A novel by Ryan Meehan
Start date: 07-22-03
End date: ?
I lay the tip of the pen on this paper with the fear that one day IÕll have no ink to spill. It will have been drained out on that crisp, birdsong day when my eyes are squinting slightly and the corners of my mouth turn up a degree or two. My bendy knees supply that proverbial Ņhop in the stepÓ and my feet donÕt ache. The skin on my face is moist and clean-shaven.
The music courses through my ears like a symphony, a clear tune that complements these favorable conditions. And there is no searing cold-sore or gaping mouth hole inside my lips or on my tongue to detract from the perfection of the current state. I feel whole, I feel inspired. I am just walking with nowhere important to go. Maybe the mailbox. Maybe to grab the paper.
Anyways, the way I feel on this day that my ink will run dry is that I could walk around the world forever Ń a singular grounded satellite. And I would, but I am stopped by a quiet, electric golf cart, needling its way through the other sidewalk pedestrians. But not me. No needlework here, just a plain thump as it runs me over. And then, as soon as that feeling that had me approaching a state of happiness Ń the bouncy knees, the upturned lips, the blemish free mouth flesh and the pretty music to tie it all together Ń came, it was gone. Replaced with shock. A mouth-gaper, if you ever saw one.
There I am, sprawling and mangled on the white, white-hot cement, breathless, broken-toothed, leg snapped and fingers like curly fries. And as it goes with shock, thereÕs silence, and I canÕt seem to blink and women are peeking around walls from safe distances with their hands hiding their eyes. I guess IÕm not playing football tonight, maybe not again for a few months. Shit, maybe never again. Maybe IÕve been changed for good, maybe I can go down to the DMV and pick up a handicapped sticker. Great parking. Fuck, a golf cart. A fucking golf cart. But thatÕs all just shit I can worry about later, after the MRIs, the bone settings, the skin graftings. After a good does of Perkiset sends me into a dreamless sleep. For now, IÕm just laying here. ItÕs been three minutes and IÕve lost a lot of ink.
It is this that I fear.
Well thanks for coming along for the ride through the paranoid portion of my psyche. I think itÕs the part of my brain thatÕs positioned right next to the part that allows me to name off all the capitals when IÕm drunk. Both are pretty useless in the grander sense, they kind of just take up space and resources. Memories donÕt come cheap, you know. They suck blood like gasoline. It keeps Ōem fresh. It ensures I never mistake Cheyenne as the capital of Montana. ItÕs the capital of Wyoming.
What a waste.
But I guess I feel obligated to tell you whatÕs going on north of my shoulder blades. So I threw in the golf cart bit. Yea, youÕve probably realized by now that has never really happened. But the reason why I wrote about it is because I really feel like it might.
Plus, IÕm writing this book and I need some inspiration. I came back from work the other night and sat down at my computer with this idea.
It was last summer. I was saturated in a book I picked up for $1 at a flea market where my girlfriend and I were selling sandals, trying to gauge the marketability cheap plastic footwear in northwest central Florida. Very, very central Florida. The kind of Florida where Carl Hiassen picks his characters from. Anyway, the book was by Desmond Morris. It was called the Naked Ape, pretty unassuming was its worn, paperback cover. It sported one of those sleek looking, Davinci-esque naked men, with shadows perfectly cast right wear they need to be. Needless to say, the shadows, I guess are just slightly classier than a leaf, but thatÕs not the point. The point is, the book looked like nothing. And that is sort of why I bought it. I had eight hours to sit on a metal folding chair in the 87-degree heat. Without a book, Lisa and I would be relegated to performing the normal flea market boredom routine: count for limps, mullets and Nascar t-shirts. YouÕd be surprised how typecast the crowd usually is.
But back to the book. So I buy the thing on whim, thinking it would be cool to read a book that I had never heard of before, and then be totally moved by it or something.
And I guess that is what happened. ItÕs hard not to be moved by a text that theorizes that porn is nothing more than a product of natural selection. The male, having become tired sexually in his pair-bond relationship, seeks gratification elsewhere. If he resorts to an extramarital affair, and his wife finds out about it, the bound is undoubtedly compromised. So where does he turn? To the pages of Playboy or Hustler, Mons Venus or The HunÕs Yellow Pages on the web. Magazines, strip joints and boobs on the net do not, in most relationships, break the marital contract. Therefore, if the sexual needs are met, the pair bond is more likely to last, and hence, more likely to reproduce.
I had never read something so enlightening concerning the appropriateness of smut in my whole life.
This type of reading provided me with bullets that I loaded into my intellect and could fire off anytime some right-wing hot shot decided to start ranting about family values, or some feminist group would sue a menÕs magazine for objectifying women.
Desmond was right, we naked apes are only trying to survive.
My best friend Owen completely proved my point Ń and DesmondÕs from 35 years ago Ń one half-drunken night a few years back. He had just finished his first semester in college, one, 6-week minimester, living in shit-hole dorms without air-conditioning and without carpeting. But the sticky uncomfortableness of the place was made up for by a small hole in the cement-block wall. From it protrudes a long green wire that weaves its way through whatever pre-existing tangle you have, up into the back of your computer.
Yes, Owen experienced what was back then to us growing men something very special: the Ethernet connection.
For those too old to understand the significance, itÕs not rocket science. The Internet is made available on a computer through some sort of phone line. Upon its inception, modems carried a speed of 14.4 KB a sec. This speed at which information travels gradually increased over the years, and universities were usually the first ones to embrace the change. Owen ŅembracedÓ the change all right. Three weeks into his stay there he IMÕd me.
ScooterDMan: hey bud
RussianRocket82: dude, I am lovin this shit
RussianRocket82: the internet is crazy fast
ScooterDMan: yea man, pretty fast here too
RussianRocket82: its so addiciting, ive had to started choking it left handed so I could use my right for the mouse
RussianRocket82: I aint kiddin bro, im southpaw all the way now
Southpaw all the way, fucking hilarious. But whatÕs really funny is how I didnÕt divulge to him that I had been southpawing it for over a year since I started college and got my high speed fix.
So, yea, this book got me thinking about lots of things. I started thinking a lot about natural selection and social Darwinism. I read stuff by CharlieÕs bulldog T.H. Huxley. Read, some Herbert Spencer as well. So to me, that summer, everything could be traced back to survival of the fittest. I saw everything through the eyes of audacious 18th century biologists. I stopped just short of buying a monocle. So to me, even masturbation was evolution. And the high-speed Internet, I wagered in my argument, contributed to the survival of man as a species because without it, more me would be walking around, sexually frustrated, more aggressive, more likely to rape women and other men, and more likely to kill each other. It makes sense, right? Well, maybe not, but it was fun to play with it a bit.
Since then, however, as you might have gathered from the first few pages of this rant, my attention has shifted to heavier things.
I started thinking Ń still falling in line with the whole Internet influence motif Ń that information was going to kill us eventually. And because, it would seem, that we are drawn to it inherently, itÕs almost like skidding on a snowy road; you canÕt stop. Today knowledge and wisdom, and the quality both have to offer, seem to have been sacrificed for something pared down. Nowadays we have lots and lots and lots of information; shark attacks and fatal car accidents and single mothers and consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. Yet we crave it so much, maybe not because we need it, but we are all opportunists at heart, and itÕs there, so, by golly, letÕs take it.
We ingest enough info on a daily basis sometime I worry that we are sucking the blood from important parts of our brain. Like, sometimes I worry while IÕm reading some story about the electoral process IÕm taking blood away from the portion of my brain that gives me impeccable hand-eye coordination so I can remember that New Hampshire has 4 electoral votes to NevadaÕs 5 to FloridaÕs 27.
But anyway, all this thinking about blood-sucking information got me thinking about idea. It was a machine that knew everything; it stored all the information the world had to offer. All of it. It was set up like a personal computer, and cost about as much so it was accessible to most people who pulled in an average income. YouÕd sit down in front of it, ask it a question and your answer Ń in the form of a video that could be manipulated, panned, zoomed and edited in infinite ways Ń would pop up. Like you could go back and watch man take his first steps. You could witness, and solve for yourself, the Kennedy assassination, positioning yourself in hundreds of different vantage points. If I could use the thing, I would go back and see the first words William Shakespeare ever put to a piece of paper. And then IÕd fast forward through his life and witness the last ones as well.?????
And the machine would be this big symbol for God. It would replace God and become God at the same time. Yea, thatÕs the ticket. ItÕll be like creating a new religion. And people will read this book and IÕll be hailed as the next fucking Elron Hubbard.
And then I thought to myself:
ŅIÕm 21 years old, I have a chance to write a bookÉ something IÕve always wanted to do and I have to go act like a condescending, collegiate prick and write about God.Ó
So I thought better of it. Yup, hopped off the God train and booked a round-trip ticket from here to Death. I modified my machine a bit, as youÕll see here momentarily. Figured, IÕd write the book and see if I could come back alive.
So far so good.
Through a liquidy screen usually filled with vibrant colors and deep, multidimensional images, you can see nothing by grays.
The picture is zoomed tight around a jagged-edged rock, maybe just a stray piece of concrete, which is being kicked down a sidewalk.
As it is booted along, it takes erratic jumps and swerves as it catches on niches in the walkway.
The shot pans out and reveals the legs and body of the person kicking the rock. ItÕs Hal Allman. HeÕs thoughtless as he walks casually toward his car.
In seven minutes heÕll be dead. But thereÕs only one person in the crowd who is watching him that knows this.
As he continues on, he concentrates hard on kicking the rock at the perfect angle so it will bounce straight and true. But each time he kicks it, it goes astray. The act is poetic. ItÕs powerful and symbolic of life, and Hal has no idea. He gives it one last kick, sending it careening into the dirt, and walks past it.
Hal gets into his car, and the liquid images that filled the screen splash into a great, copper basin below, as if it had just been stricken with a jolt of gravity.
In the small audience, there are gasps. People are turning to discuss what they have just witnessed with one another. Most are in disbelief, which is no surprise, as the majority of people who come here to begin with are cynics by nature. Or maybe better said, cynics by conditioning.
"Quiet, please," a short, greasy-haired man with a thick London accent speaks over the crowd. "Let us now hear what Mrs. Allman has to say. If you would, madam?"
A woman of about 50 sits in a chair in the front row, her hand quivering as it covers her face and catches her tears. The crowd noise moves to dead silence, as it directs its full attention toward the woman, who has been used by the greasy-haired man to show-off the systemÕs capability.
"WellÉ" he says, in a low-to-high pitch voice, hoping to coax the women into revealing her feelings, her astonishment. "Tell the audience, Mrs. Allman. Was that your son?"
"Yes," she says, suppressing breathy sobs.
"And he appeared to be walking down a sidewalk somewhere. Where was he?" he asks.
"Yes, yes," the man mutters, looking down at his polished shoes, one hand cradling his chin, the other a microphone. "Feels better now that you know, eh? Sleep easy tonight, you will."
But the woman just sits in her chair, shaking her head, continuing to cry. Indeed she was ill-prepared for what she was shown. And now, forevermore, a moving image of reality, of raw, indisputable truth, would be burned deep into the flesh of her memory, replacing the comforting misconceptions she had created of her sonÕs final moments.
In case you didnÕt catch the message from the brief first chapter (it was subtle, I know), IÕll spell it out for you:
SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT UNKNOWN
Wow! How thought-provoking! How original! No oneÕs ever tried to cram that idea down our throats. No, surely, youÕre the first. Yes, pure genius. ŅBetter left unknown,Ó who would of thought? But what are some examples? Elicit relationships, definitely left better undiscovered. Not knowing youÕre adopted. Finding out your newborn babyÕs half black when you and your newly wed wife are both of eggshell complexion.
Yea, tacky, I know. Go to Google and search for ŅSome things are better left unknown,Ó and it returns to you just 9,880 results. So the saying is that overused, in comparison to other tired clichˇs. ŅPushing your luckÓ brings in a cool 388,000. But blowing them both out of the water, ŅSome things never changeÓ rings in at an impressive 11.2 million. And if youÕre wondering, I trust Google. ItÕs about as close to that machine that knows everything we humans have access to.
So there, IÕve proved it: the concept isnÕt that overcooked. The specific idea, I bet though, has been done before. IÕm even going to check that one on the trusty Google, for fear that I will have written these first 2,615 words for nothing. But IÕm sure some famous author probably wrote a book using the same exact concept and I, for some reason, just havenÕt read it. You know there had to be some poor sap out there who spent a great deal of his life putting together an adventure novel for children, only to complete it and find out that his boy wizard with round glasses, a pet messenger owl and dead parents was already a worldwide phenomenon. Damn that would suck, but thatÕs not going to happen here.
And no, this book is not the next Harry Potter. But I am a fan, so look for subtle references throughout and e-mail me the ones you find. ItÕll be fun.
But your probably sick of my babbling by now and, having been left on the edge of your seat with the conclusion of Chapter 1, you are probably chomping at the bit to get to Chapter Deux. So without further adeux (I also like Shakespeare, so look for shameless puns throughout as well), here you go.
The year is 1992. William "Scooter" Demone perches behind his IBM (286 or the like) testing out a new phenomenon known as the Internet. As he peruses countless pages of textual information, he scratches his head. He had thought about this 15 years ago when banks went online. Back then, at the dawn of electronic transfers and the like, he envisioned information transfers that werenÕt in dollar signs but in plain, old English. Or Spanish or French or Japanese.
And it was no different for Scooter now, who, after looking at simple text-based, Web pages for a few weeks, began to see in his head people connected all over the world. He saw people talking through their computers, watching video feeds through their computers. He saw newspapers that would be updated each day. He saw people living from their computers; the machines were where they felt at home, their monitors were their windows to the world.
And as the Internet took off, he would gradually pat himself upon his back as his ideas began to pop up in newspaper advertisements and in television commericials. And as the world became consumed by the limitless vacuum of information the Internet provided, he began to think even more.
It seemed like there was no end to it, and if there was, we didnÕt know it. Cyberspace was kind of like our universe. So much to be discovered and so much potential for new life. In space though, there are only a few telescopes peering into its dark depths, discovering every now and then something new. On the Web, billions human satellites orbited its bounds each day, making new discoveries seemingly at the speed of light.
And now some years had passed. Scooter, at 48 years old, had been up to thinking again, and, what do you know, he predicted something else. But this was far too important to wait out.
That woman crying over her soon-to-be-dead son, or any modification thereof, is just out of reach of ScooterÕs ability to see ahead. It wonÕt be long.
So I was driving today and the road was wet and it was dark. The street lights and headlights were beaming off the sea of blackness to the point where the yellow and white markings that keep us in order while we drive were heavily obscured.
I was twiddling with the radio when I looked up and saw the car in front of me stopped. It wasnÕt really that big of a deal. I mean, I was able to stop after braking hard and skidding for a moment. But then I got this eerie feeling. It was a message of thoughts, transmitted through the ether, I suppose. It told me I was mortal. Memento Mori. It told me I was gonna die and I didnÕt know how.
And then I started thinking how. The golf cart thing was the most obvious way, as it always seemed to dominate my fears whenever I was walking about on campus. But a few years ago I developed this theory. ItÕs sort of like a reverse MurphyÕs Law for death. What you do is come up with crazy ways in which you can die, you think them through to the Nth degree and you thus ensure you will not die in that particular way.
So I always found it helpful that when I couldnÕt sleep, I would sit there and relive my own death in several dozen ways.
HereÕs the discourse of my brain while I conduct this morbid, but creative exercise:
IÕm sharing a bedroom with a large man, who is my roommate for the semester. We are in bunk beds. He is on the top. One night I hear some creaking up above, but donÕt think anything of it. I wake up with the metal bedframe that supports him and the mattress on my face and body. IÕm crushed and dying, but he doesnÕt know because heÕs a deep sleeper. And I suffocate and die.
Or, IÕm on a plane that, just after take off, careens into the ground. But it doesnÕt crash hard enough for all of us passengers to split up into a million different pieces and die. It crashes at such an angle and velocity that not only is the crash terrifying, itÕs quite excruciatingly painful. And that pain and a panic and futile attempts to gather my mangled limbs and drag myself to the emergency exit are all just precedents to my actual dying, which in the midst of a fiery plane crash is pretty anti-climactic, if I may say so myself.
So that the thoughts of that night right there, I theorize, prevent me from dying in those very specific ways. But my near-fender bender on this night got me thinking up another way I could die.
ItÕs this death-by-plastic-cup thing that just sounds so improbable, but, then again, with the right forces and angles, entirely possible. Goes something like this:
The cup was filled with iced tea, and while I sipped it, the car in front of stopped short, and I didnÕt stop at all. Well, you do the math. The cup was force-fed into my pie-hole, the top of hit breaking through my top teeth and lodging a few inches into the roof of my mouth, and the bottom achieving similar success down around the under-the-tongue area.
I bled to death there in my car, which was the best thing that could have come out of the situation because while the cup was raping my palette, my head was snapping back to where the headrest used to be. So I broke my neck too.
OK, glad to get that off my chest, and off the list of possible deaths. That wouldnÕt be fun.
In a dream, Scooter is climbing. The causeway he knew so well in reality, altered by his churning conscience, is now steeper and slippery, though not the slightest bit wet. In fact, the causeway is no longer stone, but dirt. Loose dirt that fails to provide any leverage his body can use to force its way up. He climbs and climbs but goes nowhere. The granules of sand pass beneath his struggling legs much like the rubber mat from a treadmill.
To his left, people start passing him, scaling the sandy bridge effortlessly. The sand is strong for them. It bonds into rock with each step, it would seem. He was losing breath. He thinks now of the time in 8th grade, the dreaded end of the year mile. Four times around the track. He thinks how he struggled to break eight minutes, while some of his more athletically inclined classmates would jump the hurdles on the side of the track as they ran by him. How could they find the energy to jump hurdles when he couldnÕt even muster up enough breath and enough heart beats to maintain his creeping pace? This is how he felt as people were passing him.
It was a thought within a dream, but now his concentration was back. He dug in his left foot, bent at the knee and pushed hard. But as he pushed, he leg did nothing but submerg more into the ground. And people were still passing him on the way up.
At the top of the causeway there was something. He wasnÕt quite sure what it was, but for some reason, in this dream, he was just as determined to get it as everyone else. Futilely, he kept straining himself to edge up the slope. And people still passed him, now on both sides, and they were moving so much faster. Their limber bodies bouncing upward with each step. They were gliding more than they were climbing.
They couldnÕt be stopped, and he just watched. He then looked down and saw that in his arms he was carrying some sort of dead weight. It was a burden he was unaware of to this point. Maybe that was what was keeping him from scaling the slope? Looking down, he unfurled his fingers and saw in his hands great iron chains. They wrapped around the top of his hands and looped around each thumb and dangled on the ground. Looking down, he saw the chains, each link 3 inches round in diameter, laying on the ground. He tried to pull them off but could not. And now, he was sure that the heavy metal was the only obstacle in his path to knowing; knowing what was at the top of that summit.
But just then, the colors of the sky changed. Quick and contrasting, as only they can inside the mindÕs eye. From bright, sunny blue, to deep fluorescent orange and pink to dark, blood red.
And then he heard the first scream. He looked up toward the top of the bridge and saw a man racing down. He came running down the steep slope so fast, his legs failed to compete with the sharp angles and the pull of gravity and gave out. He tumbled violently, but not in a safe fetal ball. His arms and legs were outstretched. He was falling like a skier falls down a mountain, he could hear the bones snap, the thud of the head on the sandy ground.
With one last tumble, the man flipped face-first into the ground, mouth open and all, inhaling and forcibly swallowing mass amounts of sand. Then he lay limp, battered and beaten on the ground.
He approached the figure, dragging behind him the weight of his chains. His hands shook at his sides as he slowly moved in the fallen manÕs direction. As he bent down to examine his face and feel for any signs of life, he became distracted by a deep rumble in the earth.
And looking up, back toward the top of the sandy bridge, he saw what looked like rising smoke, or perhaps a sandstorm. And the rumble continued, and the earth began to shake. He could at first he yells in the distance, but then those far-off cries unified into one deafening blast of sound that bypassed his eardrums and affected the very core of his skull.
And over the horizon of the bridge, it appeared. A group of dozens, no, hundreds, no, thousands of men racing down the same embankment of their fallen friend, whom he stood over presently. And as they came down they screeched in horror, some with their hands covering their eyes, others covering up their mouths as if to dull the roars issued from deep within. What was it they had seen? And they came down like a great wave from the sea, descending upon him as he stood, hands dangling from his limps arms, chains dangling from his quivering hands. And just like all match-ups between man and sea, man stands no chance. And he knew this. All he could do was start running in the opposite direction. But now the mass of running and screaming people was only getting larger, and now, they too, like their fallen comrade, were tumbling end over end.
And he kept running back slowly, but the chains weighed him down. And soon, the rolling mass, just like an ocean swell, was sucking him back, pulling him into a vortex of screaming, terrified faces. The mass of broken skulls and arms and legs was slow and ominous as it raised itself above his head and poised itself to come crashing down upon him.
Crouched on the ground, knees to his chest, still being sucked on, he did all he could do, what humans always resort to when there is no hope left in the world. He put up his hand over his face and awaited his own destruction.
But as the front of the wave came crashing to within an inch of his nose, his eyelids opened, allowing a bead of sweat from his forehead to slip into his eye. His bad dream now over, he reached across the bed, and touched his wifeÕs arm.
Yes, there was something more than just "office politics" weighing on his mind, despite what he led her to believe earlier that night.
Scooter was bearing the weight of the world in his hands. He and Atlas had more in common than just a funny name.
ScooterÕs office itself wasnÕt like any office; although that was another thing he led his wife to believe. She thought he occupied a small cubicle in Downtown Washington D.C. , where he headed up accounts receivable for a small construction company. Actually, he thought that to when he took the job, too.
And thatÕs what he actually started off doing. Every morning, for about a month, it was the same old stuff. Log on to the network, look for the accounts in red, get on the phone with the tardy customers and somehow secure the owed money.
It was quite an act in fact. Because getting people to pay up wasnÕt always easy. Most of the "construction" his company did was government stuff, though. Street signs, traffic lights, highway road repair. And the government was never in the red. It was the others who he had been trained to worry about. Notably the businesses that sounded uber-professional. Those were usually the ones who were the exact opposite. You know, like "Jameson & Jameson Quality Hotel Repair." These two dimwitted brothers contracted construction workers to install cement parking lots at sleazy motels. They never paid.
Scooter would get on the phone.
"Hello, this is Scooter Demone from KIP Construction in D.C. IÕm looking to speak with Tony."
A minute later, Tony Jameson, the younger of the two brothers, would get on the other line.
"This is Tony."
"Tony, hey, itÕs Scooter from KIP. How you doing today?"
And then Tony would go into his normal bantering about all the business he had and all the jobs he had going, most of which were gross exaggerations of the truth. Tony didnÕt have much to do. If he did, heÕd have no problem paying.
"Yea, ah, Tony, weÕre trying our darndest to try to catch up on our AR this month and I noticed your payment for FebruaryÕs job over in Bethesda, is, wellÉItÕs July."
And then Tony, like usual, would break into his routine, about how he thought he slipped that check into the mail ages ago, and he is so embarrassed when he gets calls like this because it reflects poorly upon his business reputation, which, by the way, is quite high in the hotel industry. And then heÕd hang up, and Scooter would hang up, with the assurance that a check would be in the mail by the end of the day, which of course it never was.
Yea, Scooter never was too good at hunting down delinquents. And soon heÕd be called out for it. One Friday afternoon, as is typical in the business world, he was called into his bossÕ office.
"Scooter, IÕll be frank with you," he said, sitting in a swivel chair behind his desk in front of a doorway that had a paper covering its window. "Now I know we have some bad customers, but our AR is higher than its been in the six years weÕve been here. You need to more aggressive, Scooter. You need to go out to some of these businesses if thatÕs what it takes to get them to write a check."
Scooter nodded, looking down at his toes. As he glanced up to look his boss in the eye and utter some run-of-the-mill standard about how he would shape up and get on his delinquent accounts, something caught his eye. He saw a piece of paper beneath other books and papers on his bossÕ desk, and in bold letters he could make out: Knowledge is Power Construction.
An odd name for a construction company, he thought to himself and it was even odder that he had not pondered what the acronym KIP stood for prior to this discover. ItÕs kinda like NASA or Scuba, he thought. ItÕs just known by its abbreviation.
"Knowledge is Power. ThatÕs what KIP stands for," he asked his boss.
"Knowledge is Power. ThatÕs what is says on that paper on your desk," Scooter said.
"Oh, yea. Just an old saying my mother used to drill into me as a schoolboy."
"I see," said Scooter. "OK, well, I will work harder on that outstanding AR."
He turned to walk from the office, but as he was about to cross the threshold of the doorway, his boss stopped him.
"You know, Scooter, I was wondering. Do you like your job,?"
Scooter was sort of surprised by the question. Did he like his job? Was this a trick question? He had dealt with bosses like this guy before, he thought, power hungry office managers who would ask unassuming questions about subjective matters and deduce from it your "personality profile." And in the corporate world, once it was known that you had a personality, it was, in effect, career suicide.
But then again, this job wasnÕt that important to him. His wife had earned her tenure and George Washington University long ago, teaching Philosophy. He had put his time into his career and had contributed only piece of work, which was important to him and a few other computer geeks, but largely went by unnoticed. It took him a long time to develop, and in the end, he was satisfied with it, and it when I came time to take a break, he came here to do some mindless stuff. God knows his mind had been stretched enough during his younger years.
"Um. I donÕt particularly like doing this job, but why do you ask? Do I come off that way?"
"No, no. ItÕs not that. Not that at all," he said, turning in his chair, scratching away at the end of a pencil with his fingernail. "ItÕs just, I wonder if your skills could be better utilized around here."
Skills? Scooter wasnÕt quite sure what skills to which he had been referring. He had made sure to dummy down his resume when he applied. Actually, he flat out lied about his prior work experience. High school diploma, worked in sales for 23 years. ThatÕs it.
"What are you doing tomorrow, Scooter?"
"Saturday? Um, not quite sure, why?"
"I was hoping you might be able to come out here for a brief meeting between you and me and some of my associates."
This left him deeply puzzled, but it was in his nature to find out what his boss could have wanted. Especially on a Saturday. So he obliged and left.
On the ride home his mind raced. What was it his boss had in store for him. How much higher could he go in KIP Construction. In fact, he wasnÕt aware that there were many positions, other than president and vice president that were higher than his own.
It was in 1999 that he penned his 51-page manifesto entitled "The mouse: modern manÕs most important tool of survival."
It was something he had thought about a few times before and after a while he decided to just sit down and write it. It took him about a year and after he finished he sent it to a few major tech magazines, two of which bought the story, ran it, but paid him poorly for it.
He didnÕt care about the money though. It was the idea that mattered. It was an idea money couldnÕt but, something only he could own, and he liked that.
The thing is, the idea itself was quite simple. But, much like the largely indisputable and oftentimes embarrassing observations of Friederich Nietzsche, Scooter was a bit ahead of his time in articulating this particular idea. All he did was take DarwinÕs theory of evolution and apply it to modern-day folk.
In evolution, the fittest obviously survived. Fittest, meaning those who best adapt to their environments, of course. And throughout history what can be seen is animals that canÕt perform simple, occupational tasks being wiped away from the gene pool. It is why giraffes are so tall; the short ones could reach the leaves in the high trees of the forests where they lived.
So humans started to grow and evolved to better fit their needs. Standing upright, for instance, allowed them to see over the tall grass of the plains so they could hunt better. The bottoms of the feet became more coarse, the alignment of the feet, hips and spine more centered to allow for nomadic meanderings.
Scooter hypothesized that what made humans a remarkable species was their adaptability, and in order to ensure survival in modern times, humans were faced with a steep learning curve.
The onslaught of the computer age, he said, pushed man out of the fields and then out of the factories and into the cubicles behind a monitor. Those ill-equipped to function behind a screen were left to lower-paying jobs. Lower-paying jobs would undoubtedly lead to poorer health and subsequently it would lead to a higher death rate among the population of non-computerized workers.
It was simply natural selection, he argued. He actually went through the trouble of doing research studies and came out with some crazy figures like how how many words per minute one could type could be tied to how many years they could expect to live on average.
It sounded crazy, but soon after the publication of the piece, he found more evidence to support his claim. Supermarkets and fast food joints were now piloting new self-check out registers, where customers would scan their own goods and communicate with a touch screen computer.
In one supermarket, he thought, 60 cashiering jobs could be wiped out in favor of a few computer techs to run the store.
Of course this change had little biological support. Humans hadnÕt yet discovered a way to use a computer to take out the trash or to mop the floors of a school gymnasium, but it no doubt would quite soon.
But it was the clincher, the last paragraph of his report that caused some controversy. Many thought it cheapened his idea. Scooter couldnÕt think of a more straight-forward way of stating his conclusion:
"In conclusion, I offer this advice: Learn to type or die trying. In choosing not to, you are, essentially, kissing your ass goodbye."
ItÕs Friday evening and Scooter sits at a bar just around the street from his home. ItÕs not a place he comes often these days, but itÕs a place he frequented more in his younger years. A place where he could go think, outside the confines of the matching tapestries that hung on the dull, beige walls of his house. A place where his brain could breathe the second hand smoke and soak up the darkness without having to worry about spilling his beer on the pseudo-Victorian coffee table or scuffing the parquet with the sole of his boot.
No, no. Here he could be free to dream. Here he could sit alone. Here he could sip a dark $6-a-glass import and inspire his mind to true clarity, throw away the tortures of everyday life and live in the majestic forest of pure, unbridledÉ
"Ask me any of the state capitals, I dare you!" a harsh looking drunk man bellowed into a crowd of half-suited men near the end of the bar. "Any capital."
"YouÕre drunk," one of the men responded, turning around.
"Any capital," the drunk man repeated. " I dare you."
The men chuckled amongst themselves, amused at the stumbling foolÕs drunken challenge, and then one, gently tapping the end of a cigarette and placing it butt-up into a tray, obliged the insistent man and called out a state.
"Lansing. Give me another."
"Montepelier," he replied quickly. "Try again."
"CanÕt you do any better? I mean, most people, by the third state, try something tricky, like Montana or
Wyoming or South Dakota. You know, one of those states that nobody really knows about. Now me, I know plenty Ōbout South Dakota. My sisterÕs first husband owns a ranch up there in one of the more countrified parts, if you know what I mean. I mean, itÕs pretty much all country out there, but this place is more barren than a babyÕs ass. But it was nice, you know. Before the divorce, me and my first wife would drive up there from Colorado once every year and weÕd go visit. TheyÕd take us up to Mt. Rushmore. God damn was that fun. Them faces are huge. LetÕs see. You got ole Jefferson and Washington and that rough rider Roosevelt. But the fourth, the fourth just seems to escape me," he said, putting his hands on his hips and damning up his convoluted flow of sentence for the first time in and a minute and a half. "Oh, well. Guess those gin and tonics are rustying up the old memory."
For a moment, there was some reflective silence and then
"Lincoln," said one of the well-dressed snooty men. "It is Lincoln."
"Ah, yes, my good friend," the drunk man said, holding back a smile. "The capital of Nebraska."
Scooter smiled as the disheveled man skipped out of the bar, victorious over the white-collar crowd that cast him off as a fool when he first opened his mouth. ItÕs funny, Scooter thought to himself, how five MBAs Š six years of crunching numbers and honing managerial skills -- can be rendered meaningless by an alcoholicÕs quasi-Shakespearean wit. The well dressed, snooty man was no more than a Polonius incarnate, fooled and dead, wrapped in a curtain of lingering smoke.
But yes, with the drama coming to close, it was time for Scooter to start thinking. What could his boss want with him tomorrow morning? What skills did he wish to better put use to? He squeezed hard the folds of skin and fat that sat between the ridges of his brow and the front part of his skull, running his thumbs over the indents of his temples in soothing, circular motions, almost willing comprehension to make itself at home in the den of his thoughts.
And just as soon as he had agonized over what tomorrow would bring, he had thrown $7 down on the bar, threw on his coat and went charging out of the place. The bar just wasnÕt doing it tonight. And besides, the Joe Wallstreet and Co. were back at it again, luring in yet another hopeless alcoholic to entertain them.
Scooter hit the sidewalk and was homeward bound. It was late, anyway his wife, Jilian, was no doubt watching Letterman, alone and probably a little lonely, and he didnÕt like that.
One foot in front of the other, Scooter headed back. This was something else he enjoyed. Walking. To him, it was so much more than one foot in front of the other. It was a powerful signal to four-legged creature out there that we had arrived. Walking didnÕt come easy for humans. It took millions of years of natural selection. Think about the sacrifices. The poor wretches of the early-human world whose backs were to crooked to stand up, so they couldnÕt see over the tall grass that was concealing the wild dog or cat that was out looking for a snack. Nature wiped out these genetic misfits, but it was no fault of their own. You canÕt control what genes you get. ItÕs mutation, chance, accident. ItÕs a fatal lottery. And after all that hard work, after all those people died so male walkers could walk over to a female walkerÕs tribe, where they could walk daintily over to a bed and make more potential walkers, people today favored boarding congested, underground tubes or thick-wheeled, gas-guzzling behemoths of the road.
No, not Scooter. Yea, he had a car, but when he could, he walked. It put him in touch with the long-forgotten hunchbacked martyrs of our pre-history. It made him human.
As he came around the corner, he glanced in the window of a deli he frequented occasionally. The menu had changed, apparently, and he stopped to read. Roast beef. That made him human too, he thought to himself, smiling. If he had some time next week, heÕd bribe Jilian into letting one of her Teacher Assistants hold one of her classes so they could have lunch. (MAKE SURE THIS HAPPENS LATER ON)
But as he rounded the corner of deli, he heard a rattling noise. Glancing across the street from the storefront, he saw a man with half his body leaned over the side of a garbage dump, balancing like an inverted seesaw as he appeared to be trying to fish something out.
It wasnÕt an odd thing to see just outside the city. There were many homeless in D.C., and from ScooterÕs travels around the country, D.C.Õs were among the most colorful, he thought. So he kept walking. Sometimes he would stop and throw a guy a dollar or two and listen to his story, but not tonight. Not with his wife who was probably by now seeking the company of the old cat he brought in off the street she hated.
But as he walked by something caught hold of his attention. It was the man. He looked familiar. And within an instant of his initial glance, he recognized at whom he was staring. It was drunken man from the bar. Scooter approached him, and as he did, he could here a faint grumbling. The man was talking to himself, but his words were distorted on account of the weight of his teeter-tottering body being supported solely by his soft belly. It was a display of such pitiful fulcrum that Archimedes himself was probably rolling in his grave.
Scooter reached out and touched the manÕs leg as he said "Hello."
But the drunken man was unaware of his presence, and being instantly startled, fell forward into the dumpster, head over feet.
"Jesus Christ!," he screamed, pulling a sopping wet piece of newspaper from over his eyes. "What the hell was that for?"
"I am so sorry," Scooter said hurriedly, reaching inside the trash bin and offering up his earth-bound leverage to help pull out the man.
The man stood up straight after Scooter labored harder than he had in a while to lift him over the edge, and he shook off the general grime Š the wilted lettuce and chewed gum and other various remnants of components of human consumption Š and looked his garbage savior dead in the eyes.
"So, can I help you?"
"Um, no, not really," Scooter stuttered, as he tried to recollect why exactly he wandered over to the garbage can in the first place. "I just thought IÕd say hi. I saw you in the bar a little while ago."
"I saw you dupe those arrogant bastards. That was beautiful."
"Eh, itÕs nothing really. I use that story every time I get drunk and want to close the gap a little on that ladder people like them tower over me on, ya know? Bring Ōem back down to earth."
"You made them crash."
"Nah. If I made them crash, they would realize that it was people like them that put force people like me to be hunting for dinner in a giant trash can; force people like me to be so knowledgeable of this cityÕs dumpsters that I came here tonight Ōcause todayÕs special was that kick-ass reuben sandwich. That means they donÕt sell as much turkey as usual, and have to throw out loads of it. I was guaranteed some Boarshead Ovengold. And then, well, you touched my leg and I lost sight of my prize."
Scooter couldnÕt conceal a smile. The witty drunk man, who was now, apparently, homeless, was just giving him a hard time. He stuck out his hand.
"William Demone," he said. "Most call me Scooter, though"
"My real name doesnÕt matter," he said, shaking ScooterÕs hand. "IÕm Wiz."
Scooter laughed. He thought in his life heÕd never run into someone with a nickname more absurd than his. But here he stood, covered in filth, three feet in front of him.
"What kind of nickname is Wiz?" Scooter asked, donning a typcial, scrunched-up, inquisitive forehead.
"The same kind as Scooter, Scooter," Wiz replied. "The kind a friend gives you for no apparent reason, but for some reason it sticks."
"Oh, no. I had reason all right," Scooter said. "I used to ride this stupid scooter around campus when I was in college. It was humiliating, but it got me to classes 3 to 4 minutes faster than walking."
"So whereÕs your scooter now, Scooter?"
"Ah, it wasnÕt until recently I realized the great crime I was committing in zipping across campus on that thing. A great crime indeed."
"Crime?" Wiz asked, looking puzzled.
"Come on. Take a walk with me, and IÕll tell you all about it," Scooter said. "My place isnÕt far from here. I think we have some turkey in the fridge. Besides, my wife could use a little company."
ŅNot here. ItÕll be fine. Just relax.Ó
ŅGod damn it, John. WeÕre going 60 miles per hour. If the tire blowsŃŅ
John Samuels applied some pressure to his brake, flipped on his hazards and slowly pulled off into the grass on westbound I-4. ItÕs a good thing, too. The front left tire was drooping off the wheel, reminiscent of painting by Salvador Dali that hung on the wall in their house. The Persistence of Time, yes, thatÕs what it was called.
Had John had more forethought and had he not been stranded on the side of a major highway in the blistering midday Florida sun, he probably would have taken more time to think about the idea. The Persistence of Time. He probably would have commented to his wife that time was humanity's greatest invention, although most didn't see it at such. How did a minute become a minute? An hour an hour?
Time, he would conclude if he was in such a position, does not exist. It was simply adapted over the course of, well, time. It is change that we confuse for days and months and passing birthdays. We just needed a way to touch it. Time makes us feel change, makes change tangible..
But John had no time for that. He was set on one thing: hook up the spare, and get back on the road. He didnÕt want to listen to his mother-in-law bitch. She had told him three or four times in the last year he needed new tires. Put the spare on, get a new tire tomorrow, donÕt tell mom. ThatÕs all he was thinking. That and the thing about his wife.
It had been weighing heavily upon him for a month now and it seemed that no matter where he would go, it was always a peripheral thought, if not his focus. But sometimes whatÕs on the peripheral of the mind is worse than whatÕs at the forefront. When you concentrate on something, some task, hard, you think it through, act it out and itÕs done, you move on. You stop thinking about it. The peripheral though is always there, even when the focus has been dealt with. It lingers like the smell of formaldehyde on the inner lining of the nostrils. No matter what you do, you canÕt rid yourself of it.
It happened on a business trip he took out to Nevada. The five co-workers with whom he traveled convinced him to head out to Vegas one Thursday night after work, despite his wifeÕs warning that if dare blow their money on slot machines, she would give him hell.
Well, after a night of drinking heavily, it wasnÕt the slot machines that benefited from John SamuelsÕ open wallet, it was a hooker. Two in fact.
He had debated back and forth with himself whether to come clean. Analyzing the degree to which he failed as a husband, he figured his wife would leave him. But was what he did really that bad? he thought. He went back to an old Desmond Morris book heÕd read in college 25 years before:
ŅIf a mated male indulges his urge for sexual novelty by copulating with a prostitute he is, of course, liable to damage hi pair-bond, but less so than if he becomes involved in a romantic, but non-copulatory, love affair.Ó
And, he rationalized, the act he committed was totally and utterly copulatory. There was no romance involved. There wasnÕt even any foreplay. This wasnÕt cheating. This was straight up drunken sex. End of story. How could it hurt?
This frame of mind got him through a month of weekly love-making with his wife, but then it struck him hard again. What had he done? How could he ignore it?
He came around to the back of the car. The spare would be in the trunk. As he walked past the passenger side of the car, he caught his wifeÕs eyes. Did she know what he was thinking? No. But she should. He looked at her face, which had aged nicely, her big, blue eyes hardly diminished by the slight, curved lines that were starting to appear in the corners of them. He loved how she always seemed to have a few misplaced strands of hair that popped roundly out of the back of her pony tail.
Yeah, he would change the tire, go home, sit her down and spill the truth, no matter how much cleaning up the spill would require. Or maybe not.
The tire wasnÕt back there. It came to him as a surprise, but not really. He had never really checked to see if there was a spare to begin with when they bought the car off a used lot the spring before. It was just something he assumed.
His wife rolled down the window as he approached her from outside.
ŅThereÕs no spare.Ó
ŅWhat do you mean?Ó
ŅI guess this car didnÕt come with one. WeÕre gonna have to call a tow truck,Ó he said, looking down toward her open purse. ŅCan I have your cell phone.Ó
ÓI left it inside on the counter.Ó
As John took off hiking down I-4 heading toward the nearest exit or nearest phone, his wife Clarice sat, still buckled in to her seat, leaning her head on the cold, air-conditioned glass, watching her husband advance down the side of the road.
He was always saving things, she thought. On the operating table during the day, to his young sonÕs crumpled math homework at night. And how he saved her, she remembered. Being 19, struggling to get through college. Having no parents to help her through. And there he was. Tall and handsome, with answers to most of lifeÕs problems included.
And he had saved their marriage after 17 years. When their sex life became monotonous, he phoned one his doctor friends who got them a few free-of-charge appointments with a sex shrink. Yes, he was always trying to save.
Last week it was an old wet dog that came moseying up to their door, today it was the car. Who would it be tomorrow?
Her head was beginning to hurt, the skin sticking irritably to the cold glass, but she did not move. She was too caught up in the moment, caught up in the man that was her husband. Caught up in admiration that, until this point, she hadnÕt quite articulated in her mind.
He was about 50 yards in front of the car now, still walking, when he turned around, and started to walk backwards, smiling goofily and waving to her. She smiled back, picked her head up from the window and waved back. Could he sense what she was thinking?
And then it all went cold and slow. A car headed in the opposite direction gets bumped from behind. The driver loses control, cuts across two lanes and goes into the grassy median that separates the east and west bound travelers. The car continued driving on a near straight path in the grass, but just when it appeared he had gained control of the car, took a sharp turn to left, and when it did this, it made a loud noise, as if it had just torn up a large piece of earth, which it did.
John was oblivious to this. He continued to walk backwards, looking at his wife, torn up on the inside. Yes, he was smiling, that was for sure. She could still make out his white teeth against his tanned face. But what she couldnÕt see were the tears that welled up in his eyes.
The car careened across the grass median and was slotted to cross, completely out of control, into westbound traffic. Clarice saw as the car hit the embankment and became airborne. Thankfully for this driver, no cars were to be seen heading westbound where he crossed.
Only John Samuel stood in his way, and Clarice suddenly bore the terrible weight of change, as her shoulders slumped, and she slipped through her seatbelt onto the floor board.
So, two men, both of different backgrounds, of different world philosophies, of different clothing, taste in food, weight of pocket, so on and so forth, who shared in common nothing but two cartoon character names and a penchant for talking, walked along a city street yammering about whatever.
ŅWhat IÕm saying, Wiz, is that the liberal bias perceived in the media is largely an ill-concocted myth. The bias is markedly right. I mean, big businesses s own damn near every news--Ņ
ŅLie down,Ó Wiz said, cutting Scooter off mid-sentence, and dropping into a squat and then into a fully prostrate position on the dirty sidewalk.
ŅLie down. I want to show you something.Ó
Scooter paused. He did a quick take on his surroundings. Yes, he was in a busy city. Yes, indeed he was on a dirty sidewalk hardly designed mingle well with the pleated Dockers he was sporting this fine evening. And yes, upon close inspection, of the few dozen people milling about in the general area none were on the ground.
Scooter followed the order, and bent down beside his friend. They squared shoulders and then Wiz raised his right hand and pointed into the south east sky.
ŅMars,Ó he said. ŅYou ever think about it?Ó
ŅThink about what?Ó Scooter said.
ŅOK. Mars. The Red Planet. Martians. War of the WorldsÉÓ
Wiz turned his head to meet ScooterÕs inquiring stare.
ŅYou donÕt think about Mars or anything else, I dunno, out of this world.Ó
ŅIÕm sorry. IÕm not following, bud,Ó Scooter said, sitting up.
Wiz put his hand on ScooterÕs left shoulder and pulled him back down. He wasnÕt done. It wasnÕt that easy. Wiz hadnÕt been sitting in god damn box for the last 15 years theorizing stuff like this just so the only person in the world he had to tell it to would lose interest. OK, maybe the drama involved in laying down in the middle of a city sidewalk was a little hokey, but whatÕs wrong with hokey? He knew Scooter would listen.
ŅWeÕre just so wrapped up here on this planet with our global warming and our save the whales and our standardized tests,Ó Wiz began. ŅHow often do you think about having to leave this place.Ó
ŅSo then you take it for granted?Ó
ŅListen, Wiz. I do my part. I drive a little Honda. I recycle my newspaper. Hell, I even spent every Saturday afternoon second semester of my sophomore year in high school picking garbage at some train station near my house.Ó
Wiz smiled, still looking up at the only star in the sky that didnÕt bleed yellowish white.
ŅIÕm not talking about that save the planet bullshit, Scoot. I mean, that ozone that everybodyÕs so caught up with protecting sure does a good job keeping out ultra-violet rays. But it sure has hell didnÕt stop a giant rock from smashing into northwest Arizona god knows how many years ago. Created us a nice little national parkÓ
ŅWe track that stuff, though. No asteroid is planned on coming within a million miles of Earth anytime soon.Ó
ŅYea, but one day, weÕll have to go there. I mean, we could go to the moon, but if one giant, world-ending rock were to knock the Earth out of orbit, the moon would be rendered quite useless, I would imagine,Ó Wiz said.
ŅEh, not in my lifetime.Ó
Wiz sat silent for a moment or two then turned his head away from the night sky and back at Scooter, who was still staring up.
ŅAt what point do you stop caring about your family?Ó Wiz asked.
ŅYour kidsÕ kids? Will you care about them?Ó
ŅI donÕt have any kids, but if I did, yes, of course I would care about my grandchildren,Ó Scoot said back, with a tone of surprise. ŅBut, I mean, this planet isnÕt threatened that soon.Ó
ŅOK, so then your great grandchildren.Ó
ŅWhat about them?Ó
ŅDo you care about them?Ó
ŅOf course. Of course I care about my non-existent childrenÕs childrenÕs children. Happy?Ó
ŅSo thatÕs where you draw the line? After that you could give a shit less what happens?Ó
Scooter looked puzzled. Wiz, though he had only known him a few short months, was an absolute mastermind at cornering people in seemingly harmless conversations with difficult questions. He was always looking to implicate. To exploit a weakness of mind. It was his duty, he had once thought.
One day he was sitting outside a fast food joint with a cup full of change and a set a puppy dog eyes. An old man pulled up in a sleek beige Cadillac, got out of car, and proceeded to tell Wiz he ought to be ashamed of himself.
The man told him he had nothing to offer society. He didnÕt pay taxes. He was nothing but a burden. Nothing more than a heap of trash the garbage men couldnÕt pick up on account of the only thing the old veteran and Wiz had in the common: the blood that warmed their bodies.
As the man pulled away, Scooter saw the back windshield of the manÕs $40,000 car adorned with a sticker of some cartoon character pissing on the name of whatever world leader the United States was currently trying to find, kill and restore democracy and moral code to his society.
People like that man were too caught up stockpiling their gold, he reasoned, to sit down and really think things out. So he excused the old manÕs condescending nature, and thought to himself, ŅGee, I have more time to think.Ó And he did.
But until he met Scooter, he had no one to really talk to or think with.
ŅAll IÕm saying is, sit here, look up, and acknowledge the Planet Mars. Is that so hard? Acknowledge that it is not just some sort of overused Hollywood plot device and that it will one day impact those that will descend from you. ThatÕs all.Ó
ŅYou want me to acknowledge Mars?Ó Scooter asked. ŅHow exactly do you acknowledge something you already know to exist?Ó
ŅYou knew I existed way before you acknowledged me,Ó Wiz said. ŅSo I donÕt know. You tell me. You figure out your own way of acknowledging Mars.Ó
Again. Scooter kind of looked around, half in disbelief that he was laying on a city sidewalk (but he had acknowledged the absurdity of that five minutes ago) and half in disbelief that he was actually beginning to follow what Wiz was preaching.
Then he stood up, spread out his arms and raised his voice so the whole universe could hear. As he began to speak into the black sky people in thevicinity turned their attention toward him.
ŅTo the future home of my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren, Mars, I salute you!Ó
It wasnÕt like Scooter to bring home homeless men. Homeless cats, yes. But, then again, Jilian wasnÕt too surprised, at least not as surprised as Wiz was.
There he stood, hesitant to move his dirty sneakers off the confines of Scooter and JilianÕs welcome mat. He looked around, just with his head, his hands quiet at his sides, at the inside of their house. To him it was like a museum. A tomb of things accrued as a result of their success.
As Scooter began telling Jilian the story about the bar and how he tricked the yuppies, Wiz, not paying attention, took notice of the lights. They were everywhere, illuminating the treasures they had. There were niches in the walls, three of them. Half oval on top, straight edged on the bottom, kind of shaped like tombstones. And inside the niches pictures and vases with flake plastic flowers, awards and degrees, a barometer, a small fish, all basking in the glow of spotlights that hung nearly hidden from the ceiling.
And Wiz too was in a spotlight of sorts. ThatÕs to say if JilianÕs eyes were light bulbs, every last scrutinized piece of WizÕs body and ragged accoutrement would be lit up. She wasnÕt paying too much attention to her husbandÕs story either.
Scooter stood in front of his bathroom mirror, swishing and swashing and spitting, shaving and dabbing and combing, sculpturing that image of freshness. His graying blackish beard was cut hard against his face, and his face was rigid on the edges. He had a good face.
Today was a day he had psyched himself up for, sort of. Well, not really. What could his boss have to offer him? What could he want on a Saturday afternoon? Whatever it was, and he was hoping it might be an opportunity that could make his job a bit more exciting, he was going to don that professional look that employers like so much.
That clean-shaven, padded-shoulder suit sporting look. The one where the price of your shoes is assumed proportional to the capacity of your brain, or at least a good indicator of how much servitude you are willing to dole out. ItÕs OK. For a soul that always wandered, a voice that always questioned, it was good, every now and then, to be a sheep.
So he looked in the mirror, flashed that million-dollar smile (if he were an actor in a corny movie, he thought, his right, top tooth might sparkle for a split second), threw his jacket over his shoulder, kissed Jilian on the forehead and skipped out of the house into the garage, overflowing with faux confidence. He was a sleek, overachieving commodity corporate America had not laid eyes upon yet.
Gripping the steering wheel Š with both hands on top, as confident men do Š he took off, down the his street. His CD was four verses into a Dylan classic and he sang along. Today he was it. He was Mr. Tambourine Man. No ragged clowns here.
He forgot his wallet on his dresser. HeÕs now driving backwards, rushed and swerving around the bend in the road, nearly hitting his mailbox as backs into his driveway. HeÕs getting out of his car. His confidence is slowly slivering out of his muffler, thick and black, like pride often is. There it goes. HeÕs probably better for it.
Scooter skipped back out his garage and battled a bit with the keypad before successfully bringing down the heavy, clingy-clangy automatic door. On the way through the door, he tripped and knocked his head on the frame. He woke up Jilian. She was angry and he was too. He grabbed his wallet, sweat now beading, boiling and rolling from the creases in his forehead onto the bridge of his nose, and he walked back into the garage.
Sometimes when you drive, you become overwhelmed so much that the you forget all the constant changing landscape that accompanies you on the way from point A to point B. This is what it was like for Scooter driving this morning. His brain was indeed occupied, but by what he was unsure. Sure, sheer curiosity was probably at the root. And yes, he had made a big stinking deal about the clothes he was wearing and now his hair was looking kind of poofy and his underarms were uncomfortably moist.
But lo and behold, he was here, pulling into the small parking lot to the short, but long building where he worked. The building could only be described like this: It was like a cruise ship on the ground, but only one storey,
He jerked on the handle of the door and walked in, the clanging of a small bell tied to string ringing as he walked by. The office was dark. Computer screensavers were the only source of light, maybe five or six of them. He walked over to his desk. Was anyone here?
He sat down in his terminal. On his keyboard sat an envelope with his name written in red permanent marker. He pulled back the flap and peered inside. A key, an ordinary house key it would seem, sat snug in the bottom corner of the envelope. Accompanying was note:
ŅScooter, please find us in the back. We are in room 299. ŠJoe LipsipokÓ
Lipsipok was his boss. A bright guy with an odd last name. But he had been through this before with Wiz, and they had both decided that neither of them were in the position to make fun of other peopleÕs names.
What struck him as peculiar was the room number. He wasnÕt familiar with a 299. Ann Haddaway, his coworker who he often had coffee with on lunch break was in 266, but he was almost positive the hallway didnÕt extend any more than five more after hers.
He snatched up the envelope and began walking in the direction. He passed by AnnÕs office and his estimation had been about right. There were four more doors, it would seem, all numbered except for the last. So, naturally, he turned the knob on the unnumbered door and went in. It was fairly dark inside. He found a light, switched it on, and it illuminated something unexpected: another office. All this time he had worked he, and he never knew that this separate office with its own coffee machine and photo copier existed.
To ScooterÕs right he heard the sounds of people talking, and to his right he saw Room 299. The only light shining in this office of a fourth dimension was coming from it and like a bug in the night he drifted toward it.
He approached the door, lay his hand on the knob, turned, tugged and walked in. Black suits. Five of them, all in black.
ŅPlease, sit down.Ó
Wiz was sitting on the steps of the library, looking quite dirty on this day. He hadnÕt the advantage of using ScooterÕs shower in the past few days and it was beginning to adversely affect not only his appearance, but his smell, which was today, was markedly foul.
He shuffled through the day beforeÕs news section. Unemployment, failing schools, wars, wars fought to stop wars, Hollywood breakups, corporate scandals, significant free-agent acquisitions. To him, these news items Ń which apparently carried with them great national and international impact Ń were otherworldly. He had no time to be caught up in the hustle bustle of current events; he could barely even find an edible meal on a daily basis.
But it wasnÕt worth contemplating right now. It would only serve to depress him. Hell, he just found a new friend, the sky was clear and the air wasnÕt too sticky, and the free cup of black coffee he got from his vendor friend Tom McPherson on the corner had given him a boost of needed energy.
He swallowed down the last of it and sprang up for a walk.
Laying on the ground in front of him was a man who had just walked into him, grimacing in pain and holding his left ankle.
ŅGod damnit! Why do you watch where the hell youÕre going, eh?Ó the man, wearing a sleek suit and sporting a British accent yelled (heÕs the guy from the beginning!!). His cell phone on which he was carrying on a very important conversation with colleagues from his firm, he informed Wiz, now lay on the ground beside him.
ŅShit, I think my ankleÕs sprained.Ó
Holding the remaining pieces of his crushed Styrofoam cup, Wiz bent down in front of the man and with his casual-as-usual demeanor he said: ŅIÕm sorry for your fall. ItÕs certainly unfortunate that you and I have to meet under such circumstances. Let me help you up,Ó Wiz said, sticking out his grimy hand.
ŅGet the hell away from me!Ó the man yelled, drawing back on his
LetÕs just say he bothered me. We had met several times, converged several times while walking, or had brief conversations Ń if you can call them that Ń on the telephone.
Sometimes IÕd be walking back from class, usually Tuesdays after my 2 oÕclock, and IÕd see him walking. I hated the way he walked. He would look straight ahead, arms swinging robotically back and forth..
But his stupid android demeanor was the least of it for me. It was so much more than that. His gait just reinforced the brooding hatred that boiled inside me every time our paths crossed.
And they crossed a lot. Maybe two, three times a month.
It was the same each time. Suede Rockports, a two-tone collared shirt tucked in around a paunchy torso, a balding head atop a worn, drooping face. And then there were the pants. The pleats folded like paper. His socks always exposed, not because his pants werenÕt the right length, but because he wore them wrong. He had them yanked halfway up his back, held tightly against his body by an old belt.
Seeing him walk by angered me. Those damn pants represented everything I hated about him, about them.
And that belt, well it told a story. Black and worn, you could see he had an attachment to it. Like it was the only thing he had to hold on to. It was his identity, and each morning he threaded it through those damn pants.
He had been wearing the belt for years. The leather was cracked and peeling around the holes. There were 6 holes total, the first and last of which were never penetrated.
The remaining four, however, told a different story. The first of the worn holes had been full of life and opportunity. It was the least worn.
The next hole told a story of coming of age. Beer. Sex. Independence. And most of all, food.
The third whole is the one that he uses now, and itÕs just as worn as the fourth. They are the saddest holes, as they represent feelings of mediocrity, torture, longing. The holes were like his life: empty.
ThatÕs the funny thing about holes, though. We talk about them like theyÕre there. :Like theyÕre real. Like we can jump in Ōem or crawl out of Ōem.
But thatÕs just silly. Holes donÕt exist. And for the duration of time his belt pin occupied the third and fourth hole on his belt, neither did he.
You might wonder why the focus on the belt. Really, you should have seen the thing. It was hardly holding together. It was really the only disheveled part of his standard issue appearance.
You could read the belt like a bar graph, with it being the X axis and the quality of his life being the Y.
As his belt pin moved on to another hole, the quality of his life suffered.
As his belly swelled with age, his life seeped out.
The gradual succession of the holes represented about 20 years, about six pants sizes, four part-time gigs, two careers and one incident heÕd been trying to forget for some time now.
Sad mathematics. A hard truth in numbers.
But he drove me crazy. I would kill him if I could. I had thought it out dozens of times. Usually with an aluminum baseball bat. This is preferable to a wood bat because you can develop a lot more hand speed with the lighter metal. It was the right tool of murder for me. A gun was too impersonal. I wouldnÕt want the force of a small bullet to kill him, IÕd want to do it with my own strength, my own power. I wanted to bash in his head. No. First his kneecaps, then his head. I wanted to spill his blood, but I wanted none on my hands. Yea, a bat would be good. The mind is a wonderful thing.
You are probably wondering why. Sometimes, I do to. But I really can't articulate why I feel the way I do. Hal Allman has never really done anything to me. But I remember when I met Hal, sort of.
My freshman year of college was an experience. I had a good job working at the school paper, writing two or three stories a week. Each day a story would come out, I'd grab five extra papers and shove them in my bottom desk drawer. I'd meticulously cut out each story and tape it down to a piece of computer paper. This enabled quick reflection. All the stories were neatly stashed away in a manila folder. Flipping through the stories about student government, budget cuts and dead people always left me with a feeling of accomplishment.
But I had always felt pretty accomplished. Had a good self-esteem. A level head on my shoulders.
Leaving home was tough, though. Not for me but for my mom. She handled it well, never asked me to come home, never made me feel guilty about leaving. She called a lot, told me she missed me and usually, "Oh, yea. Check your mailbox tomorrow. I sent you a little something," ended our thrice-weekly conversations.
The mailboxes on campus aren't central to all the dorms. It's quite a walk in fact. And at 18, that walk wasn't worth my effort. As a service to the students though, whether he was ordered or not I don't know, Hal would call your dorm if you received a package that didn't fit in the three by three by three box you were provided.
I wasn't in my room when that first package arrived. I came home later that night to a pulsing dial tone on my phone, which meant there was a message.
"Robert, this is Hal Allman from the Alpha North mailroom. You received a package today from UPS. In order to pick it up, you need to come down to mail-room, retrieve the yellow claim slip out of your box, present your student identification and sign the pick-up log" Click.
It was a nice surprise. Now I knew my lazy ass never had to check the mail, it'd be checked for me. Of course Hal wouldn't call me to tell me that I had regular mail, but I would have no reason to expect any of that stuff anyway. E-mail, Instant Messenger and a cell phone provided for me all the communication I needed. Snail mail was old.
So the next day, I made some time and stopped at the mailroom on the way to class. Picked up my claim slip, walked inside and there stood Hal.
"How are you doing today, sir?" he asked.
"Good, thanks. I'm here to pick up a package."
"OK. You have a claim slip?" he asked, as I quickly transferred from my hand to his the laminated slip with my name and mailbox number scrawled in dry erase ink on it. "Do you have your student ID?"
I provided it, signed on the dotted line and left.
I tore it open in the newsroom after class. It was a box filled with a few notebooks, a spatula, a package of plastic cups and a some paper plates Š brightly colored, animal head paper plates.
A few days went by. No big news. Classes were out. I was beginning to realize that on Fridays, no one really came to campus. The place was a ghost town. So looking back, crossing paths with Hal on the way back to the dorm shouldn't have been a surprise. He was a ghost.
But I didnÕt think anything of it really, back then. He was just the guy who ran the mailroom .
I got back into my dorm. I had three roommates, all of whom seemed like pretty good guys. Eccentric, maybe, but good nonetheless.
Extra Stuff 2
ItÕs funny how one moment the span of your life seems infinite and the next you have a hard plastic cup lodged halfway down your throat. And youÕre dead.
This is the beginning of my story. As you can see, it starts off on a rather sobering note. Okay, maybe sobering is too nice. Shitty. Yea, shitty, thatÕs how this story begins.
The cup was filled with iced tea, and while I sipped it, the car in front of stopped short, and I didnÕt stop at all. Well, you do the math. The cup was force-fed into my pie-hole, the top of hit breaking through my top teeth and lodging a few inches into the roof of my mouth, and the bottom achieving similar success down around the under-the-tongue area.
I bled to death there in my car, which was the best thing that could have come out of the situation because while the cup was raping my palette, my head snapping back to where the headrest used to be. So I broke my neck too.
I must say right off the bat, I was very surprised by my death. I certainly didnÕt anticipate it. But I also must say, compared to some of the friends I have met since IÕve been here, it was a good death. It was quick and fairly painless. It also was sensational, but not too far-fetched. On the ladder of weird deaths, my own seems sandwiched between the girl I met who killed her self accidentally a day after her 16th birthday when she left her new car running in her garage, and the elderly gentleman who survived a 20-foot drop down an elevator shaft, just to be crushed seconds later by the descending elevator.
But how you kicked the bucket is always a good conversation starter here.
ŅSo, how did you die,?Ó I would ask a pretty girl sitting across from me at the eatery.
For in this place, the afterlife, I suppose you are used to calling it, how you lived doesnÕt define you. It is how you die that makes you who you are. Forever.
And there is a reason only the good die young. ItÕs because we need them.
IÕm an Order 4 Morb, meaning that I am in my fourth year of being dead. I should be 26 years old, but I will remain 22 for the rest of my life. This is kinda cool, I think. But believe me, loads of fresh Order 1s arrive in my parcel every day and when the old ones figure out they will be stuck in their wrinkly skin forever, they get pretty depressed about it.
Actually, the majority of people who come here are severely depressed, some for great periods of time. They spend their lives praying to their gods and pondering how their good deeds on Earth will lead to a fortune-filled afterlife. So then they die, but thereÕs no light at the end of a dark tunnel. ThereÕs no place of judgment. ThereÕs just this place. Here. And for most, itÕs a bummer, a major let down.
But I look at these people and canÕt help but smile. CanÕt help but think back to that philosophy class I took a few years before I ate it. Good oleÕ Blaise Pascal, and his famous wager. The idea was pragmatic enough. Made good sense to most time-and-energy savvy people. If you believe in God and he exists, then you go to heaven and you win the wager. If you donÕt believe and he exists, you lose. If you donÕt believe and he doesnÕt exist, youÕve sacrificed nothing and youÕve lost nothing. But most people fell into PascalÕs final category: They believed he was there, and he wasnÕt. Well, sorta.
Now me, I never was a holy type guy. I always thought religion did more harm than good. I always sought logic in answers, never divinity. So with the whole ŅGodÓ thing, I rationalized that humans couldnÕt have had a concept of a god or creator before they developed speech. I always thought that our brains evolved and as a result we became rational creatures, and all that good stuff. You know, we got a lot smarter as our species aged. We soon began questioning why we were here and why we died, and someone got sick of not having all the answers one day and uttered the word God.
Now the only problem here is this: As one group of people, say in Africa, were beginning to accept this idea of a god, some other group around the same time on the other side of the world was doing the same thing, except they were calling the same idea by a differing name.
And a few thousand years later we were killing each other over it.
And what was pretty cool for me was since IÕve been here, I was able to prove my hypothesis, more or less, by just doing a quick search on a public omnocculus. But weÕll get to that later.
So youÕre probably wondering where this place is and who runs it and all that good stuff. Well, thatÕs a little hard to explain just yet, but I guess if I were still living, the concept that would come closest to describing the whereabouts of this place would be like a 4th dimension. Even simpler, think of like a black hole, minus all the tearing to shreds all the material that gets sucked into it.
And whoÕs in charge? I could tell you now, but I think youÕd be better suited finding out yourself. What I will tell you though is that this place is unlike any you have ever dreamed of before. It defies even the most complex of human thought. Like I said before, many are surprised when they get here. We get some funny comments in the Reception Ward, where the new Order 1s come in right after they die.
My bud Mike who is in charge of orientation often is mistaken for someone else.
ŅAre you, ah-ah-ah are you Jesus?Ó
one woman asked him upon entering last month.
ŅI am Jesus. Who the FUCK are you?Ó he replied with a smirk.
MikeÕs a bastard. Ever since he took the job, he has let his hair and beard grow wild. And sometimes he wears sandals and white flowing robes so people mistake him for Christ. And he plays with peopleÕs minds everyday. ItÕs kinda sick, but itÕs kinda funny.
And then he breaks the newcomers the harsh news. Eternity isnÕt all floating on clouds and reunions with old family members and beloved pets. ItÕs work.
People spend so much time looking forward to dying, looking forward from moving on from their boring lives. What they donÕt realize is that theyÕve had it wrong all along. Earth is heaven. The afterlife is where you pay your dues. But the dues you pay here are more fulfilling than anything you could have done on Earth, believe me.
My Order 4 status affords me some nice luxuries. Nicer than Order 1 Morbs, that is. You see, here, as you grow older (though that term is seldom used), your living quarters become upgraded. I live on 744th storey of a 1,059 storey apartment building. There are hundreds of towering buildings like these to house our ever-growing population.
The Struct, a governing body of upper Order Morbs, maintains about 10,000 of these towering examples of human ingenuity. Ingenuity, of course, being another one of those terms many donÕt quite understand. You see, here itÕs not so much needed. All the knowledge you can handle is at your fingertips.
My flat has a window that overlooks the metropolis where we all reside. ItÕs a rather large window, of extra thick composite glass. To the right, I can see the crashing waves of the turquoise ocean emulator, a sea without fish or jagged coral. ItÕs designed for recreation, which is important, especially to lower-level Morbs who donÕt adjust well. The seem to want to hold onto everything and anything worldly. And until they do adjust, it wonÕt become evident that what we do here is worldlier than anything they could have done while they were actually living there. So for now, we give them a fake ocean and a few fake strip malls. Keeps them occupied.
One woman who is having a particularly difficult time getting used to this place, this idea, just walks up and down here hall, balancing and rebalancing her check book. She clutches hard her pen, scratches out another entry, grinds the back of her hand into her forehead. Resettle officers do their best to help her.
ŅThatÕs of no use here,Ó one will say to the woman, who just glares back defiantly. Sometimes she even reaches down into her disheveled purse and pulls out a cell phone and begins to dial. It never connects, and she just gets angrier.
Do people really think you can die and when you arrive at your heaven, hell or space between, you can pick up the phone and call home?
ItÕs normal I suppose. I mean, this place, for the most part, looks just like the place where we all used to live. We obey the laws of gravity, for the most part. Our grass is green, our sky is usually blue. Our fake ocean looks real.