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Saturday, November 22

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Detour

Though I draw a comic strip for a living, I wouldn't want to be a comic strip character myself. Their lives are simple, of course, but they only act at the whim of the artist, and never for themselves. I wouldn't want to be just some pawn, a tool of an artist's imagination. I want to be my own person and call all the shots, even if most of my decisions have turned out badly.

I like my life, such as it is, but there are still plenty of things I need to work on. So instead of becoming a character myself, I'd rather create one with superpowers that would enable him to eliminate every one of my own shortcomings.

Such as, most of all, my inability to relate to Jackie. I wake up with her every morning, and fall asleep next to her every night, and when she leaves the apartment which we share and which doubles as my studio — I'd love to have my own space somewhere, something austere and loftish, but the alt-weeklies than run my strip are barely paying the bills right now — she always comes back as soon as she can. She's devoted to me, and I can't imagine her not being around, but even with her regular presence it's like I hardly know her.

My characters, on the other hand, certainly don't have any trouble knowing those around them, understanding them, interacting. Izzy, the one-eyed kangaroo, has this keen perception and sardonic wit I've always envied. If he was like me, and couldn't get inside the heads of others, he wouldn't be able to make the cutting remarks — about their naïveté, their foibles and hopelessly optimistic aspirations — that have become the strip's trademark.

And Lola, the shy wombat with the long-running and doomed crush on Izzy. If she didn't really know him, and couldn't see past the insults and the sociopathic acts, she'd never recognize the shred of decency that makes him worth hanging onto.

Somehow Jackie sticks around, as if she's waiting for something. As if she sees a similar shred of decency in me. And the potential and the ambition to do something better with my life than just churning out another caustically humorous comic strip every week.

There's certainly not much in my current life that makes sticking around worth her while. I'm not making much money and my strip hasn't been picked up by a new weekly for months now. And despite what I said about falling asleep and waking up next to Jackie every day, I'm an insomniac and spend most of the time she's home — evenings and most of the night — at my drafting table. You see, I also have a tendency for lying, which is another aspect of my life that my superhero savior would have to fix.

And to make my appeal as a domestic partner complete, most of my afternoons are spent watching videos and re-runs and reading comics anthologies, mentally scouring them for fresh ideas, or at least old ideas that my readers might have forgotten and thus are reasonably safe to steal. These voyeuristic afternoons, and a troublingly increasing portion of my drafting-table time, are also spent drinking whatever bottle is at hand.

Oh, did I mention my drinking problem? Well, I do have one, and as much as I'd like to bravely claim otherwise, I'm not sure if it's really under control.

So this is me. Fatal Flaw Fixer, as I might call him, would have to be quite a creation. He'd sure have a hell of a lot of work to do.

~*~

Today started like most others. I haven't slept in three or four days — my insomnia has gotten so routine that I lose track of which nights I do manage to sleep — and I had just enough energy and motivation to haul six weeks' worth of dirty clothes to the laundromat down the street. Not that I have closets and closets full of clothes, mind you — the six weeks was really just two weeks of clothes, with each item worn two or three times until Jackie finally complained, politely as always, about the stench.

I didn't bother separating whites and colors and darks; I rarely do, which explains both the increasing monochrome of my wardrobe and the fact that Jackie never asks me to do her laundry, even though her day job allows her little time to do it herself. She likes the way she dresses, really cares about her looks.

Unlike me. Taking notes, Superhero?

I was so listless that I didn't even bother thumbing through the R. Crumb collection I had stowed in the bottom of the laundry bag. I sat on a bench, my head leaning back against the wall and my eyes closed while the wash cycle ran, not even hopeful for a stray minute of sleep. When the load finished the machine buzzed, jolting me out of my daydream. I groggily emptied the dripping load into one of the dryers which lined the back wall, the kind of dryer with the circular window through which you could watch the clothes tumble, around and around. Mesmerizing.

I pulled up an orange plastic chair and did just that, staring at the clothes whirling in an endless circle, random flashes of color coming right up to the glass and disappearing again before I could guess which item of clothing it might have been. That black one seemed to have a hint of orange, which means it might have been the Pettibon SST shirt. Unless it was red instead of orange, which means it could have been any of two or three others.

I spent most of the previous night kicking around the idea of a new character. No, not the Fixer guy. He'd be written just for me, and would live outside of the strip. Besides, as much as I loved the superhero comics as a kid, devouring the DCs and Marvels that my older brother had gotten tired of, that stuff was really out of my realm. There was no way I could come up with all the plot twists and alternate realities that drawing fantasy would have required.

No, my realm was bad attitudes, rude humor and innocent but mock-inducing faith in human beings. Which is why all of my creative energies, and most of my energies in general, were devoted to Izzy the kangaroo and Lola the wombat and a supporting cast of Australian mammals. And not to strong men in tight suits who wanted to save the world from evil.

In fact, if Superman wandered into my strip, his first order of business would probably have been exterminating Izzy at the earliest opportunity.

So, a new character. I was thinking of a Crumb derivative, all oversized shoes and bulging eyes, probably more from the influence of the anthology I've been reading than any sort of true creative inspiration. Maybe an emotionally fragile platypus, named Claire or something like that, a female just enticing enough for Izzy to suspend his inherent indifference and pine after, at the expense of Lola's longing. Maybe some sort of weird love triangle, which is an admittedly well-worn but still surefire winner of a plot device.

But I soon realized that the Crumb idea was too obvious. As it was, Izzy and Lola were already a fairly obvious homage to George Herriman, which I'm sure my comics-junkie fans appreciated in an inside-joke sort of way. But adding another homage to another well-known artist might be overdoing it. I had to come across as being at least somewhat original, or otherwise the weeklies might just fill my space with old Zippy strips. Which are worthy in their own right, of course, but do nothing for paying my rent.

So Crumb was out and I needed another idea, the search for which kept me up the entire night. Though I probably would have been awake anyway — had it not been the new character keeping me awake, it would have just been something else. Rent payments, hooking up with a new weekly, the looming monthly phone call from my mom, whatever.

None of this crossed my mind as the clothes spun around in the dryer. I was transfixed, sitting frozen without a thought in my head.

~*~

I got back from the laundromat a few hours before Jackie was due home, just enough time to crack open the rest of the Gordon's I had started the night before, get horizontal on the couch and delve back into Crumb.

Damn, I thought after only a few pages, Crumb's a genius, more out of resentment than respect. My resentment was eased, for a moment, by the gin which would unfortunately soon be gone. Gone, with the resentment remaining. I knew there was nothing else to drink in the house and wasn't sure how long the buzz would last. Once that dissipated, the old frustration would undoubtedly return as I compared my nothing work to that of Crumb, and Herriman, and countless others who I worshipped before taking up cartooning as a profession. Back then, when I was a teenager, they were gods; now they were just impossibly high standards to fall pathetically short of.

So where are you, Fixer? I need you to take care of my relationship with Jackie, the lying and the booze, and my lack of imagination, and a few other big things that I'm forgetting at the moment.

The buzz was still with me, which enabled me to finish reading Crumb in a pleasant mood instead of flinging the book against the wall in despair. I hoped the good feeling would last until Jackie got home. Somehow her patience and her optimism and her smile always made everything alright for a while, even without booze. She'd say how much she liked my stuff, be curious about what I was working on, and tell me everything would work out.

Unfortunately for me, she had to work her job during the day and sleep at night, and couldn't be nearby all the time. Then, I had to turn to other comforts — Mr. Gordon, Mr. Beam, whatever.

But not now, I thought with relief, as I heard Jackie's key turn in the lock down the hallway, followed by the quiet whoosh of the door sliding away from the doorframe as it swung open. I glanced up from my book to check the time on the VCR clock.

5:30. On time, as usual. She always came back home to me, though I never dared to ask why. I'm in no position right now to encourage any doubts.

"Hi," she called out, her heels clack-clacking on the wood floor and getting louder as she came nearer. She poked her head around the doorway and smiled at me. I was smart enough to be already looking in that direction when she appeared, rather than looking at Crumb. She deserved to know that I cared more about her than just another book.

"Hi, hon," I replied. I was genuinely happy to see her.

"What have you been up to today?" she asked, entering the room and eyeing the empty bottle.

"Reading, mostly." There was no sense in trying to rationalize the drinking. She knew all about it, the reasons, the crutch it represented for me. "Oh, and laundry. Just mine, of course."

"Thank you for that," she snickered. "On behalf of my wardrobe."

"Sure."

"Did you get any work done?"

"Not today. I've been reading Crumb, though, and he's giving me some inspiration. Nothing major, just vague ideas. I was up all night trying to come up with a new character — a female that gets Izzy's attention."

"Oh, no — is he going to keep ignoring Lola? Aren't you ever going to get those two together?"

I loved the fact that she had an ongoing interest in my strip. She was always wanting to look at my new sketches, asking about future plot developments, about the thought processes I imagined running inside the minds of Izzy and Lola that drove their complicated relationship. There were other mammals littering the strip — bosses, relatives, neighbors — but most of it revolved around the two of them: Izzy witty, sarcastic, self-destructive; Lola patient, demure, faithful.

"Dunno. It needs something fresh, something dynamic — thought a new character would help. But I'm having trouble thinking up the right one."

She smiled but said nothing. I could see that she meant for her smile to show encouragement, support, faith in me, but there was a hint of frustration in her eyes. There I was, stuck again, mired in another creative rut that I would probably try to drink my way out of. Thinking up nothing other than more bitter remarks for Izzy to utter for all to hear, at Lola's expense. Never working towards something more positive, more permanent. I read all of this from the slightest raising of her eyebrows.

None of this was easy for her, I knew, but this is who I am.

~*~

We had dinner on the couch in front of the TV, as we usually did, eating delivered Chinese that she paid for, as she always did. As another reality melodrama played out on the screen — a dozen impossibly good-looking people living together in an implausibly well-decorated loft, conniving and catfighting the whole time — I stabbed at my lo mein with a fork, shoveling it down, as Jackie politely made the effort of using chopsticks. It was a charming habit of hers, a carryover from the old days when I did so myself, back when everything was fresh and new and we were always on our best behavior around each other. She was still on her best behavior, of course; it was the only kind she ever seemed to have. Meanwhile, I had long since reverted to my less appealing but more natural form.

"I made some plans for tonight," she said. "A movie, with Maureen and Laurie."

I wasn't surprised. She deserved an evening's reprieve from me.

"Ah, a chick flick," I replied, not removing my eyes from the TV.

"Yeah, pretty much. You don't mind?"

"Mind? No, of course not. Have a good time."

A thought suddenly occurred to me, and I looked at her.

"In fact, I might go out myself, for a while."

She nodded, not discouragingly.

"I need a breather from my work," I continued, as both our eyes were drawn to the empty Gordon's bottle which I had moved to the end table. We glanced at each other with mild embarrassment, before looking away. True, I hadn't worked all day, but the breather I needed was away from the oppressive air surrounding my work area, which was increasingly clogged with negative vibes. She knew what I meant.

"I'm sure you do. Need any money?"

"No," I replied, even though I didn't have a dime on me.

But I knew one place with a friendly bartender, a fan of my strip. He'd probably set me up with a few drinks, happy to aid my artistic efforts. Going out sometimes helps my creativity — seeing new things, getting a change of scenery. If nothing else, I might eavesdrop on a conversation or two that I could lift verbatim and put into my strip. When the words don't come to me naturally, I have no problem at all with letting complete strangers provide them for free.

~*~

The bar was half-empty when I got there, far emptier than I needed it to be. Danny the bartender seemed glad to see me, greeting me with a smile rather than the scowl I probably deserved. Me and my casual freeloading. He served me a beer without comment or any sort of hesitant expectation that I should be reaching for my wallet, and we chatted about the strip and laughed over several of Izzy's outrageous moments, including the recent incident when he showed up drunk at Lola's door late one night and proceeded to accidentally smash several of her grandmother's pieces of china to bits.

Typical insensitive stuff for Izzy. Comical, darkly comical. As always.

Though I enjoyed talking to Danny — his enthusiasm and the free beers were both greatly welcomed — I was somewhat relieved when the crowd picked up and he became occupied with other customers. Because I wasn't here to talk to bartenders — I was here to get out of the house and clear my head, get a few ideas and swipe a few promising pieces of alcohol-impaired conversation.

Several hours passed with plenty of alcoholic impairment around me but, unfortunately, little worthwhile dialogue. Three aging frat boys — all of them wearing football jerseys and baseball caps turned backward — dominated my end of the bar, talking far too loudly about all the sports bets they had won and lost, and bragging about all the fistfights they had won, never losing, over assholes right outside this bar and countless others just like it.

Assholes not unlike themselves, I thought.

Eventually, mercifully, they drifted away, arguing about which burrito joint they should head for next.

While ignoring their loud, mindless blathering, I had focused my attention on a woman on the far side of the room, who was with a group of friends but only on their periphery, seemingly not being actively engaged with them. She was nothing spectacular to look at — brunette, decent body, nice smile when she bothered.

She eventually drifted away from her friends and came to the bar, where she sat down two stools away from me. She never looked at me or otherwise acknowledged my existence, and I tried to pretend likewise, trying not to stare. She was much better looking up close, that I could tell from my passing glances.

Danny sidled down the length of the bar, our exchange of nods offering and confirming that I'd have another. As he uncapped the latest bottle and slid it across to me, he addressed the woman.

"Sandi, do you know Chris Osborne?" he said, nodding in my direction.

"No, should I?" she replied, partly to him and partly to me, noticing me for the first time.

"He draws Izzy & Lola."

"Wow! I read that one all the time," she exclaimed, smiling at me with what seemed like genuine interest, her cheeks dimpling enticingly.

All of it was a blur — the beer, the incredibly easy conversation, the smell of her perfume, her obvious momentary desire for me. Everything was blurred, especially my mind, and I never once thought once about what I was doing as our heads finally leaned together and I could feel the warmth of her breath coming from her slightly parted lips as they first touched mine, ever so lightly—

"What the hell am I doing?" I actually said out loud, snapping back my head, my mind suddenly and terribly cleared.

Her face was transfixed with a puzzled look of mild shock and confusion, her body suspended and still leaning toward me, as I stammered a curt goodbye, slid off of the bar stool and walked briskly to the door in narrow escape.

~*~

When I got home Jackie was already asleep, her breath gently repeating in a steady rhythm, and I paused at her side only for a moment before turning away, heading with routine instinct to the spare bedroom and my drafting table. My enticing little prison.

Out of sheer habit I mechanically reached for a pen, my arm extending across the white sheet of paper which had been affixed to the table, in clean and undisturbed condition, for over twenty-four hours. For all intents and purposes the sheets before it had been pristine for days longer than that, drawn on but uncluttered with any new ideas.

I tapped the point of the pen absently on the paper as my mind mulled over possibilities, over the new character, this Claire, what kind of animal she should be, how Izzy would stumble across her and suddenly lose all common sense.

Platypus, dingo, koala, emu.

Izzy first sees her from a distance drinking from a stream, no, wait, sees her trotting across the bushland, isn't very impressed at first but somehow crosses paths with her later on, when something inside him changes...

And he loses all common sense.

"What the hell am I doing?" I said again, more to myself this time, with all of it suddenly becoming clear. Very clear.

I quietly retracted the pen and replaced it in the mug with the others, then reached up and clicked off the light. I shuffled out the door and into our bedroom, climbing under the covers with Jackie without getting undressed. She stirred slightly, murmuring under her breath, as I nuzzled in close to her. Even asleep, she seemed to reassure me.

No, there won't be any Claire, I thought to myself as I drifted toward sleep.

Izzy already had Lola, and he was lucky to have her. He would just have to work a bit harder at it, a bit harder at them.

Fixer, you're free to go. Let me take care of this.

 

About the Author(s)

Peter Anderson is an emerging fiction writer whose first stories have been published this year in Storyglossia, Zisk, Skive Magazine and The Angler. A financial analyst by trade, he writes fiction to ease the relentless montony of corporate life. He lives in Joliet, Illinois with his wife Julie, daughter Madeleine, and two well-rested cats.

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