Joe tells me to close my eyes.
Then Joe tells me to picture someone who is plain-faced.
I say, okay. Eyes still closed, I picture actor Mark Ruffalo.
Joe says there’s a firm rule in place for whomever I have just pictured. The rule is they have to be zany or they have to do something zany or that something zany has to happen to them. He tells me I get to choose which of these scenarios I like best and then gives me the gift of adding in all the zany details.
Okay, I say.
Make sure it’s all very unlikely, he tells me. Make sure whatever happens they —
I fucking got it, I say.
I choose choice three: something zany happens to them. I picture my plain-faced Mark Ruffalo becoming a homeless leper and traveling around America, desperately trying to convince people he’s actually Mark Ruffalo. He forces his autograph on people, begs for scraps of food, and loses a limb in every state.
I have everything pictured, I say to Joe.
He says for me to keep picturing whomever I’ve made up and to now add a few people into the scenario like some family of my plain-faced person and maybe throw in a couple of strangers he’s met through his zaniness. Now, Joe says, we have a good set of characters and they’re talking to one another and this is extremely important because this equals dialogue, and dialogue and what’s happened to my plain guy (Mark Ruffalo) births a byproduct called conflict. The outcome of this conflict leads to a moral, a lesson, a truth. Finally, Joe says, picture your plain guy either smiling or crying at the end of all the mishap and then add in some other obtuse element. I picture my Mark Ruffalo crying and holding a grapefruit.
Then Joe tells me to open my eyes.
Now, after all that, he says, the viewers, the readers, the listeners, me, have all been entertained and come away with some meaning which relates to their life. We’ve just made up a story, Joe says. Simple shit to do, he claims. Every story that has ever been made follows this exact formula.
Of course, this is just his theory. Joe has a lot of these awful things. Another theory of his concludes a handsome man has never once gone bald in the history of the world. My favorite of his theories, though, states people actually live forever because the time before your birth and after your death aren’t time at all, time is only a thing when you’re living. It’s the only theory of his that might be true.
“Think about it,” Joe goes on. “Name one story where some sort of zaniness doesn’t play a major role. Or a story where something highly unlikely doesn’t happen. All surrealist writing, all that horror bullshit, sci-fi, is crap. That’s easy to write. Give me a book where nothing at all happens to anybody, that has no dialogue and has no description, that’s the book I want to read. I should try to write it. It’d be a challenge and nobody has the cojones to take it on.”
“I’m sure there are stories where crazy things don’t happen but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.”
“If this was a story, I’d take out a gun and hold this restaurant up.”
“Lower your voice.”
“Everybody would panic. Maybe I even kill a person or two. Then throw in some suspense, some boring outcome and there you have it. And because it will cause conflict and entertain whoever is watching or reading about me doing this thing it will get their mind off their terrible existence which is the very definition of entertainment. And if the story is successful enough they’ll learn a thing or two and maybe see the world a little differently. But I wouldn’t do any of that because this is real life, and nothing in real life ever happens.”
“Okay, so I guess we should add that to the pile of stupid things you’ve said? Things happen all the time.” I don’t know why I argue with him. But then, interestingly enough, I think: dialogue.
“Happens to who? To people you don’t know, right? To people you’ve read about online or saw on your tv.” He leans back in his chair. “Who knows if those assholes exist? I don’t even know if ninety-nine percent of the world exists out there. The Pacific Ocean might be a gag, all those little Russian villages across the world with their fucking matryoshka dolls fitting inside one another might just be someone having a good laugh on us, having us think the world is this big place when it’s not any bigger than what our eyes can see. What’s ever happened to you? I can’t think of anything ever happening to you. I know nothing has ever happened to me. I’m proof with a heartbeat that nothing ever happens to anybody.”
“My grandmother just died a few months ago. You knew that.”
“Nope. Doesn’t count.” He shakes his head.
“What? It was awful for me and my family. My mother couldn’t even get herself to go to the funeral.”
“No offense, but that’s no big deal. People die all the time. People are dying as you eat your fourth slice of pizza. There’s nothing zany about death.”
“She got hit by a bus. Some kids pushed her wheelchair into the street. That’s not zany enough for you, asshole?”
At this revelation, Joe is quiet. Grandma Venton didn’t actually get hit by a bus. I guess you could say it was the clock that hit her. But Joe doesn’t know this. Joe sits across from me, thinking of ways to tune his theories so they’ll sound like truth.
After a few more minutes and another slice of pizza we’re about ready to go. I get up and tell Joe I have to take a quick piss and tell him to figure out the tip for me. Once we leave I wouldn’t mind going to get drunk. A friend like Joe promotes the intake of alcohol. When I’m five beers in and at peace with his voice, the theories actually sound interesting.
I pass through the crowded restaurant, full of smiling people, full of brick oven pizza enthusiasts, full of tourists, and full of chatty kids who hide olives in their mother’s purses. It’s warm. It’s quiet. It’s a cozy place right in Times Square. Forty-Third Street. .0000001 of the world. .0000000000000000000000000001 x infinity of the universe. Interestingly, I think: setting.
I’m taking a leak in the bathroom when Joe barges in. He’s holding my coat and a slice of pizza.
I shake the last drip out and say, “All right, give me a second.”
“We’re leaving and we’re not paying is what I mean. It’s my new thing. I don’t pay for food in restaurants anymore. If I told you before we ate, you would’ve never came out with me.” He shakes his head and wrinkles his nose. I’m not sure if it’s because there’s a bad smell in the bathroom or if he’s just getting more pretentious as the days go — pardon the pun — down the toilet.
“No, we’re paying,” I say. “I’m not doing that to them here. I’ll pay for the two of us, can’t be more than twenty bucks for a pie and two sodas.”
“I just can’t let you pay. I haven’t paid for food in three months. Here’s your coat. Let’s go.” He takes a bite of his folded ‘za and stares at me.
“Why? Why do you do this all of a sudden?” As I put my coat on, I decide I don’t want to hear Joe’s latest theory. “No, tell me later.”
I reach into my pocket for my wallet. It isn’t where it should be.
Joe is holding it and smiling. “I’m not giving this to you,” he says.
“We’re not fourteen. We can’t be doing shit like this,” I say, “just give me the money.”
“Not a chance,” he says. “I swear to you, there isn’t a thing you could do to get me to hand it over.” He begins to walk out of the bathroom.
I can’t believe we’re actually going to do this. But I think: conflict.
“Come on, Joe,” I plead one last time, “this is stupid. Let’s just pay.”
He shakes his head and I know he cannot be reached. He is the dead person behind that cheery voicemail. As he opens the bathroom door, from behind us comes a voice.
“You ain’t really gonna leave without paying, boys?” says this voice.
It’s the plain voice of a man, and it’s coming from inside one of the stalls. We can hear the stall door unlatch. I’m not sure if Joe is as frozen as me because terror gets an A+ at making you forget about everybody else in the world.
The stall door swings open. I feel like this stall door swings opens slowly, like slow motion is employed here for the benefit of people that aren’t me or Joe.
I watch as the man steps out. I find my eyes to be useless, only able to stare at his boots.
Uninterestingly, I think: suspense.
His boots are black and muddy. As my eyes go up, slowly, they scan unimportant details like his tucked-in checkered button-down, the tattered wool peacoat, a belt buckle that is in the shape of Texas, but then I see he’s missing a hand. In the hand he still has, he’s holding his once-attached hand. Finally my eyes reach his plain face.
Of course it’s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mark, fucking, Ruffalo.
At least I think it’s him . . . his face is dirty and pale. He has a big, ugly bruise over his left eye, and most of his hair is missing, and in the places he does have any left it’s very long and white.
“You two planning to dash and dine?” he says.
Joe comes forward and says, “I think it’s called dine and dash.”
“I don’t give a fuck what it’s called!” he says. “Throw me the wallet. And then lock the door.”
Joe does as he’s told. Mark picks up the wallet and shakes his head when he sees how scrawny the numbered bills are.
“All right, then,” he says. “You boys know who I am, right?” He takes turns looking to me and Joe.
“I think so,” I say.
Joe says, “No. Should we know you?”
“Seriously? You’ve never seen one of my movies? I’ve been in a lot of them. I know you’ve seen some. 13 Going on 30 was a decent one, I was a chubby little kid in the beginning of that one. How about that one where I played a brain doctor on Shutter Island? Or do you need me to fucking prove who I am? I will. You’ll see.”
“No, Mr. Ruffalo. We’re sure it’s you,” I say.
Joe, being an asshole, shrugs.
Mark doesn’t notice Joe’s shrug. “Good to hear that, because I really am him. You really don’t want me to prove it.”
“No,” I say. “It’s you.”
“All right, good. So, who’s got the pen?”
“A pen?” I say. “Oh, I have one, in my coat pocket.”
“Well, take it out.”
I listen to him. With the pen in my hand I hold it up.
Mark inspects it. “It’s red?”
“Yes,” I say.
“I prefer black or blue. Even green is all right by me.” He shakes his head and mutters something to himself. “You know something? It’s fine. Red ink is okay. Who wants to go first?”
“For what?” Joe says.
“My autograph. Which one of you wants it first?”
“Not me,” Joe says.
“What? Why not?” Mark says.
“I don’t ask anybody for their autograph. And I won’t accept it, neither,” Joe says.
“Joe, not now,” I say. “Just take his fucking autograph.”
“No, I can’t accept another human being’s signature. I won’t allow myself. No offense, I’m sure you’re whoever you say you are, but I don’t need another man’s autograph.”
By now my mind has settled and it’s started thinking a little better. I think: just a big coincidence, right? But this is much too zany to be some stale coincidence. This is all just a little too like the scenario I made up in my head back at the table before.
“I’m not happy to hear that. Usually, people just take it. But I don’t want to get all nuts like that big green guy I played. How about something to eat? Could you do that for me? I’ve barely eaten anything in days. Last thing I had was half a grapefruit. If you do that for me, we’ll be even.” Mark says.
“That I can do,” says Joe. “We still have some slices left on the table.” As Joe leaves the bathroom he mouths, “Who?” to me.
Mark and I look at each other. “What about you?” he says. “I’m signing something for you. What do you want me to sign?”
“You could sign this, here.” I give him a pamphlet I was handed when walking to the restaurant.
“Good.” He smiles as he scribbles his name down with the only hand he has attached anymore.
I take the autograph and thank him.
Joe comes back with two cold slices and gives them over to Mark. He places his unattached hand on the floor and eats in a hurry.
“Can we go?” I say.
“You really want to leave?” He thinks about it. “Sure, I guess you could. I thought we’d talk about some of my movies. But okay, have fun dashing and dining. Don’t you dare sell that autograph, though!” He laughs, but I know he is serious.
Joe and I leave the bathroom. We have to leave without paying, because Mr. Ruffalo has my wallet. Outside on the street, I tell Joe that was all too close to the scenario I made up in my head before.
“A coincidence?” he says.
“I don’t think so. I made most of that shit up when my eyes were closed. The long hair, the missing limb, begging people for food. I’m telling you it was almost exactly how I pictured it all. I mean, it was the same fucking guy.”
Joe is silent as he ponders what I’ve said. “That is pretty zany, then. I still never heard of him though. An actor?” He shakes his head. “Maybe my initial theory about nothing ever happening in life isn’t right.” Joe says. “Unless . . .”
“Well, I think we just learned coincidence is another gimmick of story.”
“But this isn’t a story,” I say.
Joe looks at me. He opens his mouth, “Just entertain the idea we might be in a stor — ”
“No,” I say. “No more of your stupid, fucking theories tonight. At least not until we’ve had a few beers.” But then interestingly, I think: plot twist.
Joe shrugs me off.
I find myself walking along beside him. I am smiling and holding Mark Ruffalo’s autograph on a Chinese take-out pamphlet.
CHRISTOPHER CASSAVELLA is a recent graduate from Kingsborough Community College where he received his degree in Liberal Arts. Currently, he attends Brooklyn College. Some of his short stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack, Tincture Journal, and Front Porch Review and are forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes and Fabula Argentea. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his four cats.