Sam Margurite, owner and manager of Healthy Office Solutions, acquired the nickname Magpie, or Pie, early in his career for his tendency to appropriate paperweights and other small interesting objects from the offices he was paid to clean. No one, perhaps not even Sam, remembered who first called him that, odd bits of prior education and improbable cultural references always bubbling up from his employees at strange moments. If you worked for the Pie cleaning offices on the night shift, you were invariably tired, unlucky, and given to inventing colorful nicknames after midnight.
He deserved the name. He was compulsive, a genuine kleptomaniac, who’d been convicted a few times but managed to keep his business running in spite of his legal troubles. At age 52, after three marriages, four arrests, and a court-mandated recidivism program, Sam was a magpie in search of a quieter life. He had a caseworker whom he continuously mocked, hair plugs, a few suits for those days he met with new commercial clients, a pine-board office on the third floor of the P.J. Rothmann Chemical Building, and a receptionist named Jan, who was getting a masters in postcolonial literature and always work black.
The Pie hired me shortly after Covid turned the country upside-down because he may have been a thieving bird, but he wasn’t stupid. He correctly surmised that, while many employees would be working from home, those who couldn’t would feel extreme anxiety at the prospect of facing death in a cubicle five times a week. Previously they’d only had to face clumpy Coffeemate and snitty Rick from accounting. Now it was The Plague on the nylon-nub carpet — to say nothing of all the potential plague-negligence lawsuits if said cubicle dwellers woke up one day in an iron lung.
Thus, Samco Office Cleaners was rebranded as Healthy Office Solutions. The Pie expanded his janitorial staff by one (me), making it a six-person crew, including him. He equipped us with lime-green Chinese hazmat suits, which looked serious, but which were full of holes, and advertised that he could make your office free from Covid.
8:00 PM: clock in. Hazmat suit on. Carry equipment to the van. Sit between mops and a stack of buckets. Do not speak. Contemplate infinity in a grain of sand.
We used what office cleaners everywhere had used since ancient times: rags and Hexol, scrub buckets, an arsenal of mops and squeegees, push brooms and Windex, wide lint rollers, an enormous industrial vacuum cleaner called “The Beast,” and a couple of rechargeable Dustbusters. The only real innovation, aside from the hazmat suits, were the bright-yellow stickers that read, “STERILE.” Sam put them on every piece of equipment, even the mop handles. I didn’t know how Dustbusters or The Beast could ever be considered sterile, much less the scrub buckets and push brooms, but I did know enough not to ask questions.
This evening, I’d be mopping the poorly lit hallways of the Delphi Gozer Commercial Centre in my holy lime-green hazmat suit from Shandong, going over the beige floor tiles with enough diluted Hexol to poison Greater Wichita. Thing is, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I had migrated to Hauberk, Missouri when I lost my illusions about life along with my illustrious and action-packed position as a dictionary editor, the only job I’d had since college. And, though you might think there are tons of openings in the hard-hitting world of dictionary editing during a pandemic, you might be surprised. The prospects were not forthcoming, even for a dictionary editor of my experience and advanced professional stature.
In interviews (for Britannica online, for a publishing house that specialized in books about dog food, for a Ukrainian waste-processing company looking for a communications officer, for a lubricant manufacturer in Jiangsu, probably located relatively close to the company that made our defective, STERILE, hazmat suits), I liked to joke that I had 300,000 transferable skills, since that is the current number of words in most unabridged English dictionaries. I thought it was a pretty good joke.
8:30 PM: arrive at the site. Secure mop and bucket. Do not rupture the sacred silence of early work shift dread or acknowledge the existence of your colleagues. Imagine you are a feral piglet rooting for apples in the 19th-century Bavarian forest. Your sensitive brown eyes and inquisitive snout investigate the leaves with certain circumspection. Tonight, you will be mopping for eight hours straight, yet you retain your essential dignity and do not oink.
After many failures and a depressing stint with a temp agency, a friend put me in touch with the Pie. Ergo my move to Hauberk, MO. Ergo, the lime-green hazmat suit and the STERILE mop. Ergo, the night shift and the hallway that looked straight out of a 1970s serial-killer flick, which was when the Delphi Gozer Commercial Centre had probably been built. Plaster tiles. Aluminum door handles. Buzzing fluorescent light bars. Ancient glass-fronted information boxes with little white letters that told you who was located on what floor. The rule was, you only turned on the lights for the space you were cleaning.
Normally, we might clean up to five locations before dawn, but the Delphi Gozer was so massive, it always took the six of us all night to get it done. While standing in the hall with my mop, contemplating infinity, I figured the Pie was, at that moment, putting snow globes, staple removers, and blocks of Post-Its in his pockets. Maybe he was sliding open the center drawers of desks and nervously fingering the handles of break-room cabinets in the dark. I didn’t know how, exactly, he did it. But rehabilitation was a myth.
I’d fill a five-gallon bucket with water, mix in three capfuls of Hexol, and then I’d be good to go for an evening’s fun and frolic — or, in the case of the Delphi Gozer, for at least one of its beige, hundred-yard hallways. And then I’d usually exhale Hexol fumes for the rest of the night.
Given the defectiveness of my personal protective equipment, the Hexol often made me unconscionably high, such that I’d feel like belting out “The Crystal Ship” and “Pushin Too Hard” and “I Want Candy” — which I did as a kind of workplace ritual, if only for the sake of the impeccable reverb that can come from empty hallways and lonely conference rooms. I had a special love of ‘60s rock. It was the music of mopping.
Listening to anything on the job, however, was disallowed, verboten, strictly non-autorizzato. We had small, squeaky walkie-talkies that had to be switched on at all times so the royal bird could check up on us.
“What’s your status?”
“Mopping. The hallway.”
“The same hallway?”
“What’s your ETC?” Estimated Time of Completion, a military acronym he made up.
“Bout 30 minutes.”
“Make it 20.”
“Over and out.”
“Roger, sir. Over and out. And thank you. I appreciate this opportunity to contribute to the team, sir.”
“Now, shut the fuck up.”
“Yes sir. Absolutely. Shutting the fuck up.”
If I’d been able to openly listen to audiobooks or The Chambers Brothers or even the nightly news while I mopped, my job satisfaction would have been significantly greater. As it was, I kept a tiny MP3 player and a pair of earbuds taped inside my hazmat suit so I could pull them out discreetly, if necessary. The long quiet times — the times when the Pie gave in fully to the sweaty madness of his kleptomania and disappeared for a while into the bowels of some office complex — were just right for a sing-along with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” at the top of my voice. And that’s just what I did.
10:00 PM: break, not a night for kung fu down the hallway or treating the wheelchair ramp like a Hexol slip-n-slide. Tonight, you are serious. You are professional. You are shutting the fuck up and getting the job done; a wild piglet of god, noble and free. Soon, it will be October and the apples will disappear from the forest. Drink a Coke. Imagine your mop is a medieval halberd.
On slow weeks, we took our time but didn’t work any more thoroughly or carefully than usual. It was a foregone conclusion that we were more in the business of liability prevention, of helping companies meet a standard of reasonable care on paper, than in making things noticeably clean. When employees got seriously ill, companies hoped to minimize legal damages since they’d already taken measures to make the environment Covid-free. And what else could they be expected to do? Nothing like Dustbusters, lint-free carpets, and Hexol in the night to prevent the transmission of a highly contagious virus during the day. Makes one proud to be an American.
It was on one of those slow weeks, shortly after I’d been hired, that the wife of Osip “Ozzy” Polychenko showed up with a carving knife — providing me with an object lesson in janitorial survivability and a grudging respect for the Pie’s quasi-military protocols. You always kept the doors locked. You only lit up the area in which you were working. You turned the security systems back on as soon as possible. And you stayed mindful of your ETC. Why? Anichka Polychenko. That’s why.
I was on The Beast that day, up in the server room of Missouri Whole Life Mutual, and everything was rumbling. Dust and carpet powder were poofing up in little clouds about three feet in front of the vacuum due to the vibrations and the fact that the carpet had apparently not been cleaned since the Carter Administration. I had the extended version of the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger” turned up to 11, and I’d consumed three large Red Bulls earlier in the evening, rendering me the moral and chemical equivalent of a door gunner in Vietnam. “Get some!” I yelled over the music. “Get some, you muthacarpet!” So, naturally, I didn’t hear the commotion outside.
I was well into “Grazing in the Grass” by The Friends of Distinction, 1969 — Everything here is so clear. You can see it. And everything here is so real. You can feel it. I can dig it — when Ozzy ran into the server room, bleeding from a slash across his forehead. Can you dig it? He couldn’t.
“You gotta help me, bro!”
I never liked how he called everyone bro. Although he regularly cheated on his wife, and I was willing to judge him for it, Ozzy had a heavy accent and carried himself with a certain old-world dignity that I admired. He’d taught himself English when he was 12 years old. Nobody who can do that should ever call somebody “bro” in a dusty server room. I shut off The Beast and took out my earbuds.
“Look at this.” He pointed at the dripping slash that ran down from his hairline to the corner of his left eye, as if I might have missed it. Ozzy’s left cheek was red from blood. “She’s gonna kill me this time, bro.”
“You better get a Band-Aid for that.”
“You think this is a little cut?”
“Well, it’s not not a cut. Maybe more like a gash.” I said “gash” right as the guitar solo came out my earbuds like a tiny mouse band jamming far away. And it’s so real, baby! And those hard-hitting horn fills! Damn. I was missing the best part of the song.
Then lovely Anichka wailed an incoherent dirge of grief and death and betrayal somewhere toward the far end of the long custodian’s hallway.
“Shit,” he said. “She’s coming, bro.”
“Band-Aid,” I said.
“You have no empathy. EMPATHY. It means you — you FEEL — for — MANKIND.” Whether he was shaking from pure adrenaline or the certain knowledge that his wife wanted to carve him like Santa’s Christmas goose, I couldn’t tell. But it all amounted to the same thing. For me, interrupting my music. For Ozzy, nemesis. And the gods shall have their due.
“No, I do have empathy. For your wife. When you gave her syphilis. Remember when you told me about that? No wonder she wants to dice you up.”
He looked at me like I’d just cursed him in ancient Sumerian. I could see little globs of blood trickling along the furrow of the cut, splashing into the shoulder of his hazmat suit. He’d removed the headpiece and looked like a boy sent to school in his father’s oversized raincoat.
“That’s — ”
“I know.” I nodded rather empathetically, I thought. “It’s horrible. It is. Too many hookers, my brother. Too many. At least one too many.”
“You — ” He could barely form words. Except for his red cheek, he was sheet white from fear and dread and the realization that I was a monster. “I’ll never forgive you for this.”
“Band-Aid.” I pointed at my forehead and nodded.
Ozzy ran out of the server room. I put my earbuds back in, fired up The Beast, and commenced singing along with the opening to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells. Love is the answer. And that’s all-right. It’s a new vibration. 1969 was an excellent year for janitors and rock bands and door gunners everywhere. Love was in the air. It was the answer. And it was all-right.
Anichka dashed past the open door to the server room, knife in hand, screaming something horrible in bloodcurdling Ukrainian — one language I’ve never tried to learn. It’s too serious, too elemental. Say certain things in Ukrainian and you might accidentally create a new star or undo gravity. No. Not for me. I can’t be trusted with that much power. I’ll stick to Berlitz Italian and my Rollo Fassbinder’s Instant Access Japanese for Businessmen. Anata wa totemo utsukushīdesu. Anata wa koko ni yoku kimasu ka? That’s about the extent of the trouble I want to get into on a Friday evening.
Ozzy’s wife was always trying to kill him after a flare-up or after she caught him in another of his infidelities. That is, until they reconciled, which they always did, blood loss, drunken apologies, and stitches notwithstanding. Anichka Polychenko was an emotional woman, at least as emotional as her husband. She was someone who truly did have empathy or whatever powerful emotion could inspire one to forgive a case of venereal disease. I’m not sure I could be that forgiving on a good day, even with the best, most euphonious music ever written sliding through my ear canals. But I remained mindful of my ETCs.
I was always meant to be in the rear with the gear, but I stayed frosty. I kept my head on a swivel. I eschewed workplace violence, syphilis, dust mites, and the unlicensed discharge of Ukrainian in a municipal space. I didn’t call people “bro.” I dropped pine-scented powder on carpets like defoliant in a hot zone. And I kept it groovy.
My deaf-blind-mute routine was close to perfect by the end of my first month. I was deaf to the neurotic obsessions and phobias of my colleagues, blind to the Pie’s depredations in storage cupboards and supply rooms everywhere, and mute about the essential fraudulence of the service we were supposedly providing.
I didn’t consider myself morally bankrupt for going along with the con. That would have been irrational, given the vastly greater immorality of a government that permitted companies to force people back to work in a pandemic, risking their lives for big daddy’s bottom line. Instead, I considered myself a slightly discountenanced moderate centrist, a temporarily displaced dictionary professional. I was not in the right place or time. This job was temporary. But I could wield that mop like a mad bitch. And I did.
11:15, stealth shit in the second-floor women’s lavatory, knowing that your only female colleague is terrified of cleaning public restrooms and that social conditioning will prevent your other four male colleagues from entering at all. You are Red October, a Typhoon-class submarine of the Revolution armed with a stealth propulsion system and multiple ballistic missiles. They will never catch you, comrade. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Until my liberation, I intended to remain Switzerland-neutral. I passed no judgement on the Polychenkos when they bled and emoted through an area I’d already mopped. I took no notice of Da-Wayne Montgomery’s lust for concord grape Manischewitz, and how, by the end of the night, he’d be almost passed out, The Beast’s handle jiggling his enormous belly through his hazmat suit. I never mentioned it when Craig Axley disappeared to smoke a joint or five. I smiled grandly at Cindy Pak, who spent most of her time hiding from Herr Magpie and watching boy bands on her phone. She never smiled back. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we had employment. We were surviving. Maybe I was STERILE from all the Hexol contamination. But I had no plans to move in beside Ward and June Cleaver anytime soon, raise 2.5 kids, and get a minivan like some kind of 1950s suburban refugee lost in time.
America was headed for a forced barium sci-fi dystopia like unto the worst self-published novels of the 1990s: nobody raising kids anymore except the fundy Christians and the ultra-rich — kids who would seem like hothouse flowers, never fully exposed to gravity or unpurified air; the minivans of the world all on fire; the economy dead; the middle-class picked clean; coffee shops and libraries now being reclaimed by the jungle. Megachurches and car lots with armed guard towers. And bookstores? You wouldn’t want to know. Ward and June at that point would be naught but dust and bones, a distant memory, celluloid traces of a fallen civilization. The future wasn’t hard to see with Trump not yet out of the Oval, with the Covid danse macabre in the streets.
But I was doing OK.
I finished mopping and got two wet-floor signs from my rolling janitor’s cart, one sign for each end of the hallway; though, the likelihood of another human soul coming this way while the floor was still wet was right up there with a new land war in Asia and universal healthcare. Still, I followed protocol. Being Switzerland, I went by the book.
As a rule, after mopping hard surfaces like the floors of the Delphi Gozer, we were required to put down yellow plastic floor signs with collapsible feet that read CUIDADO — PISO MOJADO in bright scarlet capitals, the color of oxygenated arterial blood that would no doubt burst from the nose and mouth if one didn’t practice cuidado and went face-down. Of course, the signs were also stickered STERILE and therefore rendered everything virus-free. You could slip, break your face, and bleed, but you’d do it in a sanitary way. God bless.
I thought the Pie should have put out the effort to make the stickers at least read ESTÉRIL for aesthetic consistency. But I acknowledged the fact that he probably wasn’t able to find the right stickers. I also acknowledged the casual racism inherent in such cautionary signs. You never saw janitorial warnings in German or Inuit or bloodcurdling Ukrainian. Only Spanish. The sickness, as they say, ran deep.
But it didn’t make a difference to Magpie. What did? The whims of the great magnet that directed his life were inscrutable to others save for one simple truth: the Delphi Gozer Commercial Centre was a pain to get clean and the piso was mojado. It was the foremost thought in Magpie’s head when he wasn’t stealing ballpoints from the receptionist’s desk. Get the job done. Shut the fuck up. Vacuum properly. Don’t slip on the wet tiles. And that is in no way a snow globe in his pocket.
I was rarely happy to see him when, catlike, he’d appear behind me. I could have done my job perfectly well every night with only a few squawks on the walkie-talkie and The Foundations going strong. To you, I’m a toy, but I could be the boy you adore. If you’d just let me know. Let me know, that is, on the walkie-talkie instead of coming down and eyeballing me like I’m some kind of social deviant on a work release. I’m a dictionary editor, goddammit. I’m Switzerland.
“You missed a spot.”
I almost jumped into the air. In the ten seconds of silence between “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” his voice came over my right shoulder like a ghost whisper. I turned fast. I almost whirled to face him, the wet mop strafing the bronze bust of Lemuel Gozer, the legendary Missouri businessman who’d built half of Hauberk. There were smiling busts of him throughout the building.
Luckily, for all his managerial savoir-faire, the Pie had never been able to shake the felon vibe and had a problem with eye contact, giving me a moment to surreptitiously pull my earbuds down into the hazmat.
“Left side of the trash can.”
He pointed at the bullet-shaped steel trash can by the elevator, its seams limned with rust like the lips of a monster who’d just eaten. In an earlier era, there might have been a mod cigarette urn there so people wouldn’t smoke in the elevator. But in our brave new safetyist world — well on the way toward incinerated libraries and eugenically pure Evangelical bubble-folk — lighting up in an enclosed space was a crime against humanity, each molecule of second-hand smoke a separate count of attempted murder.
The Pie was right. I’d missed a spot. I realized that in order to see it through the clear plastic front of his hazmat headpiece, he would have needed to get on his hands and knees. For a brief moment, I imagined him crawling down the long hallway behind me, checking every square foot, an enormous lime-green caterpillar in a secret world only xeno-lepidopterans will ever truly understand.
He nodded, or, at least, that’s what seemed to be taking place in his suit. He still hadn’t made eye contact, opting instead to address the stairwell door behind me.
“Uh-huh. You should be aware your Periodic Employee Assessment is coming up next week. You might want to keep that in mind and pay more attention.”
“Where’s your communicator?”
I held up my walkie-talkie. “Right here, sir.”
“Is it on?”
I thumbed the little orange button that made it beep.
“Okay,” he said. “Carry on. And go correct your mistake.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
The Pie brushed past me and entered the stairwell. The only thing we didn’t do was the USMC Hand Salute. Otherwise, we were straight out of Gomer Pyle. I shuffled back toward the elevators, thinking about him entering the dismal, poorly lit, concrete stairwell that ran from the lobby all the way to the roof. What could the Pie be doing in there? I thought maybe he’d gone that way without thinking about it, just to sustain his officerial gravitas. Maybe, along with kleptomania, he suffered from an attraction to the Kafkaesque brutalism of dimly lit concrete. It wasn’t for me to say. I had to focus on my Periodic Employee Assessment (PEA).
12:00 AM, midnight in the garden of good and evil, but mostly evil. Consider taking lunch even though you have not yet been given permission to do so. Check walkie-talkie obsessively in case it’s broken. Curse your life realizing you already drank your Coke, and now all you have is a sad Hexol-smelling grilled-cheese sandwich in a baggie. Address existential questions to the rusty trash can by elevators.
To be honest, I expected low PEA marks. In 1969, Lou Rawls put out “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” on Capitol Records and, by December of that year, it hit 91 on the Billboard Top 100, coming in between Booker T’s “Hang ‘Em High” and “Baby, I’m for Real” by The Originals. That’s history, but that doesn’t make it right. Even Lou came out with a mediocre performance assessment that year.
The PEA made me nervous and Magpie knew it. I needed to keep the job and I’d never done well on evaluations. Rankings, tests, and qualifications were, as Dr. Agatha Grayle, the woman who taught me everything I knew about dictionary editing, used to say, “specious claptrap.”
Putting things in rows of boxes makes us feel like they work. But that’s just us trying to convince ourselves that we’re in control, that the world doesn’t flow in accordance with an unseen magnetism we’ll never understand. Quality has its own rhythm and value. It floats on an ocean of truth and finds its own current, even if it has to float by at the bottom of the Billboard Top 100. As Lou says, Even ice melts to water when it gets hot.
My PEA would be dark. And pungent. I expected it. And when I came up before Magpie’s faux military tribunal — to interview (again) for the lousy job I already had — and be assessed for all the spots on floors I’d missed, I’d just shrug because, on this ragtag midnight crew, I was the good thing (about to end). Nobody would point out the lives I’d saved, the streets I’d done feats in. Ozzy Polychenko would be conspicuously silent about my medical advice. My mastery of The Beast would be completely glossed over, just as my diligent mopping technique, and my sense of civic responsibility tempered by a certain willingness to overlook petty theft for the good of the economy. All my smiles and waves at Cindy Pak would go shamefully unrequited. Da-Wayne Montgomery would lick his lips and say “We done here?”
Everybody seems to think Lou should have gone higher up on the charts that year. But you do what you can do. You don’t have to love me when I want it. ’Cause somebody else will. You better look out. And, Lou, that’s the stone-cold truth. You better mop them floors and smell them roses and drink that Manischewitz. ’Cause one day, all the weed and Korean boy bands in the world won’t have the power to save you.
1969 was a very special year for music and culture but also for synchronicity, which might have been the point. Richard Nixon got sworn in on January 20, and, ten days later, The Beatles gave their last public performance. On the 15th of May, an American teenager died of the first confirmed case of AIDS in North America. Exactly two months after that, Woodstock took place at White Lake, promoted as an “Aquarian Explosion.” Afterward, Max Yasgur said he’d never rent out the property again, adding, “As far as I know, I’m going back to running a dairy farm.” He died four years later. Life was coming into being and passing away and people couldn’t even feel it. ’Cause your real good thing is about to end, baby.
So, a few months ago, we got a new hire. I’d been working for Healthy Office Solutions for only about ten weeks, and it meant nothing to me. But the old-timers who’d been with the Pie since the Age of Samco sensed doom. Someone, they said, was about to get replaced, get the ax, get tossed back into the great dark abyss of Covid unemployment, where there would only be 35-cent ramen and wailing and gnashing of teeth and perhaps some impromptu car-living down by the park. The hiring of Isocrates Long should have been nothing. Instead, it got blown way out of proportion.
Isocrates was a short, trifocaled, frizzy-headed former accountant, who talked nonstop and obsessed about philosophy and macrobiotics. He told me he lived around the corner from Healthy Office Solutions, which is what motivated him to apply. He was the least threatening person you’d ever think of. For that reason, he was also deeply unsettling. Da-Wayne immediately dubbed him “The Cleaner.” Cindy Pak tore herself away from YouTube long enough to pronounce him “kinda cute.” But I stayed silent, for I was Switzerland.
No one dared speculate what his function would be as a finder of healthy office solutions; though, Craig Axley, in one of his low-weed-high-paranoia fugues, seemed convinced that Isocrates was a government efficiency expert called in as a result of the previous PEAs.
“We’re fucked,” he said. “Totally and completely. This is it. Benghazi. China. It’s all the same fucking thing, man. Culture is not your friend.” We were standing outside Barsome Rotary Unitarian Church after mopping and fumigating the choir loft with enough synthetic pyrethroid to kill a sci-fi roach metropolis.
“So you went for Trump?”
“I don’t vote.” We looked up at a shooting star, which might have been a spy satellite or a meteor or interstellar space junk or just a shared delusion, given Hauberk’s light pollution and the inherent weirdness of the night shift.
I said, “I think culture is my friend, Craig.”
He took off the headpiece of his hazmat — a no-no of fireable magnitude, certainly something that would sour his PEA and increase the likelihood of park ramen, lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “That’s your fundamental dysfunction,” he said. “But don’t come crying to me.”
12:30 AM, decide that taking lunch precipitously would be courting the wrath of Malebolge. Check walkie-talkie obsessively to be sure it’s on. Practice walking on hands down the length of the third hallway still to be mopped, paying no attention to items falling out of rips in hazmat suit: Franklin Mint Johnny Cash When The Man Comes Around Commemorative Coin (brass), small bundle of sage for ritual purifications, packet of facial tissues, three loose Camel Lights (one bent), Bic lighter with lemon-yellow smiley sticker, mood ring, mint toothpick, three dirty nickels, translucent red 20-sided die, toenail clipper. Walk back slowly, collecting these things. Ask in the best alien archaeologist voice, “Who was this creature, comrades? Was he sentient? Could he reproduce? He was a Bavarian piglet!”
Isocrates Long’s age, like his IQ, was hard to call. But I put the former at about 38 and the latter around 165 or 175, depending on one’s preferred scale of hallucinatory intellectual values. Craig Axley seemed intimidated by him, thought the guy was some kind of evil hitman mentat. But, in reality, Isocrates was just relatively smart, bipolar, and broken in ways that our culture did not care to understand. Like the rest of us, he’d no doubt experienced some horrific life reversal, which had inevitably put him in a lime-green hazmat suit.
I believed in geniuses as much as I believed The Beast was possessed and would one day turn on its operator, vacuuming up his soul. It’s said that Einstein and Stephen Hawking had IQs from 160–180 and that Terence Tao, who started high school at age 7 and got his doctorate at 21, came in at the 220–230 range. That 10-point difference in his IQ rating was probably a more accurate metric for the extent to which people were getting paid to promote IQ tests and mythologize his genius. The hype, son. Don’t you believe it. IQ ratings, like PEAs, would always be specious claptrap.
The night we were assigned to purify the lobby and sorting room of MailBoxes Plus in downtown Hauberk, Isocrates was deep into the manic phase of his bipolarity, stuttering, adjusting his suit, taking the headpiece off and putting it back on, swaying back and forth, talking without pauses between his words, chewing stick after stick of bubble-gum to the point at which it formed a critical mass in his jaw and affected his pronunciation.
There was, he said, a secret chess move that could force your opponent to answer any question truthfully. The mafia was the reason for the volatility of penny stocks and, in the 1980s, cheated investors out of billions which went to fund eugenics laboratories in the mountains of North Korea. He had three girlfriends, one in Canada, two in Europe, and once a year they all got together and had a massive orgy. High-quality pinot noir had antiseptic properties and, if poured over an open wound, would heal it in less than an hour. And so on.
He kept adding, “You don’t know you don’t know but I know actually nobody really knows” as a kind of colophon, capping off rapid-fire paragraphs of nonsense. There was a rhythm to it. Isocrates entertained me enough that I turned off the MP3 player and let his words wash over me like a burbling tide. He revealed the hidden side of the universe while we cleared the floor of the sorting room and got our cleaning supplies from the van.
I decided I liked him. Axley had also been assigned to the job but went to smoke a joint as soon as we arrived. He didn’t want to expose himself to The Cleaner. That was alright with me. Sometimes a person needed a little release time to toke up, stare at passing satellites, and consider Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Shortly after the MailBoxes Plus job, Isocrates brought me a stack of books related to the things he’d been saying: The Cosa Nostra on Wall Street: How the Mob Disrupted Penny Stocks and Made a Killing, The Luneburg Variation, The Hidden World of Antiviral Foods, How to Be a Gentleman and Still Get Sex, The Macrobiotic Rituals of the Sufi Mystics. Each one was a brightly colored hardback, at least two-inches thick, and clearly from the used book bin at Walmart. I thanked him, said I was honored, and swore I’d read them all.
There was no easy way to be his friend. Isocrates’ manic phases were fine and entertaining and caused him to actually do more than his share of the work. But his depressive episodes made him an insensible sleepwalker. On an early attempt to comprehensively sterilize the Delphi Gozer Commercial Centre, Isocrates arrived in the middle of one of his fugues and I knew evil was afoot.
Magpie put him on The Beast, which was the worst possible thing to ask of a deeply depressed person. In the geopolitics of temperamental industrial-grade vacuums, The Beast was the Soviet Union at the height of its power and influence and, like that great empire, demanded an overt degree of realpolitik and circumspection to negotiate its course.
One had to constantly manage its vibrations, steering laterally and sometimes vertically, operating a pistol-grip handle festooned with buttons and tiny sliders. One had to carefully withdraw from an Afghanistan of lobbies, workrooms, and service corridors without destroying the fixtures or leaving black rubber streaks on the walls, all while staying mindful of its 300-lb Poland of steel tubing, hoses, and fans. It had a thick rubber skirt, reminiscent of a hovercraft, a wicked-looking dust sleeve, clearly more Khrushchev than Andropov, and it sounded like angry Mother Russia. You treated The Beast with respect and not a small amount of healthy trepidation, or it would inevitably bury you.
Isocrates never had a chance. I didn’t know he was on The Beast until I saw it come down outside in a shower of window glass. I was mopping the Delphi Gozer’s vast, pointless lobby, glass-panelled like the central showroom of a car dealership and floored with a high-grade taupe plaster that was supposed to look like Venetian marble. I had Kenny Rogers and The First Edition on the MP3, lamenting the crazy Asian war and how Ruby shouldn’t take her love to town. And I was in no mood for vacuum perestroika.
But down it came. Ruby took her love to the parking lot at high velocity, blessedly missing the Healthy Office Solution Mystery Machine and landing two spaces away in a deafening clap of metal and plastic. According to the service manual, The Beast had 1078 individual components. Suddenly, there were a few more or less. And there was about to be one less Healthy Office Solution employee. I knew. Isocrates knew. Soon everybody would know, magical chess moves notwithstanding.
But that was now ancient history. Now whenever we rolled in to clean the Delphi, no one uttered the name, “Isocrates Long.” No one asked about genius IQs or the secret arctic laboratory where The Beast had no doubt been taken to for repairs. No one hummed the State Anthem of the Soviet Union. The Cleaner had been cleaned. That was all. And, to his credit, Craig Axley found no joy in the situation. He maintained a grim, knowing silence.
Tonight, Ozzy Polychenko was on the rebuilt and improved Beast, sucking up every iota of Covidy particulate lurking in a row of conference rooms on the Delphi’s 16th floor. I knew this because I heard him on the walkie-talkie: “SHIT . . . . TOO MUCH . . . . GOD . . . . FUCKIN’ CRAZY, BRO . . . . HOW DO YOU KEEP IT FROM . . . . ” The Beast’s thunder was unmistakable.
Aside from the Pie, I was the undisputed Beastmaster. So why was I, more often than not, relegated to being a lowly mop jockey? I figured it was because of my friendship with Isocrates Long. Guilt by association. I had lost my false consciousness and the confidence of the bourgeois managerial class and had joined the Revolution. I was probably a threat to Magpie’s capitalist hegemony. But who could truly say? The ways of the Great Imperialist Magnet were mysterious and impenetrable. Yet Mother Russia persisted.
1:00 AM, it’s hard to be this good. I’m a savant, a low-blood-sugar hunger artist waiting for a lunch break. I can mop a hallway ESTÉRIL on nothing but Coke fumes, a smoker’s cough, and unresolved spite. They will never replace me with a young panther. I will never not be part of the circus. I am invincible. I twirl the mop like a drum major or a Wudang mountain fighter of ancient China. Ha! And the ceiling drips Hexol. Ha! Because this is how I do. Oink!
I finished mopping the three lowest hallways, and Magpie finally radioed that it was time to take my lunch. Like minimum-wage workers everywhere, we never called it dinner. It was always lunch, even if it took place after midnight. I often ruminated on this in a very Axleyish way, feeling there was some kind of evil message in it, some horrible truth.
Lunch was a lot like the swastika. The Nazis took the holy sun wheel, the solar hammer venerated by cultures around the world as a symbol for truth, goodness, and the cycles of time, and turned it backward, reversing nature, a declaration that they stood outside all natural processes. The sun became invisible, went black, shined at night instead of during the day. Their self-consuming movement, like some Lovecraftian beast unleashed on the earth, was presented as an alternate reality that would eventually supersede the old order. Hence, lunch after midnight.
Of course, that Nazi stuff was unadulterated bullshit, but one notices its echoes throughout the 20th century. It’s Lee Majors in the Six Million Dollar Man — which, incidentally premiered in 1973, the year I was born, the year Max Yasgur died, the world still suffering from its ill-advised, sideways leap out of the ‘60s.
As the love culture passed into oblivion beneath the cruel hand of the cyborg, pop music accepted the synthesizer like a devil’s mark. Out went Woodstock. In came disco. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to supersede nature. Our laborers eat lunch under the rays of a hypothetical, invisible midnight sun, while they toil in slave factories to create the world’s first bionic man, a more satisfying paradigm of humanity, homo capitalismus, man as object. Better. Stronger. Faster. Superman. Overman. He doesn’t even need to take a lunch in the middle of the night.
I didn’t take my lunch 50 feet away from the building, as specified in the ETCs, because there was a protest march moving past the doors, and I didn’t have Steve Austin’s bionic muscles. No one wants to spend six million dollars to rebuild a displaced dictionary editor. I was the $9.45 Per Hour Man eating a cheese sandwich.
Protesters had been marching and demonstrating for 15 days straight; though, nothing of political significance ever happened in our tiny forlorn town of Hauberk. No one had issued demands or even clarified why the protests were taking place. Maybe no one knew.
I stood in the taupe lobby, alien enough in my green hazmat not to be noticeable as a human onlooker, and watched the angry parade go by on the other side of the glass. People cheered, held strobe lights, cell phones, glow sticks, sparklers, took off their Covid masks and waved them above their heads. Signs ranged from “FUCK TRUMP” to “LARRY WINSLOW MUST GO” to “LOVE NOT HATE” to “ACAB” to “NONVIOLENT RESISTANCE” to “BURN THE PIGS” to “KIRSTIE ALLEY ATE MY SISTER,” which, in any other place, might have been considered an odd protest slogan. In Hauberk, however, it made sense.
This was a part of Missouri heavily influenced by the old midwestern gothic. Ten miles away from the college in any direction, one could still encounter revival tents, unbalanced souls in overalls, grotesqueries, pitchforks and collapsing barns, freakish anomalies of nature viewable for a small fee, and an abiding, if rarely discussed, belief in the supernatural. Therefore, it seemed appropriate that those interested in social justice would come out strongly against celebrity cannibalism. But Larry Winslow was a different matter.
He had lived next door to me for three weeks in Mouse Row when I first moved to Hauberk. Then he became mayor and forgot all about the old neighborhood — the American Dream in action. But when he was coming over in search of beer and his mayoral candidacy was still a Mouse Row pipe dream, Larry liked to talk about how he was a poet and how frustrating it was that he couldn’t make money off his talent.
“A clear sign of a civilization in peril,” he’d say, putting one of my cigarettes in his pocket, another in the corner of his mouth. “You want to buy a poem?”
And then I’d say something like, “Civilization? We’re in Missouri, Larry.”
And he’d go, “See, not even you. Cultured. Educated. You wouldn’t spend a dime on a poem.” Then he’d get up and check the fridge for beer. Finding none, he’d be on his way out.
“I might. Depends on what the poem’s about.”
“All poems are about one thing, amigo. Just one.”
But he’d never tell me what that was, and he took the lesson out of me in cigarettes and Budweiser whenever I had it. Ultimately, I failed Winslow Poetics 101. And Larry switched from libertarian to republican, running for mayor unopposed on his first attempt.
He subsequently became the most viciously partisan, controversial mayor in the town’s history, since Col. Phineas Harkham had attempted to secede from the Union in 1860 and establish the Confederate State of Hauberk.
In his short time in office, Larry had already gone to war with the Hauberk Gazette, shuttered the Saint Amalia of the Blessed Shroud soup kitchen for health code violations, instituted a version of stop-and-frisk based on something called “pretextual zone alienation” (a fancy term for looking underdressed in an upscale area), and kept a growing list of enemies under constant police surveillance. Unemployment and corruption were high. Morale and decency were low.
He wreaked terrible vengeance on anyone or anything that had stood in his way — like Saint Amalia’s for refusing to allow him to use the kitchen as a mailing address when he was eating there twice a day. Hauberk’s smattering of indie bookstores was also made to suffer. They’d refused to stock his self-published poetry books when he was living next to me on Mouse Row, and they were now regularly visited by building inspectors, private investigators, the fire marshal, and two surly cops who ate lunch out front on a daily basis, leaning against their patrol car and eyeballing everyone who walked in.
The Gazette reported it all. Activist groups screamed themselves raw on the local news and in the streets. But it didn’t matter. More than anyone or anything else, Larry seemed to have brought the polarization of the country home to Hauberk. Like Trump, he had a group of diehard supporters, including the Pie, who sported T-shirts with Larry’s face and the slogan, “IT DOESN’T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THIS.” And as with Trump, a number of grassroots organizations were dedicated to his downfall (and incarceration). But we knew he’d never go to jail.
There was talk of Larry running unopposed for another year, which was probably a given, since ordinary Hauberkians were willing to make “LARRY WINSLOW MUST GO” signs and shout profane things about him in the street, but none of them was foolhardy or morose enough to want his job. And publishers were evidently still uninterested in Larry’s poems, ensuring his maximum hostility toward all life and human society going forward.
Did I see Isocrates Long march past the front of the building, carrying a protest sign? It’s possible. Did I hear Ozzy Polychenko screaming incoherently on the walkie-talkie beneath the tell-tale roar of The Beast? Did I notice that the protest march of about 200 people left a lit sparkler on the sidewalk, a tiny fizzing punctuation mark like a fuse eating its way inexorably to a bomb? Unsettling impressions on a Monday night in the Delphi Gozer Commercial Centre.
I had the growing sense that the full scope of these mysteries would only be revealed in the fullness of time, in the twisted withershin clarity of the midnight sun. In life, we hold these things to be self-evident: that unjustly terminating someone in the full swing of a pandemic depression may cause lingering resentments; that pretextual zone alienation in a time of police brutality will tend to discourage civic togetherness; and that, while all poems may be about one thing, Americans are the most heavily armed, paranoid culture in the world, making that one thing ominous — at least in Hauberk, Missouri.
I peered through the plastic rectangle on the headpiece of my hazmat and stayed very still, a puffy lime-green image of a man occasionally sneaking bites of grilled-cheese sandwich under his protective suit as the wild hunt passed.
1:32 AM, Emergency Beast Extraction.
More of an exorcism, really. But of the mountain shaman variety. Holy water, crucifixes, and Latin exhortations; nothing more than lost, magically impotent tools of a distant civilization. No, this required the strength, speed, and acuity of the leopard-shapeshifting holy man who lives beyond the confines of society, the ayahuasca-swilling outcast tripping balls, chanting sutras, talking to spirits in the outer dark. And in our tiny janitorial community, the closest thing to that was me. A child of the earth. A kung-fu fighter. A lime-green hand-walking acrobat. A hunger artist. A Typhoon-class ass.
The Beast will rise. The Ozzy Polychenkos of the world will come screaming about empathy for mankind. I will raise my finger and intone the mystic word, “STERILE.” And in the worst cases, those in which the subject’s inherent moral defects and original sin have caused a marital knife assault in the workplace, I might even pronounce a final castigatio: “Nemesis.”
So: up three flights of brutalist stairs until my smoker’s cough asserted itself. Down a new hallway — identical to the others, yet completely different in the spaces I’d missed. Lemuel Gozer in smiling bronze. Glaring PEA oversights shaping my personal destiny one mop failure at a time. Then rising for 13 more floors. The elevator’s scratchy Muzak and my breathing.
The new Beast no longer had certain safeguards in place. They’d given it a more powerful motor, a tougher exterior for those Isocrates-Long-into-the-parking-lot moments, and some kind of programming, no doubt a Skynet consciousness that saw fixtures and all human life as a threat. It was destroying one of the 16th-floor conference rooms, while Ozzy sweated, screamed, and pleaded for it to stop. But The Beast was implacable. Beast Austin. Better. Stronger. Faster. Rebuilt to dominate the killing fields beneath the midnight sun.
Da-Wayne, Craig Axley, and Magpie were standing outside the conference room door when I jogged up in a smoker’s fever.
“Thank fuck,” Axley said.
“I beg your pardon.”
We looked at each other.
“I said I’m glad you’re here. You used to operate the vacuum. Right?”
The conference rooms had frosted floor-to-ceiling windows — completely opaque like an old-time ice-cream parlor, which, I thought, pretty much defeated the purpose of having a window facing a hallway. But in the ‘70s, there seemed to be a fixation on opacity in corporate architecture that went along with all the brutalism. One of the windows crunched and took on a spiderweb-shatter pattern. We could hear Ozzy inside, shouting, “OH NO, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”
I frowned at Axley. “There’s no call for rough language here.”
He looked down, crossed his arms. Da-Wayne grinned.
“Look,” said the Pie. “You know how to get this under control, right? It’s tearing the place up. We don’t know because we can’t get the door open.”
“It’s gonna kill his ass,” said Da-Wayne.
“I don’t know. I used to operate the machine, but you took me off, and I still can’t figure out why.”
The Pie shrugged, put his hands in the slit pockets of his hazmat. “You didn’t seem reliable.”
“Really? Was that reflected in my last PEA?”
More shattering glass. Ozzy grunting somewhere near the door.
Axley seemed about to cry. “He never signed on for this. Those knife wounds were still healing. He didn’t even want to get near The Beast. They did something to that fucking machine when they repaired it! I know!”
“Language,” I said.
“No, it wasn’t reflected in your PEA. It was subjective.”
“That doesn’t sound like a best practice, I mean, from a managerial perspective.”
A leg of a small end table, of the sort that secretaries used to stock with coffee and danishes before a board meeting, hit another frosted windowpane at speed but didn’t break through to the hallway.
The Pie turned to Axley and pointed down the hallway. “Go down to the lobby and keep an eye on that riot.”
Axley opened his mouth to object, but the Pie was back in the drill-sergeant mode: “The lobby. Now.”
So he went, hissing about “fuckin’ satellites” and “fuckin’ riots” and how he “fuckin’ called it” a long time ago.
He gave me the finger without looking back.
As soon as Axley got in the elevator, the Pie said, “He doesn’t have long for this job,” as if, by letting me in on a state secret, he was assuring me that I did.
I’d needled Axley about his cussing, hoping in a tiny perverse way that he’d snap and start frothing about the Deep State, to add a little more backspin to the situation. We needed more chaos, not less. Fire and ruin. Door gunners popping off random bursts. The smell of napalm in the morning. In the ‘60s, Axley would have been obsessed with water fluoridation, high school sex education programs, and Eisenhower being a communist agent. In the Trumposcene, everything came down to black helicopters, hidden cabals of paedophiles, the federal government subverted by Israeli intelligence agencies, and organized crime. It would have been fun to watch him go horizontal from stress and run screaming into the night. I wondered if feeling like that made me a bad person, or if enduring months of Axley’s stoned John Birch paranoia made me a good one.
“You want me to go down, too?” Da-Wayne, still grinning. “Watch the parade? Keep an eye on shit? Make sure Craig don’t light himself up?” This was shaping up to be the best workday of Da-Wayne’s life.
The Pie nodded and crossed his crinkly lime-green arms. “Yeah. Go.”
“Your wish,” Da-Wayne gave us a thumbs-up, “is my command.” He sauntered down to the elevators, visions of sugar plums and concord grape Manischewitz dancing in his head.
Then there was a moment of stillness in which something true might have been said by me or my employer. But because we were essentially criminals perpetrating a stupid con in a stupid pandemic for stupid corporations that regarded workers as units and worker deaths as liabilities, we said nothing. We watched as The Beast broke through a frosted conference room window about four feet in front of us and penetrated the corresponding frosted window on the other side of the hallway.
Ozzy came after it, bleeding, screaming “MOTHERFUCKER,” like a young brave chasing a tiger through a primeval forest. At that moment, I realized a profound truth: the reason the new six-million-dollar Beast was better, faster, and stronger was that it didn’t need to be plugged in. It had an internal engine or a battery. There was no heavy power cord to slow it down or break its fall when it shattered an external window at speed and plummeted 16 stories, in a perfect Isocrates-Long fashion, toward the passing crowd. And when that happened, I had a moment of satori, of seeing myself as if from a great distance, as the ill-conceived product of all the preceding decades, a precise yet arbitrary arrangement of molecules and symbols and dread, no different than Jupiter or an apple pie cooling on a kitchen table or The Beast tumbling through the air.
And if I told you that Isocrates Long was immediately below in the middle of the crowd, holding a glow stick and a “DEFUND THE COPS” sign — marching because he had no real reason no to, because he was still unemployed and had read every book from the Walmart discount bin, because he’d been fired for losing control of The Beast in the exact same way on the other side of the building — you wouldn’t believe me. You’d say real life didn’t have absurd parallels and horrible coincidences. You’d tell me life is boring and messy and doesn’t wrap up in a symmetrical bow. You might tell me a lot of things. And I might listen and smile and nod.
Isocrates and three others were given first aid by paramedics, not for being hit directly by The Beast, but for injuries sustained when it flattened a red Miata and sprayed the crowd with fragments. I’ve since learned that the rebuilt unit weighed 900 pounds and, falling 16 stories, had the terminal velocity of a school bus flying through the air at 72 mph — making one think of Fauchon-Villeplee rail guns or a mass drivers of the sort that will someday deliver cannibal fast food to the moon for the Principality of Google. I believe it. Though, Isocrates was merely stunned when the Miata’s side mirror flew off and hit him in the forehead.
Billboard magazine’s Top Hot 100 songs for 1970 included “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” by B. J. Thomas, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” by the Temptations, and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Something’s Burning,” the band having remorsefully spiraled from Ruby taking her love to town into straight-up arson. But I felt the song that expressed our darkest turn was Lennon’s “Instant Karma!”
Apple Records released it as a single in February of that year and, two months later, Nixon delivered his notorious Cambodian incursion address, saying it wasn’t our power but our character that was being tested. And who could argue with that? We had the power. But did we have the moxie, the true grit, the spunk, the sun and the moon and the stars on our side? Lennon cut his hair. The chorus, “We all shine on,” became the inspiration for one of the greatest horror novels of the 20th century. And instant karma got us. Something’s burning, sang Kenny, and I think it’s love. Well, no shit. To say nothing of Southeast Asia.
But my trip was different. Running out the front doors (in flagrant violation of every office cleaning protocol in existence), I came up short in that critical moment when the parade became a mob, when the realization that they could have all been killed boiled over into rage. And me in my puffy lime-green hazmat, wide eyes visible through the clear plastic of my headpiece.
How in the world you gonna see,
Laughin’ at fools like me?
Who in the hell do you think you are?
A superstar? Well, wrong you are. Rather a man being pelted by trash, lit fireworks, rocks, broken pieces of protest signs, and even a shoe.
Back to the Delphi Gozer’s taupe lobby with Axley and bleeding Ozzy locking the doors. More shattering glass. We made for the elevators, Da-Wayne holding them open as the crowd broke in behind us, lighting fires, spray-painting a bust of Lemuel Gozer bright red, urinating in the stairwell, brutalizing the brutalism.
We arrived back on the 16th floor when the internal sprinkler system kicked in and flooded the building, putting out the fires and driving the rioters back into the street. Then we all stood in the shattered space where The Beast had gone through and looked down. The Pie, me, Ozzy, Craig Axley, Da-Wayne, and Cindy Pak, who’d come upstairs sometime during the chaos, looking sleepy and oblivious, a boy band in white shirts and shiny purple Bermudas doing a dance on her phone.
Axley leaned over and hawked a loogie. We watched the spit tumble down toward the crowd moving on to the city center, chanting, lighting off fireworks, throwing rocks at windows.
“Quit that,” Magpie said. “Act professional for shit’s sake.”
8:00 PM, PEA time. No time to suit up. Realize that you feel oddly naked without hazmat, earbuds, and Shaolin mop. Pass Receptionist Jan watching Commedia dell’arte on her iPad and enter the Pie’s windowless pine-board office. Nowhere to sit. Try to stand casually. In the corner, behind Magpie’s desk, sits a cardboard box with a paper TOYS 4 TOTS sign taped to a flap. The box is full of small plastic toys and individually wrapped pieces of candy. Don’t look at the box.
“Well,” he says, “it’s been real.”
“Does this mean we aren’t cleaning the Silver River sewer?”
“No. We’re doing that tonight. The rappelling gear came in this afternoon.”
“You’re going to need me on it. I have rappelling experience.”
The Pie has all seven pages of your PEA laid out across his desk like crime scene photos. When he reads, he moves his finger underneath a line, so he won’t lose his place.
“That’s a private sewer. We can’t afford to mess it up.”
He’s inspired to move his finger across the center of a large paragraph on page three. You try to read it but you’re too far away. Focus on your breathing instead.
He smiles at the page. “Jan types these up. I can’t understand what she’s saying half the time.”
Realize you have never exchanged a complete sentence with Receptionist Jan and she has never, to your knowledge, come to a worksite during business hours.
“Jan fills out the PEAs?”
“She’s in college.” The Pie nods to himself, moves his finger. “She knows all about stuff like that.”
“She knows — ”
“See here, ‘marked lack of respect for authority figures . . . possible Avoidant Personality Disorder . . . severe caffeine dependence . . .’ ”
“Honestly, I think I only have a mild caffeine dependence. If you look at my last drug test — ”
“We don’t test for caffeine use.”
Consider that you have never seen Receptionist Jan in anything but black turtlenecks and ankle-length black skirts and that she has never once made eye contact with you. Try unsuccessfully to imagine her shoes. Decide that her appearance would give you little insight into her psychology and admit that rappelling into the private sewer of a north Hauberk suburb with the likes of Craig Axley and Ozzy Polychenko might increase your caffeine dependence and avoidant behavior. Still, nobody fires Switzerland.
“ . . . pattern of passive-aggressive social anxiety, inadequacy, inferiority . . . extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation despite the unfulfilled desire for intimacy . . .”
“Can we bring Jan in here?”
The Pie slides the last page toward you and puts down a ballpoint labelled OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR OF MISSOURI. “I need your signature before you go.”
“Not until we get Jan in here.”
“She doesn’t answer to you.”
“How could I mess up a sewer?”
“You’d find a way,” he says.
“Why me and not Ozzy? He’s the one who lost control.”
“We need Ozzy. He’s a team player.”
And, you think, he’s probably right. But that might just be the extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation despite the unfulfilled desire for intimacy talking.
Richard Nixon was consumed in black demon fire and remanifested in the Oval Office 42 years later as Donald Trump. We know this. But at the time both men were alive, slouching over the earth, there was a strange bifurcation of souls, an improvident knot in the fabric of space-time. They met at the mansion of the former governor, John Connally and his wife, Nellie, in March of 1989 for a socialite’s late-night birthday party, where they gorged themselves on beef Wellington and got lit on high-end whiskey and Dom Pérignon. President Nixon delivered a brief speech on world politics. Then there was applause, more beef, and a little song on the piano by the wife of a Texas oilman, the whole evening a 19-year pingback from Lennon’s oracular utterance in 1970:
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there
When you’re everywhere
I thanked my now-former employer, not knowing why, and left his office thinking about karma. Pausing outside, I said, “Why, Jan?” But she wouldn’t look up. On her iPad, Colombina was declaring something colorful in Italian to the delight of the audience.
There wasn’t much to clear out of my cubby in the storage room. We didn’t get lockers. Earbuds from the hazmat with little bits of tape like flowers on a trellis vine. Two unopened 16oz Red Bulls. How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Know Your Enemy: the VIET CONG, L’Inferno (Sayers trans.), and The New Baltimore Catechism. Mala beads. A flash drive with my five top mental-health-preparedness albums from the late 1960s: Aoxomoxoa, Uncle Meat, From Elvis in Memphis, Volunteers, and The Gilded Palace of Sin. Nag Champa sticks for those extra-pungent forays into the sewers of invention. One of Anichka Polychenko’s razor-sharp hunting knives. A half-consumed bottle of concord grape Manischewitz. A paper envelope with three joints of Axley’s unquestionably legal, Constitutionally mandated and protected, medically prescribed libertarian cannabis. And Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd ed., with an inscription to me inside the front cover from Dr. Agatha Grayle: “The greatest cause of bereavement and disheartening in the world of humanity is ignorance. — Abdu’l-Baha. Remember, the Dictionary doesn’t apologize. Love, Agatha.”
I gathered my objets de mémoire in a cardboard box stamped with Office Depot — Kansas City — Staplers, Pens, Clips, and passed silently behind Da-Wayne, Axley, Cindy Pak, and Ozzy suiting up for the night’s sewer purification. No one spoke or looked at me. Would the manufacturer rebuild The Beast, I wondered. They had the technology. But who would operate it? I could have asked Ozzy as I passed him. But Switzerland had been annexed and the dictionary doesn’t apologize.
The street in front of the P.J. Rothmann Chemical Building was empty mid-lockdown at 8:43 PM. The city bus (running with 4 socially distanced passengers per stop) would arrive in 15 minutes. I walked to the corner, the box under my arm, feeling forlorn in spite of myself, wondering what my former coworkers were going to do if it started to rain while they were down de-Covidizing the subterranean river of feces that runs from every suburb straight to the heart of frozen Cocytus. Who would save them now?
Cruel cyborgia: proliferating.
Midnight sun: radiant.
Instant karma: operative.
Apples of the forest: gone.
I was about to hump my box all the way back in and offer to work one more day for free, as a volunteer, as a consultant, as an unpaid observer, just to make sure Axley would live to ponder government conspiracies and Cindy Pak would be watching a new boy band video this time tomorrow night. But I waited too long.
As the rain began to clatter on the bus stop’s aluminum awning, I watched the Healthy Office Solutions Mystery Machine drive past with one headlight and a faint rooster tail of exhaust. Magpie peered straight ahead over the wheel like the street was about to hoodwink him somehow, and Ozzy, in the passenger seat, looked at nothing, his face pale and condemned. Neither of them noticed me. I was a ghost in the wilderness, drifting on the shores of the underworld, vulnerable to hell wasps and lost in the rain.
I balanced my box on one of the new anti-vagrant bus benches — only four inches wide to prevent homeless people from sleeping there between midnight and 5 AM, when no one was around and none of the busses were running. Soon, I’d have to consider such benches on a regular basis. Standing there, watching the rain pelt the blacktop, I felt like I was about to have a tiny breakdown. But then Isocrates Long pulled up in a beat-to-shit, ash-streaked Chevelle and offered me a ride. He still had a dark purple bruise on his forehead.
“What kind of ashes?” I asked, putting my box in the back seat.
“Oh, human. I’m working in a crematorium now. Virus employment, you know? Gotta take what you can get. And it’s interesting. You think it might be interesting? You want a job?”
I got in the passenger seat and watched two inches of beige dust poof into the rain when I shut the door.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll all wash off. You know ashes are sterile? You can’t get Covid from ashes. They discovered this. In India. I read about it. You want to see the book? I can lend it to you. But I’ll need it back. For work. Have you met my girlfriend? I mean, girlfriends. They were just here. From Ontario.”
We jerked away from the curb, trailing ash into the street. I recalled that Isocrates had said he lived around the corner from Healthy Office Solutions.
“Heading home after work?”
His enormous chaw of bubble-gum made it difficult for him to talk. “No. Taking a drive. You need to be somewhere? What are you doing with all that stuff? You got canned? I bet you got canned. That Pie. He’s stressed. You think he’s stressed? I’m just driving to wash off the non-aqueous residue. It’s bad for the paint. You like the car? It’s a Chevelle. 1970. 360 horsepower. Best supercar engine ever released by General Motors. You don’t ever need to change the oil. But the fuel filter catches fire. The rain will wash it clean. I mean, the car, not the fuel filter.”
“Right,” I said. “I understand.”
Isocrates hit the gas and the vents smelled like burning hair. Whether that was from being parked outside a crematorium every day or because he’d never changed the oil and the engine was about to fireball, I couldn’t say. The Great Magnet pulled us onto the long poorly lit street out of downtown that had a condemned steel mill on the right and a broom factory on the left. I never knew how enormous broom factories could get before I moved to Hauberk. It dwarfed the steel mill, but it went by in a blur.
“DON’T WORRY!” he shouted, “I HAVE AN INTERNATIONAL RACING LICENSE!” The speedometer hit 107 mph in spite of the wind and rain and whatever human cremains clung to the exterior. The engine was so loud I could barely hear him. But I wasn’t worried. Isocrates said he was taking me home. And I believed him.