"Are you eating bread again?"
"For crying out loud, man!" the voice came high and crackling over the phone, "It’s your day off! At least pretend to eat something decent! There’s leftovers in the fridge, you know!"
"I bought the bread, I’ll eat the bread."
"Yeah, don’t remind me. You make three times what I do and yet you live off bread and water. I don’t get it."
"Saving for what?"
"Oh, I don’t know," he said around a mouthful of bread, "maybe to move out of this cruddy little apartment and start my own life?"
"What, you don’t like our bunkbeds?"
"I don’t like the two futons we jerry-rigged on top of each other with duct tape, no."
"Hey, watch the ‘jerry’ stuff, buddy. I’m German, remember."
"And I’m Jewish. You owe me."
"So… what are you calling me for, anyway?"
"I wanted to make sure you were eating, and not just… you know."
"Awwww, you’re looking out for me?"
"Of course I am. If you die, I couldn’t afford our place."
"Nice to know someone cares, I guess… You could always go back and live with your Mom."
"Only losers go back and live with their parents."
"Like I did?"
"Thanks," he sniffed, "Besides, I’m sure the busking would be better out by the I, anyway. You could set up shop over by Prime Outlets or something."
"Are you kidding?! Those gingerbread houses are a load of bunk. You know who lives there?"
"People with a stable income, unlike you?"
"Stable income my eye! Those places out in the Prairie are just barely there, know what I mean?"
"No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me…"
"It’s full of your wannabe Ward Cleaver types," he continued without actually listening to the previous response, "You know, sad sacks who think they need the fancy-pants house and the overpriced jalopy and Columbia jackets when their kids are growing like weeds… they live every day in terror that they won’t be able to afford that trendy lifestyle, but they gotta keep buying, gotta keep up appearances… those people wouldn’t give me a dime if I was dying, man."
"So instead, you’re choosing to set up shop in downtown? Last time I checked, downtown was pretty… dead."
"Don’t get me started! All those chuckleheads migrating to the Interstate… THIS is where the real life is!"
"So, you’re going to resurrect the entire downtown by sitting on a pickle bucket and playing the spoons?"
"Not just the spoons," he shot back indignantly, "I’ve got my pennywhistle, my Jew’s Harp…er, sorry…"
"And my nose flute. I’m a regular one man band!"
"I’m sure Phillip Glass would dig it," the first one said, "now let me get back to sleep, it’s my day off."
"Are you going to see her?"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about."
"You can’t fool me, Jason Oakes," his voice giggled over the line, "I’ve been able to read you since the third grade. You’re going to go see… her."
"I just need to get some groceries."
"Then why don’t you go to a grocery store?"
"Because I get a discount."
"It’s basically the same price, then, and not as good of a selection."
"I’m showing company loyalty."
"Bullroar!" he laughed, "The only thing you have loyalty to is that hot little number at the cash register, and you know it!"
"I’m hanging up now."
"Yeah, I probably should too, before someone steals my bucket."
"Oh, the humanity," Jason shot back with biting sarcasm.
"I’ll see you this afternoon, bud," the voice said, "Unless you’re out…shopping…"
Jason hung up. That was the way it usually went with his oldest friend: Jason had always believed that those were truly the only people in the world you could be rude with. That’s probably what made him so good at his job, and if it wasn’t for the job, he wouldn’t have known… her.
Jason Oakes sat alone, in his underwear, in the dark bedroom of an apartment above the Olive Tree Restaurant in downtown . The downtown had seen better days, but he had been right about it. Marco was right about downtown: it had a soul, a sense of past and purpose and necessity that the drywall jungles out by the interstate just couldn’t match. Jason couldn’t imagine himself living anywhere else, and from the day he’d seen that faded For Rent sign in the restaurant window, he knew this is where he could call home, where he could start his life after college… and now he was sitting in the dark in Spongebob boxer shorts.
It was his day off, he told himself, he could do what he wanted. He spent all week busting his butt, answering phones, and listening to hundreds of people tell him that their cash register didn’t work, and somehow it was his fault. Still, the pay was good, and every once in a while, he came across a friendly voice. It was easy to forget that the voice coming through the earpiece belonged to an actual human after a while, but sometimes there was a voice, and there was something about a voice, that made you sit up and take notice.
And sometimes, there was something about a voice that made you fall in love.
Jason looked down at his expansive belly, bemoaning that it was beginning to sprout hair. He thought briefly about his childhood, and how he knew hair would begin to sprout all over himself, and he tried everything he could think of to stop it. But, like some kind of unstoppable, monstrous horde, it could not be defeated.
Jason heaved a sigh and glanced at a clock on the wall, emblazoned with the Green Lantern logo: 11:30AM. It was probably time to put on pants. He wasn’t lying to Marco, he did have to go shopping. For one, they were out of bread, and Jason loved bread. However, getting bread involved one of two things:
A) putting on pants, and
B) heading to the local drugstore instead of the grocery store.
He did get a discount. It was about the same price. But Jason Oakes would have paid more than double to go to that shop every Friday and see her. To see Ginger .
It began over ten months ago. Jason had responded to your usual distress call from the mega-corporate pharmacy chain, with one unusual twist: this was his local store. It wasn’t anything too difficult, the PINpad had just needed to be recalibrated. If you don’t use the attached pen, if you use your finger, it’ll screw everything up. Really. Anyway, he was able to get everything up and working, and he bid the mysterious Ms. Washington goodbye… but he couldn’t forget her voice. It was the kind of voice he dreamed about: warm, smooth, comforting, but not without bite or intelligence. It didn’t grate on the ears, it didn’t come through the line as a mumbled mash of gibberish that nearly required a translator. It was clear and concise, the kind of voice that should be addressing Congress… and it was working the counter at the drugstore.
"Oh, man!" he remembered ducking behind a display of paper guitars, "She’s here!"
"Who’s here?" Marco had said, tearing into a box of cookies he hadn’t purchased yet, and probably wouldn’t, if Jason’s debit account was any indication.
"Ginger Washington," he said it like a dream, "Her voice is enough to make me melt, and now… there she is!"
Marco sauntered around the end of the aisle and had a look for himself.
"Yeah, she’s pretty hot," he said in a voice that was seventeen clicks too loud, "What’s her name again?"
With an anguish squeak, Jason pulled him back. Eventually, they had to pay for their purchase.
"You’ve got to pay for it."
"I don’t have the cash."
"I’ll give you the money!"
"Then why don’t YOU pay for it?"
"Because she’ll recognize my voice!"
"She might think I’m some crazy stalker or something. Plus, I don’t want her to equate that helpful guy on the phone to the cookie bandit here."
Marco looked down at the dessicated box, taking a moment to brush crumbs off his distended belly.
"I was hungry."
"Just… here’s a twenty. Go pay for it!"
"Why is there only one counter open, anyway?" Marco hissed as they began to walk.
"Budget cuts," Jason hissed under his breath as they approached the checkout, "can only afford one checkout at a time!"
As they approached the register, Jason fell absolutely silent. Ginger Washington was there in all her glory, chewing languidly on a Hershey bar: her skin was somewhere between a deep brown and a light umber, accentuated by a few barely visible tattoos. Her eyes were large and had a particularly arresting shade of hazel to them, even in the middle of day-to-day monotony. Her hair, jet black and flat-ironed, stopped just below her chin and jutted out over one heavily-traced eye, changed only by the occasional sparkle of several earrings in each ear. The not-regulation turtleneck she wore under her regulation green vest hugged her shape in a manner that would not have flown with corporate… if the manager was ever paying attention. Instead, she was able to get away with, on top of the turtleneck, a pair of bell-bottomed, hip hugging stonewashed black jeans. In brief, she was a cocktail of the rebellious, artistic, counter-cultural kind of woman Jason had been falling for since the age of twelve. And then she spoke.
If he hadn’t sworn himself to silence, Jason would have clammed up then out of sheer nerves. Marco rolled his eyes and put down what was left of the cookies. She rung them up with a sarcastic grin.
"Just couldn’t wait, huh?"
"What can I say," Marco said with a shrug, "I am no one’s master."
"Uh-huh," Ginger raised an eyebrow, "anything else I can do for you guys?"
"Nope," Marco grinned, happily pocketing the change, "Have a good one!"
He made to leave, but Jason was unmoving, dumbfounded. He was trying so hard not to look, not to stare, but something about this girl…
"Oh, that’s just my narcoleptic pal," Marco said with a chuckle, "Try not to wake him, or he’ll freak out!"
"I thought that was sleepwalkers," Ginger’s eyes narrowed.
Marco couldn’t think of an appropriate response, so he simply dragged Jason out of the store. On the short walk back home, Marco wasted no time. He wouldn’t out and out destroy his friend, but he reserved the right to mock him for his screw ups later.
"Smooth, pal. Real smooth."
"I mean it, you really got some Harpo charm working there."
"That’s putting it mildly. But tell me, did you manage to stop staring at her front long enough to see the back? That’s quite a pedigree she’s got going on, there."
"I’ll explain it later. So!" He threw a comradely arm around his friend’s shoulder, "Looks like you’re deeply, madly in love… again."
"Thanks," Jason’s tone was not particularly thankful.
"This would be the, what, third girl you’ve absolutely fallen for this year? Right? What is it about this one, huh? She might be a vegan? She probably has a vinyl collection of Minor Threat? She does sculptures out of recycled Yugos? I’m gonna say Yugos."
"You’re the best friend a guy could have, Marco. REALLY."
"I know," he grinned back, "Hey, the name’s not ‘Bastardo’ for nothing, bud. Come on, let’s head on over to Kaiser’s, my treat!"
"You’re holding my money."
"You gave it to me, didn’t you? Don’t worry, they got plenty of bread at Kaiser’s, you’ll be able to find something you like."
"Bread…" Jason muttered as they walked down 6th avenue, "Bread, bread… oh, crap!"
"What?" Marco asked, turning away from a brilliant, spring panorama of Lake Michigan. Jason slapped a palm to his forehead and groaned.
"I forgot to buy bread."
"Are you eating bread again?"