Sunday, February 2, 2014


Path 29

     The coffee maker began sucking, groaning, and growling, resembling both a huge salivating insect and an angry crowd off in the distance.
     "Oh, sh-t," I thought, "I should have put on the water first." The water for the oatmeal would have boiled by the time I finished making the coffee if I had followed the proper sequence. 
     Late again. As I was dumping the second cup of water into the pot for oatmeal, I remembered vowing the night before to be attentive at work. Strive to make eye contact and actually listen and respond thoughtfully, I told myself.
      Stomping toward the shower after waiting for the water to boil, I heaved a sigh--not because I wasn't feeling well-adjusted but because I didn't feel awake, I thought.
     "You jerk," I hissed as I adjusted the hot and cold water faucets, launching again into the litany of self-deprecation which flowed out time and again when I was having an allergic reaction to gluten or corn or milk. This was the classic stage three reaction: the onset of depression, which included a lot of self-deprecation. Fortunately, all I needed to do was adjust my eating habits, alternating my foods more, and I might be emotionally placid in several days, if I were lucky. If I didn't take those measures, I would be mumbling on some street corner in no time. I sighed again, realizing I was one of the lucky ones who could identify the allergies and chemical sensitivities, but I laughed bitterly at myself for striving to overcome alienation in the workplace.
     As the shower drops pelted me, I thought to myself, "Everyone else flies along steadily with a little turbulence now and then. But you have to go suddenly into a tailspin, spiraling downward always when you least expect it. So far, you've been able to pull yourself out of it, but every damned time, you believe it won't happen again. You should never, ever make that idiotic mistake again."
     I hid my symptoms from everyone at work and at home as much as possible. Even my mother suspected I was faking. The illness was undeniable when, as a child, I doubled over and groaned and cried for hours due to an allergic reaction to eggs. Physical symptoms carried no stigma. However, self-hatred and depression were psychological problems, not obviously connected to anything in the environment: I should be able to overcome any negative feelings through sheer effort of will. 
     Suggesting that chemicals in foods caused debilitating depression made people uncomfortable even though nobody questioned the often detrimental, mind-altering effects of drugs or alcohol. By questioning the effect that basic foods had on me, I was also questioning authority, questioning the capitalist system and America's blessed way of life, questioning a government that had conducted a de-facto experiment on the populace by allowing copious amounts of chemicals in food and air and water for over half a century. If my illness were real, major changes would be called for, changes beyond the ability of average citizens to make--unless they banded together and organized a huge movement. For the most part, I realized I was considered a liar, a madman, or a revolutionary, or a little of each. Those who actually believed me, even if only a little, treated me like a personal and political oddity, something between a communist and a leper, so I kept my illness to myself.
     I toweled myself off and suddenly found it difficult to get dressed. This is just another bad reaction, old man, I thought. You'll be okay in a little while. Just hang on. I slowly put on my clothes, feeling suddenly exhausted, shaking a little, then downed my coffee and dashed out the door.
     John Blackmore had pretended to understand, only because John at first wanted to appear to be my friend, so that he could destroy me more easily later on, without causing suspicion.
My Children's Book
     I barely made it to the office on time. I worked as a part-time, contracted employee, a "quality control consultant" for a video distributing company, which meant that I sat in a cubicle all day and tested a program being developed for a new computerized cash register, which, besides handling transactions, also kept track of the inventory and remembered your childhood. I would go through the motions of conducting every transaction possible, in every imaginable order, writing down each new path I had taken, finding "bugs" just about everywhere in the new system. When the programmers fixed one bug, two more would surface. I could tell that everyone in programming and management was getting pissed at me even though I only documented the bugs.
     Around 9:00 AM, while the radio was playing "Don't Forget Your Second Wind," a real bug, like none I had ever seen before, crawled out of my computer. At first, I thought the insect was lovely, but on closer inspection realized that it was just odd--pale yellow with a faint stained-glass-window design on its body, and with long, stick legs and a thin abdomen. I had read about synchronicities where external reality suddenly mingled with a person's internal state, as though both were actually part of one reality, so I pondered the bug carefully. It sat on the face of my computer, fearless, in no hurry, completely at home, while I inspected it. I finally realized that I shouldn't waste any more time, so I brushed it onto the floor with a piece of paper. Twenty minutes later, realizing that it might have been shipped inside the computer case from another country, I searched for the bug and couldn't find it. I wondered if it had crawled back into my computer, but I couldn't find a hole large enough for the bug to crawl into--or out of, for that matter. 
     I decided to search for it on the way to the bathroom. As I ambled along, I gazed at the floor of the hallway and in all of the cubicles I passed, without success. The bug might be on the wall or the ceiling, so I paused and looked all around. Still no luck. As I proceeded to the restroom, I recalled another bizarre experience with bugs that occurred many years before, not long after my father died. I was on a camping trip with my brother and mother, and we were all eating cold cereal for breakfast. I complained that my mother didn't seem to care that my father had died. My mother cringed and groaned, staring down at her cereal bowl. Innumerable bugs were squirming in her cereal. 
     "How could they all end up in your bowl?" I demanded, spooning through my own cereal and then searching through the rest of the cereal in the box carefully without finding any other bugs. "You put them there yourself," I sneered, then stormed away into the woods. Could that have been some kind of synchronicity, I wondered, as I was urinating into the urinal. 
My Concept Album
     I recalled a dream that had occurred soon after my father died. I was fixing lunch while watching television and bugs started crawling out of my sandwich. Soon I noticed that bugs were crawling out of the TV, so many of them that I couldn't find a place to stand that was bug-free.
     When I returned to my cubicle, I discovered Brian, the head programmer, standing by my desk. "Oh, there you are," he said. "I've been looking for you. Let me guess, the program still isn't bug free?"
     "That was a lucky guess," I joked.
     Brian smiled and looked down. "I'm afraid we have some bad news. We are running out of the money that we had budgeted for quality control. I'm afraid we can't keep you any longer than the end of this week."
     I grimaced, "What if the program is still full of bugs?"
     "We're going to have the other programmers do some quality control and pray that the program works good enough after we release it out in the field. We can't afford to do anything else, at this point. You've been doing great work, but we need to move this out of production. I'm sorry, but it's time we make a real-world business decision here."
     "That's understandable," I replied, partly relieved that my work was over.

A Fairy Tale with My Harp Concerto

     "Thanks for understanding," Brian said sympathetically. "Just try to document as much as possible before the end of this week. Thanks."
     "Sure, no problem," I replied as Brian was leaving. After Brian was gone, I muttered, "This is the worst possible f-cking timing!" Then I quietly hissed, "Nobody gives a sh-t." 
     Just then the head of production walked by with "a suit," examining the recently installed cubicles. The suit boasted, "You can see that the cubicles are effectively eliminating waste conversation." The head of production smiled and nodded, unaware that the programmers had obsessively consulted each other about their work before the cubicles were installed. 
     "You better watch what comes out of your mouth," I thought. "You still have two more days to go."
     Then my phone rang. "Who the hell could that be?" I wondered. "Nobody ever calls me." I imagined an insect at the other end holding up a telephone.
     "Hello," my wife mumbled. "Can you talk?" 
     "Oh, hi," I responded. "Yeah, but why are you calling here?"
     "They found Russell's body," she groaned. "From what I hear, he surfaced with roses tangled in his hair."
     "Oh, my god, I'm so sorry," I murmured.
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     "I just thought I'd let you know."
     "Thanks," I replied, and hung up the phone. I assumed that my wife had been having an affair with Russell, which served me right, since I was having an affair. We had agreed to an open relationship, which had led to her staying out all hours after her shift at the IRS. My wife, though, insisted that she and Russell were only friends.
     Suddenly I saw the bug crawling up the wall. I felt the urge to squash it, but I was too appalled to move. My wife had been staying with a friend for several weeks. The last time I had heard from my wife, she had informed me that Russell had drowned. Russell and his brother had gone out drinking in a boat on Millerton Lake at night with a friend. The brothers had gotten into a fist fight on the boat, and, according to the friend, Russell's brother had fallen overboard and Russell had dived in after him. The friend had waited a long time in the boat, but the two never surfaced. They dredged the lake but found nothing.  A memorial service on the lake was performed where the two had disappeared. Russell's ex-wife threw roses into the water at the service.
     "Explain that," I demanded of the bug, which was just underneath the clock on the wall of my cubicle. I had the uneasy feeling that the bug was going to crawl inside the clock. I believed for a moment that John Blackmore had planted a venomous, exotic bug in my cubicle, which was perhaps the first intuition I had that Blackmore was thinking of murdering me. I didn’t of course figure out until later that Blackmore was probably even then entertaining the idea. But even then, Blackmore was just too damned old; my wife was only interested in Blackmore as a friend, someone who would come running when she needed help. In retrospect it is obvious to me that Blackmore was beginning to channel a homicidal energy into his soul, the most negative energy in the universe--he would become like a man possessed after I moved back in with my wife six months later. 
     Something even stranger: a girlfriend and I had eaten dinner with Russell's widow and her new boyfriend the previous Saturday night and had watched a video afterwards. My girlfriend and the widow both worked as waitresses at the same restaurant and had become quick friends. Fresno was not a small town anymore. The odds were overwhelmingly against such a chance occurrence. I had seen Russell only once as he was driving away in a pickup at sunrise. How could Russell have come to figure so prominently? After dinner, we had watched the Star Trek movie where the alien, some superhuman Latin lover type, had placed a bug that looked like a tiny crab into Checkhov's ear. Chekhov had writhed and screamed, and I had grimaced and turned away.
     I took my eyes away from the computer screen, no longer motivated. The bug was gone again. I suddenly wondered again if the bug was poisonous and stifled the urge to dash out of my cubicle.
My Essays
     "This is just sh-t," I hissed. I couldn't hold on to a job. I couldn't hold on to a relationship. The whole world was being poisoned by mindless videos full of hatred and violence, which people would soon be able to rent at their corner mini-mart, thanks to me. It was being polluted every moment by huge corporations. At that very moment, as I was staring at the computer screen, the government was making and stockpiling weapons, chemical and biological and nuclear weapons that were unimaginably destructive and poisonous to the world. I took a bite of a candy bar and gagged.
     On the way to the restroom, I cringed when I saw a programmer, a woman who had attracted me for weeks, chatting with another programmer in the hallway. She didn't notice me at all. As I passed, she wiped a strand of hair from her mouth, and for a moment it appeared to me that a bug had just scurried out of her mouth and down her neck, and I had to stifle the urge to moan.
     I returned to my cubicle and rebooted the computer. I felt a tickling sensation on the back of my hand but did not look down and did not move my hand away from the keyboard. Instead, with my right hand, I picked up the soda can and took another sip, placing the can down next to the computer, in direct violation of the rules regarding food in the work place. Instead of swallowing the soda immediately, I swished it around in my mouth, feeling the tingle of carbonation on my gums, holding the soda in my cheeks a moment before fluttering my tongue to rinse my palate. Then I took another bite of the candy bar, which contained several ingredients that made me ill. 
     I felt the tickling sensation again on my hand. This time, realizing with great certainty that sensations, even very small ones, don't occur without reason, and imagining an ant maneuvering between the hair follicles on the back of my hand, I shook the hand violently and returned it to the keyboard without looking down. The motion, though practically unconscious, distracted me for a moment, just long enough for my eyes to wander to a painting above my desk. 
My Children's Poems
      The painting was extremely bright, with a large, intensely orange oval floating just above the center of the canvas. The paint appeared to explode around that orange balloon, as if it were a source of life. At first the painting appeared to contain depth, as though it were an expressionistic landscape, but after a few moments of scrutiny I realized that, in fact, nothing was delineated enough for the painting to be considered figurative. The orange oval, though evoking the sun and its symbolism as the source of life, was really only bright orange paint on canvas. It just was, or is, I thought, like a flower. Again I shook my hand and placed it gently back on the keyboard, envisioning the hand of Buddha lifting up the lotus flower in his most profound, wordless sermon. 
     On the computer screen, a man and woman coupled doggy style, the woman with a pained expression on her face, and I felt a slight, involuntary arousal, as though a slug were slowly stirring awake. The figures seemed for a moment almost alien, a coupling of inscrutable protoplasm. Just as I lifted the soda can again, imagining that I was lifting a flower, I felt a stabbing pain in my left hand. A bite of some kind was all I could think as I shook my hand again, before I grew dizzy and my vision blurred.