You’ll probably find this funny, because people usually find it funny when I tell them. I used to work as a waiter at this place called Merry Olde England British Pub over in Five Points. Obviously, that’s not the funny part. The funny part is that I had to dress in a bowler hat and talk in a phony English accent. They gave us a pamphlet called The Handbook with authentic phrases in it. If someone surprised me, like when that kid spilled his beef stew on my shoes, then I had to say “Blast!” instead of “Shit!” “Cocksucker!” or “Get your fucking rampaging little shitling under control, you dick!” And for the times I used the word “Blast!” I had to make sure it was in a tone that’s “just a mite cheeky but certainly not cheesed off” so that the guests could pretend that I wasn’t angry. I also had to say “anti-clockwise” instead of “counterclockwise,” but I can’t think of a time that ever came up.
That was when I lived alone in the Old Fourth Ward apartment back in Atlanta. It’s the kind of place you’d expect, given the neighborhood. Red brick on the outside, old-fashioned radiators and cheap white drywall on the inside. Sometimes I guess it was lonely, but definitely not any lonelier than it is over here. No offense or anything. These bunks sort of remind me of being a kid again, which is fun. And here I don’t have to listen to the neighbors next door doing it. I always heard their hoot-fucking through the walls, which didn’t really piss me off so much as remind me that other people were less lonely than I was. So it pissed me off a little bit.
But I had friends who would come over to visit. Perry was the fat funny friend. Fat people usually end up being funny or creepy. They either make you laugh or they ramble about bands like Cradle of Filth. Matt liked to play acoustic guitar versions of television theme songs, but we didn’t like to listen to them. Then there was Pecker. His real name is Matt, too, so we call him Pecker to avoid confusion. None of us remember where the nickname Pecker came from, but we all guessed it had to do with something funny that Perry said. Pecker was the sort of guy who kept sober when all the rest of us were loaded on Mickey’s “just to make sure no one pulls some dumb shit” like the time Perry woke up inside of a closed convenience store or when Matt got us thrown out of a house party for playing his milkshake joke, which involves asking people what flavor milkshake they wanted, writing it down, and then not even trying to actually get people their milkshakes. Pecker took care of us.
If I were to describe myself in one sentence like I just did for the other guys, I’d say that I like to knit since that’s a funny detail that I could pretend says important things about me. But for real, I can do most anything with a pair of knitting needles: knit and purl, plaited stitching, cable knitting, which even old ladies usually have trouble with. So it isn’t surprising that I was in the Yarn Barn that particular Wednesday last July. If Stitch in Time is the Target of knitting stores, then the Yarn Barn is the Super Wal-Mart. What was the surprising part of that day at Yarn Barn was the girl who worked there. Most of the workers were like most of the shoppers. Old and wrinkled, with faces that dangled off their skulls, limp and gross-like. This girl was young, smooth, and hot. She had red hair. Auburn red (which is nice) not orange (which is weird). She was a thin, long-legged type and I got a really good look at her ass when she bent over to straighten some skeins of marbled yarn.
I went over to the shelf she was at and pretended to look at the marbled yarn, even though everyone knows marbled yarn is ugly as dogshit.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Just browsing,” I said, like a stupid idiot. In circumstances like this, the worst thing you can do is stop the conversation. Matt always said to keep talking, no matter what. Ask questions. If she walks away, walk and talk. Corner her. Whatever. But never say “Just browsing” like a fucking dumb stupid idiot.
But she saved the conversation. “Not too many young guys come in here to browse.”
“Most young guys are dicks.”
That made her laugh, and I felt like less of an idiot. “Yeah, they are. So I take it you’re not a dick?”
“If I was, would I knit? Dicks lift weights, losers knit.”
“I mean, you’re all right looking for a loser.” I knew the trick she was playing. Matt talked about this one, too. She was joking, because she probably thought I looked better than all right.
“It’s not like my competition is all that intense around here.” I gestured at an old lady with bright orange hair and a hummingbird tee shirt who was tossing skeins (of ugly marbled dogshit yarn, of course) into a canvas bag.
“I don’t know,” the hot girl said. “What about that guy over there?” She pointed at a fat old man who looked like he’d be a lot less funny than Perry. He had a clumpy beard for one thing, and he was wearing sweatpants for another thing.
“You’re right,” I said. “Why are you wasting your time talking to me?”
She sighed. “Because, sadly, Bearded Guy is wearing a ring.”
“Well since that’s how it is, why don’t we hang out sometime?”
We agreed to go to a bar on Saturday, since I had to work on Friday. I was really excited, but I made sure she only thought I was kind of looking forward to it in the way I’d look forward to ordering Domino’s and watching Deal or No Deal, which is okay fun but not really kick ass. Girls like to be treated as though they’re just okay fun, which is stupid but that’s how things are.
I hope I’m not boring you. No? That’s good. I don’t talk about myself all that much because I’m scared of being boring, and I know that there isn’t much worse than getting stuck listening to a story that isn’t much worth hearing. Anyways, my dad called me that night, mostly because he likes to put me in a shitty mood whenever I’m happy. He was always calling from some place “Out West” which I guess is closer than the “Lands Far Afield” that he called Grandma and me from when I was little.
“So are they still making you wear that sombrero at work?”
“It’s called a bowler, Dad. Winston Churchill wore bowler hats.”
“And you have to talk in that stupid accent?”
“If by stupid, you mean English, then yes. But not if you really mean stupid.”
There is usually a pause when I make a joke at Dad, either because he doesn’t think I’m funny or because he is surprised that people waste time on jokes at all. I still haven’t figured out which.
“Look,” I said. “Is there some reason you called, other than to be a dickhead.”
“Don’t call me dickhead, Noah. And no, I also called to talk to you about your plans—”
“You know the kind of signing bonuses they’re offering?”
“Money for college.”
“It did a lot of good for me.”
“Dad, I don’t think I want to enlist. I mean, my website.”
“Don’t start with me about that Yarnivores.” He said ‘Yarnivores’ like it made him want to hurl all over himself.
Just then, the guys burst in. I don’t leave my door locked because I don’t have anything good to steal and because it was nice how the guys would always burst in without knocking. Perry held a paper bag aloft, which meant it was filled with three six packs of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. Matt had his guitar, which meant he’d force his songs on us. And Pecker wasn’t carrying anything, which was normal.
“Look Dad, the guys are here.”
“Just think about it, Noah. Promise me, you’ll think about it.”
“Fine, I promise.”
I told the guys all about the girl from Yarn Barn, that her name was Audrey and that she had a pink cell phone and looked really fucking adorable when she was punching my number into it. They all seemed happy for me, except for Matt, who slammed his green Mickey’s bottle on my little card table so hard that he spilled malt liquor all over the place.
“Hey!” I said. “Why did you spill malt liquor all over the place?”
“You just go to buy some faggy yarn and pick up some chick with a hot name like Audrey, and I can spend a day down at Georgia State pulling the milkshake joke and not get a single number.” Matt thought he was a big shot, since he was taking classes at Georgia State and the rest of us all worked fulltime.
“That’s because the milkshake joke isn’t funny,” Perry said, in the raspy-jolly voice so common in fat people.
“It’s really stupid,” Pecker said. “It scares people or confuses them.”
Matt looked at me, and I looked down at my Mickey’s, meaningfully.
“Play us a song,” I said.
He picked up his guitar and played the Frasier song, the one about tossed salads and scrambled eggs, and that seemed to make him feel better.
I could tell you all about my date at the bar with Audrey, but that would be boring. Stories about dates are almost always really boring to people who weren’t on them. Matt usually tries to tell us all about his dates until Perry tells him to shut up. There are really just two times when date stories are good stories. One is when the date went really bad, like when Matt tried to tell a joke about people cutting themselves, but didn’t know that his girl used to cut herself and had gotten a tattoo and some therapy to make herself feel better. The other time is when the date story is made up, like when Perry said that he had accidentally scheduled a date with two girls at the same time and had to run between neighboring bars to not hurt anyone’s feelings. But I guess that would’ve been funnier if he hadn’t ripped it off an episode of Family Matters.
But the date with Audrey wasn’t bad or made up, it was good and real. We did what people do on dates, which is share stories in which we did embarrassing-but-charming things, make fun of our families in an affectionate way, and drink drinks. What was nice and what I’ll tell you about was what happened after the date. Well, first we went back to my apartment and then, no, I won’t tell you about that, because that would be rude of me.
After all that was done, we laid in my bed and she had her arms across my chest and rested her chin on her hands. It was dark but I could she that she was smiling and her hair fell over my chest in a way that felt nice.
“What do you want to do with yourself, Noah?” she asked.
“Huh?” When I said anything, it made her head bounce on my chest.
“Where do you envision yourself ten years down the line?”
“I don’t know. I’ve got this idea for a website about knitting. I’d call it Yarnivores-dot-com. It’d be like an encyclopedia and chatroom and there’d be personal ads for knitters. All kinds of shit.”
She didn’t laugh, and that made me feel good.
“But my dad thinks I should enlist.”
“Enlist?” She sounded surprised.
“Yeah. In the Army.”
I could tell she was concerned because the light bounced off her forehead in a way that showed it was wrinkled. “But there’s a war going on.”
“Yeah, that’s why they’re giving such good bonuses. My big brother Abe is over in Mosul now, and he’s making a ton of money. Like seventeen-hundred a month, plus signing bonus and hazard pay. And he doesn’t have to pay for food or a place to stay or anything.”
“All he has to worry about is being blown up by an IED on his way to work every day.”
At first I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t like to think about my brother’s guts splattered all over the inside of a Hummer, and I didn’t feel like it was her place to remind me that other people’s brothers had their guts splattered pretty much every day.
After a minute, I said, “You know, it’s not like me or Abe had the opportunity to go to a college like Swarthmore. If we could’ve, we probably would’ve.”
I knew I’d made her feel bad, and I felt a little shitty about it. It wasn’t her fault that she got to go to a smart expensive college and only had to work in the summertime. We laid there quietly, and she kissed me on the mouth. It was one of those hard, closed-mouth kisses where if it wasn’t for the cushioning of the lips you’d probably break each other’s teeth. Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Noah.”
Audrey rolled over so her back was to me and she grabbed my hand and pulled my arm around her. I held her tight. The neighbors started doing it loudly, but this time I was like, “Whatever, assholes.”
Merry Olde England was usually solemn in what The Handbook called “a stiff-upper lip, proudly British” sort of way. We, the waitstaff, were supposed to “maintain the heartiness and strength of spirit that nursed the Isles through the catastrophe of two world wars, the decline of the Empire, and centuries of bad teeth!” But tonight, we were in no mood for The Handbook’s dry wit. Madam Danforth had ordered the staff to assemble in the Star Chamber Private Dining Room, and this was a shitty omen.
I asked Diego what he thought was going on. He just polished his monocle and said, “Something bad, man. Last time she brought us to the Star Chamber, she fired Larry for giving his friends free soft drinks.”
He was right. We had no idea how bad it was going to be, though. The first thing I noticed when Madam Danforth entered was that she wasn’t wearing her bodice. She was dressed like a modern Atlantan, something none of us had ever seen.
Then she started talking. “This is tough news to give.” She wasn’t faking an English accent. “Due to a sharp decline in revenues caused by the recent economic downturn, we are being forced to cut our staff substantially. There is simply not enough business to warrant the employment of so many.”
A lot of people groaned. I looked over at Diego, but he was shaking his head and polishing his monocle, thinking, I guess, that he’d never get to polish it again. I just mostly felt pissed off.
“The fairest way I could think to do this was by seniority. If you’re a kitchen employee and have worked here for a year or more, you still have a job.”
A bunch more groans from newer kitchen workers. I felt relieved, though, since I’d been working there for a year and a half.
“For the waitstaff, the cutoff is two years.”
All I could think was “Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!” I didn’t even like this job, but it was all I had, money-wise. And how was I going to save up for Yarnivores-dot-com now?
“To the rest of you,” she continued, looking at her feet, “I’m sorry. But please consider this your Fortnight Notice of Employment Termination.”
The word “fortnight” really pissed me off. Couldn’t she have the courtesy to fire us in regular American English? So I yelled at her, “Couldn’t you have the courtesy to fire us in regular American English?”
A bunch of people must’ve agreed with me because they started to yell things like “Yeah!” “Damn straight!” and “Fucking fortnight-bullshit!” Madam Danforth looked pretty sad, but I didn’t exactly feel bad for her. She still had a job.
At least Audrey and I seemed to be getting along super well. I even thought I might be falling in love with her, but I didn’t say anything about it. I also didn’t say anything about getting fired, because I didn’t want her to think I was a fuck up. We hung out in Centennial Park a lot. We’d sit in the grass beside the Olympic Ring fountains and watch kids get sprayed by the water jets. They’d scream and run around and I liked that. I like watching kids play over here, too, but as you know they don’t let us do too much of that. Because you can never tell what the kids are really up to here, right? Anyways, I’d sit in the grass and knit and she’d read with her head in my lap. This made knitting hard, but it was pretty much worth it. She’d tell me things like “You’re so different from all the guys up at school” and that made me feel good.
Since things were getting on so well, I wanted to introduce her to the guys. Audrey thought that was a fun idea. It was early August, I guess, and it was just going to be a regular night at my apartment, with Mickey’s and all, but Audrey would be there. Looking back, I should’ve known things wouldn’t work out well.
When Perry handed out the Mickey’s, she looked at her bottle and smiled.
“Malt liquor,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve drunk this since freshman year.”
“It’s cheap,” Perry said. “And it gets the job done.”
Audrey laughed, which I thought was good. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
“So,” Perry said, “How did a super gorgeous girl like you end up hanging out with a dumbdick like Noah.”
“Well, we met at the store where I work, the Yarn Barn.”
“And, given the context,” Perry continued, “Why did you not just assume he was a giant fag?”
We all laughed, but Audrey didn’t. She just said, “Excuse me?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I know that knitting is kind of a faggy thing, but what’ll these guys say when Yarnivores-dot-com starts bringing in the cash?”
Audrey shifted in her seat. Everyone was quiet for a minute.
“Why don’t you play a song, Matt?” Pecker said. “Matt knows a ton of TV theme songs. It’s his thing.”
“Oh, do you know Flight of the Conchords?” Audrey asked.
“Flight of what what?” Matt said.
“Or The L Word?”
None of us knew what the fuck she was talking about.
“What are these shows?” I asked.
“Good shows,” she said. “You know. HBO.”
I laughed. “HBO! Do we look like rich kids or something? Did you mistake the Mickey’s for Heineken?”
As usual it took me a second to realize that this was a stupid idiot thing to say. She looked pretty unhappy and the guys just sort of stayed quiet.
“Friends, then,” she said. “Do you know Friends?”
“Yeah,” Matt said, sounding kind of offended. “I know Friends.”
Matt played us the Friends theme song. We were all awkward-seeming and spent a lot of time staring at our feet, because that’s where you look when things aren’t going well.
After Matt finished, Audrey asked, “Do you play any of your own music?”
“No. Really just TV theme songs.”
“I see. That’s—neat, I guess.”
The rest of the night continued like that. A lot of silences. A lot of us saying things and Audrey looking confused or surprised. A lot of me being irritated with her for not getting along with my friends and at my friends for not being more charming, or whatever it was she wanted them to be. Eventually the guys went home and it was just me and her in my apartment.
“You’re friends are,” she said, “interesting.”
She said interesting in a way I didn’t like. So I said, “Why? Because they’re dumb? They don’t have smart college things to say?”
“That’s not what I said at all, Noah. Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“The words I put in would probably be short and stupid anyway, right?”
Audrey looked hurt. “What is your problem?”
And then I said something really mean. But I don’t know. Maybe it was so mean because it was kind of true. I said, “My problem is that I’m getting my feelings fucked with by a girl who’s really just interested in some summer slumming.”
I still regret saying that. I didn’t really have much reason to accuse her of that, and I think she might’ve liked me in a real way. But the way she was acting that night—the tone in her voice or this eye movement that wasn’t quite an eye-roll but that I think meant the same thing—something about her that night set me off.
It actually took me until she made for the door before I thought “Shit! I’m overreacting. Chill out, Noah.” Audrey left the apartment and I caught up to her in the hallway. She was heading for the stairs, but I grabbed her by the wrist.
“Let go of me, Noah!” she said.
“Just one second,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s okay that you’re smart and rich.”
“Noah, don’t say that. And let go. You’re hurting me.”
This made me feel like a giant asshole, because guys who hurt girls are assholes. I let go. “I’m sorry.”
“Listen. Maybe this isn’t going to work,” she said. “Take care, Noah.”
I wasn’t going to beg her or anything, because that doesn’t do much good, other than making you look like an idiot. I watched her leave for the stairs and felt like I wanted to throw up.
I spent the next week or so drunk. I drank Mickey’s at first, but then I realized that Popov Vodka was cheaper, considering the alcohol content, and I didn’t have a whole lot of cash. And if I kept it in the freezer, the Popov didn’t hurt too bad going down. It was probably the shittiest I’ve ever felt. I didn’t hang out with the guys at all that week, and when they’d come by, I’d lock the door and pretend not to be there. But then Pecker came by one day and refused to leave.
He knocked and said, “I know you’re in there, and I’m not leaving.” He kept knocking until it gave me such a headache that I just let him in.
“What the hell do you want?” I said.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m goddamn fine.”
And then before I knew it I was crying a little, and then crying a lot. Pecker sat me down on the couch and got me some toilet paper to blow my nose since I didn’t have any Kleenex.
“It’s a tough run for you,” Pecker said, and his sympathy made me sadder. “What you need is a plan. Let’s make one. You need some money, right?”
“Then you need a job. How much would it take to get Yarnivores off the ground? I could loan you some money.”
I’d pretty well stopped the hard crying now. I was just tearing up a little. “I’d need to get someone to do the web design. And then pay some other knitters to help me write the articles for the encyclopedia. A few thousand dollars, I guess. Probably like four or five thousand.”
“Shit,” he said. “I’ve got only got a couple hundred in my account.”
I shrugged. “It was a dumb idea anyways. I always knew it was.”
Pecker was quiet, probably because he always knew, too. I feel like we always know everything, all the shit that’s ever going to happen to us. Not like I could tell you the details, or how this is all going to end, but deep down no one’s really surprised by how things turn out. At least not people like me and Pecker. The game is rigged from the start. That’s what I told him. “The game is rigged from the start.”
We both knew what was next for me because we both always knew.
I had to take the MARTA train to get to the Recruitment Center. It was shoved into a strip mall between the Piggly Wiggly and a pool hall. The window was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting, and I tried to remember if this was the same place where Abe had enlisted a couple years back.
The receptionist seemed really nice. She was an old lady wearing an American flag pin, and before long she sent me into a back room where a big burly guy in camo was sitting at a desk. I didn’t understand why he was wearing camo in the middle of Atlanta, but then I remembered how Merry Olde England made me wear a bowler hat and that made me feel bad for the guy.
“Where do you see yourself in ten years, son?” Why was everybody always asking me that question?
“I don’t know,” I said. “Knitting?”
“Knitting? You being smart with me?”
“I’m not being smart. I like to knit. I used to have plans for a website called Yarnivores-dot-com.”
“So you’re a computer guy, then? Do you like computer games?”
“No, I’m a knitting guy.”
“Knitting Guy, what brings you here in the first place?”
“I lost my job.”
“Well, I think you’ve found yourself a new one. Serving in America’s Army is a fulltime job, but that doesn’t mean our troops don’t have down time. I reckon that in any given week, you’d have hours to knit sweaters for yourself, your fellow troops, and the Iraqi people.”
“Isn’t it, you know, too hot for sweaters? Like isn’t it a desert over there?”
“Have you been to Iraq, son?”
“No. Have you?”
“No. But I do know this. The appeal of sweaters transcends cultures. Between your daily duties, you can help us win hearts and minds through yarn.”
I was confused. I thought that the Army was about shooting things, but this knitting sounded more fun anyways so I didn’t argue. He did a lot more talking about knitting and money and adventure, and had me sign a few forms and that was that. I’d need a medical exam, but that was for later. As part of a signing bonus or something, he gave me a special compilation CD featuring some country music and the 90s alternative rock group Three Doors Down. And he gave me a computer game called America’s Army, since he still thought I was kind of a “computer guy.”
Audrey and I went to see that Harry Potter wizard-kid movie, the latest one. Something about phoenixes. I was confused because of what had happened at my apartment. I figured that Audrey didn’t dig me anymore, but then she asked me to come to the movie with her, which I thought meant she still liked me at least a little.
The movie was pretty boring for the most part, but I liked it when the wizards used their wands to shoot red and green death spells at each other. There was a wild part where Harry’s godfather got shot through some sort of Curtain of Death, which super exciting. That’s the sort of thing that people like in movies, but have to pretend to be sad about.
By this point we’d been in the movie for about two hours and Audrey hadn’t done anything one way or the other to show if she had any feelings left for me, so after the dead godfather scene I slid my arm around her. Not in a creepy ass-touching way or anything, just a pleasant around the middle way. She shifted her weight toward me and then away from me and then toward me again. Then after a minute or so, she turned toward me and sort of lifted my arm up and handed it back to me.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
My face felt hot and I felt like leaving, but sometimes you can’t just leave and you have to sit there with a hot face. At least it was dark, and if I was blushing no one could tell. Fuck, man. Fuck! It makes me want to kick my own ass just thinking of what a chump I must have seemed like to those pre-teen little shits sitting in the row behind us. Fuck.
The movie ended the same way all the other ones did. The old bearded wizard gave Harry a rundown about how brave he’d been, said there is a lot more scary shit come, and put Harry on a train back to the boring unmagical world of his aunt and uncle. I really couldn’t bring myself to care that much, though. I was feeling pretty embarrassed.
Audrey and I walked to the MARTA station together, but I had to take the north train and she had to take the south one. We sat on a bench waiting.
“Hey,” I said. “I apologize.”
“For what?” She was playing dumb.
“For back in the theater. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I just thought that—”
“Don’t worry about it, Noah.”
“It’s really okay.” She smiled. “I want us to still be able to be friends. And I’m going back to school soon, so it’s not like we could’ve worked out regardless.”
She rubbed my hand. Her train arrived. I almost asked her if I could write to her after I shipped out, but I didn’t want her to worry. No, that’s bullshit. I would’ve liked her to worry, to care and think about me with my dirt-covered face in some shot-out building in Fallujah, and have a pang of memory whenever she heard the word “Iraq.”
I wasn’t feeling selfless. I just didn’t want her to think I was doing this for her, because she dumped me. I didn’t want to let her think she’d broken my heart and caused me to enlist, because that wasn’t really true, even if it wasn’t really false. Circumstances add up, right?
Anyways, to answer your question, that’s why I don’t have anyone to write home to. Except Pecker sometimes, but that’s not really the same, is it?
I sent him a scarf last month. It’s the only one I’ve had time to knit.