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Authors: Mike Roberts

Cannibals in Love

BOOK: Cannibals in Love
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Table of Contents

A Note About the Author

Copyright Page


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My father said I was living in his house
persona non grata
and that I needed to find myself a job. I asked why he wouldn't just buy me a baseball team like the president's daddy. He thought about this a second and offered me a ride to the temp agency instead. I liked that, though. The Latin.

This was how I ended up working with Don, counting lampposts for the city of Lockport. A
field audit
, they called it. The temp agency told us they'd had trouble finding a team who could execute this task with consistency. Don and I got a kick out of that, all these anonymous flameouts going down counting lampposts.

But Don was late this morning, and I couldn't help imagining an accident. I'd driven around with the old guy enough to picture him doing something ill-advised. Reaching under his seat, or behind him, or into the glove box like I'd watched him do a thousand times before. Letting his head drop below the dashboard as he blew the red light so that eyewitnesses would claim that there
no driver in the 1991 Honda Civic at the time of the accident. Not an accident at all, really, but a crash. And maybe even a pileup. Dozens of cars slamming into each other behind Don. Heads hitting steering wheels; coffees bursting into laps. I imagined trucks jumping curbs and bending themselves around lampposts,
lampposts. Tires blowing out. Glass shattering. Women screaming. This caterwaul of brakes and impacted metal in the street. And Don's car, in the middle of everything, sparking and bursting into flames as it flipped and rolled over on itself.

Why else would he be a half hour late?

But eventually I picked out the sound of his little Honda growling up the block. A hundred and fifty-four thousand miles, he liked to brag as he punched the dashboard. Don had total faith in his machine and he showed it no mercy, taking us through every pothole in the city, almost willfully. In a funny way the Honda matched his own shambling presence, perpetually overburdened by found and collected objects. Every morning involved a clearing off of the passenger seat anew, just to make room for me.

The car boasted a series of laminated icons who were the saints, I supposed. Led on high by Jesus on the Cross, swinging from the rearview.
Bless this mess
, Don would always say with a chortle, and I liked him for that. He was unmistakably a man in search of a calling, and yet it surprised me to find out he was a volunteer chaplain with the fire department. A couple times a week Don's police radio would start twitching and crackling on the nightstand, and he would get out of bed and drive to the awful scene of some burning building. Watching and waiting; standing out in the street. Talking to the people there; looking to make himself useful. Don would never give me any real details, just some mornings he looked tired. I would ask if there had been a fire and he would exhale and nod. “Mm-hm. A pretty big one.”

But there was something off about Don this morning, something almost melancholy. We liked to start slow as a rule, but this was different. Usually we turned on sports talk radio, but Don was playing music at a whisper. I asked if there had been a fire and he said no. We drove on, past blocks of lampposts:
five, ten, fifteen, twenty
. I asked where we were going and Don said a circle. Letting it hang there.

“This isn't really coffee,” he said, picking up his mug.


“I figure you have a right to know. I'm thinking about not working today.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, not following this at all.

“You up for something like that?” Don smiled. “Hooky?”

“Sure, I guess. I don't care.” I shrugged and looked away.

Don swished the dregs of his coffee mug before finishing it. “Good. We better switch to beer, then, if we're gonna be driving around.”

*   *   *

Don stopped at a gas station and cut the engine. I sat in the car watching him limp across the parking lot. He was a giant man with a clubfoot, which was inescapable. Lamed by birth or life, I had no idea. We weren't brought up to talk about how something like a sixty-year-old man's clubfoot could make you feel numb and self-conscious. It was easy enough to forget the thing entirely. But there were always moments like these when I'd see him lumbering on it, dead-asleep for all time.

Don was constantly shifting his weight as we drove around, tucking the crippled foot under the good one to streamline operation. I wish I could say that it was Don's wonky feet that made us drive around in circles, but that was really just the job. Ostensibly this was a city audit, but that didn't make the fact of counting lampposts feel any less absurd. Every lamppost was a near-identical copy. Even between decades the models stayed remarkably the same.

Don would pull the Civic up to a curb and start craning his turkey-neck under the windshield. “Thirty-foot post … wooden … ten-foot truss … cobra-head fixture … Wait, wait, it's flickering … Yep, this one's a dayburner.”

“Tag?” I would ask, looking up from the boxy laptop with the city serial number burned across its bottom, as I locked in our GPS coordinates.


“Cee-four-one-seven. Got it.”

And Don would pull up to the next post. All day long like this, over and over. It was fantastically boring, tedious work. Some days we would spend ten hours in the car this way, driving in circles, professionally lost. I had come to know Don as a meticulous micromanager of our days. He hated to backtrack, and he hated to put the Honda into park. When possible, Don preferred to ease off the pedal entirely, letting the car coast. This was how we missed the majority of our stop signs. Me on the computer and Don making a blind spot with the map. Rolling, to be inevitably jerked up by the sound of some angry horn. It was in the residential areas where Don felt most above the law. Driving up the wrong side of the street; going backward down an alley or a one-way. He thought nothing of wheeling right onto somebody's front lawn in a hasty U-turn, if necessary. After all, we were working.

People often stared openly as we drove through the city with our hazards on. Don said the blinking lights made our work self-evident, but I thought it just invited cops to stop and ask us stupid questions. Smiling along like assholes.
Yessir, we're working out here. Yessir, counting the lampposts, har-har-har

On a lucky day the girls from the high school cross-country team might run by in their short-shorts. This huddle of pumping arms and legs, with flushed cheeks and glistening skin. Shiny hair pulled back into ponytails, swinging and bobbing. They smiled and laughed as they ran, like they could keep it up exactly this way forever. These girls were a forest of young trees to me. I would stare out the window openly, trying to will eye contact with one of them. Any of them. Somehow, the fact that I was twenty years old now made them all suddenly too young for me. It didn't matter anyway. I was invisible inside of Don's little Honda. Even with the blinking lights.

Don actually took our job seriously, though, and I appreciated that he cared enough to set that tone. He liked talking to the cops and answering questions. He liked being out in the city where we might run into a mailman or a guy up on a power line. Clearly Don included us in their great Civic Brotherhood, and I could tell that he'd begun to consider himself some kind of authority on counting lampposts. It was fine with me. I was happy to let him play the boss if that's what he wanted. I'm sure it's the reason that we lasted so long.

*   *   *

Don came out of the gas-station store cradling a twelve-pack of Stroh's. This was a beer I'd seen my entire life but never thought to try. It made me smile to suddenly know what Don drank. And all at once this day began to seem like fun. Two guys skipping work; driving around; drinking beers. I couldn't decide if this was some kind of last stand for Don, and I didn't really care. I was just going to go with it now.

I had gotten used to Don's physical presence, but I could see in the reactions of others that he was creepy in some nondescript way. Always snuffing his nose and clearing his throat, or chortling unexpectedly when he laughed. He wore an uneven beard and glasses that tinted in the sunlight. It was not untrue to say that Don bore some vague resemblance to the Unabomber, and I tried to imagine him living in an isolated shack, which was easy. The Civic suggested a certain kind of house. Some old shackle falling in on itself, held up at pressure points by load-bearing columns of newspapers. Dusty cans of food lined up in the cupboards, bomb-shelter-style. A harem of cats straight out of central casting, even. And maybe Don was living off the land and fertilizing a garden with his own shit, like the real Unabomber did. Tinkering with complicated math by candlelight, and writing his manifesto longhand. Clearly the simple mechanics of a pipe bomb would appeal to a character like Don.
The Clubfoot Killer
, they would call him in the newspapers. And I would be interviewed on television as the blank-faced schmuck who worked with the madman. But instead of saying that I never saw it coming, I would say, with total earnestness, that all the warning signs were there. Everything Don did was a red herring to me. It was all so very, very obvious, and I was terribly sorry that I had not said something earlier.

But that was not really Don, either. He was too gentle for all of that stuff. Especially now, pouring a beer into his coffee mug. I was reminded that I did not really know this man at all. I didn't know who he was or how he spent the four decades that separated his age from mine. I didn't know what brought him to the world of temp work or why he couldn't hold a real job. None of it. All I knew was that Don was in a great mood now, informing me that we were headed to the OTB.

Off-Track Betting?
Is that even open?” It was eight thirty in the morning and I was sipping the foam off my first-ever Stroh's.

“Of course it's open. Have you never been?”

BOOK: Cannibals in Love
7.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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