Everyone knows a voice is easier to fire than a face. Tuzi was at home waiting for his cable appointment when he received the call. After, he pondered if The Jellyfish had been waiting long for an opportunity like this.
When the call disconnected, The Jellyfish’s footwear popped into Tuzi’s mind. Royal blue sneakers stuck out in a dusty, oil-riddled warehouse. They were probably an attempt to make people believe he was still down to earth and casual. Like the same person who used to work in the muck with them was in there, somewhere. But the attitude, finely pressed shirts, and forty-five-dollar haircuts revealed he was nothing more than a corporate ass-sucker.
Tuzi’s couch felt like a raft bobbing and dipping in shark-infested waters, so he remained still for a while. The sound of knocking dropped him back on dry land. He twisted the deadbolt and opened the door, not sure how much time had passed until he spied the uniform.
“Extreme Cable, you called for an installation?” the man said. It was so monotone it
barely sounded like a question.
Extreme Cable was woven on every article of his denim uniform.
“Yes, come in,” Tuzi said and stepped aside. “Thanks for coming.”
The cable guy tipped the brim of his blue cap before he entered the apartment. “No need to thank me.” More monotone.
Tuzi let a sigh escape. His eyes were drawn to a darker spot of denim where the cable guy’s name patch could have been.
“This where you want it?” He curved his arm around Tuzi’s entertainment center.
Tuzi peered around the T.V. stand. The multi-colored cords behind it hissed and coiled when Extreme Cable pulled them aside.
Three cats ran across the apartment and into the bedroom.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Tuzi said. “They’ve been clobbering each other all morning.”
“Is this where the cable is going?” he asked, still reaching into the pit.
“Yes, sir, if you could.”
“There’s no need for the sir, either.”
“What should I call you then?” Tuzi’s eyes moved to the rectangular denim void.
The cable guy directed his nose to Tuzi’s chest. Tuzi could see lots of white around his irises. Avoiding eye contact was a common tactic The Jellyfish used. “Should only take a few minutes to install,” he said.
“All right. Let me know if you need any help.”
“There would be another guy here if I needed help.”
Tuzi’s cats scurried from the bedroom and rumbled after one another to the office. Another sigh seeped out of him before he sank back onto the couch.
Installing the cable involved pulling the entertainment center out a few feet to get access to the mounted jack. It caused the cable guy to grumble loud enough for Tuzi to hear. Once the jack was open the cable guy fished around in his tool belt. The wires had slid in his workspace and he snagged a couple times in his search.
“Sorry about the mess, I tend to shove them out of site once they’re plugged in.”
The cable guy continued rummaging through his tool belt. “Occupational hazard,” he said.
“Do what you gotta do.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“You’re acting like it’s your only option. You don’t have to install my internet, you don’t even have to be a cable guy.”
The cable guy looked up from his tool belt. “I’m not sure if you know how the world works, but unless you’re born into money, you need a job to pay bills and live. So yes, I have to be here. Otherwise I lose my job and the roof over my head.”
“Can I get your name?”
He unfastened his tool belt and Tuzi watched it drop to the floor. The cable guy wrapped his arm behind his back.
This is it, Tuzi thought. He closed his eyes and threw his arms up in surrender. “Please don’t,” he said, then felt a plop on the couch. When he opened his eyes, Tuzi saw the Extreme Cable photo ID. He picked it up for further inspection. A cheerful man lived inside the frame, while the bitter one stood in front of him. Tuzi handed him back the ID. “I’m sorry I freaked out, Paul. I just lost my job and I’m a little tweaked.”
“And you thought I was going to pull a gun on you?”
“I know how messed up it sounds.”
Paul scrunched his face and returned to installing the internet. “Sorry you lost your job.”
The cats skittered across the apartment again, back into the bedroom. “I haven’t told my girlfriend yet.”
Paul was hidden behind the entertainment center.
“Is Extreme Cable hiring?”
“You don’t want to work for us.”
“Seems like a decent job. Constantly on the move, meeting different kinds of people.”
“It’s not that great.”
“No job is. Sometimes you’re happy, other times you’re ripping your hair out. I need something.”
Paul poked his head out. “I come in contact with a lot of nit wits.”
“C’mon I’m sure some of your customers are decent.”
Paul turned his head back to the jack. “The nit wits are winning.”
Tuzi frowned. “I see.”
“I’m not getting a connection here. Is there a main box in the basement of the complex?”
“Guess there could be.”
The cats scampered through the apartment another time but froze halfway as Paul stood.
He saw Tuzi getting up. “I got it, just sit tight.”
“You need a key to get in.”
Paul shrugged. “Fine.”
The cappuccino-colored walls and musky perfume always evoked a spinster café in Tuzi’s mind, not an apartment complex hallway. Close to the end of Tuzi’s floor, the two men saw a blue-eyed American bulldog sitting next to one of the apartment doors, alone.
“Is this normal around here?” Paul asked.
“First time I’m seeing it.”
“Must be trained or something.”
The bulldog jumped up and attempted to follow them when Tuzi opened the door to the stairwell.
“Go on,” Paul said flapping his hands. “Get outta here.”
His arms flapped so wildly they looked like electrified tentacles and the dog backed away, giving Paul the opportunity to inch closer to Tuzi.
“Step back and as soon as I’m far enough, shut it,” Paul said.
After Tuzi closed the door, they heard a small whimper from the other side.
“Sorry, buddy,” Tuzi said.
“Nothing,” Paul said and looked down at the stairwell. “Go ahead.”
The stairs to the basement didn’t have a light, but Tuzi could mostly see from the little brightness that fell down from the landing. He only stumbled once on his way to the lock. He tried jiggling the key, putting it in halfway, and finally pushing and pulling the doorknob, but nothing seemed to work.
Tuzi held his key ring to the dim light of the stairwell. “No wonder it’s not working. Wrong key.” He glanced up at Paul whose face was drenched in shadow. Tuzi held up another key. “Here it is.”
All storage units for the tenants were in the basement, and each 8×11 pad had a chain-link fence around it. Paul angled his nose to the ceiling as his shoes touched the concrete. He followed a pipeline while Tuzi hung back to spy on his neighbor’s cages.
A paintball gun with spider stickers was the first thing he noticed. He assumed it belonged to the kids who tramped the hallways every night. Tuzi grazed his hands on the fence as he passed to see what else was hiding away there. Sideways in a box, a cuckoo clock lay with half its gold face and tiny door visible. The cuckoo’s owner had to be the older woman who lived across the hall from him. Her front door had a large Roman numeral clock hung in place of a wreath, and Tuzi wondered what other weird time-telling gizmos she had hidden away.
Now only a few feet behind Paul who was fidgeting with the breaker box, he asked,
“What the hell is that?”
“The main cable box to the building.”
“No, not that.” Tuzi pointed to the corner of a storage unit. “This?”
Paul stopped and followed Tuzi’s arm. There was a gray and black object that appeared to be moving. Black spots and stripes were sprinkled throughout its tiny gray body, otherwise invisible against the fencepost and concrete. Even its small bean-shaped eyes were hard to make out unless you were close.
Tuzi lowered to his stomach and put his face a few inches from the creature. “It’s a frog.”
“What’s with you and animals?”
“I prefer their company to humans. My girlfriend feels the same way.”
“Looks like you two found the right place, it’s a regular petting zoo here,” Paul said and returned to the box. “I’m almost done. Wrap it up Mr. Zookeeper.”
“I’m going to bring him outside later. I wonder how he got in.”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Paul said and shut the box. “Let’s go turn on your cable.”
On the first floor stairwell, the two men were greeted by the bulldog. This time its owner, a woman who shared the same blue eyes, shuffled at the dog’s side. Tuzi stopped to let them pass, which caused Paul to bump into him.
“What’s the hold up?” Paul asked.
“Thanks,” the women said.
“You’re welcome,” Tuzi said and started up the stairs behind her.
The three cats charged across the living room as soon as the men entered. Neither seemed surprised.
“I’m waiting for an alligator or a parrot to pop up somewhere,” Paul said.
“Maybe a flamingo will fly in my window.”
“Flamingos can’t fly.”
“Of course they can. They’re not penguins.”
Paul vanished behind Tuzi’s entertainment center. “I’m done here.”
The sound of knocking launched Tuzi back to reality.
Sleep blurred the apartment no matter how much he tried to blink it away. He had never dreamt so vividly. His dreams were mostly flashes of situations and never linear. The knocking repeated, louder now. Was this another dream? If so, is it possible to wake yourself up if you know you’re dreaming? Tuzi thought.
The knocking became thudding. Tuzi gave up pondering and answered the door. His lungs exhaled when he didn’t see Paul from Extreme Cable.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’m with Universal cable, here to install your internet.”
The man was more chipper than Paul. He wore a red button-down shirt and khaki pants. The word ‘Universal’ was stitched in white thread where a name patch could have been. He continued talking the whole time Tuzi sized him up, babbling on about different internet package rates and what the overall best choice could be. His lips moved rapidly, and he spat occasionally while enunciating with one hundred percent accuracy. When his mouth finally snapped shut, his eyes widened.
Tuzi paused before he spoke. “Uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
He took out a card from his breast pocket and handed it to Tuzi. “Paul.”
Tuzi looked at the card, then at Paul, then back at the card again. “Pardon me,” he said, stepped back into his apartment, closed the door, and went to the kitchen. There was a magnetic notepad on the refrigerator with a pen attached to it. He once read that dreams could be interpreted. Since this was the first dream he ever remembered, Tuzi thought he should write down the things that left an impression.
Blue-eyed American Bulldog
Wrong & Right Key
Spider Sticker Paintball Gun
Woman with Bulldog eyes
Tuzi pulled the notepad back so he could see it at a distance. Animals dominated the piece of paper. Other than that, nothing made sense. The ramblings of a man who had lost his job and maybe his mind along with it. Tuzi did write, ‘Cuckoo’ smack dab in the middle of the list, which raised a flag redder than second Paul’s shirt. He added ‘Real Paul’, ‘RED’, and ‘Universal Cable’ to the list.
Cuckoo still stood out. Tuzi underlined it, then circled it. It didn’t help.
Having two Pauls was more than a coincidence. Tuzi wondered if he knew Paul was coming before he dreamt it. He knew Universal Cable was installing his internet, but other than in his dream, he couldn’t remember having the service tech’s name. He put the notepad back on the refrigerator and threw Paul’s card in the garbage. The word, Cuckoo, boiled in his mind until he saw his phone on the arm of the couch. He held it to his ear, hearing the words again in his mind.
“Look, Tuzi. It’s not working out.” Silence. Deep breath. “The company just can’t afford you.” Silence again. “We would have to cut your wage in half if you were to stay.” More. Fucking. Silence. The last words finally squirmed out. “I know that’s not an option for you.”
As Tuzi’s grip tightened, the hope for his employer to reconsider grew. But the phone never rang. No matter how hard he squeezed. He flicked the touch screen. 10:17am. Tuzi wanted spray cheese, which was strange as he hadn’t eaten it since he was a kid. But he decided right then that he was going to the convenience store down the street.
Tuzi brought the dream list to the convenience store in case something sparked in his mind. He was at the end of the line, cheese in hand. He hadn’t moved in minutes. Tuzi counted the things he wrote down until he came to the cuckoo clock. There were seven things before it. He looked up from the list. Seven people swayed in front of him. Tuzi thought about that for a moment.
The line began to move, but Tuzi remained inside his head. When it was his turn, the cashier tapped her artificial nails on the counter to get his attention.
“All set?” She asked.
Tuzi gazed at the teenage girl behind the counter. Her thin hair was up in a bun.
She pointed at the spray cheese. “I need to scan that.”
“Oh, of course. Sorry,” Tuzi said and gave her the cheese. He glanced at her uniform. The name on her tag read Cuckoo. He wanted to shriek and run at the sight of it, but kept himself planted. “Do, do you like clocks?”
The cashier’s eyebrows arched at the question. “What?”
“Your nametag. It says, Cuckoo.”
“It’s Coco.” She said, then scanned the cheese and slammed down the can. “Three-twenty.”
Tuzi always mixed up words. Whether reading or spelling. Maybe the bird on the cereal box was to blame for this one. He did remember eating a good amount of those chocolate puffs when he was young. Tuzi looked at the nametag one more time, then pulled out his wallet.
Two possibilities ate at Tuzi’s mind as he slid into his car to leave: he was dreaming again, or something much worse was happening. He retraced his steps, starting with his encounter with the second Paul. The occurrences weren’t too strange after his dream ended, but when Tuzi began matching things up with the list it unsettled him. It felt too clean and smooth for life, which meant there was a good chance he was dreaming again, or still. The realization made Tuzi bop up and down in his car. Alongside the spray cheese, he felt like a kid again.
If this was a dream, Tuzi knew there wasn’t much time until something woke him up. He pictured himself relaxing on his couch, but dismissed it quickly and thought about what he wanted to do next. He watched the cashier through the store window and wondered what could happen if he went back inside and sprayed her with the cheese. She would probably jump over the counter and pierce one of his eyeballs with her icepick nails, then call the cops while he bled out. Tuzi shook his head. “Too violent to sleep through,” he said out loud and started the car. It was time to see where this dream could take him.
Bode Go Green Inc. (BGGI) has thrived in recycling machinery since the late 90’s and with five convenient locations throughout the United States. I can say with confidence that we show no signs of slowing down. -Jacob Bode (CEO of BGGI)
Bode’s quote had implanted itself into every website and social media account affiliated with BGGI. Tuzi’s brain was it’s latest victim. It poured from his mouth like a top twenty single as he rolled into the parking lot of his former employer.
The lobby inside was the same. No customers, a poor excuse for a leather love seat, and a black fake-wood table riddled with scratch marks. The air smelled moldy. Tuzi thought it would have been cleaner in his dream. A sliding window for customers sat on the left side of the lobby. Tuzi stepped up and pressed the call button until Stew’s face came into sight. His jiggly body wavered when their eyes met.
“Hey there, little buddy,” he said. His red mustache twitched like cat’s whiskers. “What brings you around these parts?” Stew’s voice was squeaky and beads of sweat formed above his upper lip.
“I need to see Henry.”
Stew leaned on the counter. “I’m afraid he’s out with a client.”
Tuzi lunged and grabbed both sides of Stew’s collar. Using all of his weight, he pulled Stew halfway through the window.
“He’s not here,” Stew hissed. He splayed out trying to regain ground, but Tuzi tightened his grip.
“Listen, you fat strawberry, I know he’s in there. So scurry into the office and tell him I’m coming.”
Tuzi watched Stew. He smiled at the worm-like motion his plump body made as it worked its way back through the window, before he punched in the code for the office door. Anita stood up from her desk when she saw Tuzi barge through the employee entrance. She always wore some kind of top with graphics that reminded him of flamingos and today was no different.
“You’re not supposed to be–”
“I need to talk Henry.”
Anita followed as Tuzi rounded the corner toward Henry’s office. “You need to leave.”
“Only need a few minutes,” Tuzi said.
The door to Henry’s office was locked and Tuzi stepped back to study it until he felt Anita’s finger tapping his shoulder.
“You can’t be here. Leave. I’m not going to ask you again.”
Tuzi ignored her and knocked on Henry’s door. “Open up, or I’ll huff and puff.”
Before Tuzi could chuckle at his own comment, Anita pounced. She grabbed him by the wrist, kicked his feet out, then stamped her foot on his chest and pressed harder. He couldn’t believe the fall hadn’t woken him.
“Get off me.”
Tuzi’s face blossomed red and he started to cough. “You can’t do this.”
She pressed harder.
“Anita’s not messing around, little buddy. Stand down,” Stew said from behind Anita.
“I bet you’d be blubbering if you were trapped like this.” Tuzi turned back to Anita. “Man, I thought I’d wake up by now.”
When Henry opened his door, he immediately looked down at Tuzi.
“What happened here?” he asked. His uneven collar wiggled like tentacles when he moved.
“It’s not supposed to go this way,” Tuzi said. “You owe me an explanation.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Anita said.
“Anita,” Henry said and rippled his hand in the air. “You’re fine. And Tuzi, I don’t owe you anything. Actually, I owe you a trip to the police station. But since Anita handed your ass to you, I think that’s payment enough.”
His words stung through Tuzi’s veins. “Until I file an assault charge.”
Henry’s head bobbed. “And I’ll follow that with the footage of you yanking Stew through our lobby window. How do you think that’s going to work out?”
Tuzi stopped struggling under Anita’s grip.
“Now when Anita decides to let you up, you’re going to leave and never come back.”
“This isn’t happening. Why can’t I wake up?”
Henry fluttered his hands before disappearing into his office, closing the door behind him.
“You going to leave? Or do I have to get rough again?”
Tuzi kept still. “’I’ll leave.”
Dreams hardly ever go the way you want, Tuzi thought. So why should things be any different if someone knows they are dreaming? He took out his list after Stew escorted him to the lobby. Mr. Zookeeper stuck out this time. Everything on the list was either an animal or affiliated with one. It was also the nickname Paul had given him. His eyes fixated on 3 Cats. They were the only reoccurring animals but Tuzi didn’t have cats, so he couldn’t understand why they were running around in his apartment.
Tuzi continued to study the list in the BGGI parking lot. He thought about alternative spellings of certain words and counted how many he wrote down. He even read the list out loud in case he heard something significant. The only thing that managed to stand out was, Wrong & Right Key. After the others, this felt like a true lead. Tuzi took out his keys and focused on the ring. The key for his building’s storage units got his attention, but was this the wrong key or the right one? Tuzi removed it from the ring then reached through the passenger window and tossed it in the glove box. His can of spray cheese kept its place in shotgun. He hadn’t touched it since the convenience store. Tuzi picked it up and ate some. As he walked around the car he counted the other vehicles, those three bastards were the last ones left. His trunk made a decent chair as he pressed more cheese into his mouth.
“Maybe the key will bring me to the grey frog which could lead me to the next clue.”
Tuzi had another helping of cheese. He needed some kind of sign to make sure he was still dreaming. Reaching deep into his mind, Tuzi searched for something that couldn’t be ignored. He imagined a seven-foot light bulb with mannequin arms playing a xylophone, then closed his eyes tight and pictured every detail about it including the song it was playing. When he lifted his eyelids, all he saw was BGGI’s lights switch off.
It was late in the afternoon and Tuzi thought about his girlfriend, Chou. How could he tell her? She didn’t deserve the money shifting, postponed bill payments, and all the other headaches that can come with one source of income. Tuzi knew he wasn’t to blame for being fired. He was punctual, hardly left early, and never called out. Nonetheless, he questioned his performance as an employee at BGGI. Co-workers nicknamed him, Mr. 40 since he turned down overtime work in order to have a personal life, and Tuzi wondered if it was a major contribution to his firing. He finished off the cheese and hopped off his trunk. The knocking could come at any moment. Chou could eat lunch at home today.
About the Author
Tim Bemis has received a BA in creative writing from New England College and an MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. His fiction has appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review, the Indiana Voice Journal, Subtle Fiction, and Mystery Tribune amongst others.
Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to his wife, Natalie. Without her constant love, support, and phenomenal edits throughout his career none of this would be possible.