Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Nickel Incident

I've been reading Updike again and he loves the third person present tense. It seems a good tense to write from because you can talk about the past from the present and also the future. If you write in the past and talk about the past then you get into past perfect. "He had been thinking about..." It's wordy. If you are in the present..."He wonders if it's time to take the garbage out." Then you use past like, "He remembers he already took it out." I'm going to try it because my Santa Cruz saga seems to be stalled as I flounder in unemployment and self pity. If I can just write one page a day then I know I'll live long enough to finish something. It's when I go days without writing even a sentence that the problems start. I know what I want this thing to be and I start to defeat myself with having no money and feeling I can really only write like David Sedaris or Dave Barry (Trashy and otherwise frivolous authors) and will never really be someone like Updike whose work is so much more accessible than Norman Mailer, whom I respect but whose later work I don't connect with. The shit I read today was timeless. He put a lot of work into his voice and it pays off.

"The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun's just started."

That's just a throw-away line filler and it demonstrates Rabbit's perspective beautifully. The purpose of my Santa Cruz story is different than Rabbit is Rich but Updike fills this book with comments. That line isn't a quote it's part of the narrative which is mostly Rabbit's thoughts but sometimes it is Updike's or just people in general. But it's not ever objective. It's just insightful. He pondered the universe through Rabbit's eyes.

Another one was, "The great thing about the dead, they make space."

So, here's my effort for the day.

“And once the state saturates the drinking water with Prozac then they’ll be able to completely control our brainwaves. We’re all chemicals and once they replace our chemicals with their chemicals then…well, you see how much more crime there is lately? That’s just the start. Once they implement their plan that involves a new drug called Alt-five then you’ll see a lot more violence. And that will justify the declaration of martial law. It’s all there in my flyer.”
The man talking to Oggy holds out a purple page with the words “Don’t Drink Water. Unsafe Government Mind Control Experiments!”
Oggy read the first sentence out loud, “Beware brainwashing has begun and you are the lab rat…” Oggy shakes his head. “Man, I had no idea. I get most of my water from the river.”
“They’ve got a pipe that runs directly into the river full of Atl-Five. I’ve seen it.” Off Oggy’s look of despair he says, “Take the flyer. Get the word out. We’ve got to inform everyone. If you can spare any money for the flyer that would help out a lot.”
Oggy digs in his pocket and pulls out a quarter and a dime. He pauses over the choice because thirty five cents buys one apple. But the information on the flyer could be priceless. Oggy feels pressured to hand over the quarter but that’s simply too much money to justify on information that could just as easily be distributed by lectures in the park. He gives the man the dime, gently placing it in the other’s dirty palm.
Says Oggy, “Thanks. I’ll read this with great interest.”
“You should. It’ll save your life. I’ve got another flyer about the evils of Yoga. Do you…”
“No.” says Oggy bluntly. “This is enough for today.”
The man lopes down the sunny Santa Cruz sidewalk, stepping over the legs of a man sleeping in the dark doorway of a store that once sold boutique handbags. Oggy turns into the health food store and bumps into the window ledge since he’s so engrossed with what he is reading. The Korean clerk at the cash register holds his breath as Oggy walks by. These Hippies, he thinks to himself, these dirty, diseased hippies are intolerable.
“Hi!” Says Oggy with a wave.
The man nods, never having adopted this frivolous American custom.
Oggy walks up to the peanut butter grinder and takes a broken plastic container, smeared with old dried up peanut butter and browning bits of carrot out of his cargo pocket and holds it under the spout. He checks to make sure there are peanuts in the feeder funnel and flicks a switch for five seconds as no more than a ¼ cup of peanut butter slowly oozes down the chute and, after hanging on the edge of the shiny sheet metal, plops into Oggy’s container. Oggy eyes the amount for a second.
“Does that look like forty cents worth?”
“There is scale.”
Oggy knows there’s a scale but he was trying to make conversation. He acts like he’s never seen the scale before and smiles obsequiously.
“Ah!”
Oggy weighs the amount and at $4 a pound the 1/8 of a pound costs fifty cents, a little over budget but Oggy must now consider Isabelle and her mother. Is fifty cents enough? While Oggy ponders this he sees an old box of soba noodles slightly askew on the shelf. It’s a simple task to adjust the box so it matches the other boxes of soba noodles. It’s not only simple, it’s almost required if Oggy is going to leave the store. He now stares directly at the box of soba noodles and thinks if it will look weird if he adjusts a box he doesn’t intend to buy. Maybe he should buy it, he thinks, but how will he cook it? There are no pots or pans in the hotel room. Hell, they’ll be lucky if they aren’t evicted after the previous night’s rampage that Steve went on. Broken bottles that took two hours to clean up in the parking lot. A trip to the emergency room. Isabelle punching him repeatedly in the shoulder. The dog’s tail getting slammed in a car door. Man, the manager had been completely justified to tell them another outburst would not be tolerated. So, cooking was probably not a long term plan to worry about. But look at that box. It protrudes so much further than the others and the angle is completely wrong compared to the angle of the shelves and the geometrical arrangement of the architecture, not to mention the energy flow of the universe. Someone could get hurt either physically, spiritually or both. Then he sees that the price sticker isn’t exposed. So how would someone even know how much it costs? The continued silence makes Oggy feel uncomfortable and he turns to the clerk.
“Soba noodles,” he mumbles esoterically.
The clerk squints and pretends to count something on the counter while keeping his 6tht sense aimed at the dirty, confused hippy in his midst. Oggy takes the opportunity to stretch out, like he’s merely getting a kink out of his neck, and quickly straightens the box out. Then he turns the box upside down so the price tag, which had been previously face down, is now straight up like the rest of the price tags. He notices that the price tag itself is not located in exactly the same spot as the other price tags. The other price tags are near the “O” of Soba, while this price tag is much closer to the “S”. Oggy’s past experiences with rearranging price tags has taught him two lessons: 1. The stickers usually tear apart as he tries to remove them. 2. The clerks generally misinterpret the action as an attempt to replace the sticker with one of a lower the price and get a discount. Either way, Oggy turns back to the scale, now feeling that the universe is slightly more tolerable.
He decides that it would be more responsible, more ecologically aware, and more universally moral if he purchases only the amount of peanut butter than he knows he will consume. If they need more peanut butter then he will bicycle back and get some. He has at least sixty cents left. Then he remembers he also wanted to buy two carrots to use as utensils for the peanut butter and for the beta carotene content. He ambles over to the organic produce section and finds two well formed carrots that looked moderately free of dirt. He brings these carrots and the peanut butter to the counter. The cashier weighs the peanut butter, fifty six cents. He weighs the carrots. Seventeen cents.
“Seventy three.”
Oggy is happy he didn’t give that quarter away because he puts it down with another quarter and slowly counts out thirteen cents in pennies. He has to go through two other pockets to find two nickels. Then he counts all the change again. Then he arranges the pennies in a neat row of five, five and three. Then he thinks again and stacks the pennies one on top of another and picks them up and hands them to the cashier. The cashier says nothing and drops them into the penny drawer along with, Oggy notices with a gasp, a nickel. The nickel was meant for the nickel compartment but it bounced on the dividing rail and fell into the penny compartment. He is momentarily frozen by the nickel/penny problem. He is so flustered he tries to take back the two quarters, thinking they were his change from the transaction.
“Ah. Sorry.” Says the cashier quickly as he whisks the quarters away from Oggy’s fingers and drops them into the quarter container and closes the drawer.
Oggy desperately wants to explain to the cashier that there is a nickel in the penny compartment. How would he word this? “Excuse me. I think there’s a nickel in the penny compartment and I don’t want you to think I didn’t pay you the right amount. If you could just open the cash register and look in the penny compartment then you’ll see there is a silver nickel that doesn’t belong there. Could you do that? Just do it quickly and then I’ll go.” No, that won’t work. There is nothing he can do. No graceful way to get that nickel back into the proper place. How do people live when there is such disorganization?
Oggy sighs and gathers his carrots. He resents the cashier for being so insensitive to currency denominations and universal order. No wonder the world was falling apart. No fucking wonder! You’ve got soba noodles basically dangling in the air and nickels with the pennies and poison in the water. These were the dangers Abraham had repeatedly warned Oggy about. These were the things Abraham had said existed for no other reason than to distract Oggy from his holy mission. The path to a pure self was an obstacle course filled with Alt-Five brain control drugs and nickels in the penny compartment and god knows what else. What were his instructions? What calming method had he been trained to employ during such a crisis? Something about breathing and yoga. Something about…but the nickel...a nickel with the pennies. That’s unforgivable.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry. I just…see…I couldn’t help notice that when I gave you those nickels. Remember? Well, one ended up in the pennies.”
Oggy pauses as the clerk searches his face for a point to this comment.
“You see? It ended up with the pennies. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. That’s not what I’m saying. I was once a cashier and these things happen. But if you could just open the cash register and look then you’ll see the nickel with the pennies and if you could put that penny back with the other nickels…I mean put the nickel with the other nickels…then…right?”
The cashier quickly computes that the quickest way to rid himself of this lunatic is to put the nickel back in the penny compartment. He had, in fact, seen the nickel go in with the pennies but he generally waited until he was counting the change out at the end of the day to rectify the problem or else he actually saved time when counting change by seeing the nickel with the pennies and grabbing six cents from a single compartment instead of from two compartments. It was a trick he had seen his father use when his father ran the register and it made sense. He never let it get out of control but there was no harm in a nickel lying with the pennies until it was needed. Dimes and quarters didn’t mix and neither did dimes and nickels but nickels and pennies were different colors and therefore were perfectly all right to mix a few so they could later be combined quickly. Still, to placate the hippy the cashier quickly opens the register drawer with a no sale operation and locates the nickel and puts it with the other nickels.
“Good. Thank you.” He says with finality, “Have good day.”
“And another thing,” continues Oggy to the exasperation of the cashier, “I was just straightening out the shelves. I noticed some…”
“Thank you.” Says the cashier.
“…and it’s all perfect now.”
Oggy knows he is rambling but he doesn’t see how he could allow this lingering question to remain after he leaves. He assumed the cashier was wondering what he was doing touching the soba noodles and then not buying them. Now he knows. Oggy makes a gesture of satisfaction.
“Goodbye. See you later.”
Oggy walks outside without his peanut butter, remembers it and goes back in with an embarrassed smile.
“Whoops. The whole point of coming in here.”
Oggy turns and leaves again with his carrots and peanut butter. He thinks again of the flyer and Alt-Five. Should he return to the cashier to relay this important information? No. Better to read the whole flyer and learn as much as possible so he can answer any questions the cashier might have. Anyway, Isabelle and Mary will probably demand he return for more peanut butter and he’ll have a chance then to talk about the latest brainwashing campaign the government is using to control the population.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.