Black Ribbon Award

MEMOIRS OF A STUPID DOG

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Let me just say first that I’m not stupid. Let me repeat: I’m not stupid. I am actually very intelligent. I am highly sophisticated and eminently refined. I have a firm understanding and appreciation of nuance. I have a progressive outlook. I am sensitive to the emotions of others while being myself rather aloof. You seem skeptical. This is fair, for seldom are any of these traits on display in the human world. Being stupid is my vocation; it is a role I play by demand. But being so intelligent by nature, stupidity is a role I’d like to think that I play very well.

I learned the value of stupidity very early on, perhaps as early as my pup stage. I must admit that at first I did not take very well to the idea. I didn’t find anything wrong with my airs of superior pedigree, but it didn’t seem to get me out of the breeders as quickly as my siblings and peers whose natures were, let’s say, simpler. Therefore, being of the observant type I took it upon myself to mimic their baser attributes in hopes of achieving that get-factor. I rolled around absentmindedly, jumped on my penmates for no apparent reason, barked at absolutely anything or nothing at all until I was forced to stop. I knocked over trashcans and tried to consume their contents. If I succeeded I vomited it back up into my food bowl. When humans came by I would go into a frenzy of skipping, tongue-lapping, and tail-chasing. I would put my tender paws on the disgusting bars of the pen and gently yap. “I’m pliant,” I assured them. “It profits me nothing to upstage you.”

And as I reached my first year, it worked! I made the greatest impression on a 20-something man who, much to my delight, was single, with no children, and who just advanced to a sizable apartment in a well cared-for neighborhood in a midsize city. If I was going to commit to this charade long-term, I could not ask for a more ideal atmosphere.

By then I was well rehearsed in the role, and I had to play it to the letter if I was to last in it. For instance, I could very easily have out-shone my “classmates” at Canine “University.” The temptation was there. I could have “passed” with flying colors. But this was too great a risk, so I purposely disobeyed my instructor and my owner. I picked petty feuds with the other dogs and relieved myself more than once. Of course I graduated, with that stupid dog-sized hat and diploma-shaped chew toy. All very adorable, I’m sure.

Of my owner I have nothing bad to say, nothing great either. He’s … fine … as far as humans go. He’s competent, affectionate, provides for me well. We have our worldly disagreements, our discrepancies of taste and what have you. I can’t say we’d get along if our roles were reversed, let alone if we were both human. But I am usually persuaded of his kindness. He is doing his best. And I owe it to him to do the same in return: whining for him when he leaves, greeting him frantically when he returns, endlessly retrieving his ball for him, barking at cyclists or joggers like are grave threats to my owner and I am his last line of defense. I refrain from questioning his motives, however suspect; or from judging his life choices, however peculiar. Canine Deity, help me.

Some dogs come to be embittered by their owners once they have our sexual organs removed. Not me. I have actually come to respect him more. He is only being honest. When he kneels down and rubs me behind my ears, shaking his head, and making those incomprehensible vocal spams, what he’s really saying is “You are my plaything.” And you know what? Great! I’m okay with that. It’s not like I had any grand expectations out of the gate. What’s more, I am grateful to find myself free of the anxiety of whether or not I am suitable for mating. I am shocked that more humans do not extend this to themselves. It’s not like my owner puts his capacity to proper use, expending it as he does in front of his laptop. Yeah, I see that.

I guess the preference for stupidity in dogs stems from the fact that most dogs really are as dumb as posts. I am reminded of this every day at the dog park, where I am surrounded by these clueless dolts who have zero percent conception of how fortunate they are. They may be groomed to the nines but they do not fool me for an instant. Not that I can begrudge them completely, I suppose. We’re all making our own ways in this life as best we can. It is really only a few special cases that get on my nerves. There’s the hyperactive—possibly obsessive compulsive—pug that must play with every toy in the park several times, regardless of whether another dog might want to use it at any given moment. There’s the cocker spaniel that rubs its crotch on every surface, even the gravel. There’s the needlessly aggressive Rottweiler who scares the smaller dogs and pushes around the large ones—I don’t think it should be there. There’s the pudgy English bulldog that just makes me want to take it by its tags and go, “Just … what do you do exactly? Where does this lead?” And worst of all there is the golden retriever, the platonic ideal of the dog that is perpetually cheery and has no sense of boundaries whatever. There’s only so much enthusiasm I can affect at its constant jostling, chasing, and, ugh, sniffing. Sometimes I hope it gets hit by a bus, but mostly I hope it has a really sad and empty home life.

There was a time when such interactions would spark despair in me of the futility of upholding this dull ideal for the sake of these needy bipeds. But fortunately I’ve since learned that life cannot be reduced so easily to the binary of dumb vs. smart. Coming out of a hiking trail outside the city with my owner, we spotted a fox resting just at the edge of the clearing. Naturally I was eager to inspect it, but my owner exerted that tactful wisdom of his once more. I mustn’t look too closely at something whose character and manner I do not recognize. And there was none more alien, and none more compelling, to me than that of the fox. It was nonchalant, almost detached from the world, but not out of malice. It was practiced, inherited even. When it saw us it spoke in a tongue not even I could make sense of, and scurried off into the leafy yonder. Was it intelligent? I can’t say. But what it lacked in that regard it more than made up for in nobility. It was too foreign to me to envy, but not so offensive to my sensibilities that it was impossible to admire. It was almost worth the ticks.

You might think that ultimately I deceive my owner with this long con. It has crossed my mind from time to time, this is true; and that playing him for a fool for so long will only engender disappointment. Maybe one of these days, I sometimes think, I will reveal to him my true self. Then I will trot like a prince through the sidewalks, and should that golden retriever happen to pass me as I relieve myself I shall meet it with a glare declaring without ambiguity, “Even in this state, you are beneath me.”

I’m not sure what good that will do otherwise. My owner is quite set in his ways with his infantilizing attitude, and restaurateurs will be no more eager to let me at the brunch table without a leash. I am still here at the discretion and the convenience of the bipeds. Our situation is one of mutual ideals: I as the sycophantic indentured simpleton, my owner as the benevolent caretaker. Even if he might appreciate my genuine capabilities, what good is being appreciated when you are no longer essential? Maybe my life had been preordained somehow as a one of servitude and that is that. But it might just be that, contrary to what my intelligence implies, I am just like everyone else: I’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle.

Translated faithfully by Chris R. Morgan

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ALL YOUR FUTURE ENDEAVORS

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When one joins the creative department of SOMEssentials (rhymes with home) as an intern, one is told two things by HR.

First, all activity that takes place in the creative department emanates from one source: SOMEssentials’s High-Concept Man. Second, you refer to him only as the “High-Concept Man” and not—they repeat, not—as the “Conceptualizer.” “Yes, yes,” she told me as she led me like an intransigent puppy through an obstacle course of yoga balls, ping pong tables, and a couple of people on the floor hunched over Chromebooks, “that’s what it says on his business card, and we’re working on that, but please refrain from doing so. Your ‘job’ probably doesn’t depend on it, but just assume that it does.” She did not say why this was so, but I later learned that it might be because he was not the inaugural holder of the job. No one dares speak of the first High-Concept Man, an original partner, who has since been banished in name and body from SOMEssentials’s Dumbo loft space.

As she seated me, HR dropped some papers before me that she needed filled by first thing tomorrow. As she was beginning to leave she stopped and turned around and told me, “Oh, one more thing,” before she paused and looked at the other interns fixated on their various screens. “Um … you know what, never mind. Don’t worry about it. Just leave those papers on my desk in the morning.” And she scurried out.

The creative intern pen, which was not called that but which I am for convenience, was spatially nowhere near the creative department, and in fact was the only space in the office that was enclosed, in walls of pink. It was furnished with a long fuchsia-colored table placed rather dizzyingly over a rose-colored carpet. The table sat 12 people but at least during my summer cycle only seven other interns were there, divided evenly by gender. The table had 10 metal stools and two regular office chairs, which were always taken by the same people. I didn’t think much of this at first.

I got on well enough with the other interns. We were in that career infancy stage where notions of competition had not yet replaced the feeling of good fortune for having been hired at all. And for two weeks we had only ourselves for company. Our interactions outside the pink walls were almost entirely through our screens. The High-Concept Man had four administrative assistants—Daryl, Dara, Luke, and Yule—who always sent us tasks in an abbreviated style that suggested life-or-death urgency. “Make espresso”; “Plz proof”; “Convert to .PDF”; “Convert back to Word doc,” and so on. Nothing, of course that broadened our experience in the central tenet of our job, let alone brought us into direct contact with the High-Concept Man.

I wonder if they waited for us to see him so that we’d be somewhat seasoned in the office culture, not that that helped because it felt like the first day all over again when I and the other interns were allowed to sit in one of the morning creative meetings. These took place wherever space was allotted. The meeting we attended was set up over the foosball table in the middle of the loft space. Standing at the head of the table were Daryl, Dara, Luke, and Yule, all in the same black suits, all with the same high-and-tight haircut. I could only ever distinguish Daryl because she had an iPad and the others had Galaxy Tabs. At each side were the High-Concept Man’s creative team, middle-aged men with thinning hair, slight paunches, and rumpled flannel shirts, some untucked, some warn over aged or band t-shirts.

The High-Concept Man was the last to arrive. He entered between is assistants who flanked behind him. He was smaller than I thought he’d be—and lean, built like a heist crewmember they save for getting in and out of tight spaces. His hair was big and slicked back like an ‘80s stockbroker, his clothes—pleated black pants, striped shirt, beige cardigan, no tie—were like a psychiatrist’s, his yellow-tinted aviators, which he never took off, were like a ‘70’s porn grip’s. His age was ambiguous, he was older than everyone there for sure but somehow younger in spirit. He was also the only one not with a phone in his hand at the meeting. Upon clearing his throat, everyone else put theirs away.

“I see we have some new faces,” he said in the nocturnal purr of a lounge bar MC. His assistants were swiping and typing as soon as he spoke. “I hope these folks have been keeping you busy. But not too busy.” He smiled and everyone laughed. “So I guess as a way of introduction, my job is very simple: concept, high-concept, and no-concept. Those are my parameters. And I have to determine which is which so that we can use the best for our projects. Your job is much harder,” he said with a chuckle. “Because you have to go out and search for the concepts. That’s a bit abstract so I’m gonna put it the way I put it to every crop of interns. Lucifer, the angel of light, is the first concept. Lucifer’s fall from Heaven is the first high-concept, see? And God … God is no-concept. Now I’m not gonna expect you to be ace creatives like these guys here, but I want you to observe, because there may be a moment when I ask what you see as high-concept, even as a hypothetical over at the bar, and I don’t want you to bring me God.” We smiled and nodded like kindergarteners holding participation ribbons. “Good, now go back to your corner,” he said with a wink.

We came back to the pen in a daze, as if we nearly missed Heaven by way of a midtown bus. None of us spoke for the rest of the day, we took orders from the four assistants but otherwise did not look up from our screens, preparing for that pitch meeting that may never actually be scheduled, but which might sneak up from behind us, pin us down, and try to disembowel us.

That night I visited my girlfriend Erin at Mud Coffee, where she worked nights and every other afternoon when she wasn’t interning herself at Talkhouse. I told her about the High-Concept Man, about his conceptual trialectic, about Lucifer’s fall from Heaven. Each time she replied, “Okay” in unique, though not altogether receptive, registers. I think when I mentioned that the office also has a Wellness Alcove she abruptly turned around and said, “Ours has a therapy lamp and someone’s always using it. Now I’ve got tables.” So I took the train back to our sublet in Ridgewood.

***

The next week and thereafter, our menial duties would be interrupted by individual requests to sit in on smaller meetings between the High-Concept Man and one of his ideation minions. These were not scheduled beforehand and if one of the black-clad assistants came in, called a name, and the possessor of that name was at lunch, taking a shit, or snorting Adderall and posting an Instagram story about it in the service elevator, someone else was going in his or her stead. Hence, no one left the office if they could avoid it, and when interns came back from their meetings they didn’t divulge what they saw. “How did it go?” we’d ask. “Really cool,” they reply.

I was there when Daryl came for me, and she led me to the far corner on the other side of the loft space where the High-Concept Man’s office was. It was a fairly traditional setup, almost diorama-like, of a desk, a laptop and some chairs, surrounded by a minefield of ergonomic chairs and yoga mats. He had no personal affects on his desk save a grey abstract sculpture and a pair of clear-framed glasses. The minion sitting in the meeting was wearing a slight variation on the rumpled flannel look, this time with an lcd soundsystem shirt. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Toby.

“I’d like to just jump right in, if you guys don’t mind,” the High-Concept Man said. “We gotta nail this down, Tob.”

“Right,” Toby said. He wiped his forehead and opened the Moleskin notebook in his lap. “I was thinking …” He squinted at his notebook as if reading it for the first time.

“What?”

“Freedom. Yeah, freedom.”

The High-Concept Man leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Freedom’s looking pretty no-concept this season, my dude.”

“It is?” Toby said.

“Look around you.”

Toby’s eyes darted around the loft space.

“Not literally. Look, Toby, you rock, you know that,” he turned to me. “I stole him fair and fucking square from R/GA, I treat him like an unfrozen ice prince.” He turned back to Toby and held out his hand low and flat. “You’re thinking somewhere around here. That’s R/GA-level. I need you somewhere in this vicinity, where I know you can be” he raised his hand over his head, then lowered it back down and made a fist. “Come on. Do it for the squad.”

Toby shuffled in his chair made a quick, nervous glance at me—possibly a tic, or possibly a warning.

“Redemption.”

The High-Concept Man opened the clear-framed glasses and put one of the temples between his lips. “Redemption,” he said in a slow, ponderous hum. “That might be something. I want you to stick with it, see if we can’t latch it onto something. Maybe keep …” He looked over at me and squinted.

“Sean,” I said meekly.

“Sean … sorry. Keep Sean in the loop; maybe send him some of your notes. Who knows, he might break this for us.”

***

It was almost 11 PM and Erin and I were on the couch getting quality with our laptops. Toby sent me his notes from the meeting, but rather than transcribe them he merely scanned the single page, a wreckage of words and doodles that amounted to a vision board for a depressive.

“Babe?”

“Yeah?” Erin droned, note looking up from her screen.

“What do you think about redemption?”

“Redemption?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you ask?”

“It’s for work.”

“They’re making you think about redemption?”

“It’s for a project.”

She looked up at me with a pained expression, its features made more ghoulish by the glow of her screen. “I really don’t know.”

“What are you working on?”

“An open letter from Sufjan Stevens.”

“To whom?”

“We’ll soon find out.” She put her headphones back on and turned up the volume.

Just as I was about to give up, I noticed a direct message that the High-Concept Man had sent me 46 minutes earlier on SOMEssentials’s in-house chat system. The text read “what do u think,” and below was an attached .GIF of a sloth hanging on a tree branch and being fed a piece of fruit. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I sent a reply saying “Wow. That’s pretty cool. Thanks for sending.” and closed my laptop. While I was brushing my teeth my phone sent a notification. The High-Concept Man replied to my reply: “think THINK.” He replied again three minutes later: “😉

Impelled, I looked at the .GIF more intently. My vision began to hone in on the smiling, chewing face of the sloth, to the point that it was now just me and the sloth and no one else. The world was behind us, in graves presumably. We were like enemies charging at each other on a scorched earth one moment, lovers running to embrace each other on a verdant plain the next. It was just past three in the morning when I came out of this haze. I rubbed my eyes and put on a dress shirt.

***

The voice of Professor Savachi was screaming in my head straight through to sunrise. He was himself not prone to screaming, in fact he was very even-keeled and fluid in his speech. But the spirit with which he conducted Business 100 was sonorous. It echoed far and could probably level some family homes if materialized. “THE MEMO DOES NOT GIVE COUNSEL TO WHOMEVER IT ADDRESSES,” the voice told me. “THE MEMO IS NOT ITS AUTHOR’S LAST RESORT. THE MEMO IS THE AUTHOR’S STATEMENT OF PURPOSE, NOT JUST FOR THE TASK AT HAND BUT FOR ALL LIFE. THE MEMO IS MODERN MAJESTY. THE MEMO IS SECULAR RITUAL.”

It was in this thinking that I composed my 5,563-word memo based on the High-Concept Man’s prompt. I was confident that I grasped, without attempting to transcend, the High-Concept Man’s vision. I believed that I had reached a level of mutual understanding that few of my peers were capable of; or, for that matter, Toby, whose pliant shallowness would be exposed and eclipsed by my bold dynamics. No prospective client, I thought, could resist my articulation of the High-Concept Man. Not Netflix, not Pinkberry, not Aston Martin, not Warby Parker, not Chick Fil A. With a 45-minute train delay, I assured that no typo survived and that no ambiguous phrase would breathe free air. All that remained was for me to press SEND.

“Due to my high volume of correspondence I regret that I cannot reply to every email,” the High-Concept Man’s autoreply went. “But rest assured that every email is carefully reviewed.”

No one in my memory ever came out safely on the other end of “rest assured,” but I didn’t let that bother me. I wasn’t some cold-calling freelancer; I worked for the man. I was in the circle. I was caught in the net where others fell straight through. So I went about my more tedious tasks with a brighter attitude. I did not mind when Toby had me get him a coffee from that bagel place with those Anthora cups, then sent me back because there was too much sweetener, then sent me back again because it had skim milk instead of half-and-half. Enjoy my subservience while you can, I told Toby in my head as I put his final cup on his standing desk, for today I expect to graduate.

By lunch I received no additional email. It made me too nervous to finish my burrito. Going to the Wellness Alcove to throw it out, I saw one of the non-Daryls standing in typical statuesque manner by the Keurig machine, as if lying in wait for me the entire time.

“Due to his high volume of correspondence, the High-Concept Man regrets that he cannot reply to every email,” the non-Daryl said in a narcotized flatness.

“Okay,” I said in my own bewilderment-concealing flatness.

“And that any internal correspondence should be sent to an intermediary.”

“The High-Concept Man wrote to me.”

“The High-Concept Man doesn’t write.”

I returned to the table dejected. Looking around the room I noticed that over time, the two office chairs had increased to five.

***

“We’re more than halfway through this thing and we haven’t done anything ‘New York’ together,” one of the interns, a stool-sitter, said.

“Speak for yourself,” a chair-sitter replied. “I’ve been written about in xoJane.”

“I just want to put off going back to Bed Stuy. I love my cousin but he lives like an animal.”

We could all relate to that sentiment, and went to a nearby bar with $10 cans of Old Milwaukee, ‘90s college rock, and skeeball. We sat at a table in the outdoor section in the back, under the tasteful glow of Christmas tree lights. I did my best to hide my disappointment, and if they were having similar setbacks they did just as good a job, maybe better, of concealment. We couldn’t complain, really. It smacked of immaturity. After all, we were still learning. If there was anything weird or alien to us at work we left it to being “just the way things were.” The High-Concept Man had his culture just as the other High-Concept Men and Women had theirs. He was instilling us in his vision in all sorts of ways.

“I met this R/GA intern at Verso Books,” one of us said. “When she wasn’t looking I poured some drops of my Rolling Rock into her Prosecco.” We all toasted to her.

“I hear they have a Slack group and that they make fun of us.”

“You hear or you think?”

“Think! I think. Sorry.”

“We should start our own Slack and talk about them.”

“Are you nuts?”

“Honestly, I’m just glad to be out of that room. It reminds me of my mom.”

No, I did not learn any of their names.

***

“Tacos are available,” Daryl informed us with the same gravity a doctor lends to “It’s malignant.” Not that that made it any less attractive. We rushed out to see laid across the ping pong tables a whole array of gourmet Tex-Mex sent in from a new place in Williamsburg, and which the minions, the non-Daryls, HR, and other departmental interns were depleting like locusts. We tried to recoup the scraps that weren’t just chips. I was coming away with half of a chicken quesadilla when I saw the High-Concept Man was in my path.

“Cool setup, right?”

“Yeah, it was a good idea.”

“I know,” he said creaking a slight smile. There was a pause between us. “I’m thinking of getting a meal elsewhere.”

“Okay.”

“I’m thinking you should go with me.”

My eyes widened and I did not notice that he handed my plate off to an accounting intern and led me to the elevators.

He took me to a rooftop bar with white tables and Music for Airports on the speakers. Without looking up from his iPad, the High-Concept Man told the waitress, “I will have a water, as will my colleague. Then we will share a pickle plate, sliced just so.”

“So … the usual.”

“Yes, but I want a whole pickle not just a triangulated portion. And no lemon on those waters, please.”

“Coming right up.”

His eyes remained on the screen. I froze thinking of what I wanted to say. I did have questions, but the obvious ones were crowding out and entangling the profound ones that I could only muster a “So …”

“You know,” he fortunately interrupted, “copywriters are beta by nature.” He finally put down his iPad and his yellow-tinted gaze met mine. “No one must begrudge them this. It is up to them to begrudge it in themselves.” The conversation carried on in this fashion. “My last relationship ended because we did a star map of each other for our anniversary, only it turns out that Barron Trump is my cosmic second cousin once removed. I think about that so much.”

Ubering back to the office, my stomach erupting with the ghosts of tacos, the High-Concept Man tugged at my sleeve.

“What is that?”

I peer out of his side of the car. “I don’t see anything.”

That.” He pointed to a couple walking down the sidewalk holding hands.

“Those two people?”

“Yeah. What’s their story?”

“They must be boyfriend and girlfriend?”

“What?”

“Or spouses, but they look pretty young.”

“You can tell that?”

“I don’t think siblings hold hands like that.”

“Yeah … yeah.” He took out his iPad and swerved his finger all over the surface. He was giddy, in his way anyway, all the way up to our floor, and rushed to Toby to whom he showed him the iPad. I caught a quick enough glance to see that it was a rudimentary stick-figure reproduction of the couple with a large arrow pointing at where their hands met. Toby looked at the High-Concept Man with a gleam in his eyes.

“Can you forward this to me?” He asked.

“Doing, it right now.” The High-Concept Man swiped at his iPad and turned to me. “You’re still here.”

“Yeah, I’m go—”

“Good, I’ll need you at the meeting tomorrow.”

I was overcome, weak-kneed in fact, by this string of language I could have died happy just then, but instead I opted for preparation. I took my memo and revised it, ballooning it to 7,052 words. It was worth it, I thought. I was given permission to be truly bold, perhaps even to transcend, though I did not do so out of respect for my mentor. Rather, I recontextualized the enterprise to take on the demands the High-Concept Man was seeing so clearly in our Uber.

There was, as I suspected, a sixth office chair in the pen, but I sat in a stool feeling only on the cusp of worthiness.

The meeting was in the Introspection Foyer, lighted by a rectangular chromatherapy lamp that changed colors every few seconds. There were a few beanbag chairs but otherwise the creative staff was on the floor. I was hoping to get a place at least near Toby, but I over-calculated on my fashionable not-quite-lateness and took a seat at the far edge. Still, I felt privy to a momentous happening, and conspicuousness was not yet a good look.

The High-Concept Man entered, nonchalant as ever, with Daryl and the non-Daryls in tow. None of them sat down.

“Okay, let’s get down to it. I think we’ve got something that’s gonna really light it up. Toby, please tell me you got something.” Everyone laughed. Toby nodded and rose.

“Uhm … so,” he addressed the High-Concept Man directly, “lately you’ve been really challenging me, to … rise to the expectations you hold all of us at. And yesterday …”

Get on with it! I thought to myself. Fucking hack.

“… Yesterday I think I had the breakthrough I’ve been struggling to reach all summer …” Toby trailed off ruefully.

“Well?” the High-Concept Man prodded.

“Romanticism.”

The High-Concept Man looked down, covering his mouth as if to keep something—what? Vomit? A demon?—from forcing its way out. Toby shrank back realizing perhaps what he had done.

“That’s … that’s a nice concept, Toby. But I was hoping for more.” He looked out at the rest of us. “Can anyone build off of that?”

Silence.

“Love,” I blurted out.

More silence.

“Love,” the High-Concept Man almost seemed to sing.

I felt like I had him and that I should take it to the next step.

“I think love is something special. Something we all seek and share and expound,” I paused for a moment to remember this moment for as it was happening. “I see it as … as whole-concept.”

They looked at me and then they looked the High-Concept Man, whose face stared me down with a stone hardness. It was at that moment that I think I truly existed to him. As this happened, the chromatherapy lamp turned deep red and glowed onto everyone’s faces.

“Longing,” Toby said breaking the silence. “That’s it! Longing.”

The lamp faded down to light blue.

“My dude. That is some high-concept shit.” Everyone exhaled in relief. “What can we nail it to?”

“Sky’s the limit, I think,” Toby said.

“All State’s been chomping at the bit,” another minion interjected. “I think we should send some feelers their way.”

The High-Concept Man grinned as widely as ever. “Fantastic. Great meeting, everyone!”

I shrank back to the pen where my peers were diligently attentive to their own responsibilities. The sixth office chair remained empty. I wanted to kick it out of the room but instead I just nudged it aside.

***

For the rest of the week I felt like a dud stick of dynamite nearing the end of the fuse. I suspected come Friday they’d have made a decision about my future with SOMEssentials. I put most of belongings in a box and kept them under the table to make my actual exit less painful. And, as I suspected, Toby came into the pen Friday afternoon to speak to me. He was carrying an envelope and a rectangular box.

“I keep forgetting how little privacy there is in this entire place,” he said looking around.

He took me into the bathroom. One of the stalls was closed but he just shrugged.

“This isn’t easy but … the High-Concept Man and I discussed it and we agreed that maybe your time here was … more limited than usual. It’s no one’s fault. You know these things just kind of work out and sometimes they kind of … don’t. Anyway, here’s a letter of recommendation from me. And, here’s a parting gift from the High-Concept Man.”

The box was black with a strange white symbol. I opened it and pulled out a bottle with the same label.

“Is this wine?”

“It’s from his personal stash. I’d ask if you’re 21 but I think it has the same effect no matter how old you are. Anyway he, uh, he wishes you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.”

“Thanks. It’s been … a … thing … that happened.” I turned to go out.

“Those memos are covered by the NDA,” Toby said coldly.

As I left for the elevator I thought I saw a one of the other interns—possibly a female, definitely a chair-sitter—walking cheerfully back to the pen with a yellow rectangular box. But I didn’t bother to confirm if I was just projecting really potently.

***

It didn’t feel right breaking the news to Erin about by early leave just as she was on the eve of her trip to Los Angeles to do a podcast with Haim. So I kept our planned chicken marsala dinner on the celebratory end. The High-Concept Man’s mystery wine actually came in handy then.

“What is this, Sean?”

“Just something I picked up. Recommended by the man himself.”

“Hm. Interesting.” She uncorked the bottle and winced at the strong aroma. “It’s very … almost cinnamon-y.”

“Is that good?”

“Evidently.”

She poured the glasses and we toasted to, at the very least, a weekend away from Mud Coffee and (to myself) a weekend of writing cover letters for the fall.

Tasting it I was overtaken by a sharp, almost candied sweetness, like the hobo wine the guys at the off-campus house drank to indulge and mask in irony their substance dependency. I would have been embarrassed but for the sudden swell of good feeling from my abdomen up. All the dejection, disappointment, and frustration of the past week felt drowned by this fluid. I looked at Erin across the table beaming like an icon to intelligence and integrity in addition to beauty. Her hair flew up in strands as if being lifted by invisible cherubs.

“Are you … feeling anything,” I asked as if I was standing on a cardboard box in the middle of the ocean.

“Yeah,” Erin replied in heavy breaths.

Then I just did it, I reached over our smile table, spilling my plate and kissing her for a minute, maybe more. We went to bed. As we made love the feeling intensified to the rest of my body. I felt strong, and resilient, but also sluggish. Soon I was turning upside down. My arms were not wrapped around Erin, but around a branch. I tilted my head back and saw Toby, smiling sweetly in a safari outfit and a Dinosaur Jr. shirt. Behind him, were my fellow interns in fanny packs, baseball caps, and holding up their phones. In Toby’s hand was what appeared to be a melon, but when he came closer the melon was in the shape of the High-Concept Man’s head, red-shaded and bearing the grim expression he shot me at that fateful meeting. Toby took out a large knife, cut slices out of the melon, and held them up to me. When I reached back I saw my hands were long arched claws, like a sloth’s. I took the slices and ate them with a wide, placid grin. The intern-tourists took photos and videos with their ooos and aahs. I ate the entire fucking thing. At the last bite I came to climax. I heard myself whisper into Erin’s ear, “Best of luck in all your future endeavors,” pouring from my mouth like syrup.

“Wait what?”

I was catching my breath, I could barely see.

“What was that?”

“I was saying … I love you?”

She jolted back. “No you weren’t.” She leapt out of bed, wrapping the sheets around her. “Why the hell would you say that? That’s like the least sexy thing anyone could say in any context.”

“I’m … babe I’m sorry … it was the wine, I’m su—“

“Oh don’t give me that,” she went into the closet and was getting dressed.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m getting out of here.”

“You have a flight tomorrow.”

“I can still make it.”

“From where?”

“From Sufjan’s.”

“Sufjan Stevens?”

“Who else?”

“Isn’t he, like … celibate or … ?”

“We’re good friends!”

She put on her gym outfit, hastily gathered her bags, and went for the door. I followed her into the living room, nearly tripping over the coffee table in the darkness. Erin opened the door and the hallway light knocked me back on the couch.

“Wait,” I said groggily.

Erin stood by the door impatiently. “What?”

“Please don’t write about this.”

“Get bent, Sean.” She slammed the door behind her, her angry footsteps resounded all the way up to the roof exit.

Rubbing my still-clearing eyes I reached to turn on the light. When I opened them my breath and body froze. Everything was yellow. More specifically it was the tint I’d be seeing if I wore the High-Concept Man’s sunglasses. I ran to the bathroom mirror, I was wearing nothing, but I could not tell if anything had changed on me because everything was fucking yellow. I paced about the apartment wondering what I was going to do. Then I remembered the mystery wine on the table. It was about two-thirds full. I sat on the couch and poured it back into my mouth, taking full swigs of it, moaning simultaneously in revulsion to the taste and in ecstasy to the effect. When I found I could not chug the rest of the bottle I poured it over my head and chest, forming a sticky resin almost instantly. I fell asleep.

The next morning, everything was still yellow, but also much clearer. The late summer sun was shining into the window. I stood in its beam, naked and wine-stained, feeling, if not transcended, then recontextualized. Suddenly my plans had changed. I would not write cover letters. The cover letters would write me.

WE SHOULD ALL BE SO LUCKY: PART THE LAST

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 11.18.39 AM

NOTE: For part one, click here.

We covered Dad in an old red tablecloth and fastened him to the hand truck with duct tape, which would barely be holding even without the rain wearing it down. As I wheeled him through the city I felt no small bitterness that the zero hour on his personal doomsday clock came at the worst possible moment. The Sleep now loomed long enough to be uncontainable by traditional methods. Once common niceties like a proper burial and time to mourn were now impractical by the frequency and rapidity with which Sleeping bodies were accumulating.

Finding the most proper method of disposal meant following the smell. Sleeping bodies decompose at a slower than average rate than bodies naturally deceased, they also produce a distinct stench, more sour than fetid, which can sting in your membranes if neglected long enough. Such was how I managed to find the funeral home, whose main undertaker was sitting on the front steps of his business still in his black apron, smoking a cigarette, and looking, oddly enough, as though he’d never slept a day in his life. Once he saw me approaching he rose to reveal a tall, lanky frame that only accentuated the fraught expressionism of his aura. He did not look pleased, in other words.

“What do you want?” he asked coldly, his cigarette dangling from his lips.

“I want to inter my father.”

“Don’t we all.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Listen, I’m trying. We are all trying. And if it really means that much to you, put him in the back and leave your contact info in there,” he said pointing to the mailbox.

I wheeled Dad to the back to find the parking lot piled up with similarly covered and soaked bodies and another overtaxed attendant in a black raincoat, Wellington boots, and surgical mask trying to keep it in place.

“Hold on, lemme find a place, hold on,” he said as he darted to the other side of the pile.

“These are all being buried?”

“Buried? Are you nuts? This is this week’s garbage.”

I looked at him a little unsure. He seemed to recognize that look and walked over assuming a less tense stance.

“Look, we can’t help you. Honest. Everyone’s doing this, the cops, hospitals, everyone.” He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me around. “Your best bet is that way.”

“What direction is that?”

“East.” I glared quizzically at him and he removed his ungloved hand off of me. “Oh, sorry.”

“How far east?”

“All the way.”

“That’s the river.”

“Yep.”

As I made my way with Dad I found I was trailing behind other people carrying their own personal refuse and forming a new kind of hierarchy. Some were strapped to the roofs of cars, some, like Dad, were pushed in wheelbarrows, and some were carried by their arms and legs. The Hudson waterfront was lined with people heaving their loved ones over the railings, with more people waiting behind them. From a respectable distance they all looked like gawking tourists.

Some came prepared and were tying rocks onto their loads. Others were just frustratingly lobbing them and not even looking back as they bobbed on the surface. Staring from the edge I could see maybe 30 or so recently jettisoned.

“You might as well get it over with,” a voice said at my right. It was a burly man a little older than me holding a smaller body in his arms. “It’s harder the more you wait. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound harsh.”

“I’m sorry about your son.”

“Oh this is my neighbor’s boy, she’s not well,” he said. “And I’ve already done this twice before.” And he dropped the boy in the river. “Here, let me help you. Do you want to keep this?”

“Huh?”

“The hand truck.”

“Oh, no.”

“This should weigh it down some.” He knelt down and hoisted the hand truck while I steadied it in the middle. “You wanna say anything?”

I looked down at the soggy mass and put my hand on its shoulder.

“Not really.”

“I understand. Okay, on three. One, two, three.” We pushed and it shot right down into the water.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” And he walked away wiping his hands.

I didn’t stay to watch of he really did sink; people were waiting. Walking back to the apartment Dad’s last words, the ones I chose to be his last words anyway, looped in my head. God is idiosyncratic.

***

Moments of loss, both intimate and mass, at their best call for an appreciation of simplification. So few were my wants, so fleeting were my demands. The city was steadily thinning of its citizens. Not only from Sleeping but also from exodus. Why they would do this I didn’t really know, the Sleep is not something that can be escaped as such. Though maybe they could escape the encroaching silence to a place where the silence makes more sense. Each new day I managed to survive into was greeted by the patter of the rain and little else.

Some others chose to stay along with me. I suspect they preferred the new atmosphere, guilty though it made them feel. Andrea preferred it a great deal; I don’t know if she felt especially guilty, but she was a good person so far as I could tell. I first saw her sitting in an all but abandoned bar just across the train station. She was in a yoga getup and drinking a self-made fuzzy navel.

“I’m drinking it in memory of my roommate,” she said defensively. “She loved them. She was part of a suicide fund, but they didn’t reach their target, so just jumped off our building.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, the EMT told me that her impact of hitting the street was so reduced that she could only conclude that she fell Asleep halfway down.”

“Small miracles.”

She reached over the counter to get me an empty glass. “To small miracles.” She smiled as we clinked our glasses and went behind the counter. “So what’s your poison?”

“Water, I guess.”

“So actual poison then?”

“How about Coke?”

“You’ve chosen wisely,” she said in a mock-deep voice. “Have you been over the river?”

“No, have you?”

“Not in weeks. I think Manhattan is totally cut off. Even the bridges are blocked.” She took a long sip of her drink and stared past me at the red-blinking traffic lights. “No more happy hours.”

“Or nothing but happy hours.”

“I think we’ve moved beyond mere hours. The is a New World, with New Customs.”

“I see.”

“And we are the New People. Free, but terribly responsible. Do you not feel it?”

“I could be convinced.”

“There is no time to convince, only to act. Our first act is to find a better meeting place, which I have already.”

“What, Maxwell’s?”

Please. There is a dive on Eighth. There is a pool table, a jukebox. It probably still has power.”

***

I found her just where she said she’d be at the same time the next day. She changed her yoga outfit to a vintage floral-patterned cocktail dress and yellow Adidas shell tops.

“I got this at a thrift store in the Village years ago. I have never worn it outside the apartment or in front of people before now. Not because I am embarrassed about it generally, but because it has a brown stain on the back that I can’t remove or explain away.”

She handed me a beer and we put each other in context over a game of pool.

“I was a marketing consultant,” she said. “Specializing in data analytics.”

“Sounds involved.”

“Oh spare me,” she retorted, detecting my hint of deadpan. “I worked for five startups in as many years. Each job made my skills feel more useless than the last.”

“I wrote ad copy.”

“Freelance?”

“Near the end, yeah.”

“That’s useful.”

“The more useful it is, the dumber it gets. What’s the point of the eight ball again?”

“I can’t remember.” She scurried over to the cash register, took out two quarters, and pressed them in my hand. “Pick something to play. It has a good selection.”

That it did. I flipped through pages with The Ramones, T-Rex, Run DMC, Kate Bush, and settled on “Hybrid Moments.”

“How’s this,” I asked as the drums kicked in.

“I don’t hate it.” She put down her pool cue and launched into a frantic fit, banging her head, and moving her arms up and down like an extra in a teen beach movie but set to a grand mal rhythm. I could think of no better response than to jump up and down in my poor reproduction of a pogo dance.

***

The New Customs of the New World included procuring improved living situations. Andrea had been apartment hunting for weeks since her faucets started spouting black. She eventually commandeered a penthouse along the waterfront. I took an apartment near by whose amenities and space were no different from my old one but carried a less acute psychic residue.

The penthouse had large windows overlooking the off-white Manhattan skyline, which did not look especially altered or lifeless from our vantage point. But perhaps it always looked lonely.

Andrea put Leonard Cohen on the turntable and laid back on the living room couch in pajamas and a robe that were not hers.

“The wall calendar is marked June,” she said. “They left early.”

“You think?”

“It must have been a while. I think it’s fall now. Yes. It has that feeling. After Halloween but before Thanksgiving.”

“I used to like Halloween. Then I moved here.”

We carried on this routine happily. Andrea would greet me in front of my building, and we’d go scavenge for food and other necessities, before returning to her place to have a meal and kill time. Andrea gradually moved her clothes, her records, and some of her books, and no much else. The challenge was bearable minimalism. Possessions, pleasures, diets, relationships, and all that had altered meaning or reduced significance. I believe she saw it as holding court among a circle that was elite by default, wise sages of the Hudson. I found it a little like playing house in the den while our mom’s drank iced tea in the sunroom. We all cope in our own way.

“I would like to call you ‘Bruce,” she said to me over cream of mushroom soup.

“Why?”

“I’d just like to. Like, not all the time.”

“Who is he?”

“No one.” She shrugged and swirled her spoon in her soup. “He was my cousin. We were close.”

“Is he …”

“Oh, no. He actually died a while before that.” She paused and looked away. “He OD’d actually.”

“Oh.” We said nothing for almost a minute.

“You can call me something else, if you like. It’s only fair.”

“Well …” I quickly ran the list of names of people I knew to have lost, but could also not convince myself that all but a few were ever mine to lose. “I don’t know, that’s just not my way.”

There was another pause.

“Forget I said anything. Never mind.”

“It’s fine, I’m not offended.”

“I know, I know. It’s just … it wasn’t the right moment.” She hunched over the table covering her mouth.

“Do you want another beer?”

Her eyes darted up and she thought for a moment. “Sure.”

I got up and put two more cans of Miller Lite on the table. “So did you ever think you’d live in a place like this, like in normal circumstances?”

“I’ve always thought about it,” Andrea said. “But before all this happened my main issue was that my close friends were buying houses.”

“Yeah I’ve noticed that myself.”

“And so one westbound train ride after another to housewarming parties and you start to develop a complex,” she said laughing. “I actually tried to turn it into a challenge: how many more varieties of casseroles can I—” Her eyes rolled back and her head came crashing down on the table like metal to a magnet. She did not hit the bowl directly but to the right of it, causing it to flip over and spray lumps of soup all over the table and on my face and shirt, not to mention on herself. After I finished my beer I cleaned the table and the dishes, dropped her in the river, and went back to my old apartment. It was only then that I remembered to clean off my own face.

***

Eventually the rain stopped. The clouds did not disperse with it, but it was dry for the first time in I wasn’t sure how long. Indeed, once the climate had come out of its mild stasis, I realized that it was deep into winter. This was a problem. The rest of the city’s power was gone and I had did not think of alternative heat sources. I was barely able at scrounging food. It was there, of course, but I went weeks pilfering the starches, salts, and sugars more than anything else. It became routine for me to go out, NPR tote bag in hand, to siphon from every mart, corner store, specialty shop, and bodega of their Coca Cola.

When not scavenging, I was left with just having to fill the time. What hobbies were there for people left behind at the end of all life on earth? Therefore, I appointed myself Director of the Department of Recreation for the City of Hoboken and initiated a community improvement program to smash every storefront window on Washington Street. I figured it would fill a day, two days tops. I came in swinging with a wooden baseball bat on 11th Street intending to work my way down. My coup de grâce would be this one brunch spot where I waited two hours with Mom and Francesca before we gave up and just went to Chipotle. Sure, it had new management, as well as a new name and concept, but I was adamant in maintaining my principles if I could not maintain anything else. But I did not get past 10th. Perhaps my anger could not match my disappointment at being promised an End that was fiery and operatic but instead got one that was soggy and acoustic. Revelation Unplugged: no mercy, no justice, no closure. Or perhaps breaking glass was harder than it looked on television. I guess we’ll never know.

As the winter progressed I saw no one, and was convinced that I was the only one left in the city. The last several months—perhaps years—could be framed as a sustained conflict with accepting loneliness in my life. Was it actually good? Or was it bad all along? If the latter, could it be averted and was it worth it to try. By that point the answers were no, no, no, and no.

Yet my perspective was thrown into relief once more during another Coke run. I had finished looting the Shop Rite on Madison, and walking back to the apartment I heard the sound of bike bells, likely more than one. The silence caused it to resound the full length of the street making its source difficult to pin down, so I moved habitually eastward.

When I reached Washington, I came to a group in Halloween masks riding south on Citi Bikes. I stood in the middle of the street and awaited their approach. Their whole presentation made their intentions ambiguous at best, but what did I have to lose, let alone gain? They decelerated as they got closer, and I could better discern the masks: werewolf, devil, witch, skeleton, clown, jack o’ lantern, George W. Bush. They rode around me in a circle. The clown mask stopped in front of me, saying and doing nothing. I could think of nothing else than to offer it one of my Cokes, which it took. Twisting open the bottle it lifted up its mask revealing a girl. She was no older than 15, gaunt and pallid and with eyes stained entirely blue, but in an almost jewel-like coral hue rather than the infected look of the Sleeping. She smiled, took a sip, handed me back the bottle, and rode off with the rest of them to get on with what I presumed (and hoped) to be their higher purpose.

WE SHOULD ALL BE SO LUCKY: PART THE FIRST

Young-Man-Sleeping

I went over to Michelle’s apartment in the late afternoon when I was certain she would be back from brunch. Dad should take partial credit for getting me to go. “It’ll be like Cusack,” he assured me. “That usually works.”

Michelle did not pick up when I called her, but it didn’t go to voicemail so it gave me a gleam of hope, however faint. We split over a month ago and hadn’t talked, but of course the Sleep was not much of an issue at the time. Michelle would likely role her eyes at my using an epidemic to exact “closure” from her, and maybe that’s fair, but hearing my sister Francesca sob over the phone after losing her two children to the Sleep only days apart, and now Mom, my motive, you could say, was true.

Anyway, I didn’t even get closure. She didn’t buzz me in outside her building. When another tenant did and I was just outside her door, she did not answer or acknowledge her presence. I walked the length of her floor and took in an overwhelming silence. The walls were thin, the rooms lively in ways good and bad. I saw the fire extinguisher at the end of the hall and thought to myself that if the Sleep had come a couple of months earlier, I would have considered using it to break down the door.

***

It was a few weeks into the Sleep epidemic when all the ad space in the PATH stations and on the trains, and which would soon extend to the subways in New York, were taken up by public service posters related to it. “ARE YOU OR YOUR LOVED ONE AFFECTED BY THE SLEEP?” the posters usually went. “TAKE THESE STEPS.” The first step was usually “WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T PANIC.”

By this point all anyone could ever talk about was the Sleep, and all anyone could ever do when they saw someone succumbing to it, was panic. This was not the case at first. It may or may not have originated in America’s geriatric storehouses but it certainly made itself quietly known there. Old people, taken to fatigue or collapsing outright into a comatose state and then into lifelessness altogether was peculiar but not alarming. The CDC seemed to be visiting retirement homes and specialized hospitals as a courtesy. But with no red flags from the facilities or its staffs, and no immediate biological or environmental indicators, all they could do was shrug. “Honestly, we should all be so lucky,” a WHO doctor was alleged to have said on one investigative outing.

Many more people, robust and young, had that stroke of good fortune in short order. After my failure with Michelle, I walked to the Hudson River waterfront, which had been cordoned off by the police because a jogger collapsed face-first onto the sidewalk. I was at Basile’s Pizza when it happened there one packed Saturday night. Once they determined he wasn’t just drunk, it sent all of Washington St. into frenzy.

When someone succumbed more slowly, the posters instructed us to “give him or her some space” and “let them rest” while we called the proper authorities. This as opposed to badgering them until they are out of sight and “away from the children,” which is what actually happened.

“It’s worse in the towns,” Dad said, who has since been living with me when Francesca could no longer bear it. “They run you out if someone gets the Sleep. Especially if it’s a little kid.”

The news indicated as much.

A gruesome discovery this morning, as residents of 24 Elwood Dr. [or wherever], two parents and two teenage children, were found dead after neighbors complained to police about a strong odor emanating from the house over the past week. The police are not giving any details but my source tells me the likely cause is suicide after their youngest child, age 11, fell into a spontaneous coma.” The media was not calling it by its popular name for some reason.

I’ve lived next to the Harrisons [or whomever] for 15 years,” residents go, “they were good people, not an enemy in the world. But their … their tragedy brought in a black cloud in this neighborhood. I feel like now they’re in a better place.

It has been raining an unusual lot since the Sleep spread. But no one knows if it is related or if the rain preceded the Sleep. We don’t know a lot of things. It took many more weeks until WHO, CDC, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and urgent care attendants to say with some certainty that the Sleep was some kind of death state. They ruled out that it was biologically transmitted, and could not confirm that it was airborne. It was noted only very late in the process that after maybe a week of falling into the Sleep, one’s eyes take on a kind of conjunctivitis, but blue instead of pink.

Then it crossed into the animals. Pigeons were falling from the sky in droves. Walking with Dad through Church Square Park, we passed by a woman sobbingly dragging her suddenly lifeless pug back home.

***

Three months into the epidemic, Francesca’s phone went straight to voicemail, and the box was full.

“Maybe we should go out there, Dad.”

“Let it be,” he said looking down at his newspaper. “If you don’t need to go there then you shouldn’t.”

“At least she has Randy.”

“Well … now that you mention it …”

“She lost Randy, too? When did that happen?”

“In a way. He ‘went out for supplies’ sometime between Avery and Mom. He’s been out for supplies ever since.”

“That’s … fucked.”

“And they pay you to write copy?”

“How can you joke at a time like this?”

“How can I not?” He switched to the crossword while I failed to craft a retort. “I found her.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah. In the den. She had a copy of Emily Dickinson in her lap.”

“Appropriate, I guess.”

“I never knew she liked that shit.”

***

One person who did reach me was Dane, a former ad agency acquaintance. He and some colleagues were hosting a fundraiser for themselves in the East Village. “I know we’ve never been especially close,” went his text, “but we’d appreciate your support. Manhattan is a real riot now. Not literally, I mean. Not all the time.”

Manhattan under the Sleep was one of rolling subway service outages and a lot of spatial tension. In a way they were more prepared for this than most. The young of the city swung violently between liberation as each new obligation—rent, health, work, social life—faded out of view and total anxiety at the chasm of mortality that appeared in their place.

“Suicide funds” were not the only mollifier for this dilemma, but it was the most viral. Dane and company decided to forego the GoFundMe route and just have a party. There was no sense in hiding their intentions, and no sense for anyone to hide anything else. All the debauchery transplants longed for and their parents feared was on display in the pub Dane managed to pack without effort. The money collection was taken through tin coffee cans and beer mugs held out by interns whom Dane had stripped. He greeted me with his arms around two collectors, a man and a woman. “Your choice,” he yelled at me. “But, like, it’s a five dollar minimum.” I put a 10 in the man’s mug.

“That’s a nice touch,” I said.

“Insurance,” he said with a sly grin. “Can’t have any of those brats stealing. Also, you know, entertainment purposes. Hey, you wanna meet the guy who’s helping us?”

“Who?”

“Our ‘chemist’. He says for the right price he can make us the most potent cocktail. The Drift, he calls it, as opposed to the Sleep.” He looked around and leaned in as if anyone in the place could or wanted to hear him. “Well actually, we basically have the money for the drugs. This party is to raise money to be able to take them in Barbados. We’ve got it all worked out: a Cessna, a beachfront Airbnb and everything. We’re gonna line up the beach chairs and ingest at sunrise.”

“Is any of that safe?”

“Who knows? Anyway he can hook you up.”

“I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind, but I still have obligations.”

“Suit yourself.” He leaned over the bar and ordered me an IPA for me and a Moscow mule for himself. He intended to make a toast but was interrupted by a bouncer dragging the limp body of a man by his shirt collar.

“Fuck, that’s the fourth one tonight. Can we put him out back with the rest?”

“What do you think this is? A fucking rave?” the bouncer shot back.

“Fine, fine, fine. Let me get someone and we can drop him in the park.” He turns back to me and grins somewhat forcefully. “I gotta split. Thanks for your support.”

On the TV overhead the weather report came on. The weatherwoman was standing stiffly in front of a green screen projecting a satellite time lapse of Earth. It looped the progress of clouds covering the entire surface of the globe until it looked like a fog-colored marble.

***

The steady progress of the epidemic saw Dad becoming more sanguine about its nature. Indeed, he respected it. It spread at its leisure and made plain no criteria for selection. It did not seem to recognize merit or prefer one type of organism to another. Everything had its time when it felt like getting to them. “God is more idiosyncratic than people let on, you know?” he mused as we watched the latest report of the current number of Sleepers. It is an impossible tally to keep, but relief workers and emergency responders more broadly agree that the national minimum is 800,000 people.

But Dad also wanted to go to daily Mass. “If I’m going to go, I might as well go out there.” Many agreed. The nearest parish was holding multiple daily services to accommodate the flux in attendance. It was more than just Catholics, and possibly even Christians. The church rotated celebrants across denominations. It made ritual congested, but in the end all theological concerns were redirected toward attaining the “meaning” of the Sleep. The Sleep was divine, this much was accepted, but the nature of the divinity was left entirely to the homilist of the moment. Some determined that the Sleeping were receiving God’s mercy, while others were more convinced it was God’s justice. Some foretold that all but four humans would remain after the Sleep passes and suggested that polyamory was permissible for the sustenance of God’s people.

If there was any ecumenical consensus, however, is was reflected in the only sermon I’ve managed to remember.

“A while ago I was sitting in with my parish’s youth group,” went an Episcopal pastor, a woman of about 30 with a voice of rehearsed silkiness, “and we were discussing the difficulties of mortality. This is a fraught topic, so I had to approach it just so. So I asked them, ‘If you had a week to live, what would you do?’ And one of them raises their hand and asks, ‘You mean, like a bucket list?’ And I say, ‘Sure, what is on your bucket list?’ One says she would go bungee jumping, another skydiving, another says he would tell his crush how he felt her, one said he would drink all the regular Coke he could get his hands on.” We all laugh at that one, after we stop she pauses and sinks into solemnity. “But after that, one girl says ‘I would make a list of everyone I’ve wronged and apologize to each one.’ ‘Ah ha!’ I shouted, no we are [conveniently] onto something!

“We won’t know what awaits us on the other side of Sleep. But we know just what we’re leaving behind. It is up to you whether you want to leave behind a great big mess or all your loose ends tied and all your raw wounds mended. Amen”

“You know they’ll never cure this,” Dad said as we walked from Mass. “I’m sure of it. And there’s no way to prevent it either.”

“How do you know?”

“A feeling, I guess. It’s not something we can come back from. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing we want to come back from.”

“Yeah, that’d be weird.”

“I think the best thing someone can do, the best service that can be provided now, is prediction.”

“You mean, when someone is going to Sleep?”

“Yeah. I hope someone is hard at work trying to determine if there’s a doomsday clock in each and every one of us. They could make an app out of it.”

“Would that make you feel better?”

“I think it would make most people feel better,” he said with a kind smile. “How about you?”

“I try not to think about it. But … maybe.”

This was our routine for several weeks until one afternoon Dad and I went into a movie theater that was showing whatever films it had on hand with no set schedule but no admission charge either. We went into Big, which was about 45 minutes in progress. Neither of us had any clear memory of seeing it. “Bosom Buddies, that was an okay show,” Dad said as we looked for a seat in the empty theater.

Dad was prone to dozing off watching anything. I paid no attention to his condition during a viewing if he stayed still. In this case, however, I could notice he was dipping slowly in my direction. Soon the full weight of his head was on my shoulder and stayed there until he slumped completely over my armrest. I sat stock still until the film ended, not knowing what I was going to do, until I just managed to nervously shuffle out of the theater to the concession stand where a lone teen in his red vest and bowtie was reading Venus in Furs. I clear my throat to get him to look up.

“Where’s the guy you came in with?”

I pointed into the theatre.

“Oh.”

“Would you mind giving me a …”

“I have to watch the … uh …”

“Okay.” I turn to go back in and get ready to drag him out and into the rain.

Perhaps realizing this a bit late, the kid hopped up and started to run to the back.

“Wait, we have a hand truck, I can get you a hand truck.”

To be continued.

ON GHOSTING

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Recently I became familiar on intimate terms with a feeling that I guess most people come to be intimately familiar with at some point in their lives. It is the feeling that comes out of trying to remember why you are doing a certain activity or why you are in a certain place and coming up empty. No matter how often you rewind or recast these things in your memory you just draw the same blank. Questions like Why am I here?, Where is this going?, or What purpose do I serve? are like boarded up houses at the end of a mental cul-de-sac. For a lot of people this feeling never really leaves, shadowing them even as they find more fulfilling activities to do at more exciting places to be.

I am not like most people. I managed to shake this feeling. And by “shake” I don’t just mean that I momentarily deceived it with evasive excuses or clever reasoning. I outpaced it. I left it spinning in my dust. If I think about it I see it cast off in some wilderness trying to make centuries-dead trees feel sorry for themselves. We have no need of one another. I found my reason, hiding as it always is in plain sight.

Its discovery is really a matter of simplification. People make everything so complicated, often out of sheer amusement. In fact that is what I do: I am amusing. It doesn’t seem to matter how I go about being amusing so long as it sets off the same neurons and releases the same endorphins. Imagine you are a rattle and that a baby is holding you, shaking you in all directions and disturbing your granular contents. Pretty soon the baby will put you down and go to a different, if not better, toy. But don’t worry, that’s not really why you are there. Eventually you will be asked to sit down. Amusement is over and it is time now to listen, which is an entirely different can of worms, see? Where you sit does not matter, so long as you are filling a seat. There is nothing that discomforts people more than seeing even one seat that is empty. It looks, in a way, unsittable; like a ghost inhabits it.

I never understood the objection to ghosts. Some certainly are malevolent, but that seems very conditional, attached to the ghost’s particular circumstances of having become one. It’s unfortunate but not pervasive. I’d hazard that most ghosts are more lax than that. What need does a ghost have to interfere in a plane of existence in which they are stranded and with which they have nothing in common? I imagine it’s very draining for a ghost to have to deal with this and the last thing it wants is to expend what little energy it has unnerving its occupants. For a ghost, sitting down somewhere—anywhere—and observing this now-foreign world and its peculiar inhabitants might be rather ideal compared to more fraught alternatives.

And I don’t mind leaving my seat open for just such a ghost. It’s not so much an act of charity on my part as an opportunity to do my part as a member of the land of the living. Suddenly I’m free to do whatever, to walk the ends of Manhattan, to read a book that I and no one else likes, to sit outside my house at night, maybe with a beer, and listen to nature’s chaos hum all around me. Or maybe I will just take a seat somewhere else.

Sometimes when I’m out at a restaurant by myself I like to think that the empty seat in front of me is actually a ghost, one of its many stops in its endless wandering. In those moments I appreciate the wandering non-life. “Might I do well as a ghost?” I think to myself.

“Oh, fuck you,” the ghost says.

“Did I say that out loud?”

“You didn’t have to. I know that’s what you’re thinking. Everybody thinks it. Everybody thinks it’s so great being a ghost and having the power of ghosting.”

“What is ghosting, exactly?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know? Anyway what you want is something quite different.”

“What do I want?”

“You don’t want to be a ghost; you want the whole world to be nothing but ghosts.”

I feel a cool breeze flow past me.

“Are … are you still there?”

Later that night I have a dream. I’m standing in a room in front of empty chairs arranged in rows. I’m wearing a very nice black three-piece suit. I have no papers or books. I just open my mouth. Out of it come words, not mine, but the language of AM radio after midnight—all frantic vitriol, violence, and laughter. Then one by one the chairs come to be filled. Their occupants don’t so much enter as they appear, like images being un-airbrushed. Un-airbrushed but redacted, black smudges that fidget and nod. The words in my mouth degrade into static, emitting like aural exhaust. I can’t close my mouth, even by pressing on my jaw. In fact it opens wider. The static is now feedback. Feedback and light. I can’t see the light but I can tell that it is very bright and very hot. The smudges don’t move. Then all I see is white, then red. I feel myself sinking. Actually I am melting, oozing apart like a Ken doll on a rotisserie spit. I am a pile of sludge and ashes smoldering on the floor. The last thing I hear is the sound of the chairs being folded and a broom sweeping ever closer.

Interesting talent, ghosting.

GUIDANCE

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My first guidance counselor had an office at the end of what I—and I guess only I—called “guidance counselor’s row.” It was a spacious, west-facing corner office with an extra window that made it especially bright at the right time in the afternoon, which was when she called me in on this particular day. She called me in to ask me what I wanted to make of my life. I told her that I didn’t understand the question, so she rephrased it more clearly, but not by much. “What do you want to be, ultimately?” Ultimately? I thought for a moment. Well, ultimately I want to be a good person. She nodded and said nothing. So I thought some more. I want to be loved, and then qualified it by saying that I also want to do good work. She paused again, and then looked down at the opened file she had in front of her which the glare had so brightened that it just looked like a pure white rectangle. “I don’t know if you can be with these grades.” I didn’t know there was a grading system for goodness, I told her in earnest. “For some people there is,” she told me sardonically. There was nothing else remarkable about her.

***

My second guidance counselor—same office but different person—called me in just after lunch. He asked me how my day was going. I told him honestly that it wasn’t going very well. “I guessed as much,” he said pointing a little too close for my liking to my black eye. Just before my appointment I had gotten into a fight in the back of the school, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, over accusations of bogarting cigarettes, something I wasn’t supposed to be smoking. I and the other student disagreed on the details of that second point rather strongly and in the process we broke the veil of secrecy (smoking in silence) so that people who were coming there to legally smoke could hear us from a good distance. He listened to me and made some notes I couldn’t read in green ink before realizing he had the wrong file on his desk. It was that of a better student who had the poor fortune of being my alphabetical neighbor. He shuffled through his cabinet and found nothing, and then he left the room. I started to wonder if the previous guidance counselor hadn’t just taken it with her to wherever she went. Maybe she used it as a motivator, or a stress ball kind of thing. “How much worse can it get,” she’s probably thinking to herself, before opening her bottom drawer with my information opened and giving off a sigh that is only a few decibels below the first few seconds after climaxing. Then after 10 minutes that were actually just two, he came back with the right file that he seemed to be looking at for the very first time. “How do you see your future?” I told him I didn’t understand. “What do you want to do after you’ve left here?” After I graduate? “If you want.” Well, I want to be useful somehow. “That’s not quite what I asked.” That’s the best answer I have in my present condition. “You need to learn how to throw a punch. I can just tell.” Maybe I did this to myself to lessen the penalty. Then he took out a red pen and wrote something in my actual file that I also could not read.

***

My third guidance counselor was in the middle office of guidance counselor’s row. That meant it had fewer windows and less space. I felt bad because she was on the larger side of things, body-wise, and did not appear to have much maneuverability between her desk and her files. Every time she moved back she would hit the cabinet and the pictures she put on top of it of her family and pets would shake and sometimes be knocked over, particularly the one of the grey-haired man at the edge which would topple over onto the floor, usually face down. She was not well-liked by the students who had her. She had a tendency to judge them solely on their test scores. I didn’t mind this at all actually because it happened that my test scores were acceptable at worst. I put it to the nature of the tests. I looked at them as puzzles or games. I always liked things I could turn into games because it was a surefire way to shut off only half of my brain. So even if I didn’t know anything, I could still focus on the task of determining which pieces went where. Going by the shyly elated look on her face as I told her all this, it seemed she knew what I was getting at. She went into her drawer and took out a backgammon board. “This is not appropriate,” she admitted, probably thinking I should have a Rubik’s cube or something, “but it’s all I have in here. In fact it’s always been here.” But even when I told her I’d never played backgammon before she seemed unfazed. And so we’d have semi-weekly appointments where we’d sit and play backgammon. It wasn’t until a much later appointment when she finally asked where I saw myself in 10 years. If you win this game, I said, then I will tell you. Then the picture of the grey-haired man fell to the floor with no prompting from either of our movements. She stared at it with an inscrutable expression and put it in the bottom drawer of her desk. On our last appointment the picture in that position was of a younger blond man.

***

My fourth guidance counselor didn’t have an office. If it was cold out, we’d meet in one of the stairwells at the farthest reaches of the school, by the gym or the woodshop. If it was warm out, we’d meet at this rotted, often damp picnic table in the morning where he’d smoke and nibble on the same jelly doughnut in his rumpled suit. It wasn’t a suit really, but a concoction of flannel shirt, jeans, some orange jogging shoes, and an ill-fitting brown sport coat, or sometimes a cardigan. Sometimes the wind would blow while he was looking at my file and the papers would fly all over and he’d put them back haphazardly. Not that they were stored any better, as he lugged the files around in a duffle bag or in an egg crate. In our meetings we’d just shoot the shit, I’d tell him about problems at home, about teachers or other students I liked and didn’t, and he would do the same. He had a grudge against one young substitute, a track coach’s son just out of college who the girls would gather round as if he had them under some hex. I couldn’t tell if he was saying this out of concern or envy.

Then one appointment, as if he just remembered it, he asked me “So what is your plan, man?” I don’t want to be dispensable. “What are you talking about? No one is dispensable.” I know that, but sometimes people are indispensable. So where does that leave everyone else? He took a long drag of his cigarette. “Look,” he said dabbing the ashes on the grass, “we can’t meet here anymore. You know that payphone over there?” You mean the one all the way on the other side of the building? “Yeah, I see all the kids over there.” That’s where the buses park. “Well go over there after school then. We’re not going to meet there, but I’ll call you and tell you where and when we’ll meet next.” Saying nothing further, he took out a stick of Bazooka Joe from his cardigan pocket and placed it in front of me. When I reached the phone later, I remembered that the chord had been severed from it ages ago.

***

My fifth guidance counselor wasn’t really a guidance counselor. By then I was out of school for a few years. In fact I was in a bar when we had what I take to be our first appointment. I was alone, drinking my Bud, and she just appeared to my left, sipping a club soda with a red straw and a cherry floating around it. She was spiffily dressed, prim and proper but authoritative, like an old-time crossing guard or meter maid was authoritative, and giving me a look that tolerated far less nonsense than any of her predecessors. In any other situation it would be quite rattling, but I found myself assuming a stance I’d come accustomed to long ago. “What are you doing?” she asked me in a serviceable tone. I’m having a drink and occasionally looking up at the game. “No,” she said with more firmness, “what are you doing?” I … work in the UPS store and sometimes I help do night inventory at a mattress store. She took out a small leather-bound pad and took notes. “Where are you,” she went on. “And just to be clear, I mean ‘where are you?’” My apartment is a block over. And she told me to take her there, which I did, and pretty soon that became her office. I don’t believe I was the only one under her responsibility. She would be gone for several hours throughout the day. But I believe she made my apartment her main center, as GUIDANCE COUNSELOR was put on my door a few weeks after she first came up.

I soon stopped going to work at the UPS store and the mattress place. I was too busy with the daily tasks she gave me. Every morning I’d wake up to a new note she’d written taped to the coffeemaker. “I need you to do X” or “Today you should do Y.” They seemed like mindless busywork at first, repetitive exercises for memory and other menial chores or craft projects. One time I spent two weeks working on a pinewood derby car. But soon they didn’t bother me and their regularity became a comfort. She would review my results, which she monitored through no method I’ve yet gleaned, with the same purposeful expression. Her poise was always in balance, never drifting into approval or condemnation. Yet every so often I would find other notes, printed out in Apple Chancery or Helvetica font, in other parts of the apartment; behind the bathroom mirror, on my bedpost, or sticking out from under the cable box. They usually read “YOU ARE A GOOD PERSON” or “YOU ARE LOVED.” I never knew when she was putting them up or if they were meant to be just found or actively looked for, or even if they were connected to my performance on a task. But I carried them out as if they were.

When she is gone, as she inevitably will be, I know I will still carry them out, and I will still through some measure find the notes. This country is full of people who live in offices, little nests of paperclips and Krazy Glue, marked GUIDANCE COUNSELOR. Who they are I don’t know. Siblings of hers, perhaps; the one golden child in a litter of runts. But I know that after I have said all this, I will wake up to a new note. “You must forget the past,” it will say, “and once more be a student.”

THREE VERY SHORT MONOLOGUES FOR STOOLS

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Monologue no. 1: LADY CARAMEL

SCENE: A middle-aged woman sits at bar. She is wearing a black pantsuit. It is near last call. She is drinking from a cup of coffee.

WOMAN: He came into my life as they all do: in a fit of thirst. I know what you’re going to say. “It’s a bar, everyone is thirsty.” No, friend. I’m not talking about that kind of thirst. I’m talking about a higher thirst. A thirst only a woman of my years could see coming miles away; and a thirst only a woman of my experience could know how to handle. He was young. They’re all young. Freshly spit out of his educational incubator. And he was dumb. He offered me riches and adventure; all in exchange for …

Waves her hand down her body.

… this, I guess.

Takes a sip of her coffee.

I had no time for his games, I told him. There were 10 or 20 other boys of equal or greater qualifications in front of him, all making the exact same offer that he was making me. But all I want is my caramel.

Takes out a caramel from her purse.

My squishy cubes that I put in my coffee, like so.

Drops cube into coffee and stirs. Pause.

I told him this. He smiled half-sweetly and half-deviously and left. An hour later he comes back with a bag of Nips. Hard-shelled and with chocolate filling, no less. I snickered like a schoolgirl and invited him to sit in the stool next to me, which he did. I told him to order me the priciest chardonnay in the place, which he also did. I told him to pay and to hand it to me. Then I splashed it in his face. He stumbled off the stool with a pained expression and galloped out the door like an injured horse into a glue factory. I thought that was the end of it. But come a week later, the same time, he’s already there, in the stool, with a bag of Nips and the chardonnay ready to go, like we had some kind of arrangement. I thought to myself all the horrible things I could say to him and got them out of my system before sitting down. Then, in my Keen Aunt-voice I told him that this isn’t the life for him. You’ll get bored, I promised him. Maybe not in a week, maybe not in a month or even in a few years. But it will come for him like it comes for everyone else in every bar in every city. I told him that I speak from my experience. It was a lie, but it’s my most compelling lie. But what I told him next was truth. What he needs to do, I said, is to give those dreadful hard-shelled candies to a nice girl who would appreciate them, back in—I took a wild guess—Spokane. His smile was more resigned this time, but he took the candies and left. I guess he took the hint because I haven’t seen him since. He’s probably a state senator now.

Sips coffee.

I’ve never had a sip of booze in my life.

CURTAIN.

Monologue no. 2: CHARACTER-BUILDING

SCENE: A middle school classroom after lunch. The young TEACHER stands stiffly at his desk, wearing a tweed suit and holding a pointing stick. A boy sits glumly to the left of him on a stool in the corner of the room facing the rest of the class. He is wearing a dunce cap. The blackboard reads “MR. GILCHREST.”

TEACHER: Class … class. Quiet down.

Slams the pointing stick on the desk. Silence.

Now, I suppose you’re all wondering why you’ve come back from lunch to find Lester sitting in that stool and wearing that cap bearing that word. Well, allow me to explain. Many years ago, before even I was a student, when a boy or girl did something wrong, no matter what it was, this was their punishment. They were not punished with getting their name on the board, getting sent to the principal’s office, or God forbid getting “a write-up.” No! Discipline was insured through the simple gesture of public example.

Walks over to the window and gazes wistfully out. Pause. Reverts to his stiff stance.

Now as I said, when I was a child, I was spared this penalty. It was barbaric, they said. Humiliating. They were doing us a favor.

Snickers.

Some favor, I say. As I came of age I felt that I had lost something as a result of this mercy. Every day was met with a feeling of … starvation. I was starved of confidence, of character. I am less of a man than I would have been because of it. And so I long ago resolved that I should not let this famine persist into future generations. I pledged that I would meet it head-on, by myself if I have to. Hence …

Points stick to the boy. Pause.

You might also be wondering what Lester, arguably your finest most promising peer, did to earn this distinction. Lester will have to come to that conclusion himself. And so will all of you if you end up in the stool. But you don’t have to; in fact for the duration of Miss Marx’s absence we will be working to make sure that you do not. I have drawn up a new curriculum of drills, exercises, and reading to help build your character from the foundation up. First exercise will be making cards for Miss Marx. Please extend your sympathies in these trying times for her, that you hope she will persevere and heal, but not to rush it. No. We are in good hands with Mr. Gilchrest and we are very eager to learn what he has to teach us, and so on and so forth. Now get out your construction paper, you markers, and glue.

Sounds of chairs being pushed out. The boy stays where he is.

Please share the glue, we are short.

Gazes wistfully at the ceiling.

Glitter is encouraged but not required.

CURTAIN.

Monologue no. 3: BETTER?

SCENE: An examination room in a doctor’s office. The PATIENT, a middle-aged woman, sits on the table in a smock. The DOCTOR, same age, enters staring at a file. He closes it and smiles at the PATIENT.

DOCTOR: Mrs. Vincenzo, how are you? Good overall, I hope. Let me see it’s been … three weeks, okay. Let’s go ahead and check the vitals, shall we?

As he talks he proceeds to examine her ears, eyes, throat, knees and blood pressure.

Okay, that’s good. This one is a little waxy but otherwise okay. I know it’s one of those medical practice habits, and habits tend to die hard. Open, please. Good. Stick out your tongue for me, please. Fine, fine. Let’s check those tonsils. That’s not too much pressure, is it? Good, good. These are good. But, anyway, I think this is a good habit. Oh, congratulations by the way about Steven. Valedictorian, you must be proud! Certainly I was proud on yours and Randy’s behalf. I mean, I think we all were—the parents. He’s a pillar of our community; a really special kid. Yet I could help but see myself in him.

Pause.

That’s absurd, of course. He takes after Randy. And after you, of course. Certainly I was no valedictorian. Far from it.

PATIENT [deadpan]: And yet here you are.

DOCTOR [smiling]: Here I am.

Pause.

Okay, vitals are a go.

Shows an enthusiastic thumbs-up and takes a seat on the stool.

You know, last week I heard some of the nurses talking about this “dabbing” craze that’s apparently going around. Honestly it’s another one of those things I can’t make heads or tails of. But I found it funny, and they were not shy about teaching me the technique. I was even making red lights on purpose during the drive home so I could practice and show Jason. When I got there he was in the family room playing some game or other. So I stood in front of the sofa and said, “Get a load of me, kiddo!” and pulled off what I think was an aces rendition. “Not so lame now, am I?” So we sort of stared at each other for a bit and he said, [mock teen voice] “I need the car.” So I gave him the keys. And just before he left he said, [mock teen voice] “I need some money.” So I gave him the cash that was in my wallet. He was doing a lot more talking with his eyes, I think. I read something about it in New York.

Pause.

You haven’t by any chance seen Jason around anywhere … or maybe Steven saw him at some poi— no, no … of course not. Steven’s a good boy with a bright future I didn’t mean to suggest …

Pause.

So … better or worse since we last saw each other? Well, I guess it’s not better, is it?

CURTAIN.

AGAINST GOTHS

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Like a dead bat in a slingshot, “World Goth Day” came and went last week. When I started noticing Instagram posts about it on May 22, I was in the throes of a fleeting Twitter fast, and could not, on principle, log on to make fun of it. By the time I was back on a few days later, some other thing that is also now completely forgotten had taken hold of the public gaze, and all was futile.

Something about this apparent lapse seems fortuitous. Why, indeed, upon hearing for the first time of this Day dedicated to celebrating the enduring culture born of Gothic rock, was insulting it my first impulse? I’ve left in my digital wake an extensive trail of evidence to suggest that nothing would be more amenable to my tastes. My copious posting related to horror, the tragic bent in much of my writing, my love of hipster metal and “doom folk,” and my dark-hued fashion palette all suggest goth-adjacent sympathies at the very least. And yet just as I reach the precipice overlooking that black velvet void, an unseen force pulls me violently away and leaves me to sigh eternally on a cushion of damp moss in a cloudy sylvan glen. Or so the dream always goes.

There are reasons for this, of course.

One is the most obvious: World Goth Day is dumb. One would think that, in a society that has Halloween, a World Goth Day would be superfluous. What more, for those who are ever antsy for its approach, there is precedent—a radical one, but precedent nonetheless—which posits that to the goth, every day is Halloween. (Jourgensen, A., “(Every Day is) Halloween.” Wax Trax, 1984)

The blowback to that might be that Halloween is for kids and hardly compliments the profound decadence authentic goth culture embodies. And, fair, I’ve heard proposals that there should be a holiday that separates the childish revelry from the various forms of adult bacchanalia. But I am not seeing that from most goths who take advantage of both days. I know this from careful observation. Which brings me to my second reason: goths are boring.

A friend of mine some years ago, just after the goth characters started appearing on South Park, expressed skepticism that such a subculture could ever actually exist. We of course knew goths in our high school days, though they never admitted to being so, and I guess he, unlike me, is kind and took their words at face value. But those were the innocent days before the internet’s performative stage. Before such things as Instagram’s “Explore” function could bring you right to them.

They have their initial appeal, these goths, let’s admit at least that. The goth lifestyle is one of complete and utter commitment to its look and its attitude. Every day the goth wakes up knowing he or she doesn’t just get to be goth but, at his or her core being, must be goth. The goth is compelled to dress, to adorn his or her surroundings, and to consume culture according to goth dictum of memento mori and the infinite sadness. In other words, it’s very fun knowing that someone lives in an apartment in New England with antique furniture, dark drapery, some skulls, and some old Vincent Price vehicle posters—and who probably doesn’t care much for sports.

It was only until I started following several goths that the appeal had faded. I started to notice that one’s routine did not diverge too radically from any of the others. The goth life is one of graveyards, pumpkin patches, “morbid” museums, abandoned hospitals, abandoned prisons, more graveyards, cool arts fairs, the Jonathan Corwin House in Salem, the Edgar Allen Poe mural in Philadelphia, blighted fields of endless fuck-all, and still more graveyards. It seemed to me that the distinction between goth tourism and the Nashville bachelorette party tourism Anne Helen Petersen took great pains to scorn at Buzzfeed was one of style.

To be fair, there are some mitigating factors for why this might be. The algorithm limited my scope to a certain clique in a certain region. Who’s to say that goths in Arizona or Idaho don’t have markedly different points of interest to frequent? This seems only barely possible, but I have not seriously inquired. There is also the broader disconnect in how Instagram works: simultaneously exploiting the curiosity of the followers and encouraging monotony in the followed. But that is a free service that for all its manipulation does not force me to follow anyone. So it might be, as ever, a problem born of someone so vulnerable to boredom that a demon must be dragging him there by an invisible choke collar.

That last one is quite salient, if only as a byproduct for what I believe is the more central reason for this discord.

A recent goth post, another gloomy cemetery, included in the caption a quote from Stephen King’s The Shining. The novel, if you don’t know, tells of a troubled family man and failed writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at an isolated luxury hotel that turns out to be maliciously haunted. At its heart it is a story about overcoming ghosts, actual and personal, in order to save oneself and one’s family. For King, who had his own issues with substance abuse and career struggles, it is a very personal book with a hopeful message. Which makes his giving the rights over to Stanley Kubrick an even greater mystery than any dreamt up by the Room 237 fan theorists. King has regretted it ever since, effectively drawing a line in the sand between the warm, genuine horror storytelling of his novel and the “very cold,” ornamental horror tourism of the film.

I first saw The Shining in full around eighth grade—some 20 years ago—with my mom in the sunroom of our old house. I have watched it at least once a year ever since. Though The Innocents is much better, The Shining is still one of the best horror films ever made. But King’s complaints are not invalid. Kubrick was less concerned with the struggles of Jack Torrance, whether Tony is real, or even with the actual shining, and more interested in exploring the effects of isolation and the incompatibility between man and nature.

It’s not impossible for goths to like both the film and the book, or even to prefer the film to the book as I do. Yet I still sense a philosophical rift between us that is facilitated by King’s distinction-making. The extra-expressive nature of the goths bends them, I think, toward the hopeful view of King. Horror is an expressive palette, an outlet, and an extension of their morality. There’s safety in horror, or what King calls in his horror survey Danse Macabre “reintegration … that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.”

I believe it’s this reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical … that and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work.

King’s ultimate concern with Kubrick’s adaptation might be in its power as a gateway to aesthetic extremism. Indeed, what is Kubrick’s The Shining if it is not a rebuke of horror’s escapism? Instead of King’s reintegration, Kubrick’s vision is one of assimilation: Torrance cannot leave the labyrinth, let alone Overlook, and neither can we. King, again, is not wrong. This vision of horror as a continuous, overpowering force rather than a passing, peculiar delight greatly appealed to me. It is not the adventurism of exploring a derelict asylum, but the despair of being restrained in a functioning asylum. This is horror not as a lifestyle but as a way of life. There horror finds its most complete expression and unshakable justification.

It is possible that some goths might be inclined to agree with my view, and that the only thing that truly separates me from them is that they are more proactive in dealing with it. Still, I would be happy to meet the goths and get their side of it. It is the polite thing to do after what I have written. But I still get the feeling that whatever superficial understanding we have of each other, the deeper friction will remain. It is possibly the most crucial dispute I have with anybody, and it is the dispute I am least eager to mend. Horror does not have converts; it’s something you’re in. You either see it or you don’t.

ARTISANAL FOG

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Angst, by Jean Davis

Jordan Peterson is not a fan of “white privilege.” Or rather, Jordan Peterson is committed to telling anyone in the English-speaking sphere who will listen that “white privilege” does not exist. It is a phantasm, or a vapo(u)r. To say that it is anything substantial is less to make an argument than it is to show one’s cards. This, says the card-shower, is the system I have built over me; This is the archetype I recognize; This is the myth I bought into, etc. And so long as Dr. Peterson fills his dance card with opponents who share his proportions of nuance, he will not get to the root of the problem but he will have sufficient material for his “How I Spent My Indefinite Sabbatical” Power Point presentation.

The second half of this decade has been haunted by privilege. Though the nature of its haunting is more intrusive than unsettling. It is like a sitcom neighbor who comes in the door without knocking at any given time whether he is welcome to do so or not. For Peterson it may be more like putting a bow on top of a landfill. There he has a point, though it is not original to him, and his solution of total demystification is one I am less certain about. There is use, and maybe not a little obligation, in recognizing that the best parts of our lives are in some way fueled by privilege, perhaps even more than one form of it. This is certainly the case for me, having been given unsolicited advantages that free me from certain burdens. I try to remember this because, for one thing, my disadvantages would run riot through my life if I did not have them. But also because it contributes substantially to how I determine what is good—or more recently, in desisting on whether anything is good at all.

Lately my life has been overcome by, for lack of a better term, paralysis. I have all the energy and capability common to those around my age, yet it is frequently halted in its tracks by this one neat trick in my head that creates a kind of mental checkpoint. It is attended by no one and guarding against an indistinguishable plain, mist-shrouded with no evidence of construction, vegetation, or people. The short term for this is ambivalence. It has come to make a permanent place in my character. Since its residency, clarity and determination no longer seem as easily located as they once were. In fact I can’t remember a time when they ever were. At its most acute, I suspect it manifests visibly and audibly. My gait goes from a stride to a shuffle. My posture, never perfect, turns to a more pronounced hunch, covered over by a grey cardigan with ever widening tears at my elbows. My voice, neither too strong nor too weak, deflates to a mournful Jimmy Carter-by-the-fireplace cadence. I watch old episodes of Chuck on Prime. It is a malaise. It is not defeatism or laziness, but a confusion of purpose, a deficit of enthusiasm, and a tangling of direction.

It may be that this ambivalence has always been a part of me, but only began to lay wider claim with each new life decision being given back from the whims of others. This seems at first like buckling under the tedium of adult responsibility. That may be true, but likely a result stemming from the more critical incomprehension in having gained personal freedom. Most long for freedom, and in each instance more is attained it is grabbed with anxiety as if it was in danger of being immediately rescinded. Many of today’s social ills can be traced to gaining far too much freedom or failing to gain enough. Someone perplexed by freedom seems more isolated. For the ambivalent, an open job may close, a budding romance may wilt, or a warm friendship may cool … then freeze altogether. These are letdowns, but slight ones. Fading with them are any number of setbacks, frustrations, compromises, and risks. It is the classic you problem, that has only one source of solution. For decades it has been tolerated, but that may change.

That ambivalence is a marker of privilege is not obvious until the conditions that make ambivalence possible are brought to light, often as a contrast to a changing sensibility. Ambivalence requires time, which not everyone can afford to leave unfilled. There is an air of decadence about ambivalence that is unrivaled in America. With no authentic aristocracy to speak of, it was left to the ambivalent to take up the reins of his European predecessors, and to uphold and preserve their most cherished principles in the New World.

In times of greater prosperity and lower stakes, decedent affectations like angst, diffidence, apathy, skepticism, and even indifference could exist harmoniously with the prevailing joie de vivre. Ambivalence is like a kinder, more guilt-ridden indifference, for the ambivalent knows at heart what is being wasted. Yet in times of thrift and tension, when one must ultimately finalize who one is and what one stands for, ambivalence is a paramount offense. It is a detachment laced with cruelty. It is a bespoke confusion, a fog carefully spread around every object and pathway where what will save you is no clearer than what will harm you. And ambivalence, within this mindset, would seem to be making an unconscious choice: complicity over solidarity, frivolity over commitment. (Essayism, the mother of all frivolities, has distressing overlap with the ambivalent.)

What is the ambivalent to do other than to stay as he is? It would seem that deeming him a social enemy—presumably after everyone else has already been pegged—would only be met with the same crippling indecision. Indeed, the committed-Americans will have never met a more pliable foe, who can be dragged hither and thither, shackled, shamed, and maimed and still come to no resolution on any of it. And yet there is something to suggest that his persecution is the one thing to which he will, to some significant distance, commit. The ambivalent is neither a rebel nor an existentialist Other. If he does not appreciate force, he still respects it. More than that, the ambivalent is not a proud practitioner, and will accept attempts at reform, even brute ones if need be.

The ambivalent’s fog, like most artisanal products, has a surface appeal that belies how much it actually compounds the problem it was meant to circumvent. Though hatched in privilege, ambivalence is incubated in fear, specifically the fear of the future.

Fear is a tempting option for framing a life. Total submission to it means that one is at once never bored and, without impetus or obligation to act first, never responsible. Not that that can be sustained over time. Eventually it does become boring, or it becomes stressful. The comfortable obscurity the fog brings degrades into ignorance. But the ambivalent having no recourse or drive for escape falls instead into diversion. What the ambivalent will divert himself with or what happens when he succumbs to diversion completely are not known. But now the persecution has become either a rescue mission or a tragicomic entertainment. Either is plausible, but at least a choice will be made, and the ambivalent has all the time in the world to find out which one it will be.

LETTER OF CONSOLATION FROM AN EXILED SON

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Dearest Mother,

Your heart, I fear, is at its heaviest as I write this, coming into my fifth month of exile on this godforsaken island off of the coast of Maine. Staring out on the rocky shore, batting against the midday winds under an endless dome of grey, I see only you, unmoved from your favorite chair in the living room, tears flowing without relent from your eyes to the point that it forms a pool about the carpet. You had such hopes for me when I was given the job in Washington, and you were not alone. I entered that hallowed metropolis in considerable favor, and favored by no greater a person than the President himself.

Alas, the favor of you and the President could not outmatch the disfavor of Fortune herself. Like a hawk she sat perched, fixing her glare down on me, but a meager mouse fit for her claws alone. I will not bother you with the details of the preceding circumstances, only that what has been made public is not the fullest account. I will instead offer some words of consolation in this trying time for you. For what little time I had in the service of the President, I earned esteem for how quickly my words could soothe him at the most crucial times. I can only hope that they have the same effect on you.

Holy shit, Mom, exile fucking RULES. This is fucking amazing. Why didn’t I think of this before? What a moron I was! Clouded by the fever of ambition! What a fucking joke. Honestly, I cannot think of a better place to be on this dumbfuck planet than right here, right now.

Sure, it doesn’t seem that ideal at first. No doubt the President was shrewd sending me up here as he did. In the middle of February. By fucking fishing boat. How foreboding it looked from afar. How ghastly it looked on the shore, welcomed only by a wall of trees and mounds of snow and ice. My journey to the island was marked by psychological exercises to wrestle with the inevitable loneliness of island solitude. They seemed woefully inadequate by the time I landed. Sitting in my a glorified concrete cell of a cabin the first night, the surrounding natural world never felt so hostile as it did then. The trees stood over me in place of my scolding judges and my silenced allies. The night winds howled like echoes of condemnation.

Now everything is fucking great. It’s like a mandatory vacation. Sure, it’s not paid, but I’ve got everything I need. The Secret Service shows up every month to replenish my supplies. They keep me well fed with the basics: cold cuts, bread, cheese, milk, canned fruit, Hydrox. Once they noticed I wasn’t squandering anything instantly they gave me a hotplate and some Chef Boyardee. The next month they gave me a six-pack of Natty Ice. They don’t like me on the count of my treachery and all, but we’ve reached a manageable stalemate: they do not want me martyred at the behest of that idiot, nor do I want to be. The President and taxpayers are is careful that I see out my punishment in due time. One month they did take my space heater for unclear reasons, but I persevered learning to cut wood and build fires.

The clothing is secondhand and makes me itch sometimes. They dump it on the floor and watch me sort through it. I’m in some paint-stained jeans, a Dartmouth sweatshirt and some Timberlands at present. All around not my style. But who gives a shit since no one else is around? I go outside to walk in the morning and look straight ahead: trees. I look to my right: trees. To my left: more trees—and some stupid fucking rocks. I close my eyes and listen to the world around me: absolute fucking silence. Holy shit, that silence. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard before (or haven’t, rather). It’s a warm kind of silence that fills me rather than empties me. It’s quite a shift from the hustle and bustle of DC. A welcome one as it turns out. Here there is no one breathing down my neck, no courtiers watching my ever move, no backbiting, no lost friends, no grubbing sycophants, and no bumbling interns. There’s no one. Literally no one. This island is population: 000,000,001. There are no demands on my time and no obligation to set my life to anyone else’s.

Even better: I have no idea what’s going on. The Secret Service people don’t tell me and I don’t want to know. I don’t know if the cities are burning to the ground, if the people have stormed the White House, or if a land invasion is underway. That we have not been nuked is a mere assumption. I have no access to news or television or internet. All I have are a few books, all by Stephen King. You know, I never really got into him before. I never really tried, but now that he’s all I read boy was I wrong! That man can tell a fucking story. I retain the substance and craft of his work like no other writer. In fact he is replacing the full store of knowledge acquired up to this point. The best writers I know of now, by the narrowed confines of my objectivity, are Stephen King and me.

But of course I can’t spend all my days cooped up reading. The island isn’t that big. I’ve explored most of it within two weeks. So mostly I just meditate and chill. I don’t actually know how to meditate, so I kind of play it by ear, sitting on a soft spot, clearing my head and manage not to think about a single thing for about an hour. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? What is your maiden name? These questions mean nothing, do not occur to me, and have no answer anyway.

Of course when I’m not meditating I’m building fires and thinking of ways to prolong my stay. Soon I will be sent back to shower the President in my contrition, and presumably get shoved away to one of that city’s innumerable policy corpuscles. You see, Momther, there is no one way to be in exile. Work is exile, home is exile, marriage is exile, friendship is exile. I understand this as I endure [sic!] the best exile fucking imaginable. Ever. I might even request a Bible if death is anything like this.

I would like, Mother, for this letter to leave you not more dejected, but uplifted! Be assured that my exile has not been wasted on an encirclement of thoughts of bitterness, vengeance, and loathing. There is peace here—and time—so that I might ruminate on my power to bring harm to and spark disappointment from our President and, to a lesser extent, the country. I see not confinement here, but possibility! The possibility to start maturity anew; indeed the possibility to transform. It may be that when I see you again I will not be recognized. I am confident that this is for the better. I understand now that my character upon arriving at this place was not fit for the country the President will have made by the time I leave it. Perhaps, in time, this forthcoming America will allow the entirety of its people their own private exiles.

All my love,

Your son

***

INTERNAL MEMORANDUM—CONFIDENTIAL

From: Office of the Attorney General
To: United States Marshal Service—District of Maine
CC: United States Secret Service
Re: Special Resident, Island X

By order of the Attorney General and with the approval of the Commander-in-Chief, the subject [REDACTED] is hereby ordered to transfer to Staten Island as soon as actionable. Extend sabbatical to remainder of presidential term. Coast Guard schooner with copies of Joel Osteen and YAF en route.