“Pretzels? No. Well, yes. Yes, pretzels. They’re healthier than chips. Salty, crunchy, dip-able. Ahhh but…processed wheat. Gluten. Nutrition? None. And the sawdust flavor. What a shitty snack. Chips will be fine. Well actually, damn. Chips or bacon. Too much trans fat, definitely can’t have both. Bananas. Grapes. Chips Ahoy? Noooo, no chips ahoy. That last BMI result. Just think about that. Feel that jiggly wiggly. No, nope–not Chips Ahoy. Get out of the snack section, leave the snack section immediately.”
Stuart Dimpleton looked up. Realizing that he was mumbling to himself, he moved the pretzels from shelf to cart and back again. A greying woman with too much lipstick stood near the graham crackers, mystified, staring from the corners of her eyes. He forgot what he was doing. His round cheeks flushed scarlet. He put the pretzels in his cart.
Next up, greeting cards. Without looking, without even stopping his cart, Stuart–Stu as his internet friends called him–swiped at the shelves. One “birthday,” three “anniversary,” two “condolences,” one “graduation.” That’s fine, that’ll do. They were always getting new ones in. Perfect for his collection. Perfect for writing. The stutter didn’t transfer to the page, the beautiful page where he could say something and be understood; where he was competent and normal and at times even a bit witty.
After the cards, it was almost time to pay. He had a game coming up…a championship FFA RPG against @Galactaslasher35. It was everything he was building toward. A title shot. Stu should have been home, practicing. But he was out of cards. And the only thing worse than not warming up before a championship match would be not writing a card. “Sh-shouldn’t have come here t-t-today.” He swung around the corner and saw the register. “Heartbeat accelerating” he whispered to himself. “Dick sh-sh-shrinking. Butterflies. Butterflies. T-t-tapping.” He tapped at his wrist–part of the new biofeedback program his therapist had him on. Then his attention was diverted. “Heartbeat dra-dropping.” The umbrellas had finally come in. He was waiting for that. “Th-thank Jesus.” He said and pulled a black umbrella out of the display case, placing it in the cart.
The last step in this process was historically the most difficult. Stu pulled his wallet out and prepared the credit card, flexing it to the point of snapping. He focused on his breath and scratched at his receding hairline. Deep and slow. Deep and slow. He was second in line at the register and the woman ahead was removing an obscene number of hair products from her basket. Nobody should have that much soap, Stu thought. He honed in on the tabloids. Brad Pitt was gay again, and Angelina had forgotten make-up. Stimulating, but nothing in relation to that soap. Mom always said conditioner was unnecessary. The card pulsed in the puddle of his sweaty palm.
“Hello sir, how are you today?”
Stu focused on the screen, thinking of self-checkout lanes and the store’s refusal to implement them.
“Having a good day?” The lady asked.
Stu watched her slide the bacon across the scanner as if in slow motion. His stomach twisted. The words nearly escaped as he reacted to his mistake. He almost said something. But the thought of creating a hold up for the other shoppers, of dealing with that kind of pressure froze his tongue. He could only stuff his hands in his pockets as the wrong bacon dropped into the bag. Pepper. Pepper bacon. His heart accelerated. He hated pepper. And today, of all days, was not the day to change his pregame routine. Being at the store was already a huge compromise to his performance. Stu felt his mind beginning to spin, to tumble, into a negative loop. He needed focus. Stu’s shoulders curled forward. “Gandalf gets a snack today.” Rationalization complete, he relaxed.
The elevator dings, the dog barks. Stu stepped onto the 18th floor of his long time home-away-from-home and heard the insistent yelps of Gandalf the pug. It was a misnomer to be certain, but in the blind chance of puppy litter lottery, you never know what the mature creature will become.
“H-h-hello G-great wizard.”
“I b-b-brought bacon.”
Gandalf stared up at his benefactor and shook his stumpy rear. And then, satisfied with the greeting, returned to his sleeping pad, unaware of the riches being offered by the person in front of him. Stu and Gandalf weren’t so dissimilar.
After setting down the bag, Stu began the pre-game ritual. Three laps around the apartment counter-clockwise, a 32 ounce Mountain Dew, a cigarette (only on game days) and brushing his teeth with his left hand. Reluctantly, he skipped the bacon and moved directly to the card. He always wrote to mom before his games. She said it was important to record his emotions before big events, to see who he really was when it mattered most. And after the game, when she had received his card, mom would always write one back, congratulating or consoling him on the outcome. His Alienware computer loomed alter-like from the corner, demanding devotion.
“Soon.” He whispered.
Stu stared out the window, taking in the haze of another coastal day, and cracked his knuckles. The immensity of the battle to come began to soak in. If he won, he was accepted into Promethia, an elite clan of the amateur gaming circuit. It was a single step away from a potential career in the industry. But to get there, he had to take down a one-time friend in Galactaslasher.
It took him a day to get out of bed. And when he did, it was only through the sheer necessity of cleaning up the mouldering dog piss on the carpet. He swabbed at the yellow stains and felt the sucking empty that comes in the wake of crushed dreams. His mind sizzled, looking for purpose or solace or even tears. All he found was numb. Numb everywhere; an utterly vibrant void of any feeling whatsoever. Grey light channeled in from a single skylight, coloring Gandalf’s disinterested, accusatory stare. Looking at the fridge, Stu realized he hadn’t eaten.
The door opens, the smell arrives. Something had gone bad. But it didn’t matter. He fumbled about and grabbed a triangular slab of aluminum foil. He closed the door and unwrapped two slices of stale pizza, tore off a paper towel, and popped them in the microwave. As the crusty cheese popped to the radioactive rhythm, Stu looked to the fridge again. Colorful and vibrant, the entire thing was adorned with greeting cards. “Congratulations!” “Best Wishes!” “Happy Birthday!” It wasn’t his birthday though. They were…Stu stopped to think about it. That batch of cards is…at least a month old. I guess I could do that today. I could write some more. Yeah, I think that’s what I’ll do today. Fuck it.
He forgot about the pizza and moved to the cards, and one by one, took them from their magnetized perches. He opened one.
Dear Stu, I’m very proud of you today. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, but I can tell that you are working hard. You are pursuing your dreams and as a mother, I couldn’t ask for anything else. I know you have a big game coming up and I hope that you have been training as hard as you always do. I think this will be a big step for you, and maybe once the game is over, you can come visit. I get lonely without you, and it’s pretty quiet where I am. It gets cold at night, and I always worry when they turn the sprinklers on that my bed will flood. And as you know, I can’t move, so I’d just have to lay there and get all wet! Kinda funny to think about. Anyway son, I just want to let you know that I’m thinking of you. I miss you. Time goes by all too quickly. You’re eternally in my heart.
Stuart closed the card and dropped it into the garbage. The next ten followed suit. He stared at the bare white door of the refrigerator and listened to the last dying sizzles of boiling pizza. What would he fill the space with today? What could he possibly say that hadn’t already been said? How could mom lift him up after the death-knell of defeat? It didn’t matter. The only concern was the page and the steady hand and the clarity. Though his own speech, his own life, were punctuated by an eternal stutter, his writing voice and his pen hand remained useful. Normal. Just like everyone else.
Pulling a card at random from the grocery bag which hadn’t moved, Stuart sat down at his kitchen table. He picked up a pen.
“Talk to me, m-m-mommy.”
His hand began to move.