Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brotherly Shove

“This is my life. My life, my life,” sang the Starbucks employee in a calm tone as he carried a box into the back room. In the current economy, Starbucks might be the only place in New York City where the people being served feel the same as the people doing the serving.

It’s Monday and I find myself in Starbucks, writing about being in Starbucks which if I were to dwell on it is even more depressing than spending an afternoon in Starbucks looking online for jobs.  It’s one of those days where the conversations I hear and the people watching I’m addicted to much more than caffeine, seep into my thoughts and spew out as observations about the world inside Starbucks as opposed to the world inside my own head or the world outside. 

If I tried to write a short story right now it would probably be an updated version of the classic tale “The  Lottery.”  It's the only short story from junior high anyone remembers reading as adults. You might not recall your 6th grade English teacher's name who assigned it to you but the story got embedded inside your imaginative 12-year old brain like Hubba Bubba gum might have stuck to your braces and left an indelible impression that is probably one of the only things you remember about school at that time that was actual school work.

The Lottery has always been an eye-opening, sly introduction to the wonderful world of allegories and one of the first things you read that gets you thinking about life, as opposed to your own everyday life in the wonderfully, anxious, awkward world that revolves around your school and extends as far as your bike can ride or your mom can drive.

My version of The Lottery would revolve around a town where every year the residents meet outside the local Starbucks while the group of chosen elders play the part of baristas and write everyone’s name down on cups.  The people hang around outside the store with their families and are lounging around on a warm summer day as if they’re having a picnic in a park. They talk about the light winter they had and how it’s a beautiful day for the lottery before an elderly man named Leopold Millstone, with bifocals, white hair and whose holding a cane, says to a woman and her child in a voice that resembles the guy from the old “Pepperidge Farm Remembers” commercials, “Lottery in June, jobs be coming soon.” 

A man, let’s call him Jeff, pulls up to the parking lot with a half eaten bagel in his hand. Jeff has the kind of short, slightly messed up brown hair that gives off his casual nature without looking like he spends time creating a casual look.   He walks over to his family and gives a nod to his relatives and neighbors milling about next to them. “What was there a line at the bagel store?  Every person in town is here by noon. How are you late on Lottery Day?” says his brother, Brad, while wiping the frames of his designer glasses (that put the cherry on top of his anal-retentive lawyer persona) and fixing his tie.

 “You have some cream cheese on your cheek,” his mother Ruth says as she wipes it off with a napkin from her bag. You look good though.”  “Lottery in June, get here by noon,” sings a cute seven year-old girl, while smiling at Jeff and shaking her head.  (She is with the family standing next to Jeff’s.) “I’m only ten minutes late. How about a donut, young but wise Kate?” Jeff sings to her before grabbing a donut from his bag.  “Thanks Jeff. You may be a dork who’s late but donuts are always great,” Kate says, while biting a huge chunk of glazed goodness and laughing.

“And why may I ask are you wearing a suit my brother?,” Jeff asks Brad as he leans into him while smiling at Mrs. Johnson as she’s methodically wiping the crumbs off of Kate’s cherub-like face and trying to no avail to get her to stand still as she giggles, squirms and dances.  “People haven’t had to wear suits on Lottery Day for twenty years, ever since blue shirts and khaki pants became an option. You know, “Lottery Casual.” Look around,” says Jeff.”  “Look, you ask me this every year. The lottery is as old as the hills. It’s been around in one form or another since the first settlers reached our state. There’s been a Lottery since before our family ever came to this country. The tradition may have been slightly relaxed but I have a hard time relaxing,” Brad whispers. 

“No shit Cameron. Let my people go,” Jeff sings in a deep voice. “Look at most of these people,” Brad says quietly while gazing out at the crowd. “They’re slobs. They wear Lottery Casual because they can’t pull off this look or any look for that matter.  “And you, you’re wearing a black Ramones t-shirt under your button-down short-sleeve shirt.  What do you think people can’t see that?  They’re already chattering on about you showing up 15 minutes late, which is 30 minutes late for most and an hour late for the elders. And, why were you late again? How does one get stuck in traffic when you’re the only dumbass on the road?” Brad says while smiling as Mrs. Johnson looks back at them with a wide, gum commercial like grin affixed to her face.” 

“Hey, let’s just say I had a good night last night and knocked my cell phone off the bed after the first couple of snoozes, said Jeff.” Brad looks at him with a quizzical look. “Who would hook up with you the night before the Lottery? Where is this mystery woman if the entire town was already here before you? “Actually, Jeff replies, while leaning in to Brad’s ear, I don’t know. I met her last night at the bar.  She just moved to town and I think she said she was staying with her sister. When I woke up all I found was a scribbled note that took me a while to decipher.  It said, “Lottery at noon. Gotta run. Last night was fun.”

“What does this say, Donna or Dora?” Jeff shows Brad the note, prompting Brad to laugh out loud before lowering his head and coughing as his mother and Mrs. Johnson turned their heads towards him. “Dora? Brad mutters out of the corner of his mouth to Jeff. What did you fuck a cartoon? Hey, can you say Cunnilingus, boys and girls? C-u-n-n-i-l-i-n-g-u-s, Brad repeats slowly before shaking his head, sticking out his tongue and cackling to himself. Jeff stares at Brad’s hair weave that borders the line of actually merging with his eyebrows, giving the 30-year old the hairline of a 15-year old. 

“Can you say a-s-s-h-o-l-e?” Jeff replies while smirking.  “Hey, didn’t you used to have curly hair?” “Didn’t you used to have a job?” Brad retorts without missing a beat.  “Hey, I have a job now. Sure, they don’t give me benefits and I’m technically considered an independent contractor which makes me sound a lot more professional then what I actually do,” Jeff said. “You mean using your graphic design school skills to put dog faces over celebrity’s bodies for a Web site that will probably be made obsolete by a Facebook app.”  “Exactly,” Jeff mumbles out of the side of his mouth. They smile while gazing around at their former neighbors having their own conversations with friends and mini family reunions of their own taking place in anticipation of the Lottery.  

“Hey, it takes a true artist to re-imagine “The Last Supper” with the Kardashians, especially if they have Shih Tzu bodies. The hard part was picking a Jesus.” “Who did you choose? Brad asked.”  “Oh, Bruce Jenner; with the 70s do which blends into Shih Tzu hair nicely.  You’d be surprised at how many people waste precious seconds of their day looking at Surreality.com,” Jeff says as he reaches into his pocket.

 “Oh Shit Tzu. Jeff says as he smiles while pulling out a small white sock and holding it up to his blue eyes. This sock belongs to the cutest foot I’ve ever seen, which just happens to be connected to the cutest leg I have ever seen, which leads to up to the cutest hazel eyes I have ever seen.” “That’s not all it leads to,” Brad said, while raising his eyebrows. 

“Hey, you’re talking about possibly the future Mrs. Burke. This wasn’t just me winning the hook-up lottery and smiling at the right drunk girl who’s had the right amount of tequila shots and vodka and cranberry juice and has spent the right amount of months without getting laid. Thus, enabling me to separate her from her friends at the bar and almost separate her from her clothes as she ends up grinding her not quite-naked body against my jeans for an hour before she falls asleep diagonally on my bed and I lay teetering on the edge like a horizontal tight rope walker for two hours before I’m forced to wake her up, tell her I forgot I have to go into work early on Sunday and call her a cab before she sobers up. No, this was different.  We clicked from the second our eyes met. Hell, our eyes had a whole first date before we ever started talking.”

“Whoa.” Brad snaps at Jeff under his breath.  Don’t even joke about a hook-up lottery where you end up chafed with ruined jeans, right before The Lottery is about to start.  Show some respect for the institution of The Lottery. If Dad heard you talking like this he’d shit, Brad said while shaking his head.” “First of all, I wasn’t disrespecting the Lottery and second of all, Dad isn’t nearly as uptight as you.   It sucks that he and Julie aren’t here for the Lottery but I’m sure they’re enjoying themselves with their friends at the Lottery in Springfield. Remember when we were little kids and Dad would wake us up on Lottery Day and he’d hold us up over the bed and he’d say “Lottery Day, what do you say?”

“Oh yeah, and then we’d shout “Burke family all the way,” and he’d have a pillow fight with us.” As Brad recalled his early childhood memory fondly standing next to his brother he lifts his head and unknowingly scratches his left eyebrow with his index finger while simultaneously scratching the dangling thick, black bang of hair weave with his pinky.  “Yep,” Jeff says while watching Brad and smiling goofily. “Jeez. It must suck being single, man, Brad says while putting his hand on Jeff’s shoulder. “Having to bullshit with chicks at bars or worse, scour through dating profiles from crazy bitches on online dating sites. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Jeff says while looking around to make sure his mother or anyone else isn’t listening to him. “In what way does boning a married partner in your law firm put you “in a relationship?” Jeff makes air quotes while emphasizing his point and looking at his brother incredulously. “I hate to break this to you brother but if your partner has a partner, and a home and a child and a dog that she shares with that partner, you’re still single.”

“Hey, you know what.” Brad says out of the corner of his mouth while smiling and waving at his mother and Mrs. Johnson. “We do have a relationship. We see each other every day. We spend quality time together.  We fuck routinely at the end of a work week. We take away each others stress and occasionally we even comfort each other. I call that a relationship.” “Yeah, I get it,” replies Jeff. “It’s demented and sad but social.” “What can I say, Jeffie? Life is complicated. The Lottery isn’t.”  

“You know what? I don’t even care that you called me that because today is a beautiful day, Donna is here somewhere and I’m going to find her before the elders start the Lottery. Life isn’t always so complicated.  It’s random as hell, that’s for sure. Last night, I get three drinks spilled on my arm simultaneously as I’m leaning against the bar. As I turn around to see who did it, I see a group of girls in short skirts and heels that look like they were raised on nothing but Sex and the City episodes and Whora The Explorer. They were like clones of each other and were oblivious to the fact they had all spilled their drinks, one after the other, on my arm.”

My buddy Jack of course saw this as a perfect in to approach them and demand they buy me a drink before accepting their apology on my behalf and grabbing me to join the conversation. But, as I was about to reluctantly join him, I heard laughing coming from a girl sitting to my left. I turn around and see this girl with dirty blonde, wildly wavy hair who looked like she was born to wear a tank top laughing at me. She offered me a handful of napkins and as I wiped my arm and grinned,  I remember our eyes locked and I said something like “the sad thing is I came with those girls. Then she replied back with “well, you just don’t have much luck with women, now do you? When I volleyed back with “not yet”, she came back with “you’re lucky I have a thing for semi-cute, slacker nerds.” I said, "I’ll take that as a compliment" and she hit me back with “You should.”

 We both smiled and I sensed the sweetness in her mischievous eyes that I figured she doesn’t reveal often. When “Jane Says” came on the jukebox, our eyes lit up and we both started air steel drumming at the same time. When I told her it was my favorite song she hit me back with “Oh yeah, I once kissed a girl in college  while Jane Says was playing because she told me her name was Jane.  I volleyed back with “Hi, my name is Jane.”  She laughed in this adorably uncontrollable way that prompted her beer to spill on my other arm. She had me at her laugh and her “aww” face which lead to our night of talking, flirting and fooling and rolling around on the bed.

“I hope that wasn’t the only “ing” you were doing to warrant you oversleeping for The Lottery,” Brad said while shaking his head and gazing out among the crowd of townspeople, wondering where his partner in more ways than one and her family were standing. “Oh and I’m amazed at your ability to retell your flirtation from the night before so precisely and yet not remember your future wife’s first name.” Yeah, I have always been bad at that, Jeff said. “I once dated a girl for two months before finding out her last name wasn’t “From Pink Berry.” 

Jeff’s pants then begin to vibrate and he checks his cell to see a message that reads “Late to the Lottery. What am I going to do with you?” He turns around to see Donna nodding to him from about ten feet away looking surprisingly refreshed on two hours of sleep. Jeff pulls her sock out of his pocket and holds it up over his head.  Jeff receives another text that reads “Thanks. Don’t expect me to call you Prince Charming.” As their eyes connect again from a distance and have a brief interlude, Brad begins to tell Jeff to put his phone away when the bell goes off and the selected five elders step up to the platform in front of the Starbucks. 

The eldest of the elders, Leopold Millstone welcomes the townspeople to the Lottery and expresses his joy at seeing all his friends and neighbors coming together to share in the festivities on such a beautiful day. After the second eldest elder bangs a ceremonial drum, the third eldest elder reaches his hand into a barrel filled with coffee cups and hands it to the fourth eldest elder who looks at the cup and hands it to the fifth eldest elder who gives it to Leopold Millstone.

This act is repeated five times until Mr.Millstone has five cups on a table with the names facing his body.  Leopold taps his cane against the table before placing it on the floor and standing up straight. He takes a drink of water and begins to hold up the first cup as the crowd silently awaits his pursed lips to separate. He begins to bellow each name and turn the cup around to show the crowd. Barry Most. Hank Schweitzer. Mary Huggins. Jamie McElroy. Geoff Burke.

The crowd stays silent as each Lottery winner is escorted by their immediate family and friends to the front door of the Starbucks. As Brad Burke, Ruth Burke and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson take hold of Jeff’s arms, the word “wait” struggles to emerge from his mouth. “Wait,"  he shouts. "Geoff with a G. Do I look like a talking giraffe? I’m Jeff with a J. Are you kidding me? There’s been a mistake." “Hey bro, the Lottery is as old as the hills, there are no mistakes. Suck it up.” Brad says while dragging his brother, by the arm as a few large men nearby take hold of his other arm and force him towards the front door of the Starbucks. Young Kate is skipping and holding on to Jeff’s shirt. “Jeff Burke is a stupid jerk. Jeff Burke is a stupid jerk." She sings gleefully.

As the other winners are brought into the Starbucks before him, a song begins to play and Jeff can hear the music as his family forces him through the doors like a shy kid being pushed on the bus for the first day of sleep-away camp by his parents or a shy white collar criminal being dropped off at Riker's Island by his parents. “ I Ain’t got no home. Ain't got no home. A-no place to roam. Ain't got no home. A-no place to roam. I'm a lonely boy. I ain't got a home.”

 As Clarence “Frogmen” Henry’s voice is heard, high tech collars are put on the necks of each of the five winners as instructions by the eldest elder is given to them. (On each collar, there is a black and white image that appears to be a mermaid with wavy, long hair.) They are told that they can’t walk more than five feet out of the Starbucks without high voltage shocks being inflicted on them and that they are to sit in these assigned seats and sleep in cots provided in the back section near the bathrooms. Leopold Millstone tells them that they will be given a Netbook PC laptop to use and Jeff moans “Oh man” under his breath.

 “You will fulfill your duty for one year’s time, from this date, June 5th 2012, to June 5th 2013.”Then Mr. Millstone smiles and says, “Lottery in June, jobs be coming soon. Just, not for you, yet.”

 “I ain't got a home. Ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo. Ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo-ooo ooo.”

The rest of the town slowly starts to mingle in and wait on line as reality sets in for Jeff and his fellow winners as they repeatedly attempt to get the att wi-fi to connect.”Oooh, it’s caramel macchiato happy hour,” Mrs. Johnson says to her husband while fixing the hair of her daughter Kate, whose bouncing up and down on the line next to her. Brad and Ruth Burke walk up to Jeff and Ruth lovingly kisses him on the cheek. “Mocha Frappuccino. Right. I’ll get this one, Brad says, before motioning his fingers like a gun at Jeff and making a clicking sound out of the side of his mouth. As the color begins to slowly return to his face, Jeff notices the sweat build up on the bangs of Brad’s weave and Jeff raises his eyebrows and cradles his own chin with his hand.

Donna taps Jeff’s shoulder as he’s gazing out the window at the perfectly clear sky and takes out a pen from her bag. She begins to write her email address on his forearm. “Hey G-e-o-f-f,” Donna whispers in his ear. “You can reach me here,” as she points to his newly decorated arm. “If you’re good and lucky, in a year, you can reach me here. She leans further into him, takes his hand and brushes it softly and quickly against her left breast. She smiles at Jeff and life comes back to his eyes.

 Donna turns around and waits with the rest of the townspeople for her morning iced coffee. Jeff sighs and wipes the burgeoning moisture from his eyes. Next to him, Jeff overhears another winner, Barry Most; calmly say to himself, “This is my life, my life, my life.” The blue and white glow of Facebook lights up his screen and Jeff Burke awaits the present. He can’t yet think about the future.

  “Shooby Doo Wop ba baa (hey hey. ) Shooby Doo Wop ba baa (hey hey). Shooby Doo Wop ba baa (hey hey.) My heart is cryin',cryin'. Lonely teardrops. My pillows never dry of, lonely teardrops.”

As Jackie Wilson’s sweet voice fills the Starbucks, Jeff Burke can’t help but bop his head and now heavier neck in a Pavlovian response and hum along to the lyrics. “Just say you will, say you will.”

 Brad sits down next to Jeff and hands him his Mocha Frappuccino and the two stare at each other in awkward silence as Donna walks by holding her cup. She turns her head and sticks her tongue out and the two brothers smile. As she leaves the store, she points at Jeff and kisses the glass. They both watch her walk away into the sunlight, until Jeff nudges Brad to stop watching.

"Half a mile from the county fair.
And the rain came pourin' down.
Me and Billy standin' there
With a silver half a crown.
Hands are full of a fishin' rod
And the tackle on our backs
We just stood there gettin' wet
With our backs against the fence

Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Oh, the water
Hope it don't rain all day."

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