A Little Less Conversation

The air inside the house was stuffy, and thick with the smell of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches when I returned from my all-too-brief outing into town.

It was always nice to get away from him, though, even if it was just to check the mail.

“Hey man,” said my roommate of forty-three years, six months and two days as he walked a treadmill in front of three old standard def tube TVs. Only two were functioning–the other had a smoking, sparking hole in the center. He was, as usual, stuffing a peanut butter and banana sandwich in his mouth.

I didn’t even acknowledge his greeting. I walked past him with two heaping paper sacks of groceries and into the kitchen, where I placed them countertop.

Man don’t forget to take them bananas outta them bags,” he called from the other room. “I don’t like ’em all freckled, know what I mean, man?

My whole body stiffened. I’d forgotten once–just once–to take his damned bananas out of the bag, and from that point forward he mentioned it every single time I went shopping.

“That was 1985!” I barked back at him. “Get over it!”

I took all eight bunches of bananas out of the sack and unloaded the other one, which was half-full of peanut butter, and half full of protein shake mix. You know, the big ones with the gross veiny guys flexing on the labels.

My roommate had developed quite an impressive physique himself by that time, which always amazed me because he subsisted almost entirely on protein shakes and peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

The more fit he got, the more frustrated I got. When I signed up to take care of that man for the remainder of his days, I was hearing three, four years tops. Now here he was, almost half a century later, still kicking. Still thriving, in fact, and showing no signs of slowing down.

Meanwhile I’d transformed, over the decades, from a healthy, able-bodied nineteen year-old boy with hopes and dreams into a tired and wobbly old man who despised every moment of his existence.

I had fully expected to become a millionaire by the time I was twenty-five. Now, I was going to be too old to enjoy that money when I got it. I never imagined I’d be spending my golden years playing butler to a pampered, out-of-touch, elderly man-child who never stopped talking about how great he used to be.

See, that contract, it promised me ten million dollars, payable only upon his death. I couldn’t leave, or I’d forfeit that money. I mean, what would you do?

The whole thing was organized as an intervention of sorts, with those closest to him believing that removing the hazards of fame from his life was the key to saving it.

They weren’t wrong, as it turned out.

I went back out to the car to get the rest of the groceries, which consisted of snacks and beer for his “boys.” Those mean-spirited old bastards berated me to no end and I had no choice but to sit there and endure it.

They knew I wouldn’t fight back. That’s why they hassled me so much–they got off on it. And he just laughed right along with them.

“Hey man, you get the nuts?”

I stopped in my tracks. He hadn’t mentioned anything about nuts. He hadn’t even scribbled it down on his shopping list. I became excited by the prospect of having to go back to the store, and I then I became depressed that I was excited about having to go back to the store.

“What nuts?” I ventured.

He grabbed his crotch and guffawed. “Deez nuts, man!” He wiped his sweaty forehead with the towel around his neck and hopped off the treadmill. “Man, that was a good run.”

He slapped me on the chest with the back of his hand. “Where’s your sense of humor, Tommy?”

I never asked him why he called me “Tommy.” I just rolled with it. I guess he just thought that’s what my name was. Maybe they’d told him that on purpose; I didn’t know. I still don’t know, to this day.

“Whatever, man,” he told me, scowling. “You get that new TV?”

I sighed. This was the moment I’d been dreading. “Yeah, but it’s a flatscreen.”

His eyes darkened, like they always did when something didn’t go his way. He was like that bratty kid on the Twilight Zone who made people disappear with his mind.

“Flatscreen? Man you know I don’t want no flat screen TV set. What the hell’s a matter with you, boy?”

“I checked the thrift store I usually hit up. We’ve bought their entire inventory, and you’ve shot them all.”

“Man I don’t want your excuses. You get out there and find me a box TV. That’s what TVs are s’posed to look like, understand? Like a box. And when you bring me one, I’m gonna shoot that one, too. Then, you’re gonna go out and get me another one.”

He sneered, a reaction to the daggers of contempt I was staring at him.

“Since we’re talkin’ about nuts, though… pick me up some cashews while you’re out. No wait–Brazil nuts. S’posed to be good for the prostate, y’see. Mine’s been givin’ me fits here lately. Man I got up three times to piss last night, man.” He held up three fingers, as if making sure I understood how many “three” was. “Three times,” he repeated. “Now go on an’ get outta here, I got the boys comin’ over tonight, an’ I need three TV sets. Steelers are playin’, and that’s Sonny’s team. Red likes them nature shows on the Animal Planet. I wanna watch my Honolulu special again on that YouTube.”

I was more than happy to leave. Oh, how I hated him. I hated everything about him–even his name, which was plastered all over the walls of the living tomb he and I were confined together in. It was on posters and framed gold albums and monogrammed karate suits. It was on the towels I dried my hands with every time I washed them. Everywhere.

The entire house was a shrine to his past, a time when he’d essentially ruled the world. He constantly watched videos of his old performances on YouTube. If he watched a movie, it was one of his. I hated all of them. So much.

Everything was about the past. Everything was about his past. His glory days. I never got to have any, and I resented him for that, on a level few people could ever understand.

He got to experience over two decades of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Hell, he practically invented the cliche.

I fingered a girl in a Ford Maverick, and that’s about it. That was my peak. Sad, isn’t it?

Just before I shut the door, he held out a fist and shouted “Hey! TCB, man!”

Slam.

I was free, like an unleashed dog at a park. I knew I’d be locked back up in my kennel by the end of the day, but I didn’t care. I was free.

***

It took me all afternoon, but I managed to track down five tube TVs via Craigslist. That’s right, I stocked up. He didn’t like me doing that, but I did it whenever I could and kept them in the car so he wouldn’t know. Then I’d drive around engaging in other pursuits while he thought I was out looking for “real” TVs. I’d always tell him they cost more than they did, so that I could pocket the difference and spend it on myself.

I got all five TVs that day for less than thirty bucks. I planned on telling him I’d paid a hundred for two. Then next time I went out under the pretense of doing a TV run I’d go have some fun with his money and come back with another TV, one of the three already in the back of the car.

I’d give him the RCA first, I decided. It didn’t match his others in size. The Emerson more closely matched his others, and if I gave that to him first, he’d shoot that one just to shoot it, and then he’d shoot the RCA because the size difference would anger him. I’d be out yet another of my spare TVs.

He was waiting for me in his favorite chair when I came in, his arms outstretched across its winged back. He was spinning his favorite Colt .45 with his right index finger, letting it dangle from the trigger guard.

On either side of him were Sonny and Red, and all three were laughing about something, until they saw him and stopped.

“Well would ya look at that piece of shit,” said my roommate, reaching down and slapping one of the other men on the thigh.

“Well, I know it’s the wrong size but you take what you can get these days,” I said, grunting as I set the TV down on the coffee table.

“What else you got?”

“What, you don’t want to shoot this one?”

“Nah, man. Lemme see the other one.”

I sighed and went out to retrieve one. I chose an old Sanyo that smelled like smoke and appeared to have Cheerios jammed into the speaker grate.

“Man,” said my roommate, now up and hobbling around, “I hate both of these. Set that one on top of the other one over there.”

I did as instructed, and I’d barely moved when he shot one of them.

“Shit! Can’t you wait ’til I’m outta the way?”

“Well get outta the way then, man!”

All three laughed. He shot the other one, and the laughter continued, until he held up his hand and they fell silent.

“Now look what you gone and did,” he said to me with that mean glint he always got in his eye when his horrible friends were around. “Somebody’s gonna have to give up one of their programs they was gonna watch.”

He turned to Sonny. “Hey man, you might have to miss out on the Steelers tonight.”

“No way!” roared Sonny. “Red can watch them shows about elephants and shit anytime! This is the playoffs!”

“Yeah, boss, it’s alright,” he said. “I ain’t gotta watch them shows now. Y’all watch whatever y’all want.”

Sonny smiled. “See, boss? Everything’s alright. Hell, that YouTube is on all the time, it ain’t like regular TV where you have to tune in at a certain time. You could watch that Honolulu show at Two in the AM if you liked. Don’t matter none.”

“The boss” clenched his teeth, and his lip started to quiver.

I would’ve felt sorry for Sonny and Red if they hadn’t always been so mean to me since day one. Even though I hated them, they were still kindred spirits; prisoners of his will. Without a steady paycheck from his estate they’d have been destitute.

“Just who in the hell you think you are tellin’ me when to watch what in my own house, Sonny?” He pointed the gun at me. “Even this queer over here knows better’n to do that and he’s dumb as a box o’ rocks. I mean this boy is retarded. I ever tell you that story about him leavin’ my bananas in the bag?”

Nervous laughter from both. They wanted this to be over just like I did.

“Yeah boss,” said Red. “Yeah you told us that one plenty o’ times, heh heh.”

“Oh, so my stories are boring to you now? Is that it?”

“No, boss, no,” said Red, his wrinkly old perpetually panic-stricken face losing color.

“Maybe I oughta get myself some new friends. Maybe dad was right about y’all.”

“Aw, boss, don’t be sore,” pleaded Sonny. “We didn’t mean nothin’ by it. You know we love your stories.”

The boss seemed pacified, at least for the moment. He stared off into space, and all three of us exchanged looks, knowing we were all having the same thought: Whats he about to say?

We didn’t have to wait long. “You know what fellas?” he asked us. “I think it’s time for me to make a comeback. Y’all thought I came back strong in sixty-eight, just wait’ll they see me in twenty twenty. The world needs me now, man. All this coronavirus stuff and whatnot. Imagine how happy people would be to see me again. To hear my voice.”

If I wanted that ten million dollars, I had to prevent him from exposing himself. It was part of the deal.

“You’re too old,” I told him, figuring he had to hear the truth from someone. I looked at Red and Sonny and shrugged.

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I ain’t no older than Chuck Berry and he’s still out there singin’ his songs.”

“He’s dead.”

“Bullshit, man, I just seen him on The Youtube the other day. Rollin’ Stones is still playin’. I ain’t no older than Willie Nelson and he’s still goin’ strong, man.”

“No,” I told him.

He furrowed his brow; scratched his chin. “Nobody,” he said, very gently in a way that sent a chill up my spine, “tells me no.”

He pointed the gun at my head. “Come on. We’re going to the newspaper. It’s time for a press conference.

***

When we exited the offices of the local newspaper two hours later, my roommate was livid.

He looked like a joke, standing there in his white, sequined jumpsuit on a busy city street in the year 2020.

Not only had they disbelieved his story, they’d also kicked him out for refusing to wear a mask.

“Hey y’all!” he shouted to no one in particular. “Y’all know who I am?”

Several passersby hurried their steps in an effort to avoid interaction with the crazy man.

“I’m the king!” he roared, and a few heads turned. A few people pointed and laughed. To them, he was just another nut in a costume–a street performer. Their interest faded and they moved on.

Something broke inside of him that day. He gave up on life. For years, he’d imagined that the world outside his door was standing still, clamoring for his return. On that day, he discovered that it had instead long since passed him by, and that few people cared about him anymore. He was just as much a nothing as I was.

He never spoke to me again, after that. He never spoke to anyone. It was marvelous.

He spent the next six months in bed until one day I came home and found him dead on the toilet.

He hadn’t even turned cold yet when I dialed the number they’d given me back in ’77.

A female voice answered.

“Is he gone?”

“Yes.”

“A car will arrive shortly to pick him up. You will go to the First National bank on Forty-Second. I’ve opened an account for you there. I’ll transfer the funds to it by the end of the day. Thank you for your service.”

She hung up.

And that was that. My mind was swimming with a myriad of thoughts of yachts, lobster dinners, and sex with lovely young women who wanted me for my money. My life was about to begin.

but first, I just wanted to sit and enjoy the silence.

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