in pitch darkness.

I smiled to myself and drew in a few calm breaths but rumpled origami of my brain would not leave well enough alone.

“This is great.” it said. “Total darkness. Just like the void.”

“Uh, huh.” I muttered in nervous agreement. “The void.”

“What if this really is the void?” my brain continued.

“No, don’t . . .”

“Yeah. If this was the void we’d just be floating. Lost. Like being in outer space but with no stars. No light, no life, just the yawing vacuum of space sucking at your clothes as you whirl, helpless; falling forever in an endless-”

I stood and clawed at my memory’s approximation of the switch plate, finding nothing but air, as if my yammering, idiot brain had somehow managed to create the void it spoke of. Almost gibbering with fright I fell forward into the wall, straining the entire length of my body to find the protruding nub of the light switch. When my desperate fumblings inadvertently flipped the elusive switch, the resulting flood of unexpected light caused me such renewed fright that I found myself pining for the void I had only just escaped.

Upon retaining some shred of reason, I realized that, as uncomfortable as I was around others, I was far safer with them than left alone with my thoughts –a dispiriting discovery for one so long happy with his life of voluntary solitude.

The rest of the party is but a blur to me, as I’m sure you can imagine. I remember swaying between a vague sense of unease and sheer panic for hours as I waited for the drug to wear off. My only hope was to distract myself with the others, not easy when you’re hyper aware and they’re rendered incomprehensible by drink or chattering nonstop like senseless hyenas from pot. My best bet, I felt, was to stick close to Cindy and Sheila, who were in the same ocean, if not the same boat, as I.

Sheila was too social for me, however, the LSD having rendered her capable of stopping with a person for only a few short and random sentences, shot out like machinegun rounds from the gaping chop of her mouth. Then some irresistible, inner momentum would carry her forward to another startled recipient of her seamless, erratic monologue.

Cindy was far calmer, her head cold serving as an anchor to her mind as it rode out the LSD storm. The Kleenex box she carried had became a kind of security object for her and she clutched it close to her chest, as a little girl with a favorite doll, plucking out the occasional tissue to dab at her congested nostrils. By the end of the party, a mere handful of unused but crumpled tissues remained inside a box rendered almost shapeless by the spasmodic fetishing; a deep crease near one end giving it a loose floppiness, as if a crucial bone had snapped somewhere deep within.

Late in the party, two uninvited guests arrived, bringing with them what looked like about a pound of marijuana in a freezer bag. They were low-level dealers with a menacing air. They were inside for less than five minutes before one of them made sure to stretch, thus ‘accidentally’ flashing the gun he was packing under his shirt; a move made with such theatrical nonchalance that it belied his otherwise aloof demeanor. Their arrival subdued the party, lowering its tone from freewheeling and jovial to somber and business like.

Something about the face on the guy with the gun bothered me to such a degree that it went beyond normal distrust into the murky realm of undeniable intuition –a thing I’ve never believed in. I told Cliff this and he laughed, saying: “These guys are cool. Trust me. You’re just having a bad trip.”

Almost everyone else had the same reaction: “Them? They’re okay!” –but I couldn’t kick the feeling.

The odd thing is that Sheila and Cindy felt as I; something about the fellow’s eyes, nay, the general shape of his face, seemed to exude evil to the three of us, as if the grim reaper himself lurked somewhere within his head and only those twisted by hard drugs could see it. We huddled in my room muttering like the idiots we were until they left.

Their departure signaled the beginning of the end of the party. Within thirty minutes all but the most wasted were gone, leaving our apartment as bewildered and disheveled as those who remained.

As the last of the mobile revelers moved out, Ron plopped down next to Cindy and, apparently finished with his incoherent proselytizing, began hitting on her with a desperation tempered only by his level of inebriation. Over Cindy’s protests that she was not only uninterested but engaged, Ron continued to slur various propositions into what he thought was her ear but, more often than not, was her shoulder or breast pocket. Cindy ignored him as well as she could but when his slouch would become too pronounced she would push him off saying: “Don’t ooze, Ron. You’re oozing.”

the party
the author, Cindy (with her security Kleenex), and Hank Billings (blotto)

Shelia and Cliff were doomed from the start. Sheila was far too needy and disruptive, her bouncy, childish idiocy clashing with Cliff’s conservative nature. It wasn’t too many days after the party before they decided to break up. The parting was amicable; a good thing because, with so many mutual friends, it would have been a nightmare had their relationship reached a screaming and throwing-things level. Sheila managed to make things uncomfortable for me however, for, within 24 hours of their break-up, I found her in my bed.

I was a bit down that morning –a typical mood for me in those days- and Shelia wanted to try and cheer me up. We sat and talked awhile and then, seeing me stretch and strain at my aching shoulders, she offered me a backrub, which I accepted.

I lay face down on my bed while Sheila straddled me, her fingers working the knots out of my muscles as I groaned in sincere appreciation. A real fan of massage, I was soon semi-conscious and drooling on the pillow.

Finished, Sheila rolled off onto my bed and lay next to me. I sat up, still in rubbed-muscle heaven and, looking over, thanked her. Sheila said nothing, just arched her back, accentuating her large, round breasts, then parted her lips and looked deep into my eyes.

Of a sudden my slow, young brain realized what was being offered. Only the day before she’d been my brother’s girlfriend and here she was waiting for me to commence the sequel, her hair fanned out over my pillows. I recoiled, aghast at the concept but saying nothing.

She lay there a moment longer, a bit surprised I suppose, then got up and walked out.

My three-month review was not good. I was told that I wasn’t cutting the mustard and to collect my things –I was being transferred to production level. The change was to be immediate, an embarrassment for me because it was the middle of the shift so, as my coworkers came back from lunch, they witnessed my march of shame as I was escorted to the stairs. Everyone knew that the change was a demotion -I was literally moving down in the company. Judy wouldn’t even look at me.

As I've stated, the main floor was mostly cubicles and a few clean rooms. In engineer territory the worst messes occur around the coffee stations. The production level, on the other hand, was a vast, grey expanse of concrete filled with tanks of toxic chemicals, weird fumes, metal filings, and the casual dirt of the blue-collar worker.

My new section included a rough-edged research and design area, two short hallways, a stairwell, a makeshift metal shop, and a men’s room. The latter two always competed for filthiest but, in retrospect, the metal shop never had a chance.

While the upstairs was vacant during our shift, production was not. We had to work around a full crew most of the night. The place was such a flurry of activity that you could look behind you as you swept, mopped, or emptied trash and see all evidence of your efforts whisked away.

My new boss, Tom, was a beer-bellied, bearded redneck who wore ever-sagging jeans that he would tug upwards every few minutes or, if he were telling a joke, more often.

Tom was sympathetic to my plight and told me that no one expected any miracles on the production level –“Just look busy.” he said “With all these jack-asses spillin’ coffee and draggin’ mud in behind you, no one can tell if you’re doing any real work or not.”

One of my new coworkers was a guy named –I’m not making this up- Larry, a southerner who was rabid in his racism. Every conversation I had with him somehow ended up on the subject of what he called “niggers”, “spics”, and “kikes”.

His squat, melon-shaped skull, sporting a sallow array of almost simian features, was topped off with an unremarkable shank of brown hair styled to resemble a discarded mop head.

One night, as we dragging our trash buckets and our tired butts towards the supply closet, he began cursing Abraham Lincoln.

“This is all Lincoln’s fault.” he said. “If it weren’t for Lincoln, niggers would be doing this work.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “and we’d be unemployed.”

The thing that killed me was that, working in a different building, he had this beautiful, willow thin girlfriend with clear, gentle eyes who was very devoted to him. She almost never spoke except to him, and then only if spoken to. Whenever he spoke she would listen intently, a little smile curling gently at the corners of her mouth as if the crude jokes and idiotic opinions he uttered were the most beautiful sonnets ever composed. She always sat very close to him, as if his magnetism was palpable.

The only time she ever spoke to me was when I made a weak attempt to explain my lack of racism. “You don’t understand because you’ve never had to live among them,” she said in her soft, southern accent. “They’re no better than animals.”

After Sheila, Cliff avoided girls for a while –or tried to, anyway. They seemed to seek him out. He was as interested as any man would be but Sheila left a bad taste in his mouth, and now he was never at a loss to come up with excuses for why it wouldn’t work.

“Karen asked me down to her apartment again today.”

Karen was a girl he’d gone to school with who now lived just one door down. She was pretty, if a bit dull.

“Again? What was it this time? Jammed closet door?”

“Nope. Toilet was running. I just jiggled the handle then shortened the chain. She asked me to stay and have a beer.”

“You shoulda.”

“You know I don’t like beer.”

“So? She’s cute.” I teased.

“Yeah. She is –but she smokes.”

“You obviously like her.” I said, thinking about how he’d perk up whenever she came knocking. “Why not give it a try?”

“She has a kid and her ex-husband is always coming over and starting fights. She drinks too much, she's short, and she’s out of shape. It’d never work.”

“Then why’d you bring it up?”

Having an active crew working around me made cleaning more difficult than I’d expected. Not only were they right behind you, scuffing up the floor as you buffed it, they were sullen and hostile. Most of them were contract workers who didn’t give a damn about their jobs or the company; they’d throw their trash on the floor and piss all over the toilets. The rest were long-time Delore workers, disgruntled by the company’s steady decline –both in the stock market as well as in how they treated their employees- and saw the contract workers, a group in which we were included, as incompetent interlopers.

This meant that I now worked before a resentful audience that, at best ignored me as inhuman scum, at worst considered me an unnecessary obstacle to their progress, and thus a worthy target of their abuse:

“Can’t you wait until I’m finished to come through here with that goddamn thing?”

“Oh, shit! You emptied the trash can!?! I had important papers in there!”

“Hey buddy, I need to take a piss –and don’t gimmie that ‘the other bathroom is open’ bullshit. I ain’t walkin’ alla way over there just so some lazy-ass, retard janitor don’t have to mop twice.”

They stole my “Caution, Wet Floor” signs, dragged their black-soled shoes across my freshly buffed floors, hid my trashcan when my back was turned, and turned me in for the slightest, often imagined, infraction.

It wasn’t long before I just stopped trying. After completing my basic routine, I would spend the rest of the evening yapping with my coworkers, napping under out-of-the-way machinery with my detail brush, or doing crossword puzzles on the first landing of the stairwell.

Despite this slacking, I was not harassed until Sheila, enthralled with a handsome, blonde security guard, began whispering tales to him about how the janitors pilfered when no one was looking.

Of course, she had most closely associated with Cliff and I.

Though I don’t know if she ever actually said any names, before too long I found myself under some pretty heavy scrutiny. Every time I turned around I’d see Larry or someone else from upper-management scoping me out. The whole crew was forced to work harder because of it. Tom came and asked me if I knew what was up because, as he put it: “They’ve got a hard on for you and it’s killing me!”

I had no idea why I was commanding such attention but I could see the handwriting on the wall.

One night, right after first break, Connie, Larry’s second in command -a flat-chested, snaggle-toothed biker chick with oversized glasses, a drill-instructor’s charm, and a surprisingly shapely ass- button-holed me as I was collecting my tools.

“C’mon. Let’s inspect your area.”

She led me to the R&D section and began pointing at partially filled trashcans and the messy coffee station.

“Why the hell wasn’t this cleaned up before first break?”

“It was. Then they came in and used the area again after I’d been through.”

“Then you shoulda cleaned it again.”

“Well, I would have but I was already sweeping.”

“You dust-mopped this area?” she asked in mock surprise.

“Yeah. Then they came back in. Same thing that happened to the trashcan.” I pointed out.

“Watch your mouth, mister,” she cautioned.

After the inspection, I was written up, the upshot being that my area was to be sparkling clean regardless of the constant foot-traffic, or I would be fired. Had I a work ethic I couldn’t have done what was asked and they knew it.

Tom read Connie’s comments, then slapped me on the back and tried to cheer me up, saying: “Look at it this way, guy: Pretty soon you’ll never have t’come back here again.”

How right he was. I think I lasted another week before boss man Larry caught three of us gabbing at the supply closet. Later that evening Tom was forced to give me my walking papers –a chore he found uncomfortable.

“Well, uh, Corey, um, they, uh . . .”

“You have to write me up?”

“Well, um, yeah . . .”

“Does this count as my third time or, since I’m past the three month waiting period, is it only my second?”

Well, you know, they uh . . .” Tom adjusted his baseball cap for the umpteenth time, his eyes wandering everywhere except my face. “They asked me to fire you, man. I gotta let you go.”

For the first time he looked me in the eyes and I could see a cross between sympathy and a readiness for whatever my reaction might be -tears, recrimination, a sucker punch, who knew?

“Well, not terribly surprising, is it?” I said with a smile.

“Um, uh, no. Not really.”

“I never was that good at this job. I kinda hated it.”

“Yeah, you’re the worst buffer I ever seen.”

“So- do I finish out the rest of the night?”

“No, you gotta go now. And, uh . . .” Tom continued with obvious discomfort “I gotta escort you off the property.”

“Okay. Fine –except I drove my brother here? How will he get home?”

Tom just shrugged.

I climbed into my car, surprised to find a bit of a lump in my throat as I realized, even though I’d hardly been there, I was going to miss some of the people and -this will sound nuts- the experience of having and hating the job. The thought that I was now unable to hold up my end of the rent had yet to sink in.

Watching Tom tugging his pants up as he headed back inside, I let out an evil laugh –he’d confiscated my nametag but I still had my scraper.

Once home, I pulled huge lungfuls of smoke through Cliff’s big, glass steamroller, then ate my sack lunch in front of some putrid late-night television. I was desperate to erase the gnawing sense of failure and impending doom that curled like a ball of snakes in my belly. The fact that I could no longer pay my bills or feed myself was bad; that my unemployment also threatened Cliff was inexcusable. I had failed as a roommate and a brother.

What would Cliff say? What would he do? Could we survive on just his pay until I found another job? I paced our apartment like a big animal in a new cage.

When Cliff finally arrived home I met him at the door with a brave smile.

“Hey hey!” I said cheerfully. “I got fired!”

“Yeah, I know.” he said with equal cheerfulness. “I quit!”


Poverty is boring.

Most literary approaches manage to make it seem interesting –the grinding uncertainty flowering into some kind of melodrama- but I’m no worrier. Instead of long nights and days filled with hand wringing and desperate planning, our impoverishment was like one long, dull weekend with nothing to do and no money to do it with. Despite everything, I was content and sleeping as well as ever; snoring my way through life and a situation that would have most people tearing their hair out –or at least looking for a solution.

The first month without any income wasn’t too bad. Though both a couple of boneheads when it comes to money, we managed to retain enough to cover necessities –food, electricity, rent. Life was as it had been before but now we had more time to fuck around.

Through careful questioning I learned that Cliff’s decision to quit Clauson’s had less to do with familial solidarity -a thought that had swelled my heart with pride when it first occurred to me- and more with self-preservation. Convinced that Shelia was setting him up for a fall with Delore security, he quit before he could be fired.

In reaction, our first day of unemployment was spent stripping the apartment of all the crap we’d illicitly collected from the plant: an addle-pated assortment of knick-knacks and industrial curiosities. Not having the sense or foresight to risk our jobs taking anything of real value, the ill-gotten booty we scurried to conceal wouldn’t have led to serious legal trouble even if it had been discovered. At the time, however, our crimes seemed monstrous, so we bundled it all in a trash bag and buried it in a vacant lot on the other side of the fence that ran alongside the apartments.

The following week found us peering through our heavy curtains whenever a car entered the apartment lot, tensing at the sound of approaching footsteps, and blanching whenever the doorbell rang –yet the heavy head of justice’s hammer never fell.

The second month saw us scraping together change for basic items such as food and electricity. Other bills went by the wayside and our phone service was cancelled, forcing us to use a pay phone at a nearby motel –a situation Cliff came to enjoy so much that he continued to live this way for many years.

Luckily for us, there was a little rag-tag grocery store not far from our apartment called The 3-Thieves Market. They operated on the fringe, selling stuff that legitimate grocery stores cannot –out of date dairy products, dented cans of vegetables, green meat, blue bread, and various other questionable foodstuffs.

I bought a jar of no-name peanut butter that, upon opening, I discovered had a coat of yellow oil on top of it an eighth of an inch thick. The jar said ‘Smooth’ but the viscous paste inside contained innumerable lumps of what I desperately hoped were peanuts. The ‘wheat’ bread I bought to spread it on had less taste than your grocery store brand’s economy white and I am certain, though I cannot prove it, that the second item on the loaf’s list of ingredients was ‘pencil-shavings’. Still, when you’re hungry . . .

Having much less practice at losing jobs, and thus a novice in the art of conservation, my food supply dwindled at a greater pace than Cliff’s. When I was down to eating just peanut butter toast and instant coffee he still had a decent larder of grape jelly, Captain Crunch, and Spaghetti-o’s.

“Y’gotta learn to conserve, bro,” he said around a mouthful of cereal as my hungry eyes followed his spoon.

We were brothers but Chef Boyardee is thicker than water.

Unfortunately, The 3-Thieves market closed down and, hungry, Cliff began job-hunting. Before the week was out he found a job working the night shift at a gas station across town. It didn’t pay much to start but it was better than nothing.

I considered looking for work but it seemed so hopeless. Here I was, 18 years old and fired from the first job I ever took. Who would hire me? I imagined myself living on the streets or –worse- being forced to move back in with my mother.

With Cliff working, things began to look up, but the situation was still taking a toll on our relationship and I felt that Cliff looked upon me as a liability.

Why does he seem so mad at me? I wondered as I sat smoking his dope and waiting for him to get off work.

We always had dope –even when we ran out of food there was dope lying around. During my childhood, my mother always pointed at the ragged, the crazed and the homeless, saying: “Those people are on drugs. You don’t want to do drugs or you’ll end up like them –in the gutter.”

Now that I was all grown up and unemployed in my own apartment I scoffed at her warnings. What did she know? What was so bad about smoking pot? Oh, sure, it completely demotivates you and destroys your short-term memory –and of course it’s hard on your lungs- but other than that why was it so bad? At least it wasn’t addictive like tobacco -and that’s legal! I chuckled at her as I puffed on my cigarette. People could be so foolish.

Still, I did sometimes wonder about the negative effects all this drug use might be causing.

Once, when we were both quite high, Cliff came into my bedroom with his finger on his chin.

“Feel this,” he said.

“Feel what?”

“This. There’s a lump right here on my chin.” He moved his hand and tipped his head back.

I reached out and, feeling for the lump, was surprised when the slight pressure I applied caused him to fall backwards into my closet doors.

Cliff is tall and he fell like all tall things do: with an unbelievable leisure. He retained his posture even upon hitting the closet doors, sliding slowly to the floor, head and shoulders ripping posters from the doors as he went.

“Cliff!” I cried. “Cliff!”

I thought I had killed him, as if the lump on his chin was a little bag of poison and the pressure of my finger had burst it, sending merciless tendrils of death straight to his brain.

He was out for less than a minute before one cat-like eye opened and a small smile curled the corner of his mouth.

“Oh!” I said in both relief and growing anger. “You son of a bitch! Don’t DO that. You scared the hell out of me! Jesus!”

“What am I doing on your floor?” Cliff asked.

Living on the night shift has its ups and downs. As much as I enjoy being up when most everyone else is asleep, the flip side is trying to sleep when the earth is hot, bright, and abuzz.

One day, Cliff and I were awakened by what sounded like a small herd of belled ponies galloping up and down the apartment’s walkways. It soon became evident that a small group of children from the complex were making a game of ringing doorbells as they ran past each apartment, laughing their fool heads off.

Not the least bit amused, we hatched an evil plot.

As their merry parade progressed up the stairs to our level, Cliff and I donned Halloween masks and lay in wait.


Ding-dong! Ding-dong!



Ding-dong! Ding-dong!


Just as they reached our door we yanked it open, popped our heads out, let out blood-curdling roars, then snapped the door shut. I had just enough time to glimpse the startled faces of two small boys and an even smaller girl, none of them over the age of eight.

Silence reigned and then, with her companions beating a hasty retreat, the little girl on the other side of the door let out a long, piercing shriek and burst into tears.

cliff preparing to frighten small children
Cliff preparing to frighten small children

After a week of peanut-buttered toast and instant coffee, I gave in and conceded there was nothing for it but to look for a job.

My motivation wasn’t exactly peaking, however; after picking up only two applications from a couple of fast-food restaurants near our apartment, I called it good. I still had very little faith that anyone would hire me –even if only to slap burgers together- so I was quite surprised when the manager of Hardee’s called me back for an interview.

I’d not eaten at a Hardee’s and considered the chain little more than a cheap upstart in the world of legitimate burger franchises. They were new to the region and, like Wendy’s, served a geometrically shaped burger -a huge offense in my eyes. Who the hell wants to eat a piece of meat that looks like it belongs on the set of Star Trek? Knocking my opinion down further was the company’s lack of a mascot. To me this meant they were either serving good food –a near impossibility- or that they weren’t willing to make the effort to distract you from their putrid fare with a happy, bug-eyed cartoon character.

All these reservations didn’t mean that I was too proud to put on one of their ugly, brown and plaid uniforms, however, and I was soon in their kitchen, ready to make my contribution to the overweight and the pimply.

The manager was a fresh-faced thirty-year-old named Mark who was bucking for regional supervisor –his clothes were pressed, his hair was nice, his shit-eating grin a blinding shade of pearl.

As the job of assistant manager is as demanding as it is unrewarding, fast-food joints take no chances when filling the position. Our store had three: Lee, a frustrated ex-marine with a drinking problem, Erika, a perky blonde with her sights set on the management position, and Ivan, a kooky Venezuelan. The four of them had me wondering if I had signed on as an employee at a hamburger joint or as a minor character in a sitcom.

The rest of the crew was composed of people near my own age; mostly high school and community college students -or dropouts.

As luck would have it, a fellow I’d met the summer before via an acquaintance was also employed in the kitchen -Rafe James. We barely knew each other but it was comforting to see a familiar face during my first day on the job.

I started out working the lunch-rush in the kitchen, toasting buns, applying condiments, and micro waving ham and cheese at a breakneck pace.

The job was so simple it made my head hurt but my nervousness and the speed with which I had to perform these simple duties had me dropping hot trays of toasted buns and applying over-generous dollops of catsup and mustard. Rafe didn’t help the situation, cackling at my mistakes and distracting me with hilarious banter centered around two subjects –pretty girls and guitar heroes.

“You heard Steve Vai? That fucker can really play. I’ve got a white flying V. Oh, shit, lookit that chick at the counter! Fuck! I gotta get her number. Oh, yeah -them trays are hot. D’it burn you? A-hah!”

Our immediate supervisor, an unhappy and plain young woman by the name of Cheryl, despised Rafe and, unhappy with our horseplay, gave us a talking to after the first lunch wave had passed. Every time she turned her head to me during the lecture Rafe mouthed the words ‘dyke’, ‘lesbian’, and ‘virgin’ through his unrepentant grin.

Having been subsisting on meager provisions for an overlong period of time, I was soon dizzy with the smell of cooking meat and found my shift, though only four hours long, to be tortuous. It was with real delight that I fell upon my free meal of a cheeseburger, fries and a coke forgetting all about the sacrilege of the octagonal, mascot-less meat.

Our apartment’s reputation as a psychedelic clubhouse began to cause us some trouble. People would visit under the mistaken belief that we either sold drugs, had plenty to spare, or would baby-sit those completely out of their minds on them.

Jack McIntyre once showed up with his nephew, Alan, and some other friend –all three loaded to the gills on lsd. Cliff and I were on our way out but they convinced us to let them hang while we were gone.

We came back to find a house in tatters: the living room drapes hung askew from a snapped rod, candle wax was splattered creatively over furniture and the carpet, one of our filched and coveted viewing prisms had a monstrous chip out of the back, there were footprints on the coffee table, and the kitchen looked as if they’d blindfolded Martha Stewart and loaded her up on speed –all of this accomplished in less than an hour.

Jack’s nephew, Alan, was only a couple of years younger than I, causing Jack and Cliff to refer to us as “the next generation”. I liked Alan. He seemed okay for a guy who’d been thrown out of jr. high school for dealing acid. I enjoyed the mellow, irreverent company he and his high school friends provided -and the young girls they occasionally had over didn’t hurt my interest, either.

One time I agreed to pick up a buddy of his, Tony, and a girl Tony was trying to woo. The snow was falling in crunchy flakes when I pulled up to my old highschool at the appointed time, sliding with uncontrolled force into the curb in an attempt to appear reckless and cool.

Spotting my car, Tony and the girl sprinted from the building, alerting me to the fact that I was now an accessory to a couple of truants.

The girl, Sara, was stunning; beautiful hair, clear skin, a willowy body. Her eyes flashed at me as she piled into the front seat, her warm, denim painted hip pressing up against mine as Tony squeezed in next to her and slammed the door.

We ran by Tony’s house so he could fetch his weed, then stopped by a 7-11 where I bought them some 3.2 wine coolers. As I climbed back into the car with the alcohol, Sara caught a whiff of my aftershave and said “Someone smells nice” in a very naughty sounding tone.

“Well, it’s not me!” I said for some inexplicable reason as Tony bashed holes in my dashboard with jealous eyes.

Once at our apartment, Tony wrapped himself around Sara and commenced pleading for sex, a kiss, a hug, anything! -but she was having none of it. She refused pot and only sipped her cooler while Tony cradled her in frustration, his useless, throbbing erection pulling all the blood from his brain.

After a short period of non-involvement, Sheila once again began accompanying mutual friends to our apartment. Instead of the tension you might expect such fraternization to cause, she and Cliff acted quite comfortable around each other. Sheila even brought her new boyfriend around, a big, bearded, macho guy by the name of Mark. Mark swaggered a bit at first but, realizing there was no honor to defend, soon settled down.

While everyone else debated what was really going on in their heads, I knew for certain that Cliff was relieved to be free of Sheila: they were an obvious mismatch and now Sheila was beginning to bloat up. She had always been a bit . . . plush but now her face and limbs were losing definition.

Obesity is one of the many things that Cliff found completely unacceptable. Cliff, in fact, had a whole set of criteria that he used to gauge the potential seriousness of any given relationship. If, for example, you were his idea of the perfect woman but you have blond hair, not at all his preference, Cliff might go out with you but you could count on the fact that, no matter how happy or otherwise compatible you two might be, Cliff would have one eye on the lookout for someone just like you -but brunette. Not that he was two-timing or dishonest about it. One of Cliff’s most incorrigible traits is his honesty in such matters.

“I like you, I like you a lot. You’re pretty and you’re fun to talk to. We have lots in common and I really enjoy your company but, well, I just can’t get serious with someone so . . . short.”

My job at Hardee’s was ridiculous, more a novelty pastime than viable form of employment. I was scheduled something like 16 or 18 hours during my first two-weeks –a period that, at minimum wage, produced a paycheck incapable of making the down-payment on a pack of chewing gum, much less allow me to pay my share of the bills or provide me with a suitable supply of groceries.

I was hungry as ever -but the solution was just under my nose.

“Help me with this box.” Rafe called one day, beckoning me into the walk-in freezer with a twinkle in his eye. Inside were frosty pallets stacked with boxes and bags of just about everything we served.

Grinning, Rafe lead me to an open box of pre-apportioned cookie dough balls. They were delicious. We stuffed our cheeks and emerged from the freezer gasping as we choked down the sticky globs.

I soon learned that it was always a good idea to volunteer to get supplies. Not only would you get a change of scenery and a chance to shirk, it was also the best way to grab a surreptitious bite to eat. I especially loved fetching pickles, as they were kept in a separate room in a big, green 5-gallon bucket. I could eat handfuls of the things. I even nibbled on the occasional broken chunk of a frozen meat patty. Num!

Better even than restocking, however, was taking out the trash.

Fast food restaurants are only allowed to keep hot food items around for a certain amount of time. Too long and you’re risking bacteria –plus you’ll have to put up with some fat bastard whining that his burger is cold or dry, and nobody wants that.

Hardee’s used a number system, little metal tabs that sat in the racks and indicated what number the big hand was on when said item was fresh. The food was only allowed to be in the rack for ten minutes or something –I never paid attention to the actual time, I just watched when and what got thrown out, always crossing my fingers for expired pies.

A savvy food service employee will take time in between preparing food to adjust the contents of the trash can in order to avoid having their free snacks buried. Once at the dumpster, you wolf down whatever goodies you managed to preserve, savoring their almost perceptible warmth.

As the holidays approached we decided to organize another party. Some of Cliff’s friends were on leave from the service and it looked like we could plan on a wild time.

Alan and a couple of his friends arrived tripping, so they sat around our kitchen table attempting to mellow out while I played the devil’s dj, slipping in the weirdest music I owned. Nothing seemed to phase them until I put on Frank Zappa’s “The Radio is Broken”. After a just a few moments of this insanity their composure began to shred. There was nervous giggling, white knuckles on beer cups, and manic, darting eyes. When they couldn’t take anymore they fell from their chairs and, begging me to stop, crawled away mewling with frightened laughter.

One of Cliff’s military buddies arrived with a game called “Pass-Out” which, though shaped like a cheap version of Monopoly, was designed to help people on their way to the emergency room. As you moved your token around the board there were hazard spaces that either instructed you to take another drink, snort, or puff of whatever intoxicating substance was on hand, or it might ask you to draw a card -that would instruct the same. The goal, of course, was to be rendered comatose. Even at my most hedonistic I found the concept incredibly stupid.

Party hopping, Sheila and Dave arrived late. Sheila was already blotto and, after ponying-up her own baggie of dope for the evening’s festivities, passed out on the couch.

I found the party unremarkable until I was reunited with an old friend, DW Montana. DW and I met in grade school, became fast friends, and then lost track of each other when sent to different jr. high schools. Upon meeting again in high school, things had changed: DW was running with the dopers while I hung in nerd territory. One of the last times we’d spoken, I asked him if he was dope smoker. When he replied in the affirmative, I told him, in a cool, self-righteous tone, that I didn’t -and that was that. Now, here he was at a party at my house and I was sharing a bowl with him. Gentleman that he was, he didn’t rub my nose in the irony of it all –or maybe his drug addled mind simply didn’t supply the memory . . .

Later that evening, DW disappeared for a short time only to reappear soaking wet and shivering, his shoes and coat gone.

“Dude! What are you doing?” I asked.

“My truck’s stuck in a ditch.” he said.

“Heh. You must be pretty wasted. Where’s your coat?”

“The truck.”

“Your shoes, too?!?”

“No, no. They’re down the hall at that neighbor girl of yours.”

“Who? ‘Coker’ Chrissie?”

“Yeah, I accidentally knocked on her door first and, well, she’s a lot of fun” he grinned.

“Jesus, you are wasted. A ditch, huh? You need help pulling it out?”

“No,” DW laughed, “not that kind of ditch; an irrigation ditch. My truck is upside down and under water. Fuck, I’m cold! S’there any beer left?”

DW wasn’t the only one plumbing the depths of his depravity that evening. Around two in the morning, semi-conscious, Alan made to lean up against the wall, forgetting that it wasn’t a wall but just a flag covering the entry to our hallway. Clutching at the flag as he fell, he ripped it from the ceiling. Half an hour later a line was forming outside our bathroom door when one of swollen decided he’d waited long enough and barged in to find Alan slumped on the toilet, pale and twitching, his head dangling into the trashcan in his lap.


“He’s sick.”

Jack tried to rescue his nephew from shame by closing the door and getting him cleaned up but the stench proved too much for his weak stomach.

“I can’t do it!” he cried as he emerged retching. “Someone else’ll have to. Jesus –the smell!”

“Goddammit I have to pee!”

“Get him outta there!”

After much bickering it was conceded that Alan was best left where he was. After all, he had both ends covered. When Alan finally did recover, he staggered out of the bathroom and right out the front door, almost over the deck railing.

I’m not sure why certain events will signal the end of a party to virtually everyone attending but they can and Alan’s self-ejection from the bathroom did. Before we knew it, the party was over.

The last folks to leave were Dave and Sheila. Dave would have left earlier but Sheila’s snoring bulk served as an all too effective anchor. Now he was giving her gentle shakes:

“Sheilaaah. Sheeeilaaah. C’mon honey; time to go.”

Sheila twitched and tossed her head.

“Sheeeilaaaaah.” Dave wasn’t giving up. He shook her harder. “Let’s go.”

“You could always carry her.” Cliff said.

Dave looked from Cliff to the now wider Sheila then back to Cliff.

“Shit . . . C’mon Sheila!”

Sheila allowed herself to be coaxed from the depths, her eyelids riding at half-mast over their glazed orbs.

“Y’ready t’go, honey?” Dave asked.

“Skulberdungie.” Sheila slurred matter-of-factly.

We stared at her.

“Skloo perf nurkle shantz?” she asked, one hand snaking down between her feet to grasp the ball foot of the couch. “Akkle fleen?”

“Wh-what?” Cliff asked.

My stomach started to flip-flop. All the stories my mother had told me over the years about drugs we’re true! Here was a girl whose brain was completely fried. How long until I turned into one of the donkeys on Pleasure Island?

Sheila continued talking gibberish until her brain sorted itself out enough to use actual English, if only with the sophistication of Tarzan:

“Want where got high.” she mumbled, her hand pulling in vain at the couch wheel.

We continued staring at her in horror as she repeated variations of this confounding phrase in ever-angrier tones.

Suddenly I got it -Cliff’s stash was under the couch and Sheila wanted what was left of the baggie she’d brought. Unable to stand or even speak, she remained aware of her drugs. Truly, the human brain is an amazing organ.

As the weather got colder the reality of our situation became more apparent. My own hours, though increasing, did little to alleviate our financial predicament and Cliff became more sour with each passing week.

One night, as I sat in my bedroom reading, I noticed my breath billowing before me though I’d crushed out my last cigarette some minutes before. Checking the thermostat I saw that it was set all the way down yet, when I adjusted it to kick the heat on, nothing happened.

“Hey, Cliff. Something’s wrong with the thermostat.”

“No there isn’t” came the terse reply, “and leave it alone! I pulled the fuse so you wouldn’t turn the heat up. If you’re cold put on more clothes!”

I understood and appreciated this plan but was disturbed by the unnecessary subterfuge and the anger I heard in his voice. Was I really that untrustworthy? Shamefaced, I reset the thermostat to zero and slunk back to my room to don a few sweaters.

Like a married couple, stress from our financial woes was spilling over into our relationship. Cliff began to take issue with my general habits and hobbies; what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, the friends I had over, all of it was beneath his contempt. My very presence irritated him. In short order I’d gone from being his roommate back to being one of his annoying, tag-along little brothers.

Ever creative, Cliff sparked on an idea one afternoon as he sat admiring his modest collection of ill-gotten road signs. Locating some black paint, he went to work.

His handiwork floored me when I saw it–it was flawless.

“You and a couple of your friends should go hang this.”

“On the street?!?” I laughed.

“Yeah,” he replied, dead serious.

I was taken aback. Cliff was not known to delegate his mischievousness unless he felt there was a decent chance of being caught –and I was now far too old to get sucked into playing the fall guy as easily as I once had.

“Why me?”

“’Cause I can’t afford to get caught.”

“I don’t want to get caught, either!” I barked.

“You won’t. Besides, it’s not the getting caught that’s a problem –this is a misdemeanor at most- it’s who gets caught.”


“Look: you’re a minor. You’re gonna do stuff like this. Cops’ll haul you down to the station, call mom, then laugh it off while she drives you home. Me? I’m a responsible adult. They catch me, I do jail time.”

“I’m not a minor, I’m 18! I could go to jail, too!”

“Not like I could. Who’s got the record?”

“Well . . .”

“C’mon! Use your imagination! Don’t you want to see this sign up! Jeez . . .”

So the next night three friends and I hustled the sign and some tools to my car and set out to find an appropriate place to hang the thing.

The obvious choice was just a few blocks over where the heavy traffic would allow more folks to see the sign but even at that late hour, the traffic was too steady for us to accomplish the task without being detected. The story was the same no matter where we went. Even the most desolate stretches would fill with cars the minute one of us attempted to shinny up a pole, a wrench clenched in our teeth.

When we did finally find a place quiet enough for us to get to work, we discovered that the city was employing an ingenious type of bolt whose design resisted the grasp of any traditional wrench. The whole harebrained affair seemed hopeless but I refused to return home defeated –we would try the county.

My natural instincts led me back home to a place I and some of my closest friends called “Wibbley Canyon” -a name designed to hide the depth of feeling I have for it and the stretch of river that runs there. Just over the bridge and around the bend, on a road I knew from an entire childhood of school bus rides, we found a likely spot.

Attempting nonchalance, we parked and, listening to the breath of the valley for any approaching motorists, we made our way over to the sign. Finding ourselves alone, we soon had it exchanged with Cliff’s fanciful redesign.

This evening of immature buffoonery, one of the last with school buddies I now saw so little of, was symbolic for me; a pale yet fitting, final notch in the stock of my childhood. We cheesed for the camera then scurried back home to report.

“You put it where?!?” Cliff was aghast.

“You don’t understand! There was too much traffic in town.”

“But who’s gonna see it out there, huh? Ten people before it gets taken down?”

“But Cliff! We got pictures! “

“Yeah. Great. Pictures. The school bus’s gonna go by there at six in the morning! What were you thinking?”

“You can always make another one! We brought back the other sign –it’s a 30 mile-an-hour, too! You could hang it yourself.”

But to my knowledge, he never did.

80 mph

Christmas was uneventful. As we’d stated our intention to spend Christmas Eve and morning at our own apartment, mom brought our presents by a week early with the condition that we not open them until Christmas morning and promised to appear at her house for Christmas dinner. We agreed, bid her adieu, then smoked a bowl and tore into the small pile of presents.

That same week, we were disturbed from our normal routines by shouting as doors up and down the complex opened. We peered out our own door to see a lone, confused deer taking cautious steps in the snow between the two apartment buildings. Many of the folks living here had never seen such a creature before and were both excited and frightened by its unexpected appearance. Though I’d grown up seeing deer, I found myself drawn to its delicate innocence and wondered if others in the complex felt as lucky and happy as I to be treated, despite our urban lives, to such a beautiful sight.

Across the way a man in his undershirt answered my unasked question by coming out his front door with a rifle and drawing a bead on the deer. He would have shot, too, had the screams of terror from residents on the other side of the deer not frightened it off.

With the apartment’s notoriety, you’d think Cliff and I would have had a houseful on New Year’s Eve but, as the day approached, we began to feel somewhat abandoned. It seemed everyone had somewhere to go but us. The only person who came over to party was Alan.

Alan had a pocketful of psychedelic mushrooms and, though I was hesitant to trip again, I allowed myself to be talked into taking some. I ate a small amount, telling myself that it was New Year’s, I was only taking a little; I’d be fine.

We washed down the foul fungi with soda and pot then, waiting for the mushrooms to do their thing, we tried to figure out what to do. We couldn’t just sit around the apartment on New Year’s Eve, that wouldn’t be right!

Jack McIntyre and his wife had moved to Denver a month or so before and, as they were our most constant party companions, a lamebrained plan was hatched to drive the 50 or so miles to their house as a kind of New Year’s surprise.

Not yet tripping, we climbed into my old, white, ’67 Nash Rambler and hit the highway. Expecting the effects of the mushrooms to hit at any minute, I insisted that Cliff, well known for his ability to remain cognizant under even the heaviest dose, drive.

Halfway there, the cumulative effects of the ride and the mushrooms started to get to me. My poor old Nash Rambler, a white clunker I dubbed ‘Elrod the Albinomobile’, vibrated down the blacktop at a speed it hadn’t seen in years, if ever. My vision began to take on the vibrations, churning everything into a disconcerting, staccato blur. The music coming from the speakers blended with the road noise to become an angry, incomprehensible muttering. Cliff and Alan were laughing and joking as I sunk lower in my seat, praying that I wouldn’t come apart.

“Damn! Yeah!” enthused Alan.

“These ‘shrooms are great!” Cliff agreed. “Hey Corey, get the baggie. Time to take the rest!”

“Alright!” Alan hooted.

I forced my hand to open the glove box and fetch the bag of fungus, handing it over my shoulder to Alan who divvied up the remaining heads and stems into three piles. He wolfed down his own with a swig of cola then handed us ours. I palmed mine while Cliff chewed his with a grimace.

“Yuck. I hate the taste of these things, and they always make me feel like I have to take a shit, but . . . wow!”

We reached Denver in full trip and proceeded to get lost in the sprawling, maze-like development where Jack lived; an endless labyrinth of cookie-cutter tenements crowded together on identical, storybook streets.

“This is so . . . cool.” Alan said, his face pressed to the glass -I was just glad to be off the highway.

We drove in confusing circles for twenty minutes or so until Cliff finally spotted their house number.

But they weren’t home. Had we not been filled with chemical euphoria we might have been a bit more disappointed. As it was, we just sort of shuffled around on Jack’s stoop for a while, confused and trying to get a sense of what to do next. Midnight was just a few hours away and we barely knew where we were, much less what to do.

Using gravel from the flowerbed, Cliff laid out his imminently recognizable initials on their stoop as a calling card, then we piled into the car and headed back home.

I began feeling better so, in some stupid attempt to challenge this feeling, I ate the rest of my mushrooms and felt the trip take a turn into deeper though not unpleasant waters.

During the drive home we decided there was nothing for it but to go ahead and try to celebrate the New Year the good, old-fashioned American way –by getting shitfaced: Cliff stopped at a liquor store and we all chipped in on some beer.

Once home, we sat down at the kitchen table, smoked a bowl and attempted to play quarters, a game unsuited to those already frayed by psychedelic substances. Under normal circumstances, one approaches the game either to win because of a competitive streak, or to lose and get hammered. Tripping, our own game consisted more of strained concentration as we struggled to get that damned quarter into the cup –or at least keep it on the table. It was difficult enough to remain cognizant of the table, the room -each other- not to mention the desperate and protracted searches that ensued every time the confounded thing rolled off onto the floor. Even the worst drunks can locate a shiny piece of metal on a dark carpet but we three, with our pupils stretched wide before our largely unseeing eyes, were too easily distracted by such things as the grain of the baseboards, the texture of the ceiling, and the fascinating way our skin looked under the light.

I’m not sure when the mushrooms wore off but before I knew it, instead of tripping, I was drunk. The effect hit us all more or less at the same time and we stared at each other, bemused.

“What time is it?” Alan asked.

“Jesus! It’s 4:30 in the morning!” I said.

“We missed New Years!” Cliff laughed, making his way to the bathroom.

I looked at the empties and saw we’d drunk all the beer without realizing it –more than a case of piss-like alcohol gone without any of us actually aware who was drinking it.

When Cliff wandered back from the bathroom, Alan and I burst into hysterical laughter. You have to understand that Cliff doesn’t drink. He’s never liked the taste of alcohol and so, despite his interest in exploring the twisted side of his brain, has avoided it much of his life. In all our years of growing up and then partying together, I’d never seen him take more than a ceremonial sip –yet here he was, plastered. Apparently unable to control his spine, he walked bent forward at the waist, his long, gangly arms swinging loose, knuckles inches above the carpet as we choked on our drunken laughter.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

After the holidays, things began to look up.

When the afternoon grill-chef at Hardee’s finally threw in his apron, I was picked as replacement, a dubious honor but one which filled me with a sense of having proved something to myself and others –while I had failed as a janitor, I was smart enough to flip burgers. The almost constant bustle of our team’s valiant struggle against the riptide of the lunch rush had motivated me where sweeping and mopping acres of tile by myself had not.

With this increased responsibility came longer, steadier hours and a raise. Though I still wouldn’t be making what I had at Clauson’s, with caution I would once again be able to pull my own weight. Proud, I imagined my relationship with my brother improving and couldn’t wait to hand him my share of the next month’s rent.

Cliff, however, had other ideas.

“You’re just not holding up your end of the deal” he explained. “I’m tired of having to clean up after you. I really just want to live by myself.”

“But . . .”

“And you smoke. Your cigarettes stink up the whole apartment. You’re ruining my posters.”

He told me he had already signed a lease on a different, cheaper apartment in the complex and the tone of his voice told me that the decision was made; any debate would only serve to further damage our relationship.

Ashamed, I walked to the motel and called mom, asking her if she’d redecorated my old room yet.

cae 2004