Sunday Stories: “From ‘Atta Boy'”


From “Atta Boy”
by Cally Fiedorek

Up and at ’em! No excuses. He needed to get out today, stay out. Enough of this sitting around and licking wounds. There was lead in his apartment, and his phone was doing him grave harm. 

Rudy didn’t mean to sound alarmist about this—he’d seen one too many puff-piece headlines about screens and the internet changing people’s brains, transforming the whole social fabric, and he’d never cared too much for the philosophizing. Big whoop, he’d thought. Folks had probably felt the same unease about their TV sets back in the day. Maybe some beatnik wrote a pretty deep poem about it. But these last few days, cooped up in his apartment, scrolling, scrolling, waiting for a sign, he’d felt it too—that thing would be the death of him. The point of no return.

Now you almost missed the Man on the TV, trying to sell you things—at least he was a man, and had a face. At least the things were things. Now he opened up his phone and what he saw were lives, lives, lives, lives, lives, whole epochs compressed into the tilework on his Instagram. There’d be a picture of Kate Moss and Johnny Depp in the ’90s, looking sexual in a way that made you wonder if the fucking you’d been doing in your life had even counted, then a picture from The New York Times of somebody in Yemen yesterday cradling her son’s dead body, wailing, and you felt terrible for the woman, and grateful for your life and safety, but only for about three seconds, ’cause then it was more pictures, of more crap, some girl from his high school and her baby at Santaland (had she airbrushed her kid? Its eyes looked weird) and his friend Christian with his girlfriend looking like a couple of Staten Island tryhards at Carbone’s for their anniversary the other night, the caption all your my rock, your my queen, I put you on a pedistle, when Rudy had it on pretty good authority the guy’d had a restraining order taken out against him by a dancer at the Hustler Club named Paige, then a picture from eighty years ago of some kids in London playing hopscotch in the wreckage of the Blitz, and Teddy Roosevelt as a young swashbuckler in Mexico, all of it, the times, the styles, the wars, the glam, the T&A, the suffering, friends and strangers, near and far, scourges, babies, the legends and the no-names, the ’60s and the 1890s and last Wednesday night too, all of it hitting his brain in a symphony of total noneventness, like the more pictures he saw, the less he believed that anything besides his thumb had ever really happened. 

It was no wonder then that the truthers and conspiracy kooks were having a field day out there—they had their work cut out for them. There must be people all over whose brains had turned to jelly, their circuitry fouled up, numbed by the pictures, confused by life’s variety, sick of their own selves and in dear-god-awful need of some beliefs. Some angle on the swarming world, however wrong and crazy. Rudy wasn’t gonna fall into the trap, though. Not today. 

What he needed now was people, action, life, the city. To get his head out of his ass. To see things for himself. That’s what he’d decided anyway. But all this pounding the pavement wasn’t going all that well so far. The real world was no picnic either, see. Everybody looked like shit, tired. They dressed like shit. Nobody had any style. And the ones out here who did, who could afford to, they were all the worst kinds of people.

He had said “Good day, miss” to a lady just now coming out of the subway, on 28th Street. It wasn’t a come-on, not at all—he knew better than that—it was just to be friendly. Just ’cause it was a nice day, brisk and Christmassy, and he hadn’t been out this early in like seven years, and she looked like a cool person and it seemed like a cool thing to say—whatever, it was stupid—and anyway she’d scoffed at him. She had straight-up groaned, like she’d been shot. Way over-the-top, like ugh, ugggghhhh, how dare he, how dare he be so patronizing and old-fashioned and intrusive as to even look at her, and she’d stormed off down the street

He felt like such a dummy now. Absolutely breathless with how dumb he felt. Puzzled by the whole exchange, if you could even call it that. “Good day, miss”? What kind of a line was that? Like some lunkhead out of Midnight Cowboy, doffing his cap, bewildered at the modern ladies.

Well, screw her and her grinchy ass. Let her moan about it to her friends at The Wing later, how some inked-up outer-borough Joe schmo who wouldn’t be fit, or would only be fit, to fix her freezer had dared look in her direction. Let her fix her own fucking freezer. Screw her. No, no, that wasn’t right. There was no need to be cruel about it. He didn’t know her story any more than she knew his. Screw himself, screw himself, that after twenty-six years of living, many blows and blessings, long talks, deep thoughts, still he lacked the inner resources to take in stride the total nothing that had been that interaction. He was losing his edge—too much time among the old folks at the bar. He was losing his looks too, maybe. Otherwise, that might’ve all gone differently. 

You could see the changes in just the last five years, his face getting puffy and poached-looking, with the pre-jowls. That saline, past-prime Mickey Rourke look to the skin over his cheeks. Too many drinks and smokes. Some days women would stare at him on the street, men too, and he’d think, eat your heart out, people, convinced they were all just dying to fuck him, then he’d catch himself in a storefront window and realize what he’d seen in all their eyes was maybe not so much lust as . . . concern. 

It was a city lost. Lost to him, and the mad market of the streets made it clear. 

He’d been all over town this morning. He’d looked at an apartment out in Bushwick, a godforsaken hovel. He had no choice but to move, though. They were raising the rent in his building. About a year ago they’d offered him five thousand dollars to break his lease. Sitting pretty in his love nest, a rent-stabilized walk-up on 3rd Street, with a steady pipeline from his baby’s parents covering half, he had told those slumlords where to shove it. But then they’d gotten more aggressive. Turning off the heat in winter, nerve-grinding construction day and night, no peace, no quiet, and this ex-cop henchman of the owners’ stealing people’s mail, threatening undocumented immigrants he’d blab on them to ICE. Prowling the hallways in a beard and glasses he probably got at the spy store, posing as “Inspector”—inspector who, Gadget? He’d planted a dead rat on one Korean family’s doormat when they wouldn’t take a buyout. And the live rats, well, those came standard. 

Rudy was sure what they were doing was totally illegal, but they had ins, these people. They had probably greased the palms of however many civic bureaucrats to look the other way. And what was he gonna do, go Mr. Smith on the Department of Buildings? Fine print was not his thing at all. He had no money for a lawyer. He would take the buyout in a second now, if they wouldn’t bust his kneecaps just for asking. . . . Thinking he would never need it—those were the days. In love and invincible. Thinking on the zero percent chance that things went south between him and his lady fair he could always move back in with Dad to get his footing. Ha. Those were the days. 

Onward. He was starving. His stomach was making crazy dial-up noises. He had a little time to kill before seeing another apartment in Kips Bay. 

He went into a diner on 38th Street. Usually he felt jumpy and self-conscious sitting alone, but in dumps like these all bets were off. 

“It’s just me,” he told the waitress. Was it ever. 

“Sit anywhere you want, doll,” she said. 

He sat down in a booth near the back. He appreciated being called “doll,” actually. Very much. He knew some girls who got pissed off when people called them “doll” and “sweetheart,” like it was condescending to them, but for a certain kind of man at a certain point in life, “doll” was music to your ears. “Doll” meant you weren’t a total creep. 

She kept poking at the edges of his mind. His ex. Popping up. He’d have to hash it out at some point, get the facts straight in his head before they curdled any more on him. She’d just moved to the city when they met, twenty-one years old. He must’ve seemed to her like a steady pair of hands at first, a city boy, a few years older. Tougher than the rest. Not like these straw fedora film majors and milquetoasts from her college dorm. And him, well, he had put up no resistance. It was like some dream of teenage love he’d not gotten right the first time, the first renditions wasted in mediocre company, the mall rats and trash-talkers of his misspent high school years in Maspeth, the Dinahs and Rachelles, landlubbers all, with their spray tans and their strappy heels, so bound and tethered to their womanhood, peaking at eighteen. 

This girl was something else. An open book, smart and kind and interested. Small breasts, and untroubled by them, her hair untouched by dyes or goops, the same strong God-made auburn hair she’d had as a horse-crazed kid in the Midwest with buckteeth and a sweet smile in a picture on her dresser. 

But time went on, and she showed her innocence. She was not long for the city. Fucking shaking crying when a homeless woman called her a cunt once on the street. She was a college girl, through and through, full of principles but wispy at her core. And so bright-eyed all the time, so easy to impress, so moved, not even in a phony way, ’cause she really meant the things she said. All, My semester abroad in Florence was so, so enriching, probably one of the most enriching, eye-opening experiences of my life and making him watch this unbelievably boring independent film from Ghana ’cause her friend who interned for the Criterion Collection told her it was good, and she was so completely owned by other people’s opinions, and so new to anything cool or different, and so primed by a lifetime of guilt for being white and well protected and from Lincoln, Nebraska, that she couldn’t even get it through her head that not liking this movie from Ghana was even allowed, then spending an hour of his Friday night when he could’ve been out getting loaded or making bank trying to convince him that him not liking this movie was actually ’cause he was culturally programmed not to, when he just hadn’t liked it, and why was she so mad at him about it, what the hell was she trying to prove? And after a while he kind of missed the girls from his old stomping grounds in Queens, who had their hang-ups but at least had some pride of place about them. Some attitude. Who at least would call things as they saw them. Who weren’t secretly terrified of Black and brown people while always giving little lectures on the richness of their cultures. He had started off thinking he was the provincial one, but then he realized she was. 

So the bloom came off the rose, in her eyes too. His bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold routine not holding up so well, taking on a darkness in her eyes. Almost a doom. He’d gotten totally, completely, almost hall-of-fame-level smashed at one of her friends’ birthday parties toward the end, another barely-a-party party in Brooklyn Heights where you had to take your shoes off at the door, and no one got fucked up at all or fought or said anything remotely aggressive or off-key, just talked about work and their summer travel plans, all the girls with weird short bangs and tiny tasteful tattoos sipping red wine, and he made a scene, which was just as well, to give them all something to remember him by. She’d been pissed off after that but they’d hung on for a bit, her coming home one night spewing some shit her therapist had told her about how he was really a narcissist and you couldn’t love a narcissist and he was just a stand-in for her numbskull socially regressive stick-in-the-mud alcoholic father and she’d been trying to please men like him her whole life and she never would and she should stop trying blah blah blah. 

He was nothing like her dad, anyway. That guy? Her parents had come to the city once, to have lunch with her and Rudy before their matinee of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. A geography teacher, who wore pants with the zips that turned them into shorts if it got too hot. Rudy didn’t know what the hell her therapist was talking about. 

She had loved him, though—that was a fact. (Wasn’t it?) And he’d definitely loved her. That he knew. And he had gotten through to her, awhile. Almost two years. Not nothing. (Though it sure as hell felt like nothing now.) And that he’d been able to get through to somebody like her, somebody so different from him, to make her laugh and cry, and come, had once seemed like a minor miracle, like a message from the gods that he still had it, that the light of life was still in him, and he could still surprise himself. But that all seemed very dusky now, and very much in doubt. And had she really come? Really? She was a little over-the-top about it, sometimes, and nothing if not suggestible . . .

His sandwich was like eating shoes. The lettuce tasted horrible, like all the foot traffic of Chinatown. Someone had left their Daily News in the next booth. He scanned the classifieds, though they didn’t really list jobs or apartments there anymore. Not the kinds you wanted. They were testing a new dialysis drug up at Columbia and needed volunteers. He wasn’t quite there yet, but it was good to know there was a lower rung to fall to. The paper and the internet would only do so much for him, though. He had to put out feelers with real people. 

He had a cousin on his mom’s side in Stamford, Connecticut, he could call. She lived near the railroad tracks on the Metro-North New Haven line and managed a Sephora in a strip mall, but she was quite a cool person, and seemed to get a kick out of him. Plus how bad could Stamford be? Maybe she could get him a job. Though he didn’t know if they hired dudes at Sephora. 

There was always Uncle Mike of course. But something told Rudy to tread lightly with Uncle Mike. Rudy respected him, which complicated things. Besides he’d already crossed him once, burned that bridge with Mike’s construction friends and not thought twice about it at the time. He had sat in on a job site the summer before senior year, building a luxury high-rise on the West Side, fetching Coolattas for the crew, then nearly braining some guy lifting a crane bucket. He’d hated every minute of it. The heights, the wind—it was windy up there like you couldn’t believe. He’d be so much better off now, though, if he’d stuck it out with that. Not just money-wise. Blood-wise. In body, mind, and soul. Doing hard, proud labor all these years, up early every day with the city, working with his hands. The road not traveled. Now it felt too late to go legitimate. Still, he shot Uncle Mike a text. Better to get to him before Dad poured poison in his ear about what a failure piece of shit his nephew was. 

There was an old woman in the next booth over, her bags piled next to her, all dolled up with a fur coat and matching headband, taking a long, long time getting her eggs into her mouth. Her hand was shaking every which way. Parkinson’s, maybe. What the hell was that like? Being old and sick? Did death blacken her every thought and move, or was she happy just to keep the motor running? Happy with her scrambled eggs, every hard-won bite of them. Happy just to see a baby smiling at her in the street. She’d probably been his age or older when they’d first landed on the moon, this woman. And something told Rudy that she hadn’t spent the last five decades feeling sorry for herself, crying for her lost loves, missed opportunities. Wailing for her days of wine and roses and Sinatra. No, something told him that this lady had gotten the fuck on with things. 

No more making friends with old people, though. 

Uncle Mike texted back to say to come by his office for lunch tomorrow. Very terse. No greetings, no exclamation points, but that was just his style. It would be great to see him. There was no salvation but in others. Things were looking up. 

Now if only he could do something about his social life. He wasn’t gonna wind up alone in some gentlemen’s club on Christmas Day. He needed wingmen. Plans. The more he got out there the less nervous he would be. He should call up Brendan Heggers.

Brendan had been a few years older than him at school. They’d been on the varsity baseball team together. Always down for a good time, Brendan, a worse cutup than even Rudy, at least in high school. 

Rudy instantly regretted pressing Call. The phone rang for a long time. Calling an old friend out of the blue was desperate. Crazy. He could always hang up right this second, text Brendan to say sorry for the butt-dial—


Too late. 

“Oh, hey! Waddup? Happy holidays!” 

“Rudy, Rudy. It’s been a minute. Are you all right?” Had he heard otherwise? “Everything okay?” He sounded weirded out that Rudy’d called. 

“Of course. It’s great. I’m great,” said Rudy. “Just, you know, in the city, out and about. Workin’ hard, playin’ hard. Was wondering if you wanted to grab a drink one of these days. Just, you know, feeling festive. My treat.” Huh? He definitely wasn’t good for it. 

“A drink? Oh . . .” There were kids crying in the background, and a really loud TV. “I’m at my mother-in-law’s, in Jersey, actually, with the kids. We’re here for the week.”

“Kids? I knew you and Elise got engaged—are there kids already? Kids plural?”

“She’s pregnant with our third, yeah.”

“Jesus Christ. Holy shit, man! Congratulations.” What was he, a Mormon? This guy was twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old. What the fuck was he doing with three kids? “Hey, how’s your sister?”

“Oh, she’s really good, yeah.” 

“What’s she up to these days?”

“She actually joined the Peace Corps after college. St. John’s.”

“Of course she did. She was always going places,” Rudy said. “Not like the other girls, am I right.” 


“So where’s she at?”

“Ecuador, actually.”

“Holy shit, that’s far.”

“Uh-huh. Yeah. It’s crazy.” 

“So she’s not, like, around tonight?”

“Ha ha, no man.” 

“What, they don’t get Christmas break in the Peace Corps?” He sounded like a total sleaze, but well, he wanted to know. It was like pulling teeth, with these two-word answers. 

“Ha ha, no.” 

“Oh, too bad . . .”

You could practically hear Brendan’s attention wandering. See the walleyes through the phone. He’d always been a bit of a dullard honestly. Rudy didn’t know why he’d even called him. They hadn’t even been that close. 

“Anyway, gotta go. My youngest just pooped. You know how it is.” He said it like he’d just been summoned to the front lines. People were such goddamn martyrs about their kids. “Great to hear from you, though. We gotta catch up soon. Next time.” 

“Great! Great to hear from you too. I mean, glad I called. Good luck with the cleanup! Ha ha.” 

He had already hung up. 

So much for that. The Peace Corps? Jesus Christ. Rudy’d had it so, so bad for her in high school. Mallory Heggers. They were always ships passing, though, never made it happen. Was a time a crush like that was the very spice of life . . . just the thought of it sustained you, made the school day interesting. And even after graduation, the idea of that person out there in the world kept you on your toes a little, kept you young. It was like a little sitcom plotline but real, all that will-they-or-won’t-they business. Well . . . they won’t. They didn’t and they don’t. Or if they do, it don’t work out. 

Back on the train he felt another wave of dread and panic. Not knowing where to hang his hat. Not knowing what the hell life would look like a month, even a week, from now. Of course many had faced much worse uncertainty, which didn’t make it any better. It just made you feel like an asshole for not worshipping your privileges. 

Walking around was so exhausting. Maybe he had some kind of an autoimmune disorder he didn’t know about. 

He used to walk all over, all the time. He used to love it. Stepping out, teenage mojo, teenage money, the world giving him that energy back like it gave a shit that he was in it. Back then the whole city seemed like copy, like a book of life that he was reading. Now it just, it was what it was. A tiresome theater, not nearly worth the cost of his admission. 

Stalled on Grand Street he studied an ad on the subway platform, with a veiny woman pumping iron that said Life Begins Where Your Comfort Zone Ends . . . It had fucking better. 

His comfort zone in any case was naught—he couldn’t have stayed there if he’d wanted to. That property was now condemned. 



Cally Fiedorek is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and an Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She lives in New York City. This is an excerpt from her novel Atta Boy, published earlier this month by University of Iowa Press.

Photo source: Eckhard Hoehmann/Unsplash

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