This story began with the title (originally just "The Cross-Eyed Narcissist"). I had it jotted in a notebook, and for about ten years it sat there, waiting for a story to attach itself to it. The story came to me as I was sitting in a rental car on a rainy day in Washington State, waiting for my dear librarian friend to finish with her meeting so we could go to lunch. The first part of the story was written in one sitting in that car. The second half was written in the bar/lobby of the Seattle Westin, after a friend stood me up for dinner that night, and another friend came to my rescue, albeit, long-distance.
It can be read below or by going to the publication HERE.
The Free Associations of a Cross-Eyed Narcissist
J. Edward Kruft
I bought pen and paper at the Stop-N-Shop from a man, I realized half way through the transaction, that had been a friend of my parents. It caused me to look down in fear that he would recognize me and want to start one of those tedious and uncomfortable conversations older people are famous for. Back safely in the car I asked myself why the fear? What if he had said: Say, aren't you Chester and Winnie's boy? And what if I'd been honest and said: Why yes, Brad, I am. And I remember you, too, from way back when – what? – maybe thirty years ago? How the hell are you? And how's Stacie? And didn't you two have some kids too, and wouldn't they be right around my age, if perhaps a little younger? And while I don't remember what you did for a living way back when, I can't help but wonder what has happened that here you are now a checker at the lone grocery in town. I'll assume, unless you tell me otherwise, that it's a hobby more than a vocation, that you don't need to work at Stop-N-Shop but that it keeps you busy and gets you out of the house and out of Stacie's hair a couple of days a week when you're not with your grandchildren, which you consider your real life's work these days. How wonderful.
Me? Well, you may have heard I moved away from here right after high school, found my way to New York City. Been there over twenty-five years now.
You don't say? New York City. Wow.
And what is it you do in New York City?
I imagined for a moment telling him the God honest truth, but then I happened to notice a most discernible splotch on his cheek just below his left eye. It was the size and shape of an irregular dime, slightly raised and dark brown in color. I quickly went through the ABCD checklist from my dermatologist: A) Asymmetry. Check. B) Border irregularity. Check. C) Color variation. Check. D) Diameter greater than six millimeters. Check. Skin cancer. I couldn't give a person dying of skin cancer the truth. That I'm without significant companionship once again. That I'm childless. That I'm in between jobs though looking high and low.
I'm an attorney. Litigation, some tax stuff but only for special clients. I was part of a big New York City firm – Brando Caan and Duvall. Maybe you've heard of it. We had a hand in the Michael Jackson trial, you know the one about what he did or didn't do with other people's kids? But I left BCD shortly after, over what I guess you could call creative differences. Founded my own firm after that. We're boutique, which, if you don't know, is lawyer-speak for selective. A lot of people, especially lay folk such as yourself, think that boutique just means small. But it doesn't.
It occurred to me that the cancer on Brad's face looked a little like George Washington's famous silhouette. It made me think that maybe he didn't know he was dying, that he'd managed to not see this as a very deadly affliction but as something akin to seeing the face of Christ burnt into a piece of toast. I changed my tack with him.
But really, how are you, Brad? Everything all right?
Can't complain, can't complain. Stacie and I got ourselves a fifth-wheel a few years back. We take a couple of weeks during the winter and go down to Arizona. Lake Havasu. Gets us away from the rain a little bit anyway.
Sounds nice. Real nice.
Yeah, it is. It's got a gas fireplace in it which we thought was a real neat feature. Course, we never have a chance to use it in Arizona, so I guess it was kind of a waste to pay extra for that.
It made sense now – winter after winter in Lake Havasu without sunblock. A picture was forming in the center of the puzzle.
So, asked Brad, you got a wife back east?
Here's the thing, Brad. I really, really like boys. I like the way they look, the way they walk, the way they talk. I like that majoritively they have hair on the shorter side. I especially like their penises. I imagine that might shock you, but that's the way it is.
No, no. It's doesn't shock me. To be honest, it might have shocked me if you hadn't said that. I remember as a little boy you used to prance around in a very short bathrobe without anything on underneath.
That's a bit of a stereotype, isn't it Brad? Prance?
Well, didn't you though? Walk around in that short robe, naked as a jaybird underneath?
At that point I realized Brad was a more sophisticated checker than I had anticipated.
Say, I said as a way of segueing, what's the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
Brad thought and then said: Last year for my birthday my wife and kids called in sick for me – he looked around to see that no one was listening in – and took me up to Lake Sylvia for just a wonderful picnic they put together themselves. Pretty sweet, I'd say.
I interpreted that last line as a challenge.
Just last week I was stood up in a strange city during a layover. I usually always fly direct, always. But I had arranged this layover specifically to see a friend who lived in that strange city, let's say it was Cincinnati. When she stood me up, I was pretty pissed. I texted a mutual friend, Stephanie. She suggested I get drunk to pass the time, which I thought was a pretty excellent idea, actually. So I found myself down at this classy bar by the river drinking Rob Roys, my usual drink. And I have to admit it was lifting my spirits a bit even if it was an artificial boost. I re-texted Stephanie to tell her her suggestion was working. She asked, off-handedly, where I was imbibing. I told her it was at the bar at Over the Rhine. And do you know what she did, Brad? Do you know what this rock solid friend did for me? A few minutes later the bartender placed another Rob Roy in front of me and said: "Stephanie wishes she were here with you, and this drink is on her." I said to the bartender, "Holy shit, how do you know Stephanie?" Then it hit me. She'd called in and put a drink for me on her credit card. Clear half way across the fucking continent. Now come on, Brad, how fucking sweet is that?
I don't drink, he said.
It doesn't matter, man. She didn't call in a drink for you. The point is I do drink and the story is about me. God.
Brad shrugged. He was starting to piss me off.
Seriously, Brad. You don't think that's the sweetest Goddamned thing you ever heard?
It's okay. It's nice I guess.
Nice? It sure the hell beat the shit out of your lame-ass picnic at the lake story.
Okay, well, nice to see you. I got to help the next person.
Wait. Wait just a fucking minute. You were perfectly happy shooting the shit with me, taking a break from what has to be the most uninteresting, monotonous job in the entire world to talk about your wife and 2.5 kiddies and your fifth-wheel and your trips to Lake Have-a-fuck or where ever it is you go to acquire your skin cancer. But the minute I get a really good shot in, a really fucking good story, you get all, "next please?" What the fuck , Brad? Man, now I see why my parents kicked you and Stacie to the curb as friends. You are just so lame! So fucking, fucking, fucking lame!
You're cross-eyed, said Brad.
Your eyes, they cross. It's like you're staring at the end of your nose all the time. Has no one ever told you that before?
I wanted to wring his neck. I wanted to choke him like a Sunday chicken, whatever the fuck that means.
Fuck you, Brad, I said as I started the car. Just fuck you!
He made me so angry I couldn't see straight.
(BIO as it appeared with the original publication):
J. Edward Kruft received his MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. He lives in Long Island City, NY and Asbury Park, NJ with his husband, Mike, and their Keeshond-mix rescue, Aine. When he dropped high school physics in order to write for the school newspaper, he was told he would rue the day. He hasn't. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Review, Soundings Review, and Eunoia Review. He is currently at work on a novel, Playing at the D&R and Other Stories.