by Michael J. Coene
In the kitchen Marty stepped on a Corn Flake. Before he realized it was a Corn Flake, he assumed that something in his foot — something tiny and important in his foot — had snapped in two. He felt no pain at the sound of the snap, but thought that maybe it was one of those clean breaks that doesn’t reveal itself as pain until much, much later.
Marty leaned against the kitchen counter, folded up his leg. He cradled his foot to inspect it for damage. Several small yellow crumbs were attached to the fabric of his ratty white sock. The crumbs looked like crumbs from a smashed Corn Flake. At first, Marty was relieved, because the presence of the crumbs meant that his foot had probably not been damaged. Marty tried to wipe the crumbs off, which took a bit more doing than he had expected.
With the crumbs free, Marty left the kitchen. He walked to the window in his bedroom, which was also the living room, because Marty’s apartment was a studio apartment. Marty stood before the window, staring meaningfully beyond. He stood there staring for a long time, until, finally, a thought formed in his head.
Marty realized that he had never once purchased a box of Corn Flakes — not ever in his life. The thought was very frightening. He wondered how he could’ve stepped on a Corn Flake in his own apartment without ever having purchased a box of Corn Flakes before. Marty became anxious. He tried to calm himself down. His brain’s voice suggested that maybe he was mistaken about the brand of cereal responsible for the crumbs. It was a good point. Marty ran back to the kitchen. He got down on the floor.
Sitting on the floor with his legs splayed out — the crumbs scattered on the tiles between his knees — Marty sighed. He tried to remember what cereals he had purchased since moving into his apartment a little less than a year ago. He rarely bought cereal, because the milk always went bad. Cereal would get depleted long before the milk, leaving the milk with nothing else to do but sit around and rot. Marty wondered if it wasn’t some kind of marketing scam, where the quantities were offset to create a sort of endless purchasing cycle, or something.
One time Marty had bought a box of Frosted Mini-wheats, and another time — on a strange, nostalgic whim — he had bought a box of Boo Berry. Neither cereal looked anything like Corn Flakes, though. He couldn’t remember having purchased cereal any other time since moving to the apartment. In the case of both cereals, the milk stuck around until it went bad.
The crumbs on the floor had confounded him, completely. Marty sank. He stared dazedly at the crumbs. Every now and then, he pressed a finger to a crumb, sunk a crumb deep into the grooves and oils of his print, used this method to bring the crumbs closer to his face for inspection. Marty was convinced that serious data could be analyzed in the crumbs when he brought them closer to his face like that.
Marty didn’t look so good. His long-johns were light grey, and the sweatshirt was a grey of a much darker shade. The tiles of his kitchen floor were supposed to be white, but the tiles hadn’t been cleaned in months, so the floor looked more like his light grey long-johns. Marty looked down. He took in the state of what he’d let himself become. He chuckled in a way that sounded like crying, which almost made him cry. He wiped his hand down his face. Cars began to pass on the road outside. Marty listened to the rushing whoosh and hiss of cars outside, to strangers at the start of yet another day. The sound depressed him, immensely — it got him every time.
For no clear reason that Marty understood, he was always awake before the sun. He hated that his sleep schedule was set to beat the sun, but it was the way he’d always been, ever since he was a toddler. Each new morning, as soon as night started to bring out the blue, Marty rose from his sheets with a mouthful of dread. He would ache loudly at the window, drooling, snarling, groaning at the window, at all that creeping blue up and out beyond the window. Blue meant that the sound of passing cars was about to start again. Marty hated blue for that, hated even more that nothing could be done to change it. He had tried, many times, and had long since given up.
Marty remained on the kitchen floor until the sound of passing cars evened out to a less consistent rhythm, declaring the time as sometime shortly after noon. He got up from the kitchen floor, dusted himself off, and walked to the Chinese take-out place about a block from his apartment. He ordered a large dish of spicy bean curd, and a can of ginger ale. He sat in a chair that had been put there for people waiting for their food. Parts of a newspaper lay scattered in a mess on the chair next to his chair. Marty never learned how to be interested in newspapers. Still, just to seem like a person who could occupy himself, he took a page from the pile, flicked it open grandly, and let his eyes move along in a simulation of what reading most probably looked like. As Marty’s eyes moved down toward the bottom of the page, he noticed that he had forgotten to change out of his long-johns. He’d forgotten to put shoes on, too. He didn’t need to check his feet. Suddenly, he could feel it.
Deeply embarrassed, Marty checked the faces of the employees at the Chinese take-out place. He checked to see if anyone looked offended, or concerned, or fearful of his presence. But the employees all glowed with patronizing smiles that didn’t seem to hide any secret malice, really. How wonderful, Marty thought, that they could smile so sweetly despite what they must think about the state of his socks! Gratitude coursed all through Marty’s body, flowing out and toward the Chinese take-out staff. He nearly sobbed with the intensity of the gratitude he felt. He had to choke back real tears.
One of the employees appeared with Marty’s lunch — it was in a brown paper bag that was in a white plastic bag with the words Thank You! printed in joyous red letters on the side. The girl handed Marty the bags. Marty mumbled something apologetic and grateful. The girl nodded very fast. She kind of laughed as she nodded. Marty worried that her head might pop off. She didn’t seem to know what was going on, not with her head, not with his socks, not with the contents of the brown paper bag. Marty let her go without any further mumbling.
As Marty shuffled toward the door, he noticed that the welcome mat felt harsh and coarse against his shoe-less feet. He wondered how he’d failed to notice that when he first came in. The mat was so coarse that it almost hurt to walk on it. Marty bent down to take a good look. He needed to be sure that nothing more dangerous than a welcome mat was down there.
And then Marty noticed — about an inch to the right of his big left toe — a Corn Flake, just like the one he had stepped on in his apartment.
All activity in the restaurant screeched to a halt. Marty stepped back, peered in awe at the Corn Flake. His hand tried to cap the astonishment of his mouth. He trembled. The Corn Flake on the welcome mat was fully intact, which meant, without a doubt, that it was more than just a remnant of the Corn Flake he had stepped on earlier. It was its own.
A customer walked in. “’scuse me, thanks,” the customer muttered, carefully maneuvering around Marty’s dense bulk. Marty cried out. He watched in horror as the customer’s boot made its way down. Marty tried to scream a word, but all that came out was a scream. The big black boot landed smack on the Corn Flake. Marty’s throat squeaked like air from a balloon being slowly let out. His neck needed air, or less of it, or something. The customer passed by without acknowledging the outburst.
Scrambling, Marty got down on all fours to check the status of the Corn Flake. A surge of relief rushed all the way through from his hair to his socks. It was some kind of miracle — the Corn Flake had been missed. Marty looked up to share the miracle with his new friends at the Chinese take-out place, but then he thought better of it. Some moments he needed to keep for himself.
Marty stepped into the daylight. He was feeling almost giddy. Cars whooshed by at a steady suburban tempo, reminding him, as always, that his rapture wouldn’t last. At some point, Marty would stop feeling whatever he was feeling. His brain would urge him on to the next step, toward processing the feeling with language and logistics — the step in which his brain would start asking why.
Of course, realizing that the step would come caused it, immediately, to come. Marty heard the moment happen. He heard his brain ask why? Marty shook his head. He didn’t want to hear it. Why not be allowed to just stand there and feel? But his brain moved on. Marty had no choice but to follow where his brain went.
Slumping in half, nearly spilling spicy bean curd all over the sidewalk, Marty conceded to the demands of his brain. He confessed that it made no sense — no sense at all — to feel such joy at the sight of the undamaged Corn Flake in the Chinese take-out place. No matter how the situation was approached, his reaction made no sense. In fact, the discovery didn’t even help with his investigation of the Corn Flake he’d stepped on in his kitchen. He had no way of knowing if the two Corn Flakes were connected. Even if, somehow, he was able to connect the Corn Flake on the welcome mat to the Corn Flake in his kitchen, the value of that connection — of the entire investigation! — was nowhere near the value of the surge of relief he had felt when he saw the cereal hadn’t been damaged by the customer’s big black boot. Everything was nothing, and Marty damned well knew it, and his brain was there to scold him about it.
As Marty clunked back to his apartment, exhaustion took over. He was very upset, but he was too exhausted to deal with the fact that he was very upset. Standing at the sink, Marty ate his spicy bean curd in silence. He finished his whole meal before cracking open the can of ginger ale — it was simply his method. After finishing the ginger ale, Marty pulled out the fortune cookie. The plastic around the fortune cookie put up a fight. Marty wrestled with the plastic, struggled so much that he accidentally crushed the cookie. The package popped open from the force of Marty’s hand. Crumbs from the cookie sprinkled to the floor. Had Marty’s brain not brought down his mood by holding him accountable, he probably would’ve noticed that the crumbs from the cookie were completely indiscernible from the crumbs he had wiped from his sock that morning.
Michael J. Coene’s short stories have been published by Barrelhouse Magazine, The Canary Press, Your Impossible Voice, and more — including an upcoming piece in The Fem Lit Mag. He lives with a blind dog above a duck-pin bowling alley in Baltimore. He does not sleep. He intends to write until he dies from it. @mjcoene
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The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review is a print and digital literary journal. We offer original fiction — short stories, short short stories, hybrid — poetry and nonfiction. We also curate The Eckleburg Gallery — visual artwork and intermedia — as well The Groove including first released, original music by The Size Queens. Our archives include emerging and established writers, poets, artists, musicians and performers such as Rick Moody, Cris Mazza, Eurydice, Steve Almond, Stephen Dixon, Moira Egan, David Wagoner, Zach Galifianakis and many more. We run annual print issues, The Eckleburg Reading Series (DC, Baltimore, Chicago, New York….), as well as, the annual Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction with a first prize of $1000 and print publication.