Chapter 2

THAT MORNING I called my good friend – my only friend – Winslow, who was always able to help me figure out something that I couldn’t puzzle through on my own. He would wear a problem like a dog with a bone, until he was licking at the marrow of it. When you have a broken leg perhaps that’s not such a good quality, but in all other problems he was always a great help to me.
    Before I called him, I first sat and stared at the phone for a while, because I’m never quite sure how to start a phone conversation. In the movies you’ll sometimes see a lady in a bathtub with flower petals floating around her while she calls her friends ‘just to talk.’ I can’t call without a purpose, though, and sometimes even when you dial with a purpose you forget what it was by the time the call connects, which is how I came to find myself saying:
    “Oh hi, Winslow, I just called to talk.” I giggled a little, like I was in a bath surrounded by flower petals. I fumbled around the conversation for a little while until I remembered that I’d wanted to ask him if he’d come over because I really needed his help with something I’d feel more comfortable discussing in person.
    Later, my thoughts about the way things were changing for the worse were interrupted by a knock at the door. I looked out the peephole even though I was expecting Winslow, because you never know, but of course it was him. He entered the door eyebrows first, as I liked to say about him.
    “Winslow, things seem to be changing,” I began. Right away, I saw recognition on his face as he raised his hands up to stop me, and I felt relieved because I had worried he would think I was crazy when I told him what I suspected; I had even prepared a story about how much sleeping I’d done already if he happened to tell me I just needed some rest.
    “Oscar, stop there. I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “I know I’ve been distant lately, it’s probably been weeks since we talked.”
    “Months,” I clarified. Although I knew it was the fault of my nearly crippling social anxiety and growing paranoia that we hadn’t talked in so long, I was prepared to let him think it was his fault and I was willing to accept his apology for it too.
    “Months, then,” he said. “It’s just been so inconvenient to get around to see you. The bus timetable has changed so that I’d have to get up way earlier in the morning to come here, and then the bus takes me through all the suburbs so everyone else can go out for their shopping; the trip takes hours now. I’ve got my car, of course, but you know I switched to electric recently – you didn’t? – well, I switched, but the battery needs some kind of tune-up because it only holds enough charge for short trips——”
    “That’s just it,” I said, stopping him before he could really get started with the apology. It wasn’t important anyway. “That’s the thing I wanted to talk about. It’s inconvenient to not have your car holding a good charge, right? And the bus timetable, that’s pretty inconvenient too?”
    “Yes, it’s quite inconvenient, that’s what I’ve been saying,” he said, with one eyebrow rising in the direction of wariness.
    “Well, that’s not all, just listen. Everything is inconvenient lately. For example, the other day my key wouldn’t fit in the door.”
    “That is pretty inconvenient.” Now you would certainly have described his eyebrow as ‘perched’.
    “The keys did fit right afterwards, but that’s not all, that’s not all.” I sprang to my feet and began to pace. Now I would convince him, I could feel it. Winslow’s other eyebrow had heard the call of duty and began its march to higher on his brow, but I didn’t let up. “A few days ago the store I usually shop at stopped carrying the Sunshine Juice that I like; they only carry Sunlight OJ now. Sunlight OJ has fifty percent more pulp than before.”
    “And you hate pulp,” he offered.
    “Yes, I hate it. I can’t imagine why they thought it needed fifty percent more than whatever it had before, because now it’s like putting a solid orange in a glass with the skin still on. I could do that on my own. What I can’t do is produce a delicious and reasonably priced pulp-free free-range orange juice. I’ve been pulling the curtains closed and crouching down behind the counter like an animal – not that an animal would be in my house drinking orange juice, not while I’m alive – just so I can filter out the pulp without my neighbors looking in, as they might do.”
    I felt my eye twitching as I waited for a response from Winslow. I wondered if he could see it; I knew what he would think if he could.
    “Oscar, man, there’s no need to come unhinged about it,” Winslow said, as his brow furrowed under the effort of keeping his eyebrows aloft. “Sometimes companies stop selling products, or they switch one product for another that they think might sell better. They had a contract with the maker of Sunshine, the contract ran out and they didn’t renew it; whatever. Just relax about it, it’s only juice. Go buy it at another store.”
     “I wish I could,” I said mournfully. “I went to Jack’s Grocery Mart, and I nearly had a carton of it, but then a stockboy took it out of my hand, pushed me down, and filled the shelf with that twenty-oranges-in-a-carton Sunlight stuff.”
    I stopped pacing and looked Winslow squarely in the eye, but he wasn’t backing down. I shifted from one foot to the other and back again, and then admitted, “Alright, he didn’t push me down. But it was on the shelf, and I had already claimed it, and he took it away from me just the same as if he’d broken into my house, taken it out of my refrigerator, then weeks later sent me an envelope in the mail which held only a ransom note made from letters cut out of magazines and a single photograph of his genitals resting on the carton to show his primal dominance over me and the juice.”
    “But, just so we’re clear,” Winslow said, “he didn’t actually push you down, right?”
    Winslow sometimes had an annoying habit of bringing up absolutely irrelevant details in the middle of an important conversation. It was best just to ignore him when he was like that. “So, considering his genitals on my juice,” I continued, “I went to customer service to report him since I’d seen his nametag even though he was hiding in the shadows, and they told me he was out sick. Had been all day, they said! ‘Dead for a week, sorry,’ I bet they’d say if I went back now and asked.”
    “If that wasn’t enough,” I said, “I got the customer service guy to check stock and he said according to the records they didn’t have any Sunshine Juice at all, and hadn’t for days, but yet I had seen it right there on the shelf and nearly held it in my hand. He told me I needed rest! As if not having enough sleep could cause you to hallucinate a juice theft.” I gave a short laugh, to show that the very idea was ludicrous.
    “Don’t you see what this means?” I asked. His eyebrows told me that he didn’t, so I took it upon myself to explain. “It’s proof, Winslow! All the time there are inconvenient things happening to you, things that you just shrug off as being a part of life. You miss the bus by ten seconds and then have to wait ten minutes for the next one, which happens to be a bus just for bus company staff and they won’t let you on. So you walk home, and on the way a car splashes through a puddle and soaks you, because today – quite inconveniently, by the way – it happens to be raining. Who drove that car? Who made it rain? You reach for an apple in your fruit bowl and find that it’s full of Gala apples, which you only kind of like, and you’re pretty sure that this time you had only bought Granny Smith apples; where then did the Gala apples come from?”
    “What does all of this have to do with the orange juice?” he asked, trying to divert me.
    “I’ll tell you where the apples came from,” I said. “They put them there.”
    “Who——”
    “And don’t ask me who; I don’t know who. But they’re doing it, just as sure as I’m sitting here talking to you. The orange juice is the key, it’s the first time I’ve seen it happening, the first time I’ve had proof. When I held the carton in my hand…” I saw his eyebrows marshaling for another assault against his forehead, and corrected myself, “or at least nearly in my hand, I held proof of it. The man in the shadows is one of them, or he’s working for them. For some reason they’re doing these things to make life inconvenient for all of us, one little bit at a time.”
    His eyebrows came back down.
    “Oscar, you know you’re being paranoid again. I can see your eye twitching.” Crap. I had tried my best to hide it. “When you miss the bus, it’s because you didn’t leave early enough. If you get wet on a rainy day, it’s because you didn’t carry an umbrella. And if a company stops selling orange juice, it’s not because they’re out to get you. Have you been taking your Psylocybin?” He asked, directing an enquiring look at me from beneath his eyebrows. I looked away, fidgeting with books on a shelf, but he persisted. “Have you?”
    “Alright, no,” I relented. “I haven’t been taking them. I don’t feel like myself when I do. I felt calmer, sure, and I didn’t feel the desire to fasten all the locks on the door or keep a knife under my pillow when I go to sleep, but it’s not me. This is me,” I said, lifting up one of the couch cushions to reveal a ball-peen hammer underneath. “That’s in case they come while I’m watching TV.”
    “You always get this way when you don’t take your pills.” He sighed, and went on. “Remember when you felt sure the milkman was going to steal your girlfriend, so you attacked that guy with a shattered milk bottle like it was some kind of child’s bar fight? And you didn’t even have a milkman.”
    I remembered it.
    “And then, after that, in the institution when you refused to eat for weeks because there might have been leprosy-infected armadillo meat in your food——”
    “Armadillos are the only wild animals which carry the bacteria that cause leprosy,” I interrupted, wanting to at least state my case.
    “You nearly died of starvation,” Winslow said, unconcerned about how near I came to contracting leprosy. “I can go on, but I don’t think you need to be reminded that you’ve only recently been allowed a provisional driver’s license or that the District of Colombia has forbidden you to go within a hundred feet of the Museum of Natural History.”
    I heard a noise in the kitchen.
    “Do you hear that?” I asked.
    “I didn’t hear anything,” he said, believing that I was trying to change the subject. “I want to see you take your pills.”
    I put my finger to my lips and pulled the hammer out from under the cushion. Winslow stood up from the couch and I took a step towards him with the hammer in my hand.
    “Ron is in the kitchen,” I whispered to Winslow, with my mouth right beside his ear. I pointed to myself, then to the kitchen, and put my finger to my lips again, indicating that I was going in there quietly. He moved so that he was on the other side of the coffee table from me.
    I walked quickly to the kitchen entrance, and pressed myself flat against the wall. Ron was in there, rummaging through my things. What did he hope to find in the kitchen? Or was he tampering with my food? Perhaps cocaine planted in my sugar bowl, and an anonymous tip to the police. I didn’t intend to give him the chance to carry out his plan, whatever it might be. I was acutely aware of the weight of the hammer in my hand, the solid wooden handle topped by the metal head. I had practiced many times with it, first painting little faces on the heads of nails and then pounding them into wood. My experience with that taught me that a hammer is very good at smashing heads.
    I steadied my breathing and spun around into the doorway with the hammer held ready at my side. Nobody was there. The window was open, though, so I went to it and looked out. I didn’t remember opening the window, but nobody was outside. I knew I had heard someone. How had Ron escaped so quickly, without giving himself away?
    Winslow came up behind me, took the hammer from my hand and then backed away, holding it in front of himself.
    “There is nobody in there,” he said to me from the living room. “I can’t handle it when you’re like this. Take your medicine, Oscar. Let me see you take them.”
    I looked at him. I looked at the hammer. I flexed my hand, where the hammer had just been.
     “That’s my hammer,” I said, and moved towards him. He moved back, raising the hammer along with his eyebrows, and I stopped. I reconsidered. I knew what that hammer did to heads.
    After I had taken my pills to his satisfaction, and I had assured him that I would continue taking them, he left. When the door shut, I opened my hand and looked at the pills I had palmed; I had pretended to take them for Winslow’s benefit. They didn’t seem like much; two centimeters, white, oblong. They certainly didn’t seem like something I needed. They did get rid of my paranoia, but it left my mind feeling cloudy, my thoughts vague, as if the paranoia was an essential part of me that was being blocked out.
    I knew I wouldn’t have been able to hear whoever was in my kitchen if my mind had been coated by the chemicals in those pills; who knows what they would have done to me and Winslow if I hadn’t been ready with my hammer and my months of training. All the pills were actually good for was getting rid of my headaches, which I was definitely having a lot more of recently, but the tradeoff wasn’t worth it. I turned my hand upside down over the trash can and let them fall into it.
    Winslow had taken the hammer with him, so I got another one from my box of hammers and placed it under the couch cushion. The next time they were in my kitchen, I would be ready.

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