A Sneak Peek At KUMQUAT

So I’ve finished a novel called Kumquat. It’s a quirky “socially awkward guy goes on a cross-country road-trip with a girl he just met who has a brain aneurysm” comedy. It doesn’t have a publisher yet; hell, I don’t even know if my agent has seen my e-mail saying “Here ya go! Make me some money!” Thus it would be waaaay premature to post the first chapter on my website.

KUMQUAT – Chapter One

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Strand

“I think I’m having a stroke.”

My roommate Craig’s eyes briefly dart in my direction. “What are your symptoms?”

“It’s kind of hard to breathe.”

“That doesn’t sound like a stroke.”

“Could you at least pause the game?”

He does. I feel legitimately bad about the request; this is a really difficult level and requires intense concentration. Craig doesn’t go so far as to set down the controller, but he looks away from the television and stares at me for a few seconds.

“You don’t look like you’re having one.”

“What would I look like?”

“I don’t know. Twitchier?”

“I don’t feel good.”

“Isn’t a stroke one of those things where if you think you’re having one, then you really aren’t?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s like Alzheimer’s. If you think that you have Alzheimer’s, then by definition you don’t. People who really do have Alzheimer’s always insist that their memory’s fine. My grandmother kept saying she was okay even when she drank out of the goldfish bowl.”

“Did she drink a fish?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I don’t think so.”

I lean back on the couch. “Maybe I’m not having a stroke.”

“You’re probably not. If you were, I’d be worried, and I’m not all that worried.”

His eyes flick back to the television screen. This level has required an incredible amount of practice, and I know he’s concerned about losing the muscle memory if he’s distracted by other matters for too long.

“I’m sure I’m okay,” I say. If it were a stroke, I assume that I’d have died from going this long without medical attention, so I allow myself to relax.

There are plenty of online resources where I could find out the actual symptoms of a stroke, but if I’m going to be completely honest with myself I have to admit that I don’t really believe I’m having one. It’s just kind of hard to breathe. Might be from a cold. If I look up some medical information and find out my health is truly in danger, I’ll freak the hell out. I’m a strong believer in the soothing power of ignorance.

“Maybe you should take the day off,” Craig says.

I shake my head. “I only have one vacation day left.”

“So take that one day.”

“It’s only February.”

“Oh.” Craig frowns. “I thought it was March.”

“Leap year.”

“They still do that?”

“Yeah.”

“Weird.”

“Anyway, I’m going to go to work.”

“Want my honest opinion? If you’re working for a place that’s so inhuman that they’d make you come in after you thought you had a stroke, then screw them. Those heartless bastards don’t deserve to have you work for them. They don’t care if you live or die. That’s exactly the kind of thing that causes hard-working employees like you to have strokes in the first place. You should sue.”

“I’ll consider it. I’m heading off now.”

“Tell The Man I said hi.”

Craig no longer has to work for The Man. He made a small investment in a mutual friend’s start-up business that paid off in a big way. When our friend bought him out, Craig calculated that he could do nothing but sit around and play video games for the next five-point-two years. I assumed that he’d eventually get bored with the lifestyle, but three years into it he’s still going strong.

I was offered the same opportunity to invest in our friend’s business, but declined.

* * *

I don’t hate my job.

This sometimes bothers me, because I feel like I really should hate it. It’s not a very good job. It’s certainly not the kind of job anybody should stay at for nine freaking years. I basically take forms that customers have filled out using outdated, curious devices like ballpoint pens, and type that information into a computerized form.

My co-workers and I like to say that a trained monkey could do our jobs. Once, as a joke, we snuck an actual monkey into the department after hours, to make a video of it sitting at somebody’s desk, doing their job. The monkey belonged to Jay’s cousin, so Jay was the one responsible for keeping it on the leash, while my task was to record the hilarity. Kylie and Lori had no official role; they just wanted to watch the monkey in action. After I booted up my computer and started the data entry program, Jay set the monkey on my chair, hoping that it would just start pounding away at the keyboard.

The problem with this plan was that the monkey was a total asshole. It kept trying to climb off my chair, and then finally it bit Jay on the hand and wouldn’t let go.

“It’s biting me!” Jay screamed, even though we could all see–mostly with shock and horror, but admittedly with some delight–what was happening. “It won’t let go!” he added, also unnecessarily.

As the videographer, I needed to keep filming, or this whole venture would have been for naught. But I felt that it was rather tacky of Kylie and Lori to make no effort to help our poor co-worker. They merely screamed (Kylie) and laughed (Lori).

Finally, the monkey removed its fearsome jaws from Jay’s tender flesh and scampered away. Its leash popped out of Jay’s hand (the one that wasn’t covered with blood). The monkey jumped up onto the printer, made a ferocious monkey sound at everybody, and then squatted.

“He’s going number two!” Lori shouted. This narration actually turned out to be useful, since I was jiggling the camera too much for it to be clear to the viewer exactly what was happening.

Jay’s cousin had warned him that the hurling of fecal matter could be an issue, and Jay had dutifully passed this information along to us. But being hit in the face with monkey poo is something that, deep inside, we all believe happens only to other people.

When Jay got hit, everybody but Jay laughed. When Lori got hit, everybody but Jay and Lori laughed. When Kylie got hit, that left only me to laugh. I tried to be mature about the whole thing, because I knew that the harder I laughed, the greater my downfall when I became the next target. But I was unsuccessful. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

Finally, the camera was hit, striking the lens so perfectly that some YouTube viewers would later accuse me of digital enhancement in the comments section. The camera shielded most of my face, but not all of it, and I did indeed receive an appropriate punishment for the fact that I didn’t laugh with my mouth closed.

We weren’t the kind of scoundrels who would leave this mess for the custodian, so we eventually recaptured the monkey and cleaned up. Well, Kylie and I did; Lori drove Jay to the hospital after winning the game of rock/paper/scissors.

This whole experience proved that a monkey could not actually do my job, which was kind of a relief. Jay would later pose an alternate theory, that even a monkey who would fling its own feces on camera had too much self-respect to do our job. Jay has since found employment at a different company.

Anyway, for nine years I’ve worked for the same company, in the same building, in the same department, at the same desk, drinking from the same coffee mug. I’d complain that there was no upward mobility, but that wouldn’t be true. I just don’t want it. I don’t want to be a manager. Being a manager decreases your ability to not give a crap.

I know I should be more ambitious than this. I’m not a slacker, though. Every form that goes into my in-box gets entered, and my audit score is the best in the department. I pay my own half of the rent. I buy my own groceries. I don’t borrow money from my parents. Granted, I’m thirty-four years old, so these are not amazing accomplishments, but still…

Do I sound defensive? If so, I assure you it’s not because anybody is getting on my case about this. “So, Todd, what do you want to do with your life?” is not a topic of discussion that comes up frequently. Nobody is calling me an underachiever. I’m content, and everybody around me is content with my state of contentment.

I eat lunch at one of the same five restaurants every day. To be fair, there’s not a huge selection in this area; there are maybe a dozen places that are doable within my forty-five minute lunch break. The others are fine, I guess, but I just stick to The Five.

I at least try to break up my formula. So instead of going to the Tex-Mex place on Tuesday, I’ll sometimes go on Thursdays, even if that means I miss the two-for-one taco special. The pizza place doesn’t have to be my Wednesday spot. Sure, burgers make a nice Friday treat, but aren’t they just as good on Monday?

I’m not anti-social. Occasionally I go out to lunch with my co-workers. But the other seven people in my department tend to be more of the economical “bring your own lunch to work” type, and I think that some of my contentment comes from making sure that I get away from the building for forty-five minutes every single day.

Maybe if I brown bagged it once in a while, I’d go sufficiently nuts to want to seek a better job.

* * *

When I get home, Craig is seated on the couch playing video games with Julia, one of his two friends with benefits.

Their relationship began a few months ago, and Craig described it as the greatest arrangement in the entire history of human civilization. She comes over, they talk for a few minutes, they have sex, she hangs out a while longer (but not too long), and then she leaves.

It doesn’t surprise me that Craig thinks this is awesome, but I honestly don’t get why Julia is okay with it. With all due respect, my roommate is no great prize. Though he’s not a disgusting boil-covered green-slime-oozing troglodyte, he definitely has the body of somebody who sits on the couch playing video games all day. Sure, he’s got a little bit of money, yet there’s no evidence that he spends any of it on her. His hygiene is scattershot. I suppose he could be an incredible lover, since his fingers are in top physical condition, though aural evidence from their bedroom sessions seems to indicate otherwise.

She’s twenty-two, beautiful, fit, tattooed, and full of energy. I have no idea how he landed her. I suspect there were some untrue statements involved.

His other friend with benefits is Margaret. She’s a forty-five-year-old separated mother of three who always looks like she’s just been crying. She thinks video games are stupid, which works out fine for Craig. Less time wasted socializing.

Julia and Margaret don’t know about each other. I’ve asked Craig why; in theory, if they’re just friends, then it should be totally okay. If you have one friend, you’re still allowed to have other friends, right? Craig has never given a satisfactory answer to this question.

I suspect that there will be a day when Margaret shows up at our door with all three of her children and asks if she can live with us for a while. Craig will tell them no and claim that I’m the uptight bad guy. If I’m in the room when it happens, I’ll assure them that it’s fine for them to stay, at which point I’ll not only have four houseguests, but a roommate who’s angry at me for not playing the villain role.

“Hi,” I say, hoping that Craig and Julia’s gaming session is post-coital instead of foreplay.

“Hi,” Julia says. She really should adjust her shirt a bit, because I can see a part that would be blurred on television. I’d tell her, but I’m not sure if that would be interpreted as polite or pervy. She’s probably fully aware of this. I guess that if you went through all of the discomfort of getting a tattoo there, you’d want an audience for it.

“How’re you feeling?” Craig asks.

“Fine.”

“See, I told you it wasn’t a stroke.”

“You had a stroke?” Julia asks.

I shake my head. “Thought I was having one this morning.”

“Oh, you poor sweetie!” Julia gets up off the couch, crosses in front of Craig (causing him a half-second of intense annoyance) and gives me a hug. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

It’s clear from her tone that she’s offering something innocent like a bowl of hot chicken soup, rather than anything Craig has touched.

“I’m totally okay,” I assure her. “It was scary, but no big deal.”

“It wasn’t that scary,” Craig says.

“Oh, hush,” Julia tells him. “If it happened to you it would be terrifying.”

She gives me another hug, tighter and longer this time, and for a moment I am incredibly jealous of my roommate.

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