All of the clothes on the floor are damp, but the shirt seems to be the least damp. Judging by its position behind his accumulated under-bed objects, he assumes it’s been down there for a while. It’s difficult to discern which of his shirts it is.
Roger tugs and tugs and tugs some more, but the shirt seems to be stuck under the bedpost.
He’s not sure precisely when the change happened; he never is. The tabs just started piling up one day. A graduate-level syllabus worth of think pieces on the National Basketball Association, Chuck Schumer, and JK Rowling. Itchy sweaters disappearing and reappearing according to some imperceptible algorithm. It doesn’t matter how many layers he wears. There’s a kind of bone-deep cold that maintains only a surface-level affiliation with temperature. Fingers are stiff and slow. They ache under hot water.
He heaves the shirt out at last, rocking back with the release of tension.
The humanoid coffee cup is ripped in two, right through the middle part of the lightning bolt carved into its cranium. The little fucker’s spectacles are cleaved at the bridge. His little red and gold scarf is severed through its knot.
It’s the Secret Santa gift from last year, Roger realizes as he flips the torn t-shirt outside out. He hasn’t worn it since last year’s Christmas party when the IT lady presented it to him in front of everybody. It’s an anthropomorphic, Harry Potter-looking coffee cup, casting the spell “Accio Coffee” to summon a cup of coffee. Why would a cup of coffee want more coffee? His joke from the Secret Santa ceremony reverberates in his head, inducing some light shame at the memory of the muted laughter it received. Looking at the torn, transfigured boy wizard, Roger imagines all the coffee spilling out. He knocks his head on the bed frame crawling out, and is pissed off in a non-directional way for the next twenty minutes or so. His transition from blanket to parka is swift. He likes to remain swaddled at all times.
At Starbucks, Roger is dismayed at how low his phone battery is this early in the day. This early in his day. His fingernails are nubs. He feels like a baby in these phony high chairs. His feet, encased in too-hot Blundstones, dangle numbly above the ground. Shirtless people are swimming somewhere. People are angry about the American midterm elections. He can’t talk himself into it. Too cold. Listening to a podcast and watching Instagram stories is annoying when people post videos with sound, but, sometimes your audio and visual receptors compromise in disharmony and you can find yourself in a fantastically-comatose state until there’s an ad or someone asks if the chair next to you is in use.
Burning his tongue on his double double Sumatran Roast, Roger remembers that he meant to remember his new reusable mug this time. Starbucks gives you a discount with a reusable mug. He thinks about his humongous eco footprint and his tiny shoes. His tiny shoe buried in a trash island of Starbucks cups and pizza boxes. Metaphors can be tough, but the best ones make him feel simultaneously tiny and terrible. Through the tear in his shirt, his wooly sweater itches bare skin.
He tries to smile amicably at the homeless man holding the door, but his stiff lips only manage to contort themselves into something oddly half-sinister. People look especially sallow today. He perseveres. There was a moment in Starbucks when it really felt like the coffee had hit that good spot in his diaphragm, and he genuinely felt the warmth in his chest that could hopefully be mistaken for vitality, but now his Starbucks is cooling off in the outside air. Another con to the paper cup. Insulation is tricky. He burrows into his snotty scarf.
Last week, he woke up early to hand out resumes. It’s easy to forget how good of a cook he is. Egg-yolk yellow looks brilliant to tired eyes. The bubbling whites sounded so close to his ears. Endorphins bounced off the walls of his skull. It gives him shivers to think about. He packed his stapled resumes into a textbook, so as not to crumple them accidentally, and placed it at the back of his backpack, behind his water bottle, thermos, and a tupperware full of orange slices. He popped a Vitamin D pill on the way out the door.
Tilting his Starbucks cup skyward, he dribbles some final drops onto his scarf. He hasn’t registered a word of his podcast in a while. Thinking about egg yolks past, and resumes. Having a job or not having a job is cool. Anything tangible to direct the focus of his anxiety. Someone in American congress is apparently a racist. Under his scarf, the podcast fails to stir any righteous animosity in Roger.
He’s going north. Past all the storefronts he was too scared to hand his resume to. Past all the storefronts with managers who rejected him, to which he can never return for fear of their sympathy. Passing a man in a peacoat and horn-rimmed glasses, he imagines an alternate future for himself, with ping pong tables and Slack messenger. A group of people with some vaguely-defined occupation, who ostensibly convene every day to discuss Childish Gambino. Maybe they work with computers. He would sell out in a heartbeat for a ping-pong paddle and a pea coat.
Roger doesn’t read enough, but he especially doesn’t read enough right now. He doesn’t play enough video games either, nor does he go to the movies enough. The podcast proves as effective as the coffee for contraverting his spiralling self-talk. The pea coat man looks back at him quizzically, and Roger looks at his feet.
He’s gonna get a rash. The wooly sweater is fucking grating against his sternum. Right at the exposed spot between the shredded coffee wizard’s eyes. It’s itchy in the most painful way. Is itchy better than damp? What would he change if he could? He pictures his torso, splotched with an oceanic nation of hives. Degloved in the frigid air, his nubby nails claw pathetically at the spot of the itch, at least a few inches of winter wear separating them from any satisfying scratch. He takes his headphones off, letting the cold penetrate his ear canals. It just hurts.
The pet store clerk’s lips are moving, but the series of sounds don’t congeal into legibility. The cold wind tries to rush in ahead of the closing door. Away from his ears, the podcast hosts squeak like embattled mice. Giving the same weird little grin to the ponytailed clerk as he did to the sallow homeless man, Roger casts his coat aside, hanging it by the door. They always have ponytails or goatees, but never both. The humidity urges the itchy sweater off his back. The clerk motions with his hands but it’s tough to discern his meaning. Roger walks with urgency, a rarity among pet store patrons. A warm breeze is the opposite of November. Humidified terrarium air is a cheap substitute, but it still feels nice.
He’s striding past newts and mudskippers and disappointingly-small sharks. He hadn’t put as much thought into this as he might have. Goosebumps start to prick up on his neck near the end of the aisle. He’s arrived. A shiver ripples through his central nervous system. With a deep, sickly warm inhale, he scratches his uppermost vertebrae and feels his hair for a moment. His sweat surprises him.
His clunky boots and dirty socks cast astray on the pet shop floor, Roger climbs barefoot into the cage. There’s some faint hollering in the background, but it mingles with the mice in his headphones and falls on two deaf, defrosting ears. He wonders if this is where a healthy person’s fight or flight impulse would kick in. Someone once told him about how bad caffeine is for your adrenal glands.
He sidles up under the UV lamp’s otherworldly radiance. Between the shreds of polyester separating the mangled coffee cup’s eyes, there are no hives on his chest. Disappointing. Roger wonders if komodo dragons feel blue in the winter, or if they even know about winter. The lamp’s warmth is nourishing. It’s like the sun gleaming on the yolks, still intact before he makes the transfer from pan to plate. He’s lying face up, and he can see the endorphins descending like snowflakes from the 160 watt bulb into his forehead. It’s just November. No logic exists that isn’t cyclical. He squints to better see the snowflakes.
Someone grabs Roger’s arm. His high dissipates as he’s dragged out of the cage, a trail of blood leaking from his limp right arm. His shirt is ripped some more. He kicks the ponytailed man in his chubby shin. More hollering ensues, and he notices a small crowd of bewildered aquarium enthusiasts gathered in the aisle to watch the scene. Roger grabs his itchy sweater and leaves the door open behind him.
Wool on exposed flesh hurts. His heart beats in his shoulder against the vintage sweater. The wiry fabric seems to tickle his bones even as it scrapes his gash. He feels dizzy and puts his headphones back on, trying to regain some central balance between his ears. The podcast hosts are incredulous that anyone would voluntarily refuse their god-given right to vote. Roger doesn’t want to think about how many elections he’s skipped. They should just make an app for it, he thinks. Is that a ping-pong-table-job idea? Blood is beginning to seep through his sweater. People are looking at him. He misses his coat and his scarf and his gloves. His veins are bulging out of his hands and he feels utterly exposed. What if the mummified pharaohs just didn’t want people to see their frail dead bodies? Hiding forever, easiest thing in the world.
The light changes, and he’s going north. Roger remembers when he used to go grocery shopping with his dad. $300 receipts. $400. Lists and meats and heavy carts. Roger grocery shops in nibbles. A loaf of bread and a tomato. Forgot the bags. Groups of people are now parting ways for him. He feels unmoored from the rigid norms of sidewalk etiquette but ashamed of himself nonetheless. He really hopes there’s no one he knows in the grocery store.
Roger stumbles through the turnstile. An employee is staring at him. He pulls out his phone, feigning preoccupation, and instantly becomes preoccupied. His spatial awareness wanes with each subsequent Instagram story. He’s in the dog food aisle. He looks up from the dogs on his phone to the dogs on the bags. He remembers last winter’s experiment with therapy dogs, competing with the assembled throng of other depressed people for the dog’s attention.
He’s forgotten what he came here for. He’s never been good at grocery shopping. Walking through the cereal aisle, blood now dripping from his sweater, he’s stunned by the sheer volume of garbage surrounding him. The Amazon Rainforest is being privatized, his podcast informs him. He should try to lock down a firm definition of fascism. Plodding into a stand of taco kits at the end of the aisle, he sends cardboard spilling all over the floor.
Emerging from the rubble, he feels the cold, wet air of the produce section, and remembers what he came to do. The store is empty enough that the employees are talking at full volume to one another, waiting for shifts to end. They could well be talking about him, and he feels proud of himself for not caring. He pauses for a moment to gaze at the brilliantly-regimented vegetables. He’s tired of needing to go out of his way to see primary colours. He could never separate the red from the green peppers with such geometric precision. Roger doesn’t want a job.
He pulls his sweater over his head, wincing at the pain in his shoulder, and folds his tattered graphic tee neatly on the floor, almost falling over in the process. Slidling one leg up onto the rack, he eases his back onto the veggies. Some protrude into his back, others he feels combust into seedy goop and soften beneath his weight. The white fluorescent bulb bears down on him. Getting into a stable position, he feels his muscles relaxing. He’s so cold. The light is beaming into him. He pulls his other leg up by pure strength of will. He’s dizzy and his eyes are watering profusely. He just wants five minutes in the light, then he’ll go home.