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SLEEPY TIGER by Matthew Bookin

Paul started doing deliveries. He was 19 days sober. The passenger side of his car still looked like a carefully crushed soda can. The travel bottle of Listerine was still in his glove box.

Emir’s food truck business had expanded into an actual restaurant. Paul was hired on as their 31-year-old delivery boy. He picked up racks of steamed dumplings from the restaurant and loaded them into the back of his nearly defeated red car. It was early summer and sometimes, mostly on the weekends, he could be out making deliveries until dawn. He felt quiet and newly alive. He was experiencing traffic lights in an honest, gentle way. People smiled at him and tipped with paper money. A woman handed him an apple with a lipstick-lined bite taken from its side. Fire hydrants bled happily into the streets. Strangers seemed mysterious, hungry, and kind. Light rain washed the city dust from his windshield when he couldn’t afford a new jug of electric blue washer fluid. 

The sobriety app he’d downloaded offered up an inspirational quote every day. “Be in love with your life. Every minute,” Jack Kerouac told Paul from some place in the past. Paul knew that Jack Kerouac drank himself to death while living in his mother’s guest room. Paul flipped his phone facedown in the passenger seat of his car and imagined a long stem rose floating dumbly in a full bottle of non-alcoholic beer.

When he was wasted, every day was a casino. Now that he was sober, every day was a boardwalk at dawn.

Paul felt good in a fragile way, like an old light bulb that would pop and burn out at any moment. He could barely make eye contact with anyone. He carried mammoth stacks of dumpling trays up marathon flights of apartment complex stairs. He fed lonely people and he fed families. Some doors opened and he’d find himself facing a mirror. He never tried the food.  

The feeling he had when he stopped moving was deep and kaleidoscopic. It swirled and absorbed him. It dryly intoxicated. His psychedelic sadness posed no mysteries. It was his belt, looped tightly to the doorknob of the closet. It was circles inside of boxes. Cages and codes. Heart attacks and cracked pitchers of spiked lemonade. Bad vibes he paid for. No giving, just getting. The fifth can of a six-pack. A vast field of patiently unlit green candles arranged like guillotined sunflowers. The “blah blah blah” of his broken heart.

The restaurant closed quickly and sadly. Emir was widely accused of gentrifying the neighborhood, so he shuttered the place and vanished from the city. For a few weeks, every evening after the delivery job died, Paul would buy several cartons of dumplings from a Chinese takeout place next to his Stepmom’s apartment, where he’d been staying. He’d drive around all night long with the unfamiliar dumplings in his backseat, not really going anywhere. His car would smell like scallions forevermore and the wind was getting colder. When the mornings rolled around he’d donate the untouched food to a shelter downtown.

At his very best, he felt like the only man working behind the scenes at a fireworks display. 

Six months later, at the conclusion of a particularly cruel day, Paul bought a tall can of Budweiser beer from a gas station lacking a front door. That was pretty much the end of him.

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