Jul/Aug 2016  •   Fiction

Little Cruelties

by Lou Gaglia

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady

On Delancey Street Anthony ran into Pete and his girlfriend Susie from his neighborhood. For months Pete had owed him $50, and Anthony wondered if maybe it was a good time to pay up. They said they had no money on them though, except for chicken money, and to prove it they stopped at the chicken slaughterhouse at the end of Delancey. Inside, Anthony looked around at the chickens stuffed into cages from floor to ceiling. They had no room to move, and for a while Anthony couldn't move from the doorway, either, until he banged his way outside to wait for them, the din of screaming chickens still in his ears.

On the Bowery Susie walked ahead of them carrying two freshly dead chickens in a plastic bag. They were past Canal Street, near Confucius Plaza, when Pete announced he had totally forgotten to stop at his bank for Anthony's $50, as planned. They'd passed it a few blocks back, he said, but were already late for dinner. Susie's mother was going to cook the chickens, and she couldn't stand to wait. Anthony stared at them dully and watched them go.

That night in the laundry room he asked his neighbor Janet how people can work in a slaughterhouse and kill chickens.

"Easy, that's how. What the hell do you mean, Anthony? It's just chop-chop. They don't even know what's comin', the poor things."

"They were screaming in their cages."

Janet patiently placed her full basket of folded laundry on one of the machines. "Look, kid, they don't know what's coming, and they don't know what happens to them. They don't even feel it."

"I guess."

"You're a good kid, Anthony," she said, picking up her basket again. "Too good, sometimes," she warned him on her way out.

Upstairs he folded his laundry and found a basketball game on TV. During commercials he flipped around, not wanting to think about the lost $50 or Pete's stupid face. Janet had called him "kid," but he was going to be 36 in a week, and he still lived alone. He hardly noticed his age when he was busy at work in the newspaper building, and he hardly noticed when he watched sports on TV, but he remembered his age while flipping channels, or standing in a crowded subway car grasping a pole, or passing a man and woman walking together on the street. He remembered Susie and Pete walking away with arms linked, the bag of dead chickens bouncing against Susie's thigh.

He stopped flipping channels because some zombies were closing in on a huge group of living people who emphatically did not want to be killed and/or have their brains sucked out of their heads. Something like that. On another channel, a bold talkative street punk shot a scared skinny man in the chest for no good reason. And after Anthony returned from the kitchen with a tea, he witnessed the methodical, casual slaughter of an entire terrified family during a robbery of their delicatessen. Anthony punched in the channel of the basketball game and stopped flipping around.

A few days later, on Anthony's first date with Carly from the shipping department, they went to a Mulberry Street restaurant where he ordered Rigatoni. She ordered chicken parmesan, and he stared at her for a long moment and smiled faintly when she returned the look.

"What," she said.

He wanted to tell her about the slaughterhouse. She was a nice girl, and maybe she wondered, too, about the casualness of killing, and about the little acts of cruelty he often witnessed or sensed. But he shrugged instead and examined his glass of water.

"What is it?" she insisted, laughing, and so he told her all about the slaughterhouse and the zombies and the lost $50, even as a voice inside his head roared at him to shut the hell up.

"Maybe I should just change my order, then," she said, reaching for the menu.

"No, no, I was—"

"I'd rather have something else, anyway."

"Really, it was—it's nothing. Yours wouldn't even be the same chicken. It couldn't be one of the chickens I saw in the bag, so it's—it's a different dead chicken." She winced and turned her head away. "And this one was probably slaughtered somewhere else," he added, pointing to the menu.

The waiter arrived, and she changed her order to a Caesar salad, which he later noticed included little cubes of chicken, but he didn't say anything.

On Saturday morning he waited on a bench near the basketball courts. Other men sat on benches waiting, too. The street sweeper would come by soon, and everyone would have to move his car and try to reclaim his spot or find a new spot if he could. Anthony barely listened to two older men talking loudly. He heard "that son of a bitch," and he heard "he's got balls, dat guy," but otherwise he paid no attention to them. Instead, he grimaced over his failed first date with Carly, remembering how heatedly she'd told him after dinner it was no big deal about the chicken subject and to stop rehashing it, and then telling him later, offhand, that her boyfriend was waiting for her at home in Brooklyn.

The men were laughing about something, and in Anthony's mind Carly drifted down the dark subway stairs to her waiting boyfriend. The red-faced man next to him was telling a story about his neighbor, a guy named Jitty, who had run over two squirrels.

"He got them both with one shot—one under the front wheel, and the other under the back wheel. They were flattened exactly at the same time." The men laughed, and Anthony faked a smile. "I mean, they were smashed. And Jitty was a little smashed himself, come to think of it." The men laughed again, and the red-faced man picked at his ear.

"Someone said he did it on purpose," an old man chimed in from the next bench.

"No way could anyone ever plan that," the red-faced man said, annoyed. "It was just a lucky accident. That's what's so funny." He glanced at Anthony, then rose and walked down the block. Anthony jingled his car keys and leaned forward on the bench, listening for the sweeper. He wondered if he could call Carly and apologize, then have it out with her over the chicken topic, or else just drop it and pretend they'd had a great time and ask her out again, or else never call her again and snub her at work and live alone until he was 70 and then die alone.

The red-faced man hurried back to the group on the benches.

"Sweeper's coming!"

The men made a move for their cars. Anthony reached his car first and pulled out and circled the block, hoping to slide in behind the sweeper and reclaim his spot. But when he came around, there was no sweeper, and the red-faced man had moved up into Anthony's parking spot, and another car was behind him, all spots filled. He circled a few more times but the sweeper never came, and he fumed at the red-faced man who was on the bench laughing with his buddies over dead squirrels and stolen parking spaces.

In the laundry room that night he told Janet about the parking space incident and she shook her head. "That's the oldest goddamn trick in the book, Anthony."

"People stink," he said.

"They are who they are," she said. "What are you gonna do." He stared at her face. "You gotta wise up, kid. You gotta wise up, or else just take it."

At three o'clock on Monday morning, two hours before he had to wake up for work, he walked past the red-faced man's parked red and white convertible. A man sat huddled against a fence on the other side of the basketball courts, and across the street almost all of the lights were out in the 12-floor apartment building.

Between his first and middle fingers he held his apartment door key, its sharp head jabbing the inside of his jeans pocket, and he passed very close to the convertible but didn't take his hand from his pocket, only imagined himself coolly running the key against the driver's side door and returning the keys to his pocket again—doing it as smoothly and easily as fooling someone into leaving a parking space, or slitting a chicken's throat, or not paying a debt, or running over two squirrels, or watching people murder other people on television for no good reason.

The man against the opposite fence had moved on past the basketball courts to the playground. He wasn't looking. No one else was around, and on the third floor of the apartment building a light switched off, leaving the entire building dark. He remained motionless, three cars away from convertible, then felt his hand relax. The key slipped from between his fingers into his pocket.

Inside the courtyard gate, the security guard recognized him, and they talked about basketball and night shifts and insomnia for a while. It was all very casual talk, and soon the conversation turned to great basketball players, especially the toughest ones—the kinds of players who never quit, those "who played the game hard and played it right," as the security guard put it. Anthony managed a smile and looked sleepily away, up to his own apartment on the eighth floor. His bedroom light was still on. It was the only light shining on his side of the building, and the surrounding darkness of the other windows somehow made him feel more exhausted, even after two lights blinked open on the higher floors.