Long Beach, California.
Out on the ocean on a small boat that can only hold twelve of us, we put my grandmother’s ashes in the ocean.
Speakers on the boat play music.
Cat Stevens, “Don’t Be Shy”.
It’s strange to see my grandmother in this new form.
And there are flower petals that float around her.
And the waves created by the boat spread the petals farther and farther away but there are some petals that cling to the ash.
And then Tom Jones sings “She’s a Lady”.
And my grandfather almost falls out of the boat and when he regains his balance he says, “We almost had a double feature.”
And then a few hours later, my parents and my sister and Ashleigh drive me from Long Beach to Los Angeles so that I can be interviewed by a man named Brad who interviews writers in a nice garage.
I’m going to talk about a book of poems I wrote a year ago when I was suicidal and heartbroken.
I’m fine now, but no one is fine forever, so I’ll be sad again.
I’ll be suicidal again.
And then I’ll be happy again.
And one day I’ll die.
And maybe I’ll be happy when I die.
Or maybe I’ll be sad.
But either way, I’ll die.
I won’t live forever.
And then I’ll be dead.
And that’s okay.
In the car, on the way to the interview, I keep thinking about my grandmother’s ashes and the flower petals and the waves.
I can feel Ashleigh looking at me, so I look at her, and I see that she’s smiling and she’s rubbing my hand with her hand and I need a beer but we stop for Mexican food and there’s a Salvadorian festival happening in the street and people are screaming and drums are beating and people are marching and dancing.
Ashleigh tries mole for the first time.
My mom doesn’t like the pozole.
My dad eats cactus.
My sister tries to make me eat her food but I don’t because I have to eat my enchiladas and I’m not hungry.
After we finish eating, my parents and sister want coffee and I want a beer but we stop for coffee and I drink a coffee.
And then my mouth is dry.
And it’s dry when we get to the man’s house.
And my family likes this man and they like his show and they are excited to meet him and his wife and children and dog.
And when we pull up in front of his house, the man is sitting on his front steps with his children and we get out of the car and he leads us through his house and into his backyard.
Ashleigh plays with the man’s children.
His son sits on the grass and swings a plastic golf club at a plastic golf ball.
“I like sports,” he says.
My mom and sister play with the man’s dog.
My dad and I talk to the man.
The man offers me a beer and I accept the offer.
His wife takes a picture of all of us in the backyard and then my family goes for a walk and I go into the man’s garage.
The man interviews me for an hour.
And I beat myself up in the interview and I talk about how I don’t like my voice and how I don’t like my body and how I don’t have a job.
But the man is nice.
He asks me questions.
He gives me another beer.
I drink the beer and I make sure to move away from the microphone when I drink so that no one hears me gulp when they listen to the interview.
And the interview ends.
And Long Beach ends.
I fly back to North Carolina with Ashleigh.
I have my grandma’s watch in my pocket.
She’s dead but I have her watch in my pocket.
And I put it on the bedside table, next to my head, while I sleep.
And then I get a job.
Yeah, I get a job.
I get a job at the coffee shop in the neighboring county.
The man who hires me is from New Jersey and he has a Hulk Hogan mustache.
He has a name.
The hair in his mustache is grey and white.
The hair on his head is brown and grey and a little bit shorter than mine and he wears a hat and glasses too.
I have to wear a hat too.
And I have to learn how to make lattes and cappuccinos and frappes and smoothies and milkshakes and breakfast sandwiches and burritos and wraps and paninis and chicken salad and everything else on the menu.
And I wash dishes.
And I get bleach all over my hands all day.
I wipe tables.
My hands feel dry and burnt.
I make a couple dollars in tips everyday.
I have this job.
I do it.
In the mornings, I have to be there ten minutes to seven.
Which means that Ashleigh has to wake up with me and drive me to work, even though she doesn’t have to be at work until 8:30 a.m.
And then I get off work at three and the car is with Ashleigh, parked about eight miles away, in front of her office.
So I walk out of the coffee shop and walk a few doors down to the library and sit for two hours in a chair with a book in my hands.
But I’m too tired to read so I don’t read.
I look at my phone.
And I take off my shoes and massage my feet and no one notices that my shoes are off and that I’m massaging my feet because there is hardly anyone in the library and the people who are in the library don’t sit back here where I sit.
I wait for Ashleigh to come and pick me up.
After a few days I want to quit the job at the coffee shop.
Because I am sensitive and because I forgot how hard it can be to work.
But after two weeks, I get paid.
I get paid in cash.
And I remember that I need money.
I need money for so many things.
I need money for all of the things that people have needed money for forever.
I need to buy food.
I need to buy water.
And I have to pay some bills.
I have to help Ashleigh pay for things.
I don’t quit the job.
And then it’s another night and we’re in bed and I go to sleep.
I dream about a man who gets something stuck in his teeth and he can’t get it out and so he screams and paces around his house and breaks a window.
And then I wake up.
And then I fall back asleep and dream about a man who climbs out of a vagina and starts a band.
And then I wake up and I wake up Ashleigh and it’s six a.m. and I say, “We have to leave the house at 6:30 if I’m gonna get there on time,” and she nods and makes a grumbling sound and rolls over to face the wall and I get up and I put water on for coffee and I take a shower and by the time I get out of the shower, the water is boiling.
I make two cups of coffee and then Ashleigh is downstairs with me and she’s ready to go.
She’s wearing pants and a shirt and she puts on flip-flops because she’s going to come back here after she drops me off.
I open the refrigerator and I grab a bottle of Pumpkin Spice Almond Creamer and I pour Pumpkin Spice Almond Creamer into her cup of coffee because she likes Pumpkin Spice Almond Creamer and a couple days ago, when we were in Ahoskie, she bought two bottles of the stuff because she didn’t want to run out of it and because they don’t carry it at the grocery store near us.
She takes me to work.
She pulls up behind the coffee shop.
I give her a kiss.
It’s almost seven a.m.
I go inside the coffee shop.
And there is the man who hired me and he’s wearing his hat and his Hulk Hogan mustache and he’s blasting music and he’s playing air guitar to whatever song is playing.
And he points up at the ceiling and he says, “Listen. Listen to that bass.”
And I force a smile and watch him play the air bass.
“Who is this?” I say.
But I don’t care who it is and I don’t like the song.
I haven’t liked anything since I entered the building a few seconds ago.
But that’s okay.
I’m nice and I can smile and pretend that I’m happy to be here.
“It’s Rancid,” he says.
“Cool,” I say. “It’s good.”
Every time I decide that I don’t like him, he does something dumb and sweet and it makes me kinda like him.
“Their bass player is fucking incredible,” he says. “I mean, just listen to that.”
He points up at the ceiling again.
“Wait for it,” he says.
I nod and I wait.
I pretend to listen and I nod again.
“Yeah,” I say.
And then I go into the kitchen and pour two giant cans of chicken into a large bowl.
And I put on gloves and I break the chicken up with my hands so that it’s not in big chunks.
And I use the microwave to defrost a bag of frozen chopped celery and I put that in the bowl with the chicken.
And then I scoop out three cups of cranberries from a bag of cranberries and I put them in the bowl too.
I take off my gloves.
I grab another bowl.
I put eight packets of Equal sweetener in the new bowl.
I pour 1/2 a cup of chicken broth into the bowl and a 1/3 a cup of lemon juice.
I mix up the sweetener and the broth and the lemon juice.
And in the same bowl, I put three cups of Duke’s mayonnaise.
And I shake pepper on top of the mayonnaise.
I grab a whisk and I whisk the mayonnaise and the broth and the lemon juice and the sweetener and the pepper together and I whisk it all until it’s creamy and then I pour this into the bowl with the chicken and the cranberries and the celery.
I put on a new pair of gloves.
I shove my hands into the chicken and celery and cranberries and mayonnaise and chicken broth and lemon juice and sweetener and pepper.
I mix it all up with my hands and the gloves are covered in mayonnaise and pieces of chicken and celery.
And from the kitchen I can hear my boss up front, changing the music.
He takes out the Rancid CD.
He wants to listen to Bruce Springsteen.
He is my boss and he wants to listen to The Boss.
“Haha,” I laugh.
I am making the chicken salad.
I know how to make the chicken salad.
I know how to do this.
“Haha,” I laugh.
I tell him that tomorrow I’ll need to come into work a little bit later than usual.
He looks at the schedule on the calendar and he says, “That’s fine.”
I say I have an appointment.
I don’t specify.
I don’t tell him that the appointment is a job interview at a local pharmacy.
A clerical position.
Yesterday, Ashleigh and I went to Walmart and I tried on a pair of khaki pants and a short sleeved white button up shirt because I don’t have any nice clothes.
I opened the door to the dressing room and Ashleigh came into the dressing room and she looked at me while I looked at myself in the mirror.
“You look like a teacher,” she said.
I bought the khaki pants and the white shirt.
I finish making the chicken salad and I finish making coffees and sandwiches for old people and college students and then the other woman who works at the coffee shop shows up and she puts on her apron and washes her hands.
She’s not from around here either.
She’s from upstate New York.
The first time I met her was when I brought my resume into the coffee shop.
I told her I was a writer and she told me that she didn’t write but that someone should write a book about her life because she was raised Mormon and was once kidnapped by a cop.
Last week I told her about my book of poems.
So when she sees me today, she says, “How’s the book doin’? Was it everything you ever dreamed of?”
And I know she doesn’t care, so I play along and I tell her that it’s doing well.
“I was interviewed on this popular literary podcast. He’s had a lot of famous authors on his show. You know who David Sedaris is?”
And she looks at me and reaches behind her back and adjusts the knot on her apron.
“Hm,” she says.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” I say. “But yeah the book’s doing well. People seem to be buying it.”
She puts her hands on her hips.
“This is gonna sound weird,” she says, “But you know who I love?”
“Ray Bradbury,” she says.
“That’s not weird,” I say. “He’s really good.”
“Those martian books he wrote,” she says.
Her eyes stretch open wide to emphasize how much she likes the martian books.
“Oh yeah, The Martian Chronicles,” I say. “I still haven’t read that but I’ve heard it’s good.”
“But you know who my favorite writer is?”
I turn away from her to wash my hands.
“Who,” I say into the sink.
“Tom Clancy,” she says.
I rinse off my hands and dry them with a paper towel and don’t say anything for a few seconds.
I turn around to look at her.
“Yeah,” she says.
And then I take off my apron and I’m done for the day.
Ashleigh picks me up from the library and we go home and we eat pasta and we go to sleep.
When I wake up, Ashleigh isn’t in the bed with me.
I go downstairs and she’s got the ironing board out and she’s ironing my pants and she’s ironing my shirt and this is a good thing because I don’t know how to iron my clothes.
And when she’s done ironing my new clothes, I put them on and I look like a teacher.
Ashleigh gets dressed while I make coffee and then we go.
I drive her to work.
I sit in the parking lot outside her office because if I drive to the pharmacy now, I’ll be too early.
A few minutes go by and then Ashleigh texts me that she left her tampons in the car.
Are you still here? she asks.
I bring the tampons into her office and I ask her if I can use their bathroom and she shows me where it is and I’m nervous for the interview at the pharmacy and I don’t feel good so I have diarrhea and I flush once.
And then I finish up and I flush again and I wash my hands.
I come out of the bathroom and walk back into Ashleigh’s office and she says, “Are you okay? You flushed twice.”
“The first one was a courtesy flush,” I say.
“A courtesy flush?!”
“Yeah, a courtesy flush.”
And then she walks me back out to the parking lot and gives me a kiss and tells me that I’m gonna do great and to just be myself and then I drive to pharmacy.
When I walk into the pharmacy, the woman at the counter tells me that they’ll be right with me and that I can take a seat.
She points to a bench in the front corner of the store.
There’s a small table in front of the bench and there are magazines stacked up on the table and I pick one up and flip through it and I try to read an article by William T. Vollmann about World War I.
But I can’t read the article because I’m nervous.
So I just look at it.
There’s World War I and then there’s me sitting on a bench in this pharmacy.
And then they are ready for me.
And a man in a white pharmacist’s coat leads me into an office.
It’s the owner’s office.
I shake the owner’s hand and I shake the pharmacist’s hand and there is another pharmacist in there and I shake her hand too.
We all sit down.
They ask me why I want to work at the pharmacy and it catches me off guard because I didn’t think about why I want to work here and I don’t know if I want to work here, so I tell them that I like people.
They ask me what I want to be paid and I tell them minimum wage and they laugh at me.
“Should I ask for more?” I say, and the woman next to me says, “You’ve got to know what you want. You have got to know what you want.”
“Do you think you’re overqualified for this position?” the owner asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I say.
The owner says, “You’ve worked in bookstores,” and I tell him that I like to read and that I’m a writer and that a book of my poems was released last week.
“I think that’s very interesting,” he says. “What kind of stuff is it that you write?”
“Oh, stories, poems, essays. All kinds of stuff,” I say.
“Well, Joseph,” he says, “You’re definitely overqualified for this position, but if you really think you want to try this, and if you think you might have a good time here, then I think you’d do well here.”
“I think so too,” I say.
“And this job’d give you time to write,” he says.
The pharmacist to my left says, “I’ve said this to all the applicants, but I’ll say it again. If you work here, the first six months you’ll probably get sicker than you’ve ever been in your life. ‘Cause folks will come in here with all sorts of stuff and they’re more than happy to share it with you. But after those first six months, you’ll probably be healthier than you’ve ever been in your life.”
“Well all right, Joseph,” the owner says.
He stands up and reaches out his hand and I stand up and reach out my hand and I shake his hand.
“We sure enjoyed talkin’ to you this morning,” he says. “And we’ll be in touch with you soon.”
I shake the other man’s hand and I shake the woman’s hand and I thank all three of them and then I walk out of the office and out of the pharmacy and I get back into Ashleigh’s car.
I feel good.
I’m in my nice Walmart khakis and my nice Walmart short sleeved white button up shirt and I drive back home and I take off my clothes and I put on the clothes I wear everyday—some jeans and a stained flannel shirt.
I put on a ball cap and I drive to the coffee shop and I look at my boss and the Hulk Hogan mustache and I put on my apron and I do my job and I do my job and I do my job.
And I wait for a call from the pharmacy.
And later that day I look at my phone and there’s a voicemail from the pharmacy.
And I listen to the voicemail and it’s one of the pharmacists and he offers me the job.
And there’s something in my teeth.