American Obsessive

A

At the Christmas tree farm up the street, workers shove pine branches into a burn
barrel for both heat and the smoky scent that entices commuters in minivans to
pull over and ask the price and how much extra for delivery. I set up my six-foot
artificial pop-up tree in less than five minutes, ornaments and lights included.
This brings me joy.

My best friend owns very little. He has no paper, all his bills downloaded PDFs or
done on one of his three scanners, each for a designated purpose: photos,
books, receipts. His only photos are JPEGs on a computer.

His life has been stripped back to its essence, only allowing room for an
occasional esoteric tool hearkening back to a particular time, like a telescoping
basin wrench for tightening connections under the kitchen sink or a five-blade
crimper for running a length of gutter to the side yard.

Even his living room is devoid of such brash luxuries as couch or chairs.
He’s still waiting 28 years later for the right ones. His walls are freshly painted
every three years regardless of need and devoid of photos or paintings.
I just don’t have the heart to put nails in such a perfect wall.

All the sundries in his pantry bear the date of purchase in Sharpie,
down to the plastic bag housing napkins and the box of paper coffee filters.

He’s mapped most of his life’s chaos and minutia, once bragging that he could
account for every penny he has spent over the past 30 years, a feat made salient
when once trying to determine if a particular toll on a road had increased. He
pulled up not a spreadsheet, but a database, traced the hike of a 30-cent toll in
2003 to $1.10 last year, now $1.20. (Sometime between October and February
the government decided a dime’s worth merited the trouble.

He keeps the door shut to a third bedroom. Twice he’s let me enter to show me
what he considers a failing, an idiosyncrasy, a room of plastic bins containing
more than 400 phones: princess phones, old rotary phones, candlestick phones
where you hold one speaker at your ear while speaking into the base, an original
Mickey Mouse phone, a Sports Illustrated football phone: $317,482.53, the
amount he spent acquiring them; $2,317, the most he’s paid for a single phone. I
tell him these belong in a museum, and he agrees, but he also says he’s not sure
he could part with them, any of them—

his favorite is a pink princess push-button phone, often used on TV, but very few
are actually seen in the marketplace. The auction for that price ended in the
middle of the night, and he had to wait up for the last-minute bid to secure its
purchase, the price jumping $300 in the final two seconds.

Despite his love of phones, he’s not the best at communication. A lifetime of
OCD and living alone has created a man best suited at solitary acts, like doing
one’s own taxes or alphabetizing the freezer. On my last visit, he asked me to
slowly walk up the hardwood stairs, because he’s convinced the creaking has
changed, and change is not good.

Sunrise happens to the front of my house offstage through a forest of trees,
which even now devoid of leaf, still too thick to see the actual sun until
11:00 AM. By 5:00 PM in December, the sun has slipped behind the woods
behind my house, and I am reminded of my friend and how his entire house has
taken to bright, white light under the transition from incandescent to LEDs.

Everything crisp and new, white ceilings against green walls, the dividing line of
paint between them pristine and mathematically certain, my friend tells me this is
why he no longer trusts professional painters, opening and closing closet doors to
show places where the ceiling and walls disagree in fractions of millimeters.
Each wall painted in triplicate and every door removed, sanded, painted, sanded
again, and painted once more in white—actually, Sherwin-Williams Steamed Milk
7554, a color that, true to its name, is reminiscent of every trip from the fridge to
the cereal bowl.

Each morning I visit, there’s a ritual of coffee and small talk, which we both
cherish, and I wonder how he copes in my absence, but then realize he copes as
I do, wandering the halls of morning alone, tidying up, washing dishes, drinks a
solitary cup of coffee, unable to enjoy the emptiness—injecting podcasts and
Netflix, if only to get me through the first hour.

He asked me to sit down and tells me he has come to a painful decision, one that
will needlessly complicate his life, but one that at the end of the path will be
rewarding, full of promise and hope, and I ask what it is. He has decided to swap
out all of his hinges and door knobs from brass to satin nickel, not to be confused
with stainless steel. I honestly don’t even know what finish my hinges are or care,
but I respect his attention to detail, how he doesn’t let it expand his bubble, or at
least he never pressures me to paint 12-year-old walls or wash my car, since it
only gets cleaned when a storm passes overhead.

My friend is strange, but kind; and we drink in the simplistic pleasures together
of a 32-car freight train or a tour of Savannah, Georgia from a converted open-
air hearse—each stop, a person who has been wronged by circumstance or
simply misunderstood like myself and my friend, which makes us family, a legion
of miscreants minus the malice and the immorality.

To the right, across from the Chippewa Square, is a house called The Brigham,
where a woman tucked her children into bed and then proceeded to jump from a
third-story balcony, surviving the fall and lingering on for another five days with
numerous broken bones. The real tragedy, my friend says, is those curtains, red
velvet and screaming bordello.

This poem appeared in East by Northeast, September 2020.

About the author

Mickie Kennedy

Mickie Kennedy is an American poet who resides in Baltimore County, Maryland with his family and two feuding cats. He enjoys British science fiction and the idea of long hikes in nature. His work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Artword Magazine, Conduit, Portland Review, Rockhurst Review, and Wisconsin Review. He earned an MFA from George Mason University.

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