entry_161Lord of his demesne, the bookstore proprietor fixes me in his gaze as I fill out the form. More accurately, he watches my hand, scrutinizes its every movement. This is an intense man covered in tattoos, an unlikely combination. You’d think that someone who can take a needle in the eyelid might have a more placid bearing. But then again, maybe his friends did this to him as a prank after one of his late-evening post-binge blackouts.

The pressure is getting to me though. I can feel the onset of spontaneous arthritis, my joints stiffening in response, and I will soon be forced to flail my arm about in a futile attempt to dislodge the pen. Here I am, right on the verge of this, and the tattooed man has no idea. I glance up and see his forehead lined in concentration. He’s staring so intently at my pen hand that he doesn’t notice me watching him. Meanwhile, I’m on the edge of panic. Under his unwavering attention my letters unravel themselves. Lines that are usually straight become jagged with effort, and loops are left open, allowing the air to escape. My tongue emerges from between my teeth as I finally complete my first name.

“There,” I say, unable to conceal my sense of accomplishment. “Almost done now.”

Finally, the next line: Date. What’s the date? I lift my left wrist and read the digits on my watch. 20th of March. And I dutifully write, “Mar-”

“It’s March 21st,” interrupts the proprietor, hurrying me along. But he’s wrong. He’s given me the wrong information, and now he expects me to write it down.

“Oh,” I argue, but he fails to see what I’m driving at. He does not reconsider. He makes no move to correct himself. And as a result my pen hand has frozen in time, somewhere between the 20th and the 21st.

This is the very worst thing that could happen right now. If being self conscious isn’t bad enough, now I must come to terms with the consequences of my decision, whatever it may be. I know to the core of my being that it’s the 20th of the month, but do I risk raising the painted man’s ire by committing my conviction to ink? Would it be rude of me to write the correct day without first giving voice to my intention to do so?

I imagine the scene as he sees the second digit emerge from my whitened knuckles. “What’s that? Is that a two and a… a zero?” he reaches from behind the counter to rotate the form so he can see it. “March 20th. Interesting,” he says, and looks up at me as he takes a pull from his snifter of cognac. “Well you’ve just unleashed the fucking fury, haven’t you?” Then the flash of blades, and red foam, and cold linoleum on my teeth.

How can I be expected to function at all under his unrelenting stare is beyond me. I’ve never responded well under pressure. Back in school I would forget how to walk several times a day at the mere possibility that someone was watching me, judging my gait as I stumbled from class to class. My autopilot lever would flip to manual, and each of my joints became a plaintive voice in the din, “Where do I go now? Am I bending? Am I bending now?” And in my mind’s eye I would see my legs lifting mechanically like a prancing Clydesdale as I consciously kept my extremities from coming unhinged altogether, my very bones rotating in their sinuous webbing like the planks of a Jacob’s Ladder.

The pen now slick, I’ve completed the first digit the same way I did it in preschool, with stop-motion care.

Or maybe my adversary, the proprietor, has told me the incorrect date intentionally just to see my will buckle. “Write ‘coriander’ for the date,” he could just as easily say. “Do it now! C. O. R…” And I would do it, and afterward I would hand over my spine in a long, black coffin-shaped box.

As my pen touches down on paper even I don’t know what I’m going to write next. I realize that it all comes down to what’s important to me. Do I want to be right? Or do I want to fit in? It’s a basic question. Should I, through my actions, seek to enlighten, thereby improving the world? Or should I play along, keeping my righteousness a secret and fostering the grand illusion merely to avoid social distemper? And then what about the moral-

I quickly write “1” before I have a chance to ponder the questions any further. The proprietor snatches the form from me and heads into the back office to retrieve my parcel. So I am a marionette–I am a happy marionette. Or at least relieved, now freed from either decision or consequence. Chooose your battles, right?

And it’s a good thing that I didn’t put up a fight, because when I get home I realize that my watch is twelve hours and five minutes off.


entry_160Okay, I’ll admit it: most of what I know is made up; a complete fabrication as a defensive measure against the alarming banality of truth. As such, the line between the two worlds–between truth and fabrication–is sometimes indistinct. The defining factor seems to be the number of unicorns involved in a given thought. Of course there is no profit in revealing this fact to my adversaries.

So it is that, in order to avoid looking like an idiot, I will keep the topic of conversation within known boundaries by whatever means necessary. It’s easy enough to steer the typical conversation, which may exhibit, at best, a bovine bearing. But on occasion there will be the folk with an agenda, and when they start throwing down the “lepton emission” or “freemason conspiracy” jive, then, my friend, then it’s time for the fisticuffs. Usually all it takes to get things back on track is a, “Wait, what is it you were saying before about fabric softeners?” Any opportunity for exposition will find people willing to cede control of the conversation. They know in their solipsistic hearts that they cannot die suddenly in the middle of making their point. A former mercenary knows different.

In any case, the small library of information to which I have access is more than adequate to meet the needs of superficial discourse. If I do find my actual knowledge lacking then I can rely on such devices as oratory momentum, recombinant repetition, or simple blank nods of agreement to create the illusion of broader understanding, similar to the way a cat bristles so as to appear larger to foes.

There are exceptions.

When Leopold mentions one thing, it’s only so that he can follow it up with something even more obscure. In that way, the initial topic is nothing more than a conversational lure. This tactic is effective because the initial premise is often couched as nothing more than an unassuming observation, like whether or not cheese would compliment leftover tater tots. But then I’m suddenly embroiled in a baroque debate on the reliance of latter day patriarchies on rhetorical esoterica, and nothing short of a cardiac event will offer escape from that one intact. For example.

To make matters worse, there will always be a point, somewhere within his gnarled mesh of logic, where Leopold will let blare the trumpets of self-aggrandizement. This is not a thread well-woven into the fabric of his diatribe. To the contrary, the only reason he gets away with his ego posedown is because it comes at you from another dimension entirely. “It’s like the points Professor Lawrence Kohlberg made about moral reasoning,” he’ll say. “Oh, and did I mention I knew Kohlberg? He and I had similar conversations, and I probably influenced his teachings.” It’s a stampede of elk trampling your office cubicle.

Like a caveman you can only grunt, “I eat boogers.”

While Leopold harangues me from his workstation pulpit with his theories concerning the pitfalls of moral absolutism, I’m realizing that I’ve developed a rather complex point system just to cope. Clearly, Leopold must lose points for his debate techniques. Pouncing on people only to further his conversational dominance gains only demerits. On the other hand, for his overall inclination toward logical fastidiousness, and for being earnest, he earns points. I’m nothing if not fair.

Coworker Trevor gets points for being one of the funniest people I’ve come across. I don’t have to be particularly knowledgeable when I talk with him, but I have to dial up the humor. And not my native flavor of humor, but his variety: super-dry businessman, with a dadaist twist. And at least one foreign accent. It’s the only currency he accepts. But then Trevor suffers demerits for being a conspicuous ear wax smeller. He makes some attempt to conceal his sinister proclivity, but in such an inelegant, obvious way that the only thing keeping people from staring outright is pity for his obliviousness. He once broke character just to whisper to me, “Does your ear wax smell like apples?” Such intimacy I do not desire. I responded by picking up my telephone and holding an animated conversation with someone who wasn’t there until Trevor went away.

Trevor’s point scale is not nearly as granular as Talia’s, whose overall score fluctuates faster than it takes to say the word, “actually,” which she does, constantly. Sometimes more than once in a single sentence. On the positive side, the extra syllables afford me time to think when the subject of the conversation threatens to reach my comprehensive event horizon. Still, though it’s to my advantage, I must count her repeated acts of blind iteration against her. It’s just sloppy.

Throughout my day points are ticked off like arcade bells. Clive sits at a weird angle, and Bertrand is a mouth-breather. Drusilla whistles off-key at her desk while she’s working, and Deirdre speaks in a high-pitched monotone that resembles a modem handshake sequence. I must concede that life among these creatures is made possible only by my comprehensive rating and categorization system. Also by the fact that unicorns replenish my life force.

Plus, they’re just good eatin.


entry_159Officer… Lindstrom. Her badge catches the sun, and I’m blinking the spot from my eyes when she looks up at me from her small pad of lined paper. “And when did you first see the car?” Her notes are a disconcerting scribble. Do I really talk like that?

Perhaps I could read what she’s writing if I spoke more elegantly. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t fight it. “Ghkklllrrrrgghhh, thrbblll ffkkkggggg.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I said it was around three in the morning,” I say. I look beyond the front porch to where the mystery car sat idling last night. Gone now. “Just before three, maybe.”

She stops writing. “How much before?” she asks. A stickler. Just then she’s hit with a yawn, and it’s one of those yawns that involve every muscle in the face and neck. And while she is helpless I peer into her mouth, positioning my head to get the best view.

By the time her eyes return from the recesses of her skull the illusion is already shattered–officer Lindstrom is nothing but meat. She can play servant of the peace all she wants, but she is no more than a beast in uniform. This thought inevitably leads me back to myself, and I become uncomfortable as I think about organic components strung together, vital processes pushing out hair and sebum, eating and evacuating…. I’ve stopped breathing again, and nearly fall over for lack of oxygen.

I don’t like to think of myself in that context. It’s not that I fancy myself more than the sum of my parts; I hold no such illusion. I prefer to think of myself–my person–as being made up of a single uniform material, like luncheon meat. The actions and motivations of officer Lindstrom here are determined by chemical, by instinct, by genetic imperative. I, on the other hand, am pure thought riding around within a tangible carapace. Rather like a corndog, I suppose.

From the dawn of thought I’ve been fascinated by systems. Not just physical bodies, but by environments, workplaces, and living quarters. Each one is a unique sculpture of will, a shrine to a given process. In a public place my attention is often held rapt by the momentary glimpses of the office beyond an employee door. A whiteboard smeared with the blue of changing shift schedules. Worn clipboards pinching sheaves of inventory sheets. Or V-shaped notches in teeth after years of gnawing… what?

In the midst of this activity that I cannot possibly fathom, my fantasy involves recklessly insinuating myself into some procedural chain, undaunted by my complete ignorance. “Gimme that,” I would say to the stultified worker drone. “Let me show you how a professional does it.” And I grab the shoe horn, or the blast shields, or the stainless steel calipers, or the strap-on baby mask, or the novelty vomit, or the environment-safe glitter, or the sock puppets with blue button-eyes, or the machine that goes ping, or your mother, and I just start doing whatever the job requires as if it were second nature to me. What one man can do another man can do, isn’t that how it goes? At least until the authorities do their thing.

But now, aren’t people the most inscrutable systems of all? Acting and responding, picking stuff up and putting it down, idling their cars outside my house in the middle of the night, and writing my every word on a leaf of notebook paper, albeit not very clearly. “Never mind,” I say.

The creature who is officer Lindstrom looks up at me again. “What never mind?”

I shake my head. “I made the whole thing up.”

Her arms fall by her sides, pen and pad forgotten. “Sir, look…. Would you mind explaining why you made the report this morning?”

“Because,” I say, and shrug. That’s really all there is to it.

Time Traveler

entry_158When I was a lad I had a watch that was five minutes behind. Setting that watch at the beginning of each school day was part of my morning ritual, followed closely by the familiar litany: key, money, watch, belt, pencil. They were essential to my peace of mind, and had to be on my person before I set out for school.

Finding myself without any one of these five things foretold some amount of additional hardship. Without the key I would be locked out of the house until my parents’ return, very late. Without money there would be no lunch. No watch meant I couldn’t tell how much longer I had to bear class without turning around in my seat toward the clock on the back wall, an act sure to draw the attention of my instructor. My belt provided not only a sense of security, but was the most efficient means of keeping my big brother’s pants on my hips. And without a pencil, my instructor–my vengeful instructor–would force me to take notes using a sharpened fingernail in fiber-board. Or so I had heard. I didn’t wish to find out.

Key, money, watch, belt, pencil. What set these few items apart as being so deserving of conscious daily attention? After all, weren’t there any number of things whose absence I would more sorely regret? But that’s the key: these were the things at the center, between mere whim and necessity. These were the five things that I desired, but only for comfort. I was never in danger of forgetting the things I didn’t need, like candy or glue balls. And I couldn’t forget the truly essential gear, like my books, my underwear, or the tiny, ivory-handled pistol I wore in them.

For the most part there was a sanctity to my routine that gave me a sense both of control and belonging. Perhaps that was the closest I ever came to realizing the notion of celestial clockwork. Maybe it’s ironic then that I grew to loathe the setting of my watch. Its unwillingness to stay where I set it seemed mocking, especially as it ran no more slowly than any of the other timepieces in my life. It was just five minutes behind, and there it stayed. I became obsessed with synchronizing it, whenever I took notice of the disparity. But by the end of a day it would be five minutes behind once more.

Looking at the matter technically, it would have been an easy matter to ascribe this to a faulty time-keeping mechanism. But the fact–no the beauty–of my watch was that it would not be ten minutes slower if I let two days lapse between settings. No, from a scientific perspective I had to concede that my watch would decelerate, upon its initial setting, until it was five minutes to the lee of the correct time, at which point it would resume normal speed. Just enough to maintain its place.

As children we cling to the things we know, little moral absolutists that we are. As such, it is clear that there is a right time and a wrong time. It’s as binary as that. Thus do we suffer any divergence from the known universe, and tattle or weep so that we might realize salvation from some greater authority. My instructor saw none of this struggle however, as I had learned early on that to be hysterical and frenzied was to be vulnerable.

I was just twelve then, but already setting my watch every six minutes or so. My state of mind was beginning to affect not only my assignments, but my well-being, and my conduct was visibly affected. By then I believed that my watch was leading me astray. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to be called mad, or worse. Try it yourself: respond to your friends consistently five minutes late, or step off the curb five minutes early. You’ll begin to see that life can take a nasty turn without any of its individual components changing. In the end it’s just a matter of timing.

My vindictive instructor ordered me to turn around, to stop looking at the clock on the back wall, and, when I failed to follow his directive, grabbed my shoulders and turned me physically. “You face forward,” he said, standing over me like a chalk dust-coated pylon. I admit that I was not man enough to bear the humiliation. When the bell rang only a minute later, and the kids piled out like apples off a tipped cart, I sat at my desk for four more minutes. Finally I was still, but that wasn’t good enough for my instructor. It’s a matter of timing, you see. By then he was shaking my shoulder and yelling in my ear, “Are you okay? Hey, can you hear me?” Then I pulled out my pistol and gave him something to yell about.

That wasn’t as long ago as you might imagine, yet things in my life have changed drastically. I’ve found much solace in a more regimented lifestyle, but I’m looking forward, in the near future, to establishing my own routines again. Once I am released. Key, money, watch, belt, pencil. License. Cigarettes. Glasses. Medicine.

As a final note I must say that I have to stifle a laugh whenever mention is made of the “time” I must serve. I’m ahead of the game is what they don’t realize. Five minutes ahead, to be precise.