Collective Guilt

Her fingers always smelled like onions and garlic and I delighted in them. They soothed my worried forehead. They shushed my lips when I talked in circles and they stirred the warm olive oil of my heart, those capable Sephardic digits. They were attached to Myra Goldberg, the girl who worked at the Greek deli down the street from the dump of an apartment where I lived and pretended to write.

When she finished spooning olives and slicing cheese, she'd drop by with a half pound of gyro meat and nipples like ripe strawberries. I was in a state of chronic free-time then, living on what I felt was a much earned inheritance left by my step-father who, towards the end of his life, had finally learned to tolerate my presence in the same room, but just. It was a little money, but just. And though it was a pittance, I was determined to make it last, if only to spite his ghost, which surely walked the earth dragging Dickensian chains.

It was a big 1940s courtyard apartment where I lived, a place owned by a company that planned to develop the property. The building was tagged for future demolition, and so I was living on borrowed time. One year of borrowed time to be exact. The company wasn't about to spend money maintaining a building they were going to bulldoze, so it wasn't in the best shape, but the rent was cheap. The small lawn in the center was twisted with weeds and dry patches of hard-packed dirt. Dirty gray tangled cobwebs draped from the eaves like an old pillow losing its stuffing and at night, the rats danced along the roof of the half-vacant building. I liked to sit on my back stairs and shoot them with a BB gun, which I found both gratifying and fulfilling in a variety of ways.

Fuck you, George Bush!

Fuck you too, Cheney!

Not so fast, Rupert Murdoch!

My aim wasn't always the greatest, but there weren't enough neighbors to complain.

While I languished in what I convinced myself was artistic debauchery, Myra and I discovered much in common, including parental deficiencies, a predilection for navel-gazing and an unrelenting streak of mutual morbidity. Owing to a bouillabaisse of substances, my recollection of that time isn't exactly Memorex, but more a pointillist smattering of emotions and sounds.

Bedsprings, floorboards and rusty hinges creaking together in syncopated passion.

Her lips gently parting with a wisp of sleeping breath, then closing - plop - like raindrops slipping through a leaky roof.

Her bottle of pills making that dull, tight rattle, like a 12-guage shotgun shell. Those pills she took to beat back the dry autumn weeds of sadness, the weeds that ran deep and long, with wandering roots leading back to childhood. But while she battled her weeds with herbicidal drugs, I cultivated mine.

We grew close, which happened to me about as often as a solar eclipse, and spent a lot of time together being sad and serious and lamenting everything in the abstract. The Six Million, the Armenian Genocide, Rwanda, even the Trail of Tears.

On September Eleventh, we knew exactly what to do.

On September Twenty-Eighth, I was lost.

That was the day her dad's test results came back. There were no political forces to blame, no philosophies to debate. There was nothing but a fatty liver, pickled kidneys and Myra's tears, those tears that confounded me. I was better at expressing sorrow for the many, and had a tough time with the singular. Forgiveness was out of the question.

There's a famous phrase: "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand." I used to think that was said by H.L. Mencken or maybe Lenny Bruce but it was actually Linus Van Pelt.

"Fuck your dad," is a phrase I wish was said by H.L. Mencken or maybe Lenny Bruce but it was actually me.

Myra quit the deli and moved back home to take care of her dad, but I couldn't worry about small, personal things when there were so many other miseries in the world, so many big things to worry about, so many rats to shoot.

About the author:

Matt Kalinowski worked a number of years as a custodian and a number of years as a studio publicist. He found the jobs quite similar at times. He was previously published in the Spring 2004 issue of New York Stories and online at