by Blake More (TM)
An unidentified gunman shot and killed a North Bay resident after a confrontation at a Sir Francis Drake gas station late last night. Witnesses allege the suspect became enraged after the victim asked, "How you doin' man"...
He rolled over and grasped the blinking numbers. 5-3-5 5-3-5 535 5:35. Five-thirty-five in the fucking morning. The dawn thrust between the curtains, smirking as it stained his eyes. Hereís to another, he muttered, pressing away the call to morning.
He lifted himself from bed and stumbled into the bathroom, feeling only the bitter linoleum against his size twelve feet. A tune orbited his haze, suspending his effort as he worked to absorb its hum...hunger for her explains everything I've done...howl at the moon the whole night through...they don't really care...out of my mind...
He shook it off and flicked the switch, the shards of light unleashing the present in full fury. He thought of those missing mornings, mornings when gentle hands had tip-toed into his dreams and carassed him awake. Has it really been eight years? Eight years since I accepted my potential, ready to convert the world?
The corporate flesh---god, what a future heíd imagined for himself. Smoking fat cigars in the wooden assurance of the executive boardroom. Flying to Tokyo, attaché stuffed with proposals, pen in hand, just minutes from making the company millions. Even my own corner office outlining the Bay, where, heels high, I could count late afternoon sailboats as they raced to elude tomorrow.
Now, three promotions later, he still sat on the ninth floor, facing another, just like himself, in a neighboring high-rise. His desk - veneer rather than mahogany - moaned under the weight of a corpulent IN-BOX and project lists that argued over his vague presence. His work, far less glamorous than his gold embossed title, left him tired and thirsty. Definitely too busy to romp the globe like a Kennedy. His prized salary instead brought more things to put away, products someone--himself?--swore were indispensable. Wish you were here.
He looked up from the claret rings on the counter and saw them squinting in the mirror. Promises and lies. No more drinking, he promised. For real this time, he lied. I'll read tonight, he lied again, remembering the current self-help bible, Ten Baby Steps To Personal Freedom, that sat amassing dust on his bed-table.
He ducked into the shower. Soaping his ocher skin, he pinched the residue that had settled on his muscles and noticed that their veiny rivers had eroded into flesh. Exercise. There was a time when nothing could keep him from his daily seven miles, not even her Sunday body.
He leaned his head against the shower door and clenched his forehead, wondering who, or better, what had sentenced him to this life. I am nothing - nothing, just a bank account and bills, a human spayed by mortgage payments and yearly bonuses, he said aloud, somersaulting farther into the rot of his empty shaft.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And again nothing. It echoed and repeated like a carhorn in the Broadway tunnel. He wanted to howl against the void, but he knew no one, much less himself, would save him. Nothing.
As he often did, he tried to climb out by wandering back into one of his nineteen-year-old noons with Max, where linked by desire--or was it greed?--they would drape themselves across the quad steps beneath North Campus's rambling mosaic. Hours upon hours, he recalled, concentrating on the mood, worshipping those letters: Einstein, Goethe, Marx, Freud, Aristotle, Shakespeare, each alive with the promise of our immortality. Men beyond time, we were the smooth slate statues of today. Ours, too, were to be achievements that outlived life.
And waiting for our volumes in history, he mused with momentum, we saw ourselves whiling on some puffy lawn chair, conspiring, mint julep in one had, cellular phone in the other. Max in Jamaica, holding court alongside the sun on his shell-lined beach, cooled by the exclusive serenade of lacy palms; me in Beverly Hills, untroubled beside my full-grown swimming pool, listening to the purr of Rolls Royces as they paraded behind my seven story hedge of braided ivy.
But then, as always, the vision clouded as he concluded, only, in those days, like now, we saw simply the end. All the pomp, glorified by a will beyond our own, as if nothing could prevent its coming. Nothing.
He put his hands over his ears, hoping to smother the voices marching toward his sanity. It was no use, his day had begun.
Ten minutes passed before a summons interrupted the white safety of the shower wall. With the trust of a child, he brought the other corners toward him until their angles merged. Jagged, but together. Solid. Soothing. Irritating, like a Picasso. He let them inch closer. Closer. Closer still. He closed his eyes, relaxed into their arms, feeling them exhale and draw tighter till their giant lungs wheezed him into the lunacy of a cushioned cell. His mind staggered, paused, spiraled toward the drain, taking him smaller and smaller, until he felt himself disappear. Hollow, he heard voices in the fading distance. "Lay down," they called. "Follow the water, it's easy."
He tore open his eyes and lunged forward, choking as he groped for the bruising facet. Insistant water filled his eyes, his nose, his mouth, challenging him to find his breath---to want to find his breath---till finally, he chose the pain he knew and lifted his body from his asylum.
He erased the water from his skin, feeling calmer as each drop was silenced in blue terrycloth. Am I crazy?, he said to the mirror. But no one answered. He read the towel's cursived script. JWG. A reminder.
Blaming last night's tonic, he vowed never again to chase tequila and beer with cheap red. Coffee.
His mornings were always the same; it had become a game of endurance. He'd dissect each aspect of his life, horror by disgust, then, just as the pain became real, he'd turn off the microscope and run---to Starbucks, to the office, to the bottle. Normally, the voices weren't this bad until at least eleven. He wasn't prepared.
He eyes crossed his bedroom, bringing to mind a showroom square in a designer furniture store. "I'll order display number three please," he might have said. It was impressive, great for picking up the Union Street chicks. Yes, everything had the Janet stamp. Cold and sterile. She was the one with the taste.
A black lacquer wall unit stood like a skeleton against the south wall. Most of the books had been hers. The other things, his things, had been hauled away. She said they were tacky, just a heap of fraternity bullshit. They dated him, made him immature. A budding success wouldn't want to be tasteless, would he? she teased. His bile began to rise, Yeah, I was the one who was for dinner, he thought, leftovers.
He glanced toward his bed and was relieved to find it empty. No traces of last night. He positioned his broad shoulders to block the view from the bedroom anyway. Habit brought his eyes back over the room for another check before allowing him to open the medicine chest and expose the unmarked bottle on the bottom shelf. Its amber confidence waved. Just one, he thought. I need it today. He reached out and embraced the bottle with trembling palms, cradling it until he could hold out no more. He unscrewed the cap and swallowed. Already, lies.
He walked over to the closet and pushed the door, revealing a gallow of suits: shoulder after shoulder of blue, brown, and gordon plaid decaying in cubed offices. He chose his blue Armani.
He stood against the closet mirror and coiled a tie around his bagging neck. With every movement, his mind crawled under the distortion of his face. Although still charged with posterboy sheen, his features had become sullied, like traces of dirt beneath well-manicured nails. His deep, twilight eyes, now mounted in pastey sockets, had lost their urgency and creases broke his forehead into four shallow rows. Pale skin shone through the bushes of his black hair.
How could this be, he lied, recalling the morning their years together crushed him. He thought of the wreckage that had claimed his life. Can September 15th really change so much?
He continued dressing until the medicine chest glittered in the mirror and propositioned him back. Everything was blue. His socks, his tie, his shirt, even his god damn underwear. Janet loved colored jockeys. No wonder he was so miserable. Okay, one more won't hurt.
He strained towards a shelf stacked with sweaters and drew a bottle from behind a heavy ragwool. He always hid it there; his ode to the seafaring man. Nothing like Jack to calm a mounting storm. Tilting the bottle against his lips, he let the burn numb his speculation.
He tucked Jack back into his safe harbor and shut the door. The dark smell of brewing coffee met him on the stairs. He frowned, the coffee maker was gone.
He tracked the ghostly drizzle into the kitchen, navigating his way through a maze of clothes, towels, video jackets, CD cases and aging takeout containers. Passing through the doorway, he saw that dishes and empty glasses had filled the space left by the coffee maker that once sat on the far counter. Beer bottles and pizza crusts lined the center bar. She had fallen for the panoramic countertops on the afternoon the agent led them into this kitchen. Plenty of room for elaborate cooking, she had said. Two people won't even notice each other with all this space, the agent agreed. At least somebody got it right.
He searched the counter for a glass and finally settled on a large mug with a faint collar. Blue. He made a cup of instant and sunk into his place at the center bar, picking up a pizza crust and shoving it into his mouth on his way down.
Was it really tomorrow? Did he have to do it again---cram on the bus, so he could bleach further under florescent lights, so he could phone some idiot with a tract house and con him into "a financial product sure to guarantee that second story." What the hell is a financial product anyway? It's like calling prision a vacation. Yeah, I could use a vacation, he thought.
His descent into the corporate world had provided a few lessons, most of which he worked, or drank, to ignore. Big deal if money doesn't change life, he mulled, at least time does. Doesn't it? But, he knew, since for him, money had replaced life and time simply happened. Life eating time ticking death. This was the specter of his present, the one at his ear whispering that "lifetime" and "time of one's life" were, for him, no more than numb aspirations.
He drove in another crust and washed it through with his last sip of coffee. It was time. He chose the overcoat from the nearest barstool, dug up his briefcase and trickled toward the door. Stepping outside, he almost felt released. The rhythm of his falling heals broke the air. He walked down the slope to the bus stop, and his mind drifted to counting, one, two, three, four... always starting again at thirty-nine.
Twenty-seven, twenty-eight... He queued for the approaching bus with the rest of the congregation. A wreath of funeral smells, toothpaste and stale milk itched at his nostrils, as the impatient bodies formed a ragged line. He turned sideways and caught a parrot-ish creature eyeing him through brightly speckled lids. Grudgingly, he turned on a smile, the crooked one he'd perfected for his mother and her snoopy friends when he was in high school. Not acknowledging him, the creature fluttered and, with a flurry, hurled her pointed nose into the bag that weighed from her shoulder. He imagined her pecking for seed.
He shifted his attention to the uneven heads bobbing forward. Standing at six feet four inches, he enjoyed following each one till it disappeared up the thin stairs. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen....
As he neared the platform, he noticed a fold of wrinkles attempting to bend in before a woman with thickly shellacked hair.
"What are you doing you asshole dinosaur, the line's back there," she said, interupting the crowded silence.
The old man remained motionless, until the nubby man behind her lowered his newspaper and chimed, "Didn't you hear what the lady said old man. The lines BACK THERE."
He squeezed his temples and listened to the ancient patens retire to the end the line. Thirty-nine, one, two...
It was his turn. He mounted the stairs and saw that the bus was packed. Determined to sit, he lifted his arms, shifted, and threaded between two women, successfully claiming a seat for himself, before noticing who filled the other half.
He faced the isle and coaxed his coffee back into his stomach, fighting the urge to thrust his head between his legs. Biting off a piece of cuticle, he turned and faced the form with ruled posture. He felt like death staring at a newly dug grave. He visualized Greek letters creeping out from beneath the lines of the starched button-down. The last traces of pennant stains, he decided, looking away with unfocused disgust.
But he couldnít shake the image. The guy probably still wears his fraternity sweatshirt on weekends---or she does when he takes her out for muffins the next morning. Does he still go to football games, even tailgate parties? What about his father, Iíll bet he still thinks his son has a chance to make olí dad proud.
He despised college graduates. They reminded him of dreams, leaves dropped and waiting to be swept forever into a plastic bag. The anger welled like a pregnant spider. He could feel the weight of black poisonous things begging to explode. If only Jack were here now and not behind the Walters file.
The bus jerked forward, stopping and advancing to a symphony of binks. Up and over Russian Hill, past the skinny houses dangling beneath the gray twine of apartments, the ride felt endless. He sucked the blood from his nailbed and looked again at the guy, searching for the appetite he once knew. It was there---that gritty taste of wealth as it chewed, restless like disease at the edge of freedom. Freedom, is that what I have? His chest lifted with rage, and he wished he cared enough to jump up and twist a handful of the guyís hair, to get in his face and shout "run away before the commas geld you with their stream of zeros."
Jamming his finger against his tooth, he turned towards the opposite window and searched for something else to think about. His mind wasnít working. He tried counting, but couldnít. He could feel the warmth coming from the seat beside him. He imagined the night before, tried to occupy his mind by patching it patch together, only to give up after a few rounds. .
Alcatraz came into view. A monument to life's irony, he said below his breath. He wondered if the guy would also grow to love the way the dead island interrupted the oh so revered Bay and stood as a billboard to man's potential.
The convulsive progress of the 45 STOCKTON pushed him onward, one corner store after another, until he inhaled the beginnings of North Beach. Offering everything---poetry, tattoo parlors, family style spaghetti, sidewalks for sleeping---the ensuing blocks reminded him of Saturday outings to TOYS R US with his older sister. He could still see himself wandering up and down each isle looking for the perfect toy long after his sister had selected hers and left to play with it in the car. He also saw the end of his search, cut short by his mother's patience, which varied unpredictably, unlike his exit, which always came with her forearm yanking him through the automatic doors, crying and empty handed. It had always been the same with North Beach.
Safely from his MUNI balcony, he followed the shadows as they passed along the sidewalk, making abrupt angles into their favored cafes. He imagined them all artists of some shape, each wearing glass to protect creative glamour from the reality of vision. Writers going to the office or painters getting their first fix, he thought, just as he and the bankers did a few blocks down. So close, yet held apart by their identities. And although he didn't really want to know how far, the idea of not knowing made him feel like a rabbit outlined by the truth of approaching headlights.
The little people---scurrying ancient beetles, darting before cars, demanding admission, pushing, shoving---crammed him into the physical. China Town. Already, the air was thick with dim sum. Despite his alternative, he was glad to be getting off soon. He hated Stockton Street. He hated these people. Even more, he hated himself for hating them.
Then, his guide rose like a lonely blade against the kanjied muddle. He traced her point on the rusted green of the seat before him. Unlike the other downtown buildings, the pyramid had once been special, a presence from the world beyond.
Their relationship was consummated during his last year at Berkeley, when he began driving his motorcycle over Grisly Peak. Graduation hardened their alliance, as his commute across the bridge---like a velvet carpet marking his advance---carried him closer to the base of her strength. At first, her mystery offered its hand, and he honored her flirtations. But with every paystub, her spell cooled, until soon, he despised her. He had become one of her headless, tramping her demands for the few. After years of deception, he now counted the paper littering his options and realized that she and her numbers had won.
And for the first time, he saw that he'd never even had a chance.
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