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  • Robert Giron

2007 Short Story Contest Winner

Better Times

by Mark Wisniewski


There were at least thirty hornets in my medicine chest, which my landlord insisted I keep closed until the exterminator opened it, so I hadn’t brushed my teeth in two days. The exterminator, who my landlord said was a woman, didn’t show the day she was supposed to, and then she was supposed to show the following morning—before I left for work—and now, on that following morning, I was at work, which meant I’d needed to leave my apartment unlocked for her, which I didn’t like. Everyone knows an unlocked door means you could get robbed, but what got me most was I’d probably never see the exterminator—and there’d go a chance for me to talk to a woman other than the one who always came to the cemetery.


That’s where I worked, the cemetery. How the exterminator could have shown at my apartment before my shift still bothers me. My landlord knew I left home at four-thirty a.m. to get to the cemetery by five, when any excavation needed to start. My boss Rich believed no one wants to see digging in a cemetery, so we had to finish all excavation before six, sixty-thirty tops. Anyway as I’d showered before work that morning, I knew the exterminator would never appear before I left, but still I sort of hoped she would, which then left me grumpy, maybe even downright pissed at my landlord for messing with me like that. You know: How can you lie to a tenant as ideal as me when you know I’ll know you’ll be lying?


And then there I was, at work, still grumpy, though there was no excavation scheduled, just leaf and littered item removal until lunch and then, after lunch, probably weed-wacking, but John Monilon wouldn’t know until Rich rolled in and told us for sure.


John Monilon was one of those co-workers who’s almost a complete friend. I’d sometimes think, while we’d be for instance watering sod, that one day we’d do something together after punch-out, like bowling or watching a game at the minor league baseball stadium you could see on the cemetery’s highest hill, but somehow this never happened. You think you’ll do something with a person like that, since there, at work, you and this person discuss yourselves so much this person knows all about you, like how one of your big toenails fell off for no reason, and you can laugh with this person, hard sometimes, but when it comes down to the last minute of a shift, while you’re each holding a time card and waiting for the clock’s final tick, you realize you and this person will part ways again, John Monilon off to a bar to eat a burger and drink beer and try for sex even though he has herpes and went to jail for dealing drugs, you back home to eat tuna and rice before you might browse through your stamps. Yes, I keep stamps, and, yes, I know stamp collecting isn’t the best hobby for a guy who wants to talk to a woman other than one who always comes to a cemetery, but it’s a truth about me.


At least it didn’t help when I tried those over-the-phone dating lines. I should say right now that, through those lines, I actually have talked to women other than the one who always comes to the cemetery, but those conversations, when I’m honest with myself, don’t count. For one thing, none ever lasted for more than fifteen seconds, usually because I’d lose nerve and hang up, once because I said “I save stamps” after the woman, whose name was Cheryl, asked me to tell her about myself. I still think it was rude for her to answer my response with silence followed by the tiniest laugh, but my experience with her did teach me that, if I ever do get into a conversation, a real conversation, with a woman other than the one who always comes to the cemetery, stamps are a topic I should avoid.


Unless maybe the woman raises it. And, yes, I’ll admit I have wished for a woman out there, in the non-cemetery world, who loves stamps and wouldn’t mind talking to me, but this wish, I know, could prove undesirable.


Have you tried the internet? you might be thinking, and in fact that’s what John Monilon once asked, and my answer was (and will always be) that if I’d meet a woman through the internet, she wouldn’t count either, because what I want isn’t intercourse but instead the satisfaction of having physically approached a non-cemetery woman, talked with her, and parted with her knowing we were both on better terms than we were before my approach. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but that’s all I want. John Monilon says I’m what shrinks call asexual, which, if you ask him, means I’ll never have intercourse because my testicles won’t cooperate. Between you and me, John Monilon might be right about this, but I’d never tell him so, because saying “Yeah, I’m asexual” to someone could, as I see it, end any chance that I am sexual—and, as I understand things, if I really am asexual, I’ll probably never belong to any true family—not the one that got rid of me, not the foster ones I’ve lived with, not the theoretical one I’d create if I could father children with a woman who’d keep me.


Anyway what John Monilon and I did the morning the exterminator was supposed to show was leaf and littered item removal, which meant we needed to walk to the toolshed on the edge of the woods, unlock it with the key on John Monilon’s chain, each take a drab canvas bag with a shoulder strap, each take a bladeless hockey stick handle with a beheaded common nail hammered halfway into one of its ends, then both wander the grounds in search of every leaf and littered item that kept the cemetery from being perfectly green.


Rich, our boss, believed in perfectly green. Perfectly green, Rich said, was essential in cemetery maintenance. If you asked him, people with dead folks need to see as much green as possible when they visit—or even drive past—a cemetery, because green means life in general, and life in general, to such people, can mean a hereafter. These people need belief in a hereafter so they can hope to see their dead folks again, so the greener we could make our cemetery, the more people would pay to keep their folks in it, which meant more money for Rich, which was supposed to mean a raise for me.


But the thing was, on that day (the day the female exterminator was supposed to show at my place), all I’d gotten so far was a fifteen-cent raise—even though I always attacked any leaf or littered item in sight, stabbing it as close to its center as I could, making sure it ended up well inside my bag, jammed toward a corner so it wouldn’t escape into a breeze—and even though John Monilon and I, in the past few months, had been digging and sodding more plots than ever. If we’d earn more money, John Monilon once said, we’d meet more women—even if I was asexual, even, he also said, if we didn’t use our raises to buy sharp clothes. Women, according to John Monilon, can smell money behind a guy no matter what he wears, and money, he said, is the main thing women want. Once I told him he blew more hot air than our newest leaf blower—since no way did he know what every woman wanted—and he told me to try to prove him wrong, then added that, so far, he and I both were living proof he was right. “Maybe they just don’t want a guy with herpes,” was what I said then, and he said, “No one but you knows I have herpes,” which caused me to believe he and I could still be complete friends. But after punch-out that day, he hightailed it from the cemetery faster than ever, which made me wonder if, for me, complete friendship was a piece of pie in the sky.


Anyway John Monilon and I began leaf and littered item removal the morning the exterminator was supposed to finally show, and as usual, we started out side-by-side, with John Monilon telling me about what happened to him the night before, which this time was that he met a woman with large breasts. We walked all the way up and down one hill stabbing leaves as he focused my thoughts on her breasts, telling me how full they were, how she kept pressing the side of one against him because she supposedly couldn’t always hear what he said, how he kept talking more and more softly and shoving quarters in the jukebox to play louder and louder heavy metal songs. He also explained how she must have wanted the breast to keep touching him, because no woman, he said, accidentally lets a breast that size touch a drunk guy that long—and how she must have known the breast was giving him a hard-on, and how, after the hard-on remained hard for at least a continuous hour, she excused herself to go to the bathroom, which he took as an excellent sign, but then, when she left the bathroom, she walked right out of the bar. What got him most, he told me, was that she walked out alone: it was one thing, he said, for a woman in a bar to make you hard and then leave with her friends, but to make you hard and bolt on her own was just plain vicious. Then, like John Monilon often did, he said, “You know what that’s like, right?”—as if I always talked to friendless women who pressed large breasts against me, which he darned well knew I never did. And I said, “No, John, I don’t know what it’s like.” And he said, “Ah, come on, man,” and I said, “I’m telling you, John, I really don’t know,” and then he went off on a long speech, giving me the business about how certain it was that I was asexual. As usual when he did this, I didn’t say anything, just looked ahead for leaves and littered items. Sometimes when he’d do this, I’d want to tell him to shut up, but then I’d tell myself to keep my own mouth shut—because if I asked him to shut his, we’d never be complete friends. It’s better, I’d usually tell myself, to have anyone, even an incomplete friend, walk beside you giving you the business than it is to try to make a cemetery perfectly green by yourself.


And now, also as usual when John Monilon would tell me I was asexual, he tried a bunch of times to get me to admit that I was, but I didn’t give in, and then, after I walked quickly toward a leaf well to our right, I stabbed it and angled off even more toward another leaf without hearing John Monilon or looking back to wait for him. And then there we were, on obviously separate paths, which meant we’d stab everything faster and end up finding each other back at the toolshed sooner, but in the meantime we’d be alone.


And when I’d be alone during leaf and littered item removal, I’d just zigzag without plans from one non-green oasis to the next, and sometimes while I did this I’d think about some of my foster families, often about the last one I stayed with, the one that had me share a bedroom with my foster parents’ natural child, a twelve-year-old boy (about three weeks younger than me) named Thomas. One night Thomas told me that, because his parents were poor, we’d never get an allowance like some of his friends did, and he decided we’d need to make our own money if we wanted to buy things, so we tried all sorts of businesses for kids, including selling tomato seeds door-to-door for this mail-order company in Illinois, selling Christmas cards door-to-door for this mail-order company in Georgia, until we decided that we weren’t getting our fair share of the profits—and that we should start our own mail order company, which I suggested be a stamp company.


At first Thomas didn’t believe a stamp company could make money, but then I told him what I’d learned from a family services lady years earlier—that people collected used stamps and even paid money for them—and soon we were tearing every stamp off his parents’ mail, plus off envelopes we’d see in trash bins at our middle school, and then one night, while we lay awake in our trundle beds, we made lists in our minds of people who got lots of mail and might let us take torn-open envelopes from their wastebaskets. Nuns and priests at churches seemed like a good idea, as did dentists and doctors and insurance men, and the next day, after school, we asked quite a few of these kinds of people if we could look through their trash once a week, and most of them, after they asked why and we explained we were starting our own stamp company, said yes. Two of their secretaries even offered to put aside used envelopes for us so we wouldn’t need to get dirty digging through their garbage cans, and one thing I noticed was that the nicest secretaries always faced Thomas while they were being nice, which, I decided, was because he had shiny yellow-white hair. Of course, in order to sell the stamps, we needed to remove them from their envelopes, which we did by tearing off the upper-right-hand corners of the envelopes, soaking these corners in lukewarm water in soup bowls (cold water took forever to unglue the stamps; hot water caused any colored envelope paper to bleed and stain the stamps permanently), then letting the stamps dry on our linoleum bedroom floor. The library at school had a magazine for stamp collectors, Lynn’s Stamp News, and we put in a classified ad for $2.90 we made shoveling snow, and the ad said, “100 U.S. stamps in very good condition for one dollar postpaid—T & S Stamp,” with our address. T stood for Thomas and S stood for me, and I’d been fine with the T before the S because I made Thomas president of the company one night after he said he was bored with peeling stamps off wet scraps of paper. Maybe six weeks passed with us checking the mailbox for not only cancelled stamps but also letters addressed to our new company, and the day after Thomas asked why we didn’t just mow lawns for cash, the mail came with three one-dollar orders. And soon dollar bills were arriving almost every day, as well as a few checks for a dollar apiece made out to T & S Stamp, which meant we couldn’t cash them until we went to a savings and loan and explained we had a stamp company, walking out that door with an official savings account plus a new source of cancelled stamps. Yeah, we had to keep sending in $2.90 for ads, but we were making an actual profit.


Anyhow Thomas and his parents were the foster family I’d think of most when I’d zigzag away from John Monilon, maybe because T & S Stamp was the closet thing to a group of people I’d really belonged to. Other families I’d stayed with had never kept me feeling as alive. I’m not saying Thomas and his parents made me happy, but their house was at least cleaner than the other places that took me in, which sometimes, when I stabbed littered items in Rich’s cemetery, returned to my mind as a blur of cold fish sticks and the stink of reheated macaroni and cheese. In some of those houses I wasn’t the only foster child, and in those houses, you could actually feel the business of fostering going on, as if you yourself were a cancelled stamp to be soaked and removed and dried in a room and sent away for the profit of the parents, who’d argue about which of them was president. In none of those houses did the parents discuss my future beyond the next week, and in one I slept in the basement, where the pilot light in the boiler sometimes went out, and once in the middle of a night, when that landlord came down to fix the boiler, he asked me to take off my pajama pants, which I was old enough to know not to do. But then he told those foster parents I’d broken the boiler, and a few months later, I was off to a house where my bedroom was half of the attached garage—where a homemade curtain was supposed to keep me from knowing I was sleeping beside a car.


My mind still can’t get rid of the sight of that Fairlane’s muddy passenger-side tires, which I’d seen every night because the curtain wasn’t quite long enough. In fact it very well was a flash of those tires that stopped my thoughts as I bagged a gum wrapper and glanced up to see the woman who always came to the cemetery. She was singing this time, which she’d do now and again, only today she was also visoring her eyes with her hand, looking ahead of her, at the grass. The sun made the grays in her dark blond hair sparkle, and she was wearing baggy blue jeans, and she saw me and smiled and said, “Greetings.”


“Greetings,” I said, and I thought, here we go again, because as much as I wanted to talk to a woman, conversations with this one bothered me, sometimes even scared me.


“Seen any coins?” she said.


“No,” I said. “No coins.”


“I found two today,” she said.


Here it occurred to me to mention my stamps, but then I thought: What’s the point?


So what I said was: “Do you find many here?”


“Coins are everywhere,” she said. “You just have to be looking for them. And where you find one, you tend to find more.”


“But in a cemetery?” I said. “Maybe you should try—”


“You’d be surprised,” she said.


Even right then, without considering that she might have collected coins, I knew she’d be better off in a parking lot. Still, I said, “I guess they could be anywhere.”


“People drop coins,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether they hear them fall. And then whether they feel like picking them up.”“And you can’t hear a coin hitting grass,” I said, to make her sound more sane.


“And if you could,” she said, “who cares about coins in a cemetery?”


“Uh-huh,” I said.


“In a cemetery,” she said, “people have their minds on other things.”


“Probably so,” I said.


Her eyes floated toward the hill that hid the minor league baseball stadium. “Do you know any?”


“Any what,” I said.


“Dead people.”


“No.”


“So you still see your grandparents—that must be nice.”


“Actually,” I said, “I never knew my grandparents.”


“You were adopted?”


“Sort of.”


“Either you were or you weren’t.”


“I was in foster families.”


“I was adopted,” she said. Her eyes, my glance told me, were on my drab bag. “You didn’t miss much,” she said.


I wanted to tell her what I had missed: how, when you grow up in foster families, you’re basically guaranteed to end up poor, because your foster parents themselves are basically poor, because they tend to be down-on-their-luck couples who take money from the state while trying (unsuccessfully) to raise you on less than the state gives them—not to mention that, after you’ve been fostered and you reach eighteen, you’re all on your own, with no savings for college, no more laws that say you need care, so you end up with the kind of job no one else wants.


But this was the woman who always came to the cemetery, so why tell her this? Plus John Monilon had just crested the hill in front of the minor league baseball stadium on his way toward her and me, and that was one thing I liked about John Monilon: around him, I hardly thought about my childhood. As he walked toward us, we watched him the way two people watch someone else approach to silently admit they no longer want to talk to each other, as if, all of a sudden, they’ve decided to give up on each other, as if, all of a sudden John Monilon, as our current example, was about to say something that could put everyone present on better terms. Of course, three people on better terms after one conversation is less likely than two, which to me then meant it was impossible. But I still couldn’t wait for John Monilon to talk.


Now his eyes were moving back and forth between me and her, and he was shaking his head.


“What is it?” I asked.


“It’s about Rich,” he said.


“What,” I said.


“He was in a car wreck.”


“When.”


“A really bad wreck.”


“How bad?” I asked, even though I knew what he meant.


“He rolled his pick-up,” John Monilon said. “On the way home last night. His wife was just here.”


“What are you saying?” I asked.


“Dude,” he said as if now, finally, we were complete friends. “The guy’s dead.”


And here’s where all three of us—me, the woman, and John Monilon—stood looking at one another like blood siblings might. How long we stood like this is something I couldn’t tell you, but for however long it lasted, I believed each of us could have said anything about ourselves and the other two would have empathized. John Monilon could have said he had herpes; I could have said I saved stamps; the woman could have made her most peculiar statement about coins—and none of us, I was sure, would have minded. It was almost as if Rich had been our father, and then it was kind of as if every blade of grass around us had suddenly turned brown.


Then John Monilon said, “Do you realize what this means?”


The woman eyed him as if he always told the truth—which reminded me of how he always said I was asexual.


“What,” I asked.


“We’ll lose our jobs,” he said.


“Why would that happen?” I asked.


“Because Rich’s wife will inherit the cemetery. And she’ll sell it. And whoever buys it will probably decide to clean house.”


“Why would she sell it?” the woman asked.


“She hates this place,” John Monilon said, mostly to me. “Rich told me that once. She hated how much time he needed to spend here. And now she’ll also hate it because he was driving home from here when he left her for good.”


I saw an elm leaf behind John Monilon, and I walked over and stabbed it.


“What are you doing?” he asked.


“Leaf and littered item removal.”


“Fuck leaf and littered item removal, Steve. Your boss is fucking dead. We might as well burn these bags and go to McDonald’s.”


“For breakfast?” the woman asked.“For jobs,” Rich said. “I mean,” he told her, “for me and him.”


“I find coins in McDonald’s,” the woman said. “A lot of pennies.”


Rich gave her the kind of look strangers must have given her all the time, but she kept watching him like she and I had earlier.


“Why are you here, anyway?” he asked her.


“Because no one heard these coins fall,” she said, and she reached into one of her pockets and took out a dime. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Where’s my nickel?”


She pulled out all four of her pockets, which were empty. Then she studied the grass around her, made fists with her hands, shook both at the same time, then walked off, up the hill in front of the minor league baseball stadium.


“We won’t lose our jobs,” I told John Monilon, who stood perfectly still.


“Sure,” he said. “And you aren’t asexual.”


“John-Mon? Quit saying that to me.”


“I’ll say whatever I want,” he said. “And you can believe whatever you want. That’s your problem, you know. You never really face things.”


“That’s not true,” I said, and I wanted to tell him that all I’d done in my life was face things: one foster family after another, then one day after another of stabbing sod that covered thousands if not millions of bones of dead people. Just because I didn’t complain about what I faced, I wanted to say, didn’t mean I never faced it. And it didn’t help, I wanted to tell him, that all these days we’d worked together, he’d never been a complete friend.


“Like me,” he said. “I face the fact that I have herpes. I face the fact that I have a criminal record. I face the fact that I can’t get laid, and that now I’m going to need a new job—the lack of which won’t help at all when it comes to getting laid.” He cleared his throat, hitched his drab bag higher onto his shoulder. “But at least I try to get laid,” he said. “And...at least I’m a square-shooter with myself.”


“Go to hell, John-Mon,” I said, and right after those words left me, I knew I’d destroyed any last bit of friendship we’d shared. And sure enough, he walked off, away from the hill that hid the minor league baseball stadium, and as he walked he yanked his drab strap off his shoulder, shook out his leaves and littered items, tossed his bag behind him—then, after a short but very fast running start, threw his bladeless hockey stick nail-first at the sun, letting only me watch it complete half a circle and stab itself into a grave. He then walked slowly but straight off the grounds and into the parking lot and got into his Toyota and drove off, and as much as I’d known him, I now had to admit I’d never been attracted to him, or, as far as I could tell, to anyone. Sure, I’d hugged various people in my life, given hello and goodbye kisses to several, and even considered what it would be like to have sex with one or two, but I’d never felt urged toward those actions, certainly not in the way you hear about in song lyrics, or from normal people, like John Monilon, who consider intercourse on par with food as far as human needs go. Over my years I’d liked a few people, but never for longer than maybe thirty seconds at a time, and never so much that penetrating our bodies, or even just exchanging caresses over our skin, seemed like a pleasant idea.


Maybe, I told myself, you are asexual. Maybe it’ll always be like this.


But if it would be, I believed, I could still keep my job. After all, I didn’t have a criminal record. That was the problem with John Monilon: he always thought that whatever he experienced would happen to me, too. It’s different for me, I thought, and I kept on with leaf and littered item removal, figuring I owed it to Rich even though Rich was dead. And who knew: maybe Rich, wherever he was right then, needed to see perfect green in order to believe in a hereafter himself.


So I removed every leaf and littered item remaining on the grounds. Who cared about John Monilon anyway. Who cared about anyone. Then I re-policed the grounds all geared up for any new leaf or littered item, but there weren’t any. The wind had died, like everyone beneath me. In many respects it was a beautiful day. If any excavation would need to be done, I wondered who’d tell me to do it. I returned to the toolshed for a weed-wacker, but the toolshed was locked, and I realized the key for it was probably still on John Monilon’s chain.


Then, to avoid being seen by the day’s visitors—as Rich had always required—I walked up and over the hill in front of the minor league baseball stadium and stood slightly more than my height beyond the top of it. The woman was nowhere. Inside the stadium, an old man was pushing a small aluminum box on wheels that drizzled white chalk to make the third base line. He walked slowly, placing the heel of one foot directly in front of the toes on the other, and I wasn’t attracted to him, but all that really mattered was whether the line would be straight, which, as it turned out, it wasn’t. If I can’t work here, I thought, I can work there. Baseball needs perfectly green grass, I thought, and I felt better.


So I sat right where I’d been standing, just past the top of that hill, waiting for the end of my shift. Rich’s wife, I was sure, would never come back that day, which made me my own boss. I avoided picturing the Fairlane’s muddy tires by remembering T & S Stamp. Thomas and I had invested our profits in cancelled stamps you couldn’t find on envelopes in the mail—far older stamps from a wholesaler who was about to go out of business—and we’d resold them, through the mail, at even greater profits. We’d searched garage sales for all but abandoned stamp collections and bought them at below-catalogue prices and sold individual stamps in them to strangers all over the country, and one in Guam. From the beginning we’d always saved half the profits and reinvested half, so roughly four years into our partnership, we were receiving at least ten dollars a day in the mail. School began to look pointless. Thomas’ parents were proud of us, but they kept T & S Stamp secret from everyone he knew. I wasn’t at all attracted to him or his parents, and I could barely stand the girlfriends he met in our high school—or any girl in any high school—and never, not for one moment, had I felt anything for that landlord who’d asked me to take down my pajama pants. I couldn’t say, as I progressed through high school, that I was attracted to stamps, but I liked them. By my junior year, I’d sit looking at them longer than Thomas would.


The old man was now putting down the first base line. Then he made the two batter’s boxes, which took longer than you’d think. But they were perfect. Still, I wasn’t attracted to him. I didn’t miss the woman who came to the cemetery. I didn’t miss anyone.


Then I walked home. I was surprised to find my door unlocked until I remembered the female exterminator was supposed to have killed the hornets in my medicine chest. Maybe she’s here? I thought as I walked in, even though my apartment is only two rooms and a bathroom and she wasn’t in the main room. She wasn’t in the bathroom, either. The medicine chest was open, and the hornets were nowhere. How she’d killed them was a small mystery to me, as well as what she’d done with them.


I didn’t bother to look for her in the bedroom. If she’d been in there, she would have left my apartment immediately, because she would have seen, on most of the floor and much of my bed, open albums full of inventory that had once belonged to T & S Stamp—that is, before I’d given Thomas our savings account balance of $1,462, which I’d done the week before Christmas our senior year, five days after he said he didn’t want to sell stamps any more, even if he were president. At the time we’d made that deal, I thought we were both being fair, and in a way I sometimes still think we were. He had the money, I’d told myself back then, and I had an odd but growing business that would always stay with me. There would always be plenty of people who cared enough about cancelled stamps to pay ever-increasing prices for them—or so I’d thought back then. And the exterminator’s perfume, I realized now, was everywhere.



Copryright 2007 by Mark Wisniewski.

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