Heart Healthy


On Wednesday, I wake a little after ten. This isn’t intentional. It’s not like I set an alarm.

I stumble from the bed to the bathroom to take a long, yellow piss. I brush my teeth—extra well, since my health insurance expired recently, since it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing the dentist anytime soon.

I check my cell phone. No missed calls.

In the kitchen, I pour cereal into a bowl and fill it to the brim with soy milk. Heart Healthy, the cereal’s called—it comes from the organic grocery store down the street. Setting the kettle on the stove, I spoon coffee into a French press. The press is made of glass and has bright red trim. It even looks a little French, though I know it’s not. I bought it from a cooking store ten minutes from here back when I still had a job.

I haven’t worked in months. Four, to be precise. Four months of checking Craigslist, sending out resumes, refreshing my e-mail. I’ve applied for every job imaginable. Barista, waiter, dishwasher, bartender, pizza delivery man, basketball referee—you name it, I’ve applied.

Nobody ever writes you back. And it’s not like you wanted any of those jobs anyway.

In a previous incarnation I washed dishes in a café. My boss used to stand behind me and alert me to everything I was doing wrong. She was an energetic old bag with an imperceptible heart. I stole pastries to get back at her. After work I’d sit on the curb while pedestrians tromped all around me, trying to summon up the energy to get back on my bike.

That was only part of the week.

The other days I worked the front of the house, making espresso drinks, manning the cash register. Only rarely was I able to conjure the image of a heart or a tree out of the foam but the drinks tasted good and the customers seemed to like me.

I live with my girlfriend in a brick building half a block from a park. The building is old and sturdy-looking, but the rent is cheap because ten years ago there used to be shootings around the corner. Now condos have gone up with matching balconies, barbeques and garages filled with expensive cars. I wish I could complain. But the truth is the yuppies beat us here.

While I putter around the apartment, my girlfriend watches a baby. This is what she does for money: looks after other people’s children so they can continue contributing to society. It’s not a bad gig. She feeds the baby pureed fruit, changes his diaper, rocks him to sleep. While he naps, she reads novels or watches films on the family’s flat-screen TV. Right now she’s catching up on the French New Wave. She likes Truffaut over Godard, prefers The 400 Blows to Breathless. She’s not crazy about the gangster stuff, no matter how meta it might be.

In my free time, which is most of it these days, I write book reviews, essays, stories, poems. Sometimes the reviews get published, but I never get paid. Everyone knows there’s no money in writing these days.

A few months back I had the idea that I could play poker for a living. Years ago, before the arrival of certain climactic events, I took the game very seriously. One spring, when I was 21, I dropped out of college to take a two-month driving tour of the United States. I played poker all over the place. By the end of the trip, the game had lost a lot of its luster. There was a sickness in the card rooms, a sadness, that had begun to infect me. Gradually I gave the game up, going back to school to study writing.

But a few months ago, in the midst of my fruitless job search, I discovered a club here that held daily tournaments. It had bright, wide televisions, leather rolling chairs, a soft-spoken old man in back who served smoked chicken. It all came back—the dazzle of it, the glare, the momentous forward thrust. I played every day for two weeks and found myself $700 ahead. But the game was eating away at me—I got angry when I lost, and had trouble concentrating on anything but the cards. I used to bring a book with me to the tournaments—some serious, literary book—clutching it close to me like a totem. I could never get past the first page. Finally, I stuck the money in a drawer and decided to never go back.

The coffee is ready. I add soy to cool it down. The coffee, the cereal, the soy—all of it bought with food stamps. The government gives us $200 a month, a plastic card that we can swipe. The grocery store is just on the other side of the park. I like the walk, past the scampering dogs and shrieking children, beneath the bare, winter trees.

I don’t know what I’m going to do today. Maybe I’ll shoot hoops at the local community center, or finish reading the novel I started the other day. Later, when my girlfriend gets off work, we’ll experiment with a new recipe. I’m in charge of the preparation. I’m supposed to marinate the chicken.

I walk to the refrigerator and take the breasts out and set them on the counter, unwrapping them from their paper. I transfer the chicken into a Ziploc bag, then combine soy sauce and chopped garlic and chili and stir until it is all mixed evenly. Then I pour the marinade into the bag and shake it a few times, and put the Ziploc back into the fridge.

After dinner, maybe we can watch the Rohmer film I rented from the library.

I’m going to have to find a job soon. The money’s running out and poker makes me mean. In the meantime, this isn’t such a bad place to be.


“Man Reading” by John Singer Sargent.

Alex Gallo-Brown’s essays have appeared at The Rumpus, Salon, Bookslut, The Nervous Breakdown, The Collagist, and more. He is the author of The Language of Grief, a collection of poems. You can find him at alexgallobrown.com. More from this author →