When Cosmo Greco learned of the layoff, the first thought that popped into his head was how he’d spend the rest of his day between the comic book store and the café. He blamed his apathetic response on not being fully awake, and blamed his fatigue on the barista whom he suspected had accidentally given him decaf instead of regular. In fact, he had been so tired that when he arrived in his staff area and noticed his colleagues shoving the contents of their desks into boxes he didn’t question why they were doing this. He just went to his desk, sat down and checked his email as he did every day. The message that told of the layoff was highlighted with a bold red explanation point, indicating its urgency. Now, the disruptive atmosphere in the office made sense. As he was processing this connection, his boss, Pete, appeared at his desk, slouching over the gray fabric partition intended to provide Cosmo with a sense of privacy. Pete tried to appear remorseful by making a frown with his lips, but Cosmo could see delight shine through his beady eyes.
“So sorry about the layoff, Cosmo,” he said in an unconvincingly sad voice. Cosmo knew that Pete approached him in hopes of seeing him upset by the layoff. Pete had resented Cosmo from the first day they met, a little over eight years ago, when the company hired him at the age of twenty. Pete viewed Cosmo as someone who slacked off at the very tasks in which he, himself, struggled.
“Well, thanks Pete,” Cosmo said, looking at his former boss with a sincere expression. Pete never would have expected such a response. He might have expected something sarcastic or cynical, but nothing gracious. He furled his brows as if confused. Cosmo got great satisfaction from confusing Pete, and he’d miss playing the silent war game the two had played for eight years—a game which Cosmo had always won. Even now, Pete walked away from his desk, defeated.
As Cosmo stared at his desk, he thought it might look better to him now that he knew he wouldn’t be sitting at it much longer, but it looked just as bland as ever. An off-white slab of plastic taken over by dirty coffee cups, pens—half of which didn’t work—crumbled up aluminum wrappers from candy bars, stray papers, Post-it notes, inter-office manila envelopes, and an economy-sized bottle of Aleve to relieve his daily headaches. A dying plant sat on the edge of it as if wanting to fall off. He couldn’t throw it out because his mom had given it to him. The only part of his desk that looked better than usual was his twenty-seven inch high definition monitor. Oh, how he loved to play games on that computer.
He got up to talk to his colleague Dario about the layoff. Dario’s desk was on the other side of the staff kitchen, where Cosmo stopped to get a cup of coffee.
“Hey, Dario,” Cosmo said as he approached his desk. He still wasn’t feeling much about the layoff, but tried to act sad in support of Dario. He took a big gulp from his coffee, hoping that the caffeine would wake him up so that he could feel less apathetic.
“Hey,” Dario said without looking up as he continued to clear out his desk. He hid behind a pair of big-rimmed glasses and his black hair, which hung like string beans in front of his face.
“Do you know how many of us got laid-off?”
“I don’t know. I can’t say that I care either.”
“It’s only a lay off,” Cosmo said, surprising himself by his optimistic remark. “It could be temporary.”
“You never know.”
“Sometimes you do.”
“You’d think seniority would count for something,”
“You’d think,” Dario said, who seemed incapable of being shaken out of his cynicism.
Cosmo went back to his desk to pack, and as soon as he sat down, a wave of questions flooded his mind. What would he do now? What about health insurance? What if he got sick? Really sick? How tough was it going to be to get another job? Would he have to buy a suit in which to go on interviews? What would he put on his résumé? Should he take his dying plant home and try to resuscitate it?
He squashed the questions down so that he could pack up and get out of there. When he finished packing, he said goodbye to Dario and a few other colleagues. He took the elevator to the gray granite lobby where Muzak played loudly. He walked out the door and almost collided with someone. His near collision shook away any remnants of worry over his job loss, and as soon as he stepped out of the building, he felt as free as a bird that had escaped captivity from a all cage. An oak tree sat on the other side of the street—it must have been there for as long as he worked at the building but he had never noticed. Its leaves were yellow and orange with the slightest bits of green coming through in spots.
The tree made him want to see more trees. He wanted to see all of the trees that the city could show him, so he walked home through a part of the West Philadelphia neighborhood filled with trees and the scent of fall. It was part of the University of Pennsylvania campus called Locust Walk. He saw lots of trees in every color of the autumn rainbow. He walked slowly so he could stare at each one for as long as possible, almost as if to save the image of every tree and every leaf in his brain.
As he walked, he felt a slight bounce in his step. Not long ago, he walked with a big bounce in his step, his head bobbing back and forth as if to a song. In recent years, the bouncing and bobbing had faded, and he was glad to feel this part of him returning. Still, his head stayed stationary, and he wondered if it was static out of being uncomfortable, with a baseball cap that sat tightly upon it. He wore a hat to constrain his black, curly, wild hair but it popped out in places as if wanting to break free. He never left home without a hat. He kept one on even when he had a headache. As he passed a trashcan, he felt tempted to take it off and throw it out, but something in him wouldn’t let him take it off. The hat did serve the purpose of keeping his hair out of his eyes so that his view of the trees was unobstructed.
As he looked at the trees, he remembered how he loved fall as a child. Fall meant school was starting, and school meant learning, and gathering knowledge was what he loved to do most in the world. He’d get excited each fall when he’d first notice a leaf that had changed its color. And even though he knew that the leaves changing colors meant that they were dying, he never felt death in the air. He felt life, renewal, and revival.
Cosmo skipped the comic book store and the café because he was so hungry by the time he got out of the office that he wanted to go straight home for lunch. He sat down to eat in front of the television set, as he did for all the meals he ate in his apartment. But today, for some reason, it felt wrong. He went back into his kitchen and sat at his table, staring at the refrigerator. It struck him that he should be looking at something else as he ate, and that his table was in the wrong position. It should face the window. There wasn’t much of a view out his kitchen window. It was only the side of a brick building, but it was certainly more interesting than the refrigerator. So he moved his table and sat listening to the sound of the refrigerator hum.
He looked around at the apartment he had lived in for almost eight years. He hadn’t noticed how chipped the paint was on his living room walls until now. Perhaps the sunlight pouring into the room was what made him notice the chipped paint. Usually, he had the curtains closed tight, making the room dark and all of its imperfections invisible. Today, he wanted them open. In the light, he could see more than just the chipped paint. He could also see all of the dust particles that floated in the air. He could see how crookedly his star maps were tacked to his walls; how his floor was almost completely covered with clothes, shoes, and books; and the dilapidated and worn condition of his furniture that looked as if he got it from the street. He could smell the stale, musty smell that permeated every inch of the place. He felt dirty just being here.
He had to clean his apartment right now! He began by wiping his furniture down with an old sock. After he had dusted, he picked up clothes from the floor, either putting them away or tossing them into the laundry. All of the drawers of his bureau were half-open, clothes coming out as if they wanted to escape the overcrowded drawers. He pushed down the clothing in his drawers and shoved them closed. He swept his worn down hardwood floors, wiped down the kitchen appliances and countertops, and tackled the bathroom last.
After cleaning, Cosmo sat and looked at his apartment feeling a sense of satisfaction. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to experience this feeling long before all those disturbing questions about jobs, résumés and money reinvaded his head. He tried to make a plan about what to do first but his mind was going in too many directions, so he got up to get a pen and paper. As he did this, he heard a knock on his door. It was his younger sister, Silvia, looking more disheveled than he had ever seen her with clothing that looked like it came out of a trashcan and her hair a big mess of frizz and untamed curls. They had the same hair, with his being a few shades darker. They had the same big dark eyes that got a crazy glint in them on occasion. They had the same Romanesque shaped nose and the same slight built, but he stood about a foot taller than her at a little over six feet.
“You’re here.” She said this more like a question than a statement. It was two in the afternoon on a weekday, so he should not have been home. He should have been at work.
“So are you,” he said, just as mystified about her presence as she was about his. “Why?”
“I might ask the same,” she said as she walked past him and sat down on his couch. She looked around as if she didn’t recognize the place. “Did you clean?”
“Yeah.” The short-lived feeling of pride that he had had earlier for having done such a great cleaning job returned.
“Mm,” she said, looking around with an approving face.
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Dad’s driving me fucking crazy,” she said. She had moved in with their dad, Frank, about six months ago, out of sheer desperation. No money. No job. No place to live. Frank was just about impossible to live with, and Silvia was living with him all alone. No other member of their family had ever had to bear such a feat. Their mom, Donna, had left him right before Silvia moved in and soon after she moved in, their youngest brother, Vince, was off to college.
Cosmo really felt for her being stuck in the house with Frank alone. But maybe it was for the best that she was coming to terms with reality now. She had planned on getting a teacher certification at a college not far from Frank’s house in the spring, and she planned on living with their dad while she was in school. The plan was ridiculous, and he had told her so. He never hesitated to tell her just what he thought.
“You’re out of your mind!” he said.
“But I think he’s changing. Really.” She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself of Frank’s transformation as she was so inclined to do.
“Yeah,” replied Cosmo, unconvinced. He looked over at her now, wondering whether or not she had finally learned that Frank wasn’t changing, and probably never would change.
“So you took off from work?” Silvia said.
“Not exactly. I got laid-off.”
“Oh, shit,” she said without much urgency. “Sorry about that.” But she didn’t sound sorry. There was no remorse in her voice. She sounded relieved or even happy about his lay off. He tried to look at her face to see if he could verify what he thought he heard. But he could barely see her. Her puffy mess of curls and frizz hid her face. He couldn’t read her body language either because she wore a black overcoat that appeared to be several sizes too big on her tiny body.
“So, what now?” she said, still not making eye contact.
“Look for another job,” he said, as if the answer to her question should have been obvious.
“Are you still interested in driving to Portland with me by any chance?” She turned to him to reveal a spark of hope in her eyes. He should have known she was planning something. She always was. He returned her look of hope with a cynical expression, scrunching his face up like a prune, and didn’t bother answering her question. He knew his little sister all too well. He knew that she’d abandon her idea to start school in South Jersey, want to move someplace far away, and want him to come with her, or at least drive with her. His being laid-off was the missing piece of the puzzle for her, and she probably figured the universe had made it happen to accommodate her plan. Now he understood why she seemed happy when he told her the news. After about a full minute of silence, she must have figured there was no response from him coming.
“Hell, why not just move out there with me? What are you staying in this shithole for anyway? There’s nothing here for you? No job, no girlfriend, nothing! You’ll love it out there! I just know it. It’s beautiful, and people are there because they want to be there. Not because they’re stuck there. And….”
“I don’t feel stuck,” Cosmo said with confusion in his voice as though he were asking his sister instead of telling her that he didn’t feel stuck. She must have detected the uncertainty in his voice, for she raised her eyebrows and bore a smug look of satisfaction. She said nothing, which was worse than rambling on as she usually did.
“Maybe you’re the one who feels stuck,” he said.
“Yeah, I sure do feel stuck! I’m living with our crazy, alcoholic, raging dad and working at a candy shop in the mall.”
“What about school? I thought you were going to start school in the spring. You’re giving up on it just like that?”
“I’m not giving up on anything. Just because I move to Portland doesn’t mean I can’t go back to school.”
Cosmo wasn’t about to indulge in yet another conversation with Silvia about her moving around from place to place; how she was unable to stay in one place longer than a few months at a time; how she was always starting over. She might, after all, be growing up because she had been able to stay at Frank’s house for almost half of a year. That would be a great accomplishment for anyone but especially for the restless and mobile Silvia. Six months in the same place could be considered ‘settled down’ for her.
“So, Portland, huh?” Cosmo said, prompting Silvia to talk some more about this place.
“Yeah, and it would be a great time for me to move out there now. My friend, Emily, needs a roommate. Her roommate moved out. Of course, if you decide to stay, we could get our own place. It’s getting more expensive, but it’s still affordable. Or at least more affordable than other cities.”
As she rambled on about her plans for both of them, her voice became more and more distant until he could barely hear her at all. He was always amazed at how ready his sister was to make plans for other people, especially for him, regardless of his feelings against them. She’d plug people into her plans, as if plugging an exponent into a mathematical equation. He got up in the middle of her monologue to get a cup of tea from the kitchen. She didn’t stop talking. She just followed him into the kitchen without any hesitation, speaking so fast that her words ran into each other. She had gotten to the part in her plan when they found an apartment and Cosmo was job hunting.
“I don’t think you’ll have any problem getting a job either. In fact, it’ll probably be easier there than here. With so many people moving there now and….”
This was where he cut her off. Despite his secret relief in losing his job that morning, jobs were still a sensitive subject, one he didn’t want to think about right now.
“Enough already, Silv,” he said. “I’ll think about driving out with you, but that’s all.”
Her rambling came to an abrupt halt, which was a great relief for Cosmo, who then suggested they go out for a drink. At this suggestion, Silvia’s face squished up in confusion.
“I’m thoroughly grossed out by booze, and if you still lived with Dad, you’d be too.”
“Well then, let’s go out for coffee. Something. I just want to get out.”
“That’s weird,” Silvia said. “You never want to get out.” She looked suspicious and delighted at the same time and took her brother up on the offer.
Although the atmosphere of the café was different than that of Cosmo’s apartment, the conversation remained the same. More of Silvia talking about how great Portland was. Cosmo was tempted to make some blunt, insensitive remark about how she couldn’t stay still, and about how she’d get out there to discover that the place wasn’t perfect and would then run back to Jersey. But he kept his mouth shut. Last time he’d made such a remark, she stormed out of his apartment like a bolt of angry lightning. So he sat there and let her talk.
As she talked, he yawned and looked around the café, wishing to be involved in more interesting conversation. Silvia didn’t seem to mind her brother’s blatant disinterest. She was probably used to this sort of reaction from him. She knew he lacked social skills. He also knew he lacked social skills, and he didn’t care one bit for improving that skill set. So as she talked on, he looked around at the café where he got a cup of coffee and a pastry to go every morning before work. He never sat inside prior to this afternoon. He never noticed the smell of coffee that filled the air, the paintings displayed on the walls, the fans attached to the high ceilings, the bright, stained glass tops of the walls. Most of all, he never noticed the cute girl who worked behind the counter. He stared right at her as if he were invisible. She had black almond-shaped eyes and wore overalls and her hair in braids. He wondered how he never noticed her before. But then, he never noticed anything in this place before.
“Cosmo, have you heard a word I’ve said?” Silvia said as if she suddenly cared that her brother wasn’t listening.
“No,” he said with complete indifference.
Silvia rolled her eyes and got up to put some more honey in her tea, giving Cosmo an opportunity to go back to staring at the cute girl in overalls. The girl caught him eventually, forcing him to look away. He used to not care about being caught and even encouraged it, as getting caught would be an opportunity. But now he couldn’t even remember the last time he stared at a woman.
“You’re checking that girl out,” Silvia said, smiling as she sat down at the table. “That’s a new one.”
He just stared back at her, slanted lips, eyes jaded as if to tell his sister that her little remark wasn’t so clever.
“There’re lots of cute hipster girls in Portland, you know,” she said, disregarding her brother’s sarcastic expression.
“I told you I can’t stand hipsters,” he said, sipping his coffee that had grown cold.
“Well there’re a lot of cute unhip girls there too, I’m sure.”
“You still haven’t been there yet, right?”
“Yeah, but I know enough about it to know I’d like it, and I know you would too, Cos,” she said in a pleading voice.
When he tried to consider whether or not he’d like Portland, his mind went blank. He wasn’t sure if he even liked Philadelphia. He had lived in this city for over ten years now, ever since he started school at the University of Penn. When he first arrived, he lived in a student apartment with two other roommates. He remembered all kinds of incidental details like the color of his kitchen chairs in his first apartment, but nothing about how he felt about the place.
“How could you know that? I don’t even know that,” he said knowing his attempt to be sensible was in vain.
“Well, you know you don’t like it here, right?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Do you like it here?”
“I don’t know!” When those words came from his lips, he got a heavy, sad feeling.
Cosmo usually played video games until he fell asleep but tonight playing games was the last thing he wanted to do. He tried reading a comic book, but his attention drifted away after each caption. So he remained awake, looking up at the ceiling of his bedroom, noticing the cracks he had never seen. He wondered if he had too much time on his hands now, and if that was the reason for his noticing all the imperfections of his world. But he had only been laid-off for one day.
He got up to turn off his light, hoping the darkness might help him fall asleep, but the outside sounds of sirens, cars, and voices kept him awake. Usually, the city sounds never bothered him. But tonight the outside noise joined with the noise in his head, and together they made a symphony of cacophony. He thought of what he might do tomorrow, and then he thought of what he might do the day after and the day after that. He had to file for unemployment. That would be the first thing to do. Job hunting would be next, but where would he start? He never interviewed for a job. His last job was something he fell into right after he dropped out of college, when the economy wasn’t falling apart; a time before well-qualified jobless people roamed the streets like hungry zombies. He had to get together a résumé. He couldn’t imagine himself doing such a thing. He never had to make one. He thought he might ask Silvia for help. She must have been good at getting jobs. She had no problems ever getting a job. Her problem was keeping one.
He tossed and turned with thoughts flying around his head until two in the morning, at which time it began to rain, which brought him a huge relief. The sound of rain always put him to sleep.
The next morning, Cosmo’s phone alarm went off the same way it did every morning. And he obeyed the alarm the same way he did every morning, slumping out of bed like a reluctant turtle. He went into the kitchen to make coffee and was midway through the process by the time he remembered he had been laid-off yesterday. He heard his sister waking up, stretching, and groaning as if she hadn’t slept enough.
“Hey, Cosmo,” she shouted out to him because he was still in the kitchen. “How did you sleep?”
“Not so good,” he said, coming into the living room. He heard the sound of something being slipped under his door and looked down to see a small envelope. He picked it up and opened it. It was a letter from the building manager, declaring there’d be a ten percent increase in rent at the end of next month.
“Well, this sucks,” he said. “Bastard’s raising my rent. Oh shit, I can’t catch a break!” He sounded like Frank complaining.
Silvia said nothing and Cosmo was grateful for her keeping her mouth shut. It would have been a perfect opportunity for her to talk about what a great time it would be for him to get out of Philly, to check out a new place, to see what else was out there. In addition to saying nothing, she had a look of sympathy on her face.
Why was this all happening now? If he believed in fate or destiny or any of those contrived philosophical concepts, he might think the universe was trying to tell him something. But he believed every person paved their own path, that nothing outside of himself could push him in any certain direction. He knew Silvia believed in all that nonsense and that she probably thought that the universe was trying to tell him something.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Cosmo said, sitting down on the couch.
“What?” she said, as if she had no idea what he was talking about.
He looked back at her as if to say “Don’t waste your time pretending.”
“All right, so what if I am thinking that this would be the perfect time for you to get out of town. So fucking what? You know I’m right.” And then she said she had to dash off for work and left him alone with his thoughts, depriving him of an opportunity for a rebuttal to her last remark. So he sat there thinking of what he might have said if he had had the opportunity. But he couldn’t think of any good comebacks. Maybe she had something. Maybe it would be a good time for him to check out a new place. He wouldn’t have gone so far as to say a ‘perfect’ time, and he wouldn’t have subscribed to her silly theory of the universe trying to tell him something. If the universe was telling him anything, it was that he had better get the unemployment application complete and start looking for a new job today.
It was late afternoon when Cosmo realized he had forgotten to eat all day. He went in the kitchen and opened his refrigerator to find a nearly empty container of milk, jars of condiments, and a carton of eggs with an expired expiration date. He was glad when he spotted a hunk of Swiss cheese and was grateful that it wasn’t moldy. He had a can of olives and some stale bread that he revived by toasting. He ate his lonely meal of bread, cheese, and olives staring out his kitchen window at the brick wall of the apartment building next door.
After eating, he finished the unemployment application and started his résumé. He knew he should get busy job hunting but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe out of fear for what he’d find or not find. He thought of the note from his landlord that should have given him some feeling of urgency to start looking for jobs, but thoughts of his rising rent seemed to have a reverse effect upon him. Instead of feeling energized, he wanted to go back to bed and sleep for a long time. Maybe he could sleep as long as Rip Van Winkle and wake up with a new life, in a new world. And just as he walked into his bedroom for more sleep, his phone rang. It was Silvia and she told him she had given her boss notice and that she was going to Portland.
“So I’m going whether you come or not,” she said in a very determined voice, “And I think you should come. I’ll even pay for your plane ride back. And I’m taking Interstate 40, so we’ll pass right by the Grand Canyon. You can see the Grand Canyon, for Christ’s sake!”
When he imagined the two of them riding out west, he felt less tired. Then he thought of something he wanted to see even more than the Grand Canyon, something just east of the Canyon. One of largest meteorite craters in the world.
“There’s something I’d rather see even more. I want to see this crater that’s just, like, thirty miles east of the Grand Canyon.”
“Then we’ll go there too,” Silvia said, who probably would have agreed to anything.
“All right. I’ll go.” It was as if he was a ventriloquist’s puppet having words placed in his wooden mouth. “Only for the drive though,” he continued. “I’m not moving out there. So don’t get any ideas.”
As soon as he hung up the phone, his body filled with fear and questions. Who was this adventurous person who had taken over him and agreed to go? A feeling of excitement was struggling to get through, but his panic kept pushing it down. What was he afraid of anyway? He didn’t know. As he tried to figure out why he was afraid of taking this trip, a vision of Donna came into his mind. In his vision, her face, which normally looked worried, appeared relaxed. She’ll be greatly relieved to know her petite young daughter will not be driving cross-country alone, but that he’d accompany her. He was being a good older brother, and now pride got thrown into the mix of feelings.
In addition to being a good brother to his little sister, he also thought this trip might be just what he needed to clear his mind and realize what a good thing he had here, even with a rent hike and no job. He had a life here and that was more than he could say for lots of other people, including Silvia. After experiencing how his restless, nomadic sister lived her life, he’d be running back to Philadelphia.