On Wes Civilz:
Wes Civilz lives on a green hill in Vermont. He teaches writing at the community college level, and has recently gone back to school for computer coding. Besides Arts & Letters, his writing has appeared recently in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Threepenny Review and New Ohio Review.
First World Problem
First World Problem appeared in Issue 36.
What a great crime scene, if they found me dead like this…naked, t-shirt draped over my face, on a bed at Motel Q. All these empty bottles on the bedside table. Imagine the investigation photos.
This is ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous to be breathing through a shirt in order to smell a stripper again. An hour ago she was pressing her body into mine in a dark corner of the club, and now I’m lost in her watermelon body wash.
God. Who goes to a strip club at lunchtime?
When I leave my room, I see a woman in the hallway. She’s slumped on the floor, a few doors down. She’s conscious…but not going anywhere soon.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Well,” she says, “I’m lying in the hall.”
“This is pathetic,” I say. “Get up. If your life depended on it, you could.” I step over her and push the elevator button. The part of me that felt bad for collapsed people died a long time ago. People love to collapse…in their houses, in hallways, on sidewalks.
Behind me, I hear a faint Fuck you.
Once upon a time, those words could hurt my feelings.
When the elevator opens, I see a dark shape looming over a cleaning cart. My adrenaline goes off before I realize it’s the cleaning woman. It’s a Muslim cleaning woman dressed in full cover. Everything is covered except her face. What do they call it…hijab?
“Do you need service?” she says. A few strands of hair have slipped out.
“Later in the week,” I say.
I drive around in my rental. I end up at this oyster restaurant downtown, and it must be the best oyster place in the state of Maine. They serve them with flavored ice, and lemon slices from lemons fat as grapefruits. I eat eight dozen oysters. That’s ninety-six.
I’m emptying the sea of this life form. Extincting it. I order another dozen.
Back at Motel Q, I hear someone crying in the room next to me. I put my ear to the wall. I hear loud noises coming from the room on the opposite side. I go to that wall.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit,” says a male voice.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” says a female voice. “Fuck!”
I get out my laptop and go to YouPorn.com to see what’s bubbled its way to the top of the cauldron today. YouPorn doesn’t load, and I remember that I haven’t set up my wifi. I head downstairs…getting internet here involves going to the front desk every day, paying $2.99 to get a piece of paper with a code on it, then taking the code down the hall to the security camera room. I do these things. I could go for a drink.
“Let me pull up your account,” the security guy says, taking my scrap of paper. “What’s your room number?” I tell him, and he taps the keyboard, and says, “You’re golden for twenty-four hours.”
“Is there any way to set this up for the next, say, three days in a row?”
“Do you get asked that a lot?”
Even in the days that lead up to death, there is bureaucracy. In every coffin lies a piece of red tape.
The next night I go to the oyster place again and get pretty sloshy on wine. Driving back to the motel, I’m rooting for a cop to pull me over. I burn through a couple of stop signs and jump some curbs, but nothing comes of it.
The woman is lying in the hallway again. It’s like she’s been tossed here, a sack of flour on a kitchen floor.
“You aren’t having a great week, are you?” I say.
She scowls at me like duh.
“Do you want a drink?” I say. “I’ve got a lot of vodka.”
She perks up at the idea of vodka, but plays it cool. “You were kind of a dick yesterday,” she says.
“I was in a bad mood.” I reach out a hand. “I’m a gentleman at heart.”
She takes my hand, teeters to her feet. “You were right,” she says. “I am pathetic. Still, who likes hearing it?”
“Nobody. I’m sorry.”
“I can’t believe I ended up in the hallway again tonight.” She smiles. Her face seems about to cry. She keeps smiling.
In my room, she sits down on the bed that’s still made, the one I haven’t been sleeping in. I shake up some vodka-cranberries in my drink shaker. Cape Codders, we called these, growing up around here. They were the first drinks we made in high school.
“Are you here with a guy?” I say.
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she says. “I’m here with fucking Leah.”
I hand her a Cape Codder. She is not attractive to me. Her eyes give a feeling of dull grayness. Her blond hair has black roots, and these black roots in turn have gray roots.
“We’ve been here all week,” she says, “drinking. We’re roommates. Well, we were roommates—we got kicked out of our apartment last week.”
“You’re still roommates, just now at Motel Q.”
“That’s my story, pretty much.”
“Why does Leah keep kicking you out of the room?”
“We fight. Like, a lot.” She looks me over carefully. “You don’t look like you belong here. That jacket. Why are you here, Mr. Fancy Jacket?”
“To kill myself.”
“Oh,” she says. She laughs. “Well, this is definitely the right place for that.” She might believe me a little. But not enough for things to get weird. “So,” she says, “how are you going to, you know, do it?”
“I have the necessary drugs.”
She sips her drink, and looks at me. After a while she says, “I knew a guy who killed himself by getting the cops to do it.”
An hour later we are having sex. Which is surprising, because I’ve been impotent for a long time. And here, now, I’m like an eighteen-year-old boy again. With a woman I’m not attracted to.
Why did I spend so much time chasing the good-looking ones?
When I wake up in the morning, I’ve got the jitters. The woman is gone. I’m not as hung over as I thought I’d be.
I have a keen intuition that something bad is going to happen soon.
Well, something bad is going to happen. But I mean something besides that. A random, appalling something. It will lurch around a street corner, like the town drunk on a bender, and the day will morph into hell. I feel like yelling, a profound and childlike need to scream.
I hold it in.
As I drive, I feel sure I’m going to nail something with my car. A bird, a deer, a jogger, a nanny with a baby carriage. Nothing happens, of course. The universe remains stubbornly peaceful, smirking at me. I park at a hiking trailhead on the outskirts of town.
When I slam the car door shut, birds flutter into the air. I walk in the direction of the large tree they are flocking around. I am jealous of their simple, stupid lives.
Time for a walk in the woods. I am taking a nice walk on a nice day in these nice woods. I stroll by peaceful fields and magical little brooks.
I had better see an elf out here. An elf springing toward me over the waving grass, an elf with pointy ears and smooth skin, babbling in their language that is midway between speech and song.
“Hello, traveler,” the elf would say. “Do you want to sleep with my sister?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “I bet she is very tall and has long silky hair.”
“Well, no. My sister is a dwarf, actually. A quite unattractive dwarf.”
“What? How can an elf have a dwarf for a sister?”
“It’s a long story. It all started when my father—”
I snap out of it when I see a bird-watcher up ahead. He’s glued to a pair of expensive-looking binoculars. I’ll go see if I can make friends.
“Seen any elves out here?” I say to the bird-watcher.
“Elves?” he says.
I look at him.
“Is that a kind of bird?” he says, but I know that he knows that I don’t think elves are a kind of bird.
“No,” I say. “I mean the creature of myth.”
He puts little lens caps on his binoculars. He is striding away from me. He disappears around a curve in the trail.
I feel exhausted. I lie down next to the path. This surprisingly soft patch of grass seems to be set here like a little bed. It would be a good idea to get back to the motel, and have a drink to calm down, but I’m going to lie here for a while.
I wake. I head back to my car.
My motel room has been cleaned—by the Muslim woman, I assume. The room has a shining cleanliness that seems alien to Motel Q. She must take her work seriously. I’m going to have a little Scotch. I unwrap one of the plastic motel cups, and the whisky goes down like water after a long run. I gulp at it. You’re not supposed to drink the good stuff like this.
When I come to again, it’s night and I’m in bed. The woman from the hallway is sleeping next to me. She appears to be naked, but a quick check under the covers reveals that she still has underwear on.
I scream. I scream as loudly as I can. The woman sits up and grabs me around the throat in sheer instinctive terror. I smile, and when she sees that I will not resist her grip, she runs out of the room, trailing the bedspread. I hear her banging on her door, banging for Leah, who for once lets her in. No one from the motel bothers to investigate the fuss.
I lie stiff-bodied on the bed. Arms at my side. I stare at the ceiling.
What do they call those stone coffins with the sculpture of a guy lying on top? A sargo… sarco…sarcophagus. That’s it. A hell of a word.
I pretend I’m the sculpture above the dead body. Not a worry in the world. I just float here while the body turns to mush below.
Waking up the next morning, I’m filled with an unfamiliar sense of being normal. I leave the motel and walk to a cheap breakfast place down the street. As I pay for my meal, I look up at the waitress.
“You can’t wait,” I say. “You’ve got to change your life now.”
She looks at me funny. But then she feels it—we slip into reality with each other. She walks away with a smile.
I walk down to the docks and look out at the ocean. Orbiting gulls and salt reek. This, for whatever reason, is going to be a good day. Without a break, I tell a hundred passers-by that they must change. One hundred is the number I choose, and it takes hours, but I push through, one after the other.
“You can’t wait to change,” I say.
“What the heck?” says one man, an older gentleman. He smiles. I smile. “My goodness,” he says.
“You must change,” I say to a girl.
“Okay,” she says, walking past me with her dog, smiling.
“What are you talking about?” a teenaged boy answers angrily.
“Why would you say that?” answers a woman. She’s not angry, just puzzled. She looks around to see if there are other people who might clarify. “Who are you?” she says.
“Who am I?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Who are you?”
“I am…not myself,” I say.
“I can see that,” she says, and gives me a hug.
To Fawzia, the cleaning woman from Somalia, the white man’s body looked like another body she remembered, one from twenty years ago.
The walk to the Kenyan border, heading to the refugee camp at Dadaab, lasted for weeks, and it was too long for some. She remembered her father carrying her on his shoulders. He delivered them safely to the camp, but went back to help the others, and never returned.
On the morning of the day they arrived at Dadaab, there was a dead man on the road. He lay as if asleep, arms straight at his sides, his robe tucked around him.
“Not everyone is a mule,” said her father. “But you are. You could walk to the moon and back.”
The dead man had been pale, of course not a ghost like this white man, but pale. There was something similar about the shape of their smooth foreheads. Scientists, her cousin at the college said, believed that the whites had originally come from Africa, many generations ago.
There is death every day in every village, she thought…but to think that this man would choose death. She looked at the pills scattered on the bedside table. She opened one of the bottles of alcohol, a brown liquor, and sniffed. Clearly this was a poison. She went down to the front desk to tell the manager what had happened.
“There is one every year,” the manager said. He picked up the phone.
Fawzia walked out to the swimming pool, sat down on a deck chair, and said a quick prayer. She stared at the water’s surface, stirred by breezes, and thought of the drought, when dust had covered the camp and everyone’s throats became sore. Mules were kept in the yard next to her family’s tent, and there was a long time when there was very little water for animals. Still, most of them made it through. Tough, those beasts. She remembered their tongues, swollen and dark with thirst.
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