Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Toonies by Cameron Vanderwerf

Cameron Vanderwerf tells the story of a down-on-his-luck stick figure and his anthropomorphic friend.

People ask me all the time if it's hard being a stick figure. It's really none of their goddamn business, but I just shrug and say we all got our crosses to bear. I guess being asked that question is at least better than being called a toonie, but I'm grateful for anyone who at least makes an effort to ignore my appearance. And I suppose I don't have it as bad as my pal Gordy. He's a toonie. An anthro to be more specific. Walking, talking mutt dog nearly six feet tall, and you should see the nerve of some people around him! Total strangers just petting him on the head out of nowhere. Some people think they're being cute, but others just do it for the cruel fun of it.

Gordy and I know each other from work. The manager likes to hire toonies for the tax cuts, but you can tell he doesn't like us. It's a shit job, and the pay is crummy, but at least I've got health insurance and enough for the occasional drink. Gordy's and my passe-temps of choice is usually hanging out at Fran's, the toonie bar downtown, and drinking ourselves into a stupor when time permits. We play darts, hit on women, bitch about our job and our asshole boss, and drink until we either run out of money or Fran bumrushes out the door us with her massive arms.

I used to call myself the salt of the earth, but that's because I didn't know what that was actually supposed to mean. Nothing grows on salted earth, so I assumed it was meant to refer to people with no potential. One day some nosy aardvark in Fran's told me what it really meant, and after my blotto brain took a moment to process it, I just laughed hard, spraying bits of beer nuts everywhere and saying "Yup! Salt of the earth! That's me alright! No, you know what I am? I'm the salted earth! Cuz nothin's growin' here!" Gordy laughed too. Laughed until he howled.

Now Gordy and I like to refer to ourselves as the salted earth. Our own little inside joke. Crossing paths in the office we might say something like "Hey, Salty, how's your garden doing?" To which the other might respond "My dang vegetables died!" Just our own way of trying to make light of our situation. And I don't want you getting the idea that we're blaming our lives entirely on the fact that we're toonies. It also doesn't help that we were born poor and had what I call "non-ideal parents." Gordy and I've been taking odd jobs since high school, and this office gig is the first steady deal we've gotten, thanks to the Cartoon Americans Equal Opportunity Bill. Or the Toonie Bill as anyone who's not talking on television calls it. But it's probably not long until our boss gets tired of us and decides that tax cuts aren't worth having to hire stick figures and upright animals and cartoon humans. (Humies, we call them.)

But Gordy and I pride ourselves on taking the facts of life on the chin with aplomb. No need to give us the unvarnished truth, because we've already sanded it down to its bare, ugly, pulpwood base. Life is monotony, misunderstandings, and uncertainty, with the occasional minuscule triumph, but we embrace it! So what if the high point of our month is half-price nachos at the bowling alley, while the low point is a dark night of tears, crushing loneliness, and alienation? We can always take solace in the fact that we have no power and no responsibilities.

And at least this craphole town is entertaining enough in its dirty, godless way to keep me and Gordy from blowing our brains out just yet. One of Gordy's favorite spots is the junkyard, and we do find some interesting shit there. He's an artsy little mutt, I'll give him that. Sometimes he makes little sculptures out of old, rusted junk and uses them as "lawn ornaments" on the little patch of dirt he calls his lawn. He's a real junkyard dog, loves to dig through the trash barefoot and in an undershirt. But I won't go without gloves and a jumpsuit. Gordy laughs, but I'll be the one laughing when he contracts hepatitis from a dirty needle in the junk pile. And then I'll be the one crying my eyes out. Friggin' love that dog.

I like skid row. I get to give money to the poor and feel better about my situation. And no one has better stories than old panhandlers. I give them money in exchange for stories. This one mangy cat (not slang, she was an anthro) told me about the time she and her man squatted in a rich family's house for a week while the family was on vacation. "We were royalty for a week," she said. If they ever wanted to leave the house, they had to do it at night and out the back so no one would see them and call the cops.

So that's how Gordy and I spent our days. Tourists in our own town, since travel wasn't exactly within our means. At least, that's how it was until that Saturday in July when a couple of punk kids put me on disability. They all had piercings, the two boys had mohawks, and the girl had a shaved head, all looked about eighteen. Gordy and I were in the park walking a stray dog he'd found a couple nights before. (Don't even get me started.) At some point, out of nowhere, we hear these three loud voices shouting all sorts of things at us. Slurs much worse than "toonie," let me tell you. When they started coming down on us with fists and a crowbar, the stray dog decided it wasn't going to stick around. As soon as Gordy let go of the leash to shield himself, that stray just shot away from the park as fast as I've ever seen a dog run.

But anyway, sparing the gory details, Gordy survived it with only some bumps and bleeding thanks to his girth and the padding of his fur. Being a stick figure doesn't provide you much in the way of protection, so among my several bone breaks was a spinal fracture that put me in a wheelchair and gave me these nasty spasms. I couldn't really work anymore and started collecting disability. It was even less than I made at my job, and I couldn't afford medical treatment without insurance. And now half the time I couldn't hang out with Gordy since he was at work, so I just spent my time watching TV or drinking or bumming around town. And then Gordy met this poodle from the other side of the proverbial tracks. A high-class gal and an anthro to boot. I thought she was just slumming for fun and told Gordy so in private, but he just got pissed when I said it. I should've kept my mouth shut. I rarely saw him after that and just started becoming more and more of a bum. Occasionally I could pick up a pity fuck at Fran's using the disabled stick figure angle, but other than that the days were just a blur of television, drinking, and trying to figure out how the hell you bowl in a wheelchair. I gave that one up pretty quick since I didn't have anyone to actually play with.

Boy did I become a bitter fuck. Even more cynical than I'd already been. A regular Mickey Sabbath in a wheelchair I was, but without the human body or the constant sex. I lived for whatever depressing entertainment life could give me. I see a lady get robbed? That's not a tragedy, that's just a funny diversion. A dad hits his toddler in the park? Well good. The kid'll hit him back some day. That'll be the real punch line.

Weirdly enough, as if by some twisted type of providence, it was this mean, desperate cynicism that led to my recovery. When you're dying of boredom, you'll try anything to get out of it. I remember I was rolling down the sidewalk in town on a grey day in November when I passed a building I'd never seen before. Or at least never seen open. It had just been built on this tiny vacant lot. It had a depressing concrete look, with the words "LEARNING ANNEX" on what was supposed to be a cheerful, colorful sign. But it just made the whole effect more depressing with the grey concrete and all. There was a list of course offerings in one of the windows, and I saw they were offering a free drawing class. I decided to register, planning to heckle the room until I was forcibly rolled out of there.

During the first class, I found myself seated next to a fifty-year-old chain smoker named Maude. Or more likely she was thirty and the cigarettes had prematurely aged her. Her eyes were always narrowed like she was suspicious of everything in front of her. The teacher gave us a demonstration on perspective, and I tried to start heckling, but the insults stuck in my throat. Before I knew it, I was drawing the bowl of fruit in front of us like everyone else in my class. The teacher walked around and gave us advice as we worked. About fifteen minutes in, Maude taps me on the shoulder, and I turn and look at her. She points down at her sheet of paper, and I see that she hasn't drawn a bowl of fruit at all. The only thing on her paper is a drawing of a stick figure.

"Pretty good likeness, huh?" she says. I was so shocked I forgot to be insulted, and instead of an angry shout, I found myself laughing loudly. And before I knew it, Maude was laughing too. The other people in the drab multipurpose room did their best to ignore us and just focus on their work.

After class, I asked Maude if she'd ever been to a toonie bar, and she said no. I took her to Fran's and we did a couple jagerbombs. She told me she had a son and a daughter, both estranged from her for over a decade now. The father had walked out a long time ago. She worked the front desk at a motel just outside of town and spent her nights playing bridge, taking classes, doing sewing work on the side. Apparently she'd picked up sewing from doing costumes in high school.

We went back to her place after Fran's and had the kind of drunk, stumbling, awkward sex you can only have when one of you is a in a wheelchair. And is a stick figure. She had to help me onto the bed and do almost all of the work, but I was used to that by then, and she didn't seem to mind.

After that, we started seeing a lot of each other. We tried to stick to places where we wouldn't be heckled, but that wasn't always possible. People would shout at us, call us an abomination or unnatural or what have you, but still it was so much better than the loneliness. Our dates usually consisted of picking up fast food and driving somewhere. Our favorite spot was the top of the hill at night. We'd sit on the hood of her car, eat our burgers or whatever, and look up at what stars could be seen through the smog and light pollution. Some nights you could even hear crickets.

It wasn't a perfect relationship by any means. We fought plenty, but it was more just a reflex we each had, learned involuntarily over decades of hardship. So for the most part, our general aimlessness just bound us closer together. Eventually the local shock generated by our relationship settled down, and we got by with only a small heckle or two each week.

On a drunken impulse one night, I called up Gordy and asked how he was doing. He said fine, and we spent some time catching up over the phone. He was still working at the office, and (much to my surprise) was still dating the poodle. I told him about Maude, and he said we should organize a double date. I said sure, why not, and he told us to meet at Chez Carlisle two towns over. I told him I wouldn't be able to afford it, and he said it would be on Stacy. (That was the poodle's name.)

It was definitely an awkward night. Maude and I didn't have clothes nearly nice enough to fit the place, but to my surprise Gordy was fitted in a stunning new suit. Paid for by Stacy, I guessed. Stacy was actually very nice, and a lot more friendly and relaxed that I thought she'd be. At one point, Gordy announced to me and Maude that he and Stacy were getting married. We congratulated them and raised toasts. Altogether I thought the night had gone reasonably well, but I guess I was wrong. I never saw Gordy again after that, and I never received a wedding invitation in the mail.

11 comments:

  1. A wacky celebration of differences of distinction - enshrined in some fine writing,e.g. 'No need to give us the unvarnished truth, because we've already sanded it down to its bare, ugly, pulpwood base.' - gorgeous. Thank you, Ceinwen

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  2. I'm thinking about a stick figure breaking bones and having sex. I can hardly wait for the movie. I'm inspired by these off the wall stories.

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  3. What a delightful and clever story, with its crafty wit and puns. I loved, "The kid'll hit him back some day. That'll be the real punch line." Bravo, Cameron! I'd love to see more of your humor (not to mention all the insight into the human condition).

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  4. a really fascinating story. i found it sad and an indictment on our times. i also loved some of the writing, as mentioned by Ceinwen. food for thought

    Mike McC

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  5. Thanks Cameron. It's made me want to read more of yours. I'll go read 'Here in the Asylum' now!
    B r o o k e

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  6. Sorry to pop up again so soon. Yes, Here in the Asylum (pub FOW Feb '16) I missed it first time round - anybody else who missed it before is in for another treat.
    Brevity is one of the most difficult things to achieve in writing so well done again!
    B r o o k e

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  7. I loved this weird and original idea. This is a really interesting world to explore.

    I was strangely glad to see that it had a happy ending.

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  8. That was a fun ride. Wonderfully creative language, too.

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  10. klgardner1@yahoo.comSeptember 19, 2016 at 12:31 AM

    First, I was laughing hysterically, which kept me reading. Then, I realized what an insightful, astute look at life this really was – seems the author could take out ‘stick figure’ and ‘toonie’ and substitute a million other hard-luck characters (not un-including me). Great story – sad, funny, authentic.

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  11. Really enjoyed this piece! I had a ridiculous grin all throughout it. That witty sense of humor matched with the dark subject matter really made for an impactful ending. I was cheering Gordy on as I sympathized with the stick figure (not something I'd ever thought I'd hear myself say).

    Great job, Cameron!

    Karter D

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