Sunday, April 15, 2018

From the Archives - Fiction - Roommate


It being a slow news day, here’s a bit of short fiction from my archives. Enjoy please enjoy.

Roommate – June 1, 1989

It was an art, really. Nobody cooked ramen‑spaghetti like Nick did (albeit because nobody cooked it at all). The process gave him solace. No matter what was going wrong with his day, he could always count on his keenly precise cooking techniques to assure him that all was not lost. He would think, “Well, the ramen’s perfect anyway. At least there’s one thing in my life I haven’t screwed up yet.”

But today, Nick knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped into the kitchen. His demon roommate had stunk the place up. Scott, whose entire diet consisted of beans and brown rice, was sick again and thought he could cure himself by drinking gallons of tea infused with garlic. Scott wasn’t the first one to try this delusional home remedy. Nick’s own brother had tried it, too … when he was eight.

The smell itself wasn’t the only problem. Beyond this, Scott had used Nick’s pot. Nick was used to his roommates using his kitchenware, but not this pot. It was a gift, like almost everything else, from a friend who had used it all through college. “If you can handle not having a handle, it’s a great pot,” she had said. She was referring to the steel stub that had once supported a wooden handle. The stub never heated up too much, since almost all Nick cooked in the pot was ramen. And it was the perfect ramen pot, being the perfect size for two packages.

Nick’s routine was like clockwork. While the water heated up, he would pour spaghetti sauce into his special bowl. He used to have an even better bowl, with a fill line for the sauce, but Scott had broken it. Sure, Nick couldn’t prove that Scott broke it; somebody started a crack and one day the bowl finally split in half. But Scott was his scapegoat. Every household needs one, he mused, and this demon roommate had earned the title. The bowl Nick used now was less handy, but cool anyway: a white china bowl with a blue Japanese‑looking fish on the bottom. One of Scott’s former roommates had left it behind when he abruptly dropped out of college, having gone crazy. As in, he was literally in a mental hospital.

Nick would put the bowl of spaghetti sauce in the microwave, but he wouldn’t start it right away. Once the water was boiling and the noodles were all separated, he would reduce the heat and then start the microwave. The sauce didn’t need to be very hot; cooking it served as a timer more than anything. On half power, the microwave would warm the sauce just enough. When the microwave timer showed one minute, he would turn the stove off completely. With the lid on, it would keep cooking. He doubted—no, he knew—that Scott never took this energy-saving step; Scott looked at conservation only from a financial standpoint, and therefore acquainted it with being cheap. As if he wasn’t a low-class, low-rent, low-tier guy to begin with. He might as well admit it.

As soon as the timer rang, Nick would test one noodle. If it was done, he would pour the noodles in the waiting colander, then slide them into the bowl atop the sauce. The warm sauce cooled the noodles just enough to eat immediately once stirred, with a good shake of powdered parmesan from the green cardboard shaker.

But today his pot was dirty. Scott had used it to boil his smelly tea. Scott stubbornly insisted on brewing the tea several times a day. He couldn’t make a whole pot in advance and reheat mugs of it throughout the day, because he couldn’t figure out the microwave oven. It was an old-dog-new-tricks situation (Scott was thirty-fricking-three). Nick tried to show him how the microwave worked, but Scott just refused to learn. All manner of electronics mystified him, which was ironic since he was getting his Master’s in computer science.

Scott never figured out how to use his digital watch, either. When Nick realized this, he played a trick: he set alarm to go off at 2:00 am every night, just to see if the demon roommate would finally sit down and figure out how to disable it. Amazingly, not only did Scott fail to learn this, but couldn’t even figure out how to silence the alarm mid-ring. It was as though he was afraid to push a single button on the watch. Instead he made a habit of putting the watch in his sock drawer every night so it wouldn’t wake him up.

How would this guy, upon finishing grad school, find a job in the computer industry? Rely on his good looks? Hardly. Okay, he wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but also wasn’t nearly as handsome as he himself believed. He was so damn proud of his highway‑patrolman mustache, he would just sit in front of the mirror admiring it, like Narcissus. Nick, laboring to suppress a sneer nearby, would eventually give himself away. Then Scott would say, “Yeah, you could never grow one of these, could you? That’s a shame. Man, I used to have a full beard. Looked damn good too. Did I ever show you the picture of that?” Nick would roll his eyes. Only about a thousand times. Scott would reiterate, “You never could grow one of these. It’s not in your genes. Guess you’re outta luck.” Nothing Nick could say would deter him. Scott would continue admiring his reflection, and Nick would just stand there wishing he had a gun.

Normally Nick didn’t have to worry about Scott using his special ramen‑pot, because it was steel. Scott, like a lot of paranoid people, equated aluminum pots with Alzheimer’s disease. But he took it a step further, avoiding steel as well. He had one stovetop-safe glass pot, but today it was covered in burnt rice, and the dirtbag had resorted to borrowing the ramen pot.

This was a guy who took liberties. He left messes, he borrowed your stuff, you might even find him in your own bedroom sitting in your chair listening to your stereo. He had an entitled air about him, like Goldilocks. He had even discarded his given name and rechristened himself Scott. He probably chose this just so he could nickname himself “the Scotsman,” despite being the farthest thing from Scottish. He loved to refer to himself in the third person. As in, “I met a young woman at the gym today and got her number. Looks like the Scotsman’s gonna get laid!

Now Nick was in a rush—to zip home between classes and have a ramen spaghetti meal before rushing back for his next class required clockwork precision. Now his whole system was thrown off. When the microwave beeped he hastily pulled one long noodle from the pot, let it cool for a few seconds, and tested it. It was perfect—the gears in his machine seemed to be meshing again. He signed contentedly—and poured the noodles down the garbage disposal. The colander! He had completely forgotten it! And it was all because of the Scotsman throwing him off his game!

He was furious. His lunch—gone. No time to start over—he’d have to go hungry. Nick’s mind raced. Scott and that damn tea, he thought. I’ll get him for this. I’ll kill him! But how? Suddenly, he remembered the Winchester 30.06. He knew just how to get it, too. It was in his neighbor’s glass display case, and the neighbor’s eight-year-old kid had the key on a string around his neck. But that was the neighbor in his hometown, more than a thousand miles away, and that little eight‑year‑old was probably in high school by now. What could Nick do? There was always the chef’s knife . . . but he probably didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t doubt that he could overpower his roommate—he could envision the old dude’s brittle bones snapping like twigs. But there couldn’t be blood—then he would lose the damage deposit on the apartment. No, it would have to be clean—the perfect crime.

He didn’t have much time to hatch a revenge plot—Scott would be home by about five. He checked his watch, and was suddenly overcome with inspiration. Of course! The watch! As Nick watched the liquid crystal digits rolling over precisely, the seconds changing like magic, a plan unfolded before his eyes. The Scotsman had been talking nonstop about a meeting he was to have with the one professor on campus who still respected him. Scott freely—almost proudly—admitted that his flamboyant personality had irritated all the other professors to the point of complete alienation. And Nick knew a bit more than Scott had let on, since he had friends in the Computer Science department. Many people knew that Scott had virtually no hands‑on computer experience. Sure, he could write decent programs on paper, but that wouldn’t make him a real programmer. The ones who spent their entire lives in front of the computer—they would be competing for the jobs. For them, school was just a side‑show; they had been dominating the keyboards since they were teenagers. Scott, meanwhile, had spent ten years working at a factory after washing out in the white-collar world. Grad school was his second chance, but he needed to find a thesis advisor before he could finish his Master’s—and he had only one prospect left. Whether or not he could make a good impression at Friday’s meeting was up to him—until he decided not to wash that pot. Now, his fate was in Nick’s hands.

It was almost too simple. Nick would swipe Scott’s watch that night and change the alarm. The meeting was at 2:00 p.m.—he would set the alarm for 2:15. He envisioned the result: as the ignorant fool chatted with the professor, desperate to make a good impression, the watch would suddenly start beeping. The Scotsman, as shocked as the professor, would be powerless to stop the shrill “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP!” For maybe five seconds, he would just listen to it, his face turning red, the professor becoming increasingly irritated by the unpleasant noise. Then, Scott would try in vain to muffle it with his hand. After about ten seconds, the professor would stare in disbelief as the computer science major clumsily fumbled with the band, finally stripping the delinquent watch from his wrist and shoving it in his pocket. The professor would realize the irony of the situation and burst out laughing. The damage already done, Scott could theoretically laugh with him, or make a futile excuse. But that wasn’t his nature. No, his explosive temper would take over, and he would blurt out something offensive and storm out of the room. He might reach the end of the hall before realizing that he had just ruined his last chance at getting a thesis advisor—and hence at getting his master’s degree in computer science. Once the word got out about his folly with the digital watch, and the ensuing loss of temper, he would be the laughingstock of the entire department.

Would the Scotsman then transfer to another school, to finally complete his degree? No chance. He was a quitter—always had been. A decade earlier, he’d received his first rejection slip from a magazine editor and immediately gave up all hope of becoming a writer, despite having a journalism degree. In like fashion, he would leave the university, unable to complete his goal, and return to the factory, a broken man. Nick’s revenge would be complete. And he couldn’t be punished! Even if he were convicted of tampering with Scott’s watch, was that a crime? In itself, no . . . Nick sat back, chuckling. It would indeed be the perfect crime.

Right around five, Scott arrived at the apartment, and between snorting, wheezing, and hacking up snot in the sink, he told Nick about this certain girl, who was so good looking, and not bitchy at all, but actually really sweet, and how he could tell she liked him, and how he wanted to “treat her to an active sex life.” Scott brushed his teeth, admired his reflection for a while, then continued his bedtime ritual by stashing his watch in the sock drawer. He was asleep within the hour, whereupon Nick retrieved the watch, put it in alarm set mode, expertly marched the digits across the screen until the alarm was set for 2:15 p.m., and returned the watch to its drawer. He had launched his magnificent plan and Scott would handle the rest, the mechanism of his own humiliation and rage set into motion like clockwork.

At precisely 2:28 the next afternoon, Nick looked up from his ramen to see the Scotsman crash through the front door in a blind rage. He crossed the room and began smashing his already bloody fist into the fridge. He spouted profanities, mingled with “professor” and “watch,” until he glanced over at Nick and fell silent. Nick, wiping tomato sauce from his chin, innocently asked, “What’s the matter?”

Then, as he locked eyes with the demon roommate, he found he was no longer able to keep a poker face. He jumped up, anticipating the attack, and when the Scotsman reached him, Nick let him have it.

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