Courtesy Kills John


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1. You know, I thought it would be harder;

“You know, I thought it would be harder”.

I couldn’t move a muscle. “All those expectations just vanished into thin air. I never had a wife or children, never had a 9-5 with a steady paycheck. Everything that normal and well-adjusted people talk about.”. He coughed. It sounded like a knife being dragged on metal rails. “I always thought those things come later, always put it off for another day.”. He paused as if to catch a thought that was trying to escape him and he couldn’t catch it if he spoke at the same time. Should I say something? “Don’t give me that look; I used to feel regret, but I don’t anymore. It’s just,” he swallowed a dry gulp of saliva and went on, “It’s like being a kid, over and over again. You save enough money to buy some legos. At the store the lady or the guy, has two identical sets, only difference is the colour. You buy the red one instead of the blue one. Take it out. Play with it. Feel happy. Then you wonder if the blue set is cooler to play with.” He tilted his head, and curved the corners of his lips, waiting for some sort of retort from my side. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I just lowered my eyes and stared at my hands. “See that’s the problem with regret; you want to go both ways. It’s not about choosing the right thing, but it’s about being a fucking glutton.” That last outburst broke into a salvo of wheezing coughs. The dry pops of air bounced off the walls, echoing around the room. “I'm 49 and I had my fair share of happenings. What do you have? A title? A lease? Life insurance? Children will be paying for your god-damn Ikea duplex ‘till their 40? You’ll die. And you’ll leave behind, what, 30 people? Maybe 10 friends? Ⅱ Your wife and kid? She’ll get your money and put out for the first guy that comes around, who has a fetish about single widowed moms with a kid. Where’s your order now?” He wasn't screaming; his each word was delivered calmly. Maybe that’s why they hit me that much harder. ”OK, maybe I’m assuming the worst, but I’m just telling it as it is.” He drew a breath of smoke and tipped the middle of the cigarette with his index finger, crumbling the ashes into the ashtray. He grinned and coughed into his hand, “We come from different worlds, you and I. We are living proof that we choose two different colours of legos. That’s how I know why this “well-adjusted” crap is just a facade. It’s theatre, people have to keep up or other people might pick up on them. Ⅱ Do you like your JOB?” That emphasis on job, it was like he was trying to spew tar out of his mouth.”Did you work hard to get there? I’m sorry, study hard? Of course, you had to make some useful connections, didn’t you? Ⅱ Make sure that everyone knows you’re playing your part right. Courteous, but parvenu enough to force a couple of guys off the ladder? I know that, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, no use in convincing me otherwise.”

The smell of burnt filter reminded him to stick the bud into the ashtray. He twisted and squeezed the remaining cinder and took a sip of water from the glass, waiting by the ashtray. He’s got hairs on his knuckles, I’ve never noticed that before. Ⅱ “A friend of mine worked at some small time company. Studied like a maniac for his MBA, and then got the position after 50 or so failed applications. Middle management. High enough to be above the bushes, but still low enough that pigeons can shit down on your face. He brought me in as an outside hire for a major project. I had to sit down in meetings with some higher-ups; that well-adjusted guy, the talk of our class reunions, was screamed at every single meeting. Anyway, this one time,” he stopped and tried to recollect the correct memory. He closed his eyes for a second, murmuring, snapped his fingers and went on,” Yeah, this one time, the board really did a number on him. I think they screamed at him for a good half hour. Something about sector efficiency. His department was supposed to overview the supply for the whole production line and they order half a million wires from some backwards country in China. Half the wires burned when the production line installed them on the combustion chamber units. I don’t know if you get it, long story short, he screwed up,” he reached for the glass, bending a bit and took a long sip, ending with wet smacking lips. “Big time. He thought he could save some funds to then move around the department. A goddamn catastrophe. S o he sat there, taking it all in. I couldn’t move, that’s how afraid I was. When the guys finished, he clenched his fists, THANKED them and assured that everything will go as planned.

After the meeting I asked him if he was OK. He waved his hand with a sour look on his face,”Yeah, don’t worry ‘bout it, you just have to roll with the punches.”. I asked him if he wanted to go for drinks, it was late, we could have talked about it. He said he had to stay at the office some more, but I could leave if I wanted to. So I went home.” His face shifted and crumpled, as in some sort of acid reflux. He took another sip from the glass, swirling the rest around. _ “A week after that he was on the news. Apparently he snapped one night and killed one of the members of the board by hanging him naked from the tree in front of the guy’s house. Supposedly he was on his way to another board member’s house, but he got overtaken by some beamer and flew through the windshield. His wife got the life insurance and wouldn’t you know, half a year later I see her, giggling with one of the guys from his office, driving around in her new car, the same coworker who actually had the idea to order the wires. John had to cover for him, because he was the one with the MBA at the department. Middle management responsibility.” His face was fixed on the glass. The swirling stopped. He took a long breath and looked at me.”See, that’s courtesy for you. Courtesy is what’s fucking your wife while you run around, killing people, because you ate shit all your life for the sake of being well-adjusted. C    ourtesy kills John.”

I couldn't react. His delivery was detached, like he went went about the situation so many times in his head where it finally lost impact and it was just another blot on his mental canvas. Or maybe I saw things differently under his influence; something banale, a joke, a dot on a much larger screen. It felt like being devoured by a thought, helpless and strangely comforting.

We both sat there for hours. He told me about the people in his life, rather than telling about his own adventures. About one of his cousins who lost his job when the old country dissolved, living like a hermit in the countryside after that. _ It felt like he went through a carton of cigarettes. The room was wrapped in smoke. All his books were faced away from us, conducting secret conversations under a cover of swirling daze. The parquet was breathing with him; it squeaked when he coughed and let out a deep sigh when he leaned back, swirling the ashy smog around. Lines on the wall thickened and shifted in time; from morning yellow to afternoon gold to evening amber and finally, indigo night.

He passed away. No coughing. No wheezing. No terrified look on his face. He died while talking about a friend of his, who got married to the first guy that screwed her. All because her friends were getting married, were married or were expecting. She didn’t want to be alone. Her kid was taken by social services after she committed suicide, because her husband left her for a younger girl. They found the kid in his room, playing with legos, while his mother was hanging on the stairs.

His eyes were fixed on the bottom of the glass, searching for another story. I just watched him go. I didn’t try to hold his hand as if to stop his soul from leaving. I didn’t bury my head into his chest and wept myself to sleep. I just sat there, looking at him. When I saw the morning light creeping in from the window, I got up, dusted off the ashes from my jeans, stretched my legs and made my way to the street. Early morning. People were already moving up and down the street in a hungover flurry. They didn’t know someone died, they weren’t concerned with me either. A tall, well-dressed man passed by me, turning his shoulder towards me as he moved around. Maybe he tried to keep his cellphone conversation private. I didn’t care.

The grass was as welcoming as ever. I don’t remember how I got home; the summer heat already enveloped the street and wafted above the asphalt. I unlocked the door and got into the house, put the keys into the bowl by the counter and made my way up the stairs. The door to the bedroom was pried open and she laid on the bed, her back turned to me, hogging half the bed with one leg on the floor and the other on the bed. I took my clothes off and slipped near her. The shifting mattress must have woken her up, “Hey, where were you?”, she murmured, half asleep, still somewhere in her dreams. It finally got to me. I whispered “We need to talk”.

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