I’d spent the entire week looking forward to the weekend because I had so much writing I wanted to get done. Earlier in the week I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning that galvanized what I knew would be The Story of All Stories for me. I had no doubt about this. This would be the One That Didn’t Get Away. The Cash Cow. The Springboard to Success.
I’d never in my life had such a Great Idea.
The more it turned on the spit of my imagination, the more convinced I was that this would be the project that got me an agent, and that agent would get me a huge advance, and that advance would enable me to quit my job and move away from this godforsaken sweat-pot in this godforsaken country to a cooler place where fascists weren’t considered “fine people” and canned cheese wasn’t considered a pantry staple.
So many places beckoned me. Norway (fjords and blondes). Sweden (the Northern Lights and blondes). Denmark (the Van Gogh Museum and blondes). Switzerland (Gruyère cheese and blondes).
Of course, with all the money I knew I was going to make, I was also considering moving to England and living next door to Beth, my BFF since the first day of kindergarten. Then I could travel around Europe to see historic sites and blonde sights until I’d seen all the culture and blondes I could stand to look at.
Unfortunately, something happened to my brain during the week and by the time Saturday rolled around all the Big Ideas and Plans for Escape had turned into a soup of shit inside my head. To keep from trying to dive into the toilet as a means of drowning myself I decided to take a walk around the block.
That’s when a whole new set of problems faced me in the form of Citizen Jim’s jumping from behind a long row of box hedges between the Walgreens parking lot and the sidewalk.
“AAAUUUGGGHHH!” he yelled.
This scared me so badly that I also yelled, “AAAUUUGGGHHH!”
We stood there staring at one another for five seconds.
Finally, he came at me, pulling his fist back until it was even with his right ear. “Holy Stoli in a dirty glass, woman! What’re you doing walking around yelling at people like that? Shouldn’t you be at home writing your breakout novel?”
I couldn’t even speak. I felt myself bursting into tears.
“Oh, God! NOW what are you crying about? Did you read online that ‘Angels Touch Us Everywhere’ got canceled?”
This half-way stopped my crying. I said, “That’s a fake TV show I made up to use in stories that mention old people. You know that, right?”
Citizen Jim rolled his eyes. “Of course I know that!” he shouted.
I almost felt my face straightening out and looking normal again. “I love you. I’m glad to see you,” I said, wiping my eyes with the heels of my hands. “Why are you hiding in these bushes?”
“Hiding? Is that what you think I’m doing?”
“That’s kind of what it looks like,” I said.
“Don’t you know by now that you should only believe half of what you see and nothing that you hear?” he said.
“You did jump up out of nowhere and scare the shit out of me,” I said. “I mean, that really happened. I saw it.”
“Jumping up out of nowhere and scaring the shit out of someone is not the same thing as hiding,” said Citizen Jim.
I was too glad to see Citizen Jim to argue with him about semantics. “You want to come back to my place and have some tea?”
“Absolutely not! If I go back to your place with you you’re going to want to sit around and talk about writing when you know you should actually be writing,” he said.
Even though I was sure it would make Citizen Jim as mad as a nest of hornets on the back of a flatbed truck on a highway covered with gravel, I couldn’t help it: I started crying again.
Imagine how shocked I was when he didn’t shout at me or put me in a headlock or twist my arm behind my back or threaten to snap off one of my legs and beat me over the head with it. He wasn’t thrilled that I was crying, but he also didn’t threaten to “give [me] something to cry about” the way my mother always did when my tears annoyed her throughout my childhood.
Instead of making me feel worse, he patted my arm and started leading me toward the entrance of the Walgreens pharmacy we’d been standing behind as we talked.
“I know what you need, Stimpy,” he said.
“You do?” I asked.
I had a hard time believing that. Citizen Jim never had the first clue what I needed, and even if he did he would never make sure I had it without some form of extortion coming into play before I actually got it, no matter what it was.
When we entered the store through the automatic doors, I was still sniffing back tears and fighting the urge to start bawling again. A woman at the cash register greeted us as we walked by her. Jim stopped and said, “What aisle do you keep the drugs on?”
“What kind of drugs?” she asked.
“The hard ones,” Jim said.
The woman scowled. “Excuse me?”
“Sure I’ll excuse you, but you’ll need to tell me where we can find some heroin,” said Citizen Jim.
Raising an eyebrow and giving me the once-over (even though it was Citizen Jim asking for illegal drugs), the woman said, “Am I hearing you right? You’re asking for heroin?”
“Did I stutter?” Citizen Jim asked, which I thought was my cue to walk away as fast as I could. But he held my arm in a grip so tight I could feel at that very moment a bruise coming up to the surface of my skin.
“He’s only joking,” I croaked, still trying to get loose of his hand.
“Ho ho! The hell you say! This woman needs something to put her straight!” he said, pulling me into better view of the saleslady.
I shook my head and mouthed the words, No I don’t.
“Obviously, we don’t sell heroin,” she said, disgust and horror never leaving her face while she looked at me. All my crying must have really done a number on my appearance.
“Fine—do you have any methadone?” Citizen Jim asked.
“Um, no,” the woman said, crossing her arms over her chest.
He wouldn’t give up. “Morphine? Dilaudid? Percocet?” he asked.
“Sir, I think you need to leave the store before I call the police,” said the woman behind the counter.
“I’m not asking for Dodo blood or ground-up unicorn hooves! What’s your problem, lady?” asked Citizen Jim, taking half a step toward the cash register.
The woman backed up against the cigarette display and held a ballpoint pen in front of her like a switchblade knife. “I’ll call the police!”
“Fine!” Citizen Jim said. “Do you sell Lorna Doons?”
The woman relaxed and released her held breath. “Aisle 12,” she said.
I tried not to meet her eyes when I thanked her.
“Now what’s your problem today?” asked Citizen Jim while we stared at an entire section of cookies that were priced as if we were standing in an airport newsstand.
“It’s a long story,” I said, sighing.
“For the love of God and all the saints, this story’s already too long,” he said.
“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. I felt tears welling up and preparing to slide down my cheeks.
“Don’t you fucking dare start crying again!” Citizen Jim yelled.
I took a deep breath and exhaled, grabbing hold of my thumb and pulling on it the way my therapist had shown me a few weeks before when we were talking about ways to quietly combat high anxiety in public.
“You better hurry and wrap things up or the gist of this story is gonna go stale,” said Citizen Jim. “You already cut 450 words and I still haven’t said what you wanted me to say.”
It was news to me that there was something I wanted him to say. “About what?” I asked.
“How the hell should I know? I’m not writing the story, am I?” he said, bashing the top of my head with a package of Fig Newtons. “Now get on with it!”
We meandered through Walgreens, past Band-Aids and corn pads, toilet chairs and school supplies, makeup, pet food, puzzle books, and perfume. We traversed the aisles with no actual destination in mind as I explained my writing dilemma to Citizen Jim. While he listened, he plucked items off the shelf and peered at them, often smelling them, sometimes putting them back where he got them, sometimes letting them fall from his hairy, ape-like hands onto the floor behind us.
I was finishing up as we circled around to near the front of the store.
“Now let me get this straight,” said Citizen Jim. “You had a whole novel mapped out in your head about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to a school where he studies magic with other wizards and witches? But there’s an evil force they’re trying to defeat? And the evil force is a kind of stand-in for the devil and fascism and every other rightwing evil known to man? And you thought that was going to be your bestseller?”
I stared at him, blinking my eyes very rapidly. “No,” I said. “That’s the plot of the Harry Potter books.”
“Are you telling me you stole this idea from someone else?” Citizen Jim asked.
I shook my head. I was so confused.
He shrugged and said, “Old T.S. Eliot always said that good artists copy and great artists steal. If you think you can get away with it, go for it.”
I half-turned and spied the trail of lipstick tubes, enema bags, walking canes, cough drops, and talcum powder Citizen Jim had left in his wake. “You weren’t listening to me, were you?” I asked.
“I thought I was,” he said. “I swear what I told you is what I heard you say. So that’s not your big idea?”
“No, not at all,” I said. “Why would I even try to rewrite the whole Harry Potter series?”
“I see what you mean,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s too bad. You could’ve made a shit load of money from a story like that, I bet.”
Before I could respond by bursting into tears again, the sound of police sirens filled the air. “They’re coming for you!” the woman at the cash register yelled in our direction.
Citizen Jim covered the items in a clearance bin with what was left of the Snapple he’d been sipping, then he threw his half-eaten Snickers bar on the floor and grabbed my hand so we could make a run for it.