Unpacking is infinitely better than packing. When a person
tries to fit his old life into boxes, it’s an ongoing series of
decisions about what gets abandoned and what does not.
Tom Tibbetts was unpacking. Bits of his old life appeared from
the containers, settled into the corners of his new life, and filled
the cramped apartment. The place smelled of fresh but cheap
paint, new but bargain carpet, and Pine-Sol. The walls and the
ceiling were white, and the same beige carpet ran through every
room in the place. Tom had the interior door open, and a breeze
coming in through the screen door did its best to push the smell
of chemicals out the windows.
His life had imploded, leaving him hurt and cynical. The entire
thing was quite complicated, he believed, and no one seemed to
really understand. Eventually, he began to see everyone as either
hostile, stupid, or some combination. He knew he wasn’t likeable;
he knew people couldn’t sympathize. Remembering his father’s
saying, “If you meet more than two assholes in the same day, it’s
actually you who is the asshole,” he understood where he stood.
He just couldn’t see the way back up.
He had taken a job in a college town after the students had
returned for the fall semester, and they had snapped up the better
housing. Finding an apartment in the Cooper building, Tom was
surrounded by neighbors. He was in apartment 2B in a threestory
complex with nine units. His was the least desirable in the
building, with neighbors above and below him, and on either
side. Across the face of the building, at each floor, was a shared
concrete balcony with a wrought-iron railing and stairs, and his
door opened onto this. There was no interior stairwell.
Down on the street, someone Tom couldn’t see shouted, “Hey!
Fuck you, douchebag!”
It was quite a change from his previous address, where he’d
had a house with a yard, a stockade fence, and a trail down to a
brook. The house had come with Vicky, and it had stayed with
her. What he missed most was his old dog, Wallace. More than
a few times, especially after one of the many nasty fights with
Vicky, Tom had thought the dog was the only friend he had in
Wallace had loved to chase a ball, and they’d spent many hours
in the dog park, just the two of them. Over the years, Wallace
had slowed, turned grey, and Tom had known the inevitable was
coming. The day Wallace died, he and Vicky held each other,
crying, but when the next fight with Vicky came, Tom realized
how alone he really was. It wasn’t long after that day that Vicky
gave him enough reason to leave.
In Portage, he had his new apartment, with no dog, and no
girlfriend. He’d brought along two houseplants, but they didn’t
add any sort of comfort. Instead, at best, they seemed like fellow
refugees, and at worst, hostages.
However, he was not alone for long, and met his first
neighbor before he was completely unpacked. She appeared at
his doorway wearing cutoff jeans and a long-sleeve black shirt,
bearing the oft-seen photo of Kurt Cobain in the cardigan he
wore for the MTV Unplugged gig. Pushing Kurt out of shape
were two obviously unrestrained breasts. Her dark hair was long
and curly, and her feet were bare. She wore heavy eyeliner but
no other make-up.
“Hey,” she said through the screen.
“You need anything, I’m on top of you,” she said.
Tom said nothing, but then she pointed upward and said, “I’m
in the apartment above you.”
“Cute,” Tom said, wondering how many times she’d rehearsed
that, or used it on previous tenants. She grinned, and he smiled
in spite of himself.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“What’s yours?” Tom asked.
“Brynn,” she said.
“Just Brynn,” she said.
“No last name?”
She grinned again, and then asked, “So, she threw you out?”
“Who?” Tom asked, but he knew who. Vicky hadn’t so much
as thrown him out as she had replaced him. Throughout her life,
Tom knew, Vicky was always on the lookout for the next upgrade,
but she was never single between men. Her relationships tended
to overlap. Of course, a guy doesn’t believe he’ll be another one
of those stories, or layers, until after it happens to him.
“Whoever got you that sweater,” she said.
It was a lime green v-neck, and Tom wasn’t sure why it’d
made the cut, even though it was his mother who’d given it to
him years before.
“You want it?” he asked.
She giggled and leaned forward until first her breasts and
then her forehead rested against the screen.
“You coming in?” he asked. “Or are you going to keep talking
to me through the door?”
“I don’t know you well enough yet,” she said.
Looking her over, he knew there was no chance that she was as
uncomplicated as she was trying to seem. Tom asked, “How old
are you, Brynn?”
“Rude,” she said, but then, “I’m twenty-three. How old are
“I’m almost twenty years older than you,” he said.
“I wasn’t looking to hook up or anything,” she said.
He said, “I wasn’t implying that.”
“You were checking me out a minute ago,” she said.
“Was I?” he asked.
She said, “It’s okay, men do that, but I wasn’t looking to hook
up. I’ve got a boyfriend.”
He asked, “Is he a Nirvana fan, too?”
“A what?” she asked.
“The shirt,” he said.
She looked down at her chest. “Oh right, I’m not really a fan
of the music.”
“Why the shirt then?” he asked, unable to help himself.
“I thought he went out really cool,” she said.
Tom stopped unpacking, and said, “He was desperately
depressed, chronically sick and in constant pain, addicted to
heroin, and he blew his head off.”
“If you believe he killed himself, which I do—I’m not one of
those ‘Courtney-killed-him-whackos’—but he had the courage
to go through with it, and now he’ll live always, forever young and
beautiful,” she said.
“Abandoning his daughter,” he said.
“Abandoning his millionaire daughter.”
“I bet she’d trade those millions for more time with her dad,”
She paused, tilted her head, and then said, “Whatever. You a
teacher or something?”
“What makes you think I’m a teacher?” he asked.
“Well, you don’t look like you lift heavy shit for a living,” she
“A reporter. I’m taking a job at the newspaper,” he said. “And
I’m a writer.”
“Isn’t a newspaper reporter a writer?”
“I also write books,” he said.
“Heh. For Kindle and stuff?” she asked.
“For Kindle and stuff,” he said.
“Cool. I read a lot,” she said.
“Don’t seem so surprised. Eyeliner and tits don’t make you
stupid, you know,” she said.
She was beginning to ruin his good mood. He said, “Listen, I
didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just moving in, unpacking… busy.”
“I get it,” she said. “I’ll let you get to it. But you did think about
hooking up with me.” She grinned again, and then was gone from
Tom blinked, stood there quietly for a moment, and wondered
if all his neighbors were like Brynn.
Opening the next box, he pulled out four glasses, all different
sizes. A small one he’d probably never use, a medium-sized plastic
tumbler he would use to hold pens and pencils, a heavy pint glass,
and a wine glass. Holding this last one, he looked around at the
mess, abandoned the current box for another, and pulled out a
bottle of Barolo and a corkscrew. He took the freshly poured glass
out onto the balcony, leaned on the railing, and took a sip. The
wine was warm and tannic, and the breeze smelled of asphalt.
With the railing rocking on loose screws, Tom surveyed the view.
Portage, New Hampshire, had been a mill town, but when the
mill went silent, the town reinvented itself as a college town. The
local school, once Portage State College, had grown to the point
of joining the university system, and had been reborn as Portage
State University. It was hardly the same place. Once a town with
sidewalks full of men carrying lunchboxes, and then a Main
Street of shuttered shops through the tough years, Portage had
become a town of young people, university events, yoga, coffee
shops, and wandering grad students who never seemed to leave.
From Tom’s vantage point, he could see red brick, white vinyl
siding, glass, pedestrians, small patches of green, and cars driving
the short circuitous route that was the downtown. The entire vista
sloped down to the river.
He looked forward to becoming a part of the community.
Tom had been a reporter at a smaller newspaper, writing stories
and occasionally contributing columns, until accepting the new
position here at The Portage Herald.
“Are you a teacher or something?”
Tom turned and saw a man in his thirties, khaki shorts, and
a loose button-down, short-sleeve shirt, Birkenstocks, with a
shaggy head of hair.
“Why a teacher?” Tom asked. Did he really look that much like
“It’s the middle of a summer workday, and you’re already
drinking wine,” he said, and smiled.
“Not a teacher,” Tom said.
“I’m Ben, 2C,” he said, thumbing back at his door.
“I’m Tom,” he said and took another sip.
“Moving in?” Ben asked.
“Just about done. Just have to unpack the boxes,” Tom said.
“What brought you here?” Ben asked.
Tom knew he’d be an object of curiosity for his new neighbors,
but he thought it would look more like furtive glances and silent
wondering. These people just walked up and started asking
questions, as if in a rush to piece together some satisfying oneparagraph
biography on the new guy. He knew, that whatever
he said or did in reply supplied a puzzle piece. If he answered
honestly and sincerely, that would provide info. If he answered
curtly or snidely, that would provide info. If he silently went back
into his apartment, that would provide info. Tom was a journalist,
and he liked providing information, but about other people. Still,
he was in a decent mood. Why not be friendly?
Tom smiled, and said, “I’m taking a job at the Portage Herald.
I’ve been with the Insider. Did you go to school here?”
“I didn’t go to school at all; I work at McDonald’s,” Ben said,
and then added, a bit too loudly, “Want fries with that?”
Just as Tom was about to wonder if any of the neighbors would
be able to participate in an intelligent conversation, Ben said,
“Nope. No college, I. I’m proud to say that I’m an autodidact.”
Tom’s eyebrows lifted; that was potentially interesting. “What
have you taught yourself?” he asked.
Ben said, “Name it, man, I never stop learning. I can’t get
“You read a lot?”
Ben said, “Man, I read all the time. Whatever I can find. I also
learn from the Internet, TV, and movies. I learn from people, too,
man, ’cause even though I’m, like, fuckin’ Chatty Cathy right now,
I’m actually, like, an intense listener, you know? Like, I listen, man,
I listen hard, and it sticks. I just get bored if I can’t be in charge of
what I’m learning, you know? Like, be in control of what’s going
into my head, you know?”
Tom’s hopes were initially raised, but now he was becoming a
bit more skeptical.
“Tell me one thing you’ve learned. Impress me,” Tom said.
“I don’t learn shit to impress people, man. It’s impossible to
impress people, man. Even when people are impressed, it’s so
fucking uncool to be impressed with anything that no one will
admit it, you know?” Ben said.
Tom smiled, nodded, and took another sip. So, the guy heard
the word “autodidactic” on Jeopardy or something, and he’s
throwing it around now as an excuse for not furthering his
Ben said, “Alright, man, OK. How about this? I can speak
“So can the better-prepared half of Americans,” Tom said.
“Okay, man, but last Christmas? I could barely order at Taco
Bell. Now, I speak Spanish, man.”
“You speak Spanish,” Tom said.
“I speak fluent Spanish, man. I watch movies in Spanish now
and understand pretty much all of it. I know Russian, too. I’m
learning Latin now,” Ben said.
Tom lowered his glass. “You know Russian?”
“I’m not bullshitting you, man.”
“Why are you learning languages?” Tom asked.
“Because otherwise when I read translations, there is an
intermediary between me and the author, man, and they can’t
help but change it. Not just because of linguistic issues either,
it’s all about ego, man,” Ben said. “All these far out ideas, but we
get them filtered through some loser’s biases before we get to
experience them for ourselves.”
It did occur to Tom that this fast-food genius had just referred
to translators as losers. “Why do you work at McDonald’s?”
“Why not work at McDonald’s?” Ben asked. “Because people
look down on it? I’m not going to switch jobs because of what
other people think. I’m good at my job, and the people are
“But the pay,” Tom said.
“Man, why are you looking for problems in my life? I make
the money I need, and I spend the rest of my time learning and
experiencing shit. Yeah, man, I’m not a kid anymore, and I work
at McDonald’s, but I don’t live in my mother’s basement, and I
don’t make a living building weapons or lying to people,” Ben
Tom hadn’t felt he was being negative, and said, “Look, I didn’t
“You did mean it, man, but it’s no thing. It’s normal. We’ve
been conditioned to be in a perpetually dissatisfied state, man,
and we help each other maintain it,” Ben said.
“The basis of ambition,” Tom said.
“You say ‘ambition’ like it’s a good thing, man,” Ben said and
grinned, and they both laughed.
“Look, man, you know the special sauce on Big Macs?” Ben
“Thousand Island dressing? What about it?”
“Dude, see, exactly! Why? Why are you trying to take the
‘special’ out of the sauce? That’s a myth, man. It’s not Thousand
Island dressing. Chefs working for McDonald’s came up with that
recipe. In fact, it changed over the years, but not that long ago, the
CEO ordered everyone to go back to the original recipe, and they
had to find it, because it got deleted, so they did some intense
detective work and tracked it down. If it were just Thousand
Island, they could’ve just bought some at the supermarket.”
“Okay, sorry,” Tom said. “So, what about the special sauce?”
Ben took a breath, and seemed to relax again, “It’s special
because it was made for one thing, to be the special sauce on a
special sandwich. McDonald’s sells 550 million Big Macs every
year in the United States alone, dude. Can you think of a more
successful sauce than that?”
Tom said, “Ketchup.”
Ben paused, and then burst out laughing. “Right on, man, right
“I should get back to unpacking,” Tom said.
“Cool, cool,” Ben said.
“Nice meeting you,” Tom said.
“You, too, Tom. I’ll see you on the balcony,” he said.
Tom went back into his apartment, drank the last of the glass
of wine, and surveyed the work he had left to do.