Fiction: His Perfect Self

By Christopher Johnson

He awoke that morning and walked out the front door of the apartment house and around to the parking lot in the back and approached his ’61 gray Volkswagen Beetle with the stick shift and the rusted metal flaked round the wheelhouses. And the car—his car—the car that he loved despite the rust and the lack of a heater and the rear bumper that hung on by a thread—the car had been egged! It hadbeen egged while he’d dutifully been grading themes the evening before. The smashed eggs spread across the car like a plague, and both the yolks and the whites had hardened into layers of concrete. The yolks and whites drooled down the windows and onto the gray metal of the doors and hood and trunk. The odor of the eggs--nauseating. 
Anger surged in him--choked him. He was blinded with shame, embarrassment, fury. It must have been some of the kids he taught. It had to be them! Who else would do such a thing. So this was what they thought of him. This was how they thanked him. He tried hard to teach them. Hereally did!
He traipsed back into the drab apartment house in Rogers Park on the North Side of Chicago and clumpedupstairs and yanked open the door to his apartment and filled a plastic bucket with water as hot as he could coax from the tap and poured in some Mr. Clean. He started to scrub the hardened eggs away. The yolks and whites fought back. He trudged back up to his tiny little ugly one-bedroom apartment and grabbed a scraper from his toolbox. He grasped the scraper like a scalpel. He clumped back down the stairs and started chiseling away the hardened eggs. It was like scraping away old paint. 
In one section, the egg was particularly thick. Hesoftened these spots with hot water and Mr. Clean and inserted the edge of the scraper under the hardened egg. The egg resisted. He grew angrier. He was going to be late for class at St. Jude’s School in Lakeview, just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. Slowly, Mr. Clean worked his cleaning magic. The hardened yolk and egg white started to release their hold on his car. 
He looked down at the bucket of water, and flecks of yellow and white floated in the water. He was drenched with sweat. He rushed up to his little apartment and changed his clothes and emptied the bucket into the kitchen sink and let the disposal swallow the sickening chunks of egg. 
It was Friday—the worst day to teach seventh graders. He was in his second year of teaching at St. Jude’s. The month was May, and this had been the longest year of hislife. He taught five classes of language arts to sixth and seventh graders. The sixth graders were fine, but the seventh graders—well, they were rowdy. Extremely rowdy. Fridays were the worst. He dreaded Fridays. There had been Fridays when the seventh graders had been in a state of nuclear fission. Throwing spitballs and erasers around the classroom. That had been a month ago. The noise in the classroom had approached that of a jet engine. The uproar had spilled out of the classroom and into the hallway. Everybody knew Mr. Bullock couldn’t control the seventh graders.
Principal Morris had called him down to the office. Hesat down across the institutional desk from her. She looked at him with the sternness of an Army sergeant. “Mr. Bullock, you have got to do a better job of controlling your classes. As soon as the bell rings, put them to work! Don’t waste time! Let them know that you are the boss--that youare in charge!” She stared at him. “Take charge!” she went on. “Your lesson plans are very good. Follow them! Implement them right away! And don’t smile, for God’s sake! You are not their friend! I repeat—never smile!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Harvey said. He felt as if he had just been reprimanded by his mother. “I hear you,” he said. “I’ll do better. You’ll see. I’ll make improvements.” 
An ugly silence hovered between teacher and principal. He could tell—he just knew that Mrs. Morrisregretted hiring him. She looked away from him. She could no longer look him in the eyes. She continued to speak, but her voice had softened. 
“Harvey,” she said. It was the first time she had ever referred to him by his first name. “Harvey,” she repeated. “I like you. I think you have real potential as a teacher.” She paused. “But you need to be stronger. You have to show the children that you are in command. You need to project more confidence.” She took a deep breath. “I regret to say this. But if things don’t improve in your classroom, if you don’t gain more control of your classes, well . . . I’ll have no choice but to put you on probation.” He felt ashamed, embarrassed, powerless. Probation—the first step toward being fired. 
Her words had stung him. And now, this morning, his car had been egged. Amazingly, though, he made it through the rest of the Friday without spitballs or erasers thrown. The day, the week, mercifully came to an end. He fledhome to his infinitesimal one-bedroom apartment. Hecrashed his briefcase, crammed full of papers to grade over the weekend, onto the rickety kitchen table and yanked open the refrigerator door and pulled out a Pabst Blue Ribbon and slammed the top of the can against his lips and sucked down the contents. 
The PBR went right to his head. He plopped downinto his easy chair with the loose springs and lumpy back and sat like a mummy, trying his hardest not to think. Heknew what his mother would have said if she’d been there. She would have said, “Harvey Bullock, you stop feeling sorry for yourself this minute! Sit up straight in your chair and improve your teaching. Just do it!” 
What was he going to do this weekend? Not a thing. Write lesson plans and grade papers. Drink. Decompress from the week’s teaching. Well, he’d have to figure out something to do. He couldn’t just sit around all weekend and vegetate. He could hear his mother’s voice. “Harvey Bullock, you get off your duff and start making something out of your life! Time’s a-wasting! There’s a whole life out there for you to grab hold of! And good God in heaven—stop feeling sorry for yourself! Harvey Bullock, life is passing you by!” He knew she was right.
He made a decision, with his mother’s advice in hisear. To get off his duff and do something anything for God’s sake before he vegetated his life away. He showeredand patted on some Old Spice and brushed his jet-black hair, which was the only thing he liked about his face or hishead, and put on a black shirt and black jeans.
He climbed into his VW. He zoomed down Lake Shore Drive and drove around and around looking for a place to park near Rush Street. After half an hour, he found a place. He disembarked and walked west on Division Street to Clan Callaghan. 
He walked into the bar, which was packed with sweaty bodies craving naked erotic contact with one another.Harvey had no idea what he was going to do at Clan Callahan. Drink, obviously. He immediately felt surrounded by chaos, by an unearthly uproar that was like the chanting of a thousand inebriated monks—the uproar of young men, young women, beautiful men, beautiful women.
He looked at one table with four people at it, a bit of a distance from him. At the table sat two men and two women—all four of them ravishing, vibrant, glowing with the elixir of life. Harvey immediately felt jealous of them. He looked more closely at one of the men. The man was young, in his early twenties, like Harvey. He had black hair, blue eyes, a somewhat elongated nose, a slightly protruding Adam’s apple, and stick-thin lips. Harveylooked. He stared. 
He was astonished to realize that he was staring at himself. The young man smiled and turned and looked at Harvey. He looked at Harvey without seeing him. The young man was an exact replica of Harvey. He wasHarvey! In every way—eyes, nose, lips, ears--the gestalt of his face. But there was a difference. The young man’s hair was neatly and professionally coiffed, unlike Harvey’stangled bird’s nest. The young man wore a perfectly fittedshirt that was open at the collar and tailored slacks and Johnston & Murphy shoes. A Rolex watch graced his left wrist. A warm, sunny tan embraced his skin. He talked to the two women and the other man at the table with infiniteconfidence, suavity, grace. 
One of the women pierced the young man with a lookof fascination, of desire. Harvey stared, amazed. The young man was Harvey, but he was the polar opposite of him. Harvey immediately felt the sharp stab of jealousy. Of the him that was not him. Of the young man who was everything that Harvey had always wanted to be. The young man was Harvey. But he was not him. It was as if some part of Harvey’s spirit had floated out of him and materialized into this doppelganger, this better self--this Perfect Self. It—the situation—was confusing. A conundrum. Startling. Shocking.
The handsome young man arose from his stool. Thegorgeous woman to his right arose with him. She wore designer blue jeans and a magnificent pink-and-white striped blouse that was unbuttoned at the top to reveal aheavenly shaped neck. The man circled around the table and kissed the other woman on the cheek and shook hands firmly with his friend at the opposite end of the table. As the handsome young man departed with the woman, he smiled, and his straight white teeth gleamed like a thousand suns. His teeth—his entire face and well-dressed body—shone with an overwhelming glow—a glow that nearly blinded Harvey.
Harvey watched as the handsome young man and the woman walked hand in hand out of Clan Callahan and onto Division Street. Harvey paid for his beer and left to follow the couple. He couldn’t help himself. He had to know where the handsome young man—the other and better him—was going. Harvey followed them out onto the sidewalk on Division Street. The young man hailed a cab. It pulled over to the curb. He guided the young woman into the back seat of the cab and disappeared after her. 
On an impulse, Harvey flagged down a cab for himself. It pulled up to the curb. He climbed in and, for the first time in his life, pointed toward his alter ego’s cab and said to the cabbie, “Follow that cab!” They followed the other’s cab north to Lincoln Park, with its mansions and high-priced apartment buildings. Harvey’s other and better self exited the cab with his lady friend. With utmost elegance, they walked hand in hand into one of theapartment buildings that graced the streets of Lincoln Park. 
Harvey sat in the cab and watched as his more perfectself and the woman entered the apartment house. Harveycould see through the beveled glass of the front door and into the lobby, which was graced with an enormous fireplace and an elegant chandelier and thickly padded leather furniture. 
He returned to his humble abode in Rogers Park. By this time, it was midnight, and he had to face the long weekend, and he couldn’t shake from his mind the admonitions from Mrs. Morris. But in addition to all that, he now had a doppelganger—a handsome, suave, obviously well-off double. Now Harvey had to deal with this new and improved version of himself. He could not get the handsome young man—the Self-That-Was-Not-Himself--out of his mind. In bed that night, he tossed and turned. Something ugly started to emerge in Harvey, like a lizard that had been buried in his belly. Jealousy. Of this other self. Harvey felt sick to his stomach. He could not stop thinking about the handsome young man, about the one who had gotten everything right that Harvey had always gotten wrong. 
Monday. Harvey awoke. He went to school. He did histeaching—did the best teaching he could do. He started the classes right away, and even the seventh graders behaved like normal little children rather than crazy angry beasts. He ate dinner, and then he decided to return to Clan Callahan and see whether the new and improved version of himself was there. 
He was. The handsome young man sat by himself this time at the bar. Harvey sat at a table about ten feet from the handsome young man. The doppelganger was again dressed extremely well, with coal-colored tailored slacks and a pink shirt that was open at the collar. The Rolex watch caressedhis wrist like a lover. When he spoke, the bartender and others at the bar laughed, and he emitted oceans of confidence and charm and easily drew the others into the net of his personality. Harvey watched, fascinated, and thought about the seventh graders and Mrs. Morris and hiscrummy little apartment and his pathetic almost-broken-down Volkswagen Beetle. As Harvey watched the young man, he felt something close to rage.
The doppelganger paid the bartender and walked out of the bar. Harvey paid for the beer he had ordered and followed. The handsome young walked west on Division and then turned north on Dearborn Street. A homeless man held up a hand to the handsome young man, and the othersmiled warmly at the man and gave him money. Thehomeless man thanked him profusely and grinned at him with crooked teeth. 
As people passed the handsome young man on the street, he greeted them and wished them good evening. Hepassed two teenage girls. He nodded to them and smiled, and they stopped and chatted with him, and they exuded immediate love for him, and he smiled with his gleaming white teeth. Harvey felt the stab of jealousy again, of hisbetter self, of his better him. They—everyone—instantlyloved the handsome young man. 

As Harvey lay in bed that night, he felt the chocolate walls of his bedroom closing in on him, and he listened to the discordant sounds of the night as they drifted in through the open bedroom window. An ugly beast growled inside him. He hated—loathed—despised—this better version of himself—this blazingly handsome, outrageously popular other self. Everybody just loved the handsome young manwith his expensive Rolex watch. And meanwhile, here Harvey was, exactly like the handsome young man in every respect, but so unlike him, what with the endless torments of seventh graders throwing spitballs and erasers and Mrs. Morris threatening him with being fired. 
Harvey walked like a zombie through the week until it was Friday. He somehow knew that something was going to happen at the end of this day that brought the week to a close. Amazingly, the seventh graders were relatively well behaved throughout the week. The children did not throw erasers or spitballs. Not one single spitball. He intended to go to out that night—to go to Clan Callahan—to follow his mission, for it had become his mission to follow and observe his double self, his better self. 
He dressed in the appropriate Rush Street singles scene costume—black jeans, tailored gray shirt, chain bracelet, black boots. Before he left his apartment, heopened a kitchen drawer and took out his Swiss Army knife with its can opener and tiny scissors and nail file and the razor-sharp blade, about three inches long. Harvey did notknow why he took out his Swiss Army knife. Something guided him. Something led him. He was in the hands of a force outside himself. He grasped the Swiss Army knife. He slipped it into the right front pocket of his black jeans. 
He climbed into his VW Beetle and plummeted down Lake Shore Drive to Rush Street and circled the streets and circled the streets until he found a place to park. He sauntered as coolly as he could into Clan Callahan. It was packed. It was more than packed. It was mobbed. It was Friday night crazy with dozens of libidinous souls standing and sitting and caressing goblets of beer. He looked around and could not see Mr. Perfect-Version-of-Himself. Then Harvey saw him. The handsome young man was seated at the bar. 
A small group of men and women surrounded him. He was telling stories, and the others laughed explosively, compulsively, insanely. Harvey felt a deadening, athickening of the spirit. 
The handsome young man told a joke, and the bartender and the young men and women to the left and right of him exploded with laughter. They laughed and chortled and out-and-out guffawed. Harvey stood in the middle of Clan Callahan, about ten feet away from his other self. Jealousy clawed its way deep inside Harvey. He choked with fury. 
Around ten o’clock, the other paid for his drinks. He took his leave of the beautiful men and women who surrounded him. He started to walk out of Clan Callahan.He walked right past Harvey and brushed against hisshoulder. The handsome young man turned and said, “Excuse me” in a polite but distant tone. The handsome young man looked straight into Harvey’s eyes. But he did not see or recognize Harvey.
He wended his way toward the front entrance to Clan Callahan. Harvey stood and watched him. He was unsure whether to follow him. He stood, debating. Inside hispocket, he could feel the Swiss Army knife, moving--urging Harvey to follow the other. Harvey walked throughthe door and out onto the sidewalk of Division Street. Mr. Perfect walked west to Dearborn Street and turned right and headed north. Harvey followed him. The night air was heavy with dank humidity. Mr. Perfect walked brisklynorth, apparently toward his apartment in Lincoln Park. Why didn’t he take a cab? Harvey had no idea. Perhaps Mr. Perfect simply wanted to enjoy the evening, which bloomed on the verge of summer. Harvey picked up the pace to keep up with him, but it was as if the sidewalk were pulling at and interfering with his feet and legs. Hestruggled to keep up with Mr. Perfect. 
Harvey continued following the man. Inside his front pants pocket, the Swiss Army knife twitched. The knife had taken on a life of its own. They neared the center of a block, where the light cast by the streetlights faded nearly to black. There was not another soul on the block. There were no cars. Everything was still. It was the very dead of night. The very dead.
Mr. Perfect walked quickly, and Harvey nearly had to run to keep up with him. Harvey had no idea what he was going to do when he caught up with Mr. Perfect. No idea. The anger, the hostility, the bitterness, the hatred—they were consuming him. But it wasn’t in Harvey’s mind to harm the other. Not at all. Then he felt the Swiss Army knife. It convulsed in his right front pocket. The knife jerked spasmodically. It was hot, seething. The knife was ready for action. It was looking to do something. It was jumping in Harvey’s pocket. 
Harvey continued, almost running after Mr. Perfect. Now he was immediately behind Mr. Perfect. Miraculously, the other did not hear him, even though Harvey’s staccato breaths sounded loud to himself. The two men walked briskly forward, Harvey immediately behind Mr. Perfect. Without realizing it, without knowing what was happening, Harvey’s right hand thrust deep into his right front pocket. He felt the Swiss army knife. It twitched madly, crazily. 
With trembling fingers, Harvey grasped the knife and pulled it out of his pocket. By now, an outside force had taken over Harvey, had grabbed hold of him, was holding him in its clutches, was guiding his actions. His hatred and jealousy of the other swept through him like a tsunami. He approached the other stealthily. Still the other did not see him. Some force outside himself guided Harvey, guided his arms and his hands. He was inches behind the other. He reached up with his left arm and reached around the other’s neck and grasped it. Tight.
The other screamed. He tried to turn around. He struggled. Quickly, instantaneously, Harvey lifted his right arm—the one grasping the Swiss army knife. He opened the blade of the Swiss Army knife and raised it against the neck of the other. Harvey’s rage guided his right hand. He pressed the blade of the Swiss Army knife against the neck of the struggling other. He slowly and elegantly drew the blade across the other’s neck and cut as deeply as he could. He felt the blood rush, hot and sticky, onto his fingers. 
The other struggled ferociously. Harvey tightened his hold on the other’s neck. But . . . but. . . . suddenly. . . suddenly . . . Harvey felt himself grasping . . . nothing . . . . The other was slowly disappearing . . . was fading into oblivion . . . into thin air . . . into an illusion . . . into emptiness . . . into an invisible cloud. Suddenly, Harvey clutched absolutely nothing. The other was gone . . . disappeared . . . dissipated. As if he’d never been there. Stupefied, Harvey lowered his arms. He stared at his hands. There was no blood on them. Harvey stared at the sidewalk, where blood had been pouring from the other’s neck. There was no sign of any blood. 
Harvey was shocked. Insensible. He looked down at his clothes. There was absolutely no sign of any blood. Helooked around. The trees were still and stared at him as though they were human, as though they blamed him for something that he had done long ago. Five minutes ago, hewas killing a man who had replicated him in the universe, who had mocked his failures through his very existence. Now . . . now the other was gone. 
Still he held the Swiss Army knife. There was no blood on the blade. No trace of blood at all. With shaking hand, Harvey folded the knife and put it into his right front pocket. Was he dreaming? He pinched himself until he hurt. He felt the pain. His heart was going to burst from his chest like a crazy ferret. 
A cab hurtled by. Harvey waved it down and climbed unsteadily into the back seat and gave the cabbie hisaddress. The cabbie said, “Hey, buddy, are you OK?”
He nodded. He was too exhausted to speak. “I’m OK,” he finally managed to murmur. He gave the cabbie the address of his apartment in Rogers Park. The ride took fifteen, twenty minutes. Harvey did not move. He was in shock. They arrived. He paid the cabbie. He staggered up the stairs and suddenly realized that he had left his car in some parking spot on a side street near Rush Street. Oh, well, he could pick it up the next day. If it was there. Unless this all turned out to be a dream. 
He ripped off his clothes and collapsed into bed. Heshuddered as if he had palsy. He looked once again at hishands. They were shaking uncontrollably. What had happened? Had he gone insane? Was he completely and totally alienated from reality? He finally fell asleep. Hisnight was stabbed with black dreams.
He woke up. He had to teach that day, but could he? He didn’t know. He lay in bed. He felt marginally calmer. He thought of something—the evening before—maybe hehad dreamed it all. Yes! It had been one incredibly frightening and vivid nightmare. That was it! The whole thing—the twitching of his Swiss Army knife—following the other—drinking at Clan Callaghan —stabbing hisdoppelganger—seeing his double disappear before his very eyes--it had been one long horrible incredibly vivid nightmare. 
Yes—that had to be it! That had to be it! Harvey arose from his sweaty bed, put coffee on, went into the bathroom,stumbled into the shower, dried himself, took out his razor and shaving cream—started to shave. He looked at himself in the mirror. He looked normal enough. He peered more closely. The thought occurred to him suddenly. What if hewere insane? What if he were totally completely utterly and hopelessly out of his mind? What if he had made up everything, from getting his car egged to his awkward talk with Mrs. Morris to the encounter with his other self—hisdoppelganger. What if it had all been a dangerous delusion? What if he were slowly sinking into insanity? He pinched himself. It hurt.
Another frenzied thought—another possibility--occurred to him. What if he had slipped for a few moments, a few hours, into an alternative universe. That must have been it! He had somehow slipped into a different world, where an alternative version of himself had nearly committed a murder of someone who looked exactly like him. That must have been it! Yes! He had slid like a hapless ghost into an alternative world! He wasn’t going insane after all! Instead, he was an adventurer, an explorer! He felt better—better about himself. He wasn’t going crazy! Who knew how many people had been invited by the gods to enter one of the many other universes that had to exist. No one knew. But he had been one of the Special Ones! He felt exhilarated. He was an explorer of alternative worlds! Hewasn’t some demented would-be murderer! 
He dressed for work, feeling better about himself, better about being a teacher, than he had felt in a long time. He called a cab to go to St. Jude’s. He would have to pick up his car later. It was an inconvenience, but that was OK. Everything was OK. He was special. He had stepped into an alternative universe and then returned to normal existence. How many other people had done that. Precious few!
He went to school. He had a wonderful day teaching. He did everything just right that day. He motivated the kids. They didn’t throw spitballs or erasers at one another. Hewas on top of it all. He taught the principles of grammar like you wouldn’t believe! He had never been on top of hisgame like this before! The kids sat in rapt attention. They were wonderful, and he was great! He did everything that Mrs. Morris had asked him to do to become a better teacher! 
At the end of the day, he felt refreshed . . . exhilarated. He had never felt like this before! Whatever the reason for the events the day before, he knew that he wasn’t insane, wasn’t going out of his mind! He knew that a simple twist of fate had saved him—had saved him from committing the worst sin that one can commit against another human being.
He went home, had dinner. He knew he had to pick up his VW Beetle with the rusty fenders, parked on a side street near Rush Street. He called a cab. The cab came. Calmly, gently, tenderly, he entered the cab and told the cabbie where to drop him off, just east of Rush Street. Heclimbed out of the cab, paid the cabbie. He had a thought. Why not have a beer at Clan Callaghan before he went home? He fed the starving parking meter. He walked west to Rush Street and then turned right and walked north to Division Street to the familiar façade of Clan Callaghan. Heentered. He swaggered to the bar and ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon. 
He looked around. He noticed a table about ten feet away from him. Four perfectly dressed people sat at the table—two men and two women. He looked more closely. There was something familiar about one of the men. Helooked even more closely. A chill charged down his spine and froze him—froze every muscle in his body. 
There he was—tanned, pink shirt open at the collar, beautifully coiffed hair. Harvey’s exact replica—eyes, nose, lips, ears, shape of his face. Snaking around his left wrist was the Rolex watch, shining like a celestial being that gleamed under the seductive lights of Clan Callaghan. The other talked calmly and confidently to the others at the table. He paused and looked around. His gaze fell upon Harvey. The other looked at Harvey, regarded him, studied him. The other kept looking at Harvey, but he didn’t see Harvey. The other looked through Harvey. The other turned to his friends, raised his tanned hand, and elegantly sipped his martini. Harvey’s Swiss Army knife was still in his right pocket. It started to twitch. It twitched uncontrollably.

Christopher Johnson is a writer based in the Chicago area. He’s done a lot of different stuff in his life. He has been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. He’s published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published his first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. His second book, which he co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.