The Long Journey, Part Two

Part One

Moof was trying to suppress the grin with a lockjaw grimace. “Why’d they send you?” he asked rhetorically. “Because SOME damn fool ACCUSED YOU of being the BEST!

And with that he brought his right arm up to an arm-wrestling pose and flexed his biceps. The grin came out. “Huh? Heh?” I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t even get the joke for another five minutes.

“I’m a little surprised to see you, Moof.”

“I know, right? What a crazy world. Step on in here and have a seat. Travel okay? Car ride okay?”

“Can’t complain, I suppose.”

“Well, you could complain, but who’d give a shit?”

We sat in the tweedy chairs alongside the table. Not directly across from each other; Curtis sat at the end and I sat across the corner from him. Or at least, that was the initial pose. He shot out of the chair almost as soon as he’d touched down, like he’d sat on a tack. “Wow, it is good to see you!” He turned toward a bland cabinet. Everything in the room looked like it had been picked up from the as-is section of IKEA, except the Miller High-Life which now appeared. He sat back down and popped his.

I stared at him.

“I know, right? Of all the gin joints, in all the towns.”

“Mind telling me what’s going on here?”

He stared back. “That’s your assignment, after all.” I nodded. “Well tough tittay. You have to visit first. Drink your beer and let’s ketchup, mou-tard.”

“Lettuce Beef Friends, is that what you’re saying?”

“Woo fucking hoo. Now we’re synchronized. How’d you like my man Boyd?”

“Was he the one at the plane, or the one that drove? Pretty boring.” I held the unopened can of beer in my hand and rolled it along my thigh. It was warm. “What are you doing here? I thought you had moved on to academia or something. ‘Swat I heard, anyway. Professor Curtis.”

“A part-time adjunct position, you could say. Limited student body, you could say. Plenty of time for research sabbaticals and extracurricular activities, and, what am I looking for…”

“Intramural sports, you could say.”

Curtis laughed. “Intramural sports, yeah. Yeah. Speaking of, your hip still shot? Knee? Was it the left?”

“Right.”

“Right knee, or…?

“No, you’re right, the left knee, and the hip is still shot.”

“Well, serves you right for giving up sales.”

“Speaking of sales…”

“Oh for CHRISSAKES. Relax, would you! It’s old times and lullabyes! We go back! Way Back! Why can’t we just sit here and drink beer and shoot the shit? What’s the matter with you? Where’s the old geekface nerdatron? I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.”

I rolled the beer. He smiled a little, that winning grin that always closed a sale.

“Not that anyone ever expects…”

“Moof, I always liked you. I did. Even when you stole my skateboard.”

“I borrowed that skateboard.”

“You stole it. Where’d it go? Where’d it end up? Not at my house.”

“I think I traded it for weed.”

“This is my point. You always have a hustle. I always fall for it. Everyone does. HR sent me out here because you’re meeting your numbers but they can’t figure out how. If I knew it was you, I could’ve saved a flight. I would’ve just told them you had some kind of hustle going on, and then I would’ve asked what braindead asshole thought it was a good idea to let you run a sales office, much less one more than about thirty feet from home. Now I’m out here and you’re going to get me fucked because I always liked you and I’m going to be in some kind of position where I’m going to get fucked. And then you’re just going to walk away golden. Because that’s what you fucking do.”

He leaned forward. “You gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?”

“GODDAMMIT.”

“Look, I’m sorry. You started talking ‘positions’ and ‘getting fucked’ and I got all excited. I earned everything I ever got, including your goddamn skateboard. I’m here in Analbeads because they thought I could get the numbers up, and I did. I’m excelling. I’m motivating. I’m delivering in ways they can’t even see yet, because I am building for the future. And I’m doing it on budget. Fast, good, and cheap.”

“Nobody does anything fast, good, AND cheap.”

“Think about this for a minute. What do they want to see? What do they not want to see? Do you think they really care about how or why, or for that matter, who?”

“I think you mean whom.”

“No, no, I think you’re wrong. In this case it’s who. Because I’m not talking about a specific person, I’m literally saying who could be anybody and they don’t care whom. You going to open that beer?

“Fine.” And I popped the top, and with a loud pfft  it sprayed up, foamed over, and the unmistakable smell of American Stank spilled over my hand, on the table, and all over my lap. Curtis didn’t look surprised, and made no effort to get me a towel.

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The Long Journey

The company took human resources very seriously. That is to say, the company employed humans, considered them resources, and valued them seriously. When one of their resources was underproductive, or worse: productive in a way that was not predictive; they noticed, and were concerned, in a very serious way.

It seemed to me that the notion: the further afield the representative, the less predictive; would be fairly obvious for a department that purported to know something about resources that were human. And yet, there was a certain element of indignant surprise in the meeting I attended. There was this anomaly, this unexpectation, and it wasn’t right. Oddly, enough, goals were on target, but HR didn’t understand how that was even possible, given the circumstances. They asked me if I would be interested in flying out? Just to ascertain what was going on? And I was assured there would be time for me to pack a few things, but there wasn’t.

The flight took me into the sun and cheated me of the day, but I played along and tried my best to fall asleep with my iliofemoral ligament—well, let’s just say the legroom in coach hasn’t gotten any better in 25 years. In the end I was happy for a window to lean against and I deplaned groggy and wet, because it was raining and there was no jetway. My walk across the tarmac was a percussive adventure of footfalls, joints, and long experience.

I was met by a suit who asked if I was from HR. No, I replied, but I was sent by them.

The suit assumed I would want to get to the office right away. Not especially, I replied, but what I want doesn’t get the job done any faster or better, so screw what I want, right? Besides, I’d made a friend on the flight and I had three small bottles in my pocket. I got in the car and within thirty miles I was sound asleep with one small bottle in my pocket.

As a result, I don’t know how far this fucktarded branch office was from the airport, but I didn’t have to be shaken awake and it was daylight and my hips didn’t hurt anymore, so it was damn far enough. I looked at the apricot driving and figured he’d be off whenever we got there. He didn’t talk and I pretended to keep sleeping so we had a great conversation as far as we were concerned, and when the speed dropped to fifteen or so I sat up and tried to look presentable, like someone predictive and completely productive. The apricot didn’t drive off right away after all.

Goals were being met. So the central question had to be: do the ends justify the means. I had to admit, the means involved in getting me out here were going to be pretty hard to justify. As the walk to the front door stretched, the bitterness increased. Down the hall to the right, I cracked my neck. Waiting for the conference room, I popped a pill. The place seemed normal enough, except no one was at the desks. I decided this was going to be a paperwork job more than anything else, and then the door opened and Moof Curtis was staring me in the face. I wasn’t prepared, so I didn’t smile. He did, though.

 

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New York City Twelve Degrees

 

 

I spend the days sleeping as I can. I have a sign out but really I hope just to be left alone, because I can’t survive the nights by sleeping. So the day is for sleeping. Because I am exhausted. And the day is relatively warm.

 

At night, I have identified a few places I can go, but only for about an hour. After that, nobody wants to see me. I am not useful. So at night I am moving.

I’m awake, so it’s no trouble. I just transfer. The challenge hits around 2:30.

 

The rap on this city is that it never sleeps. But it does. Shit sleeps the fuck out of this city. Especially when it’s cold. At 2:30, 3:00, 4:00… it’s as cold as space. So movement is key. Even without wind, the cold is working through muscle, to bone. Walking won’t burn enough calories to fuel the furnace. I alternate between underbite and overbite, blowing hot air up and then down to keep my lips from freezing out. I’m a fucking dragon of hot, wet, air.

 

Problem is, and I know this from a previous life, water transmits heat faster. A lot faster than dry. So the condensation from my breath kind of makes me need more of it. My lips get warm, but then instantly bleed cold. I’m a huffing, shuffling breath of hot/cold. But I have a secret weapon.

 

I have five dollar gloves from Old Navy. I don’t remember where I got them, but they are fleecy and cut out the chill even if my hands aren’t really warm. I hold them up to my face and breathe the hot air into them, and it lingers. My lips stay warm that much longer. I start to jog. I start to run.

 

My increased chemistry burns and my breath is hotter. I don’t really warm up in my legs but for a while the center is a fiery mass and my breath warms the gloves. My lips, even my nose can cash in. I take a moment to pause and enjoy this single moment of hearth.

 

That’s when everything changes. I blame myself, because I am too busy with my fucking hearth of warmy goodness and I don’t see him coming, don’t see that I’d best run past like a steam engine on rails of predestination. Conversation ensues, one sided, and pacing along my path. Get away, get away, I have problems of my own. Fuck off.

 

And pretend offense is taken, retribution demanded. I try to get by, try to move on, try to do everything right, but the inequality is there. His hands are bare, so cold, so blue. He wants my gloves. He wants my coat.

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The Graven Trust

The boy took steps lacking in trepidation, except concerning his balance. Moving from pole to pole, his gaze rooted to the negative valley of the lumpy canvas and cotton mass in the corner of the transit, he was not yet old enough to set his mind on the contrast of something so immoveable being borne at all times.

As he broke through, the whiteness of a single eye appeared and shifted to his round head. It was the weirdest thing the boy had ever seen, at least in the last hour. Just that eye above that tattered scarf, a whiteness that commanded more attention than the colored part. He could not even tell you what color the colored part was; that’s how bright the white part was.

And the transit shifted suddenly and caught the boy inexperienced, and he yelped in spite of himself and found his fingers gripping air first and denim second, the knee of the mass of canvas and cotton and denim and fearful largeness which happened to have a knee as well.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said, but the mass said nothing. He let go of the knee as soon as he could, if it could ever be said he had truly caught it.

“Um, can I ask you something? Can I ask you something? Hey, can I—”

 

When the sound came, it was like a tool across wood long ignored and allowed to sit on a workbench. And it came through the tattered scarf so very high above him and from the eye, which had closed.

“Okay, um. I was, wonder, just wondering about, you’re the biggest, I mean, you’re so big.” And the boy held the pole and waited.

 

“Well,” said the words which might almost now come from a voice, “I suppose that’s true.”

“How big are you, anyway?”

The mass shifted a little, and the boy felt like he could see maybe shoulders.

“Bigger than you.”

The boy considered this briefly. “Well,” he said with purpose, “I suppose that’s true.”

A different sound came out from the scarf, and a massive hand appeared and pulled down the tattered scarf to allow for more air. The boy stared again into the hollow place, not as a bird before a snake, but…

“What’s wrong with your face?”

 

“Nothing.”

“But, I mean…”

“Nothing is wrong. I can breathe, I can eat, I can talk. I can see.”

The boy could not look away.

“But your face is hurt,” he prodded.

“Was hurt.”

“How did you hurt it?”

“Ahhh,” said the mass, and it came in such a sigh that the canvas creased just a little. “Now you have asked a question.”

 

The boy waited patiently. Though he was desperate to know, he was a quick learner.

 

“An accident happened to me.”

“What kind of an accident?”

“Never mind that.”

 

The mass shifted and the boy could see more of a human shape now, one that took up nearly two seats and stretched to he didn’t know how far up.

“You’re so big,” he stressed. “My name is Franklin.”

And he remembered the other part.

“What’s yours?”

There were two eyes now, and they flicked down the car. They met a watching, the usual watching, always watching, and they landed on one worried face.

“I am Ston. You know, Franklin, you’re very brave, for someone so small. I think your mother would like you back now.”

Franklin turned to see the worried face. He turned back and thrust out his right hand to shake. “Pleased to meet you, Ston,” he said proudly, but no hand met his. Instead the massive head leaned in close, and the voice slipped inward to the workbench once more.

“Franklin, why did you come over here?”

“I don’t know. I just sort of wondered about you.”

“And you weren’t scared?”

“No.”

“Not even a little?”

“No. Well. A little.”

The face did not smile. An older boy might have noticed the smile lines and known it was possible, at least in an archaeological sense. A man might have understood, a mother might have cried. Franklin only stared and wanted it to tell him, anything, anything.

“You go back now. It’s your stop I think. Franklin, you should be scared sometimes. There’s a reason to feel scared. It keeps you from getting hurt, sometimes. Not everyone likes to talk.”

“But you like to talk, right Ston?”

“No, little brother. I don’t.”

 

It was too soon, but it was the right stop.

 

The boy took his mother’s hand, but only because she made him. It was long ago, and the platform was wet with the melting snow as spring made its stealthy, stabbing entrance. As he walked home, he stomped through puddles when he could, he hollered at the top of his lungs, and at the edges of the sidewalk he crushed the crystals under his boots, destructive and victorious because he was bigger than them.

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

I think I’m going through a mid-life crisis and I think I know why. I came within an ace of spilling my guts just now, which is what any sensitive, hurting person with troubles would do, but then I remembered how paranoid I get about the Internet. Normally I might dig deep and write a story with all kinds of metaphor and truth and the occasional subliminal message, but that never seems to be cathartic enough. Or maybe it is, but I have such a backlog to work through that I’m too busy wondering if the tub is draining to realize I should really be breaking it up with a sledge. Or at least, stop filling the damn thing. There I go, Captain Metaphor.

 

I have only ever been to therapy, that is, the conversational kind, once. And by once, I mean thirteen or so sessions around a single question… should I stay together with my partner? I didn’t learn a hell of a lot, though the question got answered, and I shrugged my shoulders and renewed my distrust of mental health professionals. Too many opinions, not enough fact. I am a fact guy, at least, I want to believe I am a fact guy. I try not to deal with moral implications, opinions, judgments. I just want to get to the bottom of things. And often, the thing I find myself getting to the bottom of is a glass. I find myself in liquid therapy often enough.

 

Death plays a big part in my life. I think about it all the goddamn time. I sometimes look at the world and feel like everyone around me is dying, and of course they are, aren’t they? But that’s a pretty half-empty way to look at the glass, and by now you’ve guessed my philosophy about half-empty glasses. Might as well empty it.

 

I look back on my accomplishments, my résumé, my record… all of them judgments, if you really think about it… and I see all the times I’ve let people down. I see everyone I’ve left, everyone I’ve run away from, everyone I’ve tried to be. I get so lonely because what I do over and over again is disappoint people. I fail. I don’t keep them alive.

 

At least, that’s what I told the glass.

 

Now here’s the funny part: if you knew me, Internet Friendo, you’d scarcely believe any of this. “Good Ol Max,” you’d say, if that was my name. “I’ve always liked his stuff. Why isn’t he published, I mean really? That thing about the mid-life crisis… damned sharp stuff. Chilled me to the bone, really brought it home. Such an ability to burrow into the human condition.” And who knows? Maybe you’d be right. Maybe I am an awesome fiction writer with a keen observation and an ever-ready pen, said the New York Times.

 

Disappointment? Sure, that happens. So what? Who cares what other people think? They’re too busy letting down each other to give a rat’s ass about you. Do you suppose the pain you cause them lingers? What a monumental ego. Why not just admit that the only person who has seen all your failures is the only one capable of condemning you, and redemption lies in telling that asshole to step the hell back and stop staring at you from the surface of the whiskey. And no, Virginia, I ain’t talking about God.

 

I came within an ace of spilling my guts just now. But in the end, I decided to just pull my coat on and count myself lucky. Sorry if the story was disappointing.

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Old Things

Somehow, I find myself working on a house.

It’s what could be considered an Old House, at least by California standards. In writing about my progress to SuperHot SuperSmart Girlfriend just now, I realized that this house splits my parents’ ages: my father was born in 1938, the house was completed in 1940, and my mother was born in 1941.

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Termites have done some pretty dirty work, but the house was tented last year and apparently the bugs have departed. Crawling around underneath everything, I’ve spotted three dessicated rats. All of the waste plumbing… the outgo, as it were, had to be replaced because it was all leaking and spraying into the crawlspace. There is no electrical grounding. I have been struggling to install GFCI outlets all day.

Fighting me has been The House. Plaster and Lath, with metal wire reinforcement to cut me, make my knuckles swell. Unexpectedly sturdy spacer blocks that must be drilled through for new wire. Endless trips to the HomeGiantMarts for parts, tools, circuit breakers, that One More Thing. For days I have been repeating to myself Patience, Patience, Patience.

My mother died at 49, my father at 65. This house outlived them both, still supporting its roof at 73. Somewhere along the line someone installed central HVAC, bypassing the original furnace. The wiring, run haphazardly in the crawlspace underneath, violates many building code sections but is probably a 1970s upgrade from the original. The House is proud, it doesn’t want to change. It wants to be solid, proud, defiant. It wants to be independent.

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Oddly enough, it is an upgrade which chills me the most. I can’t imagine a garbage disposal existed in the original sink; certainly the NM cable powering it wasn’t around in 1940. A cursory inspection revealed this:

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What you’re looking at is what was behind a little wooden block locking the cable in place. Both the hot and neutral wires are exposed down to the copper; all insulation has been abraded away. It’s actually worse on the other side of the cable. This is all tucked away inside the base cabinets.

Bare wires inside a wooden hole, behind wooden cabinets. The only reason I can think of that a fire didn’t break out is that no one runs a garbage disposal for more than 30 seconds.

How many other little surprises like this are cancering away the body of the house? My friend the plumber tells me, “don’t open up a can of worms unless you plan to fish.”

My hands are swollen, bleeding in places, tired. It takes a lot to care for the old things. The house will stand.

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And Then There’s That Right There Then

I have been taking baby steps toward including my family.

How do you do this with sufficient obscurity? “Thinking about you, wondering what you’re up to..” Deflecting the questions with yeah, boring, what’s going on with YOU because everyone loves to talk about themselves. God forbid we talk about me. Me is not an okay thing to talk about. I am only a voice, only a whisper, only a reminder of a kid with braces and tousled blond hair.

I have a habit of talking eagerly about life as a carpenter, about slipping studs (!) 16 inches apart and pounding the nails home. Admittedly, I enjoy making people uncomfortable. It makes them deflect and continue.

Me is not an okay thing to talk about.

So I hear about things that ordinary people worry about. And ordinary people are wonderful. Their problems cannot be solved because they do not want them to be. Because they hold those problems so close, depend on them so much. And when they really can’t stand them any more, when they REALLY can’t bear them, that’s often when I hear about them. And even then, they can bear them.

People are weak animals.

Steel.

Some of them haunt my dreams, invade me, demand answers that I can reject because I know they are phantasms of my mind, and I am in control. I am in control. I am IN control. I am in control. What is the basis of action? Thought. Consideration. Perspective.

To some extent, past action is irrelevant, isn’t it?

I am trying to involve my family.

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