I rented a room in the home of an Asian elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Alta Loma. Resting on a cul-de-sac, the house that she had once shared with her son and former husband felt weirdly unoccupied with the new tenants in their separate rooms and their separate lives. My new landlady had a habit of saying everything at least twice. A teacher’s mannerism? Fifty or so, May had a head of frizzy hair and an equally frizzy Chihuahua called Foxy, her best friend. They had both been flying kites in thunderstorms. Just down the hall was John, our roommate and the archetype of a future presidential assassin. He was forty and short, with a ponytail, glasses and a handful of Asian ex-wives. But my roomies were never an item as far as I could tell. Perhaps John was too sober for May and May too distracted for John. An ex-military man, he rehearsed the things that he said to others in the upstairs bathroom mirror, articulating without emotion for effect like Dirty Harry.
Not long after my arrival John announced a “House Meeting.” I sat with May at the kitchen/dining room table, while John stood across from us breathing slowly, hands on his hips, with a furrowed brow. This can’t be about me, I thought, I’m never home. The twilight on the other side of the windows above the kitchen sink seemed to fade, and I waited some more, sniffing the air, wondering if I should be nervous that I was living with someone who had spent the previous Saturday watching a back-to-back Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris ejaculation of guts and gristle on television. Headed to the front door in the morning, I heard machine guns spraying the living room as the Italian Stallion bellowed and mowed down a swarm of movie extras in black. Coming home that evening from my errands, the battles continued to rage. Though he’d never seen real combat (too young for Vietnam, too old for Iraq) the fires of John’s imagination were stoked by a surplus of war movies on network television, ready for a vicarious voyage through a world in which the underdog in each of us could have a smoldering chunk of glory, a bit of carefully revised history all to ourselves. But where he was once absorbed with the flickering screen, now he simply looked agitated and impotent. Perhaps my troubled roommate was thinking of the right way of asking permission to dress the place up a bit for the next gore-a-thon? A few tiki torches, some heads on sticks and curling black smoke from behind the couch to set the mood? Imported beetles? John took a few breaths as though he was plucking up the nerve to jump out of an airplane with a parachute over Kampuchea. He was getting in character. Then again, he might have been calming the chorus of voices in his head. This must be serious, I thought. In the back of my own mind was a little man with a snare, a roll slowly building. John was slouched over as he carried the weight of what he had to impart. It was crushing, this leviathan truth. As the sustained drum roll faded, he opened his eyes:
Jason isn’t cleaning the bathroom properly.
My failure to scrub around the toilet was a crisis of global proportions. It was worthy of a summit. It was worthy of a moment of silence, like that of a number of films he’d seen where very important people paused to look at very important issues and make tough decisions. Sometimes-painful decisions. Decisions that sooner or later added crease marks between the eyes, but in the end managed to ingrain in one a sense of purpose, a willingness to pursue what was right no matter the cost. Times like this called for men like John. And John wanted me to keep an extra towel as well so he would know I was washing my hands. The others crowding the racks and overlapping one another weren’t sufficient. My roommate was exhausted but pleased to have gotten it off his chest. He could stand up straight now. I pictured him holding up a thumb to the mirror. As the owner of the house, May piped in, looking at my face for an instant. “Yeah, it’s just because hygiene is so important…hygiene.” Her eyes returned to the placemat, “We wanna make sure you’re washing your hands, don’t wanna have any germs. Yeah, hygiene.” John fed off of her energy supply and they carried on, mumbling.