Sam in a Slipshod Style
Some girl swept the floor and some guy was at the door. Sam picked up the phone.
“Hello!” she began, which was the wrong beginning. She was supposed to begin with “Good morning,” or rather, “Good Morning!”
“Good Morning!” she cried, “Fletcher, Fletcher and West! This is, thank you for calling. Fletcher, Fletcher and West! Samantha speaking?”
She wasn’t supposed to say “Samantha speaking.” That was an accident; she was supposed to end the bit with a decisive and non-exclamatory “Fletcher, Fletcher and West.” A name implies an identity, which, for a receptionist, is the opposite of the point. She was meant to come off happy and absent, like a recording of a voice, a nothing woman who looked like nothing and had no life. If you imagined her apartment, it would be bare and have no pictures on the walls.
“Good morning,” said the person, a man, “Good morning, Samantha. Erm, I’m here to speak with, heh-heh-heh, Fletcher?”
“Um, which Fletcher?” Sam asked.
A block of silence.
“Fletch,” said the man.
“Um, they’re both Fletch,” she explained, “They’re… father and son. They both go by Fletch. Are you looking for, um, Andrew, or Matt? Matthew.”
“I honestly don’t know,” said the man, who was English.
“Um, is he, like, old…er? With, like, white hair?”
She laughed at how stupid she sounded. She liked this man. He wanted her to have pictures on her walls.
“And, um, a white beard?”
“Or is he, like, mid-forties-ish. With, like, glasses? And, um, he’s usually wearing a brown suit? I’m sorry, um,” she giggled, “He, um, wears a lot of brown.”
The man laughed.
“Yeah. That’s the one. The little man, with little glasses, no frames. Just the, what’s it called, the glass?”
“The lens,” Sam laughed, “The lenses.”
“The lenses,” he repeated.
“That’s Matt Fletcher. You want Matt Fletcher.”
“Okay,” said the man, “Can I speak with Matt, then?”
“Um, I think he’s in a meeting right now,” she lied, not thinking it but knowing it. Because she liked the man, she lied so as not to let him down. Also, she wanted to draw out their conversation.
“Well, I’ve got to talk to him,” he said.
He was being less nice now. Their friendship had dissipated. It never existed at all.
“K, hold on,” she mumbled, and pressed down the hold button. She hung up the receiver, and checked her email. Two unread emails: one from the Sephora email list (“Our new summer palette”), the other from Ben, Ben unnecessarily confirming that he understood her confirmation: Yes, she’d be outside around seven. Sam didn’t respond; there was nothing else she could say. All she could do was not die.
She pressed down on hold again.
“Um, yeah,” she said, exaggerating dejectedness, “He’s definitely in a meeting. It’s a meeting of the partners.”
“Well,” said the man, “Just, erm, tellim Keith called. Tellim give Keith a ring.”
“Will he know what that means?” asked Sam, “Will he know who you are?”
“Yeah,” said Keith.
It was summer today. She thought of all the other summers and winters and her summers/winters pattern. This was the first first day of summer her summers/winters pattern had ever been inapplicable.
Sam knew that breaking patterns was a good thing, her therapist was always urging her to do so. Over the years (of therapy), she’d learned so deeply that “Break the pattern!” is usually the best advice (often the only advice) she no longer required sessions weekly, if even monthly. She missed therapy: it was such a fun way to kill an hour self-indulgently, two if you count the commute.
(She counted the commute. All hours killed are good hours.)
But she couldn’t afford it anymore, and she couldn’t feel alright about asking her father for $125 a week just so she could “externalize” and have this woman say “Break the pattern!” when she knew to break the pattern anyway. She had long since learned how to identify patterns and now she broke them without even noticing she’d broken them. She’d feel new and happy and wonder why and then she identified that it was because she’d broken a pattern; it was the relief she felt specific to pattern-breaking.
She didn’t feel that relief right now––why? Oh it’s because deriving cheap and momentary happiness from breaking a pattern had, sadly, become a pattern. So she had broken two patterns. She held her face to the sun to get a tan.
Her summers/winters pattern was that she always used to be sad in the winter and happy in the summer, but today, in the summer, she was sad.
There are only so many things a person can do on the Internet and at this point it has become just as boring as the real life it was once meant to help avoid. So this was her job, and her life, and things. Every night, she’d think back upon her day, and the morning seemed like it happened a hundred years ago. Every day was like a little life.
“Jessica,” said Matt Fletcher.
“Samantha,” Sam corrected.
“I’m sorry,” said Matt, “Samantha.”
“Sam, actually,” she half-smiled, shrugging, “Really. Just Sam is fine.”
“Okay!” Matt replied, “Sam. Sam. I’ll make a mental note of that.”
He tapped his skull with his right index finger to hammer home the point of how serious he was about making a mental note of the new receptionist Samantha preferring to go by Sam.
“Um, there’s a message for you,” said Sam, “I understand that what I’m supposed to do in this situation is email you the message and who it’s from in, um, the template, you know. I’ve done it before.”
Matt Fletcher made no effort to indicate that he had any memory of her having correctly done it before with the template. He just stood there.
“This man called,” Sam continued, “Keith. He was British. Um, he said you’d know who he was? I tried to get more, um, information out of him, more, um, specifics, but he was really… like, resistant? To it?”
Matt Fletcher looked at Sam. He looked very hard at Sam.
“Keith,” said Matt, “Is Keith Richards.”
“Oh! From the Rolling Stones?”
Matt didn’t answer her question; the answer was too obvious. He cocked one feathery eyebrow, seeming excited, laughed a little, and trotted off to his office, where Sam could only assume he would call Keith Richards.
She felt lightheaded and thought of every time she’d ever listened to the Rolling Stones song “Happy,” and it meant something about herself to herself, that she had liked him on her own.
It really was summer now. The air smelt like bee bodies, and white little flowers fluttered down and off the trees all around her, summer’s snowflakes. It would be most convenient to cut through the park but it was hard for her. Everybody loved the park and made such a big deal out of loving the park. They seemed so proud of themselves for loving the park, this incredible and subversive thing they did that meant something, if at all anything. A landfill of Nalgene bottle enthusiasts and perfect recyclers, riders of fixies and fans of things. They lived in a city and in the middle of the city was a park. They gave the park a name. They named it So-and-So Park and everyone called it “So-and-So.” They had turned the park into a bar.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was Ben.
“Hey,” she said.
“It’s Ben,” said Ben.
“I know,” said Sam, “I saw it on my call display. It’s 2011, you know? We all have it.”
Ben ignored her.
“Lindsay’s here,” he huffed.
“Like, at your house?”
“No! She’s at the airport! Her flight got in early! We have to go! We have to go now!”
“Oh, um, okay,” Sam droned, “I mean, I’m just walking home right now, so I’ll just, like, keep doing that, because, like, I don’t really have any other choice. I can walk a little bit faster if you want.”
“You have to get here immediately!” he cried.
“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” she said dully. She had no intention of walking a little bit faster.
“How long do you think you’ll be?” he asked, frantic.
“Half an hour,” she replied, “Don’t have a brain aneurysm and die.”
She pressed down on the picture of the red phone that looked nothing like the phone she held and, if anything, walked slower than before.
On the way to the airport, it rained. Sam felt so tired driving.
“May I ask you how your date went?” asked Ben.
Sam hated that “can I ask you a question?” type shit.
They sat alone in silence listening to the whoosh of windshield wipers wiping while Sam waited for Ben to ask her how her date went. She would say nothing, she decided, until he asked, because that was truly what he had implied he wanted to have happen. It was his own fault.
“That’s what you get for phrasing your question so stupidly,” she thought.
Ben relented: “So… how’d it go?”
His face had grown bloated since the last time she saw him, only about two weeks ago. She guessed he’d done a lot of drinking miserably while Lindsay was away.
“What is it with my generation and alcoholism?” she wondered, “Is it Mad Men?”
“Um, it was nice,” she admitted, deciding to tell the truth, “Pete’s a great hang, you know, he’s always good to hang out with. That’s why we always hung out, but, I mean, I’ll date him, I guess, out of boredom, or to avoid confrontation, but really, like, you know… I’m not single because I’m ugly, you know? I just don’t see this blossoming into any sort of great relationship or anything.”
“Aw, come on,” Ben protested, “Pete’s great! You guys would be so great!”
Today was exactly like a story she would write. Every character was empty but the narrator.
“Guess what?” she asked.
“I talked to Keith Richards on the phone today.”
Ben was looking at his iPhone. Either he didn’t hear her or her incredibly interesting lead-in that any normal cool person in the world would have cared about had been upstaged.
“Lindsay just texted me!” he exclaimed, “She’s crying!”
Sam sat alone in the cell phone waiting lot and listened to “Happy” by the Rolling Stones on her iPod plugged into the iPod jack. It was her third- or fourth-favourite Rolling Stones song; she loved it in the same way she loved “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles: as an unapologetic ode to co-dependence. She would listen to either or both of them when she wanted to feel validated in her belief that she was nothing if not conjoined to the idea of a man who existed in her head.
This Keith thing wasn’t wasted on her. She loved that sixties rock and roll, it made her feel like she could do things. The Beatles were as big as the day, and the Rolling Stones were like the night. “Gimme Shelter,” in particular, was like night. Every song by either band corresponded to a moment or memory from her life, even if that memory was just of a time she listened to the song and felt motivated by it. Those songs were also those moments; they were the two together. She was the Jude in “Hey Jude.”
Amazed and in awe of the world maybe being the right place after all, in awe of the right thing happening to the right person, in awe of her own finally being that right person, she cranked the volume and played “Happy” a second time, but it stopped working. All the songs had stopped working about three months ago, but then Keith Richards called and it came back for that first listen, she’d had it again only once but while she had it she thought she’d have it back forever, but she was wrong. She’d shifted. These men were nothing like her. They got rich and famous early and never worked a hard day’s night in their lives. The words were wrong.
She thought the lyric went “Always burn a hole in my pants,” not “Always burned a hole in my pants,” and she hadn’t realized it connected to the preceding lyric, “Never kept a dollar past sunset.” Sam had never really kept a dollar past sunset either, but she had so many less dollars than Keith it wasn’t even worth comparing, it made her feel sick, and she wanted it all to go back to the way it was before, before she’d Googled the lyrics to “Happy,” when she thought he always burned the hole in his pants with his cigarette, being scrappy and uncoordinated––now that she would have related to!
Next he sang: “Didn’t want to get me no trade,” “Never want to be like Papa, workin’ for the boss every night and day,” and she was annoyed by the phrasing of “get me no trade.” Why did he talk like that? He was not a poor Southern American, it was disingenuous. And how patronizing, “The last thing I need is the guitar player of the Rolling Stones judging me for having a trade and a boss.” How dare Keith Richards sing songs like this mean crap when he couldn’t have known she had no other option? Did he see it as weakness in others, all us weak-willed people lacking the chops and sturdiness it takes to become the guitar player of the Rolling Stones?
And then he said he never got a lift out of Learjets and you’re supposed to feel proud of him because he didn’t buy into the glitz and glamour of being the guitar player from the Rolling Stones. But maybe that was what was genuine and she could like it.
Everyone wants everyone else to be so proud of them. For loving the park, for not liking Learjets… for talking to Keith Richards on the phone.
Lindsay was still crying when she slammed herself into Sam’s backseat.
“Knock knock,” asked Sam.
“Who’s there?” asked Lindsay.
“Nicholas,” said Sam.
“Nicholas girls can’t climb trees!” Sam shrieked, grinning, “That was a British joke, for England. In honor of England. England!”
She held a fist to the air in England’s name.
“Fuck England,” Lindsay whimpered, “I need a cigarette. Can I have a cigarette?”
“Leave it to Lindsay to go to London and then come back crying and whimpering Fuck England,” Sam thought, punctuating her own thought with an eye-roll.
Sam wasn’t smoking today, so they stopped in at 7-11, where the baked-goods cabinet whirred warmly. You felt warmer standing next to it, it was bright. Ben waited in the car.
“Get a brownie,” said Lindsay.
“You get a brownie,” Sam shrugged, “I’m getting a cherry cruller.”
She picked up a cherry cruller with plastic tongs, like surgery, and slipped it into a waxy paper bag. The bag had a clear panel down the front so you could ogle your goodie.
“Ew!” Lindsay squealed.
“Are you ewing at my cruller?”
“A Buddhist monk once told me that the greatest injustice a human being can commit against another is to criticize the food they put into their body.”
Lindsay didn’t like that answer and she wore it on her bitchface.
“How very JD Salinger of you,” she clucked, and Sam thought What is this, What is this, What has the world come to that people talk like this, using JD Salinger’s name like this, and everyone knows what she means and we’re all so overeducated full of nothing; this is what we use it for. Clever meanness.
Sam just couldn’t go in for that kind of thing, and she couldn’t say “How dare you take JD Salinger’s name in vain!” because it would mean that she was part of it. For real, she didn’t care about taking JD Salinger’s name in vain whether to be doing it or damning it, or spelling your daughter Zoe’s name Zooey, so many crimes against JD Salinger. They weren’t real problems, and she wouldn’t act like they were.
“Lucy’s so beautiful,” Lindsay sighed as they exhaled smoke out front.
“She’s not that beautiful,” said Sam, “Her face is too pointy.”
“Angular,” Lindsay corrected.
“No,” said Sam, “Pointy.”
She saved her cherry cruller in her purse until she’d let them out. Before driving away, she ripped off a piece of cruller and ate it. Her teeth cut through the crispy icing, a crackling feeling, and the soft cake inside was freckled with drops of hot red cherry.
Why did Keith’s crazy hands look like that? Were there extra muscles in the fingers from playing guitar a lot? His nailbeds were so wide it made her sick: it wasn’t normal, it wasn’t human. And then the weirdest muscly parts were the sections beneath the nailbeds, which puffed up and flared out wider than his knuckles, which is irregular. The widest parts of fingers are supposed to be the knuckles and Sam checked her own fingers to make sure. Yes, the knuckles. He wore his skull ring.
“I like your ring,” Sam said weakly.
Keith didn’t bother with words, just flicked up his chin and smiled a long, thin smile. How many people in Keith’s whole life have told him they liked his skull ring? It’s weird to think of what that would do to you, hater of Learjets, “Never got a flash out of cocktails,” how is that even true? Dude, you are an alcoholic. He must mean to say cocktails as in cocktails vis-á-vis swigging Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle. Or heroin. Heroin, heroin, heroin. Please, Keith, regale me. Regale me with tales of your heroin use! You wear your heroin tales on your sleeve like your heart.
Say it, Keith. Say you like my dress. Say to me, tell me I am everything like Anita Pallenberg in Morocco.
Keith being fidgety with his charms. Sam stared at his face unapologetically, memorizing every lick of it. Some people live their entire lives without ever sitting four feet away from Keith Richards’ face and they are unlucky. She kind of wanted to yell
Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you Love you
But yeah, she began with his nose, a bummy old nose with a twisted tip. After Keith went off with Fletch, Sam Google-imaged pictures of young Keith to see if his nose had always cocked off like that and it had, but not that much. Noses keep growing your whole life, right? Even off to the side. And it was redder than the rest of his face; it was no color she had ever seen before. A sotty red nose burnished brown from the sun, so much sun, it was mauve, almost. There were lines on his cheeks that ran north-to-south; she twitched her face around to see a lifetime of which facial expressions could engrave those lines but none, it seemed, in her case. She wanted to run a fingertip lightly across them with her eyes closed and feel the grooves and dips.
It looked like under his skin, instead of flesh, there was rope. His chin was weak, but it had always been. His lips were inside his mouth, and his eyes were basset hound bloody, though the soul in his eyes was nice and a little devilish. He was a scamp, he sure was one, a scallywag through-and-through. Keith. It was the first time she’d looked at someone and wished that she could be him. She would throw it all away in one second, her whole life of Sam and of being Sam, she would forget it all and never know it and all Sam would be was this girl sitting in front of her, twisting a lock of hair around her finger and not doing work at work. A nothing girl.
“I am Keith. This is my life, this is Keith’s life. Keith= me. I love my wife Patti Hansen and my two socialite blonde ornately-named daughters. I knew they would be beautiful because my wife is a model. My son Tara died when he was a baby and it makes me sad to think of it. I love Jamaica and the blues. I fell out of a tree once; here’s my recipe for bangers and mash I put in my book. Paul McCartney lives down the cay from me in Jamaica, and together we thought of an idea to make inflatable dog homes out of plastic textiles in the pattern of the dog breed, like Dalmatian-print for Dalmatians. Bill Wyman drinks a horrible cup of tea and Brian Jones had no neck. Here are some songs I co-wrote: Ruby Tuesday, Street Fighting Man, Ventilator Blues. Charlie Watts is a great friend of mine. Mick is so annoying. I wear my heroin tales on my sleeve like my heart.”
He wore a black Henley, a silver chain with a charm of a wishbone, a moss green velvet vest, a black sport coat, black leather Converse, and silvery jeans. He wore a rainbow-colored scarf around his head and the texture of his hair was like moss. He had charms hanging off his hair, little silver charms tied to pieces of red leather tied to his hair, she thought it was so weird to imagine him prinking in the mirror before he got here, attaching the charms to the cord and the cord to his hair. Did he sleep with his charms in? Why did he decide to do that? It was such a creepy look.
“Oh my God,” she realized, “I can’t believe how off the charts my misanthropy levels are getting, like, oh God, Sam––What? Even Keith Richards isn’t cool enough for you?”
But yeah. She didn’t know. Does coolness mean something, or what? And whether it does or doesn’t, what does it mean to mean something? Oh, heavy: what does the word mean even mean? She got it: it means connote. There is an answer to every question. She can solve every problem. She will solve every problem, and she will solve them alone.
This was the solution to why she’d broken her summers/winters pattern: she no longer lived for the possibility of someone else solving it. And when someone else used to not exist to solve it, she would look to something. Like Beatles songs, or the summer. But it had never really worked for her, and now she knew that, and that was why she was sad this summer, but now she’d solved the sadness, a weight off her shoulders. She could make herself happy. “Happy.”
That night, she watched Keith videos on Youtube all night and one of them was from the seventies and the interviewer said “You do so many drugs, it seems like you’re going to die,” and Keith said he’d never die, he couldn’t die, “I’m too… sturdy,” he said, and Sam realized then that there is something you can do, to make yourself not die, and she would do it. Some people get sick, and some people die young, but you won’t, you’ll never die, because you did the thing that Keith did. All your friends die. Every night you couldn’t sleep you were just EQing your own death, which will be insomnolescent. The way you can’t sleep now is the way you can’t die later. You’ve spent the past fifty years trying to die, but you can’t die. You don’t understand how one dies, though you can sleep. You are bored, lucid and alone. All the things you thought you’d rather die than do, you did them.
One of Keith’s charms was of a conch shell. Her desk, arranged in a slipshod style, was decorated with (among other junk) three conch shells. Conch shells everywhere! She held one up for Keith to see.
“Look!” she said, “Like in your hair!”
As she spoke she heard the tweak of a doorknob and Matt Fletcher came booming out of his office. He bounced on over to reception, and just as Keith began to speak, Fletch gave him a handshake that turned into a hug. Together they walked away.
Sam, still holding the conch shell, looked at it. She brought it to her ear.
A susurrus is the song of the ocean a shell sings to non-passive-aggressively remind us that it’s been stolen away from somewhere. Every story she wrote ended with an impactful last sentence about her narrator confronting hopelessness and accepting it.
art by Danny Jock