Flame by Richard Burgin
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Once more I told the man behind the counter at St. Louis Bread Company (who has only waited on me a handful of times in the last few years) that he has an excellent memory when he called me by my correct first name. He smiled such a beaming, angelic smile you’d think it was Christmas morning and he was 8 years old. It will be the happiest I’ll make anybody today, I thought wistfully.
I had just come from the UPS store where Simone works. Despite her name, Simone looks exactly like a young Simon to me (about the same age as the counter man at the Bread Company, and almost as masculine). However, Simone is almost certainly a work in progress. There are still no signs of breasts beneath her black UPS uniform shirt and her face and short hair make her look like a young man. Yet, last time I noticed how hairless her arms are. For someone with medium brown hair this almost certainly means that they were shaved. I thought of my father’s proverb “great distances begin with small steps.” How he would loathe what I’m doing. I hadn’t even told him I’d left my job (he’s a man who’d rather die than stop working), much less anything about Simone.
Whenever I’m in the store it’s difficult to keep my eyes off Simone. I’m always mildly disturbed by this, but continue to watch her as much as I can without her realizing it. I know this is maddeningly bourgeois, even vulgar behavior yet I can’t seem to stop it. It’s become one of the ways I continue to disappoint myself.
Finally, I left the UPS store and went to Walgreens, which is just off the mall. There are a number of people I look at there, plus the cashier nearest the door always welcomes me in a friendly way. She has a smile worth preserving too, though not in the way Simone’s is. One might wonder how I have the time to go to so many stores in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week? It’s because I retired—much earlier than I should have perhaps, or so my colleagues at the office kept telling me. But I did it because it was what I always told myself I’d do if I ever got any money and so when the money came it was as if it were expected of me. Maybe if I’d enjoyed the office, or the company of my coworkers, I wouldn’t have left so suddenly but it had reached the point (some time ago actually) where it was a burden to even pretend to care about them. My smiles in the office were definitely not worth preserving, neither was anything I said or did. I was little more than a worker zombie numbly moving through my programmed day. If I must be reduced to a monster let me be a vampire instead—society’s latest monster of choice, that it seems endlessly fascinated by. Vampires are everything zombies aren’t—sleek, aggressive, dangerously attractive, compelling. Too much to aspire for probably, but then again I’d never know unless I retired. As long as I work in an office like mine, I thought, I’m doomed to be an uninteresting lethargic monster, simply taking up space.
* * *
I dreamed about Simone’s arms last night. I was looking at them in the UPS store but this time she saw what I was doing and showed me a smile of great mystery. The next thing I knew we were in one of the rooms of my parent’s house. Then I woke up, walked into the living room, lit a candle, and stared long and hard at the flame. My finger was very close to it but I didn’t burn it.
* * *
I washed myself very thoroughly that morning while I wondered where I would go during my morning hours, which are usually the most difficult ones to get through unless one also counts the afternoon. In my private sense of justice I think if you can get through a morning you ought to get credit for the afternoon too. Since I rarely drive except when there’s an emergency—I just became too anxious about it—my options are sometimes quite limited. Really this would be an ideal time to read but my interest in reading has also mysteriously evaporated these last few years. After awhile, you tire of reading about humanity and you want to interact with it in a way that produces some change, if only in one or two people (although of all the people I know, only Simone is really trying to change).
I still have my love of music because it alone (except for some very great paintings) can express what is otherwise inexpressible in life and yet I have to be careful not to listen too often because it stirs up emotions that are better left alone. I mean memories of my childhood, so full of secrets, and memories of my lost loves—generally lost because I ruined them. Sometimes I think the money I got is like reparations for all the relationships I’ve ruined. Magical thinking, I know, but one can’t always control one’s thoughts.
* * *
“Can I help you sir?”
“Do you want to waive the signature?”
“Oh, I’m sorry sir. What it means is, do you want to leave the package at the premises if there is no one there to sign for it?”
“Is it a business or residence?”
“No, sir. My shift ends at five o’clock but the store stays open till seven.”
These were the precious words my Simone said to me this week.
* * *
Did I question what I was doing? Of course I did but I felt driven by a vision, as I hadn’t been for a long time, which made me feel young again in a way that was ultimately irresistible.
Probably because we only talked in short spurts in the UPS store, our conversation never transcended the mundane. Yet, that was quite enough to provide those ineffable glimpses into her nature (her slightly forced pleasantness, for instance, with its attendant hinting at her secret pain, that alternated with her surprisingly self-confident presentation of self—as if she’d just gotten an “A” in a public speaking course. I also made a point of finding reasons to stay in the store where I could overhear her talking with other customers. I was surprised to discover how much I resented them. Once, I even heard a private conversation on her cell phone. I was completely blindsided! That there where people in her life, friends, perhaps even a lover who could call her at work and succeed in getting her to talk to them was…infuriating! It upset me so much that I couldn’t really hear what she was saying, only snippets of it. Yet this fragmented, in many ways, horrifying experience ended up contributing to my general state of knowledge about her. It also made me understand that for there to be any progress in whatever I was pursuing I needed to see her outside her office, in fact, I needed to somehow see her in my home.
* * *
It’s odd, in a mostly positive way, how we can respond to others, to life in general, in a fresh way once we’re suddenly excited by just one person. Immediately after realizing I wanted to get Simone to come to my condominium, I called Scrubby Dutch to thoroughly clean it. Scrubby Dutch sends a cleaning crew of three women who work for an hour in exchange for fifty dollars. Because they clean everywhere they wear faded jeans and old shirts. In short, they look like homeless women. I tried to stay out of their way in my computer room where I was monitoring my investments when I heard one of the doors from the adjoining bathroom shut. It was open just long enough for me to see which one of the three it was—the worst dressed one with dark brown, scraggily hair. I stopped my work and listened to her pee. My close proximity obviously didn’t inhibit her flow of urine. To my surprise, I soon got aroused, which I immediately realized stemmed from my fascination with Simone and my plans for her. That was how my brain worked in those days.
* * *
What do people do with money when it comes so suddenly it’s as if the wind blew it their way? I was lucky—mine came from a trust fund while my parents were still alive. Most people get theirs blown in by the winds of death. I was thinking these rather heavy thoughts in my bed somewhere between 3 and 4 in the morning—having conceded another victory to my indefatigably persistent insomnia.
Ok, I thought, people travel. At first, a celebratory trip to Europe or at least to Las Vegas. But I had become too anxious to travel just about the time my money arrived. Then they buy a house—perhaps the house of their dreams—but I dreaded few things more than shopping for a home and all that it involves with real estate agents and banks (I did, however, slightly upgrade my condominium). Then the suddenly rich get a financial advisor and start to plan how to make more money, but by nature, I’m not really equipped to trust financial advisors. For better or worse, I handle my own investments myself.
Instead of taking a grand vacation or buying a grand home or car, I used my money to retire. You’re way too young to retire everyone said, but I did it anyway and haven’t regretted it so far—though admittedly it’s been less than a half year since I willingly joined the ranks of the unemployed. I’m aware, however, that there’s a certain emptiness of purpose in my current way of living or was until I discovered Simone and realized very quickly after I began to focus on the situation that my number one asset (besides a kind of cunning intelligence) was the money I now had. The challenge was in the details, which made me realize I needed to do more research.
Back to the UPS store I went, always making sure Simone waited on me, that I had a bonafide question to ask, and that if any opportunity arose I could ask her a question about her life, even it if involved something as banal as asking where she lived or how she got to work, so I could possibly offer her a ride home. I was sufficiently older (and a long time trusted customer) that her suspicion level seemed minimal. I didn’t think she’d notice, for example, that I often showed up close to the time when her shift ended. That was the essence and beauty of her innocence.
* * *
You have a pair of eyes but you don’t know what to do with them. You don’t want to look behind yourself because there’s so much shame and disappointment in your past. You need to look ahead but you need someone or something to make you do it. You can’t help what that is—it selects you.
* * *
It was 5:03 when Simone came out of the store, and I was there to greet her.
“Good afternoon, sir,” she said with her typical, trained politeness.
“Hi Simone. Please call me Phillip.”
“I’m sorry, Phillip,” she said, nearly blushing. I noticed that her teeth were even whiter than her arms.
“Simone, can I talk with you for just a minute?”
“Yes, sir, Phillip,” she said, as if covering all her bases. She stopped talking then and looked at me with her hopeful hazel blue eyes without asking what it was about, as if her manners had suddenly seized total control of the situation.
“Simone, you know my work makes me go to the UPS store a lot.”
She nodded, eyes still on me.
“Well, during those visits I couldn’t help observing how well you handle customers and your job in general. You prepare packages efficiently and skillfully, you fix the Xerox machines better than anyone else in the store, you use the computer knowledgably, and you type accurately and quickly. In short, you have a lot of impressive skills.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, definitely blushing now.
“No, no, call me Phillip or Phil. I don’t know anyone named “sir”.”
“That’s better,” I said. “Well, it so happens, as it often does because I always pick good people, that my special assistant has just accepted a job with a Chicago based corporation that pays more than I can and reluctantly, tearfully,” (I decided to add, being a sucker for the hyperbolic touch), “she had to leave just before I could complete an important project I’d been working on. Simone, what I’m hoping is that you might be interested in helping me finish it as my temporary, special assistant.”
“Me?” she said, jabbing her titless chest just below her nametag with one of her impeccably manicured fingers.
“But I have my job at UPS.”
“It won’t interfere with that. I just need your help now for a little while. You can do the work at my office after your work at UPS ends, say an hour or two per day for a week or so and I’ll triple what they pay you at UPS.”
“Really? I just hope I have the ability to...”
“You have the ability,” I said in my best, assertive businessman’s voice. “I’m quite an experienced judge of talent and believe me you have the talent.”
“Thank you. Can I, may I think about it overnight?”
“Of course, Simone. Here’s a little bonus money up front to show you how serious I am about this,” I said, while I watched her flush with ill concealed excitement as I handed her two hundred dollar bills.
“Yours to keep,” I said. “No matter what you decide to do.”
“Oh I couldn’t,” she said, making hand contact with me for the first time as she tried to give it back.
“No, no, you have to take it or I’ll feel hurt, and very disappointed,” I said, turning my hands into fists so I couldn’t take the money. I thought then, though perhaps I imagined it, that her eyes were tearing up as she finally took it.
“You think it over and when I meet you tomorrow after work you can let me know what you decide.”
* * *
Another close to sleepless night. I couldn’t stop picturing what it might look like. First I’d picture what I’d have to do to get to see it, the words I’d have to say, the money that would change hands, the alcohol we’d have to drink. Then I’d start picturing what I’d finally get to see. There were many different pictures too because it was a great mystery. In one I’d imagine it still there the size of a normal man’s, or even a well-endowed man’s, only with the pubic hair shaved the way she shaved her arms. In another I pictured it taped behind her like a kind of tail. In others, it was a little stub not quite sculpted into a vagina, in still others she already had the beginnings of a clitoris. In the next wave of pictures I began touching it, no matter what she had or didn’t have.
There is nothing stronger or more perfect than a flame. Fire started the world and fire in the form we call the sun will end it. Fire rules us, has absolute power over our life and death. The sun may not be God but it’s certainly one of God’s most powerful agents. A flame is but an image of God but that’s enough to met out human justice on this earth. I reminded myself of all this as I held my finger less than an inch from it until the pictures of Simone slowly, slowly burned away.
* * *
You have a dream but you don’t know what to do with it, not wanting to look either behind or ahead of yourself. My dream came in the morning just before the sun woke me up. I was skating with my father on a frozen pond trying to catch up with him and must have put too much pressure on the ice. I felt the cold water under the ice rising up over my eyes just before I woke up.
* * *
I thought I’d left enough materials on my office desk for it to look convincing. I’d gotten some boxes and a few other things from Office Depot the day before. There were also a fairly large number of books in my home so I told her it was a book marketing business—not that she seemed very curious about it. In her car (which I took a taxi to just after she’d changed out of her work clothes) I sat a more than polite distance away from her. I was pleased that her conversation was reasonably relaxed.
“Thank you again for the opportunity,” she said, and I said, “Thank you.”
I live in a wealthy suburb where the poorest inhabitants would be upper middle class almost anywhere else. Judging by her wide-eyed response I thought this wasn’t lost on her. At last my money is paying off, I thought to myself. It allowed me to control my aggression and project a relaxed, confident manner—qualities that women always find appealing. Despite waiting so long for this, despite thinking about it so much and so intensely, I was acting triumphantly low key. I thought now that I would suggest we have a bite to eat before getting down to business. Thought we could go somewhere unostentatiously classy like The Wine Bar, although I had a fear of sorts that the maitre’d or waiter would address us as “you guys.” I suddenly wondered why Simone didn’t wear lipstick or any makeup for that matter! I wondered why her hair was so short (although it was getting a little longer). Why not do one overtly feminine thing to help the general public? Did she secretly revel in confusing them?
We’re having our first fight, I thought to myself, though oblivious to my thoughts Simone was just then commenting on how lovely the weather had been lately—a warm November after the coolest summer anyone in St. Louis could remember.
* * *