by Timothy Day
Zoe awoke to find a note protruding from the vent in her bedroom wall, offering life advice in exchange for a hot dog. She put her face up to the opening and peered into the darkness.
“I’ll pull the cover off!” She shouted. “We’ll get you out of there!”
The next note came quickly, poking her in the nose.
It’s a chosen life. Just the frank will do.
Zoe thought about the advice that someone with a 24/7 view of her bedroom might give her. Maybe to get out more, or to wash her sheets sometime.
The hot dog vendor recognized her, had seen her passing on her way to work. His name was Matt. He wore a yellow-plaid shirt beneath an apron coated with condiments, a similar story spread across his forearms. He built the hot dog with flair, tossing up the tongs several times successfully before fumbling them, plucking them off the ground with a blush. Zoe complimented his skills and he told her he’d be competing in the dog-cart Olympics next Saturday in the plaza. The prize was a lifetime supply of hot dog buns.
Back at her apartment, she squeezed the hot dog into the vent, the responding note arriving swiftly.
A bratwurst a day keeps the hunger away.
Zoe frowned, underwhelmed.
“This is pretty weak,” She whispered.
two dogs tomorrow.
At the nursing home the next morning Zoe made her usual breakfast deliveries, asking around about vent-guests. She had no luck until Audrey, a retired florist, who confessed that she had lived in a vent around Zoe’s age. Someone had passed a flower inside to her every day until they were taking up too much space and she had to ask them to stop. Soon after, she’d kicked off the vent cover and made her way out.
“It felt so tragic,” she said. “To have no room for flowers.”
Zoe returned to Matt’s stand after work to place the order. Matt flipped the sausages up behind his back, giving them just the right arc so that they landed neatly within the rolls. Zoe clapped and Matt took a bow, running after her moments later with unnecessary haste upon realizing his omission of napkins.
At home Zoe made the vent-delivery and grabbed the ensuing note with heightened expectations, given the bounty of her two-dog generosity.
Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Give a man a frank, you feed him for a better day.
“Do you have anything more applicable to me?” Zoe asked.
She’d hardly finished speaking before the appearance of a reply.
three dogs tomorrow.
Zoe got to the plaza the next day just in time for the dog-cart Olympics, standing on a stool against the back of the courtyard to get a better view. The flavor portion of the competition was a tie between Matt and Carlos, the old man who’d been making hot dogs in town for forty years. The next contest measured speed, Matt winning easily. This eliminated two of the four contestants, who squirted ketchup on their palms before shaking hands with Matt and Carlos.
The third and final event focused on presentation. Matt went first, getting off to a great start by tossing the sausage high into the air and spinning the tongs at a dizzying velocity as it fell, catching it just in time. But he overshot the last olive during a behind-the-back segment and it bounced off the cart, automatically losing him the round. The judge yielded the resulting tie to Carlos, due to seniority, and a massive tub of hot dog buns was wheeled onto the plaza. Carlos climbed the ladder beside it with great effort and dove in, the audience breaking out in cheers as he burst up from the middle, arms raised victoriously.
Zoe approached Matt’s cart as the crowd disbursed and he smiled and thanked her for coming.
“Are you okay?”
Matt took a deep breath.
“Olive,” he answered, stretching out the word so that it sounded like I’ll live.
“I know this might be a bad time,” Zoe said, “but I was hoping to order three hot dogs.”
“Of course,” Matt nodded eagerly. “That’ll get me back in the saddle and whatnot.”
Once each dog was completed with the accompanying theatrics, Matt abandoned the cart and they walked together back to her apartment, talking about things like T.V. shows, pasta recipes, and their shared conviction that there were sewer people living beneath the town. Matt’s presence beside her felt hyper-real, his form standing out like a bolded word, and Zoe’s sense of their surroundings dissolved out of focus. As they neared her building, she thought to ask him in for tea, but what she said was,
“Well, I’ve got a hungry mouth to feed.”
The next note had a mustard stain over the words:
Seize the dog.
“That’s it?” Zoe protested. But the vent-dweller didn’t answer. Curiosity overcoming her, Zoe got a knife from the kitchen and pried open the cover of the vent, retrieving a flashlight before crawling inside. The interior of the duct was larger than she’d imagined, with a small conveyer belt humming along above her head. She saw no immediate sign of the vent person, encountering him finally upon reaching the faint light of a neighboring vent, where another hot dog was being squeezed through the slits into his grasp. He rummaged through a small picnic-basket next to him and removed a scrap of paper, extending it through the vent in return. Zoe focused the flashlight on him and he turned to her in alarm, his headlamp beaming onto her forehead. He crawled towards her with the hot dog in hand and smiled in a pleading manner, the white of his teeth popping bright against his soot-covered skin.
“Unit 302!” he said, voice raspy and tired. “Don’t be angry. It’s just a job you know?”
“A job for who?” Zoe asked.
“Restaurant behind your building is trying to cut costs,” the man explained, carefully setting the hot dog on the conveyer belt. “Though God knows I deserve a raise.”
Above their heads the sausage fell out of its bun and the man cursed, hurrying after it.
Audrey laughed when Zoe told her the truth behind her vent-guest.
“Everything’s exploitable nowadays,” she said, her tone containing more of an amused disregard than contempt.
Zoe told her about the kinship she had felt with her guest before making the discovery; how she often felt removed, motionless and plastic, not too different from a vent person really.
“That’s the thing isn’t it?” Audrey said. “Sadness can develop from only a lack of happiness, but not the other way around.”
Zoe stopped in front of Matt’s stand on her way home and waited in line, spotting a few of her neighbors ahead of her, each of them ordering four hot dogs. She could tell them later. Once the line had cleared, she approached the stand and blurted,
“I don’t have a kid.”
“I have someone living in my vent.”
“Tomato tom-au-to I guess.”
They stood for a moment in silence and Zoe smiled, the world expanding in harmony with her lips.
Timothy Day loves old jazz, bad puns, and blanket-forts, preferably at the same time. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Menacing Hedge, Cease Cows, Jersey Devil Press, WhiskeyPaper, and others. You can visit him online at frogsmirkles.wordpress.com.