Current Occupation: university English instructor and copy editor
Former Occupation: journalist
Contact Information: Jeff Nazzaro teaches English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he also serves as copy editor for Tsehai Publishers. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Angel City Review, Oddville Press, Aberration Labyrinth, and Flash: The International Short-short Story Magazine.
I was stuck in traffic on Merrimack Street downtown, in the right lane, behind a bus, two buses, that bus stop between Central and John, just past Bridge Street and the monument to the little old industrial city’s most famous son, you know the one—that hip angelhead, dharma slacker, beat drunk. It was cold and drizzly. I want to say December, but it could have been March.
I hadn’t locked the passenger-side door. What for? Then it opened, and in a wet frazzle a guy hopped right in my car. This surprised me, not a little, but it was a surprise that was, along with any possible violent reaction, overwhelmed by the fake arm. The stub.
The man who’d jumped in my car out of the cold rain was missing the lower half of his left arm. The thing just rounded off into a stub where his elbow would have been if he’d a had a full arm, and he was trying to attach a fake arm to the stub. It was a plastic forearm with metal clips at one end, and at the other end a system of straps and buckles. He tried and tried to attach the contraption, and then he just flung the thing onto the floorboard of my car.
“Fucking thing!” he said. He turned his head towards mine. A streetlamp through the rain-spattered windshield, dots at the corner where the wiper arced but couldn’t reach, red from bus brake lights, lit his face, rough-hewn, dirty-tanned beneath a tangle of damp black curls, nut-brown eyes craving explosion into tears—or violence. “I been standing out here all fucking day with this thing. Finally, someone who can help me. Can you help me?”
I had no time to answer, to process. I could help him.
He unleashed a torrent of agitated speech about his car, his arm, a cousin’s phone number, a mechanic’s garage, money. He said where. It was on Bridge Street, just across the river, a pain in the ass because of all the one-way streets, but close. It was very close and I had time.
I was in college then, taking a full load, writing for the school newspaper and doing a media internship with the local PIRG chapter. Twice a week I cleaned a small professional building downtown for a little cash, since none of those other things paid a dime.
It was Friday. I was on my way to clean the building. There were two dentists—one for children—an orthodontist, an oral surgeon, and an optometrist. I’d been or still was a patient of each one. I cleaned all the offices except the oral surgeon’s. I felt very comfortable in the building and, sometimes, when I stopped to think what I was doing in there, I felt very strange.
I didn’t mind the work, but I never thought I’d be mopping floors and emptying wastebaskets for chump change in my early twenties. I always thought I’d go to college then get a good job, but I now knew that to have been an oversimplification if not flat-out wrong. I’d already flunked out of a private university and was attending the state school down the street from my parents’ house, paying for it with loans. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I could do.
I often took my time cleaning the building, especially on Fridays, looking through unlocked cabinets and desk drawers, flipping through magazines, messing around. I got paid hourly in practice, but it was the same amount every week, no matter how long it took me. I was hanging onto this relationship I’d had with a girl at my previous school and we talked on the phone, had phone sex, but I had no real social life at that time.
The guy who’d hired me to clean the building was my mother’s cousin’s husband. Maybe. Something like that. Jerry. He was in between my mother and me in age. He’d never gone to college, but he was doing okay. He had this cleaning business. He had four or five buildings he cleaned and two or three other guys who worked for him. He took me around on my first day when the offices were still open. I got specific instructions from the various doctors—mop this bathroom floor, empty these wastebaskets, don’t go in there. I knew all the doctors.
Jerry and I talked to the orthodontist’s son. His father had put on my braces, but his son had done most of the check-ups. There was a blonde assistant with huge tits who tightened the braces. She used to pull my head close to her chest and wrench the braces tight. It hurt like hell but the back of my neck would be warm and my cock would be hard. Then the son would come in to check on me. I’d be melted into the vinyl chair, gums and cock throbbing and there would be his grinning face.
He was always after me to wear my retainers. Now he was married to the blonde assistant with the big tits and close to taking over the whole practice. He asked me what I was doing besides cleaning the building. Maybe the other doctors knew I was in school. Maybe they asked. But the orthodontist’s son really asked. “What are you taking up?” he asked me. I hated that expression. I hated the way he said it out his grinning face. But I told him: English. “What do you plan on doing with that?” he asked out a new grin. I told him: teach, write. I didn’t tell him I didn’t know. I didn’t smile. I never had worn my retainers.
I went to clean the building late most nights, after everyone was gone. I tried out those little water and air guns in the dentist offices; at the optometrist’s, I tried on frames, expensive ones I’d never be able to afford. The latest fashions. I never took anything, not even one of those toothbrushes dentists give you for free after a cleaning, or one of those cloths for wiping your specs. I saw one of the dentist’s season tickets to the Bruins, pulled apart, stacked, secured with a rubber band. They were just sitting there in his desk drawer. I flipped through them once, but I didn’t even think about it. Oh right, once I found an old Physician’s Desk Reference in the trash, and I took that. I couldn’t understand the thing, and I didn’t need it, but I liked the way it looked on my shelf at home, and it made a nice bookend for my CDs.
The optometrist had Sports Illustrated in his reception area, and sometimes I sat there and flipped through it. I found the swimsuit issue stashed in his private office the week it came out. This business with the guy with the fake arm came after that, so I guess it probably was March. I opened up the swimsuit issue and slowly turned the pages, then I took it into the bathroom, folded it back to a shot of Kathy Ireland, topless, arms wrapped around her body—and beat off all over the floor. I had to mop the floor anyway because the optometrist was like eighty years old and pissed everywhere. I had to vacuum the lobby, mop the lower floor and clean the common bathrooms down there, and vacuum the rugs and clean the bathrooms in the other offices.
The guy with the fake arm was sitting in my car. I started to drive. To get to the garage he said his car was in, I had to go right past the police station. I thought I could pull in to the station and politely ask him to get out of my car. If he refused it was a crime, right? But I had already decided to help him. I felt bad for him and his stump and his defective prosthesis, his dirty face with its visible frustration, his angry but cracking voice, and yes, I feared him. He was speaking to me in a calm voice now, thanking me, asking me where I was on my way to, but yes, I feared him. I feared his intrepidity and the violence he laced into his helplessness—the cursing, the slamming down of the equipment, like a vintage John McEnroe tantrum designed to unsettle a psychologically weaker opponent, to seize what he wanted through practiced force of will. His good arm, his right arm, kept rising up and over into my side of the car, the fist at the end balling and balling.
I drove him to the garage. I drove past the cop shop, past the office building I still had to clean, across the steel expanse that lent Bridge Street its name, over the swollen river below. Or was it still frozen? In the garage parking lot the guy sat in my car and said he needed fifty bucks to get his car out. I told him I only had twelve on me. It was a lie. I had a twenty, a ten, and two ones. He said twelve was perfect, actually. He could get the rest from his cousin, if he ever fucking called back. I extracted the ten and the ones and handed them over. He held up the stub, like a reminder, then reached over with his right hand and took the bills. Then he told me to give him my name and address and that he’d send me the twelve dollars once he got home and could get to the bank. I did it. I did it because he told me to. True, I hoped he’d send me the money, but as soon as he was out of the car and I was back in traffic, I knew he wouldn’t. He hadn’t needed my information to get the money. I’d already forked it over. He’d needed it for a threat. Once he had my money in his pocket, and then had his threat, he reached back across, shook my hand firmly, leaned his chiseled head towards me, and thanked me.
I went back and cleaned the office building. I mopped the downstairs and vacuumed the lobby, then I hit the offices. I worked quickly that night, like I had a date or something, but I was just going home. My girlfriend would be out. If I waited until she got home I’d get a story. Maybe something fresh. I cleaned quickly anyway. I thought the whole time about the guy who’d jumped into my car and what I’d done and what I should have done and then I started worrying that maybe he’d come to my parents’ house to rob it. He’d said he lived in Leominster or Groton or something, or his cousin did, but I no longer believed any of it. Only the stub. It was pretty stupid to give him my name and address. I thought all this and emptied wastebaskets and vacuumed and when I got to the optometrist’s office, that was definitely the night I found the swimsuit issue, the week it came out, so really it was a cold, rainy, slushy night in the middle of February, and once I had the page with that Kathy Ireland shot folded back and secured in my right hand, it didn’t take long at all.