Time Consuming Lester Battle
One disappointing thing about Lester Battle’s poverty is his inability to keep hold of loose change. Yesterday, at the Ogilvie Metra station, he had to turn out all six pockets before the last nickel needed to complete the 2.35 fare to Ravenswood showed itself.
When he awakes in seven minutes, he’ll roll off the mattress and realize the same thing he realized last night, before chewing his nails in the dark and listening to his belly.
What he'll realize again is this: he doesn’t have two dollars for today’s commute downtown. He doesn’t have two dollars anywhere. His change sock is limp, the only trace of its use a green patina left by pennies long spent. He’ll check it anyway, in the bottom drawer of his desk, his hand coming away greasy and smelling of metal, fabric-softener and sweaty fungus.
That is all seven minutes away. For now, he is asleep.
Yesterday, Lester Battle pulled a twenty dollar bill from an ATM machine. Following that, he touched YES on the keypad. At once he began to sweat, and the soup in his gut churned like it had when he’d gotten his grades at DePaul. YES was not what he'd meant to touch. He’d just told the machine that he wanted a piece of paper with several numbers on it. Numbers he’d avoided looking at for almost three months.
The paper with the numbers on it rolled out. The numbers told him he had seventeen cents left in his checking account, and that his savings account was empty. The twenty dollar bill in his hand was the last bit of money he had.
All of this meant he would have to get the job. So yesterday, Lester put everything he had - all seventeen metaphorical cents - into the interview.
The three men had looked at him, told him they’d enjoyed his presentation (as always), and that he should return for a follow-up interview today at the same time.
“Go out and tell Jim we’re ready for him.”
The opening was a creative engineering position with a company called LPaso, based out of Texas. The position had come about when the engineer previously filling it had talked his body into throwing itself onto the third rail of an elevated train. Lester heard about this from a friend, one of the four or five people in Chicago he had any kind of relationship with.
That man’s name was Jim, and he’d been interviewing for the same position every day, excluding weekends, alongside Lester. The controlling interest in the firm, three creative engineers themselves, had pared the field down to two in a week-long process, one that had Lester feeling close to victory, and some sort of stability.
That had been five months ago.
Yesterday, Lester left the interview room exhausted and demoralized. It was a state he’d grown used to. He’d worked up a sweat again, trying this time to perfect his words with a pinwheel of activity. He smiled in what he hoped was a contagious way, but the three men watched impassively. He threw his arms along with his enunciations, swirling them into motions meant to illustrate and then persuade.
The routine was familiar; he put all of it at the front of his brain while he receded behind to watch. He was a television show that had been recorded long ago, and his body was the screen. Sitting quietly in the back of his mind while his body gesticulated he had pondered two pigeons he’d seen at the Clyborn Metra stop, as sleepy travelers boarded. The pigeons lived atop the roof of a building, one of them elevated on a bit of duct work. The other one paced back and forth in front of it, pleading.
Come down, won’t you?
I have business up here. I’m closer to the sky. The world isn’t so gray.
Don’t you love me anymore?
By and by his body stopped its enunciating, and the interview was over once again. He stopped watching the pigeons and retook control of his body. The three men were staring at him impassively.
“We enjoyed your presentation as always, Mr. Battle. Go out and tell Jim we’re ready for him.”
Jim was sitting alone in the waiting room. The waiting room was a small cube of white with one black chair and three doors. The chair sat against the only empty wall, and sitting in it one could imagine his future through any of the three symbols of opportunity, as long as one of the futures involved vomiting to death in a toilet. The room became a part of you after a while. Sometimes when Lester receded into the back of his mind he sat in the room, but never while he was physically present. It was the same with Jim - who had told him of a dream he’d had about the toilet door, which sat opposite the chair.
“I’m sitting there,” he’d said, and this had been in the first month of interviews, when both of them had still been young and optimistic, “I’m sitting in that room in my dream and the door across from me opens and a man dressed as a nurse comes out and says, ‘Hello Jim, the doctor will see you now.’ He goes back through the door and I get up, realizing there must be something wrong with me that I’m at a doctor’s office, and I follow him. Inside the room is the toilet from LPaso. It’s wearing a stethoscope.” The two men rarely told stories anymore. Yesterday, in the waiting room, Lester nodded at Jim, and the other man - who was wearing a tweed suit that had been patched several times and whose face was obscured by a cyclone of beard - nodded back.
“Go for a beer after?” Jim said.
They often went for a beer after. Whoever got out first met the other across the street, at a bar called the Thirsty Genius. Yesterday, in the waiting room, it was just another routine. In the back of his mind he was contemplating the last twenty, which had been pared to eighteen during his commute as the conductor swept through the car, furiously punching holes in differently colored pieces of rail currency. That eighteen would be cut in half after the beer (this would be Lester’s turn to pick up the tab), and he’d lose another 2.35 on the trip back. Stop this, he yelled to the screen, but the man in the rerun nodded again and walked forward, pulling the opposite door open.
Outside, the sky was dark and swirling, rain brewing in the bellies of incorporeal monsters. It started to pour, and umbrellas opened like flowers to sunlight. Lester kept his head down and sprinted across the street, feeling the water already leaking up through the holes in his shoe-bottoms. He waited for several important-looking women on cell phones to pass and then he pulled open the door to the Genius and was breathed inside.
The Thirsty Genius is a themed bar with a reading room occupied by six large leather reading chairs and a bookcase filled with literature. Most of the bar’s flooring is tile, but the reading room is carpeted a dark red. There were three men in there, all of them dressed in suits and sipping whiskey in the leather chairs. Lester sat on a stool at the bar.
The bartender, whose name is Adam, glanced at him, nodding. Lester nodded at the nod. This is the currency of male interaction. It is the signal that more varied and interesting conversation is not needed, that all of the usual things are a given. It’s a hard life, and we’re all in this together, and one of us may be in a better place than the other right now but that can change, will inevitably change, and back again, and all we need to do at this moment is acknowledge the existence of the other. Adam brought him a beer glass, empty, and looked at Lester. Lester nodded. He would drink.
The glass filled.
Lester unfilled it.
The clock on the wall had no second hand, but the minute hand clicked along twenty-five times. Jim walked into the place. He sat on Lester's left, and nodding as he did so. Adam nodded back and came over with a beer glass. Empty.
“You get the job?” Lester said.
“I got the job.” Jim said.
It was a joyless monotone, and another routine they had with one another. How much of his existence was habit? He went on with it all unthinking, living the same day over and over – Mon, Tues, Wednes – the labels ceased to matter. It was always just Day.
“I’m not doing this tomorrow,” Jim said. This, finally, something new. Lester felt the tingle of something like surprise, like excitement. A sweet, tangy confusion.
“What? The beer?”
“I’m not coming in. Or if I am, it’s to tell them it’s over.”
“Oh.” Lester didn’t know what to do. What did it mean? Would he get the job if he did his dance for one more day?
“I ran out of money a month ago, Les. I’ve been going on credit. I had three hundred left before my limit, and now I’ve gone through that. All I’ve got is some cash.”
“You too? Christ, they’ve been stringing us along for five months. And who’s been doing the work? I had a dream last night, want to hear it? He still works there. Dead guy, mister third rail, still works there. They've got him pumping out projects. He sits at his desk with his head down, bones dragging a pencil across paper around the clock because it's all he can do to keep from rotting.”
“It’s irrelevant, is what it is. I can’t do this anymore and I’m going to use the rest of my money to buy some thermal underwear and a tent. I’ve got till the end of the month to get out of my apartment and then I’ll be homeless. And I'm going to do it smart.”
They sat quietly for several minutes, and then Lester paid for the two beers and left. Jim watched him go.
On the Metra, Lester found a spot on the upper level on a seat that folded down from the wall next to a skateboarding youth and a fat man reading a book in Cyrillic. When he levered the seat down there was considerable resistance, unlike a movie theater seat or a pew kneeler. He wondered if he were to lay across four or five seats if they would push him back up into the cold metal and pinch his face against the glass. Lester could ride like that, he’d decided. Something about the position seemed appropriate. But all these were occupied. He’d have to wait for another opportunity.
The fat man laughed, a kind of choking sniffle that kicked his skin into a body-wide ripple. Lester wondered what, in Cyrillic, could be so funny. He leaned forward and squinted at the cover of it, which was a painting of a dog wearing a bow tie. There was no title. Some things, Lester had learned, had no name but were still very important. And then there were people like him. Fourteen minutes later he was at the counter of the CVS at Lawrence and Damen. He’d decided on two packs of Ramen noodles (.40), a bag of peanut M&M’s (1.59), and a small pouch of beef jerky for dinner (2.29) This came to 4.48, tax included, and from a five he’d received two quarters and two pennies.
“If you’d had our card,” the woman behind the counter said, and she was attractive except for a very large mole just above and to the right of her lip, “You could have gotten another beef jerky, it was two for one.” Lester shrugged it off and took his bag, but inside he was raging at himself. For months he’d declined a card, doubting that he’d be back enough to use it, yet every time he stepped inside the pharmacy slash everything store he’d thought to himself, here I am again. How much more could he have saved, or eaten?
He walked home. The cable had been turned off. In his room, he put his head under his pillow and willed himself to sleep. Around nine he woke up, feeding himself M&M’s one after the other in steady rhythm like a slots player with a cup of nickels. He dropped a yellow one and it rolled.
At three in the morning the screams of a small girl woke him. She lives in the bedroom above his. The screams descended into a flurry of pounding feet and terrible sobs. He watched the ceiling, hoping cracks would open up and she’d drop through. He’d save her, though he was in no position for it. He’d save her. The sobs went on for half an hour and still he made no move. His heart was pounding, and there was anger there too. I’d go to her, I’d soothe her back to sleep. Her parents didn’t do this. He knew why, or supposed he did.
In his first month of living in the apartment he’d made the trip upstairs twice. The first time her father had opened the door, a small Eastern European man with eyebrows like caterpillars. Lester had stood under his stare for a full thirty seconds. Behind the little man the sobs of a small child continued.
“I live in the apartment below yours,” he’d finally said. “And I have work in the morning. Can’t you do something about...can you make your daughter stop crying?” The man blinked. Another thirty seconds went by, and Lester began to get the feeling he was the one being asked to keep the noise down.
“Well. I’m sure you’ll do your best. Sorry to bother you.” The little man closed the door. The little girl kept crying. Lester went downstairs and brewed himself a pot of coffee.
Two nights later he’d found himself knocking on that door again. He’d worked himself up to have words with the man who took so much offense at being bothered early in the morning while his daughter to roused the rest of the building. But the little Eastern European man didn’t open the door this time. Instead it was a little Eastern European woman. She had red eyes, and looked up at him hopefully.
He’d cleared his throat. “Sorry to bother you so early. My name is Lester, and I live in the -”
“You are of the downstairs.” Her voice was tired. The little girl sobbed from somewhere in the darkness behind. “You come to see why I not fix the noise.”
“We not go to her when she cry. We want it, but she not let us.”
“She doesn’t let you?”
“She cry for the suffering of all world. Say we must leave her. I am sorry to you.”
For three months he had let her wake him, had thought about that conversation. The suffering of all world. What did he have to complain about? Not getting the job he wanted? Just hours ago, the girl awoke him again. She cried until the suffering was no more than a dark, dull throb within the breast of the earth, and Lester let himself back under the warm eyelid of sleep.
Watch—the alarm on his phone is about to go off. His brain will be plucked from its fantasies and he’ll mouth swear words into the sunlight.
Watch - it happens just that way. His mouth tastes horrible. His eyes are hard and sticky. Lester gropes for the change sock.
In the shower he considers the bank receipt. There are seventeen cents left. With his fifty-two cents that will give him sixty-nine. He gets dressed and steps outside, where the first nibbles of autumn find his cheeks.
It is four blocks to the bank, and once there he plays the coming moment in his head. He’ll go in, stand in line, pull up to the first available teller and pass a withdrawal slip across the table. 0000.17, he’ll have written there, along with his name and his account number. He or she will look at the number and assume he’s made a mistake, say something like “Sir, did you mean to withdraw seventeen dollars?” He’ll shake his head and say, too quiet to hear at first, “No, cents,” until she makes him say it again, louder, and everyone will look over, wondering just what kind of poor this man is that he is even bothering.
He steps away from the bank and looks around. There are several cars parked along the street here, vehicles made and modeled to suit bank managers and the like. All parked at meters. Lester considers his own attire.
“Excuse me,” he says to a passing woman. “I’m short a quarter for the meter.” He waves at one of the cars, a deep black Saab. “Do you happen to have one?”
“Oh, I’m sure I must. Here.” She stops and drops a hand into a round purse, digging. It’s a quarter she pulls out. He feigns putting it into the meter, palming it instead. The woman doesn’t look back. He waits, and here come some more.
In five minutes Lester has enough for the Metra.
The waiting room at LPaso is empty. He knocks on the door to the interview room and then opens it. The three men are sitting there. Lester is late, has to be late. Jim hasn’t come at all. He takes his place in front of the room. “So, you all know my qualifications.” They don’t nod. Lester doesn’t move. Doesn’t recede into the back of his mind, doesn’t start his body on its daily exercise. Instead, he bows.
“Thank you. I hope to hear from you soon.” He goes to the door and opens it, and leaves. None of the three men says a thing.
There is something inside of him, a sharp cube of something that is threatening to poke its corners out. His ribs sting. There is an ocean behind his eyes, and Jim is gone. At the Genius he sits alone, and Adam buys him a drink, able to see that this man is in no position to be sober. At the base of Lester’s throat a soft clicking begins, like a windup clock.
Miles away, behind a box of books and electrical cords, ants bore holes into the shell of a yellow peanut M&M and begin their harvest of its meat.