Beating It

by: Paul Negri

In a throwback to a now infamous period of time at Across the Margin simply referred to as Dick Week, a story that delves into aging, loneliness, and the distinct brand of catharsis found only in unaccompanied release…

Years ago, it wasn’t nuttin’ like it is today. You couldn’t just wait ‘til the wife and kiddies were asleep and turn on the computer, plug in a secret password, and see it all — and I mean it all — in 1080p high def. Some of that stuff, Jesus, I didn’t know humans could do, and who the hell would want to anyway? Just surfing the ‘net, looking for a little you-know-what, I’ve seen things made me want to pluck out my eyeballs and scrub them clean with a steel wool pad—the kind that gets the worst baked-on grease off the pan I left in the sink ‘cause I was too tired to do it the night before when I should’ve, the way Mary used to do before she left me for being such an asshole.

We’re not talking about Playboy here, with its classy broads and smart stuff to read, or Penthouse, which was always a little more raunchy and the girls looked soft around the edges ‘cause of the artsy fartsy photography, or even Tattoo Babes, which I guess some guys bought to actually see tattoos. I remember this one issue of Tattoo Babes had a girl with the face of Jesus tattooed just below her belly button so that his beard was actually the hair of her you-know-what, but really artistic and not done in a disrespectful way at all.

No, today there’s websites and things that make you scratch your head and say “what the fuck?” I’ve been to a site where people, mostly women but some men too, put on little harnesses and bridles and all sorts of horsey stuff and prance around like ponies, some even pulling carts for their freak trainers with their little whips and leather thingamajigs. I’ve seen eighty-year-old grannies strutting their stuff with guys not old enough to buy cigarettes on their own. And men who look more like ladies than ladies do except for the extra baggage between the legs, the kind no guy I know wants to carry for them, if you know what I mean. There’s cartoons, even, cartoons! I’ve seen Mickey Mouse doing Daisy Duck. Mickey, for Christ’s sake! That really messed with me as my name’s Mickey too, although I always tell people to call me Mick. I ain’t no fuckin’ mouse.

So you might be wondering, what’s an eighty-year-old fella like me surfing the internet for porn anyway? Well, what else do I gotta do? All my joints have arthritis, joints I didn’t even know I had, especially in my hips. Sure, they replaced my knees ten years back but now the replacements need replacement. I quit smoking last year ‘cause what I was spitting up stained the sink green and who can afford cigarettes anyway? You’d think they were made of gold. So it’s either give up that or beer, and I ain’t giving up beer because it lasts longer. Plus, I can get that delivered from the liquor store where I have an account, and the cashier even gives me a senior discount. But beer that goes in has to come out and I can’t go far from the bathroom with my prostate as big as a grapefruit and a bladder the size of a pea, at least that’s what the doc told me. I said to him at my last check-up “is that supposed to be a joke?” and he laughed and then I laughed. What can you do but laugh or cry? And I’m no crybaby.

The only thing that still works on me is Mr. Peeps, as Mary used to call it. One time I asked her “why do you call it Mr. Peeps?” She said “what do you want me to call him, Dick?” She was shy about bedroom stuff, you know, but sometimes she’d surprise me, and we’d have a laugh over it. We had a lot of laughs over the years but one day we ran out of laughs and we spent a lot of time staring at each other with nothing to laugh about.

Then last year she goes to live with our daughter Kate and her asshole husband, a cop, in Phoenix and I says “I’m not going to live with a cop and the cactuses and lizards and one hundred and ten degree heat and fry what’s left of my brain.” And then Mary says “you bet you won’t, you’re not invited.” And then that was that. So, Kate calls me one day and says I should come out there, never mind about Mom, and they’ll get me an apartment or maybe find me a place in a home, like I’m some kind of pet up for adoption. She then tells me I could get a hobby, like this old guy she knows who builds birdhouses and I say “fuck it, honey, tell Mary I’ll see her in the sweet by and by,” and the wife and I haven’t talked since. I have to admit it though, sometimes I miss Mary. I don’t like waking up alone in bed in the morning. I think that’s what dying must be like, you wake up alone and nobody’s there, not even you.

Anyway with Mr. Peeps and the one hand that I have that isn’t crippled by arthritis I keep myself busy, and I don’t mean building birdhouses. But like I always say, all I want to see is what I want to see, just the old T&A, not this other sick shit that pops up on the screen and won’t go away no matter how many times I hit the ESC button. Unfortunately. half the time I have to reboot my old laptop. I know my way around the computer, you know, the basics, as much as the next old fart, and I can reboot all right. But the other day I get this bug that just won’t quit, no matter how much I reboot. It  just keeps coming back in a pop-up window with a smiley face with hands and one hand is giving me the finger and the finger even moves, bouncing up and down, and the smiley face is saying something in French I think, in this swishy voice, so I don’t know what it means but I can take a good guess.     

I figure I’ll give the computer a rest for a few days and maybe the smiley finger thing will go away. But after the first day I’m sick of watching TV, so I try to read the newspaper, but my eyes start watering, and I don’t know what to do with myself, so I call Kate and ask her to put Mary on the phone. Kate says “she ain’t in, she’s out playing golf” and I say “are you kidding, she don’t know how” and Kate says this guy is teaching her and I ask” what guy?” and she says “the guy who builds birdhouses.”

I sit and stew for a while and think of all the things I have done that Mary put up with for fifty years. Not that she was heaven on earth, but I was a hell of a lot worse. Working as an exterminator all my life kind of made me mean I guess. It sure made me a sourpuss, and I smelled like rat poison most of the time. I guess I drank a little too much sometimes, although I wasn’t so bad in the scheme of things. I never hit her, not once, and Mary, well she walloped me good a couple of times, but I’d always forget little things like getting milk and putting the toilet seat down and her birthday. Things like that. Mary and I were together for fifty years, yet I can’t blame her for finally leaving my old carcass. But I do.

I can’t even surf the web looking for some free way to de-bug my computer because the goddamn smiley finger has froze everything up and all you can see is the pop-up box and hear its Frenchy voice saying whatever the fuck it’s saying. I get on my phone and call a service that fixes computers and get some girl who wants my name and email address and when I tell her “I’m Mick Crunk,” she starts to laugh and says “Really?” “Sure, would I make that up?” I says, “what’s so funny about that?” She says, “you know, crunk?” But I don’t know and she tells me that it’s something the kids say and it means like crazy and drunk at the same time. “Well, that’s me,” I says and then she tells me to bring the computer in. I say “What are you kidding? I can’t even lift the toilet seat so now its down all the time just like Mary always wanted” and the girl laughs and I laugh because it is kind of funny in a fucked-up way. The girl asks me how old I am, and I says “Old enough to know better” and she doesn’t laugh and instead tells me that someone can come to my house and fix it for two hundred dollars. I immediately hang up on her.”

I ain’t a millionaire, but I got just enough dough between social security and a little pension to just sit around and do nothing. But I do need to make sure I have enough to cover my prescriptions which, even with Medicare, costs me more than I’m worth, as Mary used to say. Mary hardly took anything herself, just aspirin and that on account of me she always said. Mary was one of those people who never smoked or drank alcohol and who looked both ways when she crossed the street and didn’t do nothing in bed to strain herself, just the old missionary position.

Instead of dealing with my broken computer I call Cindy, the social services gal. She is good to me and makes sure I’m getting free meals and a visit from the Jamaican woman who straightens out my place a little every couple of weeks. I tell Cindy about what’s happening on my computer and she says “Yes, I think I heard about it, it’s really going around. It speaks French with a smiley face, right?” And I says “You got it,” but then she says there’s nothing she can do about it as it’s not essential to my health or well-being. I wonder what Cindy means by well-being and she asks me if I know anyone who’s handy around a computer, and I tell her I don’t know anyone at all. Then she doesn’t say nothing, and I don’t know what to say, but I gotta tell you I’m feeling really low. Then Cindy says “well, I know a lot about computers maybe I can come over and take a look,” and it’s like the sun breaking through the clouds, you know, like maybe there is a God after all, though I don’t believe that shit anymore except once in a while when I can’t help it, when it sneaks up on me in the night. She says she’ll come around six, which is in just two hours, and I says that’s fuckin’ great, except I don’t say fuckin’, I just think it, cause you don’t talk that way to a pretty young girl who’s going to fix your computer so you can get back to porno land and keep a pulse in old Mr. Peeps who’s nodding his knobby head in agreement.

I sit at the window looking down at the front stoop like a kid waiting for Santa Claus and get to worrying about the snow on the steps that’s still there even though it hasn’t snowed for a week. It’s not like when Mary was here and she’d go knock on the super’s door in the middle of the night to tell him it was snowing and the steps needed clearing and she had to go out first thing in the morning to buy milk because, of course, I’d forgotten to buy milk again. She’d really lay into him, telling him that if she fell on those steps she was going to sue him, the landlord, and the entire fuckin’ city. and the city. Except she didn’t say fuckin’, of course, that’s just me thinking it.

I say or think “fucking” more and more these days. I never used to say it so much, but it just seems to come out more now that I live alone. Maybe I’m running out of better things to say, because when Mary was around those steps would be clear of ice and snow early in the morning, I tell you that. I don’t want Cindy to fall on the steps and not bother coming up. If I could get a shovel I’d take care of it myself, but instead I just sit in the cold draft by the window and stare. Maybe I could shout down to Cindy when she arrives to be careful, if I can get the window open, which I probably can’t because it’s been stuck closed since the last time Mary shut it a year ago. I give the window a try though and manage to open it an inch, not enough to yell out of but enough to let the cold wind blow in. I try to close the gap, but the window won’t budge, so now the winds whistling through and it feels like when you stand in front of the open refrigerator too long looking for the milk you forgot to buy.

Six o’clock comes and goes and it’s dark outside but still no Cindy. I just sit there watching nothing happening, feeling the wind from the window freeze my bones. I grab the old blanket Mary knitted from the couch where I sleep sometimes when I can’t get comfortable in bed. I spent many a restless night on that old couch after we’d had a spat and Mary would kick me out of the bedroom, yet she’d always toss a blanket out after me so I wouldn’t be cold. I really broke the couch in, made it real comfy, so its fits me like a glove these days. The blanket is made from a bunch of squares, in all different patterns and colors. Mary put it together from various scraps left over from her knitting. She called it the “Crazy Quilt,” and that suits me fine, now that I know crunk means a crazy drunk. When Kate was little we used to spread that blanket on the living room floor, like a giant checker board, and sit on it and play board games. I’d let her win most of the time, but not always, because it’s no fun beating someone who don’t never win.

I wrap myself in the blanket and hobble back to the chair in front of the window and just as I sit down the phone rings on the little desk where my computer is. I limp over and it’s Cindy on the other end. “Sorry,” she says. She lets me know that she can’t make it over but she talked to her husband who knows about viruses and I says “I didn’t know you were married” and she says “oh yes, for twenty-five years.” I feel bad because here I always thought she was younger and I don’t know why. Maybe when you get old as I am you think everybody’s a younger, and she was coming over to see me, but I should’ve known better.

Cindy asks me to wait a moment and then puts her husband on the phone. I don’t want to talk to him but it’s too late and before I can object he already saying “Hi, I’m Jerry.” “I’m Crunk I tell him, you know, crazy and drunk,” and he says that’s great, so I know he’s an asshole. Then he says “you have a virus that hijacked your computer and curses at you in French.” “What does that mean?” I ask. “Up yours” he tells me, and that I understand. “So what can I do about it?” I ask. “It’s easy,” he says, “just pull the plug out and plug it back in.” I tell him I have been rebooting and I heard your not supposed to pull the plug so I never do. “You’re right,” Jerry says, “but it’s the best way to get rid of this crazy virus” he insists and “it’s so easy a solution that no one thinks of doing it and it won’t hurt your computer or at least it shouldn’t. Do it and I’ll hold,” he says.

So, because I can’t bend real well I get down on all fours and crawl to the wall socket. The carpet doesn’t smell so good when your nose is so close to it. It smells like a cat, you know, except I don’t have a cat. I hold my breath and pull the fuckin’ plug and wait ten seconds and plug it back in. Then I crawl back and climb up into the chair puffing like I’ve climbed Mount Everest without an oxygen tank which is a big deal for guys who do that sort of thing according to something I once saw on TV.

I turn on the computer and sit there and wait for something to happen and while I wait Cindy’s asshole husband is whistling on the phone. Who the fuck does that, whistles on the phone? I think and then I say “are you there?” and he says “yeah, where’d you go, down the corner to get milk?” I don’t respond and then all of a sudden my computer comes alive and what do you know, I’ve got my old screen back! “Hey, it’s gone,” I say and Jerry sounds pleased as punch. “I owe you one,” I says and he tells me “forget it, Mr. Crunk,” which is easy for me because I forget everything anyway. Cindy gets back on the phone and asks me if I am all right now. “You bet,” I shout, too loud, I think, because I’m a little deaf and she tells me she’s got to go make dinner. I tell her “Jerry is a lucky guy, I hope he never forgets your birthday,” and she laughs and says “goodnight.”

It feels good to beat that smiling finger as I haven’t beat anything in a long time. It feels like everything’s been beating me, you know. Like my hips and my knees and my eyes and ears and my fucking prostate and my memory fading and Mary leaving me and there is nothing I can do about any of it but sit here with Mr. Peeps in the cold wind from the window I can’t shut. I pull on the old blanket and wrap it around me and I plug into the Google search box “NUDES OF THE 50s.” I click on the first site and up pops a real beauty in black-and-white wearing nothing but a smile and sitting on the rocks with the waves pounding and she’s sure got Mr. Peep’s attention, and I guess I ain’t dead after all, am I?

 

Paul Negri is the editor of a myriad of literary anthologies from Dover Publications, Inc. His short fiction has appeared in The Penn Review, Vestal Review, Pif Magazine, Jellyfish Review, The Quill Magazine, and other publications. He has twice won the Gold Medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-Willliam Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, NJ.

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