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FroM ThE DESK OF :         Martin Swanson.
 

Your Promise Means Everything

Professional Patient

 

  I moved down here to retire, to have peace. After 30 years’ selling advertising for a large New York corporation….And that was no fun, believe me. Every day, all day, media buyers and their clients screaming, clawing chewing at me like a hunk of meat. For years, then decades this went on.. Unbelievable. I never thought it would last so long. Every day, stumbling sweating off the train, finally getting home, trying to sip my Modelo dark beer …The wife would start in. I choked on the foam. My tottering marriage finally crashed. You could call it a mercy killing. But then all the divorce crap fell on me like load of concrete. I ended up drained, tired and a lot poorer. So I quit my job, sold my house and bought a little beach cottage sight unseen, off the internet. Never had visited this area before either. Just decided to take the plunge. How do you like that? Dived right off the internet, into the sea! Which is only two blocks from my cottage. I furnished my little Shangri-la with blond wicker furniture and had the walls painted titty pink. The ideal colors for relaxation. I imagined lying back on my airy straw couch sipping a dark beer while a sea breeze cooled me after a hard day at the beach. Why. I might even take up surf fishing!

  Problem was: neither the painter nor the furniture had arrived as scheduled. So I had to content myself with lying on a hardwood floor on top of my sleeping bag and drinking my beer. After my third brew, I felt hungry. Since my ex-wife had gobbled up our furniture along with most everything else, I had to be conservative. No restaurants. Since I was relatively unfamiliar with this area, I turned my phone’s map feature and typed in “supermarkets.”

The closest, something called “Wise Markets”, was under a mile away. Sounded good. Standing up, a bit unsteady, I made for the car. Sand grating under my feet reminded me that I was in paradise. “Beach sand in my shoes,” I sang, twisting the key in the ignition. “If I were me I’d take a permanent vacation,” backing into the narrow street. The swish of the ocean so close lifted my spirits. I backed carefully around two children who were running in front of the house across the street, jumping over cinder blocks and bags of cement. Looked like my neighbors were installing a swimming pool. Feeling empty and lonely, I thought …”Maybe they will invite me over. We could sit around the pool and have a drink. That would be nice.” Humming to find happiness, I began to sing, loudly-

  “My folks were always putting him down. Down, down,” after blocks of beachy cottages, I turned left into a parking lot with an enormous illuminated sign over a plate glass window. “WISE MARKETS, WHERE THE WISE REPARE.” Below that, an owl, made of blue and white neon blinked, beckoning. I pulled into the third space fourth row on the right. Under the owl’s beak so I could remember where I parked. I did think the sign and slogan a little strange.

  “But I’m not from this part of the country,” I thought. ‘REPARE’ may have an entirely different meaning down here.” Shutting off the car, I stepped up the curb and faced a large display window. It was piled with stuffed brown bears, glass-eyed yellow-billed ducks, stuffed pink pigs and boxes of red-wrapped candy, like the happiest Christmas, all leaning against the glass. In the middle of summer. Again, I questioned this…. Was this Wise marketing? Fearing I was falling back into the marketing groove, I mean ditch, I had wallowed in for so long, I crushed this thought right down. Reminded myself that I was not from this area. Indeed, had never even been in this state. It was a very small state, only three counties, and so I had kind of ignored it. Then I took the plunge! Pulling a large cart from the rack of wheeled cages, I

  Pulling a large cart from the rack of wheeled cages, I pasted on my best noncommittal grin. The automated door swung open nicely. I nodded, smiling. One wheel squeaked as I pushed past my fellow shoppers. The store wasn’t crowdednot by Northern standards, and they were an interesting lot. Mostly middle-aged and older, mostly white, wearing rumpled teeshirts, baggy sweats and jeans. Many of the men wore caps announcing they had served in Vietnam. A few of the younger ones advertised their service in Operation Desert Storm. This was something I rarely if ever saw up North, in the big city. A large American flag pasted on the wall over the pork counter at the back of the store echoed this patriotic message. Grateful that I had brought pots and pans with me, as well as cutlery (all wrapped up in my sleeping bag,) I made several quick selections. A package of pre-made hamburgers got thrown in, along with a bag of potatoes. I could bake several of these which would last for days. How about some hamburger rolls and a bottle of ketchup? I tossed the ketchup over my shoulder. Perfect landing. Right on top of the rolls. There you have it… Dinner in a jiffy. I also still had two unopened 6-packs of beer which would take care of liquid refreshment. For now. Humming again, I nodded to the red-jacketed staff. They were banging cans, clashing jars. Some were up on step ladders. However engaged, they turned and smiled back as I squeaked by. Each had the winking Wise owl stitched over their breast pocket.

  “Need help, sir?” A young man with a mohawk buzzcut, the strip running front to back in the middle of his skull dyed red, asked me politely.

  “No thanks, all is good.” Smiling he returned to stacking beans. Pushing to the front of the store, I checked my wallet and thumbed the plastic credit cards. Of eight unmanned checkout lanes, only one had no line. Moving in quickly, I stopped my cart just short of bumping the rear of the lone shopper ahead of me. He was an enormous fellow. Heavy. His tee shirt drooped over his gut. Pads of meat swung from his upper arms revealing dark hairy armpits. Giving off a ripe, but not unpleasant smell.

He shoved his groceries over the barcode reader. Sensing me so close, he stopped. I assumed he was going to chew me out for crowding him. Instead, he turned his broad tan face, smiled and winked. A 60ish man, much overweight.. Toward the back of his head perched what appeared to be an old-fashioned starched white nurse’s cap. Beckoning me closer, his smile broadened.

  “You like ‘em?” he asked.

  “What?”

  “You like my choppers, my false teeth?” pointing to an upper incisor. “They’re new. What do you think?” tapping the tooth with his nail. “The best acrylic resin. You want to feel it?”

  “That’s all right.”

  “Sure. If you touch it you’ll know what choppers to order when your teeth go bad.”

  “I can guess…”

  "OK." He shrugged. “I’ll just be another minute.”

  “Take your time.”

  “Time? You know we don’t kill time.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “No, time kills us,” raising his eyebrows. With his other hand, he slowly reached into his trouser pocket. Fumbling for a minute, he came out with a small yellow pill. “You see this pill? See it,” touching the groove, “it’s divided in two parts just like your girl’s ass. Used to take half. I have to take the whole thing now. And these pills cost me $70 each. Now watch this…” Popping the pill into his mouth, he stuck out his tongue to show me the palpating redness where it had landed , then swallowed noisily. He raised his forefinger higher and swallowed again. Then, “The next time you read about me, it’ll be in the obituary column.” Winking, he nodded slowly. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that I didn’t remember reading about him. At all. Ever. Of course, not being from around here, maybe I had missed it. Maybe.

  “Well, good-bye,” he said, waving as he pushed his cart through the double doors. I felt a wave of sorrow watching him leave. Heavy fellow, heaving the cart toward his car. Could be me in a few years. You never know…

As I walked out carrying my bag, the sun was setting. Dyeing the parking lot bright orange. I walked forward, but there was something curious about many of the shoppers. I thought it might be an illusion because of the dying light. But no… At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Both men and women moving naturally in all directions… Some exiting their cars, slamming doors while others wheeled out their groceries. But they all had something in common. Then I knew: They were all moving very slowly as though under water. Up North, everybody rushed around to every routine task like mad, like it mattered. Here the opposite. Couldn’t tell if it was their greater relative age of these people or what. But there was something else… A significant number of the older ones had what looked like an old-fashioned white nurse’s cap perched on the backs of their heads. Men and women both. There was a small red cross and a couple of words stitched on the front of each cap, but I couldn’t make them out. Maybe they were members of some local rescue squad. An older lady opened the door of the car next to mine…Her thin white hair, her flowered dress tightening against her bowed hips as she bent over revealed diaper tapes against her skin. H-m-m-m. This was no rescue squad member. That same white hat flashed on her white bun as she bent over. H-mm… Shaking my head, throwing my bag in the back seat, I started driving home. Still hungry, but lonely and depressed, I immediately pulled over on the shoulder after exiting the parking lot. Nothing waited for me back at the empty cottage. I could drink my beer later. Signaling right, twisting the steering wheel, moving off the shoulder, I decided to drive around. I could check out the community, maybe aim for a summer sunset at the beach. I slipped out my phone and placed it on my lap. Stroked the screen like a good luck charm. The GPS would assure my not getting lost. I steered past a discount car lot, then Sticky Fingers-“Your Thai Restaurant”- a dozen brokers grinning toothily on real estate signs, billboards advertising “Live In An Adult Community,” “He Is Risen,” and a 12 foot fluttering banner “Live With Us-Memory Assistance Provided.” My hands started sweating.  I moved my phone to the passenger seat.

Maybe I should have checked this place out before buying a beach cottage here. Driving very slowly, looking around, hoping to see ... I don’t know. A huge silver SUV beeped and passed me, accelerating. It roared ahead.. Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to retire here. Didn’t have the guts. I began to feel weak and sweaty. Hadn’t eaten since this morning, maybe that was it. My hands shook. Geez. I remembered I did have food, the hamburgers and buns. Looking for a place to pull over, I saw a driveway on my right and slowed. Big red building at the end. Huge electric sign, an arrow of rippling white bulbs pointed to it. “FAITH ANIMAL HOSPITAL” Below that a white neon cutout of a small dog being lifted while another hand moved a knife against his testicles. “DON’T DELAY GET SPAYED TODAY!” Quickly turning back into the road, I just missed a passing jeep. The driver beeped and shouted. Shit. Better stop before I kill somebody. Or myself.

  I pulled over at the next turnoff. It was some sort of condominium development. Two single lane roads with arrows pointing “In” and “Out” lined with shrubbery fed off the recessed entrance. I nestled my car against a stand of huge sunflowers that provided a bit of shade.. Shut off the engine. Phew. After sitting for minute listening to the rumble of my stomach, I reached back and picked up my bag. The defrosting meat had soaked through the brown paper. A musty smell filled the car, so I opened the windows. These burgers would be good for nothing soon, maybe even now. But I was too hungry for that. Folding the bag on my lap, dry side down, I pulled out the sweating burgers and the buns, tore open the bloodied plastic and squeezed out a burger like gray toothpaste on the bread. Wanted a potato but I couldn’t eat that raw. I closed the bun and forgot about the ketchup. Raising it to my mouth, I started chewing. Bloody juice began running down my face and shirt. I hadn’t any napkins. It dripped over the steering wheel and in my lap. As I raised my arm to wipe my mouth, the bushes ahead parted. An elderly woman leaning on a walker slowly emerged. She pushed forward, leaning painfully, supporting herself on the aluminum frame. That same white nurse’s cap on the back of her head. Staring at the ground through round glasses that magnified her eyes. She walked deliberately pursing her mouth, fearful of falling. I didn’t blame her. Sticking my arm out the window, “Hi!” I called, waving in encouragement. She looked up startled, staring at me through the windshield. My open shirt and bloodied mouth and chest, chewing a shapeless thing held in my other hand. She stumbled, almost fell. “Wait!” I called opening the door and dropping the food. “Wait!” as I stepped out. She shrank in terror, rattling the walker. Its wheels twisted and I was afraid it would tip, knocking her over. So I pulled back, halted and held my hands, palms up, in front of my chest. And didn’t move. She stopped, grabbing the top rail of her walker. Weaved a bit but seemed to stabilize. Then pushing out on the path behind her coming from the development, parting the bushes, trampling on fallen leaves, an enormous hulk appeared.

  “Hi ma,” he called. His small eyes darted around suspiciously. He frowned, mouth wrinkling in disgust watching me standing by the car door my mouth and shirt covered in gray-red grool.

  “ Any trouble?” he asked, placing an enormous paw on his mother’s shoulder. I stared at the black hairs curling off his knuckles and wondered how they would taste breaking against my teeth.

  “No trouble,” she answered. “This man-“

  “Please let me explain,” dropping my hands. Then I wiped my mouth self-consciously. The bear looked at me… scratched his balding scalp.

  “Explain… What the hell are you doing here anyway? I’ve never seen you. You live here? In which unit?”

  “Let me explain…”

  “Go ahead.”

  “I just bought a beach cottage near here you see. Just retired and came down from the North.” The woman shifted her weight. She was uncomfortable standing. “So I just drove out to buy some groceries. Frozen hamburgers and such.”

  “Yeah?”

  “So I got a little lost coming from the supermarket. Hot you know,” pretending to mop my brow. “I tried to turn around here, but the burgers melted. So I tried to wrap them up. But the package leaked,” fanning my fingers at my stained shirt. “I was just leaving. Suddenly this lady came out.” I nodded. “I didn’t mean to startle her.”

Sighing, she shifted to her other foot. The walker began to slip. “That sound right to you, ma?”

  “Yes, yes,” she whispered softly. “That’s what happened.”

  “OK.” I took advantage of the break to slip back in my car and slam the door. Gunned the engine and waving pleasantly, made my tightest U turn trying not to hit them. Waved again as I exited. They hadn’t moved. Then the bear lumbered toward the lump of meat and bread I had dropped in the driveway. I wondered whether he would eat it.

  Back on the road I felt drained and tired. And a little dizzy. Road construction on both sides had pushed up rough mounds of red earth like ditches dug in a war zone. Had to get something to eat soon. In the dimming light, a huge billboard with the words “Vote For Ronald Rump, Our Local Boy” on my right. Below that, I swear, was a silhouette of naked buttocks sticking out of blue trousers. An American flag pinned to the back pocket echoed this theme. I shook my head, hand slipping on the wheel. Fortunately, the next sign was the calming golden arches of a McDonald’s. I pulled into the small parking lot and exhaled.

  “Where did you get those outfits? Are you refugees from a 1946 Mummers’ Parade?”

  “Wow.” First thing, I picked up the stinking hamburgers, left the unused buns and exited. My sweaty back ached. Found the trash bin near the entrance and pushed my crap through the yellow smiley face on the lid. An employee sweeping up gave me a suspicious glance. I looked down at my encrusted shirt and stained pants, and stared at my sticky hands in horror. Pushed past the sweeper into air conditioning. Civilized. The fragrant smell of toasted buns and steaming burgers calmed me. I made for the men’s room. Since it was empty, I pulled off my shirt, washed my hands and face and dried them on paper towels. As I was rubbing the heavier stains off my shirt, a man came in. He recoiled.

  “Nose starting bleeding in my car. Allergies you know,” I smiled. Pulled the wet shirt on. Nodding, I exited quickly. Moved up to the counter. Finally. Got my hamburger after all.

  Two days later, my furniture arrived and the painters started painting. Since my cottage consisted of a single living area, blending into a raised kitchen toward the rear, bedroom and bath off to the right, painting was quick. The moment the painters and movers left, I threw myself on the new bed in my titty pink bedroom. Used my sleeping bag for a blanket. Bedding could be ordered later. Slept nearly 12 hours. I awoke the next morning with that extraordinary although common feeling of not knowing where I was. The barred shadows, smells of fresh paint and plastic wrapping from the new mattress, threw me off. My heart pounded, I looked around. Touched the bed. Soaked with sweat. Hunger settled me somewhat and I flung on my clothes. Having explored the area over the last couple of days, I recalled some sort of family restaurant across from Hazard Brothers gas station on Glade Road. Sunday morning, should be open… Jumped in the car. The neon sign with flashing arrow and American flag waving electronically pointed me right in. Pleasant pretty waitress, a high school kid wearing white wedgies, greeted me. She extended a menu.

  “Happy Sunday, sir. Do you want to join our Sabbath buffet,” pointing to a large room left of the entrance, steam tables smoking, “or do you prefer a booth or a table?” She seated me at a booth, the third of six, that lined the front window. All the others were occupied by graying couples. The four folks in front of me seated in two adjoining booths, seemed to know each other. They turned, leaning over seat backs and shouting:

  “Did you get to church this morning?” one man asked the other, smiling broadly.

  “No,” his buddy yelled, arm hooked over the seat back, leaning against his wife. “My bowels, they acted up on me. I couldn’t get out of the toilet, for hours. Annie had to help me out with a spoon.”

Martin Swanson.jpg

"Your Promise Means Everything," by Martin Swanson is a 200 page fantastic realism novel-in-stories, grappling with themes of alienation and the other, these stories range from characters operating an establishment which sells luxury merkins, to riding the NY subways in the company of psychotics. This novel is perfect for fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy.

My work has been published in Now magazine, The Provincetown Poets, St. Mark’s Church Poetry Project, Literary Veganism, and Commuter Lit.. I seek to portray the modern world as I experience it through the refracting glass of humorous and grim alienation.  Since I had the good fortune to be born in the Bronx, I saw my building superintendent shot to death under my window, burned Christmas trees against brick buildings until the houses nearly burned down, was beaten up regularly by gangs of youthful illiterates  and was sexually abused by my sister.  The title of my sectioned novel "Your Promise Means Everything" came from an advertising slogan coined by my crazy, one-eyed father.  Pathological gambler, half assed chemist, perfume manufacturer, public masturbator, he thought this slogan for one of his perfumes "Perfect, because it means nothing."  No explanation from me that  "Promises Do Mean Something" could change his mind. Little did I know as a child that the world would follow his slogan and example.  Which brings us to our present chaotic situation. My hope is that once the world reflects on my novel and its horrors and fantasies depicting  everyday life, It Will Change Its Ways!

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