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Joseph's Museum

I was picking up a fifth when I ran into him. He had a habit of licking his lips before every sentence. I waited. My fingertips trying to count how much I had in my pocket, so I wouldn’t have to put anything back.

We stood in the aisle talking. The girl at the register glancing over her shoulder at us in the round security mirror. A chipped, faded halo. Sad in its exile. As she rang me up I noticed a cigarette tucked behind her left ear. With our lingering we had made her too nervous for me to flirt.

The sun gave me a headache. I fumbled through my pockets for matches. He fell in step beside me. After a few blocks we stopped, so that I could light a cigarette.

Through Chinese eyes I looked at him. It seemed like he was always waiting to be hit. Probably because his mother had raised him like veal. He licked his lips.

We were the same age, but life, fear of it had given him an extra ten pounds in exchange for most of his hair. I was superstitious. To make fun of him would bring me the same kind of bad luck. My silence gave the illusion of friendship.

All I caught was that his grandfather had died. Sure, I’d help him pack up all of his grandfather’s stuff. It would be nice to get out of the city for a few days. Nice to pretend. To be friends, to be good. Maybe Zippy and the Mick would come with me.

I closed my eyes and tried to remember his grandfather. We had met, maybe twice. A little old man with liver-spots on his hands and a light green suit that didn’t fit right.

With four of us, there couldn’t be that much work to do.

Sometimes he actually got balls when he drank. You never know. Ruby and I had taken him to a party. He sat on the couch, ignored by everyone, drinking wine until his ears turned red. He made some weird speech I don’t remember and tried to kiss me. We sent him down the street to get us a pack of smokes, counted to sixty, then went home. You never know.

Zippy and the Mick would come. We were, after all just killing time together anyways. As soon as anyone got any money or found the right woman they’d be gone. No glance back, no wreath of flowers.

As we pushed the door open the key broke in the lock. The place stank of still rain and dead dreams. We turned on the lights. It seemed simple, throw everything out.

Not for him, he was seeing the place through the eyes of the little boy who got a twenty dollar bill for every good report card. He wanted to sort through it all.

He started separating things into little piles. How sad, an entire man’s life reduced to a roomful of broken dimestore gags. An hour went by. It still all looked like junk to me.

Zippy and the Mick were emptying a shelf full of broken glass figurines into the barrel. That wasn’t right by him either. He was getting all wound up. I suggested we take a break and go to a bar I had spotted down the street.

He wanted to stay and get things done, but everyone else was already filing out the door. Reluctantly he followed. The lock now being broken, we had to take a moment and tie the door shut.

There weren’t many people in the bar. No one had said anything on the walk over. He wanted to sit at a table. Ignoring him we drank our toastless drinks as the bartender shot him a dirty look for ordering something complicated.

There was a hunch-backed pool table. Zippy and the Mick started up a game. I stayed at the bar. A woman with a big, black, curly wig and pointed, painted on lips sat next to me. She kept looking at me as I pretended not to notice. She smelled faintly of fried foods and her nails were unpainted.

Finally she caught me. I gave a little smile. She asked me if I wanted a fish, and then started pulling plastic bags full of water out of her pocket book.

Everyone was ready to go. He had been sitting at the end of the bar, chin in palm.

We went back and started emptying a closet. He still didn’t seem to be able to make any decisions. The Mick found an air rifle in the bottom of the closet. I blew the dust off it. I pressed the trigger and a little hole appeared in the wall next to the window.

He thought this was funny and taking the rifle, copied me, his shot going closer to the corner. Zippy found a cigar box full of shells. Soon the rifle was being passed around. Everyone had their favorite wall to shoot at.

The walls had been an off white, now a thousand tiny, unblinking, black eyes stared at us. Every now and then someone would pump the rifle too much and one big hole would swallow up a bunch of small ones.

He was on the couch, head back, pile of junk spilling into his lap. Zippy and the Mick wanted to leave.

“Let me find some paper to write him a note on...”

I went into the bedroom. There was a narrow bookcase gone gray with dust. I didn’t want to stay, but it seemed like a shame to just leave all those old books there. I grabbed a few at random off the shelf.

I thought of the pile of paper backs beside my bed.

“They really don’t make them like this anymore,” I said out loud, nervously laughing to myself. I opened the first book and small white bugs scattered everywhere. I put the books back and for the rest of the night my neck itched.

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