Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
by Bill McLaughlin,
“It was, in a new form, the old, old trouble that eats the heart out of every civilization: snobbery, the desire for possessions, creditable appendages; and it is to escape this rather than the lusts of the flesh that saints retreat into the Himalayas.”
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.
His eggs burned while he stared at the paper remains of his life: unemployment forms, foreclosure notice and now, the divorce papers.
Interrupting the rumpled green hills of suburban New Jersey, chiseled lawns, covered with dew, glimmered in the morning sun between checkered squares of ticky-tacky houses. Inside, the smells of another commuter morning—toast and eggs, coffee and cigarettes—lingered in the hallways, wafted lightly from kitchen to den. Chemical factory strawberries, herbs, and musk communicated from bathroom to bedroom. The occupants, who worked so hard for their pretty boxes, spent the greater part of their lives at jobs that made it possible for them to live in places like Peachtree Village, on streets with names recalling sylvan glades and secret places, names informed by the landscape before the bulldozers came and scraped it away.
At the corner of Magnolia and Wisteria Drive, when most of the villagers
had gone to work, the low autumn sun burst between a split-level ranch and a two-story colonial. It splattered the cluttered kitchen windowsill at number fourteen Magnolia with an amber light whose optimism and clarity were lost on its sole sad inhabitant.
Slumped over his coffee, Ray opened the envelope without thinking, already knowing what it contained. As he removed the thick fold of papers a blur of Whereas's and Therefore's streaked across his eyes. Ray tossed the papers down with a dizzy finality that mirrored their contents. The small pile of legal papers in the middle of his kitchen table was growing, spreading, colonizing the last clear patches of swirling blue and gray Formica. His eggs burned while he stared at the paper remains of his life: unemployment forms, foreclosure notice and now, the divorce papers.
“It ain't shit really,” he said out loud, as his last cigarette burned in the ashtray leaving a frail gray skeleton.
Ray reached across the table and grabbed his checkbook. One thousand, one hundred and sixteen dollars and seventy-eight cents. Ray jabbed the calculator. This month's mortgage payment. Minus
. The car payment. Minus
. Car insurance. Minus
. Lawyer consultation. Minus. Minus. Minus
. Finally, negative one hundred fifteen dollars and eleven cents blinked from the display, mocking his attempt at fiscal responsibility. On the chair next to him was the bill for his cell phone. As Ray lifted the envelope a sheet of newspaper came with it, attached by a rash of strawberry jam. The indecipherable, always inaccurate reckoning demanded, for the third time, two hundred and seventy-nine dollars and thirteen cents.
“What! This can't be! I'm supposed to have a gazillion free minutes. Those bastards!”
The insatiable corporate machine threatened: Respond Immediately! Your Service Will Be Discontinued! This is Your Final Notice! As Ray peeled away the reply envelope from the newspaper he read the ad copy below the sleek gray dog:
Travel Anywhere in the U.S. —Ninety-Nine Days for Ninety-Nine Dollars!
His mouth moved as if chewing on a hair as he read the words again. He studied the numbers. He looked at the picture of the modern bus speeding down the interstate. He could see vague people behind the windows in their seats, reading, talking, moving forward without effort. He looked again at the amount due box on the phone bill, read once more the corporate whining for profits.
Globules of jam blotted out part of the address on the reply envelope; he could plainly read the rest: Sprint. Albert Schweitzer Corporate Park. Asheville, North Carolina. It was enough.
Ray knew that in one month, maybe two, the car would be gone, the house lost. He walked through the downstairs rooms hoping to find something he could not live without. He looked at the bottles in the liquor cabinet; nearly a full liter of Boodles gin; a bottle of 1987 Frog's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. He had been saving them for an occasion.
“Should have drank them when I had the chance,” he thought.
He searched the upstairs bedroom. He rifled through the bedside table drawer. In the closet, he looked over his jazz lps. Real vinyl. Vintage covers. Mingus, Monk, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Billie Holiday, Miles and Coltrane. He couldn't take one and not take them all. These were the only friends he had left. When he and Liz had stopped talking he listened to them in the middle of the night, listened in solitude with headphones pressed close, listened to their elation and their suffering, to those spontaneous acts of creation, raw and unfettered. He began to think of his leaving as his own act of creation. In the closet he dug out an old photo album filled with black and white pictures and newspaper articles. From the last page of the album he removed a small clipping. He folded it carefully and put it in his wallet. Back downstairs he changed into a clean shirt, old sneakers and jeans. He smiled with great satisfaction as he expertly lobbed the cell phone cleanly into the toilet with a “plop.” He put his toothbrush into his back pocket and sat on the sofa holding his wallet.
Breakfast and a Cigarette, Part I continues...