The Loneliest of Nouns
I was standing at the corner of the only wooden building on
campus, my left hand in my pants pocket, my right holding a
cigarette, profile toward the sun. It felt good to be outside. I
watched people walking around all hunched up in their coats like
they were trying to crawl inside and hide. Like they wished they
could be a turtle or something.
I exhaled a great deal of smoke from my lungs and when it cleared
I thought I saw Robert. I yelled to him.
He looked up and gestured with his head. A little nod of
acknowledgement that didn't require taking one's hands out of one's
pockets. The girl I met last night talked like that. She said
"one's" a lot. Or was it the one before last night? One is never
"Hey Robert, you see me last night? I still got it or what?"
Robert nodded, smiled, and kept walking. I guess he was late for
I threw my cigarette on the ground and turned so the other side
of my face could get some sun. A little sun, even in winter, helps
me look healthier and more athletic than most. A cut above the
others, as they say. And when the sun's low like this, especially in
the morning, when it hits my face I'm particularly striking.
I usually stand at this corner because women can see me pretty
well and can gaze for a second or two without seeming too, well…I
don't know…in love or awestruck, I guess. The more they see me in
profile and kind of aloof, the more they seem to want me. I'm not
sure exactly why. Maybe it's like I'm this perfect advertisement for
a man. Something right out of a slick magazine, only I'm real, and
close, and it makes them feel like they're perfect, too. Like if
they get close enough to me they'll be in the ad and be slick and
perfect and real just like me.
Then this guy walked toward me like he knew me, and half expected
me to know him back. He stopped about six feet from me and pretended
to watch the other students walk by. I noticed his backpack. Covered
in patches with canoes and mountains on them. Backpack guy glanced
at me a few times before he finally spoke up.
"Say, uh, aren't you the guy from that party last night who ended
up with that girl?"
I just looked at him for a second. It seemed to be a good time to
pull out a cigarette, so I did. I didn't offer him one.
"You know," Backpack guy went on, "the English girl. With the
It was me, alright. She was English and she was with her
boyfriend, who was English, and they were sitting on a real thick
piece of lumber held up by two milk crates. When I first saw them a
really drunk guy was talking to them about Sherwood Forest. He
wanted to know all about it. They were humoring him. I watched them
for a while. She was cute. He was a little skinny thing all dressed
in black with intentionally nerdy glasses. They grew more and more
impatient and tried to get rid of the drunk by looking past him,
into the crowd of minglers. That's when she saw me. Before her eyes
came my way again I had moved slightly, into the light, so she could
get a better look. She looked. I moved in.
"Hey there." I stood next to the drunk, but was staring at the
English girl's face.
"Man!" The drunk put his hand on my shoulder. "These guys are
from Sherwood Forest! Bet you didn't know that. You ever heard of
it? Sherwood Forest?"
I moved his hand off my shoulder and said, "Beat it. All right?
You're bugging everybody. Especially me. Go play a drinking game
"Hey wait a minute. I was standing here and talking here first.
Before you were here."
"Leave. Now. Before I break that beer bottle over your head."
That got the English couple's attention. They were staring at me
now, waiting for something to happen. It didn't. As usual. The drunk
I was staring right at the girl when I asked her name. When she
answered me and then introduced her boyfriend I knew I had it easy.
It was clear he let her wear the pants.
"Man," Backpack guy said, interrupting my reminiscence. "I
thought for sure you guys were gonna get into it."
"That kind of guy get into it over a woman? I don't think so,
friend. In fact, I don't know what that kind of guy would get into a
fight for at all. Fighting's the last thing on his mind. You see his
Backpack guy nodded.
"Artist type. Real skinny. Almost makes a point of being out of
shape and weak. You see one of those with a woman and you go right
for her. Always. Right in front of him. You can't miss."
"Yeah, I saw you. If I hadn't I don't think I would have believed
it. I thought, 'Man, that guy's crazy.' And then it worked, and I
The guy just shook his head, laughing to himself, looking out
over the parade of students.
"And then what did you think?"
"What did you think after you said 'Shit' to yourself?"
"Well, I don't know. I guess nothing."
"You mean you just stood there with nothing going through your
head? Like a retard?"
"Well, I guess so."
"So I just blew your circuits, huh? DOES NOT COMPUTE! I bet
that's what your face looked like if your brain were a computer and
your face a readout tape."
"A readout tape?"
"Yeah. A readout tape."
He just looked at me with his big dumb eyes.
"Like a tape that comes out of a machine that you read. It lets
you know what's going on in the computer's head. What kind of
conclusions it's reached from the data you've input. Your brain
couldn't handle what it had seen so it said DOES NOT COMPUTE! It was
all over your face, I bet."
"Oh." The guy nodded with his mouth open, squinting, brow
"Look, your brain's like a computer."
He wasn't paying any attention anymore. I stopped talking and
smoked my cigarette and the guy eventually walked off and joined the
others walking in their little lines, antlike, to class.
"My body is a playground. A magnificent visual aid to the act of
love. It is Eros made flesh. A collecting agent for babes. I have a
spiritual intensity that shoots out of my eyes and startles the one
I have chosen. I am a giver. I need to give." At this point I looked
at the young woman in the brown sweatshirt. I saw her earlier behind
the counter preparing a coffee for somebody. She has a great pixie
haircut and dark eyes that kind of don't ever stop receiving my
"So how's the coffee in this place, Tinkerbell?"
"Pretty good." She wiped her hands on a white towel and asked me
what I wanted.
I looked her up and down pretty hard for a few seconds before I
said, "I guess I'll just have a coffee for now."
I let her see my profile.
"You heard me right, Tink, brew it up big."
It was time to walk away, so I did, toward the cash register. I
paid and sat down in the back so I could watch where the brown
sweatshirt sat so when I walked up to recite my poem I knew exactly
where to look when I delivered that last line—what I call the final
"Help me to give, Tinkerbell."
I let the paper fall to the ground and walked out the front door.
Certain compromises must be made in life. I do not work. That
would only make me look tired. I do not actually go to class. That
is a place where the people look at someone who is not me. Goals are
distracting. Ambition tragic.
What do I do? I listen to music and become inspired. I look at
nature and get in a mood. I rest. I psych myself up. I wonder why I
have been chosen to live at this time and in this place. I write my
poems. I ask myself Do I need anyone? I ask myself Does anyone need
me? At this point I usually end up pondering human kind, and then
sigh, and then get dressed and dutifully go out into the world and
put myself on display like a human rainbow that reminds women of
exactly what it is they are living for, and men exactly what it is
they are striving for. I am Hope—the loneliest of nouns.
Jeff McNeil has been previously published in Quick
Fiction, Stories from the Blue Moon Café IV, and Avatar
Review. He currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.