Mean World

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Fiction, Issue Twenty

I recognize the sequence, it’s from a show I used to watch in the middle of the night until I’d watched every episode at least three times. The animated gif soundlessly depicts a mostly toothless man, mouth wide open, crying like the dickens. The look in his eyes says he’s terrified of the sound his mouth is making but he can’t stop it from happening, and I can vouch that it is truly an unsettling sound because I’ve seen that particular episode at least three times. 

The gif is looping on my screen in the comments section of a highly inflammatory post about tapioca pudding. How I got here I may never know.

In the scene this gif is taken from, the mostly toothless man is informed that, even after years of chronic drug abuse, homelessness, and vile, demeaning behavior on his part, his adult son would like to see him. Maybe they could forge a new relationship. Upon hearing this unexpected news, the mostly toothless man looks around in amazement, like he’s suddenly in a new place he doesn’t understand. Then he opens his mouth and a sound comes out that would chill anyone to the bone. It’s bestial and full of sorrow; to call it simply a sound does not really do it justice at all. It is longing and love breaking through a decades-thick barrier of criminal numbness. I can hear it in my mind as the gif loops endlessly in front of me.

Beneath it, a gif of Honey Boo Boo appears, undulating, with YOU GOT PLAYED flashing above her head in Impact font. Seventeen people immediately like that comment. Four people laugh. All this for pudding!

I pour myself another gin & tonic and watch more comments and gifs appear out of thin air. It’s a mob, an attack-force of bored jackals. I watch with my lips pursed and my eyebrows up. They pour it on, the derision and the flippant animosity.

I keep hearing that sound in my head, a sound I’ve made myself a time or two, luckily alone.

I’m now in the habit of driving to Safeway every day around 10:45am to buy a bag of chicken wings, which is a sad, embarrassing thing to say. I find some reason to go there – for gin or yogurt or bird seed – but in my heart I’m there to buy chicken wings, which I can’t force myself to forget are still the wings of birds, though chickens are largely flightless. Think about that. Think about someone eating your fucking arms.

I used to own a chicken, a good-natured if skittish silkie, and sometimes I’d come home drunk to find it up in the lone, spindly tree in my front yard. So don’t let anyone tell you they can’t get off the ground a little. I came home one night and a possum was hunched over my chicken, blood all over its muzzle. I chased it with a shovel, it scurried off with the corpse.

The man behind the deli counter is dead-eyed and unbelievably hairy. I’ve been there one hundred and thirty-four days in a row for chicken wings but never does he offer any indication he’s seen me before.

I’m there right now and, as sometimes happens, there is a person throwing a fit, doing fake karate moves and screaming at the security guard in front of the exit. I’m standing there with my bag of chicken wings trying to determine if it’s safe to skirt around them or maybe it would be better to leave through the doors at the other end of the store. The person stops screaming at the security guard and takes a special interest in me. He stares at me like he recognizes me. He gestures at his hair, then mine, then gives me a thumbs-up. The security guard asks me if I know this person. With dead, dry eyes I reply that I do not.

In a work meeting, Tom asks about the Power Point deck I’ve been working on for weeks. He wants to know if I am any closer to finishing it. The deck concerns facial recognition technology and its implications for the banking industry. I think of the man at the deli counter. I tell Tom I am waiting for approval. When he asks me approval from whom, I change the subject, ask him if he’s heard the new banger from Lil’ Fuckhead. He says he has not but that he went to high school with Lil’ Fuckhead and his real name is Donny Erickson. His parents are real estate agents. I joke that Tom should write a tell-all and then we chuckle pleasantly and mutter something similar to goodbye.

I put the sticker back over the eye of my camera.

I get back to the tapioca pudding post, which is still on fire. There are now thousands of comments. Hundreds of gifs all looping at once. There’s Marie Osmond, there’s Fred Flintstone, there’s a man whose hair is on fire. There are hula-hooping Minions and cats vomiting on kitchen tables.

When they find my body I want them to understand how hard I tried to live up to my potential as a human being and I want someone – anyone, in fact – to make that long low mournful sound. Like they’ve been waiting for a reason to cry for thousands and thousands of years.

Read more Fiction | Issue Twenty

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