Read Chump Change Online

Authors: David Eddie

Chump Change (4 page)

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I motioned her over and, my voice cracking with desiccation and self-pity, told her all about my fear of flying, implying it was a borderline medical condition.

“It really seems to help if I can have a few drinks before takeoff,” I said,
sotto voce
. “So though I know it isn’t normal practice, I was wondering if I could maybe get a couple of quick double scotches before we take off?”

“I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to wait until we get in the air,” she informs me tartly, and sashays off. I slump back in my seat.

I have identified a positive side, sort of, to my fear of flying, to my terror of leaving terra firma. It’s made me a more philosophical,
carpe diem
-type guy, I believe. You know how people who have had near-death experiences are always quitting their jobs, vowing to spend more time with their families, pursuing their passions? Well, every time I go up in a plane, I experience the emotional equivalent of a near-death experience. So I’m always quitting jobs and reorienting my priorities. It’s a big reason why I write, too: to leave something behind.

The downside to this upside is that whenever I get on a plane, I always review my whole life, to assess whether my
unique sojourn on this planet has been a success so far, or whether I’ve made a corned-beef hash of it all.

So far, unfortunately, the answer has always been the latter.

I blame Manhattan for everything. Like an aging hooker, Manhattan lured me to her cold, concrete bosom. Whispering promises of what she could do to me, she shoved me up against the wall with a knife to my throat, turned me upside down, and shook the chump change out of my pocket. Manhattan broke me. I mean, I’ve been broke before, but now I truly feel
broken
, like a broken robot, all crossed wires and rusted-out joints, leaving a trail of nuts and bolts and a smell of something burning wherever I go.

I even blame Manhattan for the demise of my relationship with Ruth, a relationship I always thought would be The Big One. I pictured Ruth and me always together, even after the inevitable nuclear holocaust, scrabbling together through the smoking rubble, me catching the day’s rat or roach, her roasting it up over an open flame.

Manhattan is not an ecosystem. There’s no sense there of breathing in oxygen processed by trees and plant life. You breathe out CO
2
, and breathe in…dog farts, piss fumes, truck exhaust. A “street tree” in New York lives an average of seven years. A tree, friends, that should live a hundred years or more.

Well, I too am a sensitive plant. I need water, air, sunshine; I need someone to whisper sweet nothings into my tendrils, to play a little classical music in the background. In Manhattan, I wilted, my leaves drooped and turned brown, and — not to put too fine a point on it — I never wanted to have sex. If we had sex once a week it was a chore, a boring chore. Ruth took to calling me “the Cockroach,” because as soon as she came home I scuttled off into my hole, my “office,” converted from
a walk-in closet, and didn’t come out until long after she went to sleep.

I, David Henry, “La Cucarracha,” did a lot of writing in my little hole, in the wee hours of the morning, while Ruth slept. Short stories, notes towards my multi-volume lifework, my
magnum opus d’amour propre
, but I never published a fucking thing, it all came back.

Actually, I did publish one thing, but it was only a letter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely proud of that letter; I’ve got at least 20 copies of it in my pack in the overhead compartment. It was a letter to my friend Nan, back in Toronto, all about life in New York. Nan is a copy editor at a small literary magazine called
The Burnished Monocle
, and she showed this letter to the editors. They liked it and published it, with a few emendations, under the title “Letter From New York.”

I’m proud of it, there’s nothing like the first time you get published. Still, I thought by age 28 I’d have accomplished more, I’d have more of an
oeuvre
under my belt. One letter: more an
hors d’oeuvre
than an
oeuvre
, really. By the time Hemingway was my age, he had already published
The Sun Also Rises
, and a collection of short stories. Byron was internationally famous by 28; Keats was dead. Keats died at age 25 and he thought he hadn’t accomplished much. On his deathbed he told his friends his tombstone should read: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” How wrong he was!

I, on the other hand, have published a single letter. If this plane goes down, that’s all my grandchildren will have to remember me by — or, rather, my grand-nieces and nephews, since I have no children.

Argh, I can see it all now, my grand-nieces and nephews are rooting with their father through some old trunks in the
attic. Suddenly, one of them comes across a faded, yellowing photograph of yours truly.

“Daddy, who’s this?”

“Oh, that’s your great-uncle David Henry, kids.”

“Really, what did he do?”

“Well, actually, he was a writer.”

“A writer? Really? Can you show us what he wrote?”

“Yeah, I think I saw it around here somewhere…”

After rooting around in piles of paper, he whips out “Letter From New York.”

“That’s it?” they say, with expressions of disbelief.

“Yes, well, he was still fairly young when he died; he had a hard time getting published, some financial difficulties as well … Hell, kids, I can’t lie to you. In reality, just before he died, he was… a
clerk.”

Their little faces fall. It is, perhaps, their first taste of the limitations and prosaicness of adult life.

“Well,” they say, “do you have any other relatives you could tell us about?”

This reverie is broken by the captain’s voice, crackling over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to apologize again for the delay. But we’ve finally been given the go-ahead for take-off from Air Traffic Control. We should be taxiing out to the runway in a few moments. Once again, thank you for your patience.”

I can’t believe my ears. It’s still raining pitchforks outside, the skies dark under cumulonimbus clouds overhead.

“He can’t be serious,” I say to Mr. Spreadsheet.
“We can’t take-off in this!

Just then, the engines roar into life and the plane starts to
roll, the flight attendants immediately go into their mime with the air masks and lifejackets.

“Obviously, we can,” Mr. Spreadsheet says, tossing me a tight little smile.

Obviously, we can
. That’s right, Mr. Spreadsheet, I think, clutching my armrests. You just keep adding up your little rows and columns of figures. I’ll see you in Hell in about ten minutes, and as we’re both being fucked up the ass on a bed of nails by a three-headed demon with a red-hot corkscrew for a dick, you can reflect eternally upon how you wasted your life adding and subtracting. I may be a failure, but at least I know it, bro.

The plane turns, the pilot aims it down the runway, guns the engines, and we begin to barrel down the blackened tarmac. Faster, faster. Goodbye, Mom, goodbye, sis, bro, assorted friends and ex-girlfriends, goodbye Dad, I love you all. I swear to myself if this plane lands safely, I’m going to be a more expressive person, show my emotions, shower the people I love with love.

In the air, the pilot banks, and graciously offers a view of the city below. Everyone in Economy oohs and aahs like inter-galactic tourists. Oh, look, planet Earth! Isn’t it cute? I too crank my head around and look past Mr. Spreadsheet out the porthole window. The mighty skyscrapers of Manhattan, once so daunting and dehumanizing, are now not much bigger than my thumb. The people are the size of ants — no, smaller, the size of gnats, of ticks, so small to kill them you’d have to take them between fingernail and thumbnail and squeeze until you heard a barely audible
pop!

“Goodbye, Manhattan,” I say, from between clenched and grinding teeth, sweat trickling down my ribs. “And
fuck you, too.”

4
Max

Max, my good old friend, whom I’ve known since neither of us had any pubic hair, is at the airport to pick me up.

Max looks a lot like the young Elvis, to me anyway (or by now let’s say the Elvis of the Ed Sullivan comeback special). Same haystack hair, same bedroom eyes, same acquiline nose, same lopsided grin. That grin spreads across his face now, slowly, like oil across water, when he sees me coming through Customs.

He sticks out his hand for a shake. Remembering my pre-take-off vows, I drop my ghettoblaster and portable manual typewriter and give him a big bear-hug instead.

“Max, it’s great to see you,” I tell him.

“Yeah, you too.”

I step back, but leave a big paw on either of his shoulders.

“No, listen, you’re a great guy, I’ve always…”

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, wriggling out of my grasp, on the pretext of grabbing my ghettoblaster and typewriter. “Every time he gets off a plane he’s Leo Buscaglia for the next three days. Tell me something, Dave. When are you going to learn to fly, like everyone else?”

We toss my stuff in the back of Max’s parents’ block-long monster wagon, and hop in. In the back seat there’s a gigantic cooler,
circa
1950, obviously another parental artifact.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a welcome-home present. Open it.”

I open it to find a truly beautiful sight: a bottle of vodka, lemon slices, and a dozen dark-brown beer bottles nestled in a bed of crushed ice.

“Welcome back, Dave,” Max says.

I can feel the beginning of a lump in my throat.

“Thanks, Max. That… that was really thoughtful.”

You see, Dave, I say to myself, tossing back a shot and taking a pull of my beer, there are other ways to show your feelings besides blurting them out and hugging people all over the place. Talk is cheap; actions are the big thing.

If memory serves (and with me it usually doesn’t, I’ve been drinking and smoking pot steadily since I was 15), Max and I met at the back of the eye-check lineup in grade seven.

My eyes are all screwed up. My left eye is very short-sighted, about 20-100, I have a blind spot in the middle of the right one, which allows me only peripheral vision in that eye. Visits to the ophthalmologist were sheer torture. He’d peer into my eye with his little flashlight, then say: “Aha! Yes, I see it now. Al! Betty! Come in and have a look at this.”

But worse, though, far worse, were the cattle-call eye checks in school.

“NEXT! COVER YOUR LEFT EYE AND READ THE FIRST LINE OF THE CHART.”

“Um, I can’t, I have a… blind spot,” I’d mumble.

“WHAT’S THAT? SPEAK UP, YOUNG MAN!”

“I said I CAN’T. I have a BLIND SPOT!”

Obviously, you can’t mount a display like that, of weakness and defectiveness, in front of your adolescent peers, they’d tear you apart like a pack of bloodthirsty jackals. So I hung back,
lurking at the end of the line, waiting for everyone else to go through so I can confront my nemesis, my Moriarty, the ophthalmologist,
mano a mano
.

Imagine my surprise then, when, in grade seven, a new school, I spot another kid, a tall, gangly guy with a “bowl”-type haircut, also lurking suspiciously at the end of the line.

“After you,” he says, after everyone else has gone through.

“Non, non, après vous,”
I tell him.

He wins in the end. Max always wins in the end (as I would find out later). I have to go through my whole humiliating routine in front of him. Only after I leave does he enter, carefully closing the door behind him.

To this day, I don’t know what’s wrong with
his
eyes. How could two people be good friends for over 15 years, and one still not know such a crucial piece of information about the other? Well, we’re WASP, see, and male. It’s a double whammy. He’s never volunteered the information; I never asked.

We’re both refugees from the same kind of family — uptight Anglo with a heavy Scottish scrimp-and-save topspin — his worse than mine, I have to say. His mother used to mark the O.J. container every night so her teenage sons couldn’t steal sips while she slept. I remember once she flipped her wig when Max left the oven door open while he went outside,
even though the oven wasn’t on
. Why? The light, the
light
: she didn’t want to waste the electricity.

My family was the same, but in a different way. Mom and Dad were obsessed by bargains. Dad would come home: “How do you like this new weed-whipper I got on sale? Guess how much it cost? Just guess. $19.99.”

“Oh, what a bargain,” Mom would say. “Well, we’re having steaks for dinner. They were having a special on ‘rim round’ at the A&P.” (Mom always bought cuts no one had ever heard of,
but which, it must be said, when marinated and cooked properly, were delicious.) “$2.99 a pound.”

“Incredible!”

Back then, of course, as a teenaged hippie anti-materialist, “progressive rock”-listening-on-the-headphones-in-the-rec-room, pot-smoking, acid-dropping black sheep, I viewed my parents’ preoccupations with bargains with scorn and poorly-disguised contempt: Materialistic bourgeois money-grubbers, I used to think to myself. Can their thoughts never soar above such petty considerations?

I have to admit, though, that now, at age 34, I see where they were coming from. I’m an adult now, on my own — and I love bargains. I live for bargains. A bargain can make my whole day!

Back then, though, I felt like there’d been some sort of divine mix-up, and my soul was dropped into the wrong body, into the wrong family. Though I looked and acted and sounded like the other Henrys, I was nothing like them. Their thoughts and preoccupations were completely foreign to me, and mine to them. My friends became my family, my family became the enemy. Which is why a friend, and not a family member, is picking me up at the airport: my family doesn’t even know I’m here.

“What are you going to do now?” Max asks later, in the car.

“I want to write, Max. I’ve got to get cracking, I’m no spring chicken anymore. I’m 28. By the time Hemingway was my age —”

“No, I meant: what are you going to do for money?”

“Oh, that. I’m not sure, really.”

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