Cecil’s New Friends

Cecil’s New Friends

Cecil Jones had always been wrongly accused of laziness, of lacking incentive. But this wasn’t entirely true. It was just that Cecil, who’d been born with a bit of extra pudge stuck stubbornly to thick bones hadn’t encountered any compelling reasons for passionate motivation. As a child growing up on a farm in Grundy County, Iowa, he’d never felt any visceral connection to the land or the animals on it. Maybe this was because his mother left both farm and family when Cecil was barely three years old. Her Ford Tacoma skidded down the driveway leaving a toxic dusty blur where a conflicted caretaker had once been. Little Cecil was left to fend for himself. He mostly stayed indoors, content to sit around not doing much while his constantly enraged father ordered his older sister Bonnie to run the place. Poor Bonnie in a tizzy, fixing fences, milking cows, taking all the abuse that hadn’t stuck to Cecil’s mom as she fled the place.

His whole life Cecil had asked himself as he watched other’s scurrying about; Why rush? Why bother? Why raise his hand in grade school even if he knew the answer, but more so, didn’t care? Why bust his balls to climb a corporate ladder, when the lowest rung was cozy enough? Why get married, settle down, raise a family when all that domestic nonsense seemed even more of a slog than the state of perpetual bachelorhood Cecil knew so well? Why work hard only to end up sitting on the stoop of his own farmhouse porch cursing his own stupidity, his own futile reach for the stars?

So yes, Cecil’s chosen life was a tepid thing. A bland meander through unremarkable years. And it was more or less a fine amble, until the day it wasn’t. Cecil was at his accounting job at the firm of Digby and Digby in downtown Des Moines, dozing in his ergonomic chair adjusted for optimal recline, when a conversation sparked in the next cubicle. It was Doris and the New Guy.

“Does Cecil really get anything done?” asked the New Guy, his voice as irritating as a bad rash. “It’s like the dude is in slo-mo all the time.”

Doris sighed. What followed was a long, morbid silence. Finally she said “Oh that’s just Cecil’s demeanor. He’s been here forever. Part of the furniture. Like an old comfy couch.”

“Ha,” blurted the New Guy. “Well he’s no couch you’ll ever catch me sitting on.”

Doris, a fifty-something mother of four, giggled like a high schooler. “No one minds Cecil. But, no one wants to be him either.”

The haven where Cecil had worked for twenty years instantly became a cold, unwelcoming place. Presto change-o, Digby and Digby Financial Services was no longer Cecil’s easy place to languish, expend minimal effort, and do a merely adequate job. Doris’ words made things mighty clear; no one wants to be him. Cecil was that guy, as in that loser.

Cecil eased his seat to the upright position and slid clumsily to the floor. Everyone at Digby was out for lunch, but for Doris and her new muscle-bound BFF, and if those two discovered Cecil had overheard them he’d drown in a deep, murky cesspool of shame. Cecil hid for another fifteen minutes, a mountain of flesh in a polyester suit huddled under a Formica desk, until he heard Doris and the New Guy leave. When the coast was clear, he crawled out of the office on his hands and knees like a shamed mongrel, until he arrived at the elevator where he eventually stood.

Cecil pushed the down button and plummeted towards the sub-basement parking garage. He stumbled to his Hyundai, squeezed his body into the driver’s seat and putt-putted his escape at moderate speed. The dude is in slo-mo all the time…just Cecil’s demeanor. Doris and the New Guy niggled their way into Cecil’s psyche. He’d show them. He accelerated ten miles above the speed limit, a risky move for Cecil Jones. Once home Cecil walked briskly up the three flights up to his apartment.

“You…call…this…slo…mo?” He gasped as he struggled to keep his climbing pace.

But by the second landing, motivation waned. Cecil lumbered up the remaining steps, his sense of accomplishment fleeting, his resolve undone by the stench of urine, beer and stale cigarettes.

Cecil carried a fair stench himself. The emotionally taxing morning had left him ripe. A long bath would rid him of his stress sweat, the odorous reminder that in the eyes of others, his lackadaisical life was a pathetic, cock-eyed thing.

Floating in the bath, surrounded by warm water and foamy bubbles, his hairy stomach poked up through the froth like a pale sandy island speckled with dark. Cecil grew woozy. His mind wandered aimlessly to nowhere specific. Vague colors, blurry half musings, sleepy somatic glimpses of nothing much. Under normal circumstances this would be a familiar and comfortable state. But as he was blandly adrift, Doris’ words wafted up, like vapors:

“He’s been here forever…No one minds Cecil. But, no one wants to be him either.”

Cecil flip-flopped, suds sloshing over the rim, slicking the bathmat and tile floor. He’d have to be extra cautious getting out of the tub. If he ever got out. He might just stay there forever languishing like a dumpling in broth, mulling over his chronic stasis, puckering in the rapidly cooling water. But Doris’ questionable sigh and the New Guy’s smarmy disdain tugged and would not let go.

Does Cecil really get anything done?

“He does!” Cecil bellowed, shocking himself with basso profundity as his voice reverberated off the ceramic tiles.

He hoisted himself out of the bath and grabbed a towel. Usually a light dabber, he rubbed his fleshy body with a vigor previously unbeknownst. His skin turned pink, his synapses fired. Cecil would do something. Something novel. Something energetic. Something big.

And so, fifty-two year old Cecil Jones quit his job and left Des Moines to wander abroad. After many years of minimal personal expenditure and modest investing, he’d amassed a tidy sum. He handed over a small fortune to the agent at Paradise Travel and Adventures and said, “I want to see the world.”

Mind you; Cecil’s was not a journey of complete reinvention. There was no trekking in Nepal, or parasailing in Ecuador. No bungee jumping down Victoria Falls or hike to view orangutans in Borneo. Cecil’s adventure was a nice slow drift on air conditioned buses, cruises on luxury liners, first class beds on airplanes, sumptuous smorgasbords, banquets, and feasts, always concluding with extravagant desserts. Cecil napped in luxurious open air beach huts suspended over coral reefs in Bali. He slept upon fine Egyptian cotton sheets in Bedouin tents. He ate Swiss chocolate in Alpine chalets. His flesh was therapeutically rubbed with tinctures, slathered with oils, and kneaded like dough as he lay upon different massage tables in distant lands.

Cecil met many people, but no deep bonds were forged. There had been only one almost close connection, in Zanzibar, with a lovely widow named Mary. After a long morning snooze aloft a chaise on the famous white sand beach of the island’s eastern shore, Cecil had rallied for an afternoon walking tour of the historic Stone Town.

The narrow, cobbled streets were quaint and historically relevant, but Cecil found them miserable and claustrophobic. He struggled to keep apace with the small tour group, wheezing his way between ancient walls of questionable structural integrity. Even in the shade, the air felt thick against his skin, like he was wearing a slimy sweater.

We must give Cecil a sizzle of credit. His search for a hand held fan in the middle of a Zanzibar heat wave was indeed intrepid. He found a closet-sized stall filled with local pottery, spices, and items useful to tourists; the coveted hand-held fans, sunscreen, anti-diarrhea medication, rubber flip-flops, and rubber condoms.

Mary sat behind the counter reading an outdated issue of Us magazine. Brad and Angelina, together, on the cover. She looked up, only as Cecil cleared his throat. Mary had a nice crinkle around blue eyes. Her grayish-blondish hair was pulled up in a top knot tied with a strip of colorful cloth.

Cecil and Mary were of similar size, and similar age. Pleasant small talk ensued, after which Cecil purchased a fan and a tube of Aloe Vera for his sunburned neck. As Cecil was leaving, Mary called to him from her perch.

“Mr. Jones?”

Cecil turned. “Yes?”

“How would you like to come over to my place tonight for an authentic Zanzibar feast, cooked by an authentic ex-pat?”

Sampling authentic, local cuisine had been one of Cecil’s main goals on his journey. “I’d love to,” he said.

Mary looked so pleased. She wrote down the address on a ripped page from her tabloid.

The evening was successful, or so it seemed to Cecil. The food was good, fried calamari, a fish curry and homemade coconut sorbet. The conversation was pleasant. Mary wore a skirt that showed shapely tanned legs.

“I’m in a cycling club with a bunch of local lads,” she said. “They get a kick out of me, the old nan from Brighton trying to keep pace with the young go-getters. It’s a hoot.”

If this were a romantic story, here is when things would take a delightful turn. Cecil would find Mary charming. Love, passion and purpose would overtake Cecil’s usual ennui, passivity, and sloth, all because he’d been easily prone to perspiration and in search of a fan.

But this is not a romantic story. Once his stomach was full, and Mary had talked a bit too long, Cecil felt a familiar detachment descend. He was satisfied. He wanted nothing more.

“I’m sorry. I must be going,” Cecil apologized. “All the walking today really did me in.”

Mary’s voice was a bit tremulous as she called him a taxi, but Cecil barely noticed. He was already elsewhere, imagining his beachfront hotel room, where he could drift off to sleep in the comfy bed, the Indian Ocean stirring outside, a gentle turquoise swirl under a star and moonlit sky.

For the next few months in many lands Cecil watched intimacies as if through a gauzy cloth; kisses, leanings, cling to’s, bickering and tears. Every bonding gesture, beyond his comprehension. He just didn’t get it. His dinner with Mary had been the closest thing to a dalliance he’d had in decades. He had no amorous yearnings, no interpersonal get up and go. He wondered briefly if something vital had been expelled from his psyche during his lonely, empty childhood, spewed like the pebbles kicked up by the tires of that long gone truck, driven away by that long gone mother. But Cecil’s self-reflective pondering was brief. He wasn’t worried. He wasn’t disturbed. He just, was.

And so Cecil went from place to place alone, shifting from mildly curious to mildly bored. Because, let’s face it: at a certain point solo travel becomes a bit of a slog, even for the constitutionally solo among us. So it was that after a year, while drifting off to sleep on a silk covered futon in Kyoto, surrounded by empty sake bottles he’d drunk alone Cecil decided; he’d had enough.

His flight home from Japan required a seven hour layover in San Diego. Cecil booked a room at the airport Hilton where he could hibernate and watch cable TV. He slipped his key card into the room slot, and the green light bid him safe entry. This was the last leg of his journey. He was soon to be back home, if that was what he could call Des Moines now. He had no job to return to. He had no family waiting. Cecil’s amiable, but solitary nature meant there were no friends to return to, no one of consequence anywhere, really. His only relative, his sister Bonnie, had abandoned him decades ago, their relationship now just a short sequence of emails around holidays and birthdays. All he’d be returning to in Des Moines were specters of disdain. Doris and the snickering New Guy, of course. Perhaps there were unknown others? Folks who’d judged Cecil without his ever realizing, when all he’d assumed was they liked him the way he liked them; adequately and well enough?

He did not enter his room. Instead, Cecil took a cab to a touristy enclave north of the airport. There he ambled through a seaside park lined by rocky cliffs inhabited by pelicans, and sea ducks. He walked at a perfectly respectable pace that required concerted effort. He panted. He perspired. His little fan from Zanzibar came in handy.

After an hour, Cecil allowed himself a short sit on a bench dedicated in honor of someone named Conrad Bosman. What a manly name, thought Cecil as he wheezed to catch his breath. A hero, no doubt, this Bosman fellow. Someone who did stuff that mattered. Someone connected, loved, admired. Someone respected. Someone notable enough that family, friend, or grateful compatriot had paid for the commemorative plaque which Cecil’s sweaty back now pressed against.

Cecil sat. He sat some more. People passed by in groups, couples, singly. Some jogged, others walked, a few were pushed in strollers or wheelchairs. Everyone moved on. Propelled. Purposeful. On and on and on and on. Together, even while apart.

A sour gurgle fomented in Cecil’s gut. He wanted to leave this seaside park, this intimidating bench, this reminder of all that he was and wasn’t. He’d return to the hotel and do as he’d planned; turn on the TV, the AC, order room service and just be. He rose to leave, to escape this place.

Unfortunately crowds gathered to peer over a guard rail further along the path, blocking his way. Phones and cameras clicked away. Hands pointed. Children squealed. Cecil could’ve walked the long way round, but even in the muck of his angered passivity, he couldn’t resist the urge to see what the fuss was about.

Elbows poked his belly, effluvia of farts and perfume surrounded him as Cecil wedged his sizable girth to the front of the crowd. He endured the close and odorous proximity in order to peer down the cliff as his fellow humans did, to join in, to be part of things in a way most people wanted to be part of things.

The cove below had been taken over by seals. Bulbous grey-speckled bodies dozed in well-organized rows, still and stone-like, the slick, round creatures undaunted by the noisy humans gawking and shouting at them from above. The seals could give fuck all, just let them sleep.

Cecil felt a percolation. A resonance. An insatiable urge. There was nowhere else he needed to be. No one was waiting for him. He had nothing, really, to do. He had all the time in the world.

Shouts of warning were blunted murmurs to his ears as Cecil hoisted his body over the guard rail and stumbled down the rocky cliff. He nestled his own corpulence among sea-slicked skin that pulsed and stunk of briny depths. Cecil heard a few muffled barks, felt a mild slap on his belly. He met the gaze of the seal to his left, and marveled at the calm, the wisdom, the peace he saw in its deep, ebony stare. This was a profound fecundity Cecil had never known. Instinctively he garnered; he had arrived. Passionate motivation be damned. A wonderful, languorous torpor awaited. Cecil drifted off while imagining Doris and the New Guy, their faces grimacing like kabuki masks. And then all was darkness and deep, deep bliss.


About the Author

Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection STAGGERWING, and the novels WAVEHOUSE and THE TANTALIZING TALE OF GRACE MINNAUGH. Her new novel, DAWG TOWNE is forthcoming in April 2021 from word west. Her stories appear in numerous journals and anthologies. Alice lives, writes, and surfs in Brooklyn and Montauk, NY. She is thrilled to be back in the belly of the BULL.

Photo, "Joyce's cubicle 1," by Peter & Joyce Grace on Flickr. No changes made to photo.