about the author

Emily Koon is a writer from North Carolina. She has previously published work in Quarterly West, Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction, TINGE Magazine and Camera Obscura. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and can be found blogging nervously at thebookdress.com.

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Somewhere in the Orion Nebula; or, Todd Heckle

Emily Koon

I could tell from the way Todd Heckle backed into that parking space that I wasn’t going to have a good time. The whole maneuver was unnecessary. It was a Tuesday night, the restaurant wasn’t crowded. If zombies attacked and we had to get out of there fast, this wouldn’t have saved us.

Relax, I told myself. He may have other skills, dormant ones that surface only when lives are at stake. I was thinking about those people on the news whose cars break down in the wilderness, who survive for weeks on cactus juice and scorpions. I felt that in the case of Todd Heckle, this was unlikely.

He stacked packages of tiny breadsticks on the table and talked about his job at the advertising firm. It specialized in construction businesses, he felt the need to mention. He worked in an office over a Theater District dive bar, writing advertising copy all day. Newspaper ads, commercials. That billboard with the WASP family in front of a split-level ranch house, an American flag rippling in the background. Some organization responsible for rating this sort of thing gave him an award, which meant that he got to go to a reception and eat chicken cutlets with the guy who thought up that car insurance lizard. Todd Heckle was proud of this, and that he’d once ridden in the bucket of a front-end loader.

“You could knock me over with a feather with that last one,” I said, swilling my dirty martini.

Todd Heckle forked a ravioli from my plate and put it into his mouth whole. “Esmeralda is a beautiful name,” he said. “Isn’t that Spanish for emerald? Do you have to work a lot of overtime at your job?”

I told him about my latest project, a book about the actress who played Tootie on The Facts of Life. Looking at me like he couldn’t tell if I was serious, he said ghostwriting sounded exciting and asked to hear some trivia from my research. I tried to think of a nugget Todd Heckle could grab onto. He would probably not like to know that most of the original season’s cast didn’t make it to season two, or that the actress who played Blair went to fat camp but wasn’t fat.

“A lot of people don’t know Alan Thicke co-wrote the theme song,” I said.

“Who’s Alan Thicke?” he asked.

I thought through the logistics of a relationship with someone who didn’t know who Alan Thicke was. It didn’t look good. When dessert came, Todd Heckle looked at his baked Alaska and said the concentric swirls of meringue made him think about the cosmos and how large it is and how we’re anchored here in this remote, inconsequential arm of it, with no hope of ever participating in anything happening in the other parts. It was a waste of the infinite. I made a mental note to quote Tootie as saying something similar in the book.

By the time the check came, I was four dirty martinis to the wind and certain Todd Heckle was an onion I needed to peel. He was young and kissed like a simple-minded person, who believed that if you worked hard, if you played by the rules, there would be some kind of payoff. Something reliable, worth putting on a billboard. I wanted to beat all this out of him.

I assumed I would break his heart. I was Todd Heckled instead. A guy who sat in a dump thinking up billboards all day didn’t want to have a second date with me. It suggested things hadn’t panned out in the general sense.

A month or so later, my editor, a jerk named Derrick Sneed, said Tootie was eager for the book to be on shelves in time for the holidays. I placed a hermetic seal on the front door of my apartment, emerging six weeks later with all the symptoms of freelance psychosis. Light sensitivity. Disorientation. Orange skin from a diet of cheese balls. I took the T to Charles Street with the manuscript on my lap, like a casserole I was delivering to the family of a dead person. Derrick took the manuscript out of my hands gratefully and gave me my check. It was a lot of money. Tootie was doing well.

I stepped out of the brownstone office into Beacon Hill, needing to celebrate. Black and white cookies from DeLuca’s in little wax bags, a bottle of cava to drain in the Garden. Leaving the market, I passed by a part of the block that was morphing into a Whole Foods. Construction dust rose like Gomorrah after the angel smote it. There was Todd Heckle in the middle of everything, riding in the bucket of a front-end loader that jerked around the lot like a haywire robot. I wondered what happened to people who fell out of front-end loaders, whether this would be fatal or just humiliating. He had on a gray pin-striped suit and alligator wingtips at the end of his grasshopper legs hanging over the edge. Except for that, he could have been riding the bumper cars at the state fair.

The machine was headed toward the street, right for me, but I stayed where I was, feeling that it was their responsibility to adjust course. Todd Heckle yelled for the driver to stop, probably out of a sense of guilt. He waved at me in that way you wave at somebody you should have called the next day, or the next day, or the day after that. If I had waved back, it would have been a move of surrender, signaling acceptance of everything that had happened in my life until then. Including the kiss, when I saw that what Todd Heckle hoped for most in the world was himself in front of a split-level ranch with two rows of blonde family, somewhere in the Orion Nebula. But as it was, my hands were full.

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