This is the first of five sections of the short story Friends, written 2008.
Steven was sitting in one of those places that you go to less to eat and more to get full. On the wall across from him were three pictures and one of them was tilted slightly. It bothered him, so he got up and corrected it. Scrrrap went the frame. He sat back down again. Ooph went the chair.
The waitress came. She was pretty. One earring was lower than the other. He closed his eyes while he ordered so he wouldn’t have to look. Swish went her hair as she swiveled and left. He breathed out, pfft, his face sweating and heavy with concentration.
The food came. Clink went the plate. He arranged the fries in order of smallest to largest after covering the table in evenly spaced napkins. It took several minutes and the fries spanned the whole length of the table when he was done. There were a few left over, and he ate them with satisfying chomps.
He walked around to the other side of the table so he wouldn’t disturb the fries. He ate his hamburger slowly, adjusting it as necessary to achieve maximum symmetry. He had long ago given up expecting perfect symmetry, but he could take his mind off of the possibility by adjusting his world frequently.
There were no crumbs left on his plate by the time he started on the fries. It was getting late and the waitresses were starting to give him annoyed looks—the blonde one had given him three looks, the brunette two—but he ignored them and proceeded to eat two fries at once. He chose his fries from each end of his spectrum so that it would remain balanced. He ate hunched over with his hands in fists several inches above the table.
Two teenagers walked in holding hands. They sat down in the wrong chairs and the girl began to whine.
“I want to go to the mall tomorrow.”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“I want a new wardrobe,” she said. “I don’t like the clothes I’m wearing.”
“That’s ridiculous. The clothes you’re wearing are just fine—you look beautiful.”
His fists slammed onto the table at the same time. Thump. The boy would never understand. It wasn’t about the clothes.
He got up and left, leaving a single crisp hundred dollar bill in the exact center of the table.
His house was two blocks away. He counted his steps as he walked. Thud went one foot. Ka-thump dragged the other. Thud. Ka-thump. Thud. Ka-thump. Five hundred measured steps. He turned exactly ninety degrees to face the house and took another step. He hunched his shoulders and closed his eyes as he unlocked the door and opened it so that he wouldn’t have to think about which side the handle was on, then walked inside and relaxed a little.
He removed his false leg—false from the knee down, he would tell people fiercely—and placed in on a special box on his left. It settled in with a soft whomp. Then he removed some change from his wallet—there had been three pennies on the street today, two of them heads-up, and one nickel—and placed it into a funnel on his right. He listened to the rolling sounds—kshoo, kshoo—and watched as the coins clinked into place near his feet. The nickel made the twentieth in its stack; there were eight more stacks to go before the collection would be a cube of twenty by twenty by twenty. He needed two more pennies for his sixty-eighth circle of 100, each circle formed as if the pennies had fallen into each other in some perverse game of dominoes.
He didn’t look around. He didn’t need to. Each picture frame in the house was exactly the same size and perfectly aligned. Each room in the house was perfectly arranged. The pictures held by the frames were mostly solid black, but there was one—just above the king-size bed at the back center of the upper floor—that was a portrait of the man. It was in black and white, just like all the furniture. There was a name on a small plaque beneath the portrait. The plaque was gold and perfectly shiny. A name was etched into the gold, each etching exactly one-sixteenth of an inch deep. The plaque was five inches wide and one inch tall, and the words took up seventy-five percent of the space.
Steven didn’t go into his bedroom—he never did, not since he lost his leg—but instead lay down on the main floor, one story below his bed. He was still dressed in a tuxedo, his shiny shoes facing the front door and his balding head affronting the back. No one ever used the back door.
His eyes opened. Something was wrong. It was dark outside now and he could just barely make out the whitewashed ceiling. But it wasn’t completely white. There was writing there, etched into the ceiling one-eighth of an inch deep.
It said listen.