Story by Thomas Gregorich

I’ll tell you a story I heard last year while I was a deli representative at Large C food service retailer, store number 13. I’m only going to retell about half the story, for your sake, since the other half is partly incoherent, wholly repugnant, pugnacious in its intent, and should not be documented in any medium that has even the remotest chance of meeting the eyes of a child. The individual who told me this story is called Kellum Shetaz. He was the crassest, smelliest, most misanthropic person ever hired at Large C, and his employment there was as short as his manner of speaking with folks. I was present for his employee termination, as well as the incident which resulted in it. Here’s a crude telling of what took place:

  A female customer, disgusted by the odor that wafted from him to the other side of the deli counter, asked Shetaz when the last time he bathed was. He ignored her as he carefully sliced a block of Vermont cheddar, stacking each piece into a neat pile, then weighed the cheese, bagged it, and tightly sealed it with a price-sticker. “I know you fart,” he finally told her as he handed her the package. “You wait until you’re walking down an empty aisle, and then you fart.”
          “A little honesty,” he later affirmed, “will make a lonely human of you. Lies will make you prosperous and well-liked. My own conduct leaves me something of a pariah.” His most common way of communicating with people was wholly non-verbal; that is, he’d completely ignore them. Otherwise he engaged in curt, particularly honest discourse with them. He could not hold a lover, friend, acquaintance, or job.
            And do you know what Kellum Shetaz’s hobby was? He was a beautiful musician–a multi-instrumentalist, in fact. He used to tell everyone he could make a fart sound pretty. I was the only one at Large C food service retail store who knew this was true.
            I once heard him play a poignant, utterly flawless rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Prelude in C sharp minor” on a banjo.  I had invited Shetaz to accompany me to Tully O’Reilly’s Pub earlier that night, where we practiced his second favorite hobby. We sat down at the bar, ordered two pints of Pabst, breathed in the swirling, ubiquitous smoke wafting around us, listened to the clamor of the drunks, the crack of the pool balls, and, slowly, we began to relax. Shetaz lifted his glass to his chapped lips, gulped down his entire pint, then belched out a delicate cloud of mist that was visible like dust in a ray of light. He was something to quiver at. His odor made a fart smell like something a flower might produce. Throughout the night he didn’t speak much. He drank enough to empty out the Grand Canyon, if it were brimming with inexpensive beer, then, after nearly three hours, he stumbled into the women’s restroom and vomited enough to fill it back up. When he returned to the bar, he warned me not to use that particular lavatory.
         “I once contracted an STD from a toilet,” he said resentfully. “It had seen many people before me, but it was the only one around; and a contraceptive device would have complicated the experience.”
           To recuperate from his incident in the restroom, he began plucking pretzels from a wooden bowl on the bar counter and, despite my many warnings, ingesting them without pause until he had emptied a total of twenty-four bowls of pretzels. His stomach bulged over his beltline, producing a bubbling sound like an underwater fart, and he refrained from eating for the remainder of the night.
          I drove my drunken, bloated counterpart to his apartment afterward, then followed him to his door. “I have to make use your toilet,” I told him. He unlocked the door, staggered into the apartment, leaving the door wide open. I walked in, shutting it behind me, took a whiff of the place, opened it back up. Shetaz fell back onto a reclining chair, let out a guttural demonstration of his despair. “Find it yourself,” he said. “Follow the scent.” After much exploration, sifting through rubbish and fragrant mounds of clothing, I found the bathroom; the toilet looked like a gateway to hell. I urinated enough to make a waterfall feel insecure. It was like the spectacular spray of a whale’s blowhole, had the animal inhabited an ocean of lemonade. And as I drained my bladder in this manner, which began to appear less like a whale’s blow as the activity dragged on, and more like the feeble trickle of water from the corner of a roof on a particularly sunny winter’s day—that is, if the roof is topped by a layer of frozen lemonade—I heard the gentle twang of a stringed instrument resonating in the living room where Shetaz sat.
        I peaked around the corner of the hallway and was fascinated to see him sitting in his recliner, legs crossed in the manner of a Buddhist during meditation, playing a banjo which sat like a child in his lap. He plucked with a solemn, unwavering glare on his pasty, crinkled face–mainly he scowled at his banjo. And his facial appearance went almost the entire song without suggesting any emotion besides absolute disdain for his instrument, as if it had done something awful to him and hadn’t apologized. But there was one moment when I noticed a change in his look. His left eye twitched slightly, and then its lids shut halfway. I could see a dark brown marble still staring at the banjo from behind the closing lids. And then I saw something that contradicted that tactless, insensitive image of Kellum Shetaz’s personhood I’d drawn from his everyday behavior. I observed a single drop of salty fluid dangle from his left tear duct, trail down his cheekbone, and then roll past the horizon of his jaw-line, out of sight. After he plucked the final chord, letting it resonate until silence once again enveloped us, he sat up, lifted one half of his rear end up from his seat, then rwlet out some slow, uninhibited flatulence.
        Shetaz sat transfixed by some old, lucid memory for some time afterward, until I walked back into the room, then he erected himself, laid his instrument down on the coffee table, and collapsed back into his chair. Wholly inebriated, and now suffering from what appeared to be terrible indigestion, he began to mutter what I can only describe as a muddled amalgamation of obscenities. “Shuck,” he said quieter than his breath. “Shucking funt.”  I listened to him speak in this manner for nearly ten minutes, and, concluding that he couldn’t possibly be conscious, unless he had lost his mind right before my eyes as a result of the painful memories of whatever harm the dusty old banjo had caused, I decided it was best that I leave him and his instrument alone with each other, in support of a reconciliation between the two. But as I got up to make a swift dash to my car, he began, entirely by his own volition, to give me a half-coherent, unbridled, higgledy-piggledy telling of his past, which I paid heed to reluctantly, and which I will now relay to you with the same hesitance, and with thoughtful omissions and revisions where I felt they were necessary:
         “I wasn’t always a smelly, indiscreet, foul-mouthed bastard,” he began in a deep, croaky voice, and in a tone so somber that it made every sentence he spoke, no matter what its content, sound like something as serious as a confession to murder. “I used to shower. I used to partake in everyday activities like smiling, talking, and exposing myself to sunlight.
         “I was a better worker,” he said dolefully, gazing down at his coarse, wrinkled hands, which looked like they belonged to a janitor, or anyone else involved intimately with fecal matter. “I was sympathetic of others,” he continued. “I was friendly to people whom I encountered in public, at school, in church, at the grocery store. Large C hadn’t yet become a corporation, by the way. Back then, it actually was a small, family run business. My father was acquainted with its owners, who attended his weekly services and made an annual donation to his church. My father was a minister of the Christian faith–this is primarily why I am now an atheist. He was also a bigot, a misogynist, a fraud, a rapscallion, an incorrigible drunkard, and an overall shucking funt, but like so many foul men on this planet, only his immediate family was aware of it.
           “My hair was light brown when I was young,” he said stroking his fingers through his silver, oily curls, “and fine blonde hairs grew at my temples. I was once much handsomer than I am now, believe it or not.” He ceased to talk for a moment, and with a look of mild urgency on his face, began to carefully pluck a nugget of dried nasal mucous out of his nose. He then placed the clump in his mouth, and proceeded to masticate on it like sunflower seed. “My hair,” he continued, “slowly grayed in line with my spirit, becoming completely colorless by the time I’d lived thirty-four years. The facial skin, like a pink balloon left in the sun to slowly deflate, became wrinkled and saggy. Deep furrows, like trenches on a gloomy battlefield, developed on my forehead. My prostate grew as large as a fair-sized plum, and my belly bulged and jiggled so much that a cat scan would be impossible for me without some Vaseline jelly and a good hard shove.”  He closed his eyes and groaned suddenly, as if he was experiencing terrible, shooting pain in his gut. I felt an urgent obligation to do something; the man looked to be in such agony. I was certain I’d regret it immensely if I did nothing but sit and stare at him writhing like a poisoned dog; I decided to politely see myself out. But as I rose and gently tiptoed toward the opened door, he called for me to assist him in what he referred to as a, “complicated medical procedure.” I reluctantly halted, then walked to where he sat moaning, with both hands placed on his massive belly. His paunch seemed to be the area of concern. He held the bulging hillock as if he were pregnant with a porcupine and going into labor.
             “Place your hands on my stomach,” he begged me, and I hesitantly abided. “Now push!” He exclaimed. “Push as if to squeeze the shucking life out me!” I pushed. I pushed hard, and it was like his belly was fully inflated with air, because it felt like trying to pop a rubber bouncy-ball. He winced and kicked his legs hysterically, pulled his hair with his hands and squirmed underneath my pressure, and then, like the great expulsion of hot air from a busted steam-pipe, he released flatulence so powerful that I was physically pushed away from him, as if caught in the path of a gale. It was a long, fetid, resonant affair which lasted longer than I could hold my breath, and ended with the kind of wheezing sound a sickly canine might make during an asthmatic episode. And despite the horrid fetor which wafted from him, the movement was, to my astonishment, incredibly euphonic. Here before me, I thought, was a truly great musician.

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