Robert Ready. Educated by nuns, brothers, and liberals, Robert Ready lives in NYC, Truro, MA, and teaches in NJ. Atmosphere Press published his novel, Eck: A Romance in 2021. His fiction has appeared in Antaeus, Mondo James Dean, RiverSedge, Reconfigurations, Antioch Review, Exterminating Angel Magazine, and elsewhere. His story “Carlas” appeared in the 2022/06/15 issue of The Galway Review. On writing, he sides with Ishmael: “God keep me from ever completing anything.”
Our Daily Pain
By Robert Ready
Martha Severance and Janice Ho were at the common table stretching down the middle of Our Daily Pain. Everybody translated from pain in this time of, one knows, give us this day our, etc. The big table had individual small benches for two on either side, close to social distance.
Marti and Janice tried to keep their voices low, but then they couldn’t get all each was saying about Marti’s breakup with Otto Faduro. More collateral sound was the music. The franchise manager-owner had the Verdi Requiem live from the Met leaking through the four ceiling speakers, not loud enough to be Verdi enough, just an odd undercry of ordinary pain. The performance was a rebroadcast of the one given live back in September on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Marti knew the manager was an operaphile atheist who made a point of saying once to each customer he got acquainted with, “Why would He even bother with leading us into temptation?” Chicken-soup cynicism, that—in its way, pretty good. Opera was necessary, but nothing was sacred.
Marti stared down into what she kept stirring, navy bean soup with a dollop of sour cream. It was important to blend the dollop all in. Janice never stopped wanting lovely Martha. Every little bite she took of her black truffle oil cold salmon toast points tasted of her desire for her mostly hetero friend whose heart was aching for that fool Otto.
Marti lifted her musky voice over the nobly frantic “Dies irae” so that Janice heard full.
“Like one of those new improved bandages you put on that starts shredding within hours. And when you take it off, the adhesive peels the skin around the wound. And really hurts. So that, you’re worse off for covering the wound to begin with.”
Marti marveled at the Asian beauty, the hyper-competent serenity of Janice. As a friend, her most important woman friend. She knew Janice’s desire, how it roiled Janice’s peace of mind. Sometimes, as she touched herself, she let the pleasant loop of their one weekend together take over her full erotic memory. But Marti wanted to opt for the security of straight, which described the fool Faduro to his plain open core. It totally sucked that the Faduro was facing increasing post-virus complications in his whole neural biology that doctors were busy inventing Latin-rooted names for but couldn’t really understand. He wasn’t a good bet for the long haul. Janice sympathized with Marti’s inexorable loss to come, even as her own word for that sympathy was damning: Problematic. It all gave inevitable complications a bad name.
At an angle three benches down the hewn and jointed redwood board from the two women, Jordan Freight sat opposite his mother, who was telling him about the Generation-Skipping Trust. Jordan had seen Martha Severance come in with the other woman. He was wondering if he should gesture hello to his former employee, or not. Distance working had rendered easy greetings awkward.
“God knows,” Frances Freight was saying, “your father worked hard for that money. It should be protected for your benefit.”
“God, Dad, you and I,” Jordan said, “know that for sure.” He didn’t mean it to sound the way it did. Which was something like ingratitude, indifference. The way Frances looked at him, she might revert to Grandfather Freight’s walking a thousand miles across Europe to get a boat to Scotland. She did not.
Jordan quietly considered his salmon. She took that back to ease and more detail he needed to be aware of. “Well, only God knows what will happen next.” She had started saying that a few years ago when her child grew to seven feet tall by the time he was twenty. Sudden clapping and cheering in static came through the speakers. Go, she thought, the Mass is over. God knows what happens next.
First there was one, a they.
DMV ticketer Mirabelle Landsend was in a Pain front window seat toting up the morning’s catch on her device.
They sat down on the bench for four next to hers. Belli Landsend tried to blink the sight away. Other Daily Pain customers looked and moded instantly into passive urban tolerance. One doing oatmeal with crème fraiche seemed to signal the baggy-blue-uniformed Landsend to do something. What, write a ticket for being expired, doubled, dumping, loitering? That part of her job that raised expectations of her as being akin to the police. The multiple-pronouned they—Mirabelle Landsend preferred me, my, mine, but just to herself—wore a whole head mask of grey paper mache that had nightmare hollows for eyes, nose, mouth and crinkled parchment ashy skin and handmade pustulant sores streaming into black scars. The rest of the outfit was artfully designed of sewn horror sweats and winding rags.
“You got some point?” Officer Landsend asked. “Or just nerve?”
In trooped three more they-them of the same theatric ilk. They looked around through their disgusting costumes, then clumped down beside the leader-they.
“We are harmless lepers.”
“Good for you,” Landsend said. She put her device away in her side patch pocket. “I’ll wait to see if you get waited on.”
“We are DAMIEN. Imagine it in big caps? DAMIEN.”
“I do,” the parking cop said. “An acronym?”
“Disabled and Maligned Insurgents Exploding Normal.”
“Good for you,” Landsend said. “If you can acronymic it, you own it.”
Already, the Pain waitstaff were insufficient in number for today’s trade. Just two women, Natash the jazz dancer who carried full trays as if they were empty, and Nydia the single mom, the elder and the more impatient at attitude from entitled Pain regulars. She kept social distance from the them as she just shook her whole upper body in one big twitch saying, “Ah, no. Whatever. No. We don’t have any Supersized Big Macs. Nothing really raw.”
“You have sickened the whole world,” one leper said.
“You have commodified our nutrients,” another said.
They third stood up tall, flailing arms, making dead-mouth aspirations, shaking a hollow lance up at the tin ceiling.
The fourth pounded purple-painted fists down and up the redwood board in a hard three-quarter time that must have come from serious tympani training.
All of them chanted, “We come from Lepers Leap. We are DAMIENs. The only future. Unless you give back the world.” Then they went suddenly nuts, streaking around and singing high Verdi Requiem notes over all the now-panicked Pain people, about things named Kira Esiason, Gloria Rojas, Credo Corleone, Sunk Toys, and Agnes Daley. They were getting right up to the inevitable point of intervention by a couple of the tougher customers.
Just before that point could happen, all the they formed a disciplined line and marched out the door onto the sidewalk, where they dispersed, their political theater done and gone.
“That situation,” Officer Landsend said quite out loud, “requires a response level of a different color.” She put her corn crispy in a little bag and carried it out the door with the rest of her gear belted around her waist and tapping her hips. She had violations to find and four hours to go. You can’t just go ticketing people for fake leprosy in a pandemic.
Out on the avenue three blocks north of Pain, the lepers regrouped after the handiest of them forced a cheap lock on an aluminum gate to a neighborhood green place. There was a round taxi-yellow concrete table with red spinnable soda-fountain-style stools. The place was for planting as long as you nurtured, meditating by an anthracite cat sculpture, non-competitive chess tournaments in which too many wins merited being barred, concert-like moments for stringed instruments from around the globe.
Leper Fanuel had practically grown up in a place just like it in Portland, Oregon. He was not a they, not yet, though he was being worked on by them to transmute. Leper Fanuel had single-mindedly invented the 4,000-word language they communicated in so as not to be coopted by here-English-only linguistic practice.
Unlike his leprotic anarchist cell members, Fanuel did not believe in the immanence of the Final Enunciation of Linear L, some kind of mystical rapture in which leprotic hieroglyphs would dance everything else into extinction. Then real history would begin; there never had been a history that included the lepers. This would inexorably require a new history to commence. But Fanuel was present with them in all these false moments. He led them when they tried his patience altogether and could do so because, after all, he had command of their tongue. Some of their masks eliminated one or the other lip. He encouraged that practice.
“We’re going back into that place” is the best translation for what Fanuel constructed in demotic Leprotic.
The they Joelynx went shithouse on him. Something dumb and linear about being infected by Pain-dwelling ash heaps of history. Joelynx had an ally in the two Naught twins joined from birth at the hip, for whoms motion itself was collaborative. They believed furiously in comradication in all things, for all things.
“Brother Joelynx’s analysis has correctness to it,” said one of them twins.
Fanuel reverted to old angers, saying, “Fuck that talk.” It was not a word among the four thousand the twins split between them in learning the Lepercon lexicon.
The meeting in the neighborhood green place ended. They voiced their healthy differences. They reaffirmed their solidarity with their core principle: Death to All Fictions. They would go out back to Pain with their plan to mess with regularized humanity’s spectral caffeine heads good this time. Which would be closer to the last time. They went back down the avenue as a leper vanguard of the total unending revolution.
The ringing in Hatch’s ears lessened when he chewed and when he bent over at the waist. Sometimes when he chewed, he bent over. That tended to keep others in his corner of Pain two social distances away, unless they knew him as his other half, the opera-loving atheist owner. It was kind of too bad not to know him.
Himself discomfited, Hatch ran an international food spot that made comfort as common and classy as navy blue rimmed white plates and ribbed water glasses. That he chewed gum to avoid more calories than even his big frame could distribute was uncouth to chance customers and increasingly understandable to regulars. These latter said it was Big Pharma that did it to his auditory nerves while keeping him on the right middle plane of bipolar and the small business weathervane of the Avenue down to 79th.
His was an odd fame, an out-of-his-way kind of unelected minister to the live span of shop owners, co-op enterprises and complementary galleries that made the neighborhood popular even in the pandemic.
Ogden Hatch could bend over and chew within empathy and welcome at Gracie Mansion, the Abyssinian Church, the Delacorte Theater, as well as the Met Trustees dining room. When the terrible tinnitus abated, as it could do for days, two weeks at a time, you couldn’t find a more graceful conversationalist, a man with a wider range of, well, plain talk.
Jordan Freight caught sight of the frenetic leper stumbling toward Hatch at the front end of Pain. He got up quickly, frightening his mother into fumbling both her cup and her hold on the Generation-Skipping trust papers.
Jordan seemed to take just six giant steps before he was in between the leper and Hatch, who was raising his head and not taking in any ill intent on the part of the huffing ostracized masker.
Jordan hulked over the deformed they. He told them, “Stand down, guys.”
In seconds, the two waitstaff also helped defuse the situation. Hatch had coached them both in defuse action beforehand and done monthly mock defusals against and for disturbed individuals and groups.
“Flee, hide, fight” was not it.
Hatch’s triad, “See, bide, light,” was not about fear or violence in return. It was about what dancers in particular had made real in his own experience of a true martial art. They made motion form in the space around them, the physical opposite of aggressive action such as this mannikin horrible assumed they could inflict on the normies.
His two lithe waitstaff had them sitting down and shutting off their noises next to him. You couldn’t really see or comprehend how they did so. You had to give in to the almost inane rule, Practice Makes Perfect. Throughout Pain, hiatus hovered like special visitation of incomprehensible peace. Not that having a giant blocking off the initial chaos didn’t help. That much any fool could get, if not do.
Frances Freight crushed her papers against her chest while she hustled down Pain out the door, leaving the bill for her son to pay.
But then Jordan saw Marti Severance raising her head as she moved closer.
“Hey, boss,” she said. “Good going, that, just now.”
“De nada,” Jordan said.
She asked, “How’ve you been, otherwise? Long time only virtual.”
“Hello, Martha,” he said. “The world’s all changed. By you, too? How about a spirit drink?”
“You think that’s appropriate on your part, boss?” She wanted him to feel flirted with. Something about being able to do that on a really big guy.
He said it as if he was interested. “Who’s your Chinese friend over there?”
“Exotic. Unreachable. That’s who. I should take lessons from her.”
“In staying away, you mean?” Jordan said. “Hey, so sit down. Tell me any damn thing you want. I can tell you, though.”
“You made my screen quiver when we Zoomed.” He smiled big, all the way down to her.
She observed her demure feet pointed parallel at his. She raised her face up higher. “I got the distinct impression you weren’t interested in keeping me on.”
“Untrue,” Jordan said.
“I absolutely hate it.”
“Rejection. As in being let go by you. Makes me feel, like.” Her open right hand circled inside all Pain. “Like a leper.”
“We all make the same mistake,” Jordan said.
“Wanting to change the world in just our particular little way.”
She pointed into the mini-dessert display in the glass case near them.
“See something you like?” Jordan the tall asked Marti the seriously peckish.
Sweet was all one could want and maybe ever get.
“That vanilla pomegranate tarte,” she told him. “Let’s get two.”
When they came, Marti put her right forefinger to her lips and said, “Feed me.”
Jordan asked her, “Do the same for me?”
Ogden Hatch turned the dial on the ceiling audio, looking for what he didn’t know but would when he tuned into it. After a few minutes, he found it. The old God’s music.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Lead us into it. Please. I dare You.”