I’ve decided, for the next few weeks, I would post chapters from a very early manuscript here on my personal blog. It has already been looked at and touched, and I like it enough for you to see it. Leave whatever comments you’d like in the comments section. Here is Chapter one.
Dinner in a semi-fancy restaurant. This girl is in front of me, chewing, talking between chews. We met on the fly, when I was checking my shoe for gum and she was walking her dog. She judged me by my knowledge of canines. I judged her based on her breast size. This is our fifth date in a month. We’ve had sex three times. Math. The amounts of times I’ve seen her naked and enjoyed it is extremely disproportioned to the amount of time and money I’ve spent on her. More math. We’ve had many conversations and most of them involved one of three things: television, traffic, and her menstrual cycle. She is as deep and interesting as rain puddles in July. I can’t remember her name. Do you know what that’s like? When you know the name, and the brain is trying to push it out your mouth, but it’s not happening? I have no idea who she is. She doesn’t even know who she is. I should tell her this.
“You don’t even know who you are,” I say out loud, while this girl eats her something, her whatever.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “What?”
“Do you even know who you are?” The words just pop out. And with the popping, I feel…what’s the word? Relieved? No. Aroused? Yes. It is erotic, this honesty.
“Did you just ask me that?” She puts her fork down, she sits up straight. She looks about the restaurant as if the table were on fire, as if an exit is needed. An exit. Whenever I think of exits, I think of me as a penis, the door a vagina. The red sign is her clitoris. Not this girl’s vagina. Some random girl’s.
“Did you just ask me that?” she asks again.
“What did you just say, Milton?” That is my name.
“Exits are vaginas,” I say. She is up, out of the door, waving for a cab, before I can finish chewing this thing. What is it? Sushi? Dead fish not deserving flame.
From the restaurant I move to the street and from the street I go down to the subway, rubbing my stomach like that helps, like rubbing helps everything. Not knowing the girl’s name gives me indigestion. This has been building, this block, this stump in my mind. And as the train goes from stop to stop this block in my mind also grows. I have to ride the train through two complete cycles because the first time I forget where I live and the second time because I forget to get off.
My home? It used to be organized, like galaxies and the formation of DNA strains. Now I can’t see the floor because of all the clothes. Instead of throwing old food away, I keep shoving it into the refrigerator. A month ago I turned its thermostat to the coldest setting so it wouldn’t stink anymore. I still flush the toilet but I’ve given up on cleaning all together. I eat Frosted Flakes out the box, dry, with my hands and I notice a trail of ants from my window seal to the sugar bowl. I open the bowl and it is as black with ants as it is white with sweetening goodness.
My love life and the block don’t operate very well together. It is hard to hold on to an affair if you spend large portions of the day attempting to remember the little things, like the color of her eyes, where you meet, her fucking Christian name. And this is not drug induced. The only drug I induce is alcohol, and the only thing it induces is vomiting and the classic Milton charm, which I regularly use to have sex, which starts the cycle all over. Laying in bed, hoping to fall asleep, I realize that sex has been the only constant for so many months, now. Since the block appeared, hearing a woman scream my name in orgasmic delight has been the only thing worth buying these lousy bitches dinner.
Roads and rivers. Mass travel. Get here, get there, organize as a unit to achieve the achievable. Tie everything together. Subways to streets, streets to jobs, jobs to my desk, which is near the back of one of those open air offices. Everyone has a desk, a screen. People roll around on their chairs. Music plays. Some new-age shit. It sounds like a piano is being anally raped by a microwave. And not just any microwave. A cheap one.
“Morning, Milton.” My computer greets me with my name and a blue screen, followed by icons and messages. I fumble with the paper in front of me. Then I sort of shuffle the papers around. I do this so fast that they all fly into the air, wiggle and float to the floor. What is my job? What do I do?
“You get those emails about those background checks?” Wallace, my boss’s assistant asks. He is a powerful looking man. Looks equal perception, which is truth, right? What we think is real, is real. I read that somewhere. Wallace looks like a brawler, with this handsome face and black eyes. His hair is so thick I doubt he ever combs it. He probably wills it into shape. His suits are always ironed and razor pointed. I once thought about having a sexual fantasy about him. Is that too honest? I thought it. I didn’t do it. I also think about stabbing kittens. Doesn’t make me a bad person. Stop thinking what you are thinking.
“Did you get those emails?” He asks again. His voice is like cream of mushroom soup. My ear is the toast. I’m not gay. I want to kiss him.
“Um,” I play with my mouse. Who named it a mouse? I rename it. I play with my computer Twinkie. I move the Twinkie around and click a few times. Names come up. Yeah, this is what I do. I do background checks on potential city employees. That is what I do. I also masturbate in the bathroom on Fridays. During lunch. That is my stress ball, my relief, my get-me-through-pill. Don’t tell.
“Got it,” I say. He eyes me a bit longer than I am comfortable. I give him a thumbs up. He’s still there. I give him two. And a grin. He slightly adjusts himself and walks away.
A job like this goes by easier if you use subtle tricks. I pretend I am a movie director. Do some searches. See the character, see the profile. Then back hunt. Tie plot to the dialogue. The dialogue has to talk about the character. The character has to build and evolve to make that connection. What are we connecting to? What is it? You remember how it all ties together, the Lego fit points, the end marks, how he or she makes the connection. You get information. You usually get information you’d rather not know.
Name: Houser, Joel
Position Applying for: Sanitation engineer.
Red Flags: Late on power bill payments. 1999 to Present.
What’s a red flag? My bosses don’t want to watch the whole epic. They just want the hot points, the juicy sex, the gun fights. I search through applicants records, looking for things that might hinder their job performance, their reliability, their trustworthiness. I am the guy that…..you don’t care, do you? I pull up a list of anonymous Red flags.
Red Flags: Convicted felon.
Red Flags: Hospital records (multiple suicide attempts)
Red Flags: Extremely low GPA at the University of Illinois.
Red Flags: Complicated Divorce (Ant Farm).
I stop. I move the Twinkie. The curser rolls over “Ant Farm”. Double click. Another screen pops up. I get more information. I get the shiny highlights, the widescreen version.
Name: Samples, Jules
Position applied for: Social Worker.
Ant Farm? You ever get that feeling? That you know you are going to do something you really, really shouldn’t do? Like break a huge rule? One you’ve never broken before? Like using your job to pick up women?
“Hello,” She says hello. I should hang up. Just put it down. Put what down? That thing. It’s in my hand. God, what is it?
“Hello?” She says it again. New connotation. How do you spell that?
“Mrs. Samples?” I ask.
“Is it Mrs. or Ms?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think about it.”
“I’m with City Services. How are you doing today?”
“Oh, shit.” I hear her drop something, fumble a bit.
“Is this a bad time?”
“No, no,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for your call.”
“I’m not calling to confirm your application,” I say. But it sounds awkward. “I’m not the one who will tell you that you got the job. That’s sounds awkward, doesn’t it? I just need some more background information.”
“Oh. Ok. That’s fine.”
“I’d rather not do this over the phone.” I feel bad, dirty. I feel like I do when I look at pornography, or really bad infomercials.
“We can meet somewhere? You’re office?”
“No, no,” I say. “They are repainting the walls, applying fresh coats, starting over. Smells like a chemical bath in here. You like tea? You drink tea?”
“I like tea.”
“There is a new tea shop across the street from the court house. It’s like a coffee shop, but with tea. Herbal teas.”
“What will they think of next?” she says. Oh, god. A cliché.
“Tomorrow morning, around 10?” I ask.
“Yeah, that sounds great. Let me write it down.” I hear scribble. I hear her sigh. I hear some weird rap music.
“Tomorrow morning at ten,” she says.
“Tomorrow morning at ten.”
“What is your name?” she asks.
“Milton.” I say.
“Milton. Got it.”
“Bye.” I hang up. I look around. Everyone’s face is at their screens, like good little puppies. Yes. I think Yes. I need this. I need to do this. This isn’t wrong, because I need to do this and there is something in that, the fact that I called and she answered. And she won’t think anything strange about anything, ever.
“Milton!” I jump. I turn. There is Wallace. You remember? My boss’s ass. Assistant.
“Yes,” I say. He stares. I stare back. He stares longer. I sweat. He winks.
“Want to get lunch?” he asks, both thumbs in the air high.
We go to this weird place near the center of town. It takes a ten minute cab ride to get there, and I worry vaguely about time, us being late and eating beyond our lunch hour. Wallace doesn’t seem to care, and that means I refuse to care. He even, before we sit down, tells me that I hope I am hungry.
“Dinner’s on the City’s dime, brother,” Wallace says. He calls me brother. Would wanting to kiss him be incestuous? And are these real homosexual feelings or just plain gratitude? When did my life become not-simple? I order a water.
“We are about to become privatized, I think,” Wallace says. “There. Now it is officially a work lunch.”
“Are we becoming privatized?” I ask.
“I barely know what privatized means,” Wallace says.
“I’ve been struggling with remembering stuff, too.” I sip the water. Wallace leans back in the chair and looks at me for longer than I want him to.
“What?” I ask.
“How long have we known each other?” he asks.
“And in that time, how many lunches have we had together.”
“I’m not a reliable source of information,” I say.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” he asks.
“What happened to comradary?” He cracks his knuckles. He takes his class of ginger ale and downs the whole thing in one, massive, manly gulp. “What happened to men wanting each other’s company? What happened to hunting prey, killing the beast, eating the heart to ingest its strength?”
“Diseases?” I am a bit concerned, for some reason, for my safety.
“God,” Wallace sighs deep. “What I’d give to run around with a sword and spear, chasing blood and raping women all day.”
Our food comes. Wallace eats like he just ran a marathon and purged the ungodliness from Jerusalem. I nibble on the free croissants.
On the subway ride home, I try to remember the last time I found a man attractive. Then I think of my father, then I sort of forget what I was trying to remember. I don’t want to call it a block. That reminds me of wood, which I have issues with. I have issues with wood, how it is chopped and burned and used anyway we want, like some dime hooker. Cheap bitch. You like being bleached and made into paper? Anyway, the block. It prevents me from forming that link, you know? That union between what I want to convey and the word I can use to…to…give it to you? Fuck, I just had it. I can’t connect the words and the syntax. This is new, this frustration, this intensity, this block. It could have been that I am an only child or that I was beaten up to an obscene point once, left scared and such in the boy’s locker room in high school. It could have been the thirty plus hours a week I watched television in college, or the countless female rejections in college or the fact I even attended college. It could have been the few failed serious relationships in my past, or that year that I took unmentionable amounts of acid every few weeks. It could be solar flares or God’s wisdom or the easily blamable chemical reactions in my brain. But I truthfully can tell you exactly why I’m so fucked up. I can tell you everything about it, from the roots, the trunk, the branches and the leafs.
I just don’t want to.
I’m at the herbal tea shop a half hour early. Wallace notices me slipping out the office, but I clutch my stomach, mouth the words “doctor’s appointment” and he waves me away like a five year old with dysentery. I look at my hands as they shake the tea I’m holding. It is some odd Southern California Asian blend, grown in the soil of decomposing Indian-killed Buffalo or some bullshit. Smells like dog ass. What am I doing here? The block prevents much exposition. A mother talks to the clerk behind the counter as her little girl instinctively builds a house out of the cup holders.
The door swings open and a group of school children bust in, followed by a woman. Her hair is long, blonde. She has on just enough makeup to cover obvious acne scars. I fix my hair a bit.
“Ms. Samples?” She raises her hands up, like she scored a point. I get up, shake. God, my hands are so sweaty. I sit down and so does she. I reorganize the false papers I have on the table. The tea shakes and I catch it, dropping the papers to the floor. She picks them up for me and as she bends I look at the flesh of her back that exposes itself slyly from above her dress pants. The clerk behind the counter does the same and then me and the clerk look at each other and then, slowly, turn away.
“Here you go,” she says, handing me the papers.
“One of those days,” I say. Damn it. Don’t use clichés.
“Things happen,” she says, sitting up straight.
“I just wanted to clarify a few things. You aren’t in trouble or anything like that. It is just important that I have all the facts straight….” I grimace.
“Something wrong?” she asks.
“What do you think of clichés?” I ask.
“One of those days? Things happen? Facts straight?”
“I don’t know.” She looks to the left. Classic thinking maneuver. “I think they help us communicate. They cut certain corners.”
“But don’t you think those corners shouldn’t be cut? Don’t you think we should verbally bump into them?”
“I don’t think people are that creative anymore,” she says this, grinning. I smile back, shuffle the papers again. She looks at them, points.
“Questions?” she asks.
“Oh,” I look at the sheet. It says: China feared to be the new Red menace.
“What do you think of math?” I ask her.
“One plus one.”
“It’s two, right?”
“It’s funny we just assume that,” I say.
“How does this pertain to my application?”
“Just background,” I say. “You were recently divorced?”
“And there is some mention of an Ant farm?”
“It says that?” Her smile drops.
“We have connections to a database,” I say.
“Jesus.” She looks to the right. A defensive posture. “It says that?”
She folds her arms, shakes her head.
“So I should tell you about this? My job hangs on this?”
“Not completely. But I…the city would like clarification.” A close slip.
“What does my divorce have to do with my job?”
“Connections need to be made,” I say. “Event to reason. Tit for tat.”
“Tit for tat?”
“I like your blouse,” I say. I grin hard. It hurts my cheeks and makes it difficult for me to see.
She sighs deep, Jules does. She rubs her face, finally putting both hands in her lap and staring directly at me. Here it comes. Ant farm and what? After this, she will put together the world for me.
“About the Ant Farm?” I ask.
“I’d rather not say,” she says.
“Ok.” I pretend not to be shocked. I pretend. Don’t do this to me, I want to say. I write a few things randomly down and I finally notice the glaze she is giving me. She is giving me a glare, some sort of judgment call, some disdain.
“So, we are done?” she asks, gathering her things.
“Do you even know who you are?” They pop out again. I am straight and in form when I say it, but she isn’t moved by them. She gets up.
“I’m pretty sure I know who you are,” she says, opens the café door and leaves.
I go back to the office and for the little bit I have left, I check and recheck Jules Sample’s life, printing and saving any and every small kilobit of information. She went to public school in the city. She has gone to three different colleges, dropped out of everyone for various reasons. What is that? A small incident where she was arrested. She went to the hospital last year and paid cash. She was diagnosed with the gout. Her credit rating is horrible. She doesn’t have enough money in the bank to buy a VCR. The Twinkie, the screen, my hands and eyes are fantastically one. Finally, I feel the tugging, the piecing together, the linking. What is the proper term for all that? I knew it a moment ago. I print sheet after sheet, report after report. A heavy hand rests on my shoulder and I’m suddenly aware of my erection.
“Back away from the computer, Milton,” Wallace says.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“I don’t want to have to call security,” he says. I let go of the Twinkie, push my chair so it gently rolls back ward.
“Get up,” Wallace says. I do, taking the papers I’ve printed.
“I’ll take those.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You know the problem.”
“I know we have problems? Global warming? Bird Flu?”
“Let me have those,” Wallace sounds so soft. I can imagine him talking to his wife or whatever under the sheets, asking for their lives like he’s asking mine.
“I need these,” I clutch them like a skydiver and his fucking parachute.
“You have a good job, Milton. Why did you do it? Using records and files to hit on divorced women? Jesus Christ.”
“She called?” I ask.
“We are aware of the situation.”
“We broke bread together,” I say. “Spears? Rapping countries? Remember?”
“We are a bit beyond that, now,” he says.
“It said Ant Farm. Aren’t you curious? Listen to the phrase when I say it. An Ant Farm caused her divorce. We give those to children for birthdays. Do you understand? Do you even know who you are?”
“What did you say?” Wallace gazes at me, like I stabbed a knife in his testicles.
“Do you even know who you are?” I ask again.
“Give me those.”
I realize the word. Hammer on the end of nails, it concusses me just like that.
“I need a connection,” I say.
“We all do,” Wallace says, open handed.
I toss the stack into his face. His eyes close as the papers make that classic paper sound, the sound of ruffling and flapping. For sweet seconds, I watch them fly, hoping he gets a paper cut. But he is unhurt by my assault and stands in front of me like he’s never asked me out to lunch before.
Do you even know who you are? I walk down the street and say the words to myself, analyze them, work them. Have you ever felt ashamed? To the point where you want to hide somewhere and cover yourself? I do this. I think about those words, understand them and their power, watching the subway trains connect people to the other end of their lives. Back on the train, towards my home. The train is almost empty this time. Just me and this boy. How old do you think he is? He can’t be that old. I’m going to say fifteen. He is wearing a hoodie, do you see? It covers his entire head, shrouds him in a cotton veil of mystery, hides him with the smallest of shadows. I want the hoodie. I want the years. I want his inevitable solid family and his baseball games and his last name and his father. I want his father. I want to connect with this boy. I want to save this boy from my fate, even though I don’t know what the fate is.
We sit across each other. The train rocks and bounces and he was looking down at the metal, riddled floor but now he is staring, staring right at me.
“In the whatever,” I say, straight at him. “When whatever and whatever did whatever to create this whatever, there was a union. Wasn’t there? Something touched something to create something. An effort was made. An effort was made to be and create something, to be something. Two made one and that one floats in a dimensional existence. What do you think about when you create? What goes through your mind? What do you think about? Believe in? Understand? Do you even know who you are? I’m trying something with you, here. I walk down the street and say the words to myself sometimes, analyze them, work them. Do you even know who you are? Math is the ultimate connection. One plus one. Give me the answer, please. Right here, right, give me the answer, please. Connect the one and the one to make something new. Two. That is why we are here. That was the decision your parents made, my parents made, all parents make. Connect the skin to the foreskin or the skin to the scared penis head or skin to pen and adoption papers. We aren’t going to last. Do you hear me, son? We aren’t going to last forever. We are going to die. Like the universe, like the sun, like your father and me. We are all going to die. We have to connect, you see. Scare the earth, write our names in the mountains and tear down the trees because the trees and mountains will last and we won’t. We hate this. Do you hear me? We are jealous. Pass down to down and pass some more. That is what we are here to do. One plus one. A connection. To build, to be, to initiate, to create something that couldn’t before. Without that we are air in empty jars, useless trash and the waste of insects. Really think about it. Do you even know who you are?”
The train rocks to a stop. The boy pulls the hoodie off. He takes a hand to each ear, pulls out tiny ear phones, wires leading to his jacket pocket. I can hear the music coming out of them, loud and amazingly intricate.
He gets up, turns his back to me and walks out the sliding doors.