Despite the early morning’s scorching heat, Self-Loathing strides down the street in Anytown, USA, slapping mosquitoes from his neck. He reaches his first house, the leaves of its magnificent oak tree motionless in the heavy air. With a quick sidelong glance to ensure no one is watching, Self-Loathing shimmies up the tree and leans forward to peek into a second-story window.
Wearing just boxer shorts, fourteen-year-old Richie is leaning over his bed, scrubbing at his sheets with a damp green hand-towel. He’s using his other fist to pound his thigh as he tries to also scrub away the image of the new boy's lazy smile while he swings his lacrosse stick back and forth, a metronome. Self-Loathing decides he doesn’t need to intervene further, today. He smiles and drops lightly to the ground, then circles around to the back of the house.
Self-Loathing looks through the window at Richie’s father sitting at an old wooden desk, a spinning bamboo ceiling fan rustling the pages of a yellow legal pad. Every few moments, he reaches toward a Bible, flicks through pages, then returns to writing. Standing on tiptoes, Self-Loathing sends a gentle breath toward the Bible, fluttering its pages until it lands open on Leviticus 18:22. Richie’s father peers at the page, taps his pen against his teeth, and nods.
He resumes writing. The Bible tells us, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” His pen flies across the page. The sins of the flesh can bring down even the most righteous person. He knows that all too well.
He’ll have Sunday’s sermon ready. He always does. And after last week’s little round of hooky, he’d better see Richie scrubbed clean and sitting in the front pew.
Self-Loathing has a spring in his step as he heads to his next house. Sixteen-year-old Dillon’s room is on the ground floor in the back, and she never closes her drapes. Self-Loathing only has to hide behind a tool shed to watch her.
Even though she hasn’t even brushed her teeth, Dillon’s on her iPad. Self-Loathing’s eagle eyes can see that she’s surfing a wellness website, bookmarking pages touting the benefits of burpees and lean protein. Self-Loathing frowns. This won’t do.
He’d long ago hacked into her Wi-Fi, installing a nifty little program that lets him feed ads and other content of his choosing to her screen. He taps a few buttons, then folds his arms and stands back, waiting.
It’s only minutes, really, before he sees her poke a finger into her soft belly. She swipes at the screen again. Then she pinches a roll of her flesh between her thumb and pointer. Self-loathing sends her a few more images. Dillon abruptly shoves her iPad aside, stands, and walks out of the room.
When she returns, she’s cradling something wrapped in a navy towel. She shoves a chair under her doorknob and goes to her bathroom to pour a glass of water. Then she unfurls the towel, tears open the loaf of white bread, and starts to stuff slices into her mouth, guzzling water to force the food down her throat.
Self-Loathing debates sticking around to hear her puking, but he’s already running late on his rounds. Another day.
A woman pushing a stroller is on the sidewalk, maybe fifty feet away, coming toward him. She’s cooing into the stroller. Babies are tricky because they can’t yet absorb what he offers.
The mothers are another story; so easy to plant those seeds. “I’ve read that not all beautiful chubby babies grow up to be fat kids.” Or, “I wouldn’t worry about the size of her ears. Most babies’ proportions even out over time.” He’s been at this long enough to witness the mothers transplant those seedlings into their children.
The baby gurgles, a pure, joyous sound. Something about the laughter’s timbre jars loose a distant childhood memory, one Self-Loathing can’t quite bring into focus.
When was the last time he felt pure joy?
Easier to remember its opposite. Like on the school playground, when the bullies came for him. Or at the dinners, when his mother stayed silent while his father shamed him. Or the dates he never went on, the job interviews he flubbed, and the endless nights alone.
The woman blows kisses at the baby. Self-Loathing straightens and walks toward her. He scans her face, body, and demeanor, weighing her split ends, baby-weight, and acne scars. He splays his hands wide as if he means no harm.
“Morning! Can I have a peek at your baby?”