The dream is always the same. I’m stuck in Mesa, and it’s the last place I want to be. I’m trapped inside an antique store filled with Mark McGwire bobbleheads. Staring. Judging. Flexing their muscles. The dream makes sense on some level, considering that, when I was younger, my mother and I went to spring training in Arizona every other year. In this dream, I’m in a stupor, wandering from one aisle to the next, hoping that I’ll find a way out, or at least stumble upon a section of the shop selling something other than wobbling figurines of a disgraced juicer from baseball’s steroid era. But the further I walk, the deeper I descend into the store’s dusty depths. The claustrophobia becomes so overwhelming that I close my eyes and scream. I spin in circles. Sometimes this is the end of the dream. Other times, I don’t wake up — not yet at least — and when I finish spinning I open my eyes and notice that I’m standing in the middle of an empty street. In the distance, maybe 50 yards away, a woman in a black dress is walking toward me. I feel an irresistible pull toward her and start running in her direction. But as soon as I move, I wake up. This ending is always much more disappointing than the other one, because I’m being ripped away from beauty, from happiness. Or at least that’s the way it feels in the moments after I awake, as I lie there in bed and dread the coming day.
I don’t live an exciting life. Somewhere in my past, I could have forked where instead I spooned, or I spooned where I should have forked, or something like that, and in doing so avoided taking the path that led to my current misery. I’ll be straight up about it. I’m 36 years old, and I work as an order packer at an online appliance parts store. I’m the only employee, and the office is a windowless room in a basement underneath a bar. Make of that what you will. Each day is a carbon copy of the previous one. I wake up around 4 in the morning, feeling like I’ve been kicked in the face by a mule. I pull myself out of bed as one pulls a corpse out of a coffin. I make my coffee extra black — that’s the only way to drink it — and throw an egg or two in the only pan I own, which is black and scarred from previous breakfasts. The food is hurled down the gullet quickly and not enjoyed — necessity, not pleasure. Sometimes I shower, other times not. It’s all the same. Then I throw on my ragged black pea coat, because somehow it’s always cold where I live, and peek my head into my mother’s room to say goodbye. She doesn’t register my presence. She hasn’t in months. Even so, I let her know that the nurse should be arriving in a few minutes and that she’ll take good care of her. My mother used to respond. She used to be the liveliest person in the room. She was an artist, once. I only have dim memories of that now.
What are the characteristics of a bad job? Repetitiveness, for sure. A lack of mental stimulation. No physical movement. An absence of light. Boss with bad breath. No coworkers to socialize with. An impossibility of ascending the career ladder. Take the worst aspects of the worst job you’ve ever had, ponder the ways in which that job could have been 10 times worse, and perhaps you’ll begin to approach the insufferableness of my occupation. There’s no escape, no relief. All day, every day, I construct cardboard shipping boxes — fold them and slap them together with tape — then stuff heating elements and light bulbs and every other kitchen appliance known to man inside them. Then I print off a shipping label for Mark Dingus or Jane Dildo or Mac Hornberger or whoever this particular kitchen appliance is being shipped to and slap that shipping label on the front of a cardboard box and toss the cardboard box into a big mailing basket. Then I do all of that all over again. For eight hours a day. Fold box. Tape box. Stuff appliance. Print label. Apply label. Fold box. Tape box. Stuff appliance. Print label. Apply label. At day’s end, the boss and I take all of these mailing baskets down to the post office and bid the packages adieu, as they begin their journey to North Carolina or California or whatever it is they’re going. A mammal lesser than a monkey could do my job. A damn bovine could do what I do, but it’s too smart of a creature to resign itself to such an awful lot. Even so, as men living in the world, we sometimes must do things we hate to do, because life demands it. If I was living for myself and only myself I would’ve left this job a long time ago and headed West — not to Arizona, of course, that shriveled hellhole, but perhaps a nice coastal town in Washington or Oregon where I could find a relatively low-stress job and focus on the one art that seems to bring me joy: making things out of toothpicks. It’s a strange hobby, I know. I can’t explain why it’s such a rewarding pastime. But I’ve been doing it for years now, not because people are buying my work or even looking at it, but because I feel a sense of pride with each completed project. I must have 100 or 150 finished works at this point, ranging from small insects and animals to slightly bigger cars and motorcycles and even a medium-sized roller coaster. All of these creations are displayed in one room of my house, a room that no one else has ever set foot in — not even my mother, because she had taken a turn for the worse before I started doing the toothpick thing. At any rate, I’m currently working on my magnum opus: a life-sized statue of a beautiful woman with wide hips and a luscious chest. In my mind, and perhaps nowhere else, I am an artist. Sometimes this is enough for me. Other times, I punch myself in my forehead for being such a failure. For being locked in a life with no exit door.
Forgive me for the melodrama. I get that way sometimes. I’m not proud of it, but I’m human, you see.
Sometimes there are good feelings. They usually arise after I’ve had a few beers at a bar called The Monk that sits above my appliance packing prison. I visit The Monk two or three times a week after work to relax and forget about the somber details of my life. It’s a jazz club, so on any given night talented musicians set the mood. I appreciate them greatly, but it would be a lie to say that I show up only for the music — or even only for the beer, for that matter, though the beer certainly improves my predicament. My main motivation for frequenting The Monk is to see a woman who, I’m certain, is the love of my life, although she doesn’t know this yet. Her name is Miranda, and she can’t be a day over 22, with long brown hair, freckles, and a husky voice that has always been oddly appealing to me. It’s her that I’m thinking of when I work on my stick-figure statue. Every shift, she wears tight black pants and a tight black shirt, a wardrobe choice that highlights her youthful figure and sends me crawling up a tree as a blind monkey. But my attraction to her isn’t merely physical. I love Miranda because she’s always talking, always moving, always laughing — always so full of life. I am not a man who talks much — I’ve always considered myself more of a watcher — so to see her speak so freely, with such precision and expression, leaves me in a state that I can only describe as impassioned reverence. To watch her exist in the world gives me hope and reminds me of a beauty that I once embodied, a beauty that I once felt all around me, but that has since shrunk to the margins with the passing of time. I’m not an old man by any means, but I’m no longer young, either. I’m of an age where death is on my radar, which cannot be said about Miranda, who lives her life like a flower in bloom, with death so far out in the badlands as to be non-existent.
So I drink. I watch. I listen. The soft jazz plays. Glasses tink and a sweet wet smell hangs in the air. Miranda is rarely my bartender. Instead, I observe her delicate movements from afar, admiring her with such esteem that, should we interact for an extended period of time, she couldn’t possibly live up to the woman I’ve made her out to be in my mind. She is but a girl! I remind myself. You have built her up to be this holy thing — a pillar of existence — yet you don’t even know the real her! But I can’t help myself. My daydreams, coupled with the alcohol, hurl me into such a state of euphoria that I cannot resist her. After all, what else do I have to live for? Is it so wrong for me to want a dollop of happiness in life, given my situation at home and at work? Miranda, this bar, this music, are a small glimmer of light in my otherwise padlocked existence. I refuse to be ashamed of this.
One time, Miranda spoke to me. I could hardly believe it was happening. I was sitting alone in my tiny corner of the bar, sipping on a beer and bubbling with a slanted internal excitement, when I saw her coming my way. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do, how to carry myself. I averted my eyes like a dope, gazed into my almost-empty beer, stared at the greasy floor, in the hope that she wouldn’t register the nervousness in my eyes. I repeatedly tapped my finger on the table. When I looked up, she was standing above me. A mighty queen. The freckles. The dark green eyes. A golden halo around her head. Kingdoms have fallen for such beauty, I thought. I could smell her essence, a mixture of flowers and light sweat. I wanted to run away, I wanted to eat her, but I did neither. My neck was a wire holding up a bridge.
“Can I get you another?” she asked with a smile.
“No,” I said, quicker and colder than I wanted to. “No, I am perfectly fine.”
Her smile quickly disappeared, and her eyes sank to the floor. She turned away without hesitation and scurried toward the bar. What an inconsiderate brute I was. I didn’t understand why I had to be this way. So I finished my beer and left. When I arrived home, I told the nurse to leave. I was unnecessarily rude to her. Then I trudged to my room, without saying a word to mother, and collapsed — face-first and fully dressed — into my bed, where I cried until I fell asleep.
There’s actually a third ending to my Arizona antique store dream. I didn’t tell you about it earlier because I’m ashamed of it. I know I should be totally honest with you about everything, but sometimes self-preservation takes over and makes me paint myself as a better person than I actually am. Anyway, I’ll tell you the third ending right now, because you deserve the whole truth from me.
The dream starts as it always does, with me wandering around an antique store inexplicably stocked to the gills with Mark McGwire bobbleheads. But instead of never finding a way out, or being overtaken by a beautiful girl in a black dress, I stumble into a dimly-lit back office that smells of baby powder and vinegar. There’s a cradle in the middle of the room. From my position in the door frame, I can’t see who or what is inside. I move slowly across the office, and, as I shuffle, a screech emanates from every inch of the room and continues to increase in volume until I reach the cradle itself, upon which time the screech becomes so overwhelming that it’s all I can hear. I look into the cradle. What I see is not some awful thing — which is what I always expect to see, given the general creepiness of my surroundings — but my mother, as a child, cooing and smiling with an innocence that only infants exhibit. This baby doesn’t look like my mother, of course, but I know it’s my mother in that unconscious way you can know things in a dream without actually knowing them, if you understand what I mean.
What I do next haunts me every time I wake up. I don’t want to do it. The baby is beautiful, and I don’t wish to harm it. Yet I’m driven by some unseen power to move my hands slowly around her neck. I try to resist this evil, but it’s far too strong. I press both of my thumbs into my baby mother’s throat. I feel her struggling for air. She squirms and convulses. I cry and cry, but I do not stop. I cannot stop. The screeching grows louder and the walls close in until they’re inches from my back and head. I’m sweating and cursing and trying to resist this awful edict, but I’m powerless. Then out of nowhere, I feel a sharp pain in my stomach, which shocks me into consciousness.
I lay in bed, drenched in sweat. My chest fills with tar-like guilt. I always try to return to sleep, but never can. Most of the time I lie there in a catatonic state until that strange pre-dawn light half-illuminates the room. Then I wake up and get ready for my day at the appliance parts store, as if nothing awful has just happened.
I thought about this dream most of the next day, as I sat there in the windowless office, packaging appliance parts like the good little robot I’d become. Perhaps one benefit of having such a mindless job is the ability to contemplate. Sometimes I become so lost in my thoughts that I’m able to momentarily transcend my surroundings. So it was on this day, as I thought about my mother and that terrible dream. I truly love my mother. Always have. I never knew my father — apparently, he’s drinking himself to death somewhere up in Canada — but my mother has always been there for me, and because of that I’ve always felt an undeniable kinship with her. She used to make such beautiful paintings; she used to be so full of life. I remember going to the park with her when I was a kid. She’d bring her easel, and while I was running around and playing with sticks, she’d be capturing the world around us. On several occasions, when I was maybe six or seven, she’d bring me a small easel and allow me to fingerpaint while she worked on her decidedly more mature works. Most of all, she loved to paint people playing in the river. The park we frequented was on a relatively mellow stretch of water, and there were always loads of people out there during the summer months. Sunbathing college kids wearing Ray-Bans. Mothers holding their floaties-wearing children. Dogs running, barking, splashing in the water. The sun hot, but rejuvenating. After a couple of hours of painting, mother would pack up our easels and — on certain, special days — take me down to the river for a dip. The water was always shockingly cold. “There you go,” she’d say with a smile. “Now doesn’t that feel good, out here in the hot sun?”
I was snapped out of this pleasant daydream by the smell of rotten vegetables from behind my head. “You about ready, there?” my boss asked. I turned around and caught the full brunt of his breath right in my face. A comically long nose hair dangled like a worm. I glanced at the clock: 4:54. “Yes sir, absolutely,” I said. “I’ll finish up this last package, and then I’ll be good to go.” I taped the final box of the day — a baking element, if you must know, that thing that heats up and turns orange in your oven — and tossed the package into the mail bin. Then the boss and I put the mail bin in the back of his truck, hopped in the cab, and headed for the post office.
Most of the time our rides are quiet. I didn’t know much about him and vice versa. There never seemed to be a pressing need to improve upon the silence. But on this day he was feeling talkative. “So, what’s your long-term plan?” he asked. “I mean, surely you don’t want to work here forever. You’re still relatively young. And I’m assuming this was never meant to be a permanent thing for you.” I sat in stunned silence, taken aback that he’d said something to me beyond “Good morning” or “Have a good night.” I picked at the thigh of my khakis. I touched my face like I often do in stressful situations. As I was fiddle-fucking around, trying to come up with a satisfactory answer, my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was my mother’s nurse. “Excuse me,” I said to my boss. “I have to take this. It could be important.” When I picked up the phone, the first thing I noticed was how rapidly the nurse was breathing. My heart sunk. “You need to come home now,” she said. “She’s not doing well.”
It was several weeks later, as I was going through my mother’s old room, that I found a drawer full of her old paintings. Most of them were of people playing in the river. Looking at them now, I could hear the rush of the water and the children shouting with excitement. I flipped through the thick stack and came across a fingerpainting, done in green and yellow. I traced the paint lines with my finger then tucked the page back into the stack. I placed the stack on the nightstand and began walking out of the room. But I hesitated when I reached the doorway. Something was summoning me back. I walked over to grab the stack of paintings, opening a number of other drawers to see what they contained. I came across a small figurine of a muscular baseball player in a white jersey and green hat. I picked up the little guy, turned his hard plastic body around in my hand. “Jose,” I said. But no one was there to hear me.
I made my way down the hallway to the bedroom full of my toothpick creations, the paintings and the figurine in hand. Within a week, I had the room decorated with my mother’s paintings and my toothpick creations — even my half-finished magnum opus. They stood regally, as though they were being displayed in a museum. Even the miniature baseball player had a place on the windowsill. I know she would’ve loved to see it — all of it.
I mourned for a long time. I took some time off to figure out what to do next. The days ran together. I rarely left the house but to get groceries. Oftentimes, I’d walk by my mother’s old room and feel a jolt to see it bare. This wasn’t a good time in my life, but I eventually pulled myself out of the rut. One Wednesday evening, when I was feeling more myself, I decided to go to The Monk. It’d been a while. I was greeted by that familiar sweet wet smell as I walked inside. A quintet was on stage playing a rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” I walked across the room, shoes sticking to the floor. I pulled up a seat at the bar. My eyes scanned the room. No sign of Miranda. A male bartender with a scruffy beard approached. I asked him if she was scheduled to come in tonight.
“She doesn’t work here anymore, man,” he said, drying a glass.
“Oh,” I said. “What happened?”
“She moved to Seattle. Got accepted to a master’s program out there.”
He walked to the other end of the bar to talk to another customer.
How does time work on us? How does change, which occurs at such a slow pace that we never notice it, eventually consume us to such a degree that we no longer recognize the things around us, can no longer recognize even ourselves? Mother was once here. Now she’s somewhere out there, floating on the stars, or nowhere at all. Me, well, I am not myself. “I” am not an “I” at all. What I think of as “me” is just a culmination of thousands of years of evolution, a thin and delicate string stretching back through the centuries consisting of great grandmothers and great grandfathers who never had any inkling of my impending existence, yet here they are, living on within me, in some imperceptible yet meaningful way. The scope of it all is magnificent. If only we could keep this magic in mind at all times, instead of wasting our days on the mundane and the ultimately pointless — the packaging of the bake elements, the hot blast of insufferable breath. Don’t tell me any of that stuff matters in the long view, buddy. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not that dumb. Life should be a canvas, not a cage.
I close my eyes. I hear the surf and smell the salty air. There are pivot points in our personal existences, and I can feel myself standing on one now. I open my eyes. The band is walking off the stage. They’re giving each other hugs. The sax player has a drink in his hand and he’s smiling — not at anyone in particular, just lighting up the room with his toothy grin, his mind floating out there somewhere among the stars or eternity. I stand up.