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  • Tuesday. I didn’t pick up the phone when it rang and I received this unexpected message,

    Joseph, this is your landlord, I have run over your cat and killed it, please stop by at your soonest convenience, I am sorry. Thanks.

    Sitting in my landlord’s apartment, he explains what has happened, and how I must find it troubling. I tell him that he is correct, I do find it troubling. I don’t ask him what he did with the body, because I don’t particularly want to see it, and beyond that, I’m not even sure what I’d do with it. Thankfully, he doesn’t offer an explanation.

    There isn’t much left to say and I start trying to think of a way to gracefully exit my landlord’s apartment. Then he tells me, you know, this experience has made me see you as a human being, before I always thought you were a drug addict. I think I might have some work for you, what do you think of that?

    I nod cooperatively.

    He says, you notice that manger scene in the church yard across the way? Well, Christmas is over, and they keep that stuff stored in the basement of this building, because a youth group meets in the church basement, and when the youth see Christmas stuff packed away in a basement, they find it very depressing, so that’s why the stuff is kept in the basement here, you get it? So what I need is someone able-bodied to move all those figures back into the basement, and I believe that person is you, and for this task I will pay you forty dollars.

    I accept his offer because forty dollars sounds great. He tells me to move them at night, because if people see me taking down the manger scene they will be depressed. I tell him yes sir. Then I tell him concerning money matters, I guess I should be collecting my forty dollars now. He tells me he will give me twenty now, twenty when the job is done, and I take the twenty and rush downstairs so I can catch my dealer on his seven o'clock ride through the neighborhood.

    I am just in time and I run alongside him as he pedals his bike down the street. I ask him what twenty dollars can get me and he is skeptical, so I show him the money and he signals for me to follow him into a nearby alley. He gets off his bike and he says the only thing he has in the twenty dollar range is pen, have I heard of that? I tell him no. He explains. It’s like a normal pen but the ink has been replaced with a highly potent fluid that takes effect on contact with skin. So basically you just write on yourself with it and it gets you high. I ask him if it will help me to write something beautiful to win back my ex-girlfriend, and he says probably not. I tell him I will buy it anyway, how much is it, and he says it is exactly twenty dollars.

    Since this story is a modern story, I will not gloss over the next part all that much.

    I go home and start writing all over my arms, both arms, just in case. The effects of the drug are immediate, and I find myself unprepared to write poetry. I lack a writing utensil. Then I realize I am still tightly gripping the drug pen, which can theoretically be used as a regular pen. I will have to choose my words carefully, so as not to be wasteful. I need to find paper, but my legs are no longer cooperating, so I drop down and roll around on the floor like a child going down a hill. I settle on some unopened mail as a makeshift canvas for my poetry.

    As a quality control measure, I call Mary and sloppily instruct her to come over because I have something I want to share with her and it is brilliant. She’s saying things like why are you calling me and why are you calling so late. I mumble something about how this is a sign that she has become too engrossed in the practical. My mouth continues to form words of which I have only the faintest recollection, but they are convincing words, and when I slow down to listen to what she’s saying, she’s telling me that she’s coming over.

    I know that with the right words, she will be charmed. I always believed that through my writing, I could win over anyone. No. Not anyone. But I could win over the right one.

    I should note, before it goes much further, that this story isn’t actually about love. But I say this as someone who already knows how things are going to turn out. In the moment, everything is about love.

    Mary is ringing the buzzer now and I don’t know how long it has been but I haven’t written much. I buzz her in. Hi, she says. Hi, I say.

    Do you mind if my boyfriend comes in? I brought him along, she says. He’s an artist too, and I think he would like to hear your poem. This is Claude, she says, and he saunters in, and he gives me a look of disinterested acknowledgement, if that's even possible.

    Mary and Claude stand there expectedly, waiting for me to start reading. For Claude’s benefit, I explain that this poem isn’t directed at any one person in particular, but he isn’t even paying attention.

    I have no intention of reproducing the actual poem here, which was underwhelming and has since been destroyed, but I remember there being a passage about the time between lying down and falling asleep. It doesn’t matter, because the whole thing is cut short when Claude points out that there is writing on my arm and says, is he an addict? Mary takes my arm, and I step back and self-consciously pull my sleeve down. Mary makes this forced sad face, and says she doesn’t like to see me this way, that this wouldn’t happen if I had a job. I correct her, telling her I do, in fact, have a job now. This causes her to get a little too curious, so I try to change the subject. I ask about her New Year's party.

    She is excited and asks me will I be there? I try to give her a vague and noncommittal answer. And then there is really nothing left for us to say, there might be if Claude wasn’t here, but he is, so I guess that’s it. As she is leaving, Mary says she has a friend she wants me to meet at the party. She thinks we'll hit it off.

    Wednesday. My phone wakes me up. Schiller doesn’t have a VCR, so he needs to come over and use mine to watch a tape he checked out from the library. I agree, then fall back asleep.

    The buzzer wakes me up. Schiller steps in, and hands me a bag containing the hash brown from his breakfast, because he doesn’t like them, and I eat it even though it’s cold. I tell Schiller about my good fortune finding work with my landlord.

    You have a cat?

    No I don’t.

    Well whose cat do you think it was?

    I tell him that’s not the important part, and he makes a disapproving face.

    To my chagrin, it turns out the tape Schiller brought over is one of those motivational tapes that he’s hooked on, though in video form rather than audio form. I turn on the VCR and tell him I’m going to take a shower, leaving him with the video.

    I try to make it a long shower, but when I return, the video is still going. The host is talking about having a mantra, and Schiller looks over at me and says do you know what a mantra is?

    I tell him yes. Then he wants me to tell him my mantra. I shrug. So he pauses the video, and I really wish he wouldn’t do that. He stands up and looks right into my eyes. You need a mantra, he says. I think about it, and tell him I think a good mantra for me would be, either do something well or don’t do it at all.

    He says in the extended lesson on the audiotape, he was taught to reverse his mantra and try to live that way for a while to understand your weaknesses. He says the opposite of my mantra is probably do lots of things and don’t worry about doing them well. I nod and he says no, you have to write it down, so I write it on my hand to appease him. Good, he says, and starts the video back up. Then I realize I have written on my hand with the drug pen, and I go into a cold sweat. I know Schiller would disapprove of the drugs, so I must try to keep it together. I sink into a nearby seat, preparing to ride this out.

    The rest of the video becomes a harrowing experience, made worse by the fact that several times throughout the video, the host interacts directly with the viewer, imploring them to get up out of his or her seat and stand up tall, like someone who gives a shit. Come on, he says, no one is watching.

    But I am watching.

    COME ON says the video, NO ONE CAN SEE YOU.

    Schiller does not stand up. This makes me increasingly nervous, and I dig my fingers into the base of my seat until they are white and numb.

    Finally, it ends, and Schiller leaves. I try to get him to come with me to Mary’s New Year's party so I won’t have to sit by myself, but he has some excuse, and I'm not very convincing in my altered state.

    I watch him on the sidewalk leaving my apartment, and suddenly I am inspired. I throw open the window and ask him if he has a mantra.

    Yes, he says. His mantra is: Assholes, I tried to play by your rules, and when that didn’t work, I tried even harder.

    Saturday. I am going to skip the boring parts of Mary's party and get right to what was interesting, because this story is already long enough. First of all, let me say, I was not planning on getting very drunk, because my intention was to get back to the manger and clear it out. Mary’s friends are all catty and inane as far as I can tell, and I’m not feeling sociable, so decide to acquaint myself with the booze table in the kitchen. After a few awkward conversations, I go looking for a hiding place, and land in a tiny bedroom with the lights off. And it is there, in the darkness, that I meet Jessica.

    She is sitting by herself with an empty cup and she gestures towards my drink and says she needs it more than I do. I give it to her.

    I am attracted to her instantly. She has a very efficient face, squarish and easy to navigate. We start talking and she asks me can I close the door behind me because she can still hear the music leaking in. And we’re talking more, and honestly.

    I don’t remember this part too well, but we are really connecting, and the music and the chatter is getting louder outside the door, and I decide we have to escape, or maybe it’s her idea, and there is a fire escape outside the window and we’re climbing out the window and down the fire escape, and even though it is only one story off the ground it still seems crazy, or maybe just spontaneous. Mary once said I wasn’t very spontaneous.

    Jessica asks, is it okay to leave, I have a car and I say yes and she says I can drop you off. So I have her drop me off at the manger, without really thinking it through. And she says aren’t you going to invite me in? So I invite her in, and pretty soon we are all over each other. Making out. So I start to think maybe I should have actually taken her back to my real apartment, and I wonder if she thinks I just randomly chose this spot because I thought it would be sexy.

    After a bout of fondling and vomiting, Jessica drives off into the night and out of my life.

    I make the short trek home, and realize I missed the countdown to the new year.

    Sunday. In the morning, Schiller wakes me up with a phone call. He asks how the party went, and also mentions that he needs to borrow my VCR indefinitely. I think he asked about the party just to make conversation. I tell him about how I M.O.'d a pretty girl, and he asks me did I T her V, and I tell I am not going to say, but I think we both know the answer to that one, and he says what? So I repeat myself.

    I get out of bed and I feel energetic. Invigorated. I feel ready to write things that aren't sad. Things that may not need to be hidden away forever.

    I get a text from Mary asking when I left the party. I start to type a reply, but decide to call her instead.

    Mary seems put off to be speaking to me over the phone. I don't think she knows what happened with me at the party, or how I came to leave, but I decide to not play coy. I tell her that I didn't really honestly think I would hit it off with the friend she wanted me to meet, but I was wrong. In fact, Jessica and I had a great time.

    Mary seems caught off guard. Jessica wasn't the friend I wanted you to meet, she says.

    Well, I don't care, because Jessica and I hit it off and I think there's definitely something there.

    Um, no. I think not, says Mary. What do you know about Jessica?

    I think, and I realize my recollection of my conversation with Jessica is full of holes. I really don't know anything about her. I ask Mary what she knows.

    I know she's pregnant.

    Okay. That is really surprising. I try not to act shocked about it. I don't say anything. Mary glares at me through the phone. So, what makes you think there's something there?

    Because we left the party together, I say. We went back to the nativity scene in the square. Because we made out. I threw up. There's flecks of my vomit on her scarf.

    No, says Mary. She thinks I'm making it all up. She says Jessica's husband is very handsome, and they're an amazing couple. A real powerful couple.

    I try to defend my version of events, but despite having actually occurred, my retelling somehow doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Things degenerate fast, and Mary gets offended, or maybe just agitated. The phone call ends.

    I start pacing and pacing around my apartment. I certainly can't write now. My feelings are a confused, amorphous jumble that nothing coherent can emerge from.

    I find my drug pen and start scribbling, but there's no ink left. Dammit! Now is the time I need it most.

    But there's another twenty for me when the job is finished. I decide to hell with it, I'm going to move the manger folks during the day. And so I do.

    After hours of dragging life-size figurines into the basement, the sun is setting. No one seems to have noticed or cared.

    The last piece left is the little baby Jesus. Everything else has been put into the storage area, even the fake goats and other fake livestock. It is at this time that I discover that the baby Jesus is incredibly heavy, at least 50 pounds, weight that was most likely added to discourage would-be thieves or pranksters. It is completely at odds with the figure's tiny size.

    I lift the baby up onto my shoulders, and start to trek back to the building, and as I walk, my steps become more labored and less determined, and the baby seems to only grow heavier, and the storage area seems so far away now. I get to the street, and the baby Jesus slides out of my arms and makes a loud thud as it lands in the snow. My arms are sore, and I sit down next to it. A car has stopped to survey the scene. The window rolls down. It is Claude. Do you need a lift?

    I tell him that would be very nice of him, and can I bring this very heavy object with me too, and he says that is fine. He asks where I am going and I point to just down the block. The ride is short, and his generosity seems genuine, and I'm not even sure what to say, so when I get out, I don't say anything except for thanks.

    The baby Jesus is placed in the basement with the other manger figures and it is time to collect my remaining balance from the landlord.

    I arrive at my landlord’s apartment and find the door is open. That seems unusual, so I walk in, and there are two cops standing in the kitchen. One cop asks me, who are you and what are you doing here? I explain myself. He says oh. Well, he says. Your landlord is dead. He had a heart attack.

    I don’t ask what happened to the body. I tell the cops he owed me twenty dollars. One of the cops thinks for a moment, and then tells me to take something from the apartment that is worth about twenty dollars and we’ll call it even. I say okay, and look around for something suitable. On a bookshelf, I come across a nice looking bible. It's leather-bound and very old and heavy. I tell the cops I will be taking this. The cop from before waves me away dismissively and I go back to my apartment with the bible.

    I sit on my bed and lay the book down in front of me. I pause for a moment, then I open it up, and the inside of the bible has been carved out, and there is a gun inside the carved out section. Yes, really, a gun. I am not sure how to react. As I am staring at the gun, which is now my gun, my phone starts ringing, but this is a dramatic moment, so I let it go to voicemail. It is Schiller. He says,

    Do you remember a quote that starts out something like 'If you play in a river of shit, something something.' I don’t remember the ending, but I really like the beginning.

    I don’t know that one.
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