James stumbled out of bed and fed the old dog. He waited as the old dog limped out to empty his bladder on the grass. The old dog lifted his leg ever so slightly these days. James was tired. He and the dog had been living together for 13 years. During that time, other than the dog, only two people had stayed in James’ bed. Lulu, for a few months in 2011. And Daphne, for a few nights four years ago. They were both kind. There was nothing dramatic in James’ memory of the time he’d spent with Lulu. She moved to Portland and they’d lost touch. Daphne still worked with James, albeit remotely.
On this particular gray Wednesday, in the midst of the global pandemic that refused to abate, James went to eat breakfast in the empty house up the street. It had a real estate sign in the front. He’d seen the neighbors move out a few days ago. Like so many other Americans during the chaos, James was working from home. But James wasn’t really working.
He was supposed to be calling names on a list, begging them to resubscribe to an intellectual publication that was growing irrelevant in the Toxic Information Age (TIA). It was a mess. Nobody wanted to pick up the phone, much less resubscribe. Sometimes James left voicemails in strange accents he concocted on the spot. James was basically a human mosquito, whose livelihood was based on annoying people until they relented and signed up for $9 per month. People who probably spent a couple hundred per month on useless shit at the online mecca of cheap stuff.
James had explored every corner of his own small suburban home, which was in danger of foreclosure — he was four months late — but he’d never set foot in the odd Victorian three houses up. He noticed online that the house had a back porch. So one morning, he took his freshly toasted everything bagel and his lukewarm leftover coffee and trudged up the street to eat breakfast there. It was technically trespassing but who was going to make a 7:30 am appointment with the real estate automatons?
Now…why should we care about this man, this ordinary James? Why should we bother spending a few more minutes getting to know his story? We could be distracting ourselves with another show or game or social media or baking cookies. Why the hell should James get to take up our precious (baffling and convoluted) time? Because James was relatable. He had that endearing quality that writers and film directors and painters have searched for over the centuries…he was familiar…yet unique. I’m not supposed to tell you that. I’m supposed to show you…gradually, with clever manipulation. But who has the time to play mind games?
James entered the backyard through the side gate. He heard some birds chirping. The crows were picking over small insects and worms. The train whistled by down the hill. James carried his bagel on a small plate. It nearly slid off into the bushes, but he recovered it, spilling his coffee slightly.
He sat down at the patio table. The chair was damp with morning dew. So now his gray athletic pants were also damp. He looked out at the trees beyond the fence of this house. The view was only slightly different than his own. The suburb had modest yards, but a variety of trees and flowers, which kept the birds and squirrels around. He crunched on the bagel. He bit his cheek, and let out a yelp. He pretended this was his house and his life was entirely different. He imagined he was 65, newly retired, with a wonderful wife and three grown children, who each contacted him once a week, and one of whom lived nearby and had two silly little children, who occasionally visited. When the reverie began to fade, he grew irritated again. He finished his bagel, slurped the rest of his coffee, and left the mug and plate with crumbs on the table. Then he started back home to shower and start another interminable work day, but when he got to the gate, a neighbor was walking her dog down the street. She was startled to see anyone on the property. James nodded and mumbled about knowing the real estate agent and checking on things for her.
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