Weekend Fiction: Star of the World
It was toilet-seat-sticks-to-your-ass kind of weather and Hal wasn’t having it. He left the bathroom window open and went into the bedroom to put on his favorite corduroys. Left leg, right. What a sticky, God-awful day. Was early November always like this? It was when Hal was a boy. Global warming wasn’t real, just something the government suits cooked up for a laugh and a scare, keep the sheep baaaing like fools. Baaa. They used to say television could make you blind. Hal could still spot a great ass from a mile away. Like that new redheaded meter maid. Her kaboose was alright.
Hal turned off the TV and turned up the AC. Maybe the president was right. It was the Orientals that made up global warming. Keep us buying Japanese. Electric cars. Ha ha ha. If a man ever tried to take Hal’s Ford Taurus, that poor fool would have a fun time explaining to his doctor why there was an old Louisville Slugger with the initials H.L. shoved up his ass! If you asked Hal, that Elon Musk freak from the news could take his electric cars, and his spaceships for that matter, back to South Africa where he came from. Electric cars. Ha ha ha.
Hal finished his iced tea. Ahhh. Stuff from the stores was no good. All sugar. Hal placed the empty plastic glass in the sink and got his leather book bag. He was going to mail his daughter Fran a letter today. Hal looked at the clock on the stove. Where had the morning gone? He was late.
Hal shut his apartment door and shook the knob with force. He caught a glimpse of his face in the reflection on the lacquered wood. He looked old. That’s what thirty years of repairing appliances at Montgomery Ward will do to a man, thought Hal. That store wasn’t even around anymore. Just another forgotten relic from the past. Like Hal? No. Come on. Retirement and more free time than any man could know what to do with was reward for a lifetime of work. Hal made his contribution to civilization. It was fine if society and his old drinking pals and even his own daughter didn’t need him much these days. He didn’t need anyone, either.
Hal turned the deadbolt over until it clicked.
Anyway, looking old meant looking respectable. Grey hairs made him look like an old movie star. Like Harrison Ford. Right, thought Hal. A regular Han Solo. I’ve got a bad feeling about this!
The elevators were out. The elevators always went out when the heat kept up. Hal’s doctor said he should be walking more, his heart and all. Stairs were good. Though what did his doctor know? The kid looked like Doogie Howser. A little Indian Doogie Howser. Hal hadn’t thought about that stupid TV show in years. His daughter Fran used to love that show. It was probably what made her decide to go to medical school in the first place. It certainly wasn’t anything Hal passed down to her. Hal should ask Fran about it the next time he saw her. When would that be? After last year, certainly not Thanksgiving.
Hal turned the corner and descended onto the second floor. The Jackson Boy was just coming up. “Hey, pops.” He nodded at Hal without looking up from his screen.
Jesus. Headphones, cell phone, video game thingy, sunglasses, blinky watch. That boy needed help. When Hal was the Jackson Boy’s age, his father taught him that a man only needed three things when he left the house: his wallet, his comb, his knife. Advice like that never really translated right to a daughter.
Hal finally got outside. Holy Toledo. It was ten times hotter than inside. And the sound of the city was as bad as the heat. Buses, jackhammers, strange foreign languages. Even after living in his apartment in the city for three years, Hal couldn’t get used to the noise. On days like today, he missed the suburbs. But he sure didn’t miss Susan. Or Gwen after that. Witches. The whole lot of them. He’d take noise and loneliness any day over those doll-faced dictators. Gwen tried to stop by unannounced the other day to see if Hal needed help with things. Hal knew better than to answer the buzzer for that sneaky sorceress.
East. The post office was west but Hal wanted to eat lunch first and the new chicken sandwich place was two blocks east. The grub there wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. In fact, pretty damn tasty. Though what did halal mean? It didn’t matter. Their early bird senior’s special lasted until 11:30 a.m. Free salad or wedges with any sandwich. Mmmm.
Only ten minutes left. Where did the time keep running off to? Hal was losing track of it more and more these days. He picked up the pace and walked faster.
Soon Hal could drive places again. He was a fine driver. A regular Michael Schumacher. Hal told Fran and the DMV lady this multiple times. But at Hal’s age, you now had to renew your driver’s license in person. It was law. Was it the president’s idea? It was discrimination if you asked Hal. Hell no, we won’t go! Hal would take it to the street like the silly hippies in the old days. Fran always said Hal should take more interest in social justice. That was something he and Fran could always count on disagreeing about. It was simple if you asked Hal, anything in this country was possible with a little grit and elbow grease. Everyone was responsible for their own individual well-being—
A car honked then skidded into the crosswalk. Christ! Hal jumped back onto the curb. “Damn it, old man!” The driver in the silver suit gave Hal the finger and Hal instinctively started shouting back. Hal wasn’t sure what exactly he was shouting, but the threats tumbled out loud and steady. Muscle memory. Hal then stormed right up to the driver’s open window.
Some teenagers by the bus stop took out their phones and started recording. The driver mumbled something about “crazy” and “psycho” and peeled out on the green light. Chicken shit. Men today always liked starting things they couldn’t finish. Hal would have pounded that yuppie into the pavement.
Hal got back on the curb and waited for the light. He waited for his heart rate to come down. The teenagers were still filming him. What was this, a reality TV show? Hal waved them away, as if motion might somehow power down their devices. The teenagers just giggled and eventually put their phones away, bored.
Green. Hal walked.
The smell of scorched rubber hung in the air.
This whole world was going insane. Who let that reckless driver loose on the streets? Who let these teenagers loiter like criminals? No one had any respect anymore. How were you supposed to have respect for others when they had none for you? Maybe there were no real causes to care about anymore. People were bored and numb. Maybe everyone just wanted to sit back comfortably and watch the world crumble.
Last summer, Fran showed Hal a website called World Star. A boy at her hospital showed it to her. The website posted videos every day of car crashes and mean pranks and fist fights on the street. For fun. Entertainment. It was terrible. Fran showed Hal a video of one kid slamming another kid on a curb while a group of more kids watched. These days, it seemed people didn’t break up fights or go get help, they simply chanted “World Star! World Star!” and filmed the whole thing like perverts. Sick perverts. At least that was one thing Hal and Fran agreed on.
Oh baby, right on time. 11:25 a.m. Hal made it. He walked inside Haziz’s Halal Chicken Shack. There was just a young man in line, dressed in an oversized white denim jacket and matching white jeans hanging nearly off his ass. Hal didn’t understand fashion these days.
Hal got in line behind Denim Man. Hal scanned the menu but he didn’t need to. Chicken Combo Sandwich with white sauce. Plus, that free order of wedges. And what the heck, a small coffee if it came with free refills.
Hal smacked his lips. Ready. Though what was taking so long? There was just one college girl with piercings at the cash register. She had greenish hair and kind eyes under all that black eye makeup. She reminded him a bit of Fran at that age, rebellious but sweet. The Denim Man asked Piercing Girl dumb question after dumb question, even though he was already holding his bag of food. What the hell was he doing? Flirting with the poor girl? Hal looked at his watch.
“This isn’t a singles bar,” said Hal loudly. “Are you going to take your damn food or what?”
“Is this guy serious?” Denim Man turned around.
Hal clenched his fist, nervous but ready. “You’re holding up the line.”
Denim Man looked Hal up and down, then at the invisible line behind him, and laughed. “You’re lucky you’re old, grandpa.” The man took his bag of food and said to Piercing Girl, “I’ll get that number later, baby girl.”
Denim Man turned around and stared down Hal. Was he going to punch Hal? Hal had a chin. He could take a punch. Hal wasn’t scared. He wasn’t scared of the man.
Denim Man fake lunged. Hal flinched. Denim Man laughed all the way out the door. Hal unclenched his fist. His body was shaking. Goddamn it. Hal wouldn’t have flinched years ago. His fist was a rock years ago. If only Hal was younger, he could have knocked that cowboy out. He would’ve served him a sandwich himself. A hot and fresh knuckle sandwich.
Hal exhaled once more and waited for his heart rate to come down again.
He stepped up to the counter and ordered.
“Okay, one chicken combo sandwich, wedges and a small coffee. That’s $9.85,” said Piercing Girl.
“Wait,” said Hal. “Wedges are free with the early bird special.”
“I’m sorry sir, but you’re late.” Piercing Girl looked at the clock. “It’s 11:33 a.m. and the early bird special is over. I’m really sorry, I’ve already gotten in trouble once for bending the rules.”
“I got here on time!” said Hal. “It was your boyfriend that held up the line.”
“That creep was not my boyfriend.” Piercing Girl looked out the window. “Tell you what sir, my manager’s out on her smoke break. It’s no problem, let me just give you the wedges.”
“Give me the wedges? I don’t need your charity. Pack up the chicken sandwich, nothing else.”
“I’m really sorry,” said Piercing Girl one more time.
Hal ate alone by the window. The place was empty except for another senior citizen, but Hal didn’t like hanging out with other old geezers. Anyway, the guy looked senile. Hal ate calmly and watched the cars outside. The chicken sandwich didn’t taste as good as it did the last time he was here. Oh, nothing of good quality lasted very long in this world. He eventually finished the sandwich and crumpled up the foil wrapper into a silver nugget. He took the tray to the trash can. He was thirsty but he refused to give another penny to this gypsy camp. He could drink his iced tea at home.
Hal left the restaurant through the side doors.
West. It was three blocks back west to the post office. The post office closed at noon on Saturdays. Five minutes to go. Damn. Hal was always a few minutes behind it seemed.
At least walking was good after lunch. That’s what Indian Doogie Howser might say right about now.
Hal thought about Fran as he crossed the street. He used to take her into the city every Sunday when she was little. She loved it. Fran used to look up to her father. Hal was her hero. It was easy to impress children, thought Hal. It was harder to impress adults. Was Fran still impressed by her father? Hal didn’t think so. Why should she be? There was nothing left in this world he could give her. No knowledge, no money, not even conversation anymore. But Hal was impressed by his daughter. He was. A doctor. Christ. Never in a million years. Hal should tell Fran how proud he was of her more often.
Hal forgot to look both ways and stepped off the curb. A car came to a safe stop and the driver gave Hal a friendly wave from a distance, go ahead. Hal waved back.
Maybe it was Hal that had gone crazy, not the world. The truth was, everything had changed so much. Maybe Hal hadn’t changed enough. Maybe Hal hadn’t changed at all. Maybe the world had whizzed right by him. Maybe that’s how Hal became a forgotten relic, why nobody needed him anymore. Who wanted a Model T when you had electric cars?
Hal got to the other side of the street. Oh, maybe the only thing left for Hal to do on this planet was live out his final days in solitude and die quietly under the porch steps. There you go, Hal. That was the spirit!
- This is an excerpt from a story taken from his collection of short stories, Like a Champion.
- Vincent Chu was born in Oakland, California. His fiction has appeared in PANK Magazine, East Bay Review, Pithead Chapel, Fjords Review, Cooper Street, Stockholm Review, The Collapsar, WhiskeyPaper and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. His debut story collection Like a Champion is available February 28 from 7.13 Books. He lives in San Francisco and can be found on Twitter @herrchu.
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