cassoulet to go
BY FORTUNATO SALAZAR
Fidel held his breath, but no, the orange and white Fiat wasn’t in the parking lot. A motorcycle cop kept watch over the police tape at the intersection. At least the Fiat had been moved. The Fiat has been squared away, thought Fidel. The motorcycle cop still wore his helmet. He was drinking coffee through a straw.
Back upstairs, Fidel paused to give JT a broad, exaggerated smile. Then he joined in with JT, folding towels side by side at the counter. “Last night I answered the phone and it was a woman doing a survey about my income,” Fidel said.
“I would have no problem with that,” JT said.
“She had a Southern accent,” Fidel said. “First she asked a bunch of questions about where I live and so forth. Demographics. Then she launched into the income part. Do I make less than $15,000 a year. Do I make more than $15,000 but less than $20,000.”
“End of story,” JT said.
“Ha ha,” said Fidel. He put his hands palms down on the counter, rested his weight on his hands. “Do I make more than $20,000 but less than $30,000,” he went on. “Do I make more than $30,000 but less than $40,000. Do I make more than $40,000 but less than $50,000.”
Another jihadist clomped up the stairs and asked about a day pass. “No day passes for jihadists,” Fidel told the slender young man while handing him a clipboard with an application form. Fidel pretended to jump back in alarm when the man reached inside his vest. He jumped all the way back to the opposite counter. He pretended to slump in relief. “Okay, just your wallet,” he said. “Billfold,” said the jihadist.
“Anyway,” said Fidel, once the jihadist had trudged back down the stairs, “the woman asked do I make more than $50,000 but less than $60,000. Do I make more than $60,000 but less than $70,000. Do I make more than $70,000 but less than $80,000. And on and on. Do I make more than $100,000 and less than $110,000. Do I make more than $110,000 and less than $120,000. At that point I interrupted her. I said, ‘Sorry to interrupt, but at this rate we’ll be here all day.’”
“Ha ha,” said JT.
“Hang on,” said Fidel. “Then the woman gets all friendly and enthusiastic and says, ‘Well, then, how’s the weather out there?’”
“Your future helpmate is a telemarketer,” said JT.
JT told a story about listening to the news on the radio while driving up to visit his girlfriend in Port Hueneme. The announcer was reading breaking news about the discovery of chemical compounds on a comet passing nearby, molecules that were possibly a signature of life because they resembled the metabolic byproducts of microscopic life forms found on Earth in brutally inhospitable environments. “I could hear the worry in his voice. He was like, Is there any way I can get out of reading the next sentence? What’s that next sentence doing in a news item about life forms? That next sentence is making me really uncomfortable! I’m squirming and there’s nothing I can do about it! Please, someone spare me from the next sentence where I will have to say the word ‘orgasm,’” said JT.
“Life forms enjoying themselves on a comet,” said Fidel. “Evolving into complex life forms that carry the gene for male pattern baldness.”
JT ignored this jibe and went around the counter to empty the last-chance laundry bin into the big bin in front of the clothes dryer.
Another two jihadists moseyed up the stairs, looking as if they had time on their hands. They sized up the the refrigerated drinks, checked out the stacks of t-shirts, inspected the framed and signed black and white headshots along the wall.
When they approached the counter, Fidel said, “There’s currently a waiting list for employment applications.”
JT came up behind the jihadists. “Is the waiting list greater than 50,000 and less than 60,000?” said JT.
“Ha ha,” said Fidel. “No new employees until current employees pass away,” he said in a different voice.
“No current employees passing away?” said JT, also in a different voice.
“I ask myself that question all that time about the employees on my shift,” said Fidel, in his normal voice.
The jihadist with the sunglasses tucked into the neckline of his collarless button-up began sifting through the car keys in the wood box on the counter. Fidel bellied up to the counter, folded his arms, glared at the jihadist. The jihadist picked out a key with a pink fob. “Girlfriend,” he said.
It was lunch hour and the jihadists as they left had to squeeze past the traffic on the stairs. Soon a line had formed at the treadmills along the streetside windows. Fidel went to tidy up the magazine rack. After the magazine rack he collected the empty water bottles abandoned on the ledges along the bottoms of the windows. After the water bottles he adjusted the channels for the overhead televisions so that the TV behind the counter showed an episode of a series one of whose supporting actors was a regular who left damp magazines behind in the cup holder of his treadmill.
Observing himself in the glass partition at the rear of the cardio room, Fidel danced with his upper body while keeping an eye out for clients who walked off from a machine without wiping it down. Fidel imagined himself in a Swedish club, a club in Stockholm, a vast dance floor, lasers. The Swedish woman who never smiled asked him questions about his work as they danced. She’d had her baby with her, in a forward-facing baby carrier, the baby with tight blonde curls, when she tapped him on the shoulder at the Swedish juice café. Now she was following up her line of questioning and they were in a groove of feeling the interesting cultural differences while letting the music take them separately to their own places. She would be hoarse in the morning from asking so many questions. She asked Fidel if he aspired to be an actor. Please, said Fidel, I still have some of my dignity left. She asked him if he knew many actors. He answered with a one-sentence teaser about his roommate. Later, on a rooftop as the sun came up over the Stockholm hills, he would elaborate about the prank. The Swedish woman would kick off her shoes and Fidel would map out the prank on the surface of the rooftop deck, or maybe the balcony of her apartment, using the shoes to represent the movements of the two protagonists.
Two more jihadists turned into the entrance of the gym, struck up the narrow stairwell. Fidel recognized the takeout trays they carried; they were from the diner across the street. The jihadists plunked the trays down on the counter and opened the lids.
“Wanna settle a bet?” said one of the jihadists.
“Is the bet for more than $30,000 and less than $40,000?” said JT.
“Is the bet for more than $40,000 and less than $50,000?” said Fidel. Then he said, “We usually don’t allow gambling on the premises, but for you two wage slaves we’ll make an exception.”
“It’s not a bet for money, anyway,” said the other jihadist.
“Is this a club sandwich?” said the first jihadist. He wore a backward baseball cap and his white earbuds dangled from around his neck. “Give us your considered opinion. What do you say, you order a club sandwich, this is what you get, did you get what you ordered?”
JT went from the rear of the counter area to the front of the counter area and looked at the trays. “What’s the issue here?” he said.
“No,” said Fidel. “No, JT. No no no. There is no issue. These are not club sandwiches. A club sandwich is a certain thing, these are not that thing. These are cut into halves. A club sandwich is not cut into halves. A club sandwich is cut into quarters. Where’d these come from, craft service?” he said to the jihadists.
“Ha ha,” said the first jihadist. “I wish.”
“I wouldn’t settle for these,” said Fidel. “I would take the position that they are not what you paid for. I would bring them back and ask to speak with management.”
“I’ve seen club sandwiches that were cut into halves,” said JT. “I’ve seen menus that listed club sandwiches and had photos of club sandwiches cut into halves.”
“You saw half of a club sandwich,” said Fidel. “You saw club sandwiches that were halfway into the process of becoming genuine club sandwiches.”
“That’s exactly what I said to him,” said the first jihadist.
Fidel raised his forearm to give the jihadist a high five. “Dude,” he said.
“Dude,” said the jihadist.
After the jihadists went back down the stairs, JT wanted to make a bet about which weighs more, a sea lion or a German Shepherd. Fidel was tired, he’d been on his feet since the gym opened at 5:00 am. He told JT that it wasn’t a bet if they both knew that a German Shepherd weighs more. He was signed up for the kickboxing class at the end of his shift. “James Taylor once had a healthy head of hair,” he said to JT. “He must have known it wouldn’t last. He must have seen the writing on the wall. His fate confronting him in the mirror every time he looked. He was doomed and he knew it. His head of hair was programmed for doom. But did he let that stop him, JT? Did he lie down and wallow in self-pity? Did he wake up every morning and begin to mope even before the alarm went off? No, JT, he did not. He seized the fleeting moment. He did not let the moment slip away. He became legendary while he still had his impressive head of hair.”
“A churning urn of burning funk,” said JT.
“Women ran their fingers through his hair not knowing the tragic changes on the horizon,” said Fidel. “But James Taylor knew. The women oohed and aahed and shifted his bangs around, trying on different looks. They smoothed down his bangs. Soon he would not have bangs to smooth. The knowledge motivated him. In no time at all women would be caressing his brow and affectionately needling him about the hair he once had. Every woman he would be with in the future would be compelled to needle him. A dire future, but did he run away from it?”
“Long ago I embraced my future as a legend destined to be needled,” said JT.
Just then four jihadists taking the steps two at a time presented themselves at the counter. “Change of plans,” said the jihadist who worked as a barista in the juice café downstairs. “Finished for the afternoon. These are my buddies Omar, Ahmed, and Youssef. Omar is going to show me his shoulder workout. They need something they can work out in. I told them you could fix them up. They’ll go in as my guests,” the jihadist added.
“JT can fix them right up,” said Fidel. “JT has an innate gift for choosing the correct attire. Behold the splendor of JT’s own attire.”
JT sorted through the lost and found bin beneath the counter and brought out a jumble of cotton and Lycra.
“Sweaty clothes left behind in someone’s locker, really?” said one of the jihadists.
“What do you take us for?” said Fidel. “JT, do your impression of the washing machine when it has an unbalanced load.”
“The wheels came off. The wheels came off. The wheels came off,” said JT in a voice without intonation as he logged the jihadists into the computer on the counter.
After the jihadists had vanished down the stairs that led to the locker room, Fidel said, “JT, a future of limitless possibilities lies before you.”
“I have no problem with that,” said JT.
Fortunato Salazar's recent fiction and translation appear at PEN America, VICE, J Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.
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