Before Jack moved to Cape Town (see the story A formula for distance), he lived in Johannesburg and worked as a steward for South African Airways. I use the verb worked loosely here. During the previous year or so, Jack had begun to slack off considerably. He no longer cared for South African Airways. The person who had always ensured that he got the best shifts, to the best destinations, had unfortunately been promoted. In her place had been appointed an upstart who had an unreasonable sense of fairness. Jack got treated like everyone else.
“I’ve been there for twenty years!” he exclaimed. “Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Has it been that long?”
“What?” Jack asked suspiciously.
“I mean,” I said, “you’ve had it good for twenty years. It was going to stop at some point, right?”
By Jack’s secret logic, the opposite was true. If he’d had it good for twenty years, there was no earthly reason why it needed to have changed now.
“I guess,” he admitted with some reluctance. “But it’s also that the allure of being elsewhere has worn off.”
Instead of taking it as a simple fact of human psychology, Jack blamed South African Airways for this, too.
“They’ve robbed me,” he once explained. “I used to love going somewhere.”
In rebellion, he slacked off. Because he couldn’t slack off while he was on a plane, he had to slack off by not being on the plane in the first place. He befriended doctors and leaned on them until they phrased near-mystical definitions of ailments he had mostly invented. Using their sick notes, he was absent from work for astounding periods of time. Then, as was bound to happen, South African Airways jettisoned him with corporate gusto. Jack was enraged, despite having wanted out. He had always imagined that he’d leave the airline in the equivalent of an acrimonious divorce and sue them for millions. Being let go instead was like getting dumped by a cheating girlfriend.
“Fuck’em,” he said when I visited a few months later.
He spoke with the air of someone who’d decided to get nasty.
“They owe me,” he added. “They’re going to pay.”
“On balance, you probably owe them,” I said.
“For what? Look at my foot.”
He took off his shoe and planted his foot on the chair while he watched me closely. His foot was smelly and hairy and had been the subject of many of our arguments over the years. It looked lumpier than when I last saw it.
“Yes?” I asked.
“That’s not a foot,” he explained. “That’s a piece of dog shit, shaped like a shoe. And—”
He pulled up the hem of his trousers.
“—what man my age has varicose veins like this?”
It was difficult not to laugh. “Is that from standing too much?” I giggled.
Jack looked from me to his foot and sighed. “And those goddamned shoes. I’m a size thirteen.”
“Maybe you were just too big to fly,” I offered.
“Fuck’em,” Jack said with new resolve. “They made me depressed.”
“You’ve always been depressed.”
“I used to be depressed in a nice way,” Jack muttered as he struggled to get his shoe back on, “about deep things. Now I’m depressed about all things.”
“You’re older,” I said. “It works like that.”
While Jack shuffled into what passed for his kitchen, I looked around. As had happened everywhere he’d ever lived, Jack had transformed what must have started out as an empty space into the intestines of chaos. Dust and grime covered everything so deeply that one could see the routes he had walked along. From the table, where I sat, a path cut through balls of dust to the kitchen, much like a path through vegetation. His spice racks, which covered a whole wall, were so ensnared in tendrils of oily dust and hair that they looked as though they had been grilled under a layer of Gruyère. From opposite the table, a large, ill-tempered fish was watching me from its tank.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
Jack answered without even looking my way. “That’s John,” he said. “He thinks he’s hungry.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “There used to be two of them.”
John regarded me while moving only his pectoral fins.
“What was the other one called?” I asked. “And where’s it?”
Jack returned to the table with an orange-looking cheese, wrapped in a see-through piece of parchment paper. It smelled worse than his foot.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked. “It smells like onions and cow shit.”
“Vieux Boulogne,” Jack announced. “Washed in beer.”
“And I guess it’s expensive?”
“I knew someone in Paris,” Jack explained. “The other fish was also John.”
“I couldn’t give the good name to only one of them,” Jack said.
“Where’s John the Second?” I asked.
“John the First killed him,” Jack said. “I was overseas.”
I looked at John the First. Knowing that he’d killed John the Second made him seem larger, and even more sullen. Perhaps he was hungry, after all. Jack tapped a plastic tube that stood on the table, near the fish tank. At this, John wiggled his body and moved a micron closer to the glass.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a worm farm,” Jack said. “I stoke it with orange peels and other shit, and then John eats the worms.”
As if on cue, it looked as though John gave us a tiny nod.
“Are you going to give him one?” I asked.
“How do you know?”
“He looks full.”
I looked again at John. The part of the glass where he hung to stare at the table was clean, like the pathway from the table to the kitchen, but the rest of the tank was filthy. Everything of Jack’s ended up being like him.
“He ate seven worms before you came,” Jack continued. “He must be full.”
“He wants some cheese,” I ventured.
“He’s not having any,” Jack said firmly.
“You’ve given him some before, right?”
Jack began to re-wrap the Vieux Boulogne.
“When you sat right here,” I went on. “Just the two of you?”
“This is my last one of these,” Jack said. “He’s not having any of it.”