Fiction. 20 minutes to read.
Chet Johnson’s sleepless eyes, still blurry from an evening of adultery, read the eviction letter taped to his apartment door on a warm Sunday morning in Los Angeles. He stared out the living room window, pretending to smile at his side piece waving from her Toyota Prius, but moved from the window before she noticed the seventy dollar parking ticket tucked under her dusty windshield wiper like the perfect middle finger. He pictured his wife Linda doing the same thing with her Number 2 in Boston, except they’d be playing chess or talking Adam Smith and John Rawls, smoking Master’s Degrees and surfing new real estate listings. His mind wandered over ways to tell Linda about the eviction letter when she got home. “Ultimately,” Chet thought, “she’ll find out on her own.” He set California’s court order down on the dining room table. His favorite Cuckoo Clock, a Black Forest Hillside Chalet (retail: $249.00), stirred its chains for a ten am call, pulling the Cuckoo bird from its linden wood hermitage to serenade the occasion. “KooKoo! KooKoo! KooKoo!” it called.
Across the street, a neighbor opened his garage. Chet watched him carry a long folding table to the tree belt and unfold its legs. This maneuver, of spreading, stirred Chet in lecherous ways, and he left to watch Sex/Life on Netflix.
When he came back to the window, the neighbor had a whole operation going: an honest to God, real life Garage Sale. “Lo and behold,” smiled Chet. “Perfect.” The eviction letter had induced a surprising level of stress, and the image of Linda and her Number 2 playing Queen’s Gambit naked spun through his mind like a rock stuck in a tire tread. The fastest way to feel better, he thought, was to spend money. Going to his bedroom, past the sex swing, he rummaged through last night’s pants to find his wallet, which, despite its thickness, contained only plastic. Chet almost had a breakdown right then and there, Johnny-on-the-spot, when he remembered Linda kept some rainy day cash in her jewelry box. Praise Be. The only thing better than spending money was spending someone else’s money.
Chet found fifty bucks next to Linda’s wedding ring. He put her cash in one pocket and his wallet in the other.
Terrance lived across the street from Chet and had too much stuff. He didn’t know what it was worth, but he knew it was worth something to somebody, and that somebody wasn’t him. Not ten minutes after he organized his table and put up a sign that read, “Garage Sale. Cash Only,” did his neighbor come across the street with a cooler and a lawn chair. The neighbor said, “hey, Terrance,” and sat down. Terrance said, “what’s happening, man,” because he wanted to be friendly, but also because he couldn’t remember the guy’s name.
“All these years we’ve been neighbors,” said the man, “and we haven’t had a beer together.” He shook his head. “LA, am I right?”
“Man, you’re telling me,” said Terrance, cycling through names—Mike, John, Cooper—and pairing them with his neighbor’s face. After a minute, he gave up.
His neighbor got two Miller Lites from the cooler he parked next to his chair and implored Terrance to take one. Terrance didn’t want a beer at eleven-thirty am, but felt like he owed the guy, since he didn’t know his name. “Thanks,” said Terrance. His neighbor watched him open the sweating can and take a sip before drinking his own. Sense memory flooded through Terrance. An image of him and his brother and his uncle on a dock at Big Bear Lake, sharing stories. His uncle talking fraternity days. What was he saying? Something about forgetting a girl’s name and playing it off cool. Terrance took another sip and remembered. “This damn pandemic, man,” he said, “makes me so forgetful. Remind me: what’s your name again?”
“It’s Chet,” said Chet, and Terrance gave his best charming-man-laugh, ha ha ha, just like his uncle had done in college, bumping his neighbor’s shoulder. “Na, man!” he said. “Your last name! Of course I know you’re Chet! What’s your last name?”
“Oh!” smiled Chet, relieved. “Johnson. My last name is Johnson.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Terrance, letting everything go quiet on the street corner. The only thing you could hear was a helicopter buzzing over Melrose, a mile or two away, and Chet drinking beer. He must’ve polished off three cans in thirty minutes and was eyeing a fifth before he finished his fourth, when the push and clatter of empty cans in a shopping cart tumbled down the road. Chet fingered the cash in his pocket and tried ignoring the sound. “What do you have over here anyway?” he asked, rising from his lawn chair and nodding to the collection of tchotchkes spread across Terrance’s folding table.
“Oh, just this and that,” said Terrance, checking his phone. His girlfriend wanted to know: will that stuff be off the sidewalk by 5pm because u know i’ve got friends coming over.
Terrance said, ya, thinking it was nice that she said “stuff” instead of junk. “Stuff” had value. Junk did not.
“Wow,” said Chet, dropping his fourth empty in a disorderly pile on the grass and picking up a weathered, 1990 VHS tape with Star Wars written in bold yellow font on the front. “That’s cool,” he said, then put it down.
“Five bucks if you want it,” said Terrance. His eyes drifted past Chet fondling his forgotten timeline of trinkets and settled on the unhoused man standing two feet from the table, leaning over his shopping cart, and studying all the knick-knacks on display. Chet saw him too but did a better job at ignoring it. His overzealous callous betrayed a deeper sense of fear in the presence of the concrete camper, a tremor of insecurity that rippled through the energy surrounding the three men beneath the American Sycamore tree.
Chet focused on the items in front of him. He saw graphic tees from Batman movies hanging from chairs, unfinished silverware sets, cutting boards, and ornate belt buckles all living in their own space on a clean, white bed sheet draped over the table. He got so distracted evaluating each item with his best educated guess, that the lingering unhoused hovering by the tree all but disappeared from his reality. Chet relished in respite. Then the unhoused fellow coughed up a well enunciated inquiry, alarming Chet, and shattering his brief moment of catharsis; the unhoused said, “how much for the Cuckoo Clock?” and pointed to an old timepiece Chet hadn’t yet had the pleasure of discovering himself, which really wound him up, especially since he loved Cuckoo Clocks so much. He was the Cuckoo Clock Guy, everyone knew that.
“Good morning, Christopher,” said Terrance, waving to the unhoused like they were meeting for coffee. Chet nearly collapsed into a catatonic state.
“You know him?” said Chet, rattled.
Terrance nodded, “he collects the cans in our neighborhood every week. I leave mine out for him.” Terrance stood from his chair and got a trash bag full of aluminum and plastic redeemables. He crossed the six feet separating him from Christopher, who stood by the Sycamore tree, and handed him the cans. Their shadows touched in a patch of sunlight slipping through the sidewalk arbor. “Might be five bucks in here for you, Christopher,” said Terrance. “Plus there’s some big 24s, worth ten cents a pop. My old lady turned the place into a motel this summer,” Terrance smiled.
Christopher nodded his thanks but turned back to the Cuckoo Clock. “How much for the Cuckoo Clock?”
At the mention of the Clock, Chet used his last swallow of beer to break his stasis. He blurted out, “I’ll pay twenty-five for it!” and dropped his fifth can so it bounced off numbers three and four to settle against numbers two and one crumpled on the dry soil.
All three men went quiet, looking at each other, then the Cuckoo Clock, then back to each other. Christopher remained silent but stood his ground. Terrance grew excited at the possibility of a bidding war. “Twenty-five is a fair price,” he said. “But I think it’s worth a quick appraisal on Google.”
“Twenty-five. CASH. Right now,” said Chet.
Christopher broke his silence with footsteps crunching dead leaves. As he approached, Chet lost his focus, staring at the man’s wrinkled garments, and felt his muscles tighten. Christopher took the Clock in his tired hands with a sense of reverential calm, turning the ornamental timekeeper on its back, then on its side, listening to the dark wood, the solid thud, thud it yielded when his knuckles tapped on the bottom. After a minute, he put it down again, then turned to Terrance.
“Give me a day,” he croaked. “I’ll pay double what he can.”
Chet scoffed at Christopher’s gall. “Ridiculous,” he said. But Terrance spoke over him. The only word he heard was double. “I’ll give you ‘til four pm.” He checked his watch. “That’s in four hours, deal?”
Christopher nodded. Chet wanted him to leave, but the man stepped closer to Chet, who recoiled, euro-stepping out of the way, and watched Christopher drift over to his pile of Miller Lites on the grass, kneel, and harvest them from the earth.
“I’m done with mine too,” said Terrance, emptying the last half of Chet’s beer on the street, then handed Christopher the five cent can and winked. Christopher went back to his cart and began pushing it down the road again.
A Black Phoebe landed on the Sycamore tree and went “Poo-tee-weet?”
Terrance looked at the bird and smiled.
“Damn, birds,” said Chet. “Them and the leaf blowers, always making a racket.”
“How can you hear the birds, if the leaf blowers are going?” asked Terrance.
Chet felt attacked. “One replaces the other,” he said, marching to the Cuckoo Clock. “What was that skeezo looking at?” he muttered under his breath, picking up the Clock and studying it like Christopher did: turning it over, knocking it on the bottom. But despite his best efforts, he discovered little more than a serial number stamped on the back, and several farm yard figurines on the front facade, milling about in a pastoral scene. The actual shape of the Clock, he thought, looked like the one he had in his living room (retail: $249.00), so it had to be somewhere close to that in value, unless it was fake or went through heavy refurbishments. Either way, he decided he had to have it, even if it was just some junk POS assembly line recreation. If he had it, that meant Christopher didn’t, and that was his bottom line.
“Bidding starts at four o’clock then?” asked Chet, lacing his tone with spite. He couldn’t stand—let alone sit and drink beer with—a man who wouldn’t accept a clear and present legal tender for an item on sale. It was outrageous, an egregious affront to Capitalism, which was what he was fighting for now, he told himself, huffing away from the Garage Sale, telling Terrance, his no-good-at-beer-drinking-Rawlsian-thinking-neighbor, “I’ll be back at four o’clock to buy that Clock.” Then he turned on his heel and almost collided with the Sycamore tree.
With his fifty somnolent smackaroos snuggled deep in his pocket, Chet moseyed to the closest liquor store, with its automated door chime that told every foot “Hello,” and stopped dead in his tracks. The movement was so abrupt and spontaneous for Chet it induced a revelation, which was this: he wanted to buy more beer from the packie, but every can or bottle he bought could end up in the hands of Christopher, his competitor, and thus, would bring Christopher closer to his goal of buying the Cuckoo Clock, an embarrassment Chet simply could not suffer; no matter the cost. He turned from the packie and headed straight for the All Seasons Brewery on the corner of La Brea and 8th Street.
The bar opened at eleven on Sundays, and since its inception at the end of quarantine, had capitalized on a low supply of public drinking spots and a high demand of drinkers. Refurbished from a bankrupt Firestone Tires, they kept the original sign on the roof for vintage appeal, which it had plenty of. Now the sign served as a local landmark, indicating an oasis beneath its shaded rafters, where Chet sojourned until half-past two, getting swizzled on heavy Baltic Porters and Summer League NBA games. After a while, anxiety crept over his shoulder in such a lively way that Chet actually tried swatting at it. This maneuver dumped him on the floor and got him cut off from the bar. The bouncer sent him packing to La Brea with twenty-five dollars less in his pocket after Chet chose to pay cash instead of charging his debit, a decision he’d hoped would appease the bouncer, and make everything copacetic; but didn’t. His convalescence, he thought, would be a black coffee from across the street. At Met Her At A Bar, he waited in a lethargic line of Millenials and Zoomers ready for Nutella covered waffles and bought a four dollar iced coffee. The heat settled between the apartments and shops, slowly cooking everything in between; when Chet emerged, feeling caffeinated, it was three pm, but he wasn’t worried. He would tumbleweed over to Bank of America’s ATM and withdraw plenty of money to outbid anybody whose primary source of income was recycling cans.
The dregs of his coffee sat in an inch of melted ice by the time he reached the ATM. He noticed the traffic lights by the trash can were out. Passing cars were doing a messy version of a four-way stop. An Always-Busy Man swiped his debit card to get into the ATM area, but nothing happened. “Damn, what’s going on?” he said, looking at Chet, who just shook his head. “I don’t know.” Then Chet saw Christopher pushing his cart across the street.
It was full of cans.
“Let me try,” said Chet, almost knocking the man over, and slid his card through the plastic slot, only to suffer the same discouraging outcome. The whole city block was out of power. The bank doors wouldn’t open any time soon, and even if they did, the ATM machines would remain down until an operator came to reset them manually.
Chet cursed under his breath, panic rising. Twenty-one dollars. “How do I get more?” he thought. “Come on, Chet, think!”
He raced to Walgreens where the lights were on and made it through the automatic doors in record time. He spun around the store looking for something to buy and decided on an Almond Joy at the front counter. The clerk said, “that’s a dollar, twenty-five.” Chet thought she sounded incredulous, like he didn’t have the money, and to prove her wrong, teetering in place, he reached into his pocket and slammed his entire plastic-gorged wallet on the counter-top. “Cash back,” he panted.
The clerk scanned the candy bar. Chet drummed his fingers, waiting to swipe; he did. Then he saw the worst three words imaginable: Cash Back Unavailable.
“No Cash Back?” said Chet, horrified.
The clerk shook her head. “We have a shortage of cash on hand. I’m sorry, sir.”
“What time is it?” asked Chet.
“3:45,” she said. “Do you still want the Almond Joy?”
Chet grabbed his debit card and ran out the door.
He’d never run so fast in his life. The city blurred. Chet thought he saw the shape of Christopher and his cart, heading in the same direction, but couldn’t muster the courage to check. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew they’d arrive at the same time. His gait slowed to catch his breath. The city landscape turned from corporate gray to residential green, whispering reluctant homecomings. Chet wiped the sweat from his forehead with a dirty hand, replacing perspiration with an amalgamation of dirt and sticky beer sap. He whispered an authoritative mantra, “I’m rich; he’s not; I’ve got twenty-one dollars; he doesn’t; he needs 500 cans to beat me,” on his way back to Terrance’s Garage Sale.
Preoccupied with his words of affirmation, Chet ignored Christopher’s sudden appearance, coming up 8th street, until the two men were side-by-side, shuffling towards Terrance’s Cuckoo Clock.
A bite of turkey sandwich fell from Terrance’s mouth when his jaw dropped open, gawking at two unhoused men racing each other down the street, stride-for-stride. He could tell one was Christopher by the man’s rickety shopping cart and broncobuster shoulders, but the other guy, his featherweight contender, was a mystery. Dirt smudged his face like bad camouflage. His clothes were ripped in unmanufactured ways and stained. He limped and stumbled over the uneven sidewalk, 100% shitcocked. The realization that the second man was his neighbor, Chet, only dawned on Terrance after the haggard man slapped into his table like crossing a finish line, beating Christopher by a few strides, and said, “HERE.”
Christopher came to a controlled stop behind him.
“Hey, Chet…” said Terrance, putting his lunch away slow and calm, in case Chet made a grab at it. “Long day?”
“Where’s the Clock?” coughed Chet.
Terrance pointed to the Cuckoo Clock at the end of the display table. “Still there,” he said.
“I’m ready to buy,” said Chet.
“OK,” said Terrance.
Chet planted his feet firmly on the ground. “Twenty-one dollars, CASH.” He held his wad of crumpled bills high in the air.
“Four hours ago it was twenty-five,” said Terrance, baffled at Chet’s low-ball.
“That was four hours ago. The offer has changed.” Chet permitted himself a jaded smile, stimulated by his flash of brilliant bargaining. Checkmate, he thought. “Twenty-one dollars or no sale,” he said.
Terrance burned beneath a stoic complexion. His jaw clenched. He hated being played. With hidden desperation, he turned towards Christopher, whose weathered eyes regarded the Clock with calculated poise.
“It’s four o’clock,” said Terrance to Christopher. “Can you beat twenty-one dollars?”
Christopher nodded. Chet sneered. Christopher said, “double.” Chet turned chartreuse. Christopher counted forty-two dollars. Chet threw up. Terrance smiled. Christopher gave his money to Terrance. Terrance gave his Cuckoo Clock to Christopher. Chet pleaded. “Give me ‘til tomorrow. I’ll give you a thousand bucks!” He could get a loan when the banks opened.
“No,” said Terrance, packing up his Garage Sale. His wife’s friends would be here soon and he wanted to go to the movies. “That wouldn’t be fair,” he said.
Christopher walked away with his Cuckoo Clock, which was an authentic August Schwer made of aged linden wood from Germany’s Black Forest (retail: $4,469.00).
Chet passed out against the Sycamore tree. The Black Phoebe went “Poo-tee-weet?”
*as published by Westwind