The Invisibility Artist
 
currently testing
 
 
 
 
 
 
Buying a new TV
 

The Last Second

I live in a world that has already ended. I didn't find out right away- I was on a yearly canoe trip in Canada, with buddies from Columbia Business,when the Last Second began. The trip was a tradition we began in school, but maintained by flying ten thousand miles to canoe two hundred- from London, Hong Kong, Taipei, and New York. As last year's trip ended, strong winds blew our canoes effortlessly across the last lake, red with dissolved iron, to rented jeeps parked at the end of a forest road. The northern lights had been astonishing, consuming the night sky for the entire last week of our trip. Car-time resumed as soon as the doors sealed shut and our seatbelts whirred and clicked into place. Suddenly we were filthy by comparison, the sound of our voices in an enclosed place alarming, inversely primitive. As the dirt road became pavement, our trip, like those before it, was packed away, compartmentalized in time. I found out about the end from my mother in a phone message. “There's been a terrible accident,” she said, as we drove out of the hills and into the closest mining town. I didn't really understand what she was talking about, but she didn't seem to either. Scientific consensus was still hesitant to proclaim its gran-mal fuck-up. But the media finally got it right about the end of the world.
What disaster did we miss out on this year?” Joked the Londoner as he drove.
Talking over the last part of my Mom's message, I said, “Uh, apparently the world ended.” We both laughed. We have a tradition of missing a calamity while on this trip: Hurricane Katrina, a hometown bridge collapse, assorted family tragedies. “Hold on. I need to check this out.” Logging onto the Internet through slick finger-dragged windows, I could see this story dominating headlines. The accident occurred at the largest, most complicated machine ever built, the particle accelerator at CERN. Images of giant circular symmetrical detectors, in caverns under 100 meters of rock, looked to me like churches. They would become the final shrines to the religion of materialism. In th accident, the lab had been partially destroyed by an astronomical burst of energy, radiating from a singular point in the rock a few feet outside of the tunnel. Scientists expressed the possibility that this anomaly was a black hole as a percentage. In the Black Hole Scenario, we were stuck in an elongated final second of the Earth's existence a stretched lanscape of time, which would appear to go on for an unknown duration. My girlfriend was the next phone message. She did not express the future of our relationship as a percentage. To her, the possibility that we were completely symmetrical people perfectly co-existed with her need to go back to her ex-boyfriend. “I need to be grounded right now. This isn't something I can deal with alone. You're not around, and even if you were...”
“More bad news, eh?” the Londoner read from my facial expression. “It's like the world can't get on without us.”
In town, every newspaper, television screen, and conversation was devoted to the hollow sphere of rock below Switzerland. But after a night of drinking on our mountain-fresh livers, we all got on planes, as normal. I got back to my apartment, which was altered only by the surgical removal of my girlfriend's stuff, and we all went back to work. Given the end of the world, the markets were in a massive panic. But we all knew there was money to be made. Even in the airport on the way home I could feel my restored vitality- like I could just slip into a closet with any flight attendant walking by. The world was stuck in a confused morbidity, not sure what to make of the ultimate tragedy, but I was immune. This Last Second had caught me in peak physical condition. Knowing that my abs were lean and golden beneath my suit, with leftover mosquito bits on my calves, I shredded my opponents in the boardroom.
Feeling the pressure of apocalypse, and knowing there would be women who also felt it, I found a new soul mate the same week I got back. And another after that. However, the fact that New York was stuck in a permanent August haze eventually interfered with my seasonal dating patterns. That, and the call from the last girl that she tested positive for HIV. So I was in a bit of a dry spell as the next year began to approach, when calls started bouncing around our crew for next year's plans. We decided that the end of the world was a pussy reason not to paddle, and so we began to plan our return to the Quetico.

This year we will fly in on pontoon planes, getting to places were the meek will not dampen our self-congratulation with their presence. It will also help get us past the burnout, which swept across the wilderness when winter never came. For me, money is quickly becoming no object. I have invested huge sums in a consumer product that will soon be in every car, plane, TV, cell phone, flashlight, weed-wacker, and dildo in the world. A somewhat large perk of destroying the planet was the creation of an unlimited source of energy. Anything that passes close enough to the black hole, which appears otherwise frozen in time, will be torn nearly to pure energy as it completes the final descent down the drain. A two-foot diameter water pipe pouring into the sphere is currently set up to provide for the ENTIRE planet. An antenna jutting out of the mountains converts this broad spectrum to low wave radio, and a receiver the size of two batteries can pick it up anywhere on the planet. My firm owns a majority shares in the company with the best patents, and so in the next twenty years (by the calendar) we could become unimaginably rich. So fuck yes, I'm going to take my canoe-trip, and I'm going to be airlifted in. The past few months by myself have been pretty vacant. I've never really had any hobbies; if I'm not working, I am chasing women. Without the desire to do this, there is no reason to go out. No matter how much extra work I find for myself at the office, or how many days a week I go to the squash court, I still end up in my silent apartment, cooking good meals for myself and watching detective shows I later pretend not to have seen. My first HIV test came back negative, but the doctor's said it won't be conclusive for a couple months, so I scheduled another appointment right before the canoe trip. I won't find out until I get back.
As my plane from New York gradually climbs north, I squint out the window, trying to detect a shift of season with latitude. Travel has become the only way to experience the seasons. Winter and summer have become places, not times. When I land, I check my account balances and credit limits before meeting up with the Scandinavian brothers, who came in on a separate flights. I've never believed in saving a penny; people who put money in banks are morons- they don't understand that the present is in a constant state of erosion, everywhere, all the time, always has been. So I'm usually running close to empty, a streamlined financial machine. I discretely need to double check that the outfitter's lodge, rented trucks, steak dinners, and pontoon plane don't bounce. When we all arrive at the outfitter's, we spread our gear across the lounge for a final tally. A largely silent consensus is reached to leave the backpacker's guitar behind. It was a gift from one of the Scandinavian brothers to the other, a tentative nod to long discarded musical aspirations. We all silently, dreadfully imagine it's strumming wafting with the wind across our campsite. The politics of its removal from our gear are skillfully navigated by the would-be troubadour. We are determined not to use the end of the world to discover our creative sides. Our parent's generation has done this wholesale: drawing, painting, and writing with the smugness that the world does in fact end with them. I have always felt violence towards the baby boomers, with their well-published youth and subsequent unwillingness to age gracefully.
“I'm glad we're all here.” toasts the Hongkonger.
“Not even stopped by the end of the world!” Responds the Londoner. We all laugh and toast, big summer beers over a table supported by moose antlers. We have always come here to prove that we are not just masters of finance, lords of account balances. We assert our bodies across rock-faces and cut up fish with knives to prove that we are timeless conquerors. But we also come to form a smaller world of comedy, without danger of sophisticated scrutiny. So that we can sing sections of pop songs in that “man who doesn't know how to sing” falsetto, while occasionally the brother with singing lessons tries to add a harmony to our strained, approximated lyrics. We come to make up facts about geology that can't be corroborated. We come to assemble smartly designed aluminum and nylon structures, to cook over tiny stoves that look like space probes. Everything interlocking, collapsible, featherweight. We spend thousands to replace our gear with the newest. By proving that our money is good in such a remote place, we are proving that it is good everywhere. We race against other voyageurs for the titty campsites, touring the boulder patios and harbors like 10,000 square foot homes, deserving them for reasons that transcend money.
The first night I sit out on a rock face overlooking the lake, smoking a hand rolled cigarette and exhaling out of my nose. This sensation of immense calm is unmistakably derived from nostalgia, recalling former years in this late summer cool, past trips, even as far back as teenage crushes and minor vandalism. I've never had an emotional attachment to the future- it has always been a landscape of logistics: filled with plans to mitigate the decay of the present and fumble after the repetition of previous mystique. I am a chronic nostalgic, and the end of the world has further justified my emotional crutch. As the sun sets, I head up the hill behind our campsite, through a thicket meadow filling in after last year's fire. From the top of the hill I can see across meager lakes with no names, and the weak late season sun paints the sky like blue newsprint turning yellow with age. In the silence here it really does feel like the world has ended. This place is not a part of any story, the world never even started here. The woods will grow back from the fires and erase this moment, ignoring our catastrophe. I head back down to camp, to the sound of a battery powered toothbrush and ruthless card game, which I join as the mosquitoes force us into one of the well-designed tents.
Later in the week we are halfway across a smaller, swampier lake, and the Londoner's fishing pole bends like it's snagged on the ground. He struggles to reel in a giant pike. When it is up against the canoe, I reach my arm in the water and grab its body so tight that it simply gives up thrashing. Once it's in the canoe, it coughs up a whole crawfish- we will find three more in its stomach when we clean it later.
“Oh, that's charming.” Says the Londoner about the slimy curled up alien of a crawfish at his feet.
“It's good exercise to overcome my sympathy for these beauties,” I say, as I stab a spike through the fishes' lower jaw, rope it to the canoe, and toss it back in the water.
“Kill or be killed.” The Londoner adds. “Nature is red in tooth and claw.”
“There's no such thing as nature,” I say. “Nature is what happens when you leave everything alone. Like capitalism. Newark, New Jersey is nature.”
We carry our canoes and packs along a path between two lakes. Everybody rests at the mouth of the next lake, eating beef jerky and mixed nuts, swigging tang. “Any hot items waiting back in New York?” the Hongkonger interrogates.
“No. I'm getting out of the game. I need to find a wife and get with the picture.” My crew have all married since school; it is barely discussed. The Scandinavian who went to Taipei has a kid on the way, which is almost a faux pas this year, with the how you could bring a child into this world crowd. Secular birthrates have plummeted since we past the 9 month mark from the beginning of the last second; although it functioned more as an aphrodisiac for followers of apocalyptic religions.
“What difference does it make? You've got the right idea for these times,” The Scandinavian says. I am their notorious bachelor; they have always reveled in my conquests, and become passive-aggressive when I am around their wives and girlfriends.
“No, I think I might be over my crazy girl thing. I'm looking for a good investment, a fixer upper. Not too hot, so she's not always looking over my shoulder to the next guy. I'm settling down.”
“I'll believe it when I see it.”
That night the northern lights are out in their typical brilliance. They are even visible from the streets of New York now, as a byproduct of the black hole, the dark star of our civilized metabolism. They have shifted from a mysterious privilege to an ominous pollution, over-saturating the market for celestial phenomena. We lie out on the rocks and watch the bands of green and red streak across the sky, mosquitoes held at bay by 100% DEET.
“So supposedly the most distant galaxies are disappearing,” says the Londoner.
“Can you even see those with the naked eye?” asks one of the Scandinavians. Like most scientific questions that we bring up, it is more or less directed at his brother.
“Uh, I doubt those are visible,” responds our resident unverifiable expert-on-everything.
“Especially not with these god-damned northern lights,” jokes the Hongkonger. This is met with our manly chorus of laughter. The lights used to be a part of the story of this trip, something to bring home. We all understand the value of rarity. The lights have been devalued, even from their tenuous calendar-art status. The Londoner smacks a mosquito on the side of his face.
Walking by myself, I find a plant that I intuitively recognize from Boy Scouts as edible, although it’s been twenty years. I rub a small part of it on my skin, then on my tongue, and then voraciously consume the whole thing without caution. My stomach grumbles, my face flushes- and nothing happens. It was fairly tasty. I now have a flavor to associate with trusting my gut. I can feel myself getting ready to look for women again. That evening, as I am sitting on the edge of the lake after dinner, the wind picks up. It dawns on me that the wilderness is dirty, uncomfortable and loud, like the city- and I like it that way. One of the Scandinavians points towards the north.
“Holy shit. Look at that green sky,” he says. The others start scurrying around, putting things away for the approaching storm, but I keep sitting on a log watching the storm roll in. The green forms an advancing wall, trees and hills disappearing into it.
“Here it comes!” I yell over the wind, and we scramble for our tents. We poke our heads out the door and watch the wind and rain suddenly tear across our campsite. I can see the boiling surface of the narrow lake, and I notice a terrible sight- one of our canoes blowing away in the water.
“Mother fucker, the canoe,” says the Londoner as he notices the same thing. Without consultation we both race out in the rain, shedding our clothing on our way to the lake, as we are pelted with hail. I stub my toe severely as we dive in the water, swimming with all our might to catch the boat. When we get to it, we pull onto shore, roll it over and hide under it to wait out the torrent. I look down in the twilight, and see blood flowing off my foot, blood that may or may not contain HIV, mixing with rainwater. I don't say anything about it, so that no one will offer to help bandage it. The storm doesn't last long, and when it ends, we swim the boat back to camp. As we approach the Londoner calls, “Ca-Caw, Ca-Caw!” our traditional signal. Everybody at camp lets out whooping cheers. We got our story for the year: something to tell, to mask the fact that we come here to avoid stories, to have long days without recountable features. We drink our remaining whiskey and play cards late into the night, mythologizing the crazy power of the storm. The rest of the trip finishes without incidence. It is hard to tell if we have lost inertia, if the trip will happen again. We have finally stopped daring each other to jump off of cliffs, and my boys’ wives won't tolerate this bonfire of vacation time indefinitely.
Once again, like returning to the place you were when Kennedy was shot or when the towers came down, we are nearing cell phone range of the mining town. My phone shows a message from my doctor, but the service blinks back out before I can listen.
“What do think it will be this year?” The Londoner says from the driver's seat.
“I don't know,” I say, somewhat honestly. “Can't be the end of the world.”

 

The Blastocyst of the Embryonauts

She puts her nose in the spout of the milk jug. She sniffs, chemically sensing for the byproducts of microbes. Unfortunately, her last sniff in is followed by a puff of air out, a gust of nasal wind that carries a navy of new microbes onto the fragile sea of milk. Scientists have discovered that clouds contain whole ecosystems, airborne seas of bacteria armored in ice. She pours a glass of milk, and then places the jug back in the refrigerator- a bacterial time machine that slows the new navy to a crawl. When she was younger, this woman wore a broken watch set to her favorite time; but now she checks the acutal time, to see if her husband is putting their daughter to bed. There is a drug craze sweeping the nation, a drug called clenospirne, with no effect other than the complete inhibition of memories. After you take this drug, you are assured that you will not remember the next week of your life. Twenty-somethings buy last minute plane tickets to far corners of the world, so that they will wake up not knowing where they are. All cars are electric.
Their daughter hasn’t been able to sleep for nights, too excited that she will have dreams that she won’t remember in the morning.
“Maybe I’ll have a dog.” She muses. Her father is sitting on the side of her low pastel-colored bed. “I’ll name him Garbage.” He tucks the blankets around her shoulders.
“Will Garbage die when I wake up?”
“No.” The father thinks about all the pets he had growing up, how they all ended up in the freezer, waiting for the hard black ground to thaw so that they could be buried in the yard. He would peek in on his cats and dogs, hamsters and guinea pigs. Upon freezing they instantly became replicas of themselves, stiff and cold- not the pet anymore but an inaccurate model, a shed carapace of fur and meat.
“Dad?” she says much more quietly.
“Uh-hum?
“I’m not breathing. Watch.” She stares at the wall and waits for a breath to come.
“You’re just thinking about it too hard honey.”
Tears start welling up in her eyes.
“I forgot how. I’m scared.”  He picks her up out of bed before her little existential crises gets out of hand; before she remembers how to breathe in gasps and sobs.
“Let’s go watch tv.”
After carrying her sleeping body back to her bed, he goes to the room he and his wife share. She is reading a novel, with her heavy prescription glasses that she won’t let anyone else see her wearing. She sets the book down and takes off the glasses, smiling at him, and motions him subtly to her with one hand. They make love. Later that night she lurkes awake, from a nightmare about falling up rather than down. In th dream she bumps on tree branches and misses every handhold, until she is open air soaring away from the planet. She is sure that she would rather fall down, her bones and blood snuggling into the dirt and rocks, than see everything she has ever known drift away irretrievably. In the morning, in the shower. the man can hardly remember the details of the sex, or how long it lasted. He hardly ever remembers it. He keeps it private from the voyeur of his future self, turning the webcam of his masculine memory away, catching only a few dim frames.
            He is watching the pre-space-age apocalypse movie “When Worlds Collide”, folding laundry while his wife is at work, when it occurs to him. In the film the Earth will be destroyed, and they are building a rocket to escape. As the crew of the rocket is being selected, the lead scientist proposes that 40 lbs be spoken for in advance- the weight of a little boy. The man stands up from the couch and grasps his head. “Of course! Children!” He grabs his thighs and shakes the relaxed muscles as if they are not a part of him. “Why launch all of this full-grown animal?” The obvious extrapolation, for someone married to an in-vitro fertilization doctor, is this: Embryos are the best astronauts. As much as he liked the image of a rocket full of toddlers, he is floored by the realization that he has almost enough rocket power in his shed to launch something so small out of Earth orbit.
He and his wife met in medical school, she was drawn to his curiosity and fervor, to the bold strangeness of his research. He needed her intense presence, the fact that she was not afraid to make enemies. They had a child before school was over and it was clear very quickly that he would stay at home and raise her. He dropped his medical research completely and become obsessed with amateur rocketry in his free time. His wife helped him buy a shed in the backyard and he embarked on progressively larger rockets.  Now he races out to the shed and draws up the rocket. To begin, the rocket will be carried to the upper atmosphere by a hydrogen-filled balloon. At 30,000 meters the rocket will ignite, tearing through the balloon above it. Because the pressure doesn’t change much from there, and there is no resistance from air, the rocket roars well beyond the velocity it would have gained from Earth. Just as it sputters out and prepares to fall back to ground in customary defeat, a powerful gun fires a tiny bullet out of the nose. The bullet streaks out of the Earth’s hold, dissolving until only the tiny tip remains, a strange leftover in a homemade equation. A foil sail unfurls, and the wind from the sun pushes the embryonic craft  past the edge of the solar system within a few decades. In his mind he follows the tiny vessel, painted like a space shuttle, with tiny windows and the logos of an imaginary country. He repeats this launch sequence endlessly in his head for the next few months. When his wife gets home, he shows her his plans on the kitchen table, his fervor of earlier life completely restored. She smiles and doesn’t say much, but she would do anything to keep him inspired. They agree on how to contain the embryos and to include a wafer of computer memory on board: instructions for aliens to grow a human, like a sea monkey. There is all the known chemistry of the womb, the incubation period in units of radioactive decay, the entire Icelandic language with a phonetic map of the mouth, and recipes for macaroni and cheese, written with the atomic numbers for wheat and cheese. The computer chip is smaller than a baby’s pinky toenail.

 

Her electric car pulls noiselessly into the driveway. Months of stockpiling rocket fuel from different sources have gone by. She walks to the passenger side to get a small red cooler out of the seat. She has stolen the embyors from the fertility clinic; waved to the security guard in a cowboy hat, and driven through the gates with the stuff of life. The seatbelt is buckled gingerly around it, but she handles the case like business papers as she removes it from the car.  The man is watching her from the kitchen window, the sky is grey and slowly shifting, there is dew on the grass. He thinks she looks strangely calm, for having just committed a serious crime and risked her whole career. He sighs. When they were in grad school she pursued him with conviction, and for a while he remained external to their romance. “You are always floating a few feet above us,” she would say. It was clear that her mind was recording every detail, that they were writing the story of her life with every meal cooked together, every morning in bed. But as she realized that she had fallen for a person who was only partly there, he began to realize this absence about himself. The ebb and flow of her desire for him became almost terrifying for the man. He realized that all his thoughts were becoming structured as a presentation to her. He was almost relieved when she became pregnant, he knew their child would be a reason for him to live on Earth.
She opens the door and walks in the kitchen quietly, setting the cooler on the table in front of him without saying anything, standing close to his side so that he can feel the heat of her stomach and smell the lab faintly on her jeans, brought out by the dampness of the day.
            “You did it.” He says. Inside the cooler is a dewar of liquid nitrogen, and a petri dish labeled “blastocyst”.
            “I got more than one. I didn’t have time to separate them.”
            “Really? How many?”
            “I think around five or six.”
            “Well, it’s a crew then,” He says with a tentative amusement, trying to relinquish his megalomaniacal control on the project.
            “The weight difference won’t matter will it?” she asks.
            “No, Maybe it’s even good to have more chances.”
            “They’re probably all identical.” She says. She sits down across the table and looks him right in the eyes.
            “I took clensoprine.”
            No. Really? Oh, but now you won’t remember the launch. You won’t remember any of it.”
            “I’m sorry. I was too nervous to steal them.” She sounds like someone who isn’t talking about her own life. It breaks his heart. She is never so distant, she believes sleep is a waste of time. When she was younger she would write her ideas on the wall every morning immediately after waking. They now have a three day window to launch the embryonic rocket.
The man pulls into the round driveway of the elementary school, in the grey silence of full attendance, all children properly contained within. He is here to pick up his daughter for the backyard launch, In the principal’s office, the adults seem to be unable to extricate themselves from the social dynamics of children, they speak to the man in the same patronizing tone reserved for kindergarteners.
“May we ask why you will removing your daughter from classes?” asks the woman behind the desk, whose boobs are a large undifferentiated mass beneath her chunky sweater, a creature adapted for sitting behind a desk. She has posters of kittens in cute metaphorical conundrums that she seems unembarrassed of.
            “Family business,” The man says, trying meekly to be confrontational. He shuffles his feet awkwardy. Beneath his feet in the tan carpet, microscopically, the  shuffling releases invisible particles of juvenile skin, decades worth. This cloud of biomass belongs to hundreds of thousands of  different children, a cloud of ambiguous “child”, imparting that generic and universal smell of schools. He notices this smell seconds later. His daughter comes in and hugs his legs, and they leave.
 
“How is Tavit?” the man asks his daughter on the car ride home. Tavit is his daughter’s latest crush in the absurd theater of kindergarden romance. She is staring out the window with an empty-headed wistfulness. She crinkles her nose without looking at her dad.
            “I don’t like Tavit.”
The father smiles. “How come?”
“He’s gross. He’s just… eww.”  There have been several such crushes in the past year, and she is still young enough to tell her dad about them. Each time, a day comes when the crush violently reverses, like an allergic reaction, and her mind suddenly rejects the boy as a foreign intruder. But she is always unfazed, able to crush again without a visible thickening of her skin. She cradles a cherished lunch box in her lap that is printed with the latest cartoon character. Her father envies her ability to absorb the world- a cartoon character, a crush. He has a feeling that the gates in his heart were closed a long time ago, and the best he can do is rearrange the emotional furniture.
“You’re going to be a heartbreaker,” He says to her. She keeps looking out the window and doesn’t respond.
The balloon warbles from the wind as hydrogen rushes into it; making a dry, empty sound. It will expand as it rises, so it will be released somewhat flaccid. It is colder outside  than the man had imagined, but the wind is not too strong and the sky is clear. His daughter will catch a cold from the time outside. It is a virus that already exists in her sinuses as well as those of her mother and father. The cold air outside will merely cause a constriction of her nasal blood vessels, and tip the scales in favor of the virus, in the constant silent battle of the microbial world. Afterward, like her mother and father, she will never get the same virus again, her body having learned the word for it.  The father hands the balloon anchor string to his daughter, and is amused by the image of a little girl with a balloon attached to a missile attached to a gun. She lets go before he tells her to, but he doesn’t get angry. It swoops low over the basalt, appearing to go horizontally more than vertical at first, the rocket dangling precariously. Soon there is a comfortable slice of sky between the ground and balloon, and its size diminishes rapidly in the distance.
“When will the rocket go off?” His wife asks, trying to be polite about the obvious anticlimax.
“Oh, ah, I think it will be too high to see. I thought I mentioned that.” He is straining to keep his video camera focused on the balloon, which is now becoming a speck.
“Oh.”  The woman and daughter huddle against the father and peacefully watch the speck glitter and gradually become invisible. The daughter sniffles.
After the launch, they all go inside to watch it as home video footage. He turns the tape on, fast-forwarding through images of the three of them in puffy windbreakers with rosy cheeks, the camera hastily set on a cinderblock while they hold each other and smile towards the future. He brings the tape to normal speed after the image is nothing but empty blue sky and the tiny flickering dot of the faraway balloon. The father from ten minutes ago is narrating the video in an attempt to convey historical import, with a stuttering zest. Puffs of wind interrupt and obscure him. Suddenly the father from the present jumps off the couch at a detail his wife and daughter miss. He backs up the tape, and then plays it again in slow motion, imploring them to watch carefully. The zoom is strained to the edge of credibility, pixels of red and yellow are popping in and out of view like particles appearing and disappearing. Suddenly, the whole screen flashes white for a frame, and then a streaking white dot can be seen- the rocket igniting and tearing up through the balloon. It ticks by for less than a second, and then is gone.
“The first interstellar astronaut!” He exclaims.
“Potentially!” His wife adds.
“From our backyard!” Over the following nights the man will play this drab splotchy second of tape, like a UFO sighting, over and over. In a few more days his wife will marvel that she cannot remember the events clearly recorded in the tape, and after years his daughter will only remember the story, not the actual experience. As he grows older and returns to watch the tape, he will not skip the images of his family, and the slow boring ascent of the balloon to a speck in the sky.

 
     

The Lavender Channel

She exits the highway and begins winding through residential neighborhoods. She is going to Connecticut to help her parents move out of her childhood home. She left New York City late, held up at work. She remembers when her family moved away from Queens, seeing highways without streetlights for the first time. She didn’t even know that roads came that way- that they could get so dark. One detail about the drive is different now: much of the ubiquitous blue glow of television sets has been replaced by a pinkish hue. It the hue of the TV station she works for, a scientific breakthrough called the Lavender Channel. The channel broadcasts an exact shade of lavender that can hold human attention almost indefinitely. There are no hosts, no exercising women, no commercials, no music; it is being refined to the perfect shade almost daily. There was opposition, conspiracies about brainwashing, concerns about the arousal that many people experience. The escaping light from living rooms and bedrooms onto lawns and bushes has lost its flicker, replaced by a static and placid glow. But she is not thinking about work. She is thinking about a man she just dumped. The first time they hung out, they hit it off. They did accents together: the effeminate southern man, the cockney wench. There was no unnecessary laughter, either awkward or self-congratulatory. Their friends at the party willingly moved to the sidelines. Fluorescent spray-painted Christmas trees hung upside-down from the ceiling. The floor was getting sticky. The crowd was mostly younger. She didn’t know at first that he was the son of a rockstar. She had heard her friends mention him- as the son-of-a-rockstar that we know- but that first night she never placed him. She believes this is why he liked her at first, because she didn’t treat him like the son-of-a-rockstar; as if he had a physical deformity that no one could pull their internal monologue away from. Now that they’ve broken up, of course, having dated him is a delicious badge, especially if conversation can be steered towards this fact naturally. His dad is not just a rockstar, but more accurately a rock-god, a singular personality in a permanent throne. In the relationship, of course, his son’s inherited celebrity began as a hindrance to true intimacy and ended as a depressing non-event. Now the woman arrives at her parent’s house, pulling into the driveway and turning off the headlights. The porch-light and kitchen stove light are on, meaning her parents have gone to bed but are expecting her. A plate of brownies is on the kitchen table under saran wrap. She takes the brownies into the study upstairs and checks her email. There is a dissertation from the rockstar’s son in her inbox. The message details how she is a bad person.
This is all true, she thinks. It reads “You want everyone to like you, and think you are this great new person. But that’s it, and then you are done and you move on.” Just today on the drive out of the city, the woman was frustrated because the old man at the convenience store didn’t perk up at the sight of her., and she briefly dwelled on it. Truth be told though, she is the type of person that small children and pets gravitate towards. Little kids demand that she play pretend with them, and she always ends up inhabiting their make-believe worlds more than any adult probably should. She rarely argues with anyone of any age.
The next morning she wakes up shortly after her parents, no longer sleeping to noon every time she comes home. They hug and give her a cup of coffee. Her dad makes fun of her for never speaking until she has her coffee. Her mother asks coyly about the rockstar’s son, ten minutes or so into their catching up conversation, after an opportune pause. The mother is leaning against the counter while the woman sits slightly hunched at the kitchen table.
“It’s very over Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t marry us into rock royalty.”
“ I wish we got to meet him at least.”
“Well, I thought we were going to be friends until last night. I think I just got fired from his inner circle.” The rockstar’s son takes his friendships very seriously. He demands a full commitment and frequently fires people from the position. The woman remembers walking to work on a grey morning, after spending the night in his village apartment. She was imagining where he might be at the same time, and it made the whole island of Manhattan seem like their mansion- a dirty, drafty, sexy mansion.
In the afternoon, the woman and her mom go to an aunt’s house on the shore. Her cousin is there, two years younger with a wedding ring on her finger. They talk about the ring. The cousin disdainfully mentions a gigantic ring her ex bought his new fiancé. “(The fiancé’s family is conveniently in the jewelry business on Long Island)”, she says parenthetically. Then the aunt launches into talk about the perpetual process of remodeling, while the cousin leaves through bridal magazines.
“What do you think about a counter island right here?” The aunt asks.
“That would be nice,” offers the woman. “You could see the ocean through the living room while you chop vegetables,”
Her mother muses, “I can’t picture something that’s not there like she can. I guess it’s what makes an artist.”
“Mom, I’m not an artist. I’m am assistant producer for TV.” The aunt mentions how good the Lavender Channel looks on her giant new hi-definition television. The woman likes being around normal people like her aunt and cousin now. The teenage terror- that their normalcy will absorb her life- has mostly passed. In fact, she is waiting with a macabre anticipation for the time when her cousins are all married with babies, and she will be officially left behind. She would be thrilled to experience the biological clock of lore- it just isn’t happening. Pregnancy still resides in her subconscious as bad dreams about carrying aliens inside of her. But it makes the woman feel expansive to understand the draw of her relative’s lives: the gradually nicer cars, the private kiss in the married couple’s own foyer at night. Her aunt vacuums flying insects off the ceiling.
Later that night, after her parents go to bed, she forces a trip down memory lane, remembering the first snowy night she moved into the Connecticut house. She had wandered a little ways into the woods in the back, down a snowy hallway of bushes to the edge of the yellow light from the streetlights. She wonders if this was the first time she felt the drunken recklessness of a new place. She had cried a lot about leaving her friends in Queens, but even at ten years old she became enthralled by the chance to start a brand new childhood. Her mother fears that her daughter’s desperate need for variety will ruin her life, romantically, professionally, or otherwise.
“Don’t you think you might just be running from yourself?” The mother asked at dinner, after a few glasses of chardonnay. Her mother is surrounded by this kind of hallmark card wisdom. She has a shoebox full of the pictures that come in the picture-frames when you buy them.

The next day her parents put her to work on the house. Her mother has given her the task of scraping the glow-in-the-dark stars off the ceiling of her childhood bedroom. She noticed last night when she turned out the light that the stars still glowed bright as ever. As she lay in her familiar bed under unfamiliar covers and stared up, she was not quite transported by the illusion, just like always. Now she goes downstairs and watches for a few seconds as men coarsely tear out the carpet that was a savannah for her mildly-chewed My Little Ponies. It would be a shame to leave those hardwood floors covered by disgusting carpet, she thinks to console herself. Removing carpet is watching America grow up a little bit. Nobody wants to turn their entire house into a bed anymore. The reality of carpet is filthy and worn-down, uncleanable and infantilizing.

In the evening Saturday night, the phone rings for the woman. It is her old friend. In a monotone she asks “Do you want to go to a poetry reading on Williams’ street?”. The friend moved back to town a few years ago, after a tour of Northeastern colleges and mental institutions.
“Um, tonight?”
“Yeah, I could come pick you up at eight.” Despite disarray in all other aspects of her life, the friend is punctual.
“Sure, fine, I’ll see you at eight,” she agrees against her better judgement. The friend arrives at 7:55 in her standard state- vulnerable yet non-responsive. Her small car has the faint residues of some hippy fragance, sandalwood or patchouli or something, and pot. The friend could have been a good writer. She was a drama star in high school, flamboyant jazz singer, devolving into keg party blowjob queen. She stopped growing at some point; all the cds in her car are from before 2000. She lost sight of the difference between dramatic chaos and art.
“Remember when we were little and we would run from nothing?” The friend blurts out on the drive there.
“Uh, I don’t think so.” The woman says as if she is trying hard to remember.
“We would run from nothing because it was chasing us. We’d scream our heads off until we were actually scared.”
“Well, nothing is pretty scary, I guess.”
“It was in the woods behind your house. You don’t remember that?”
“Maybe I do. It’s funny anyway.”
The poetry reading is ridiculous and under-attended. The woman scans the room to make sure she is not the oldest one there, and finds some middle-aged men protecting her from this undesirable distinction. A short, rotund bearded man walks up to the microphone. The Woman is flabbergasted by his black leather fanny pack, khaki shorts, and sandals with socks. I’ve become a Fashionista, she thinks. But this guy is too much. He gesticulates emphatically as he reads about being the president in his bathtub with a rubber ducky. After the reading, the woman, the bipolar friend, and the organizer of the reading go out for a drink. The organizer is a skinny gay man who lives in a cabin outside of town by himself; enthusiastic and gentle and charming in a weird way. The girl and the organizer hit it off, while the bi-polar friend seems to slip away into a dark place, ceasing to answer questions directed towards her. The woman thinks: well, at least we are out with the head of this scene, even if it is totally lame. Considerations of status are taking up more and more of her mind. On the drive home in the dark, she makes fun of a song on the radio. Her friend laughs abruptly.
“You are so caustic!” The friend accuses the woman. The woman is surprised; she thought she had concealed her constant judgments and condescension pretty well.
The next morning the woman and her mother are driving to the supermarket. Her mother goes there almost everyday, and complains about it, but it is a place to go, her purchases are sometimes spontaneous. In the passenger’s seat, the woman’s phone rings, and she squirms around to pull it out of the pocket of her jeans.
“Bad news, kiddo,” the man on the line says in his “the-gig-is-up” voice. It is her boss at the Lavender channel. “We got pulled.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Yeah right. Listen, when you get back, we’ve got three weeks, so you’d better start pounding the pavement. I’m sorry there wasn’t more warning.”
“But everybody watches us.”
Late night’s not enough. We’ve leveled off. We’ll never get more popular. And a color doesn’t sell ads. They’ll package the last signal for disc, but that doesn’t involve us.”
“Alright. I’ll see you Monday.”
She hangs up and looks over at her mother, who is holding a look of sympathy. “Two firings in one weekend,” the daughter jokes. Somehow, the joke makes her eyes tear up a little bit, even though she doesn’t really care about the station. It still feels like a rejection.
She goes to the cemetery at the edge of town in the evening before she leaves, to visit the grave of a kid who died in her high school class. She feels a bit like an intruder, like she didn’t know him well enough to come here, that his memory is owned by the kids who stayed behind, holding hippy jam fests once a year in his honor. She made out with him at a party once, that’s her only claim. She tries to imagine what he looks like in the ground now, twelve years later, but she can’t picture anything realistic. In high school it bothered her deeply to think of him in the ground, as the nights got cold. Now only the laser-etched image on the tombstone bothers her. It hardly looks like he did. A rendering of a dead kid should be flawlessly accurate. Did they have to include a mountain bike, forever trapping him in 1997? Oh shit, she realizes. He is trapped in 1997. She doesn’t stay for long, just a couple of minutes. “Sorry you ended up being the Dead Kid,” she whispers. The car door beeps as she gets back in and sits down. She buckles her seatbelt methodically and pulls out of the cemetery, turning towards the city, to start looking for a new job.

     

The Invisiblity Artist

“The models are getting friction burns from the suits. And they can’t even begin to stand up.”
“Oh yeah, I was thinking about that, that they wouldn’t be able to stand. Is it funny to watch?” He is sitting at a desk in a small studio in New York, video conferencing with his main assistant, a well dressed and motivated woman in her early thirties. She picks up her laptop to angle the camera towards a woman in a bikini, who is inside a clear inflatable suit, which is shaped like an obese man. An assistant begins unzipping the suit to free the visibly unhappy model. Several other bikini-clad women are standing around, in bathrobes, and more transparent fat suits are hanging on a clothing rack. The artist giggles at the not quite real-time image, covering his mouth with the first two knuckles of his fist.
“It’s not going to work like this,” the woman says matter-of-factly.
“Um, what if we filled the legs of the suit with clear silicone, so they’re heavier?” The bikini women are supposed to bob around in a swimming pool. It will be filmed from directly overhead- a professional film camera is waiting on a crane by the pool.
“Clear silicone would be really disgusting, don’t you think?”
“I don’t think disgust is a real emotion.”
“Okay, so you want me to tell them that disgust is not a real emotion and then submerge their bodies in silicone?”
“Well, this isn’t a beer commercial. Sorry. Maybe I should just come down there. Tell them to wrap for the day, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to book you a flight?”
“Oh yeah, would you?”
“I’ll send the itinerary to your phone. Don’t forget your interview.”
“Okay, great, thanks.”
All of his art is about becoming invisible. It has made him an art superstar. He married a rock goddess, who recently left him for his friend. He has had all of his body hair removed. He worked with engineers to create a robe that makes it wearer invisible, using tiny cameras and fabric video screens. He has made a helmet that fills your entire field of vision with nothingness. He has created a world to surround these works: a surreal movie series shot entirely with strangers off the street, with the highest production value and least possible planning. His graduate thesis was to hide in closets throughout his campus for days at a time. His favorite colors are clear and reflective. He still talks constantly to the rock goddess and his friend; he is not sure if he is hurt by the affair- its unfolding has always seemed reasonable to him. His friend, also a musician, is much more like his wife than he was. He has never had much luck with love; he can never get over himself enough. In dating, he can never feel a sense of conquest, he is always the conquered; every person he has loved through his life, even just kissed, got to steal a part of him. It’s not that he doesn’t want anyone. He wants at least one person in every room; he is always looking for someone to fall in love with during the time allotted. But actually choosing someone- even just long enough to sleep with them- seems to him like self-deceit. The rockstar was the only person with the credentials to own him, so he married her, and loved her and lived indulgently with her. In a way, he is glad she’s gone, he is glad to feel the pain. He has always been happiest when his desires are amorphous, a confused but powerful soup. Even committing to projects is a betrayal of this precious force, but obsession overrides his desire to be free. He closes his laptop and checks his phone.
The artist is at an interview with a major art magazine. The interview is filmed, perhaps to be shown on the internet, capturing the eccentric mannerisms he has been allowed to cultivate over the years.
“All of my works are failures,” he says to the interviewer. She is leaning towards him. Despite his romantic inaccessibility, perhaps because of it, the artist has been seductive to many women and men throughout his life. It is because he is unaware of the difference between seduction and communication that he is seductive. To his admirers, he is a big beautiful animal perpetually emerging from the woods, doe-eyed, without any idea what is going on. He believes what he is saying- that all of his works are failures. Every completed artwork reflects back a childish mediocrity, like the posters of Lamborghinis and lone wolves in his childhood bedroom. The thing he is after is not a thing at all. It is a negative space; its magic-eye boundary is defined by all of the something that surrounds it. The feeling is one of massive fullness, indescribable energy and meaning. It is a universal fetus, a dense kernel of anti-meaning. But he knows better than to describe this publicly.
“I want to help people overcome the fear of death.”
“You’ve been described as an all-American. You grew up wealthy, went to an ivy league, excelled in varsity sports. How does this impact your art?”
“I am the product of a steady stream of praise, love, and good fortune.” He is not answering her question, but it is a stupid question intended to provoke him. Why should you be weird when you have everything? This question is at the root of much of the public’s interest in him.
“You were a male model prior to becoming an artist.” Now it is not even a question. The interviewer looks closely at the intense flora of freckles on his face for a second. She glances away, and imagines, accurately, that they cover his entire body. This visualization causes her to partially close her eyes.
“Art is more about seeing that what is actually seen. In the future, paintings will be empty picture frames that alter the viewer’s perspective when looked through.” When he leaves the interview, he steps into the bathroom to change wigs, from a blond surfer-cut to a short tousled action-movie style. He is well aware that this action will be noticed and will be included in the interview, but he is uncertain if this is why he is doing it.
The artist still rides the train. While he is one of the most famous people in the art world, he is still anonymous in society at large, hardly anyone even knows his name, let alone what he looks like with a wig on. A hipster boy in a Santa hat is standing towards the end of the train, looking stern and unhappy. Two teenage Latina girls are standing beside the artist, insisting on each other’s beauty. They are pressing against each others thighs, and almost kissing. He can feel the heat of their arms in his ear. People talking on the train free him briefly from the tyranny of his internal monologue. He is captivated by almost any conversation, because everybody else is not him. In the future, anonymity will be the most valuable commodity. I should have said that one at the interview, he thinks. No matter how successful he becomes, everyday for the artist is an emotional rollercoaster. There is no oppressive force for him to rail against. Half the day he thinks, “I am in the greatest position of privilege ever given to a human being. I am a seer, a shaman.” The other half he thinks, “I am a gigantic joke. I am a self-absorbed, lonely, and completely useless appendage of modern culture.”
The rock goddess produced an entire album of music that is obviously about him. At home, he listens to a couple of tracks from it. He is frying some eggs and looking out the window as the winter sun sets over New Jersey. His apartment is a multimillion dollar loft in Tribeca. He knows the famous people, and they get together to have interesting conversations over meals. But the feeling of density, that they are breaking new ground together, is over. They are all professionals, their lives are just lives, and they do not need each other. His phone hums and vibrates. It is his ex-wife.
“What’s going on?” she says, with her adorable foreign accent.
“I’m making eggs. I need to go to LA tomorrow for the fat-suit bikini thing.”
“Ah…”
“Where are you?”
“Back in Jamaica. I went snorkeling today.” She has had an obsession with snorkeling for years; she moved to Jamaica and built a recording studio so she could snorkel in her free time. Eventually it will bore her and she will move on. She tells him that his friend- her new lover- is still on tour, now in Japan, but will be coming to Jamaica at the end of the week.
“How’s the tour?” he asks.
“It’s just a tour. He’s tired.” Soon the artist can tell that she is thinking about her music, drifting away from the conversation, even though she called him. He is starting to drift as well.
“I should go. I’ll call you from L.A. if I have time.”
“Cool. Bye. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
As he comes into the airport, he gets goose bumps and waves of euphoria. Somehow his early desires to be primitive have made him more able to love modernity than anyone. The airport always promises to deliver him like a lover, to leave everything behind. He becomes a discreet entity, not even taking carry-on luggage. The airplane forces his universe to shrink to the size of his body. The time spent with no control of his destiny is some of his best thinking time. It would be okay if I died now, he always thinks while in the air. When he was with the rock goddess, they often traveled in her private jet. The scale of her wealth dwarfs his- she produces things that people actually buy, and has been much shrewder in her finances. Now in the security line they warn against making jokes about bombs. It’s funny to see the airlines admitting that humor exists, even if it is to forbid it. The evolution of airline policy fascinates him. The disappearance of airline food somehow seems defensive; not just to cut costs, but refusing to be the butt of second-rate comedian’s jokes for eternity. Rather than remove the no-smoking icon, which implies that at some point we may be able to smoke on the plane again, they leave it permanently lit.
He always gets indigestion in Los Angeles. He thinks it is compensating for the lack of weather. Intestinal storms brew, internal thunder resounds. The weather should be outside of you, not inside. As he is driven along the freeway in a shiny black Lincoln, they pass a dusty SUV with the words “wash me” rubbed onto the back windshield. We have thought this joke was funny for fifty years because the dirt, the reason for the statement, allows the statement to be written. The medium is the message. “Have I begun to think of art as merely a formula?” he wonders. Often he is concerned that he is nothing more than a collector of clever noticings. “What about when I can’t notice them anymore? I’m just a cleverness jock, and I’ll be put out to pasture. I might as well have stayed with hockey.” At the warehouse, the artist, a few assistants and an engineer resolve the fat suit issue. They design and fabricate clear rolling anchors to keep the girls upright in the water. However, later that night the artist is reviewing the previous footage, and decides the models look best floating on their backs in the fat suits, as they were originally. The video image will be projected into cones, which make it appear that the girls are being sucked into black holes and then spit out again as they move around the pool. It will be shown at a foreign biennial. He is in the screening room with only his main assistant. His ex-wife calls.
“…So they kept playing anyway, even though rain was sweeping across the stage in sheets. It was really beautiful.” She is describing the last night of shows in Japan. “He looked like a messiah with his wet hair in his face. You will be proud when you see it.”
“I’ll watch it online when I get off the phone. I’m excited, it sounds great.”
“Do you need anything else?” the assistant mouths quietly as she hoists her bag onto her shoulder.
“Oh…ah, no. Go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow for the reshoot. Thanks for staying so late.”
“Call me back after you see it,” his ex-wife says through the phone.
It takes a second to reconnect to what she is talking about. It is very difficult for the artist to divide his attention between two people, even though he is always trying to do it. “Okay.”
He opens up his computer and searches for his friend’s band name, with Japan, and rain. A ten minute pixilated video loads, and he watches it. He really wants it to be good; he imagines it as a rare moment of eloquence and perseverance, the band and crowd sticking it out for something important. But it doesn’t live up to his expectation. He neglects to call his ex-wife back because he doesn’t know what to say, except to repeat his hopes as if he hasn’t seen it. People come to concerts like religious events, but they know that no miracles will occur. The ultimate irony of the world is that authenticity is the most ethereal substance. Fans watch a delayed video feed through binoculars, the sound system amplifies the fireworks. His friend’s band entered this tier of the music industry with a sense of humor, employing armies of green headed alien backup dancers; his friend would leap out over the crowd in a clear inflated ball as he sang the lead. This was actually the inspiration for the obese fat suits, although the artist does not remember where any of his ideas come from. Now the band is stuck with this immense and cumbersome production, hardly different from the bands that they were mocking.
Before he heads to the small apartment on his complex, the artist walks across the tarmac into another large warehouse, where his most expensive project ever is slowly being assembled. He flicks on several giant bays of fluorescent lights, and walks around the deflated beast. It is a personal airship, with a donut shaped balloon of clear and reflective plastic. He has fantasized about it since his early twenties, and worked with a staff of aeronautics engineers to build it over the last ten years. It is designed to stay aloft almost indefinitely, concentrating the heat of the sun too make hydrogen for lift and power. He will be the first human to truly live in the clouds. He will manage his art empire as a virtual being, through satellite feeds. He will finally get in some serious TV watching. Being around the airship gives him enormous peace; it helps him to believe that he has evaded his greatest fear- that his mind would harden with age. He believes that a manner of immortality is gained each time the world sees itself through his eyes. Everyone who knows about the airship has tried to convince him not to build it, saying it will be a personal Hindenburg, it is a suicidal impulse. It has cost a dangerous amount of money, straining his relationship with the gallerist who made him what he is. He wonders if the rock goddess left him partly because of it, because he never abandoned the fantasy of living alone in the sky.

 

     

The Toilet Paper Shortage

The news was late in picking up the toilet paper shortage. I sat down at two different toilets in the same day, registering the usual dismay, before I had the courage to bring it up in conversation. I guess the disruption of such a banal industry doesn’t become newsworthy until everyone is sitting there with a dirty ass, wondering where they are going to find something that will flush, hoping that they can get to it without pulling their pants up. Sure enough, when I finally got to grocery store, there was a blank spot on shelves. Paper towels, napkins, tissues, all in order, but not one damn package of toilet paper. So now everyone is doing what they once hid occasionally- making due with other, anally inferior paper products. Restaurants duct-tape boxes of facial tissue above the empty dispensers.  Toilets clog. Asses itch. I’ve been timing my poops to coincide with showers. Somehow, toilet paper has always bothered me, in the store, buying only a giant package of double-ply rolls, and maybe a candy bar to offset my obvious lack of preparation. I’m not ashamed that I poop. I am humiliated that Walgreen’s has the tool that I need to poop. I am well aware of my dependence on industrial society in every other way. But I should be able to shit without buying something.
NPR is telling me about archeology. They are excavating in England. They find the usual artifacts dating back to Neolithic times. The English find their own history in the ground beneath them. In America, we find only ancient Indian burial grounds, angry spirits, a feeling that we don’t belong. I just started painting sets for small local theaters. It is still early enough in the job that I enjoy it. I love watching my brush gliding along the surface, changing its color in singular irreversible strokes. I always feel like I am doing a great job, until I step back to look at my progress. It is always patchy, uneven- there are stray splotches and drips that I didn’t notice. But this is a good job by all accounts. I am living close to the production of art, I am artsy. The conversation is mostly good, we listen to NPR. The thing is, I feel like everyone in this theater is living close to the production of art, but the actual thing happens somewhere else, behind closed doors, executive decisions in board rooms. Everyone is finishing it, no one is starting it. My last job was a telephone operator for a Sprint call center. It was tucked away in a tin warehouse just outside of town, down a street whose ominous entrance was formed by a strip club called XTC, and a swinger’s joint formerly known as Anchovies. Inside the call center, massive wiring switch boards were all clearly displayed, highways of colored wire neatly but superficially attached to the walls and ceilings. I worked a night shift, and it seemed to me that we were a cult, meeting in this nowhere place to enact the most complicated ritual in history. Between calls I could look around and hear the other operators chanting mantras into headsets, the same phrases repeated over and over, speaking into the impossibly dense shrine of the switch board looming at the far end of the room. The excitement of this vision wore off quickly and I quit. I can’t imagine the paint will hold me much longer. I heard the call center moved. On NPR, they are talking about an extended Israeli bombing campaign, 15 days around the clock and counting. Is the man at the bombing desk like me? Does he count the bombings before breaktime? Does he worry that it looks like he is slacking off, or thinking about sex? I take a bathroom break. Even the tissues are gone this time, so I reach for a playbill. It is glossy and stiff and utterly unideal.
            Back on set, I tell one of the set carpenters, “I just wiped my ass with the zoo story playbill.” He chuckles knowingly.
“Did it flush?”
“Barely.”
I have a crush on his wife. She is a dancer and exercise instructor, and talks about her body a lot. At a party, she told me that the heat was making sweat run down her legs. My underwear is soaked, she said. I think I like her because I can’t have her. But I also have a fantasy that the two of them will raise my child. I spend a fair amount of time around couples now. I am the single guy. They suggest other friends they could hook me up with, but I am still relishing my damaged status. The truth is, if I go out by myself, women strike up conversations with me. I am attractive and the right amount of brooding. I can be a total wuss and still get chicks. But being a sad sack is my project right now, cultivating loneliness. I believe this will reconnect me to the world of emotions that I lose in relationships which last too long- which is every relationship. The grocery store is an ideal incubator for my bittersweet emotional garden. The bright fluorescents, hip young couples in pajamas, buying health food to advertise their well-adjusted love for one another. My hand-basket of freezer-pizzas and me. I try to work up some tears, but of course there is nothing. The only time I’ve cried in six years was at the Mars Rover Imax experience. The thundering rockets, the sequenced detaching of spent fuel tanks, the joy of aging nerds in the control room- awkward hugs and neglected families. The emotional lives of Mars rovers, the mythologized pictures of dirt. I poured tears in the complete darkness of the IMAX Theater. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to religious. I am counted in the non-Mormon minority here in Salt Lake. I admit, though, that this is God’s country. On an overcast day, I can clearly feel his presence. He is God in a grey sweatsuit, a salty God whose twice-daily showering cannot remove the residue of a middle-age of a million marathons. Sadly, as ruler of the universe, he is subject to every occupational hazard. His blood runs with heavy metals, and not just residues; every ounce of mercury in these hills courses through his all-encompassing veins. His long white beard is becoming less Sistine chapel and more retired mall Santa. This God invested well, and is now managing his assets from home, sleeping a little past 9. Salt Lake is beautiful from an airplane. From the sky you can see the flats, beautifully patinaed by minerals, and then eventually the pit mines carved into the mountains, glorious stadiums for giants; the stage showcases the act of digging more seating.
At the rodeo with my carpenter buddy and his wife, the audience holds its breath as the rider hits the ground; a moment passes as hooves pound around him, while he tries to figure out which direction to run. He makes the undignified but necessary scramble for the wall, and cheering erupts. He is celebrated for eight seconds of masculinity, a time scale adjusted for premature ejaculation. Here is another place I can almost, but not quite, cry, the swelling excitement of the crowd swells tears behind my eyes. The sky is constellated with flying insects in the stadium lights. I need to go to the bathroom.
“I’ve gotta piss.” I say to my buddy. He tips his hat to me and smirks, making fun of the fact that I need to tell him this, the desire for praise leftover from childhood. In the bathroom, the urinal is trough-style. I try to pee along with the other bucks; I’m often piss-shy. I stare at an imperfection in the cinder block wall, really focusing on it, memorizing the shape and form. If the details are engrossing enough, the pee usually begins to flow. Not this time though. I zip up in defeat and head for a stall. There are rolls of brawny paper towels in a basket screwed above the ordinary dispenser.
Back outside the rodeo clown is free to fem it up, dancing like a cheerleader, Michael Jackson, Pee Wee Herman. The girls in the audience are attractive exclusively because of youth; their faces are built for middle age. After a fair silence standing together, my buddy’s wife tells me,
“They’re finding estrogen in the groundwater. Because the septic tanks are all clogging. Estrogen, fabric brighteners, and caffeine.”
I think for a while, clamoring for my cleverness to kick in. “I guess the Earth really is a woman.” She wrinkles her nose at me for this ill-designed comment. I shift my attention back to the rodeo, and realize that the clown is the star. All the manly bull riders are disposable and distant, like the bulls. Most of the time the clown is holding the show alone. Last weekend the carpenter and I went fishing, and he caught the biggest bass of his life. I scrambled for the camera while the bass was alive. Then he killed it to keep it still on the measuring stick and scale. His joy faded somewhat when the scale read three and a half pounds. He shook it a bit to make sure it was working. The fish was beautiful and delicious. My buddy is a sunny guy. But you can clearly see the residue of arguments and pettiness between him and his wife, despite how good they are for each other. It’s funny- all of the men who hide their darkness from each other but show it to their wives.

Now I’m over at my buddy’s house, actually beneath it, in the strange desert that lives beneath all of these pier and beam houses. I make the sun rise and set over tiny sand dunes by raising and lowering my flashlight. We are replacing some plumbing that is hopelessly clogged.
“Do you think you could point that over here?” His says in reference to my wandering flashlight.
“Right. Of course.” I relish my role as a permanent child, but it is embarrassing, and sometimes even dangerous. We are working in silence, crouched in the dust, as my friend yanks and saws the big white pvc pipe connecting his toilet to the sewer.
“Ah Christ, it stinks right away,” I say as the saw pierces the pipe. When the pipe is completely free we rush/crawl to get out from under the house, laughing with displeasure. He throws the pipe in the garbage and we sit down at the picnic table to drink a beer. After a little while, looking down at his feet, he says, “The thought of you sleeping with my wife makes it hard for me to breathe.”
I am silent.
“It feels like my lungs will catch fire if I inhale.”
            “Well then, I won’t sleep with her.”
“I’m just saying.”
            “Of course, man. I mean, we wouldn’t ever…” Of course he knows what I think about. The obviousness makes me feel so stupid, like a little boy telling an absurd lie to an adult, and thinking he will get away with it.
            “There’s something disappointing about knowing where your poop goes, you know?” This change of subject confirms that we are still going to be friends. “It just goes through these PVC pipes, plain and simple. The mystery is gone.”
            “Yeah.” I agree. “That is kind of sad.”

     

Big Cities are Downstream

With a dog, a dark puppy who will grow well. A truck, wet winters and steep roads. Quiet and no talking in the evenings, stupid duck blankets. Hip music alone. The girls in town are interested. Big cities are downstream. Gas prices. The other men are hungry all the time. Their bodies are insisting. My piano teacher is obese. She wears floral prints and is not much better at the piano than I am, but I go to her and we enact a ritual of learning. The knowledge pretends to pass from her to me, although it actually travels from the piano directly into my hands. The two of us watch this miracle, and talk about the end of winter. My crush is on the checkout girl, in cowboy boots. She is clarity for me, the first time I have really looked at a woman in five years. The grocery scanner tells her what I have already read on the label, 89 cent peas, 3.49 hungry jack. I could arrange her a poem of prices, and she would recieve it electronically. She looks up from my peas as if this has actually happened. We both smile, knowing that she doesn't need to work here, and I don't need to eat hungry jack. She is beginning to fill the singular void in my mind. Her name is in my head when I wake up, before I open my eyes. She is different from my other obsessions, because I don't lose my faith in her each morning. I don't need to convince myself of her while I wait for the coffee to brew. I don't need to measure water to dose my conviction.
            It's my day off. I'm at the boot warehouse. The boots are amazing. The way they force me to walk,  to be decided, linear. There is only one way to walk in boots. I leave without buying them, I'm no cowboy boots guy. All accessories will eventually be forgotten; I know this about myself. Plus she probably wouldn't see them from the cash register. In the parking lot cradled by mountainsides, springtime is peeing its pants. The weekends don’t mean what they did when I was a kid. They have become another time slot. I can feel my heart becoming a man’s.  When I first moved to town, I believed I could get my footing if the ground would just stop moving for three days. I could be prepared, composed. Three days of movies in my bedroom with the curtains drawn, it became a week, and everything slipped, lost contact, second viewings. The carsick desire to never arrive, to never get out; I realized it's never going to go away. So I went to work with the other men, to increase my appettite. After work this week some of us drove to the stone quarry. I made a mortar that launches flaming paint cans, which explode when they hit something. The boom is deafening, and you can feel the heat 20 yards away. The guys were totally in awe- I was a celebrity. It was like we hadn't changed since 13, not one bit in relation to that ball of fire. I beamed. I’ve been hoping my checkout girl won’t catch wind of it.

The strangest news story I've ever seen is on when i get home, on every channel. Researchers have proved, conclusively, that computers do not actually do anything.
            "Test subjects have been able to produce identical results to actual computers when an empty box is plugged into monitors and keyboards." A press conference is frenzied, the speaking scientists look exhausted. "Without awareness that the box is empty, the participants achieved comparable results to those who operated actual computers. Upon seeing inside the empty cube, however, the device would cease to function." The news anchors are baffled and incredulous. Images of disassembled computers are narrated. They are filled with tiny black rectangles, silver boxes, impenetrable circuit boards. It cuts back to the recorded conference.
            "We realize how difficult this is to accept, but your home computer is just a convoluted heater.  The transistor is a semantic device. You remember what you remember. The computer just boosts your confidence."
            I change the channel and find similar coverage. I This is a totally inappropriate development for the modern world. I create mental secenarios that prove it is impossible. It makes me feel like I am floating a foot above my chair.  It takes me a second to realize that this is a good feeling. I try to call my father, but the lines are tied up. I look around the room, waiting for the power to go out. But it doesn't. I decide to go find something physical, something reliable, like vegetables. I hop in my truck and head to the grocery store.
            On the back of the local newspaper, a tiny ad promises me "Love is like water; we'll help you drink." No one is talking about computers. I pick up some bottled water. She isn't here. I will talk to her even if it ruins my life.
            I have ended up back at my house, I couldn't think of anywhere else to go. I stand outside and look at it for bit. I touch my beard and sink into the mud slightly.
            At work there is a palpable sense of joy. No one really knows enough to talk about it, but it seems the whole world is freed by the knowledge of the computer hoax. So far, out there, nothing much has changed. All the computers continue to work, or fake working. The price of a computer hasn't changed. We are taking a long break, sitting on stumps and listening to the snow melt.
When I get home my father calls me back. We exchange our awe at the world’s ability to surprise us. He owns a computer with hand-carved redwood casing, from Russia. It cost him a fortune. Strangely, it crashed as he was reading an internet article about the empty box study, never to turn on again.
“When I called a repairman, he actually laughed at me. I guess it was the emperor’s new computer.”
            “You’ve got bad luck with that kind of thing,” I tease him.
            “I haven’t talked to anyone else whose pc stopped working.”
            “Well, yours was made of wood.”

I put down the phone  and sit down on the living room couch, with my dog. I can feel a pressure building now. If I wait too long, she will become a figment of my imagination. It’s always embarrassing to think about someone so much more than they think about you. Soon I will have created a monster of her in my head, a perfect beast that could never be reconciled with her. The mental image will become jealous of the real girl; sabotaging me, tying my tongue. My puppy slides off my lap while I’m thinking about her, landing on his tiny head with a dull thud and a small yelp. I pick him up in an instant of minor terror. He is squinting and licking his chops, it was a stinger. But he is undamaged, not visibly stupider. He will not carry a trauma into his life, or even beyond the sensation of pain in real time. I carry him into the kitchen and give him a bisquit.
 
            It’s another Saturday afternoon. I’m at my piano teacher’s birthday party. Her grandchildren have loaded her cake with the actual number of candles for her age, 63. There are no longer individual flames, they have all merged into a single rocket cone of fire. The frosting is glistening in the orange light, becoming a sugary lake in the intense heat. My piano teacher approaches the cake, squinting and ducking, trying to get close enough to blow at the base of the flame. Everyone is laughing hysterically, even her husband.  He is a retired lumberjack who slowly became too fat to work; who came down the mountain one day as a log instead of a logger. Candles start to fall off the side and onto the table cloth- he grabs a fire extinguisher and bursts a cloud of CO2 over the cake. People are on their knees laughing without noise now. I feel like I am watching the scene as an America’s funniest home videos clip. Obnoxious narration is eerily absent. It will become a family legend extending through every birthday. We eat the cake despite the extinguisher. Later this year my piano teacher and her husband will drive off a cliff on vacation in Yellowstone. They will both fall asleep on a narrow mountain highway; their stomachs, inches from the dash, rising and falling in slow, serene sleep breath. Or so I will picture it later on. I will make an oil painting of the scene, in mountain night blues, lit by the orange glow of the speedometer and radio. It is the only good painting I will ever make. Somehow, without picking up a brush since high school, I will have matured immensely as a painter. I won’t show it to anyone for another five years.

“I know who you are,” she says, “it’s a small town.” I’m here, I’m doing it- introducing myself. My mind is racing. I am trying to analyze the coyness in her response. There is no reliable data. It’s like war. She rests some bananas on the scale.
            “I’m flattered.” The ways my response could be faulty: effeminate, over-educated, snide, over or under-confident. Light is just pouring off her face, like watching a movie star on screen, a glow that won’t focus. She’s going to cook my face off. I am fighting for the power to overcome her effect on me. Now I have completely lost track of how long you should look at someone in the eyes. But I’ve looked away early too many times in my life, so I look longer. Puppy food scoots across the laser scanner. It’s funny. I came to this town to be comfortable, but I have sought out the person most able to make me uncomfortable. I can feel the echoes of the instant replay that will happen in my mind over and over later on, one million interpretations silence me before the words come out, leaving the silence subject to intrepretation. What is it like on the other side of this conveyer belt boundary? In her world, knowing her family, waiting for her to get into her own bed.
My brain and mouth reconnect. “So I guess that scanner isn’t actually doing anything right now, right?” I’m trying to bring the mystery of the modern world into our lives. It is a nerdy risk to take.
            “I’ve been thinking about that. So what am I doing right now, you know?”
The scanner beeps as the laser lines up with package of oreos.
Later we will go out for beer. She will tell me that she is leaving town, moving to Helena, to be with her fiance. Being happy is not what I have always thought it is. It's like flexing a muscle. Everything can be in place, but it’s hard to hold onto it for any length of time. I am endlessly able to take it for granted, to adjust to the odor of it. There’s the point with someone where you are comfortable enough to be confessional, or to share a subtle joke and not explain it, or just to lie there. There is a brief period when the gates are open, when bashfulness is dissolved, but before you really know her. It’s too bad that we can’t always live in this realm, of graceful people who are not defined by habits, who can surprise each other with lifetimes full of wit and observation streaming smoothly into the present moment. Knowing that she and I will never get to this point, we kiss behind the building. I say goodnight, and wish her good luck in Helena. I need to let my dog out.

 

     

The Long Summer

The two of us sit together in a beach town raising drinks with shaking hands. She mentions death often. I gather dying is like falling asleep reading a book. It's hard to find where you left off, because there is nothing special about the last thing you read. I have to listen carefully to what she is actually saying, because her tone is always the same, accepting, optimistic- even when she is drawing attention to something she detests. Growing up is realizing how often people say the opposite of what they feel- its the simplest rule. My generation has absorbed this truth by making irony a physical law, engineering a world to confound us. It is a dense fabric of inverted meanings, an inside out computer. But her world is memorized around her, the position of the laundry switch, the placement of the remote control, the location of items at the supermarket, the bus schedules. Her mind fills the gaps that her eyesight has left, mental acuity behind a cloudy squint. She is a New Yorker, sleeping with talk radio on full blast to drown out the silence that is killing her friends. I hear the lightning in the radio broadcast at the same moment I see the flash, ten seconds before the thunder arrives.

Somehow I have become a commuter, exhausted allegory of the 20th century, enacting rituals of pilgrimage and exodus daily, barreling home to collapse where it is silent, where families are hidden. As the train slowly rolls out of the station, a track worker is revealed, peeing in between giant high voltage boxes. I can actually see his penis and the stream of pee clearly. Business people on the train feign productivity with laptops and blackberries, as if the world has become a video game that they can access through these devices. I think of the train of the future, frictionless, generating only musical buzz, always on time. Then I emerge into the city: a cop dangles a pen from his mouth while he ties a bow. They are feeding Victorian furniture into a trash compactor. We confer with the woman who was nearly hit by a bus. Two rich girls in sweatpants call each other dirty skanks. I feel a strange contempt for the the oldest women on the street, whose bodies have invented new postures beneath tweed skirts and over-sized blouses, whose organs are failing asynchronously, like a foreign car of unknown make. Somehow they exist as a criticism of me. It is a summer of old women. Walking out of the aging artist's building into a mist rain that seems artificially generated. Her apartment, five floors walking up, crammed in every corner with plexiglas models of empty Gap clothing racks. A fixation on wordplay, the gap, allowing the gap to remain, empty space.

Back on Long Island I go to the beach alone. My options there are: I can oggle women, or build sand castles. I tend to start with the first and move on to the second, then resort to the first again as I leave. It is amazing how so many attractive women can be so unbeautiful. Their faces convey the wrong things to me. Their belly buttons are filled with diamonds. When there is a beautiful woman, I usually switch to bulding sandcastles. I am trying to ignore her as well as lure her into my passionate understanding of the world. Instead I attract another woman's child over.
On a park bench in the city I read a newspaper article about a new power source, running off the heat in the air. I imagine this; global cooling and not warming. Ancient civilizations added detritus to the world; poison gases, discarded monuments, crumbling sewers. Modernity subtracts instead, until that final moment, in societies producing no trash, when the last machine will slow to a halt, frozen in abiotic perfection.
In the supermarket I read labels to her. Suddenly it occurs to me- I should have picked a profession. This toothpaste fights cavities. I have no idea how it performs such a miracle. This detergent lifts 99 different popular stains. Some team of people is out there, 9 to 5, battling chocolate milk, barbeque sauce, lipstick. All of their truimphs are contained in this jug of blue liquid. I have added nothing to the library of domestic weapons. Outside SUVs line the sandy streets, pristine and discreet. They shed nothing into the crumbling world- they are mobile emblems of self-containment. They make me think I should have been a doctor, someone whose free time is precious, someone who toils to purchase the sensation of savoring time. I am the beach instead. The bleached hair on my arms is beach grass. My sunburnt skin flakes out from under it like sand, my white shirt is stained from the high tide mark of my sweat. I don't even have the focus to invent a character, I am here with no plot to align me. My only tool is the compression of observations, a summer in motion that will end without wrapping itself up, in my life in motion that will end without wrapping itself up. Long Island is the place where a black man's severed leg falls from the sky and lands in your backyard. They said he was killed by stowing away in the wheel well of a jet that left Johannesburg. The leg was clad in only a white sneaker and sock. I think about it a lot, although it is not mentioned again on the news. I want this man to be my character, I should be able to find a story that would drive someone to something so bold and desperate. But he is just a horrible anecdote. Why should I spend this time collecting the horrible, distilling my experience to the tragic? I want light, vivid colors, drug-like experiences of vitality. I don't know how to alter my sense of beauty.
Our dining room table is set from the night before. Unused, the plates are gathering dust. Sometimes when I see how fragile she is I get a chill, as she slices a tomato with her shaking hands. I am learning the logic of meat marinade, growing up in strange little accidental ways. The parts of the cow are named after major cities. Now she is conducting a wobbly orchestra as the television plays Sinatra's New York. This is her city, this is her song, she came from Milwaukee to be a part of it.

I set out to take a vacation from my vacation. The greyhound lumbers into the catskills. Upstate in the summer is something I forgot. Describing it would be trite, the feeling is atmospheric, something between big clouds and green hills, a layer that you can live in and remember from, a slice of air connecting all summers through time. I want to be honest, I want to present the truth of myself on the surface. On my dad's sailboat, he and my step mother are learning the alternate language of boats, words to obscure the couch, kitchen, toilet. I dive into the water. It is not cold as I strike it, then cold rushes in before actual adjustment starts warming me slowly. It is a mathematic curve, I can feel calculus in my body. The actual temperature is irrelevant, science has switched its focus from phenomena to sensation. At night, everybody a little stoned, my father is teaching my half-brother and I what he has learned about living- by examples, narrated in code. We look at the stars and try to find the little dipper. I think about the consensus, old, that surrounds this faint symbol. I think about rock and roll's resurrection of primitive energies. My half brother and I stay up after everyone to bond. He tells me about a baseball player whose value was overlooked, until he was traded to Boston to become a home-run hero. He tells me this story, this pious baseball allegory, because it means that potential can be latent. We are princes of latent potential, crafting its faŤade skillfully, avoiding contact with its surface. We talk about George Lucas.
Back on Long Island I dine with my grandmother's friends, I cook steak for them. They are sharp as hell, masterful bitchers, and I open my eyes a little as I realize: I am dining with the ladies of the great depression. This priviledge, this sudden compression of history, forgives their fears and predudices. It lends them an awesome endurance. I make no allusions to my dirty secret of liberalism, or my collection of unemployment. I am a coward, and the best observer I know. Nasa's launch is delayed on the television. Going to the moon was the greatest art ever produced by capitalism. But as soon as it was over we were fucking stuck. What's next? We have to go back up there, right? Space travel is a beautiful nightmare; too complicated, too symbolically heavy. Our national consciousness is stuck in the launch window doldrums. 10 minutes is just not enough time for so many wires, safety protocols, cloud formations. We are strapped to building-sized tanks of explosives, and we are waiting.


   

The Visitor

He is cleaning the carburator of a small motor on his kitchen table. His long fingers behind oily cloth. There is frost on the window, slightly girly country curtains, the sun finally meeting him at 6:30 before work. Scrambling eggs, looking for shoes, squeezing around the airplane frame that crowds from the living room to the kitchen, the elephant in the room. Its wooden skeleton lacks wings, there is a horror to it; such skinny pieces of wood, such a small seat for its future pilot, visible wood glue. It will be a biplane, replica of some World war. It is penetratable by bullets. His red van starts cold. He will work with his father today.
They both hammer nails across from one another in an unfinished room. His father’s company is in most of the unfinished rooms in the town, hammering without speaking. The son is now independent, his own clients mostly, only lending Dad a hand on important projects. Last night, over a dinner prepared by their mother/wife- they fought mildly:

“You didn’t even try with Diane. You can’t expect it to be like a movie. It takes work like everything else.”
“You didn’t like her to begin with Dad. You were the one who said a single mother comes with baggage.”
“I never said I didn’t like her. She was fine. Maybe you could use some baggage.”
“I’m busy Dad.”
“Work isn’t everything.”
The mother adds, “Don’t you want someone to come home to?”
Now the son sets his fork down, interrupting the flow. “I just got dumped here. You guys are not helping me feel better.”
“I know honey, I’m sorry.” She pauses, attempting to redirect her commentary, failing completely. “It’s just that maybe your Dad is right, maybe you didn’t give enough to Diane. You spent more time with your plane.”
The son looks away. His forehead is prematurely large from receding hair, shiny and bare.
“How are you going to meet another woman here?” his father says in a practical tone.
“I’m not looking.” He gets up abruptly, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Thanks for dinner Mom.”
“We’re only trying to help.”
At home he clamps skinny slats of wood together to form a fin on the right wing, while sitting on his living room floor.

Time is measured crudely by the plane, it grows into his home, taking up more space. Time on the plane clock is hard to read, the barely visible rudder mount stands for two months passed. But the flightless clock is there, growing in space as his life shrinks in time. One day he will push it through front door, bring it to a hanger for the final assembly, attach the wings firmly like a harderning insect. At that moment it will lose its perversity entirely. There is a knock on the front door. It is a cold night. His heart jumps up into his throat as he squints through the front door window.
He opens the door to a skinny man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and vest, not nearly enough warmth for the night. His hair is black, his cheeks slightly concave. He smiles imperceptibly, knowingly, and steps in to hug him very tightly, grabbing his shoulders from underneath. The hug is so welcome that no one can pretend to be mad about lost time. But reality interupts, and he quickly pulls him inside out of the cold, out of sight of the neighbors.
The man brings his visitor tea from the kitchen, two cups and they sit in the living room. The tea is an offering to say what the visit is really about. The visitor doesn’t speak of the plane that is almost wedged between them. Thank god he doesn’t comment on the stupid plane.

“I need your help.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“No. It’s business. I need you to help me with some merchandise.” Merchandise is a grotesque word.
“I don’t want anything to do with drugs. You know that.”
“It’s not drugs. But it’s not exactly legal. I need you remove some serial numbers.”
“What did you steal?”
“I didn’t steal anything. I just met some crazy characters, who needed this done. I told them I could do it for a price. I thought of you.”
“You’re still completely psychotic. I thought you would grow out of it after school. I couldn’t imagine you would keep it up.”
“I can make a lot of money quick. Ten grand.”

The flourescents in his shop jump on down the line, making it colder inside somehow. The simple tin building houses a standing army of power tools, pristine, well-maintained. He opens the garage door on what he knows is a very bad idea. His friend backs his truck up to the door and kills the engine. They open the tailgate and remove a tarp. Beneath it is a couple hundred guns in excellent condition.
“Oh Jesus, you’re kidding me.”
“Relax, they’re just resellers, it’s not like a militia or something.”
“I can’t believe you’re involved in this.” He sticks his hand into the pile of rifles and handguns, puckering his face, as if it were a pile of dead snakes. “Where are these from?”
“I don’t know, I told you I’m just providing a service.”
They stand with no words. A full exchange of unfinished, unspoken sentences. They set to work. One man hands the guns to the other, who tenderly shaves away official numbers, through the late hours of the night. As with any work the man does, he is careful and neat. The numbers are ground out and polished down, appearing never to have existed. The guns are not ordinary. They are assault weapons, never used, well stored. “Please tell me where these are from,” he asks.
“Okay, don’t freak out or anything, but I think they’re from the state armory.” The knot in the other man’s stomach, which had calmed from long repetitive work, retightened. “I think one of them worked there. Turns out it’s not that well guarded. But listen, what difference does it make who grinded these numbers? If anything came down, it would come down on them, you know. I’m wiping off fingerprints. I’m not stupid.” No arguement is made against this weak logic.
A thin sliver of the winter night remains as they lie in bed. “How did things get so bad for you?”
“How did things get so bad for you,” is the visitor’s response. “It’s so alone here, so empty of love.” This man is indicating his own new history of lovers, elations, heartbreaks, laughing while driving in cars late at night.
Nothing else is said, and the visitor drifts off to sleep. The man remembers descending into the town where they went to school on freeways, too high up in the bus to see the road. Waking up to this sight in the wee hours was the most beautiful thing in his life, this feeling of flying slowly into a sleeping city. He thinks about the night that has just passed. How strange, that such a small pile of metal shavings could undo everything he had built. He becomes hardened against guilt. How could he want part of a world that would reject him for such a minor transgression? With his old lover sleeping beside him, the feeling that most people take for granted floods over him. A big fuck you to the world; a smaller universe, revolving privately. The guns will be another thing to bury in time, to take to the woods and wait in town, wait for it to forget itself. He wonders when the man sleeping beside him will come around again. He wonders if he will survive.

 

     

National Pastime

The tv in the bar shows a concert were teenage girls run around in short shorts with microphone headsets. They are inventing new ways to hump the air. The other two men in the bar pretend not to watch. I'm not ashamed. I have a bigger problem. I've got it for a teenage girl right here in this bowling alley. I have no illusions- this girl is dumb as a box of rocks. She comes in trying to get drinks a couple nights a week. Tongue-tied, I just shake my head; anyway, she's usually already drunk. This girl could hardly be sixteen. Love's a bitch. I chuckle to myself a bit.
Her name is Bobby. I don't mean to go on about her, I'm just a dirty old man- I know my balls will decide its too stuffy, and stop camping out in my brain. But I'm in a dry spell. In fact, my life has sort of been a dry spell. I can't say I've had a decent crush since I was Bobby's age. After that, I joined the damned military and shipped out to Taiwan. I wasn't hardened by the horrors of war or anything, but I saw enough stupid cock chasing its own tail to sour me on the concept.I left there defeated, but not like Vietnam. I left Taiwan knowing that China will rule the modern world. In our temporary barracks, I understood that America is a visitor on this planet, a pushy guest. I was a mechanic, and not a very good one. I always looked for shortcuts. I had this experiment to see how much of a truck's guts could be taken out and still have it running. If I could follow the shortcuts far enough, I figured I'd realize the truck wasn't even neccessary. But anyway, I came back, to Walmart, statestores painted blue instead of red, filled with shit from the same Chinese factories. And here I am, tending bar in a bowling alley, hot on a high schooler with her thong hanging out on purpose. Right now I can see her flirting with some college boys. They're put off by her, but still horny of course. She catches me watching her, and gets it in her head to come over to my bar. The other two men here have left.
"Hey handsome." She says, leaning over the counter.
"I don't ever give you a drink, Bobby."
She steps back, smiling devilishly, and I swear to God, unbuttons the front of her pants. I see her cheap Walmart satin Chinese made panties, and the curve of her skinny crotch. To look away I turn and grab a Budwieser, humiliated, mumbling something like, "Don't do do that" I plant the beer on the counter. As she buttons back up, I follow up with a pathetic, "get out of here." She leans back over the counter, grabs the beer, and plants an amateurish kiss right on my lips. The front of my pants heats up. She skips out of the bar, beer trophy in her hand, thong hanging out.

Bruce sits down at my bar. He smoothes his bald head. He says something about the arabs and oil.
"The arabs have nothing to do with it, Bruce. The oil is being redirected. It's going to China."
"Not everything is about China."
"No. Everything is about China. They're the winning team. Shanghai's adding 1000 skyscrapers in the next ten years. Read it in the paper."
"Communists will never be happy."
" You seen those Chinese construction shows?"
Like the body builder ones? Wierd stuff."
"It's the national pastime over there. Construction workers are sports hereos. They take steroids and genetic engineering and what not. It's all on tv, like they're teams. They go crazy for it. Cities compete against each other."
We sit and mull this over. Bobby laughs in the distance, spilling beer on the lanes. I don't care if Bruce finds out I gave her a drink. "The wierdest thing is there isn't even a use for the buildings yet. And to keep the sport fair they all build the same few buildings. So they got a bunch of empty identical buildings all over the place. The peasants come out of the farms to these new cities, right? But there's no jobs in the buildings yet. So they give up their sons to the construction teams to build more. China's not an accidental place, Bruce. They're getting ready for something."
"It's always doomsday with you." Bruce says to me. I shrugg. I've got half a theory that they're planning to ship us all over there, every last American. They're building day care centers for us, because they realized it would be cheaper to ship every person once than to ship the trillions of tons of plastic shit we get every year.
"It's gonna have to be my last night tending here, Bruce."
"What? You're kidding right? Where's my two weeks?"
"Something's come up."
"You're fucking me, you know that?"
I shrug apolegetically.
He breaks eye contact with me and stands up to leave. "Thanks for nothing." As I leave the almost empty bowling alley, I hear Bobby and some kids giggling in the men's room. I can't hide my disappointment from myself. I imagine the ceiling tiles over the lanes breaking free, all at once, swooping down slowly to circle me. They become a geometric cocoon that can take me anywhere. The world has a million crannies meant to absorb you forever. But not me. This bowling alley doesn't own me. That harlot of a girl doesn't own me. And China's never going to get its hands on me again.
The secret to driving drunk is to never drive sober. You just adjust, like to snow or bad brakes. I'm coming up to a dead deer on the side of the road; it's been there for a few days. Each time I pass it I wonder if I killed it. Tthere are, after all, some new unexplained dents on my truck. I know that the deer's body could just as easily be mine. But I'm not worried. The truth is I haven't used my body, except for sleep, in years. In the morning, after I get over the fearfulness of waking up, I seep right out of my skin. I only come back after dark to make sure I don't evaporate into the night air.


     

The Hair Raiser

I am re-teaching myself how to drive. I swear, it has been so long since I learned anything at all. I am keeping all of my steering motions fluid. I have always jerked the wheel. When you jerk the wheel, the car jerks. I never put this together. My hands and arms slowly trace the curve of the road, we are a liquid rounding the bend. It doesn’t seem like I am doing enough to keep the car on the road. We stop for gas. I come back to the car with a new betty Boop stick-on decal. My husband laughs at me when I pull it out of the bag, a laugh that should be endearing but is very hostile.
“ I just don’t get the Betty Boop thing.” He says.
“You don’t think she’s sexy?” I accuse him.
“She’s sexy, I guess, but she’s basically an old lady. Doesn’t she remind you of your mother?”
“Betty Boop is timeless,” I gasp with my mouth open in disbelief.
“She’s a blue hair waiting to happen.”
Maybe sexiness dies with the women who wear it. I am furious about the comparison to my mother. I have betty Boop paraphernalia everywhere. I silently apply the new betty Boop to my driver’s side window, smoothing out the trapped bubbles with my the palm of my hand. For the rest of the drive, he tries to compliment me, to distract me. He is always so cruel for a day after we have sex, like I just slept with another man or took his virginity. But he can’t stand it for ten minutes if I seem pissed with him, and he can always tell. He pays too much attention. I am more of a man than he is. As we cross into Iowa, there is a blue sign with a picture of the state and a large question mark in the center of it, for the welcome center. I guess people go there to get questions. There is no punctuation for an answer, no answer mark. I guess every statement is an answer by default.
I am adjusting a silver umbrella, studying it. It is on an old wooden stage in a Sioux Falls elementary. Hundreds of children will come to sit in its way, a flash bulb eclipse, tiny celestial bodies with combed hair. I don’t see the children like their mothers see them. Their faces are in constant flux, they do not remain the same for one fraction of a second, for one single angle. They are all becoming each other, freckles appear like raindrops. The school photographs are bald-faced lies, a image in the sky of galaxies gone for a million years, of moments when the parents were not actually there. I press the flash release and receive a small shock off my wool dress. My husband lost his job at Oreck vacuum, as the factory downsized. Now he stays at home trying to get the dog hair out of our sofa. I’m not kidding. He is designing a machine that removes pet hair with static electricity. It is called the Hair Raiser. He is currently negotiating a contract with an in-flight catalog, the last outpost of commerce before complete absurdity, 33,000 feet above the Earth. The machine seems to work. When I get home, the record player in our living room is reluctantly tracing an Eagles album, keeping its memory despite the months and years it has spent sandwiched together with my records, layers of disagreeing plastic like igneous rock, devoid of their former heat, a fossil record of our buried differences. Every time I walk into our house, it feels like a storm is coming. Every piece of furniture has become a potential source of electric shock. He is charging the Hair Raiser in the other room. As he drags the aluminum ball along the couch, blue sparks arc like hair-grabbing fingers. Almost all of his severance pay from Oreck went into developing it. I don’t say hi. I turn around and head back out to my car, I guess to go grocery shopping. Now I am on the freeway. I am practicing my new driving technique. My fluid curve is not quick enough for this arc of the road. I feel glued to the wheel, as if the car will tip over if I turn any sharper. I am not slowing down as my car sails off of a brushy hill. Later, I will remember waking up hanging upside down. The music from the radio has missed the cue, stupidly refusing to acknowledge my misfortune with silence. I will remember this from a wheelchair overlooking the beach, with a blanket on my lap. The Hair Raiser will have raked in millions. We will be back in California, near our families. Today, my sister is coming with her kids, and I am so happy. All they want is to play on our beach and catch a glimpse of the Sutherlands, who live just down the beach. They don’t judge our wealth, they don’t pity my infirmity. I photograph anonymous inventors, a small bald man in a room full of fruit loops. I don’t set up the lights, I don’t set up the camera, I don’t even push the button, honestly. All I do is talk, and choose the picture that does not make fun of him. My photographs are shown in art galleries all over the place. They reveal something about the way our society is put together, I am told. My father does not approve of our life. He says; “I am worried about a culture that removes dog hair with a hundred million volts.”


     

Fire Bush

It is flat enough here that dozens of separate farmlights can line up down the road, and appear to be one city in the distance at night. It is not a question of staying awake, as if awake where one distinct state and asleep was another. I am always either in the process of waking up, clawing towards lucidity, or drifting asleep. As I approach a farm, it detaches from the illusory city and pans by, leaving the city the same distance away.

With the sleeve of my blouse, I wipe the frost off of the inside of the windshield, and then throw my blanket in the already crammed back seat. I yawn and start the engine. I had another flying dream. This time it was a machine that allowed me to fly, a massless point that I ingested that could never malfunction. I zoomed through a festival of blimps, dented the balloons with my hand as I passed them. It is now six forty seven in the morning, and I am one hundred miles from my laboratory, at a rest station. We are studying a plant that has been revealed by a massive forest fire in British Columbia. While most fires annihilate the undergrowth, this fire left a thick mat of metallic curls, deep reds, golds, and silvers, with curling black protrusions. It persisted even where the old growth trees were toppled from the heat. I put in a U2 cassette, the only band I’ve ever really liked. Now armed with a large cup of gas station coffee, I turn left through the last temporary town and start climbing a rural road that switchbacks up the mountains. As I come over a crest, the burnoff stretches out before me. Nature is not what we think it is. I don’t think the modern world disturbed an ancient tranquility. We invented the idea that such a thing could exist. We are fragile eddies in the powerful river of entropy. The blackened trees and scorched earth are absorbing the morning light. The landscape exerts a sagging force; to be surrounded by a hundred miles of this carbon desert. As I round another bend onto a dirt road, the undergrowth we are studying comes into view in a valley below. The sun glints off it like a field of scattered jewels. I see the research van and some ATVs parked by the tent, while other grad students in tyvek suits are wading into the strange growth.
“Glad to see you bright and early.” The professor says sarcastically as I get out of the car. I don’t bother mentioning that I had just drove five hundred miles back to school to teach his class. Hard black melons periodically interrupt the plant mass. The singed earth cracks beneath my feet like crème broule. Burnt tree trunks around us are divided into shimmering black squares. There is nothing for me to do for the morning. I’m bored. The emptiness of a place is always much louder than its fullness. I try mentally singing a U2 song, to feel the faint emotional fullness of this lunar landscape, this period of my life. For a breathless, suspended instant I can feel it. The black columns of a dark kingdom rise up around me. I remember the allure of a twelve sided die, of awkward boys and their stryrofoam swords, to whom I was a queen, the only girl crossed over from a parallel dimension. We pack up the samples and the tent. “I’ll drive in with Karen.” He says to the others. Everyone backs up and pulls away. With all the cars gone except mine, he leans down to kiss me. “Sometimes kissing you is like kissing a brick wall,” He says.
I have not emphasized this plant enough. There is nothing like it. Anyone can see that it was not there before the fire. A closer inspection also makes it clear that it did not come after it- it seems to have grown up during the fire. While we still do not have a single live sample, we are close to proving that it is thermosynthetic, getting its energy from the heat of the fire instead of the sun or food. And this is before any other labs have gotten their hands on it. It is his ticket to the eternal life of textbooks. In the lab, I disregard his directions to incubate spores, and instead go back to analyzing the underripe melon. My test comes up positive and my breath quickens. When he finds me doing this, he pulls me to into another room. “You can’t keep wasting lab time on this theory.” You see, I have this theory. I think this is a domestic plant. I think somebody has farmed this plant in fire.
“We have so much work to do. This is really an incredible opportunity for all of us.”
I can’t believe he is giving me a pep talk speech like this.
“Do you seriously think such perfect human nutrition could be natural? There is nothing like this lichen anywhere,” I protest.
“This is not the point. The point is, you are a botanist. Ancient cultures are supported by artifacts, evaluated by archaeologists. We have algae.”
“The plant is an artifact.”
“Our culture couldn’t engineer such a plant. There is no way that artic nomads could make this. No way.” Our discussion ends with the second “no way.” For the rest of the day, I go back to the incubators. When every one else has left, I am still drawing up records of our failed spore tests. He stands in the doorway.
“Are you going to finish up?”
I picture the dim light of his trailer, his red pubic har and freckled chest.
“I’m sticking to it for a little bit longer, I think we’re close.” I say. He pretends to be glad, and then leaves for the night. After a while, I go to the coffee maker and lean against the counter. I am thinking of a culture with no cities, no tools. Their whole text is the genes of a perfect plant. They roam the hills with a bag of spores, building fires to grow their food, immune to famine, unbound to the land. Maybe they have even abandoned the langauge they once spoke, a mere proxy to the perfect expression which is their plant. The only thing left for them to do would be to fade out; silent loiterers in the end credits of human narrative. I head back to the freezer that holds the melon. I cut off a small chunk. Instead of pulverizing it to put in solution, or slicing it to make slides, I bring it to the counter and put it on a paper plate. With a plastic fork, I spear the chunk whole and place it in mouth. My tongue goes slightly numb as I chew. It tastes like mashed potatoes.

 

     

the Society for the Elimination of Labor

They are beneath the billboard at night. It is a reverse microscope, a giant yellow expanse designed to be taken for granted. To people driving, the billboard says: “Working towards a work-free America.” To anyone who hangs out below it, the thick black pillars of letters are not words; there is too much meaning in their size and texture to be words. The Society for the Elimination of Labor. The casino glows in the distance.
“I read this old book about Martian bees. This guy really believed in them, like, super intelligent bees. On Mars.” The lights in front of the billboard are immense, angled onto the text as if it were a landing pad, waiting for an arrival. Moths dirty the air.
“Did you bring cigarettes?” The girl asks him.
“He went off about how people are prejudiced against bees, and that people have clammy gross flesh and it makes more sense for bees to be intelligent, because they’re hard and shiny.” He is pulling out crumpled cigarettes while saying this, looking out dispassionately at the highway, trying to be as cool as possible.
“I’m glad people aren’t hard and shiny,” she says. He lights her cigarette. There is no wind and it is hot. The lights from the casino make the sky into a ceiling.
“Do you know what a fetish is?”
“I think its Japanese.”
“I heard Mr. Blumfeld has one.
“Cool.”
She looks at her watch. “When is your brother coming?”
“Who knows. My brother is a drunk.” They have been waiting to be picked up for almost an hour. His brother is actually, at this moment, drunk- 20 minutes away at his girlfriend’s house, playing poker while she tries to sleep upstairs because she has an early shift at the hospital.
The boy beneath the billboard imagines having sex with the girl. He flinches a bit when she looks over at him. “You’ll probably run the casino then, when you’re older.” Everyone finds ways to slip the casino into conversations with him. The boy gets good grades. His father runs the casino, and buys him nice jeans. The boy goes to school in town instead of on the reservation.
“Fuck that.” He says. “I want to play guitar.”

English class has just ended and the two of them are walking with their teacher Mr. Blumfeld. Mr. Blumfeld is wearing a pink polo shirt and his chest hair is spilling out. His hair is eighties feathered windblown. He made money as a male model, a failed poet, his wife is a model, never met a writer without a beautiful wife he said, I met Allen Ginsberg once. Now they live on a hill, golden retriever, she is fatter than her modeling shot on the mantel, he is a self-proclaimed protracted adolescent, full of angst, must be something in the cafeteria food he says. They sit down in the cafeteria; none of the other teachers eat the cafeteria food, just the alleged fetishizer Mr. Blumfeld.
“We have too much media,” He says, opening the newspaper. “When the world was word of mouth, religious repetition was filtered through everyone who repeated it.”
The girl opens a baloney sandwich that her Dad made for her, the baloney is stacked a mile high. “Now, celebrity magazines get the circulation of the early bible every week: a few twenty somethings make up stories about paparazzi photographs, and bam, the printing press chants it 3 million times, automatically. We can’t help but repeat it, it has the same effect on us as 3 million elders praising God.” Mr. Blumfeld looks funny sitting on these cafeteria chairs, hunched over, unable to make eye contact with anyone he speaks to. Eventually he always gets in trouble with the community standards. He is a member of The Society for the Elimination of Labor. The group’s support is erupting. They advocate the full conversion to an education/entertainment economy; the complete elimination of manufacturing. Easy enough for your damned communist teacher to say, said the girls Dad. But Mr. Blumfeld believes the opposite. This plan is capitalism at its cruelest he says, and we must embrace it because it is inevitable, the only way for America to survive, we are the world’s nerve and pleasure center. A bell rings, and everyone in the cafeteria competes for the coolest way to stand up, Mr. Blumfeld included.

The boy and girl are walking through the casino, shuffling through an ocean of beeps and jingles, dozens of the same song from slightly different places, out of sync. The carpet is lush, a loud design, quality fibers. Security guards nod to the boy, security-like. The casino is the boys living room. This is the place that he spends his childhood disregarding, the vessel for his parents imperfection. His jeans are very good quality. They step off the main gambling floor, through a hallway with a fake stone floor, and through the reception into his fathers office. The girl has been close to his right arm all the time. The boy carries a force field, he is a futuristic prince.
“I need to take Sara home again Dad.” His tone is practicing adulthood, a light reprimand for his father. His father is leaning against his desk with his legs crossed.
“Where’s your worthless brother?” The boy shrugs as slightly as possible. “All right, here.” He shuffles through his pocket, pulling out a large ring of keys and beepers. “Go get somebody on the floor to take you in the Tahoe. Go see if Darren’s out there.” He hands the keys over. “Tell them I said its fine. Come back if you can’t find someone.”
“Thanks Dad.” Sara never says a word in the interaction. When they get in the hall, the boy lightly grabs her hand and pulls left, away from the main casino floor and towards the parking lot.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking you home.” She doesn’t ask anymore questions. They emerge from the casino like convicts, the last second that their guilt is still theoretical. The Tahoe’s locks beep and open. They climb up into the seats, way up, the driver’s seat is adjusted for legs his fathers massive legs. Electronic drones tilt the seat forward, raise it up, fitting the futuristic prince. The engine turns over and lights pour on. She doesn’t ask him if he knows how to drive. He would’ve said “Indians drive their cribs.” They shift into gear and pull out of the parking lot. Right onto the reservation road, towards the highway. “I learned what a fetish is,” Sara says. “ It means he only likes Asian girls.” She rolls down the window, smiling. She picks up a big mac wrapper, and hastily chucks it out the window. She reaches down for a drink cup, and hurls it. She starts laughing, picking up more McDonald’s garbage and throwing it out the window. The boy starts laughing too.

 

     


My Grandson Wants to be an Artist

 

My grandson, god forbid, wants to be an artist.

I repair video cameras, heaps of plastic carcasses piled in my shop, exoskeletons shed as they purify themselves to the platonic videocamera. Bulky, tumorous things, disgustingly mortal. Nobody fixes video cameras! Buy a new one. The cost of a repairman,the cost of people. I am almost pushed out now, as the shiny armatures become tinier and more delicate, and my fingers become drier and stupider. The cameras are actually pushing me out of the business, I am a parasite that cannot shrink itself quickly enough, a giant fumbling flea in a room full of tiny dogs. I am shrinking, though. On schedule my bones are perforating, bowing. Muscle is becoming tendon. I have just reached the top of the stairs between my shop and my apartment, forced into my musty bed by a gripping pain in my chest, my good friend heartburn, the reason I was able to quit smoking, buying antacid instead of cigarettes.
Fuck my body! The death of my usefulness, dead professions. When I was young I promised myself I wouldn’t complain about my aches and pains. I realize that I am going without much grace. I can look down the length of the bed and see: I am a bitter, shitty little man.
“You never talk about what it was like when you were little.” Complains my grandson. Artists are terribly unhappy people. At best.
“Pick a trade.” I tell him. “Start a career young.” It is the most absurd advice. A career is death, repitition is void. My wife is dead. This comes to me as a revelation, five years later. A law of physics has changed. The law was, “My wife is alive”. It still feels like gravity is broken.
“You talk about death constantly.” My grandson says unabashedly. At least he lacks tack. He will confront me when anyone else in the family would look at the floor. Art is a desperate religion with no bible. Multimedia. Blasphemy. I sit up, cough a juicy cough, consider buying some pall malls, and head back downstairs. I sweep off the tabletop, piles of sightless eyes. I waddle out to the frontroom, a closet that leads to the street. A twenty two year old girl is at the counter, using my money to stand there, bored but enjoying the lack of business. She doesn’t bother to hide her celebrity magazine from me. When her friends stop by, sometimes for hours, they talk about waxing. I let them push me around, there is no point in hiring different help. I like letting young girls push me around. It is pathetic and sexy. I stand in the doorway, and neither of us looks at the other, or says a word. The only good business is money, the only currency is currency itself. My cameras were once bricks of gold, intricate poems of wire and plastic. But I refused to let go of reality, of tactile objects. I am a fool, a caveman who cannot let go of his spear. My wife was a painter. She had no sense of smell, and I have always had bad gas. We were never madly in love. It was perfect. Women should not die before men.
“You can go home. I’m closing for the day.” I tell the girl. The wieght of my life is crushing me. Soon my family will force me to move to the country, where the city noise can no longer penetrate, and the silence of memory will engulf me.


     

Money Bombs

I succoumbed to the prize banner. My email is diseased. Single digits in my inbox carried revelations; lovers, fortunes, epiphanies. Now there are thousands of messages, feasting on my email address, dividing it’s few characters into meaningless bits, not even whetting their appetites. There is no room for curiosity in a system composed entirely of curiousity. My movements on the internet, I realize now, have always been gridlike, statistic. My brother designs antivirus software for a living. In his free time he makes viruses. He made one that copies nasty sentences about one friend from your emails and sends them to all your friends. He does not believe in irony. Everything that can happen will happen, he says. I have thus far received no prizes from the banner. Now I cannot think of another reason to access the internet, so I stare at the screen, trying not to wonder if, maybe, just one of these people can actually make my penis bigger.
Friendly booms, an unannounced grand finale to a mid-day fireworks show, pound outside in rapid fire. As I do every time, I assume it is bombs, a nation I have never heard of seeking retribution on my comfortable life. Without locking the door, or grabbing my keys, or checking my hair, I step outside. The third world lurks in our subconscious, tattoed faces and incantions. There are dark red tufts in sky. I begin walking in the wrong direction, towards the housing projects. They look like college dorms, containing racial segregation rather than studying it, incubating presidents of discontent. This could be big, I think. I’m looking for damage, I’m looking for infractions in reality. I know that it was not fireworks. Other people are in the street, squinting and looking up. Something is littering down from the sky, a confetti. More people are joining us in the street. I learn over to pick up the confetti, because the confetti is twenty dollar bills.Other people start picking up the money. There is no scramble, no hoarding. We are exchanging happy glances of incredulousness, wondering who we can trick with this. I hold a bill up in the sun. It is perfect, the right color, the right thickness and give. Tiny lines and patterns of authority, glittery tiny numbers. A black man in a white car slowly pulls over to the side of the road, parking diagonally. There are gunshots recorded into his music, which he leaves on. I’ve never felt so comfortable here, so able to make eye contact. A little girl who was playing with a ball continues playing with the ball. There are so many bills landing around us, landing on awnings, in oily puddles, on the hoods of cars. A small skirmish finally breaks out: a kid is trying to buy a coke from a street vendor with the money, but the vendor won’t take it.
I try to think of the date, this is history now, bombs full of money. I can’t remember it, I can’t remember anything. I pull out my personal device, PD, in the language of acronyms that sits squarly on top of the old one. We haven’t gotten dumber, the world has gotten smarter. It is remembering us for us. It is packing our lunch and picking our outfits. It is a mother that wants to be our girfriend too. It is something that has outgrown death, a traffic that never stops, the curve of the earth as a flat surface, crashing into the sun. When I look at a math formula, I can feel my brain heating up. I sleep when I am tired. I eat when I am hungry. In the back of my mind, I feel like everybody else; that I have commited a great crime that I can’t remember. I consider writing these thoughts into the device, but instead I turn on the news.
“In a massive coordinated “action”, warheads have erupted over seven major U.S. cities. We have reports of three possible causalities, as one warhead in Las Vegas landed in an auto repair shop and ignited its paper payload. We are advising people not to pick up the counterfeit money that is falling to the streets. We repeat, the money may be contaminated. Do not attempt to put these bills into circulation… Radiation… biological agent… Nerve gas…fundamentalists…” There is a helicopter frozen in place hovering over us, more menacing than the bombs, more insistent. My pockets are already stuffed with bills. I am unlearning their value already, looking for fifties and hundreds instead. “It is recommended that eveyone stay in their homes in these areas and wait for further information. And don’t panic.”

It is the president speaking now, in front of a blue draping cloth and a silly symbol, at a podium. “I would like to commend Americans for their candor in this situation.” I am in my home. The phone lines are beginning to open back up, I’ve spoken with family, neglecting to mention the pile of bills I collected. “Our initial reports have indicated no contaminates of any kind, but we must strongly recommend that all cash transactions be suspended. We are asking merchants to accept personal checks for food and related neccessities, and electronic transactions may continue as normal. The ecomony is in our hands. We can prevail over this sinister act of deception.” The warning is unneccessary. No one is taking cash anywhere. Communities of immigrants are becoming desperate. Unrest may erupt at any point. The government is providing food and emergency services in force, determined to avoid violence. The news channel ends the president’s speech and goes to footage of armored trucks, purposefully lumbering around the city at night, drawing up gold from one basement and depositing it in another, a massive silent changing of hands. My office has been closed for the past three days, so I can pretend to do something at home instead of pretending at work.

My mother has swiftly purchased a lake house with deflated currency, skillfully riding the wake before equilibrium returns. She insisted that I come to it, until the threat of violence in the city passes. An early morning train to the airport, fresh scratchitti, with scrapings of window still hanging from it. It is the ghost of grafitti, a desperate spirit exposed while its brightly colored carcasses hang in galleries and coffee shops, mummified on canvas. The skyline from the plane is spiky and unclear. I can see massive tankers in the harbor, their frieght is emmigrants, an urgent reversal of human flow. The government was quick and merciful, providing an easy escape for those whose lives relied on the anonymity of cash. A toddler presses his hand against the plane window. The small news terminal in front of me reads: “cuddling instead of sex for New York singles, xbox killings, koko the gorillas needs a dentist, Dollar continues to deflate, surpassing the Euro, now at 2.67 to 1”
Rivers of classic rock flow through the valleys upstate, 30 years of closed circulation to assure us that the invisible undercurrents have remained the same. My sister has picked me up from the airport. She changes the radio to an R&B station. As soon as I arrive in this post sexual world, we head out on a motor boat, battering ourselves on yellow innertubes pulled behind. Flaming red hair and lanky bodies, fourteen year-old red-headed step-child bouncing on the waves, one hand behind him smacking the air like a cowboy. The air above the lake holds a barbeque smoke layer. “Only three percent of the economy was printed money,” my little sister informs me.
The red heads have been torn from their tubes and we are stopped temporarily. I dive off the edge of the boat and point straight down, expecting an unapproachable abyss, but finding the bottom too soon. My hand is sliced along a dozen little white lines, wafting blood, from grazing an infestation of zebra mussels. Fish have sex by leaking fluids straight into the water. This is why their death is less eventful. My goldfish gasped on its side for days, because it didn’t care to draw a clean line between alive and dead. When we get back to the house I undress in the bathroom, pulling my suit from my cold damp butt cheeks. It is a marvelous feeling.
I spend an afternoon at work with my stepfather. Laughing, I ask my stepfather about the term “inbreeding algorithms”on his computer screen at work. He is happy to tell me about the computing power necessary to breed the dogs at this kennel properly. Millions of relatives, trillions of calculations. He is happy to tell me that the human population had to bottleneck no further in the past than the thirteen hundreds.
“If you assume a generation every twenty years, two parents, four granpdparents, 8 great grandparents and so on, your ancestors would need to total more that the world population in the thirteen hundreds sometime. Inbreeding is a carefully regulated part of the process.” Geneticists are becoming interested in their dogs, he says, 30 generations in complete isolation, perfect airconditioned records of lineage for a million relatives. He finshes up work and we head back to the lake. When we arrive he sits down to watch some rodeo, and a news banner below it scrolls, “…negotiations have failed…” The rodeo clown is not laughing or smiling as he is chased by the bull. It is becoming obvious that America will never use paper money again. It became merely paper, silently, wadded beneath mattresses and crumpled in socks, neatly folded in leather wallets, a visible loss of aura. I change and walk down to the water, jumping in. I swim past forests of seaweed underwater, heading into the deep green. Who could have made the money bombs except the government? I can only make memories underwater. Motor boat engines whine from nowhere. I become linked to every pruny version of myself underwater, in the past and in future.

 

      Movie Star

Last night I had sex with a movie star. I am in her apartment now. It is morning. My welcome is almost up, I suspect. She is hardly a movie star. She was a successful child actor, playing a cute niece to a obese disheveled comedian, then a junkie once adolesence took its full toll, once the weight of an actual body insisted on trauma, gravitational collapse. Now she smokes and drinks in New York, changing sides in the coastal war- abandoning her hatching place on the west coast. People will cut your throat while smiling, everyone says of Los Angeles. The traffic, they say. People have more silicone than brains. We reference these mantras often, while we watch their movies in our overpriced theaters. I’ve never been to L.A. I imagine they say that New York is cold, cramped, overpriced and frantic. This is self-evident. Do they chant it in defense? The light coming through the ventilator shaft tells me nothing about what kind of day it is. Through these concrete tubes only one kind of light comes; the light of the perfect cloudy day, a day when it will never rain and the sun will never pretend to change your mood. She is bustling around, pinning up her hair, repositioning her bra, brushing her teeth angrily.
“I have an appointment in like, two minutes.”
“O.K.”
“Um, I have your number and everything.” She pauses. “I can’t really lock up until we’re both gone. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s cool,” I quickly put on my hipster shoes, and smush down my hair. “I should go too,” I lie.
She kisses me quickly on the cheek out the door. She waves happily, looking over her shoulder twice, while escaping down the stairs. She blows me a kiss. Very L.A, I think. Stepping onto the street, I see the ventilator shaft has betrayed me again- it is seeringly sunny outside. What the fuck am I going to do now? Turn right, first of all. Activate my strut. Walk like I just had sex with the chick from that movie. People here form an impression of themselves in the negative space of celebrity encounters. Our elbows are notched where we have brushed them with celebrities, like prison walls or sticks on a deserted island. It’s funny. All I really want is for women to let me into their apartment, to watch them dress. I want to see living spaces and morning routines. Sex is like an entry fee. I am already looking at legs as they pass, shooting out of summery skirts with a mid-morning sense of purpose. I lock onto one woman’s butt, evaluating it with my sophisticated palette, being a coniesseur of butts. It’s not my fault. There is nothing else to look at other than ads. The city is a desert, with every impulse towards the organic funneled into sex. Maybe I want to eat a plant or something, or kill a bear, or paint myself with mud. My only recourse is to evaluate butts.
Coffee will start this day. Enough coffee becomes like internal excersize. Just sitting becomes exciting and exhausting. Plus I need to shit, which of course I couldn’t do at the actresses’ place. Sitting down with my coffee, outdoors at some yuppy soho bullshit on a wicker chair, I laugh at the actress. I wonder what her appointment was for, if anything. Her last work was in a mattress commercial. Running her hand across the mattress over and over, luxuriously, smiling, backpedaling in her career quite severely. I hear some republicans talking at the table next to me, rare birds. If she was here, feeling randy, I could she her standing up to lecture them. She’s done it before, to get written up by the reporter at another table, a “where are they now?” blurb. I pull out my list pad. It is time to make today’s list. A good list has a particular shape, a graphic beauty that demands its items be systematically destroyed. Not much comes to me right away. I need to water my aunt’s plants.

It is 7 p.m. My aunt’s keys are jiggling outside the door and she enters. The plants are watered.
“Did you water my plants?”
“Yup.”
“How was yours?” She asks honestly, digging through her purse to find her phone.
“Uneventful.” My aunt is great. She doesn’t care what I do. She doesn’t ask who I slept with last night, although if I tell her she’ll love it. She’s never here, no time for guys, she might be gay, always working, advertisizing. I have her spare room for free.
“I’m just stopping in. I’ve got a dinner.” She moves to the window overlooking union square as someone picks up on the other end of her phone. She clutches her arms close to her, swaying back and forth slightly, talking quietly and watching people walk below.
“No Law and Order date tonight?” I ask, sounding playfully wounded when she gets off the phone.
“Sorry, I’ve met someone else,” She says dramatically. She goes in the bathroom for a while, and reemerges on a straight shot to the front door.
“Enjoy yourself, kiddo. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” I instruct as the door closes. I turn on Law and Order. In a few minutes I recognize the episode. My friend Franco plays a dead, shoeless immigrant. Only his foot made the final cut, poking out of a van. I strain for the scene, and once its over, I surf the channels. The MTV music awards are on, singers descending from the ceiling upside down, slowly, shimmering in glitter, taping live less than a mile away.

     

The Car Chase

This field is not a road underneath the tall grass. It is a vinyl record, and this pickup truck is the needle. It is playing a recording of a red-faced child banging pots and pans, it is desperately tracing every boom and clang, leaping and slamming and creaking to keep up, even though I am going only 10 miles an hour. My reving engine is the child’s expe not just arimental screams and groans, as my front tires leave the ground. The headlights are off. Fireflies are splatting against the windshield, ejaculating one last burst of light and then fading away. There are dozens of them, painting a map of a dying city. Suddenly, my wheels find silence. I squint through the bug bodies. It seems to be a dirt road. I turn hard left, and drive for a while at a slow speed. Then I click on the head lights and speed up casually, as if nothing has ever happened. I think of what a friend said to me, trying to explain the beauty of the car chase scene. “If you drive fast enough, and good enough,” he preached slowly, “you can get away.” This is it, a mantra. The cop is not on my tail. He didn’t see me veer off into a field. I have a story to tell people, I start thinking. I need some victory music. I don’t have the courage to put it on though, as I look in the rearview mirror. I also don’t think it was a good way to ditch a speeding ticket. It was a spasm of brazen attitude, like a jolt of annoyance or fury. Now I am also lost.
Needless to say, the next day at KFC was mostly spent going over the car chase in my head. I tried to think how it could be in a story or a movie. My girlfriend was impressed. She likes to speed up and swerve going through toll booths, so they can’t take a picture of her license plate. Of course, I was driving her pickup on my car chase, and although I protected her insurance from another ticket, she is bound to notice that I wrecked the alignment. The sound is chicken plopping into grease vats. I hear reving engines.
“I think this truck is driving funny.” She says when she picks me up. “It wants to go left.” We are headed to her little sister’s high school graduation. “Did you get my sister a card?”
“I got an eighteen rack of bud.” I say defensively. “I intended to write something on it.” Her sister and I are pretty chummy. I always ask if she’s got a DD before I buy her friends booze.
“Don’t let my dad catch wind of that.” I am watching ditches and mounds go by, interrupted by misspelled signs with bendy vinyl letters. I am a very happy passenger, with my legs propped up against the dash. I squint into the late Texas sun. I should’ve showered after KFC. I smell like grease. Her hair is pulled up on her head, very blond from working outside. There are splotches of paint on her bandana.
The sound is chicken plopping in the fry-a-lator. There are register beeps, the ones that haunt me when a friend’s cell phone rings. The thrill of my car chase is completely gone, I wouldn’t even mention it. I need to get out of KFC, I think. My girlfriend’s little sister is going to UT to study engineering. She got a laptop. I got poisoned at her party; I am allergic to watermelon and I ate some fruit salad. My chest seized up and I started to sweat and shake. I was proud of my stoicism at first, but I’ve canceled it out by complaining for the past few days, about a lingering asthma. Watermelon is a very wussy allergy. My girlfriend has a new friend, Carlos, from New York City. I’m not jealous, she has a lot of dude friends. But I do feel a little like Simone’s boyfriend Andy from Pee Wee’s big adventure. We are going to take him to Trail dust tonight,where they use paper towels for napkins. He always tries to drop in little things about how the city life is so much different. “We watch Seinfeld reruns out here, too”, I said spitefully the last time we hung out. He laughed. He is going to UT also, for graduate school. I never liked school. I liked coming home after school to light cans of WD-40 on fire. I miss my friend who loves car chases; he followed a girl out to California. Some pudgy black kids come in the front, singing “Kentucky fried chicken and a pizza hut,” flapping their arms like chicken wings and drawing a hut shape in the air.

     

The Steve Morales Kit

In Christmastown Louisiana, it is Christmas all year. The Spanish moss dangling from the cypress trees, once deathly and stately, has been spray-painted white. It is stiff and crackling, shedding white flakes onto the ground like oily snow. Our Christmas lights are never taken down, but they are seldom lit. On Christmas when I was twelve, as we set the final window unit air-conditioner to full blast, there was a tired whoosing sound. Power throughout the town died until the day after New Year’s. We resisted the heat, but were finally forced to remove our chunky knit sweaters, and accept that it cannot be forty degrees in Christmastown. I do not mean to seem bitter about my town. I stayed here. I work, like most people, outside of the Christmas industry. I go on frequent business trips to New Orleans, and stay high up in hotels. Hurricane Ferdinand is coming. Now my uncle is glaring into the computerized maps on the weather channel; Ferdinand is a huge swirling red and orange demon. My uncle’s cheeks are permanently red, in blurry vein patterns like bleeding marker, from the daily heat of his Santa suit. There are beads of sweat on his forehead. Now he is wearing cutoff jean shorts and a white pocket t-shirt. “Category 5.” He says unemphatically. Frame by frame, the storm image clicks towards the gulf. “Look at the fucking eye on that thing.” A fuzzy green satellite video shows the storm from space. The eye really is amazing, dipping into the ocean, threatening to gouge it with its clarity and stillness. “I need to be in New Orleans tomorrow.” I say, with the right amount of manly annoyance. “Hope you can swim.” My uncle smiles a rare off work smile. It is genuine, and slightly sadistic. I do not leave for business trips without the Steve Morales kit. It started with his social security card, which I found on the ground in New Orleans. It was properly aged and yellow, much more authentic than my own card. Regrettably, the inspiration to keep Steve’s card came from a lifetime movie, about identity theft. When I was young I bent a paper clip into an electrical socket, after seeing it done on a safety video. As my kit came together, I began to feel like I was in love. Hair dye, an electric razor, a fake id with Steve’s name and my picture, colored contacts, and a suit that wasn’t me- it was that moist autumn feeling, like my chest was becoming a mushroom, juicy and warm, awkward but vital. I keep the kit in a well built hard case. As I arrive in this particular hotel room, I take out the kit, slide a bathroom ceiling panel loose and place the case out of sight. But before I replace the panel I pull the kit back out again. I run the razor through my beard without turning it on. I have estimated the transformation to Steve Morales would take 12 minutes. I turn on the TV to hear about our friend Ferdinand the hurricane. My meetings are in 45 minutes. I wake up from an evening nap. I dreamt about water rising outside the Decatur street mall, darkening the empty pastel stores. The crowds had already hurried up the escalators, but I traveled more slowly with the Starbuck’s boys. We were awed by the tranquility of the purple surge rising outside our fish bowl. Now I am stepping outside the hotel lobby, into a warm night with no weather. There is a brilliant shooting star, cutting across half the sky, threatening with each second never to stop, to rip my whole world silently open. I take a cab to a restaurant that I can’t really afford. The rain begins early, wakes me up with the excitement of Christmas morning. I usually tell people I am from Royale, which was the name of my hometown before the Christmastown vote in the 70’s. This avoids the delicate theater of excitement and mockery that I used to endure. Before I go home, I have to find a video game for my son’s birthday; I couldn’t find it in the toystores in Royale. I round the corner and enter a toy store. The door goes whoosh as it opens, and then closes slowly, fading out the hiss of the rain. The air conditioning is much too intense for my damp state. I walk up to the counter where the video games are held. There appears to be no one in the store. I am looking for sin city, a game in which the protagonist is an aspiring mobster; killing police officers, trafficking drugs and having sex with prostitutes. My sister will say, “At least they’re doing it where we can see them,” and laugh wisely. Inspired by my son’s flirtation with the dark side, I slip behind the counter to look at the games closer. A portly attendant rushes up and shoes me away from the games. Sheepishly, I ask for Sin City and then leave. Now it is howling outside. My cabbie says no planes are flying. He tells me a rumor that the seas are not rising, but receding from the shore. He says it snowed in Christmastown.

     

The Beach is Better

“I always give money to bad street musicians.” He says, after dropping a few coins in a drunk guitarist’s case. “Good music on the streets is depressing.” I roll my eyes at him, visibly. My sandals are filled with sand, sandwiches of it between foot and blue-foam bread. The heat is not unromantic. I blink peacefully and adjust my bathing suit bottom, hooking two thumbs into the back and undoing a wedgie. He watches my hands do this. Stepping onto the beach, I walk out of my sandals. I try to accept that the sand makes me slower, eating my footsteps and refusing to burp. How far down does the sand go? What’s underneath it? He sets down beach towels, one for each of us, and we sit down. I scoop up a handful of sand, trying to look at individual grains to compare them. It is already in my hair somehow. If I scratch my scalp I can feel grains coming out like tiny painless scabs. When I get home I will wish that it won’t ever stop coming out of my hair, showing up in my shoes, forming little piles under me where I sit. “Do you want to move over one beach?” “Why would we?” I ask. “I don’t know, that one seems a little nicer.” “This one is nice.” We are here because he has run into a lot of money, very quickly, by writing a computer program. He will tell you: Every video camera, tape recorder and digital camera in the world is linked now. Surveillance cameras, home movies, all transmit to one network as they are used. Of course, they can’t all be watched, or even recorded. To make use of this network, we need programs to analyze the images and sounds, and show us the ones worth watching, like search engines. The one he designed detects fist fights; the way crowd noise swells, the rapid flailing of limbs. All afternoon you can watch fat kids and skinny kids take a beating on school bus cameras, he says. The truth is, even watching everyone on the network who’s laughing at any moment is traumatizing. It’s too much. “It feels weird to have a vacation with no time limit.” I say. “Yeah. My life is basically paid vacation time.” “We don’t really belong here. We’re somewhere in between real people and tourists.” “Do you want to head over to Disneyworld? That’s what’s so great about it over there.” I sense that he’s about to launch a diatribe, so I put on a face like I will laugh at him regardless of what he says. “It’s not about costumed animals and roller coasters. It’s about signing yourself over to a place designed for you.” He quickens his pace and becomes more animated, like he has rehearsed this. “It doesn’t matter that you are sitting in a rotating room and pretending to navigate an adolescent boy’s intestines. So long as you stay in the park, you can’t see a single real person, and that’s what you’re really paying for.” “They have a fireworks grand finale every night,” I say. “So are we going?” “No thanks.” Later that night we go out to a bar, after changing our clothes in our twin suites, with the connecting door not quite closed between us. We see a new beer that has been relentlessly advertised back home, with strangely dated graphics, their billboards bleeding mentally into billboards about credit cards on beaches. We decide to try it, even though it makes the world seem too small. We lock eye contact, and slowly raise our bottles for the first sip in history. As soon as the generic taste settles, we both burst out. We laugh for minutes, maybe because the anticipation became very real in the last couple of seconds. We don’t know what to say afterwards. “You’re doing the writer thing.” He says to break the silence. “Processing everyone into sentences and reading them aloud in your head.” He says this partly to make me feel like a writer, but also to show how closely he watches me. “If you pull out a pad, I’m throwing it in the ocean.” He boasts. I smile, annoyed by the compliment. We are now walking on the beach. “The city is where you imagine other places,” He muses. “It makes it seem like you are still imagining the places when you get there.” The night is very cool, clear and bright. It makes the sand look like snow, except that it doesn’t crunch under our feet. It reminds me of an adolescent fantasy of becoming a vampire- being able to see perfect clarity without light, everything in ghostly sharpness, devoid of fuzziness or pixelation. He likes thinking about pixels so much that I consider telling him about this juvenile fantasy. I don’t say anything. Our walk ends at our gigantic hotel, and we saunter back up to our rooms. We sit together on my bed and he turns on the TV, then hands me the remote. I pick a late night Spanish talk show. We talk about how it looks different than American talk shows; different cameras, different makeup, different lighting maybe. Would it seem less silly if we spoke Spanish? We watch the whole show. When it is over, he stands up quickly, says goodnight very cheerily and slips into his room. I’m surprised, relieved, and depressed. I wake up to him crying out in his sleep. My blood chills for a second, but I am suspicious that it is a subconscious ploy to get me I his room, like a little boy would do. I pretend to be asleep, like a little girl. In the morning we go to a café, and his order gets misunderstood. He says “fried eggs,” and the waiter repeats back to him “frijoles”. He doesn’t try to correct it, and ends up with a plate full of beans. I can’t tell if it matters to him. We decide to leave the next day. From the plane I look down at the glassy glistening ocean. “Why do the waves appear to be frozen in place from up here?” I ask him. He pauses. “The waves are never actually moving, except up and down. From up here we all we see a tendency of waves to be there. Just like subatomic particles.” While he is telling me this, my ears pop, although I didn’t realize they needed to. I hear the second half of his sentence very clearly, and the feeling is like waking up when you didn’t realize you were sleeping.

Buying a New TV

A man is sitting in a room, watching TV. The speakers on the TV vibrate to make this sound: “Police have found evidence that a Canadian cult, recently disbanded, has been intentionally inbreeding for over 50 years.” Hazy gray shadows that look like lumbering cavemen interfere subtly with the news program. The man changes to the next channel. The shadows were actually cavemen, on the most popular show in America. For one hour, the whole nation tunes in, watching a tribe of actors in very good cavemen suits, speechless, with only a soaring orchestral score to accompany their fast-paced triumphs and failures. Because of an educational guise, the show features graphic sex and brutal violence. Viewers are aroused by animalistic plumes of pubic hair and the piercing of flesh with crude stone tools. They become attached to characters. They feel joy when a water hole is won from competitors, and sadness when a mother dies in childbirth. The show signaled the end of reality television. The man leaves it on this station. He is thinking about driving on the freeway. It is a formless thought with no direction. He is trying to remember a song he was listening to. He can’t remember his mood without it. It seems very important. He gets up from his easy chair, and looks back at it for a second. Even in this dim light, it looks old. He remembers buying it, when it looked new, but he cannot recall how it went from new to old. The TV is making him nervous, but he sits back down anyway, crossing one leg underneath him to feel more alert and in control. The man changes the channel again, and finds an old program from the 70s. A station wagon pulls up to a gas station, and he tries to imagine what it was like when station wagons were the newest thing, state of the art. He can’t even imagine that colors were bright back then, instead of leeched and muddy as they appear on the program. He turns back to the brighter, more vivid cavemen show and kicks his leg back out, slouching. He is not willing to admit that he is preparing to fall asleep. Now he is pulling off the freeway to go to a mall. The music in his car is an echoey vibraphone. It makes the road and cars seem like children’s toys, as he curves around the layers of a cloverleaf. He wants to invent a children’s toy, or a kitchen gadget. Having an infomercial would be hilarious. His chuckle is a short exhale, an audible hmph. Immediately after doing it, he wonders who it was for. He should be looking for a new job but no one is really keeping tabs on his job search. He can pick up an application at a store in the mall, so he can say he was looking. After weaving through islands of perennially uninspired landscaping, he chooses a distant parking spot. He scorns the people who fight for close spaces. As he walks across the lot, he sees that the sky is a beautiful even gray, that makes the light seem like it comes out of the ground itself. “I bet they don’t even notice,” he thinks smugly about the close-parkers. He enters the mall. After weaving through diagonal sections of ladies underwear, soft shades pink, blue, and nude, brightly lit; he is in the mall’s atrium. He can smell the chlorine of the fountains. The fountains make the mall feel central and alive. He tries to draw an analogy between malls and the ancient Roman marketplace. It doesn’t work very well. He knows nothing about ancient Rome. The smell of chlorine fades away as cinnamon bun takes over, then impossibly flavorful coffee, then berry soaps. Now he is front of the electronics store. He tries not to dwell on the attractive blaring of televisions, radios, computers games and salespeople. He thinks the detail is below him. He is here to buy a new TV, one without hazy caveman shadows. While standing in front of a wall of flat TVs, a sales woman comes up to him, asking if he needs help with anything. He murmurs, “No thanks, I’m fine,” and they both stand together for a second, watching a news program on ten screens. He glances down at her breasts but instead becomes engrossed in the thick weave of her red uniform shirt. The news program says, “a bizarre link has been established between the Canadian inbreeding cult and Monday’s rash of seizures in children. Apparently, the seizures were caused by flashing lights aired on a popular children’s show- which stars a prominent member of the group now under investigation. He is reported missing.” A clip from the show pops up, showing a man dressed in a foam wizard hat. He is saying, “Make everyday a sunny day!” “Pretty bizarre, isn’t it?” says the retail woman, breaking the customer service façade slightly. He murmurs stupidly again, glancing down at her breasts and noticing that her name tag says Sharon. A few more seconds pass, then she turns around and leaves. He no longer wants the new TV. There is no way that he can afford it anyway. He will go out and buy a Mother’s day present, even though it is too late to mail it now. He listens briefly to the cacophony of the store. Now he is passing the novelty store. On display in the front are thin plastic masks from the caveman show, a different mask for every character from this season’s tribe. He thinks to himself, “everything in our lives will converge if we force it to. People buy coincidences religiously.” He forgets about the Mother’s day present, and heads out of the mall with only an application to the electronics store in his hands. As he pushes through the second set of doors, he looks up to see a group of police officers waiting outside. They don’t look very confident or well organized. He remembers smoking pot in middle school, and stealing 7 CDs in college. Then he realizes the police are not there to arrest him, and gets the relief of waking up from a guilty dream. On the way to the car, while playing action movie sequences in his head about violent shootoffs, a familiar looking man rushes by him. From the freeway, he becomes convinced that there are plumes of smoke rising from the mall. He begins to wonder if his day was significant, if he should remember the details; Sharon, the cavemen masks. He will watch the news to look for the mall. He puts on his seatbelt as rain begins to spatter the windshield. He immediately turns on the TV, back to the hazy news, hoping to see a blazing inferno, or himself on a security camera. Instead, it is the inbred wizard seizure story again. The unrelated scroll across the bottom of the screen reads, “Scientists in Australia discover: matter is light in the time direction.” A different clip is played, this time the wizard is talking about self esteem and air pressure. The man leans in towards the TV, unexpectedly gripped by what he sees: the man in the parking lot who rushed by him resembles the wizard to a tee. Not the same person, but too similar to be just a sibling. He thinks about the inbreeders, and wonders how many of them there are. He tries to remember at what point deja-vu began to make him feel close to death, instead of close to a revelation. He decides that it did not happen all at once.