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n order to collect unemployment benefits, I had to fill out this log of all the jobs I’d applied for. But I wasn’t applying for any jobs. So I just wrote down “lawyer” and made up a phone number. Then I wrote down “lawyer’s assistant” and put down the same phone number. I went on like that. “Law-firm janitor.” I looked at the number I’d made up. I tried calling it. It rang and rang. Then a woman got on the line.
“Who’s this?” is how she answered the phone.
“I’m doing a study,” I said. “How do you feel about people seeing you naked?”
“I was a nude model for an art school,” she said, “so I have no problem.”
She said her name was Terri and that she lived out in Lone Pine with her mother who had Parkinson’s. She said she wanted to get pregnant so she’d have something to think about all day.
“I’m an Indian,” she said next. “Chumash. What are you?”
“I’m regular,” I told her.
“Good. I like regular men. I wish I wasn’t an Indian. I wish I was black or Chinese or something. Well,” she said, “how about you come out here and we see what we can do? I’m not after your money, if that’s what you’re thinking. I get checks in the mail all the time.”
It sounded like a vulture was squawking in the background. I thought for a minute.
“One thing,” I said. “I have pimples. And a rash all over my body. And my teeth aren’t great either.”
“I’m not expecting much,” she said. “Besides, I don’t like perfect-looking men. They make me feel like trash, and they’re boring.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
We made a date for dinner the next day. I had a good feeling about it.
It was true: I had pimples. But I was still good-looking. Girls liked me. I rarely liked them back. If they asked me what I did for fun, I told them lies, saying I jet skied or went to casinos. The truth was that I didn’t know how to have fun. I wasn’t interested in fun. I spent most of my time looking in the mirror or walking to the corner store for cups of coffee. I had a thing about coffee. It was pretty much all I drank. That and diet ginger ale. Sometimes I stuck my finger down my throat. Plus I was always picking at my pimples. I covered the marks they made with girls’ liquid foundation, which I stole from Walgreens. The shade I used was called Classic Tan. I guess those were my only secrets.
My uncle lived out in Agoura Hills. I called him sometimes out of desperation, but he only ever wanted to talk about girls.
“I don’t like anybody right now,” I told him over the phone. I was looking in the mirror over the bathroom sink, doing some one-handed picking.
“But women are good,” he said. “They’re like a good meal.”
“I can’t afford a good meal,” I said back to him. “Anyway, I go for quantity over quality.”
He told me to go ask if Sears or T. J. Maxx was hiring, or Burger King. For someone else, maybe that was fine advice. He himself didn’t need to work. He was on disability for having a gimp leg. Also, he had a colostomy bag he didn’t care for properly. He used a lot of peach-scented air freshener around the house to cover the smell. He rarely left the living room and liked to order in large Mexican dinners or whole pizzas. He was always eating something and dumping out the colostomy bag right afterward.
“I don’t feel very well,” I told him. “I’m too sick to find a job.”
“Go to a doctor,” he said. “Look in the phone book. Don’t be a fool. You need to care for your health.”
“Can I borrow some money?” I asked him.
I found a cheap doctor in a Korean shopping mall on Wilshire.
The mall was basically empty, just a lot of fake brass and cloudy windows and orange fake-marble floors. I looked up into the galleria. The glass ceiling was cracked all over. A pigeon soared around, then rested on a strand of unlit Christmas lights. Someone had spread newspapers around the floor. There was a luggage store, a place to get your photo taken, a hair salon. That was it—all the other stalls were empty. A homeless Korean lady padded by me in dirty, quilted long underwear, pushing a baby carriage full of trash. I took a long whiff.
I found the clinic down a dim hallway of unmarked offices. On the door there was an orange poster of all the services the doctor offered. I found my symptoms: weight gain, hair loss, rash. I went inside. A fat lady stood at the counter in front of the receptionist.
“This prescription is for the yellow kind and I need the pink kind. The Percodan,” she was saying.
I had a thing about fat people. It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts. After a few minutes, a nurse told me to follow her through the office. We passed an unframed poster of hot rods and another poster of kittens inside a top hat. The nurse pointed to a man in a flannel shirt holding a yellow legal pad. He resembled a retired WWF wrestler. His eyes hid behind folds of skin and raised moles and eyebrows badly in need of plucking. He needed a shave too. Most men have no idea of how to groom themselves. From where his shirt buckled between the buttons, I could tell he wasn’t wearing anything under the flannel. Wiry black hairs lay across his gut. He smelled like old food.
“Are you a real doctor?” I asked him.
He steered me onto a greasy examination table.
“So, you’ve got something wrong with you,” he said, looking at the form.
“I try to throw up all the food I eat, but I’m still fat,” I said. “And the rash.” I pulled up my sleeve.
The doctor took a step back. “You ever wash your sheets?”
“Yes,” I lied. “So what’s wrong with me?”
“I’m not one to judge,” he said, placing his hand over his heart.
Excerpt from the Novel ‘Family Life’
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