FINDING THE JOY by John Chrostek

FINDING THE JOY by John Chrostek

Let the record show I lived in that neighborhood for seven years before I committed a crime. It was something simple, innocent. I stole my neighbors’ apple sauce. It was sitting on their stoop, an Amazon delivery. Why get apple sauce delivered? But they were like that, Henrietta and her weird hot husband with the pleated jeans. Henrietta worked in finance, no clue what her husband did. Something internet, something body? My point is they had money. Money and time and applesauce and I had nothing. I’d been fired weeks back from my job at Pickle Party (good riddance to the vinegar smell.) My ex-manager Derrick canned me as payback for not smoking meth with him after close before he went home to his boyfriend Marco whom he was convinced was trying to poison him. I’d met Marco and he seemed lovely so if he really was trying to poison Derrick, I’m sure he had a reason. Probably the herpes Derrick mentioned he was hiding while he smoked crack in the front seat of his Toyota Camry, crying as his life fell apart before it ever began.

So I took the applesauce. I’ve always taken note when people had packages at their door. I like to keep tabs on people I know, get a sense of their behavior and interests. I figured it was Henrietta’s husband who ordered it. He was the more youthful of the pair: clear skin, big eyes, a smile as sharp as a butter knife. It made sense he ate like a child ruled by his cravings.

Some part of me hoped he’d notice and confront me. For weeks now I could cry on a dime, demonstrating my hardships and woe. I wanted him to see how badly I needed it, how hungry I was for applesauce, and give it to me. Maybe he’d ask to see me again. But he didn’t. See me, that is. I lingered below their porch for an hour, salivating performatively at the fruit on the label for nothing. But isn’t that life?

It was so heavy on cinnamon I couldn’t even finish a pouch. I threw it out, telling myself it was okay because they’d just get a replacement sent their way without a second thought. It didn’t matter where you fell on the political spectrum, we all knew it was moral and just to fuck over Amazon. Plus, people like Henrietta are always taken at their word. I get why. They put so much effort into meeting other people’s expectations that if it was a lie she was telling you there’d have to be a reason. And really, good for her. It’s hard to build that kind of reputation in a world as sick as this one.

There weren’t any consequences for what I did, not even a suspicious glance from a neighbor. The whole ordeal made me realize that what I was really missing was human connection. I barely knew my neighbors yet inside their windows I could make out signs of delicious interiority. The Sellwoods four doors down? They had this huge glass chandelier. Why?! They seemed poor like me, worn to husks by two sons who bit each other playing in the street. Was it the last vestige of a dwindled inheritance? A splurge of luxury before their first embryonic surprise? And the choice to leave it in the dining room, with two boys, like a sword of Damascus! Playing with fire! What I would give to sit them down and find out what they were thinking.

Next up was a book, the memoir of a celebrity rower who overcame trauma to boat alone across the Pacific. I borrowed it from Mrs. Jeong who worked dry-cleaning downtown and rappelled pressed coats over the busy street. She lived in the same back alley as me, hanging fresh herbs and flowers as she hummed along to Inkigayo playing from a fatbox TV indoors. I adored her.

It was an alright book, mostly about the suspect choices the rower made in her twenties. The whole story was one long justification of her failures. Couldn’t relate. No clue why she would’ve wanted it. Probably caught her on a talk show. The world was a better place with people like Mrs. Jeong. They always found the joy where it was hiding, like life was a garden and anything and anyone could grow with care.

I was hooked. I started grabbing every package I could, careful to avoid anything beneath a camera, anything essential. Discretion and valor and all that. I learned from Kevin V. the value of a good blender. Found out green really is my color. Picked up whittling. Even fucked myself with Jerry’s dragon dildo while enjoying Mary Ellis’ custom lavender medley bath bombs.

I never felt so close to anyone.

The packages weren’t enough for me anymore. I soon took Mrs. Jeong’s mail, translating her cousin’s letters from Seoul. So glad life was going well for him. The love of her family shone through in everything. Jerry’s loaded! He had enough to pay his father’s commissary bill like it was nothing. So proud. He put together such a normie image for how strange and difficult his life is. I often thought about patting him on the shoulder, but it’s hard to find the right moment for things like that. There are some closed doors you never get to open.

I woke to the sound of screaming. The police were parked outside. Half the neighborhood was gathered outside, watching. Waiting. The officers started busting down my front door. The living room was a tremendous mess, pillars of boxes and letters. I hadn’t had the time to organize what I was going to return or throw away. A sorry state for visitors. A horrible first impression.

So I slipped out the back. No time to pack. Not the blender or a change of pants. Just Henrietta’s polyester bathrobe, my Spanx Mens Sculpt Mid-rise Regular-fit Stretch-Cotton Boxers (those I paid for) and a whittling knife. I moved like a pink shadow through the alleys, thinking about my life, all the steps that brought me to this point. No one had spoken up for me. Not a single soul on my street told the officers they had the wrong idea, that I was a pillar of the community. I did every task, performed every role this sick society assigned my way and here it left me, stranded at the gates of damnation. So be it. They could have my shitty apartment, the hollow moth shell of my past. I was going to be a runaway, a flower blooming in the cracks of the root-torn sidewalk. I’d take a page from old Mrs. Jeong and germinate the poisoned wind all to find my joy. 

John Chrostek is a former bookseller, current remote worker who writes stories and poems. Said writing has appeared in X-R-A-Y, HAD, No Contact, Scrawl Place and plenty elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @yoncrowstack.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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