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gd mcfetridge

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by G.D. McFetridge

      In the produce section of the local supermarket, I was considering the pyramid-like display of navel oranges—the price was eighty-nine cents a pound, and they looked pretty good, good color and not much bruising. On a dolly sat four large cardboard boxes full of navel oranges. So I asked the woman stocking lettuce and cabbage heads at the vegetable display if the store would sell an entire box at a reduced price.
      “Let me check what we paid for these,” she said, businesslike, and hurried through a pair of swinging doors to the left of the display case.
      She was gone for several minutes and then reappeared and said a box would go for twenty-two dollars. Which worked out to about sixty-eight cents a pound. I wasn’t impressed by the savings and figured I might have a difficult time using the oranges quickly enough to avoid spoilage. I mentioned this to her, and that I’d recently bought a fancy juicing machine—my motivation for purchasing fruit in bulk.
      She gave me an abrupt look. “You’re not supposed to use navel oranges for juicing. They have bacteria underneath the skin which are bad for your stomach. Valencia oranges are for juicing.” Her tone had evolved from mildly scolding to instructional.
      I was puzzled and somewhat dubious about her claim regarding the alleged bacteria. “Where did you hear that?” I asked. Trying to not sound dismissive.
      “I’ve been in this business for twenty years and I’ve always heard that. It’s common knowledge.” Her tone now had a conclusive edge, as if this was all the information I could expect to receive. But I forged ahead.
      “That’s odd. I’ve used navel oranges for making juice as long as I remember.”
      “And it doesn’t bother your stomach?”
      “Not that I’m aware of.”
      She gave me another look, this one enhanced by a narrowing of her eyes, as if to determine whether I was being truthful. The conversation stalled.
      I shrugged. “Maybe I’ve been lucky … about my stomach I mean.”
      She smiled unconvincingly. I told her I wanted to talk to my neighbor and see if he would buy in on half a box, and if so I’d be back later. This was a lie, something I employed to deflect the mild tension I sensed between us. She returned to the lettuce and cabbage display next to the velvety forest of broccoli heads. I wheeled my shopping cart down the broad aisle toward the glass refrigerator doors wherein the store kept its grand treasury of cold beer.
      Bacteria under the skins of navel oranges. What a bizarre notion. That was what I was thinking.

      Later that week at an upscale cocktail party in Solana Beach, the host—a friend of a friend—had provided a copious supply of margaritas and rum punch for his guests. I’d made a few too many trips to the crystal punchbowl and was feeling unrestrained and full of myself. An eye-catching psychologist named Nancy Ping, whom I was hoping to inveigle or otherwise impress, had commented—her voice full of purpose—that basic Christian dogma, particularly as articulated by evangelical fundamentalists, was a dead giveaway of the faith’s narcissism and a textbook example of the narcissistic personality disorder.
      She sipped her strawberry margarita and looked at me with interest through her spacious dark eyes, as if to encourage a reaction. Early on, I had fibbed and told her I was a philosophy professor at a local junior college; truth was I only had a master’s degree and had never taught anywhere. Not to mention, I was currently unemployed.
      Drinking sometimes makes me a fibber, especially when unescorted women are involved. It’s an offshoot of my insecurity and awkward foolishness.
      “Are you a Buddhist?”
      Her brow crinkled slightly. “Do I look like a Buddhist?”
      “I guess it’s safe to assume you’re not a Christian,” I said and laughed.
      “Because what I said?”
      “Basically …”
      “So what do you think, as a philosopher?” Her eyes narrowed slightly with anticipation.
      Despite the fact I had initiated the discussion by complaining about the Christian rightwing and their sway on American politics—an attempt at intellectual repartee—I was reluctant to comment further because I knew little about narcissism, other than it had something to do with Greek mythology. Redirecting the conversation to a local issue concerning nude bathing at public beaches, I tried to lighten the conversation with a little charm and wit. She crossed her arms. Her flattening expression and the way her eyes floated to other parts of the room made it clear she was neither amused nor charmed.
      After a bit more chitchat the desire for tête-à-tête waned and she politely excused herself to the lady’s room. Sometime later I noticed her leaving with another woman, a tall redhead who looked a lot like TV’s Peggy Bundy. Shortly thereafter, the party, which was tedious to begin with, became agonizing when one of the guests—a self-styled folksinger, guitar in hand—began trotting out old favorites. Peter, Paul, and Mary.
      So I made my getaway and drove home with one eye in the rearview mirror. I wasn’t inebriated but I was definitely over the legal limit.
      The following Monday, out of bored curiosity, I checked narcissism in a psychiatric manual at the UCSD library. In chapter eleven, top of the page, was a boldface heading:

                                                                        THE NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY

      The first symptom listed was this: A grandiose sense of self-importance or uniqueness. And a half paragraph later: Abilities and achievements which tend to be unrealistically overestimated. There were other attending symptoms, but the above mentioned were the openers and I assumed they comprised the central aspects of the narcissistic disorder.
      Later that week, as usual, I drank too much and woke at 3:00 A.M. and couldn’t sleep—one of those 165/92 BP, self-invective sessions invited by guilt and haunting proximity of the existential void—so I mulled over what I’d read in the diagnostic manual and recalled a phrase branded into my childhood brain by my vigilant mother. That business about God having made Man in his own image. And that’s when it hit me: If anything ever fulfilled the definition of grandiose, claiming to be created in the image of God topped the list.
      So … first thing Saturday morning I walked up the outside stairway to my landlord Jack’s redwood deck—I rent the bottom half of the house—and although he’s not a shrink, he holds a Ph.D. in psychology and teaches junior college—for real. When I opened the sliding door, he was holding a spatula in one hand and a bag of coffee beans in the other.
      “You found a job yet?” was the first thing out of his mouth.
      “I told you to put in an application at the college.”
      “Great,” I said. “And what’s the pay for adjunct instructors? About fourteen grand a year? I can live large on that.”
      Jack gave me a bugged-eyed look. “You could always sell insurance.”
      “Screw work,” I said, “I still have over three months of unemployment.”
      “As long as you pay your rent.”
      “I wanted to ask you about this psychologist woman I met at Nick Pangborn’s party. Nancy Ping—ever heard of her?”
      “No, but there’s probably twenty thousand psychologists in Southern California. God knows they’re a dime a dozen.”
      “She said something about how fundamental Christianity is a form of narcissistic personality disorder. I went to the library and got a book on psychological diagnostics—”
      Jack cut me off with a peremptory wave of his hand. “Is she Chinese?”
       “No, she’s blonde, maybe Swedish. Large brown eyes.”
      “Maybe she married an Oriental.”
      “I thought they liked to be referred to as Asian Block.”
      He looked annoyed. “Whatever.”
      “Could we get back on topic?”
      “Christian narcissism? Too much time on your hands?” Jack buttered a slice of toast, took a sip of coffee, and sat at the breakfast bar and began forking scrambled eggs off a paper plate into his mouth. I watched his jaw working.
      “So what do you make of what she said?”
      He swallowed. “Henry, she’s not the first person who’s made the observation. During grad-school I did a paper on the narcissistic personality. Humanity’s tendency toward narcissism dates back a long way. Consider the geocentric notion of the universe.”
      “An understandable error considering the limitations of technology.”
      “No. It’s a mindset.”
      “All humans or just Christians?”
      “How about chimpanzees or gorillas? Were they made in God’s image too? They look an awful lot like us. Not to mention the 98.7 percent genetic similarity we share with chimps. Were I God, I’d be tempted to give Christians a swift kick in the ass for their arrogance.”
      “What about Muslims, Jews and Hindus … or Buddhists?”
      “Buddhists I can tolerate, the rest I’d kick in the ass too—it’s part of the same insanity. Freud talked about it in his treatise Future of an Illusion. And there’s also the issue of unrealistic mass entitlement that’s associated to the fundamental faiths.”
      “Mass entitlement?”
      “Not only are we made in God’s image, if we ask nicely he might intervene, help us win wars and score touchdowns and smite our enemies. Provided we make burnt offerings and play ball with a strange set of contradictory rules and curious membership restrictions. And based on my mortal record, getting right with Jesus and never blaspheming the Holy Ghost, I’ll get to spend eternity in heavenly bliss. Talk about non sequitur.”
      “Don’t tell me it’s all one endless string of exhortations and puerile delusions!”
      “Been hanging out with the old thesaurus, Henry?”
      I was wearing my swimming trunks and a T-shirt. The sun slanted through the sliding-glass door and I felt it warming my legs. I wanted to say something smartass as a retort, but instead I said, “Want to go to the beach later?”
      Jack shook his head. “Water’s too cold.”
      “It’s sixty-eight.”
      “Okay … how about I’m too old to surf anymore.”
      “So take my bogie board.”
      “I’ll pass.”

      A week or so later I woke up one overcast morning and knew nothing good could happen. My family tree has a history of depression and I was not spared the DNA markers for this troublesome condition. I’d been in and out of depressive states since I was nine years old, and although I had learned to cope, it remained an ongoing setback in my life.
      The weather pattern had changed and a pewter-gray gloom hung over the coast and the water temperature dropped to sixty-three. Too much time on my hands all right. And I was spending the time mulling over all the failures in my life: Thirty-five, no wife or kids, no career to speak of, not enough money, no girlfriend, no fame or notoriety, stuck working lame-ass jobs even though I had a big master’s degree … and I suppose you get the larger picture. Grounds for depression.
      Depressed people do self-defeating things. I’d managed to get Nancy Ping’s phone number. Word was she was twenty-nine, single—not a lesbian—and a certified workaholic. The last name came from a stepfather who had adopted her when her mother remarried. I sat at my kitchen table staring at her phone number on a piece of yellow notebook paper. Was I emotionally suicidal? Seeking rejection to further my depressive state?
      In the morning I decided to treat myself to a cappuccino at a coffeehouse a couple streets to the west. The sky, still overcast, reminded me of gray cotton balls packed tightly together, smothering the mid-morning sunlight. Walking through the open French-style doors there were roughly a dozen people snaking back from the counter. Another seven or eight seated at tables. The aroma of coffee beans and mocha-laden steam filled the air.
      So … I stood rubbing my knuckles back and forth across the edge of my chin. A nervous habit. Maybe I’m James Dean in a thousand-dollar Italian suit, wearing Porsche sunglasses—the Hollywood thing—or maybe it’s that air of European style and elegance, that devil-may-care attitude and psychopathic charisma people like me exude.
      All this was about trying to kick myself loose from the deeps, so I took my place at the back of the line, fished for my wallet making certain I had money, and then turned my head and noticed stylish blonde hair out the corner of my eye. It was Nancy Ping, in three-quarter profile. Talking to the man behind her. I looked back toward the counter hoping she wouldn’t recognize me. Or was I hoping she would?

      “It’s called an approach-avoidance conflict,” Jack noted, looking at me over his large coffee mug. “So what happened next?” He was a stickler for details.
      “I’m feeling eyeballs on my back and then there’s a tap on my shoulder. I was depressed, hadn’t shaved or combed my hair, so I’m half-dreading talking to her—”
      “It’s what I said.”
      “—but I have to acknowledge the fact that she’s tapped my shoulder, so I turn around and she says, ‘I thought that was you, Hank.’”
      “Hank? Since when are you going by Hank?” He tilted his head in amusement.
      “I was sick of being Henry. I wanted to be a Hank. I’ve been depressed fucking Henry all my useless fucking life.”
      “Then what happened?”
      “Well, she wastes no time introducing me to Gems or James or whatever the fuck his name is, him in his silk Hawaiian shirt and tan hairy chest with the gold chain, and of course I’m wondering why she even bothers with me but then she’s being very friendly, more so than at the party, I mean she touched my arm—so I figure this is her boyfriend or soon-to-be boyfriend and she’s working him a little by acting all sweet and buddy-buddy with me. God I hate women.”
      “Slow down, Henry, you’re too agitated. Talk about nervous fatigue. People like you over interpret everything. Maybe she liked you more than you realized and you blew it by projecting too much nonsense. Or maybe he’s her cousin for all you know.”
      “She’s the one who left the conversation at the party,” I protested.
      “And you lied about being a philosophy professor. Why do you do shit like that, Henry? Is it so hard to imagine that someone might accept you for who you are? Just good old Henry?”
      “Yeah, right. Good looking women have like this bio-scanner inside their heads and it’s continuously running credit checks and compiling financial profiles on every man they meet.”
      “Do you ever listen yourself? I mean really listen?”
      “It’s true—”
      “And when you lie you’ve already shot yourself in the foot because you can’t start any kind of relationship with someone you’ve bullshitted about your profession. Right?”
      I could feel my face flushing and hoped it wasn’t too obvious. Jack had a way of busting me when I screwed up, although he was never mean spirited.
      That evening I looked in the bathroom mirror and noticed how much my hair had receded in the last couple of years. I couldn’t stop looking, kept pushing my hair back with my fingers for closer inspection, feeling a combination of dismay and morbid fascination.
      Then I checked my eyes. They used to be green, or at least I fancied them green, but it seemed they’d faded to a dreary shade of hazel. Hazel, hazel, hazel! Why couldn’t I have been born with blazing green eyes, emerald eyes, like an exotic jungle cat. I saw a black panther one time—a photo actually—and that magnificent creature had big luminous green eyes, framed in inky black. What fabulous unconscious freedom—or is that an oxymoron?
      So … I took off my T-shirt and flexed my biceps and pectorals to see how the ol’ muscle tone looked. I worked construction during my early twenties and in the summertime when I was in grad-school, and I was solid and well defined, at least for a semi-ectomorphic body type. Now I was flabby and slack. Less muscle, balding, first hint of a gut, and still seeing myself with that same morbid fascination. Self-denigration?
      Cockamamie nonsense or savoir—faire—what’s with that? Pain, guilt and horseshit? They’ve pervaded everything in my life. Maybe it’s better having no mirrors …
      A week later I wanted to shake up the world, stretch my legs and leap up to planet Mars. My depressive episode had lifted and I was going hypo-manic. Time to see Georgie boy, my old high school pal. He lived in a small redbrick duplex in Leucadia, in the last stretch of coastal land not invaded by yuppies and rich bastards. Four hundred and fifty-five square feet cluttered with a large oak desk and three freestanding bookshelves, loaded with great books from philosophy classics to the best short-story literature of the twentieth century and everything in between; and vodka and tequila bottles, two standing lamps, a sofa, and a complete human skeleton that hung in the corner—but no television.
      George had shot his TV with a .22 rifle.
      The sun was fading into the violet mist of a fogbank out over the ocean. I knocked on George’s door. I could hear him playing his guitar and singing.
      “Door’s open.”
      “Georgie boy!” I said.
      He was on the sofa. Wearing a bathing suit and a neon-green T-shirt, with a bottle of tequila next to a book, open, face down: Of Human Bondage. There was another book, a thick paperback—David Hume, the philosopher.
      George never graduated college but he could hold his own with me or anyone else when it came to philosophy. Beyond superficial affairs with younger women and a few old friends, he was pretty much a loner, but he spoke like a quick-thinking intellectual. “I saw Jack a couple days ago, said you were in a funk. Did you sell your soul to the draconian codes of our corrupt culture?”
      “If you want to dance, Georgie, you got to pay the fiddler.”
      “Are we feeling better now?”
      “Oh, yeah … I’m ascending into my manic phase.”
      George was like a restless jungle cat. He hopped up abruptly and disappeared into his bedroom. I heard a drawer open and slam shut and the rustling of paper; then he returned with a little glass pipe in one hand, a plastic film container in the other.
      “Zip-a-de-do-dah and abracadabra, Henry, you’ll just never believe what I ran into the other day,” he said with great enthusiasm.
      “No speed for me, mah man.”
      “Of course not, it’s opium, the real thing, the good thing. It’ll smooth you right out. No more manic-phase for my pal Henry O Henry the fifth.”
      “I haven’t laid eyes on opium since that night we partied in Del Dios.”
      “This my boy is direct from Afghanistan. Brought home by one of our brave fighting men.” He opened the container and dumped four marble-size chunks into his palm. Three he put back and the fourth he set on a saucer next to a razorblade.
      By the time he had completed the ritual, shaving off thin slices and placing them in the glass pipe, the room was dark, and it seemed we were in a ghost town and the world had become too quiet. Pantheon of beasts and lost spirits.
      “Turn on that light, would you,” he said, pointing with his eyes. I reached under the shade and turned the switch. A bluish light filled the room, adding to the ghostly feeling. George torched a lighter and held the flame to the glass pipe. He inhaled deeply, held it for ten seconds, and then shot a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth. He grinned and handed me the pipe. “Here we come, Alice,” he said and we both laughed.
      There was something mad about Georgie boy, way out there, a flashing neon sign around the bend, but I always felt less self-disappointing in his company. That night I dreamed vividly about strangling my older sister. Must have been the opium.

      So … my other old best friend Kurt showed up in July. He’d been in Texas and two cowboys had cracked his ribs in a bar fight but he was taped up nice and tight. After that he stopped over in Las Vegas driving his top-down old convertible Ford that had broken down in New Mexico, and he’d gotten lucky and won eight hundred bucks playing slot machines. Kurt had an ex-girlfriend in Cardiff who always took him in, and he called me from her house. Wanted to go to Baja to party for the weekend.
      Another friend owned a vacation beach house near a town called La Misíon, thirty kilometers south of Rosarito. And just south of La Misíon on the cliffs overlooking the ocean there was a bar and restaurant called La Fonda, owned by an American who claimed he once worked for the CIA. Weekends the place was packed with partygoers and gaggles of tourist women. Or so said Kurt. I hadn’t been there for years. Kurt said he’d drive.
      He popped through my door with big Texas-makeover grin on his face, stuck his head in my fridge, slapped the side with his hand, and pulled out two bottled beers, one which he unscrewed with his teeth and spit the top in the trashcan.
      “You cut your hair,” he said, handing me the other.
      “Long time ago.”
      “You ready to roll?”
      “Does Thor like big hammers?”
      “Let’s go slick.”
      Two miles down the I-5 a Highway Patrol cruiser slipped in behind Kurt’s old Ford convertible and lit him up. “Oh, shit!” Kurt said under his breath. We drove off on an exit near Del Mar and the cruiser followed Kurt to a gas station parking lot. A young thickset trooper with chiseled features, blond hair, and mirrored sunglasses came up behind Kurt and asked the usual questions. He had an imperious manner. I had a weird yet inexplicable feeling we were slipping into a daunting morass.
      “I just paid the registration last week, officer, but the paperwork hasn’t arrived from Texas,” said Kurt, with good ol’ boy genuineness.
      “Stay in the vehicle,” the trooper said. Cold as ice. He walked back to his cruiser.
      We sat there in the torrid heat for fifteen minutes. A strange calm descended over me. It was like running the mile at a high school track meet; first turn was behind me, the butterflies were gone and I was in control of my fear, riding it like a wave and using it to my own advantage. Life is a lot like a movie, strangely unreal ... but where in hell is the goddamned director? Quiet on the set!
      Two sheriff cruisers pulled up, one behind the CHP and the other just beyond the Ford. The sheriff in front came at us with a big black pistol pulled; I didn’t look over my shoulder, but I heard a voice yelling to get hands over our heads. I complied. So did Kurt.
      The one sheriff, a large husky man with a gut, opened Kurt’s door and, with the pistol inches from Kurt’s head, pulled him from the seat to the ground, face down, arms back—then the metal cuffs. The other sheriff did me the same. The pavement damn near blistered my chest. I tried explaining the circumstances and my incidental involvement, but the sheriffs weren’t interested. They put Kurt in one cruiser and me in the other and off we went to the county holding facility.
      “Why am I being hauled in?” I asked from the back seat. “I haven’t done anything. I’m an innocent man.”
      The young sheriff chuckled. “Innocent of what?”
      He switched on a small boom box that was on the passenger seat, loud enough to drowned out my quarrelsome declarations. I felt my checks flush, rage boiling up inside me like some sort of volcanic upheaval.
      “Turn off that country puke-ass shit and turn on some rock and roll!” I shouted.
      “Shut the fuck up,” he said. We were doing about eighty in the fast lane, passing one car after another. People were giving me looks—I wanted to give them the finger. Not a real great day, but at least I still had Jack and Georgie boy. I could count on them. I could always count on them.
      Plus the whole mess had to get straightened out sooner or later; had to, because I hadn’t done anything wrong … unless of course it was something I couldn’t remember, one of those ancient things lurking in the old primeval pool—like the fool’s notion of original sin and the burden of inescapable guilt.

Iconoclast, mountain man and occasional drunk, G. D. McFetridge lives and writes in Montana's majestic Sapphire Mountains. Wild deer and turkeys visit his spacious cabin almost daily and G. D. has been known to wrestle the black bear who raids his trashcan. His short stories and essays are published across America, in Canada and the UK. His six novels, however, remain unpublishable, or so say the effete literary agents of NYC. "You see, the common man can spot BS a mile away and that's why there's so little room for him in modern literature."

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