NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK
Jim Magistrate is the online pseudonym of a Chicago-based marketing consultant and fiction writer.
Slattery and Son Finer Foods was housed in a single-story brown brick building with a botulin bulge to its facade. The front wall had begun the immeasurably slow process of bowing outward more than fifty years ago, not long after Donal Xavier Slattery had founded the business, and had migrated out of true at roughly the same rate as the old man himself.
Now, guided by a cane and by his elder son Donald (who'd added an Americanizing "d" to his name), the rachitic old importer inched along the bumpy sidewalk on the half-block journey from the parking lot to the front door; the parking space in front of the building was occupied by an empty tractor-trailer that'd been there for weeks.
There were a few patches of snow left on shadowed portions of the sidewalk and, here and there on the rough grass in front of the entrance, islands of lacy ice, enclosing delicate watery bubbles that looked like the spawn of frogs, held out against the sun.
Just before getting to the front door, Donald steered his father around an empty shopping cart stationed thoughtfully over a crumbling hole in the pavement. There was a blackened drift of snow at the bottom of the hole.
Donald, who was not the singular "Son" of "Slattery and...", had long ceased to notice the bulging front wall, and had never associated it with the way cans bulged when the foodstuff inside had bred the clostridium botulinum toxin. Donald thought of botulin, if he thought of it at all, as either a reputed terrorist tool, or, in much smaller amounts, as something injected into wrinkled foreheads to smooth them out.
The old man was conversant with neither plastic surgery nor terrorism -- he wasn't even aware that the World Trade Center had been attacked -- but had spent his entire cogency worried about food contamination, managing workers, meeting payrolls, reducing debt, and making a good life for Donald and for Daniel, the younger one, the one who for many years had in fact been the Son.
Now the food company was nearly out of business and Daniel had gone his own way, just as Donald had done twenty years before. Each had been assigned one day a week to take the old man out of his nursing home for some fresh air. Today, Sunday, was Donald's turn. As he guided his father into the deserted building, his free arm held a locked briefcase containing $17,500 in crisp, spring-green bills.
It was a warm, breezy day. No one was wearing a coat. The dogwoods and cherry blossoms might even have been blossoming, had there been any in this stretch of light-industrial street. But the few trees along the parkway were Norway maples and elms, and they were just beginning to bud.
Donald's mistress Lila showed up just as Donald was getting his father settled in his old office. There were still cartons stacked everywhere, even in the office -- canned beets, hearts of palm, pickled cauliflower florets, artichokes, capers -- everything you'd need to make a really vinegary salad.
Lila, who wore a sleek pageboy wig and was very slender and fit, walked behind the old man's desk, patted him on the shoulder and, when he turned to look at her, smiled at him lightly. She looked over the old man's shoulder at her boyfriend standing impatiently in the doorway. "What's the briefcase for?" she said. "I thought you only owed 750 bucks."
Donald shrugged. "I thought it would look more impressive."
Lila shrugged back.
The old man stared at the man standing in his doorway. "Who are you?"
"I'm Donald. Your son. The other one."
"Is this your wife?"
Donald and Lila smiled at each other. "Yes," they both said.
Donal looked back at them. "Are you two real, or are you a movie?"
Lila said, "Oh, we're real."
The old man said, "You I think are real. Him, over there, he's too handsome. He's a movie."
Donald was indeed handsome, or, at the very least, "cute," as most women had called him when he was a child and many still called him today, at 45. He wore his still-black hair in a small ponytail, the kind that was more popular in the 80s, and had a pale, unmarked Irish complexion. He had soft, dark eyes that made him look weak, and an infinitesimal quiver in his smooth cheeks (visible to anyone close enough to kiss him or whisper threats in his ear). He winked at Lila. "Alright, just keep Dad company for an hour. I'll order Chinese from the car, okay?"
There was a small refrigerator and a coffee maker on the far wall of the office. Donald took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and put it in front of his father. Then he filled a cup with hot black coffee and put it next to the water. He patted his father on the shoulder, as if to give him permission to drink. Then he left with the briefcase.
Lila sat down in the wooden chair across from Donal. This was the chair, she guessed, where hundreds of secretaries, job applicants, and grocery distributors had sat over the past forty years. Some, perhaps, still sat there. But someone else, a non-family member, ran the place now, was either guiding it into bankruptcy or attempting to rescue it, she wasn't sure which. This stranger's family pictures sat on the desk. But Donal, age 87, sat in his old chair surrounded by a stranger's pictures as if he were still on the job.
"So," Lila said, "how does it feel to be back in the old office?"
The old man stared at her. There was a tiny bit of cornflake bobbing from the end of a long stray hair, which in turn was hanging from a button on his cardigan. If you looked at it from the right angle, the white hair was invisible and the flake appeared to be floating in the air.
"Maybe," she said, "you like coming here to relive old memories, huh?"
"Are you here now, or are you from the past?"
"Uh, I'm here now."
"You're here now, but that man you were talking to is in the past."
"Well, strictly speaking, he's a few minutes in the past because he just left. He has to meet some men to give them some money he owes them."
"Is this a movie?" The old man leaned forward and wiped at the air with his palm. He leaned back, satisfied that it was in fact a movie.
"I have a girlfriend who says that really old people smell like burnt wool and candied feces. Oh my God, that's really disgusting, isn't it? But you smell pretty nice. They must take good care of you at that home, huh?"
"Am I home now?"
"So, anyway, Don says he takes you out every week to the park or a coffee shop or whatever. I'll bet you he just takes you here instead because he's so lazy."
"Where's the camera, young lady?"
"Maybe he takes you here because you can sit in the chair and feel like you're still running this place. Beets, huh? I like them in a salad. I like artichoke hearts sometimes. The fresh ones, though, with melted butter. I guess you once made a pretty good living at this, huh?"
"Can I stop this movie?"
"You must've done alright for a while because you've been pretty generous with Don. I mean, he's practically retired. Which I love, because more time for me, you know?"
Donal looked at his coffee. "Is this coffee real? I can't drink it because it's just a picture of coffee. This water is real, so I can drink the water. But the coffee is a film." He took a sip of the coffee and blinked once.
"Anyway, it was nice while it lasted, I guess. This business? But 'all good things,' right? Do you know Donald would sometimes take me here on a Sunday when nobody was around and we'd make love on the couch over there?"
"That couch is in the past." He looked out the window at some of the barely budding maples across the street. "Those trees are in the past."
"One time, he leaned me over the couch, you know, so my head was up against the wall there, and he fucked me from behind so hard that my head was banging against the wall. God, I loved that. You know, how some women love the rough treatment? They'll say they don't, but they do. I just loved that."
The old man shrugged.
"I love talking to you, you know? I can say fucking anything, can't I? I'm in advertising, so I can never say anything except for clever shit. Glorified puns, you know? That's my life. Clever shit in the ads, and then suck-up shit to my boss and my clients. And the thing is, advertising is so fucking easy. That's the worst of it. That's the big secret that no one'll ever tell you. It is so fucking easy it's a joke. Let me give you an example. What you got there, a bottle of water. So let's say my new client sells bottled water, right? Let's say the research is you want young people to think 'water' is cool. Okay, so give me fifteen seconds here. What's something that's a common phrase about water? How about 'watered down'? So all you do is turn it around or change it slightly or whatever. 'Watered up.' That's a good one, 'watered up.' And you show kids on skateboards and shit flying through the air like they're coked up, and they're all carrying bottles of this water, squirting it at each other or whatever. I mean, it wouldn't work for Evian, but some other brand it would, which'd be exactly the same water anyway. So let's say, I don't know, you want a more hippie kind of image for the kids who go to jam-band concerts and shit. So let me think. Concert, outdoors, fresh air, weed, grass. What do you do with grass? You mow it -- no, you water it! Yeah, that's pretty good -- 'water your inner lawn.' I can see it now, a psychedelic kind of spot where someone drinks this water and his insides blossom and turn colors and all that shit. See? Two ads in thirty seconds."
Lately when she'd been talking for a long time without a stop, Lila had been getting alarmingly light-headed. She stood up abruptly and stepped outside without saying anything to Donal. There were small clumps of thawing dog shit in several places on the sidewalk.
She lit up a cigarette and watched a cold stream of water from the melting ice on the roof pour silently through a rusted slit in the old metal drainpipe next to the building's front door. Most of the water came out of the bottom of the drainpipe, where it was supposed to, but a lot of it poured out of the tiny, mouthlike hole. Then she noticed a second, slightly larger, rusted hole closer to the bottom of the drainpipe where more water was escaping. The sight depressed her, those two little gaping mouths.
She went back in and the old man was still staring at his coffee. He looked at her and said, "Can we rewind this movie?"
"Does he just dump you here every week and go off with his fucking briefcase? Can't say I blame him. No offense."
"Can we rewind this movie?"
"Nope. This is it. This is where we're at, and there ain't no going back, old man."
"I can drink this water because it's real, but the coffee is a film."
"Yeah, it's all a film, but we gotta stay until the end."
Donald returned. He had a bloody nose, already beginning to dry, and a soft, puffy lower lip.
Lila leaped up and hugged him. "Oh my God. My God, Donald. What the hell happened to you?"
"Hit a tree. Forgot to wear my seat belt." It was clear that he'd been crying.
"Are you OK?"
"The car, believe it or not, is fine. Hardly a scratch." He proffered a weak, very unconvincing smile. He sat down heavily on the couch where they had last made love not two weeks before. Lila ran to the bathroom and came back with a wad of dripping- wet paper towels. She patted gingerly at the crust under his nose.
"Is this a movie?"
"He's been saying that the whole time. 'Is this a movie?' 'Are you from the past?'"
"I know. This is what I've been telling you."
Lila laughed. "Well, it does seem a little bit like a movie. You all beaten up and stuff."
Donald grabbed her wrist, hard. "I told you, I had a fender bender."
She twisted free. "I know. That's what you said. A fender bender that didn't bend any fenders, right?"
"Fuck off." Donald walked out of the office.
Lila said, "Can we rewind this movie?"
Donal said, "This coffee is a film."
"Yeah, I hear you," Lila said. "Nothing's real, right? Car accident my ass."
In a moment, Donald returned, looking calmer. "Sorry about that. So what've you two been discussing?"
Lila appraised him. "What a shit you are. And fuck you, too, by the way."
Donald laughed. "No, really. Fuck me, OK? I was out of line. I'm just wondering what the two of you could find to talk about."
"I was telling him about advertising. I made up a campaign for water. That was pretty much it."
"Water, huh? This girl is a genius, dad. Have I told you? So what'd you come up with?"
There was a knock at the front door -- the Chinese food had arrived. Donald pulled out his wallet and went to the door.
"Glad he has some money left, huh, old man? Good thing you can't see what's happened to this business of yours, right?"
The old man smiled. "I see the future."
"Hey, that's pretty good at your age. See the future. What? Your death next year?" She walked over to him then, and kissed him on the forehead. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'll bet you were more like Donald's brother in the day. Daniel. The nice one, right?"
Donald returned with a couple of enormous paper bags. "OK," he said, "how about this? These ancient mariners, long beards and shit, are on a boat, and they're all saying, 'water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink'?" Remember, that Wordsworth poem? Except they're floating in a sea of bobbing bottles of water that're every brand except your brand. Huh?"
Lila said, "First of all, it's 'water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.' Second, it's Coleridge. I mean, I think it was Coleridge, but it definitely wasn't Wordsworth, OK? Anyway, why don't you stick to making up stories about car crashes and money you owe?"
"Ooh, a mean one. I like that." He seemed to have completely recovered from his beating. He smiled at Lila through his swollen lips and said, "I'll go get us some Cokes."
After he left, the old man took a drink of his water and said, "The coffee is the past. This water is the future."
"Hey," Lila said. "I like that. 'This Water is the Future.' That could work, old man. That could really work."