Michael Martin wasn’t a hoarder in the typical sense. His single bedroom apartment wasn’t overflowing with crusty plastic milk gallons or yogurts five years past their expiration that he’d try to convince guests were still good. There were no stacks of old newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Hell, Michael was so clean and tidy he didn’t even have a trash can, preferring to walk his trash directly to the dumpster. The trash can was like a middle man, and Michael just saw it as impractical.
But Michael Martin hoarded, only he didn’t know it. Everyone else did, and perhaps that was either life’s greatest gift or harshest punishment for Michael - that everyone else knew his greatest flaw and never breathed a word of it to Michael. He hoarded at the grocery store and he hoarded at the gym. He hoarded at the post office and anywhere else he went.
Since Michael's obsessive gathering wasn’t material and since he was always clean-shaven and put together in the way most single men are - fairly clean with the same standard Costco-inspired wardrobe, he raised no red flags to those who didn’t know him. It wasn't like he was pushing a rickety shopping cart overflowing with mangy cats or humming creepy showtunes at the park. To the untrained eye, he was just a clean, normal looking old guy who was aged just enough to get the senior respect--the door held an extra few seconds, a nod from a passing stranger.
Perhaps no one knew about Michael's obsessive hoarding more than Jason, who lived three floors below Michael in the apartment complex and seemed to share the same schedule every weekend.
Whether it was the grocery store or gym, Jason was always one of Michael’s main targets. Most recently, Jason was trying to get a third set in on the leg extension equipment, work his divorce out through self-inflicted pain--the only way--when Michael ambled over, dry towel draped over his shoulder and an obscenely large water bottle in tow.
“It’s all yours,” Jason said, not looking up.
Michael didn’t say anything, but leaned against the shoulder press machine next to the leg extension, physically blocking Jason from rising.
“Oh, hey, Mike, how’s it going?” Jason asked, glancing at his Timex.
“Good, good.” Michael exhaled. Jason thought about shimmying over the foam bars directly in front of him. Or maybe limboing underneath for a quick escape.
“I was just working the chest today. Trying to decide if I’m going to get some legs in too. I don’t know.” Michael never broke eye contact the entire time. Jason moved to get up, but Michael made no motion to slide over.
“You see the new Men’s Health?” Jason didn't bother telling Michael he didn’t read those, since he had balls and all, and didn’t need advice on the essentialness of manscaping or how to make a woman quake for 15 hours, even though he’d never met a woman who listed that as one of her prerequisites.
“No, haven’t seen that,” was Jason’s reply.
Michael moved his hand. Water from his five gallon bottle sloshed everywhere, blowing Jason’s notion that Michael just carried an empty water bottle around for show. “They’ve got this great new method of fat burning. Like really great. It focuses entirely on the midsection, you know, the love handles and all that shit.” Michael grabbed one of his love handles with his other hand, squeezing it ‘til it looked like it hurt, oblivious to how loud he was saying “shit” or the stares that followed.
“It’s a fat blasting workout,” Michael continued. “All that cardio shit they’ve been slanging is obsolete because of this. You see all those hags sweating like pigs on the elliptical? Waste of their fucking time.” Jason glanced at the row of women pumping in near-unison, figuring they couldn’t hear over the whirr of the handles and the shitty Maroon 5 that was probably blasting out of their headphones. Marissa’d always listened to them.
“I’ll have to try that,” Jason said.
“Nah, you don’t need that. Are you kidding? You look incredible. Your body’s a machine. And I don’t say that to sound, you know, like that,” Michael said as he made his wrist limp and pursed his lips. “I’m just saying, maybe you saw it ‘cause you were interested. I know you’re into that shit.”
Jason had never been into that shit. He wasn’t a fitness buff or someone who even put that much effort into exercising. He kind of liked the feeling of pain and it was better than playing his Xbox everyday after work.
Michael repositioned his arm against the shoulder press machine. Jason was still on the leg extension, wondering if he’d leave an imprint on the seat when he got up. He could feel his warm muscles tightening. He thought about looking at his watch again, but he knew he was in for at least a few more minutes.
“Anyway, I’ll bring you the article later tonight. I think you’ll really dig it. They got some pretty good pictures in there too, if you know what I mean.” Michael laughed and Jason looked down at his knees in embarrassment, cursing himself for not being able to just stand up and get off the machine. He pictured himself rising, giving Michael a shoulder to the gut, and moving on to the leg press machine without a word exchanged. But then he thought about Michael and how everyone looked the other way when they saw him coming, how sometimes he could watch Michael wander the gym from the free weight room to the cardio deck with no plans to exert himself physically in any kind of way. Jason felt a mixture of pity and disgust, perhaps the two lowest qualities in the human spectrum of emotion.
“So you’re gonna be around later tonight?” Michael asked. “Sometimes I come by to drop something off and you’re already sleeping, and I’m like how’s a young guy like you sleeping when an old fart like me is still putzing around, bringing you some softcore porn wondering how in the fuck you’re not waiting outside your door for it.”
Jason felt the need to clarify the whole porn thing, especially since some kid was now looking at the two of them like they were the same nasty person. He’d never asked Michael for porn, but Michael considered any kind of health magazine with women in bikinis in those testosterone-boosting ads to be pornogrpahic, so he kind-of-jokingly-but -mostly-seriously considered himself in a one-sided porn-swapping covenant with someone half his age with a wi-fi connection.
This was always the part in the conversation when Michael started to get carried away. Usually there was some natural interruption for Jason, since he lacked the balls to just get up and say he had to keep it moving. But if he didn't do something now, Michael would probably start talking about some sidepiece he had, a term he most likely picked up listening in on someone else’s conversation.
“I’ve gotta get to work in a few,” Jason lied.
Michael made a move to slide over, but not by much. “I might blast the back a little today too,” he said. “You still over at Lowe’s, in the appliance department?”
“Yeah,” Jason said all too quickly, picturing a visit from Michael, his coworkers bristling at someone he’d probably found on Craigslist in the “Pornography - for trade” section. He should have at least made Michael wander around from department to department for a while, then sheepishly say he’d been transferred back when Joey quit or Meredith had her baby. Coulda said anything.
“I don’t want to make you late,” Michael said. “But remember, I’m gonna bring that Men’s Health by later tonight. You’re gonna love the article and those chicks in the back, whoa. Page 76, I really mean whoa. They even got a Oriental girl in this protein mix ad. You’re gonna enjoy it, but I hope not too much ‘cause I’m gonna need that back.”
“Thanks, Mike,” Jason said, squeezing through the narrow entryway. Telling him not to bring it would be pointless, ‘cause then he’d just find another excuse to come down, saying he’d made too much lasagna and felt bad throwing it out, using that as an excuse to come in and crash on his couch while Jason played video games, trying to forget about whoever was fucking his wife. Ex-wife.
Jason knew he could have just said he’d already read the mag, but then Michael would have gone into an impromptu reading comprehension quiz like he was back in sixth grade and hadn’t done his assigned reading the night before.
In the locker room, Jason threw his clean clothes in his bag, pissed that he hadn’t even finished half his workout, and wishing his could just tell Michael to shut up and leave him alone. To go bother someone else. But it was that pity shit again coming back on him. Maybe it was his own father issues. Jason knew those probably manifested themselves more in his marriage. His fear of being his father turning him into a paranoid dick who couldn’t even sit through a movie without snapping about something. Besides, there was nothing fatherly about Michael, one of his only redeeming qualities. If anything, Michael was like the child in this relationship, the one who needed attention and didn’t care how he got it. Had Michael been fifty years younger he’d be the kid screaming for the lollipop in the check-out line.
On the way back to his apartment, Jason detoured into the run-down shopping plaza to pick up some frozen pizzas and a case of beer, but he ended up wandering the aisles, not wanting to go back to an empty apartment.
With over an hour in the store and only a half a cart of food, Jason knew he’d just wasted a tremendous amount of time. He could have volunteered at the food bank or done a spinning class or gotten through the playoffs on Madden. Anything would have been a better use of his time, however inconsequential it might have been.
Jason paid for his items and left. He thought about chatting up the cashier, who looked to be in his age bracket. She could also just be a heavy smoker and be way younger, he thought to himself. Not wanting to come off like Michael, Jason made no effort to engage in even the smallest of small talk He told himself to screw the weather, screw the crazy deal on saltines. Even if it was buy one get two free, no cashier wanted to talk about it.
It started to drizzle as Jason walked to his car. He thought about the meat lover’s supreme or the five-cheese option for the night, wondering why DiGiorno’s couldn’t just get crazy with it and add the six meats and five cheeses together into one crazy-ass pizza that would probably have him tripping harder than the time he thought he’d dropped acid in college but his roommate had only been duped into copping rubbing alcohol.
In the row of sad sedans and minivans years past their prime, Jason could see Michael standing in the rain, his trunk open, and one of the bagboys placing the bags in the trunk. Michael knew damn-well he could do it himself, but there he went hoarding again. Jason watched from the safety of his own aisle as Michael did the hand thing on the trunk, blocking the bagboy’s path so all he could do was stand there and get pelted with drizzle while he waited for an opening. Michael was talking about something, his other hand gesticulating wildly. Jason hoped for the bagboy’s sake he wasn’t talking about the Oriental in Men’s Health. The bagboy was avoiding eye contact, staring at the contents of the bag. He's probably getting the same line, Jason thought. Then he studied the bagboy’s face. He seemed like a good kid, probably still in high school, probably scraping some cash together for college or his girl or his crummy tricked-out car with floor lights and subwoofers that took up the whole trunk.
Finally the kid, who maybe wasn’t such a good kid, turned and walked away, leaving Michael and two bags of groceries in the shopping cart. Michael watched the bagboy leave, appeared to do some sort of shrug, and stooped to put the last of the bags in his trunk. Jason thought about returning his cart, but knew he’d be in Michael’s line of sight, and figured the rain could pelt him for another minute.
As Michael turned, his love handles hanging out gloriously in his tucked-in workout shirt, now soaked and probably the only time it’d ever been wet, Jason watched as the bottom of Michael's bag broke. It was like slow-motion on ESPN as the bottom of the bag gave way and his gallon of milk free-fell to the wet pavement. It splattered silently, the milk slowly coating Michael’s shins and running shoes, which always looked brand new, before settling in the grooves of the asphalt and diluting itself with the rain as it trailed towards a rusty sewer grate. Maybe it wasn’t rusty, Jason thought, leaving his cart behind the minivan next to his beat-up Camry and reversing out of the lot.
He figured Michael was probably watching what was left of his milk escape him like everyone else had. All sewer grates are rusty, Jason thought. They had to be.
Cybonn Ang lives in New Zealand where she spends a lot of time bird-watching, climbing hills and looking into rock pools. Visit her at www.cybonn.com.