Misplaced Duty

Misplaced Duty

A man goes on a journey to fulfill a request from his family.


Literary fiction


Alex Bronkhorst (Canada)

Phone, wallet, keys. I pressed my hands against my pants pockets to make sure they were all there. This ritual was sacred. One too many times had I been stranded in an unrecognizable part of town with no way to call a cab. Or made excuses to some braindead cashier as to why I could not pay for my ninety-nine cent gum. I was even robbed once, on one of the countless occasions that I had neglected to lock the front door. This error had cost me an especially elegant pair of glasses. I laughed out loud at the scoundrel’s simplicity. What sort of second rate criminal risks his freedom for a measly pair of glasses?

I left all that behind after having a grand epiphany. Most unpleasantries in life, I realized, could be forever forgotten with the aid of three godly items; phone, wallet, and keys. So I set out on a quest. A quest to remember to pat myself down every morning like a cop would do to a freshly detained hoodlum. It was the pinnacle of human adaptability, a defense mechanism that protected me from my own stupidity.

Despite this impregnable system, I had a nagging sensation that I was forgetting something. But what? Those were the only things I had taken with me for over five years. I even had a nickname for them: the three musketeers. To help me remember, of course.

In fact, not one aspect of my morning routine had changed since my conversion from “anti-dandruff” to “anti-dandruff and thickening” shampoo. What, then, was this nagging feeling about? I waved it off as instinctive paranoia, choosing instead to ponder the wide variety of shampoos on the market; each bottle had the narrow proficiency of a PhD candidate.

I strolled out of my one-bedroom apartment and locked the door behind me, only to be greeted by an immense ball of harsh yellow light. It stood still on the horizon, hung low like the earlobes of a Buddhist monk. The flawlessly blue sky allowed its blinding rays of light to directly penetrate my pupils. What kind of moron builds a house with a front door facing east?

The relentless heat slowly seared the exposed skin on my arms and face as I began the day’s journey. Small patches of grass were sporadically mixed into the small city’s concrete landscape. Gusts of wind came in rare heavy bursts that sounded like someone blowing in my ear.

The few people that were out and about disgusted me. The lowlife of the planet, no employment or education to attend to. A particularly rancid woman walked out of a convenience store and started walking towards me, her chins shuffling with each grueling step. A look of dissatisfaction accompanied her thin brown hair and pierced eyebrows. She carried in each hand clear plastic bags containing family sized bags of Doritos and bottles of Pepsi.

I considered crossing the street to avoid her, but decided against it. She was in quite a close proximity as I stuttered out “Good morning”. This seemed to anger her, as she did not respond. She instead stared me down with an expression that said “It is your fault I am like this, and I would hurt you if my hands weren’t full.” I smiled as we passed each other.

This smile was short-lived, however, as an inglorious burst of wind brought the woman’s rotten odor to my nostrils. I held my breath and did an awkward half-run to a pocket of non-toxic air. I took a deep breath, basking in nasal freedom.

Suddenly I was there. “Armino’s Barberino” read the letters on the storefront window, painted in red and white. The window itself was littered with promotions promising quality and savings. A neon ‘open’ sign ornamented the glass door, which at night spelled only “ope”. As I walked in my arrival was announced by the dainty noises of a small bell.

Armino himself was sweeping assorted colors of hair off the floor. The sound of potential business jerked his head up. He was old and fat in a way that did not bother him, grey hair slicked back with European class and too much hair gel. He smiled a wide, toothy smile. Whether he was happy to see me or my monthly fifteen dollars, I could not say.

We had been in a barber-client relationship for over ten years, but only because the next closest barber was seven blocks away. Armino was also a near saintly hairdresser, and I enjoyed not having to constantly instruct him as if he were my butler. Otherwise I found the man quite bothersome. Our shared Italian heritage encouraged him to speak to me in a brotherly tone which I found utterly insufferable.

“Basilio, buon giorno. So good to see you, old friend.” He addressed me with a kindness that I reserved for close friends and family.

“You know I don’t speak Italian,” I said, faking confusion at this basic ethnic greeting. As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew my feeble attempt at humor had failed. The silence that followed seemed longer than my entire life before then.

“Guess you want the usual,” he finally said, pretending I had not spoken.

“Sounds great.” Usually I could talk to Armino for at least five minutes before his complete lack of interest shut me up. That day it had taken one sentence. I got into the chair, defeated, and donned the white blanket of his trade.

Armino’s one passion in this world, besides hairdressing, was discussing sports. I, on the other hand, did not know which sport a field goal took place in. Maybe soccer. And so he droned on and on about the latest matches and the hottest athletes as I sat there, oppressed. Every once in a while there was a break in his speech where I was expected to nod or go “mhm”.

I stared at my reflection in the wall-long mirror to pass the time. A thin-faced, solemn man stared back. He was dressed in a fine name brand polo, strands of thick black hair partially covering his face. His cowlick was entirely too big, going up and down in ways that could instantly dry a woman’s underwear. To him I could relate.

There was another break in Armino’s bleating. I nodded, and against all odds, he started a non-athletic conversation.

“So I’m with my wife upstairs watchin’ the TV when this documentary about history or some shit comes on. I say ‘put the game on, Maria, or God fucking help me.’ But she puts on this lady face like she’s about to cry, so I go along. You know how it is. Anyway, I’m watching it and here’s this guy five hundred years ago sayin’ the Earth ain’t flat and the Church is tryin’ to kill him for it. You believe that? Livin’ in a country with no freedom of speech, can’t say whatever the fuck you want? Thank the Lord we live in America.”

I nodded again, baffled by his innocence and stupidity. He went back to sports. I drifted in and out of my imagination until it was finally over. I tried to pay him, but he refused. He looked nervous as he said, “just let your folks know I’m gettin’ bothered by the Castillos again. That’s payment enough.”

This genuinely angered me. “How many times do I have to tell you that I am no longer on speaking terms with them?”

His look of despair turned me soft, so I comforted him. “I have a feeling they won’t be bothering you anymore, anyways. Don’t worry.” He thanked me almost in tears, bowing unnecessarily. I mumbled a goodbye and stepped out into the mid-morning sun.

A short walk of avoiding society’s degenerates brought me to the edge of a forest. More of a thickly wooded park, really. I hiked in on the thin dirt path as the concrete world was replaced by greenery. I trekked deeper and deeper into the woods, shrouded in blissful silence.

Suddenly, she was there. Fortuna Castillo, the most beautiful woman I had ever known. She saw me and finished her text before putting her phone away. “What took you so long? And why did you choose such a boring place for something like this?”

“I thought the forest would complement your natural beauty.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, get on with it, then.”

Doing this was my family’s one condition, in exchange for unlimited financial support. I reached into my pocket. “Fuck.”

Fortuna raged. “You forgot it, didn’t you? Of all the idiot kids in all the families, my parents had to set me up with you. ‘To make a peace’, they said. Look at yourself. Pathetic. You’re so out of it that you can’t even remember to bring a god damn engagement ring.”

I laughed out loud, startling her. “You’re right. I forgot.” A suppressed handgun lay fully loaded on my nightstand as we spoke.

Competition: Friendly feedback, Round 2



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