By Mike Nolan
Bill’s keys were on the dresser, arranged in a neat row with his phone, wallet, bank statement, some insurance papers, and the title to his car. If Barbara had been there, she would have called him compulsive, and she would have been right. The ultimate sign of obsessive compulsivity, Bill thought, a to-do list before killing yourself.
When life was good, or at least when it was better, Bill went places, did things, saw people. He’d even surprised himself by enjoying the apartment “meet and greet” after scrawling his name on one of those adhesive labels you peel and stick to your shirt. He had always been a bit of a loner, so even with Barbara by his side, Bill had felt out of his element. But he had to admit the people were friendly.
“This hummus is outstanding,” the woman in 213 enthused. “Homemade is so much better. You’ll have to give me your recipe.”
After her third dip of hummus, and still crunching on a breadstick, she squeezed Bill’s arm.
Those were better times.
Bill had been living with Barbara, working, and going through life like a million other people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves happy but would admit to being content. He’d worked in sales—just as he’d done for years—and though it wasn’t thrilling, people said he was good at it. “Dollar Bill,” they used to joke.
Bill wasn’t sure when the train went off the tracks, exactly. Probably when Barbara left. Certainly when Bill found the cardboard box sitting on his desk, filled with his personal belongings. A coworker had told Bill he was being let go, but he knew it was the same as being fired.
Two weeks earlier, his boss, Alicia, had handed Bill a brochure on the “employee assistance program.” That was after asking if he needed any help. “Help with what?” Bill had asked. Alicia just stared at him.
After that, he missed work, then missed some more. And that was when Bill found the box.
Since then, a haze settled over Bill in which he often wondered what time it was.The days had no beginning or end, especially when he didn’t get out of bed until late afternoon. When he did get up, Bill found himself wandering his apartment in rumpled clothes, arguing aloud. Get going, you fool. Counter, there’s no point, simply end it… The champion of ambivalence.
Lying motionless on his mattress, Bill just wanted everything to be over. I must be almost there, because all my feelings are numb. There aren’t any feelings. His hand closed on the cool pearl grip beside him, solid and secure. Okay…I’ve made my decision.
Bill closed his eyes.
This’ll make a huge mess, which is fine, because the goddamn landlord deserves a mess. He isn’t even the landlord, for chrissakes, just some tenant who gets a break on his rent for being called the landlord. He doesn’t do a damn thing.
Bill relaxed his hand, and his fingertips traveled along the barrel.
*No one will know, unless they hear the shot. It’ll take a day or two to track down my sister in Columbus, then another for her daughter in Miami to hear about “Uncle Bill.” I should have written down their names and phone numbers. *
He handled the grip again and brought the gun to rest on his chest. Staring at the ceiling overhead, Bill thought of one more thing, one more “to-do.” He squinted his eyes as though reading something on the ceiling, then blinked. I told 213 I’d bring her hummus.
Bill could hear her enthusiasm about his hummus: her words, and her energy and openness.
“I’ll call it yummus,” she’d said, her smile radiant.
Explaining his recipe, Bill said, “The tahini makes a difference…gives it a slightly smoky flavor. And I use fresh garlic and fresh lemons. I squeeze the lemons.”
Bill gently raised the gun toward his face. He didn’t even ask her name. But it was funny how perfectly he could recall her features. Closing his eyes, he touched the edge of the muzzle to his lips. He lay perfectly still, his breath creating a trace of moisture on the barrel.
“I need…” His brow furrowed and his arm relaxed. “I need to make that damn hummus.”
He brought the gun back to his side. Propping himself up on one elbow, he set the weapon on the nightstand. “I told her I’d bring hummus.”
Swinging his feet out of bed, Bill walked to the kitchen and stood over the sink. He rolled up his sleeves and paused, staring at his hands. “Wash up properly,” he said aloud. Bill turned and went back into the bedroom to strip off his clothes, then showered, shaved, and put on a clean shirt.
Back in the kitchen, Bill leaned on the counter and took a long breath. 213 will appreciate this. He grabbed a bulb of garlic and broke it open, tearing away the dry white outer layers. Bill carefully peeled the skin of a single clove with his fingernail and inhaled the pungent scent. That’s why you use fresh garlic.
The olfactory memory immediately transported Bill to all the times in the kitchen he had symmetrically cut garlic and transformed it to a tiny minced heap. Taking comfort in the familiar process, Bill thought about the first time he tasted hummus, remembering the middle eastern baker, the shop on third avenue, and the Egyptian flat bread. Bill found a lemon in the fridge, and the can of tahini. The salt, pepper, and cumin were then assembled on the counter. Olive oil and a can of chickpeas were retrieved from the back of a cupboard. The steps of making his hummus—my yummus—unfolded in a familiar pattern. Cutting the lemon, Bill squeezed it as though shaking hands with a wrestler. The tart zest flavored the air—he could taste it.
After twenty minutes, he scooped the hummus into a white china bowl, smoothed it into a whirlwind pattern with a spatula, and sprinkled paprika on top. He stood back, arms folded, satisfied. Bill needed to answer someone, though no one else was there.
“I…I’m…” The words caught in his throat. “I’m here.” He breathed a little harder, closed his eyes, and nodded his head. “I’m okay.”
After stretching plastic wrap over the bowl, he walked out of his apartment, heading up the stairs to 213.