During the Big Bad Chocolate Strike, Milty knocked off all the bodegas, drugstores, and Pathmarks, one by one, and then set up shop out of the trunk of his Skylark. It had been forever since I’d sunk my teeth into a nib of chocolaty goodness I’d almost forgotten how luscious it tasted. Much as I hated to admit it, being deprived, I felt a sense of accomplishment. We’d all been down that vicious road of withdrawal, the darkest days. We lived. Washington’s soldiers, after all, made it through the winter at Valley Forge, the brutal cold nights when they’d had nothing but their own shoes to eat.
Some nights were unbearable. Sleep became a drag. I loped my apartment in the wee hours, did jumping jacks and squat thrusts to keel over, but it was really hopeless. My downstairs neighbor banged his broom and forced me into the cold streets. That’s how I met Milty or rather how he’d found me, laces undone, zombieing the aisles of Pathmark. He pulled me aside when he’d noticed I was groping the cookie shelves for anything other than shortbreads and Graham Crackers.
I think I’ve got whatcha want, he said. My head was almost Silly Putty, but his ebullient vagueness and the way he didn’t come off so cocksure made me perk up, even just a bit. He had a solemn mug, messy brows. He looked as cruddy as I did. So I followed him to his car. We drove off to who knows where and when he killed the ignition we were parked in a back alley. For a moment, when we got out of his car and our breath was smoky in the crisp night air like the rising dirt of a long dead civilization, I thought he was going to stab me, and for no good reason at all, I followed him to his trunk like a lamb to slaughter over crushed beer cans. When he popped open the bruised hatch, and the moonlight kissed those chocolates, it was like discovering Atlantis. It was beautiful! Ring Dings, Yankee Doodles, Mr. Goodbars, and Whatchamacallits were stacked like bricks, covering every nook and cranny of his trunk. No spare tire, no tool box, no frivolous junk, only chocolate.
I was willing to give almost anything to get my chocolate fix, but Milty didn’t want money. He wanted to talk Palmolive. That is, he wanted to share his freakish sense of enlightenment from scrubbing dishes, how he’d found nirvana simply by soaping, slathering and soaking his sink with Tupperware, coffee mugs, and butter knives. Milty figured chocoholics might be his best audience especially since we’d been without our fix. I’d almost kicked the nasty habit when I’d stumbled upon two dark Peruvian chocolate bars, buried in the back of my pantry behind an old bag of rice. They didn’t last two minutes, and when I was done, I sniffed the wrappers.
Here’s the deal, he said. If you mind your Ps and Qs, for ten minutes, you can grab anything you want, maybe even two goodies.
My eyes were sluicing in a jackpot chock full of Goobers and Milk Duds. I nodded to whatever he was saying. He may well have been lobotomizing my frontal lobe right then. All I did was lick my chops at the glorious plethora of Baby Ruths, Twixes with Pretzel-stuffing, Samoas Girl Scout cookies, and bags of Nestle baking morsels.
I was in a state of Almond Joy, unwrapped, and melting.
Milty was a man of his word. He let me pet the Chunkys so long as I didn’t slip them out of their wrappers. I guess he found me to be a good listener, trustworthy, something I’d been accused of mucho times before, which may have explained why certain needy types developed crushes on me.
We scrubbed at his place a couple of nights a week. What harm would it do? I listened to his jibber jabber and he hooked me up with Hersey’s kisses as we washed dishes. Milty said going cold turkey was painful so he indulged my addiction. I wondered what he’d given up. Gambling, whores, pork chops, booze? One doorknob dull night, he finally told me. He’d given up kittens. He loved the feeling of their soft fur. I knew there was something Lenny about him. He hadn’t pet a kitten in eight years and he was quite proud to be past the seven year itch. Bastard. This made me both proud and sore about the guy.
The chocolate stash was dwindling and the factory workers had no intention of going back to slave themselves for my sweet tooth. I needed to make progress, pronto. Milty was very patient, let me squirm on the floor in a fetal position as I suckled on my Charleston Chew. Milty said my only salvation was for me to fall head over heels in love with dishwashing as he had. It was worth a shot. I’d heard of guys ironing miles of clothes or doing a million pushups to find purpose and inner peace. I think Milty was shocked I wanted to be his mentee. He’d scared so many people away because he so earnestly wanted a friend. I think he’d only come to realize that people weren’t kittens.
I even started to like the guy and told him he wasn’t dragging me over to his place to wash dishes. I wanted to be there. Soon I felt indebted to the poor schnook for saving me from chocolate hell. So I suffered through his boring soap sermons. We were elbow-deep in a pile of plates and coffee mugs, suds like beer foam, dripping off our fingernails. There was a brief lull in the conversation. Only the soft whir of the refrigerator could be heard. Even the radiator pipes had taken a smoke break or something from their stout-hearted clanking. I looked over at Milty and his whiskery, graying muttonchops. He had laser-like concentration, rubbing grime and grub off the bottom of pans as if he was reading Braille. When he’d finally scratched off a stubborn scrap he had the most peaceful expression on his face. I sponged, trying my darnedest to sync with his scrub. Work, no matter how mundane, can seem, if even only briefly, magical, when you slip into a consistent flow and there’s somebody beside you and your movements and breath become one. I’ve never been a musical man and I rarely play the radio or drink a beer in a bar when some cheesy band plays its heart out, but I tune into the minutia of everyday life, the whistling teapot on the stove, my creaking steps on the floorboards beneath my stockinged feet, the scratched beard of my sponging companion. This is all music to my ears. Everything else is filler.
On a Wednesday night, after a tedious bowl of broth and stale piece of Wonderbread, I bundled myself up and headed to my dish soap swami. I was still torn as to what my feelings for him were. I had him up a pedestal and yet some days I wanted to squash him like an ant. Maybe I was a little jealous of him the way I’d been jealous of kids who ate their spinach and broccoli and all those other yucky things. Still, I needed his help and I was worried about what would happen to me the day the trunk finally ran empty.
We were washing for maybe five minutes when I noticed something stank to high heavens, maybe bad onions. I perused Milty’s humble kitchen, at the bananas browning on the windowsill, the rice cakes beside them that could pass for Styrofoam hockey pucks, the ancient box of Quaker Oats, collecting dust on top of the fridge. Then I spotted the culprit, the fish bowl. The water level of Hector’s tiny glass home had dropped significantly below the halfway mark. It was so cloudy inside that bowl you couldn’t see a speck of blue from Hector’s cobalt coat. Maybe he was digging for buried treasure beneath the plastic tree. Maybe he was fasting and all his uneaten Beta food had become a curtain.
Doesn’t that bug you? I asked my scrubbing companion. What? That fishy stink. What fishy stink? Milty gave the bowl a glance. His nose didn’t twitch a millimeter, he didn’t even shrug, but after a good long squint, he said I guess Hector needs a bath. You’ve got a cold? I pressed. Nope. The odor was so rank that I could barely keep myself from throwing up. I briefly got the sweats, but I managed to gain composure. Milty stooped over his sink with his dumb grin and I appraised all the yucky bland food in their weathered boxes and then it all clicked. He had no sense of smell and therefore no sense of taste. Milty lived in a world of one great big head cold where everything tastes like a boiled potato, unleavened bread, and Styrofoam. Milty’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack, was one big blah and here he was weaning me off chocolate.
I put my foot down. There was no way I’d listen to a dish soap swami tell me about the ills of chocolate if he couldn’t taste a lick. I was through with him manipulating others the way he’d manipulated me. I dried my hand on the dish towel and told him I had to go flight a kite. On my way out the door, I saluted him.
Later that night, I returned with my buddy Thurman’s punchbug. Not the getaway car you dream about, but it served its purpose and it had a rabbit’s foot, dangling from the rearview mirror. I only had to give Milty’s trunk a little love tap and presto all of the chocolate bounty was mine. I filled the punchbug to the brim with the contraband from Milty’s trunk. I helped myself to a few monstrous bites as I was burning the midnight oil. Maybe around two in the morning, I’d finished the loading and was ready to ship off. Then it hit me. Before I drove off to stuff a chocolate surprise into each mailbox along the road I needed to leave a surprise for Milty in his sink.
I sacrificed a few good bars, melted them down in the teakettle and then loaded up the sink with a bunch of pots, saucers, juice glasses, forks, and teaspoons. I was starting to feel a little groggy, so I licked chocolate off my thumb and before I knew it, the kettle boiled. I snagged it off the stove and poured it over the dishes as if watering a tulip. I marched out of the house with a feeling of budding triumph.
Before his stories made their way into print John Gorman snapped the Eyesore of the Week Photos for the Queens Ledger. Now he spits wine for a living. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Hunger Mountain, Apt, Newtown Literary, Writer’s Digest, and New World Writing. He recently released his soccer thriller Disposable Heroes. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University.