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Joshua Cohen | story | en cs de
An excerpt from the planned collection of stories Four New Messages, about a frustrated copyeditor at a pharmaceutical company whose writing produces half-written characters, about his life, the sedative Nomenex, and the neon glow of burger franchises.
I’d been writing a story, yet another shitblast of the hundreds I’ve begun only to crumple for ply (I’d never been blocked before, some blockage should’ve been good for me but), came to that part in the story and just—I just had to stop, it was ridiculous!
I came to the point I knew would come, the point that kept coming, the point where I’d have to say what I didn’t want to say, to say what I couldn’t—what had no place in, forget my story, I told my father, What I’m talking about has no place in my life!
What are you talking about? Dad asked and smiled retirement’s bridgework at being confronted by something as stunningly tedious as himself, probably—but himself fictionalized, as a fictional character—because I’m broke and so was wearing his clothing, also I have the beard he has because we both have weak chins. I’d come back to Jersey for the weekend to sleep without siren in my old ugly unrecognizable bedroom and fill up on homecooking.
I said, I can’t say the Word.
We were in the bedroom.
He sat on a chair across from me on the bed and sipped from a wineglass and stared.
I said, You’re trying to get me to say it.
The walls were white scuffed with recent paint slashes: color swatches my parents were considering for the bedroom’s repainting, assorted pastels and other near neutrals very much not me. The bed and chair were not mine but new. My hutch desk was gone along with the shelving, the room was being converted into a guestroom but—as Mom had strained to say over the phone that early Friday—I would always be welcome.
How can you tell me what happened without telling me what Word? Dad asked suddenly standing older and grayer and rounded goutish and taking his glass from the sill and tipsy but maybe his feet were asleep walked out of the room.
After dinner Mom disappeared sinkward to rinse and call back a friend who’d called interrupting stroganoff, while Dad and I stayed seated as if extra table legs and he said, Let’s try this again, so I told him the story:
I said, There’s this girl, we’ll start with her, I guess I have to describe her. She’s pretty? Dad asked, I said, I describe her as tawny (I wasn’t quite sure what that meant), with red hair dyed and two huge mouthsized eyes. She’s sexy? Dad asked and shot a look at Mom who was busy making a dietetic dessert sandwich of ear and phone and shoulder. I said, She’s like the girl next door to the girl next door, meaning she’s somewhat trashy but also covered entirely with blood, in the first scene she’s just bloody head to toe. Of course she is, Dad said (distracting himself with the bottle, he poured the last petit noir), but you can call the different sections of a book, scenes? I thought that term was just for the movies? I said, You can say scene about a book but if you say chapter about a film people will think you’re an asshole. Of course they would, Dad said then took a sip winking and by the time he’d replaced empty glass to tabletop the sink had stopped, the kitchen was empty and Mom was already upstairs, her laughter floating distantly and then disappeared, aerated into a higher hilarity—into the refrigerator’s hum, the run of the washingmachine, the clock’s compulsive perk.
She’s in the backseat bouncing, I said, that’s the opening: her body bloodied with a knife sticking out of it in the backseat being bounced between her seatback and the backs of the seatbacks in front of her—Wait, Dad asked, what the hell? I said, If he’s not careful on the next large preggers bump her corpse could tumble to the floor, falling atop the filthy mats, atop the sloppy wads of mats, to wedge between her seat and his recline.
His? Dad asked, I said, If he doesn’t slow down.
It’s night? Dad asked, I said, Yes or virtually, the sun’s gone down, moon’s gone halved, how’d you know? her body’s rolling and thumping.
What’s the night like? Dad asked, I said, It’s wet, the stoplights flash above like spotlights.
It’s green, a bright go green, the car’s being driven fast.
Slow down, Dad asked, who’s driving?
Driving southwest, I said, away from the towns he’d grown up in, toward the towns she’d grown up in, poorer to rich, criminal to just criminally tame—quarter tank to empty, burning last gas, he’s wasting time, he’s stalling.
Dad asked, What’s his name?
Blood’s pooling in the seams of the seats, blood’s puddling and the radio’s off but he turns it down anyway, that’s a good detail that he can’t stand all that noise, he’s turning the volume down, down, lower down, all this one paragraph he’s just lowering the volume.
Why’s he doing that? Dad asked, I said, It’s a circular motion like how you’re supposed to stab someone then diddle the wrist, tweaking the knob of the liver, the spleen.
That’s a good detail? Dad asked.
Neon sizzles past, neon sizzes, zisses? The windshield, in reflection, becomes signage. His throat burns, the boyfriend’s, “his hands are readied tense.”
It’s when I wrote that line—beginning the story from the middle, I realized—that I knew I was stalled too (my hands were readied, tense): knew that I couldn’t say the Word, knew that I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about this Word to write a story with it in it (anyway the Word was not a word, was actually less than a word, was meaningless, had no untainted derivation, had no true legacy or beauty, it was even less than its least letter, it was nothing, it was ruination).
So I described things, I made things up and described them to my Dad: light and signs and the throats of boyfriends, frisking my face in my sleep with a thumbnail that left wounds, smoking quit cigarettes and drinking nightly a half bottle glugug of whiskey, waking up late so getting to work late where I’d spend Midwestern quantities of time on the internet pursuing this one particular commenter I thought common to a spate of local sports blogs but under twelve different, differently gendered aliases and product recall news especially when it concerned the domestic automotive industry and searching search engines for “whats wrong with my story?” coming back from work still worrying the story and hating the story and thinking that introducing this Word into the story would be like introducing Mom who really wants grandchildren to a girlfriend who’s really a man, it’d be like inviting friends over to my apartment for dinner then serving them individual portions of my feces garnished with poems about how much I hate friends and the poetry would rhyme.
It’d be wrong to bring this Word into my story and so into my life, not interesting in the way that foreigners tend to enliven a host country with their cuisine and dress, religiosociocultural traditions and languages but in fact evil and destructive, The boyfriend’s foreign? Dad asked, I’m trying to tell you the story by not telling you the story, I said, you should be aware that this is what writers regularly do, This is America? Dad asked—To recap, I said, he’s driving because her corpse is in the backseat and her corpse is in the backseat because he killed her.
The boyfriend might be, I said, he originally was or should’ve been, I said, heading over to her house, in through the front door then up the stairs to search through her bedroom’s drawers for the ring he’d bought her, the ring she’d accepted and that the moment she’d accepted he’d wanted back, not the ring but the money it represented, the overtime it represented, What does he do for a living? Dad asked, But he can’t just butt into her house unannounced pushing past her family because she lives with her family now heading upstairs to go through her bedroom’s drawer, I said, construction, he works construction, What kind of construction? Dad asked, He killed her with his switchblade, I said, which he keeps in a jacket pocket.
He stabs her with a switch just to get a ring back? Dad asked, But that’s where the quandary squats, I said: He’s been driving around for an hour, driving around for hours with the corpse in the back thinking to himself what to do what to say, should he ditch the body and where or bring it with him indoors while early evening remains, smashing into her house at what could conceivably still be dinnertime with the nice dishes out, the whole bird starched for the carving, the veggie sides to the side, no flowers but flower motif vase (narcissus), (snuffed zircon encrusted) candlesticks without candles—to innocent and gentle with grace lay her body like a fine polish atop the diningroom table, to force her father to cover her body with a tablecloth “as if a bridal gown,” the detail, the cloth “lawned in dewsmoothed white,” the poetic description or else he could, he thinks again another alternative, leave the body in the car, go inside the house alone and without explaining anything not to the victims neither to the reader slaughter everyone inside because her family—father, mother, four grandparents like a full set of heirloom silver—would be the only people who’d miss her if she went missing, What’s her name? Dad asked, what’s his? I said, And to die is to go missing profoundly, When and where’s this set? Dad asked, what kind of car’s he driving? Or maybe it’d be better to narrate this chronologically, I said, Dad asked, Chronology means you’re finally going to tell me what happened?
Ray, I want to call him, or Ronald, I said—though other options are: Mac, Dick, Donnie/Donny, Smith/Smyth(e), Luke, and John—but she I’m convinced is a Patty because there’s something in her face like an underdone hamburger patty, like its waxed plastic wrapping, or a mess of wet napkins smeared with makeup sampled from a mortuary for clowns, I thought you said she looked good? Dad asked, She has a hot body, I said, a hot little body, a hot tight little body but the clownface is unfortunate, kind of greasily melting and the car is a Ford, What model Ford? Dad asked, A white Ford, I said, a white Ford Escort, I said, I don’t know why I have such an easy time saying Ford but I do, it’s simple to say and so obvious to say the car was a Ford and it was, maybe a Ford Fiesta in red, in yellow, in a color like Autumn if Autumn’s a color—do Fords come in Autumn? is it redundant to speak of an Autumnal Ford? Dad (who might, as I write this, be performing his nightly check that the garage door is locked) asked, Why would you have trouble saying Ford?
Mac, Dick, Mick, Ray Ronald, or let’s stay with Ronald Ray, I said, who’s driving this—no forget I said Ford, it just sounded reliable, authentic or verisimilar a moment ago but now it sounds shitty.
I’m not following you, Dad asked, what’s so shitty about Ford?
Me, I said, past tense:
Ronald Ray left the house he and Patty shared, the house they used to share until last week’s fight over when and where to hold the wedding—Patty was always fighting for later and splurgier—caused him to hurl a boot at her: him awhirl in a single sock kicking her out of the house—with an eye that would bruise orificially black, a parturient bust lip—her calling her parents from a payphone two corners down to come collect her but not letting them call the police. The house was a rancher, the rancher didn’t have a driveway, Ronald Ray kept the car out front, he walked to the car, there was a busstop out front and the car kept getting nicked by the bus, the bank owned the car, the bank owned the house, he leased both from the bank, the bank owned the block, This isn’t the city? Dad asked, He didn’t have any work that day, I said, he had the day off because there weren’t any construction jobs because no one was building anything because no one had any money and the banks weren’t giving loans, Even though the tense you’re using is past, Dad asked, are we still talking about the present? He got into the car and drove into town from their suburb, I said, and while nondescript is itself a description that’s how it’ll be described initially, just by the way it’s written it should be obvious that there is no town, that this town is rather all suburb, that there’s no middle, no coagulant center and that the more Ronald Ray drove he never got any farther from the house just more involved in the grid, more involuted and lost and it seemed like hours though it was only minutes, it seemed like an entire afternoon though it was at most half an hour until he pulled up in front of a diner, A diner? Dad asked, Ronald Ray idled there, I said, watching through the plateglass printed with greedy full palms of fondle his girlfriend or fiancée or, screw it, wife enough Patty finishing her shift and just when the news blared he turned the radio off, looked up from the dial and there was the climax of the story.
The climax? Dad asked, I said, It all has to be in the mood or tone if there’s anything distinguishing mood from tone or in the way that waitressing Patty leaned like a wiperag hanging from the window’s backpocket—leaned across the counter to swipe herself out for the day and her manager, that’s how he’s characterized, “her manager” rushed over and pinched her but she straightened out and smacked his hand from pinching again and went to walk out the door to stand at the busstop and this, this harassment, was daily, Whose harassment? Dad asked, did her murderer pick her up usually? He pulled around the block to pull up alongside her at the leafpiled curb and that shocked her, I said, she didn’t know what to do or say but acted like he hadn’t just witnessed what happened, maybe he’d missed it or would forget that he hadn’t with the sunglasses over twelve stitches smile she gave as she opened the door and got in, but as soon as she was seated and had shut the door she knew that he’d seen it because he leaned over the stickshift to kiss her, which is something he never did, that not being the kind of thing this character would do, Why not? Dad asked, what’s he scared of? But this kiss—“this pinch of lips” “this stitch of kiss”—was only a diversion, I said, because with one hand on the wheel he stabbed her, stabbed her with his switch and she screeched and overtop the casualty of her screech the tires smoked as he shifted to streak away, straightened the car and pulled his knife out of her then her body toward him to toss over the median stick into the backseat where she rolled and thumped, the knife he dropped to the floor unwashed white, washed in red with the knife kept inside her body thumping and rolling around the backseat slicing the wound open wider to pour its packet of ketchup—“that condiment the color of love,” And he did this why? Dad asked, I can’t understand his motivation, I said, If I wanted to have a body thumping in the backseat of a car, the car had to be in motion and the body had to be dead, and if I wanted the body to be dead, Patty had to be killed, So you began this whole thing just to have a body bumping around? Dad asked, Like the secondhand of a clock, I said, the sweeperhand if you want to get poetic about it, like the Atlantic lapping against a jetty or your testicles slapping up against a woman’s own backseat as you rut at her sexually from behind, Do you always just write from or toward one idea? Dad asked, and is that one idea always so fucking moronic? But the idea was for the body’s bump to symbolize time, I said, and while the sound is time ticking the image isn’t so much the dead body as it is the car driving around with the dead body inside, rolling and thumping and thumping and rolling, So you have all that to what end? Dad asked, I said, That’s probably when the monologue comes in, when Ronald Ray whose name makes him sound like a multiple killer already and who certainly looks like a killer with his bleared face but whetsharp nose tries to figure out what to do in first person, not just what to do with the body like should I chop it up somewhere abandoned and into what amounts but also what to do in the aftermath, how to feel, crank the tears, check under the hood for a heart or soul, consternation Ronald Ray—this is the junction in the story where I/he make(s) plans and alibis, complots turned conspiracies for the authorities and surviving fam, Like what? Dad asked, Like I was going to pick her up at the diner and she saw me and was running to me across the street waving when she was hit by a car, a van or truck that said across the side of its haul Someone’s Grocery, like I just showed up to pick her up and was waiting for her running to me waving when a man came around the corner he was Afric I think to sink like this knife into her incalculable times until she expired there in my arms dragging her into my car, which is why I didn’t call an ambulance, But does she have to die? Dad asked, does she have to die so terribly? But death on the page is just a typo, I said: You can’t say for example, She is dead—“she” no longer is. You can’t say for example, She was dead—death itself, a condition coterminous with eternity, renders the past tense inaccurate. But what does it mean that death is just some sort of mistake? Dad asked, some only known to writers language error? But there is no Dad, there never was any Dad, my own father would never ask such questions, my own father would never have had the patience to listen to me talk about literature let alone about my own literature or murder and sex in some ineptly imagined Midwestern state though I think that unlike the afterdinner drunk sextalk about rear entry testicular thwacking, which would’ve offended him, the violence would’ve only made him uncomfortable (Are you sure his car’s a manual transmission? is something he might ask, however, Why not just make it an automatic and not have to deal with the shifting, the shifts?), just as certain other things unsettle me, certain things and times and places, the here and now and certain Words.
Ronald Ray drives, Mom. Lights sparkle as they shoot across his glass. A compact car filled to spill with hemoglobinic wine. When do lights become light? Can something that sparkles also shoot? Mom, you used to be able to answer every question lightly. Ronald Ray passes trees. He passes a mailbox flagged with wilting balloons. Why do balloons wilt (I was six when I asked that)? How does the mail know how to get from Popop’s house to us (I was four when you took me out to meet the mailman)? He passes a theater marquee advertising the year of my birth, also the year of his and Patty’s for convenience. What is parkinglot and what not? Which is tree and which just pole for phones?
Mom, he drives and I leave him driving to call you Hello, calling you not on your workphone because it’s too early for work but on the homephone because Fridays you don’t work but are up early out of habit and I listen to you talk, to your stories about your old friends I don’t like—who have children my age whose successes I don’t like—about your new friends whose names I don’t recognize, to what you’re cooking as if smell travels through newer model phones, I listen to recipes and your dairyfree, glutenfree modifications, about the trip you’re planning to the Santa Fe Aunts, the intermediate pottery class you’re taking and the inflammatory bowel disease support group you volunteer with and he drives. He is as lost as a 1:1 map—whereas I’m still only partly awake, despite this being a call I initiated, a call I now want to end, I have to be at work in an hour (and I’m fresh out of gunpowder—the tea).
This is like the Ford, Mom, as it involves other names. It involves what I’ve told you and what I haven’t and just like mothers lie to children not only about where air goes to and mail and phonecalls come from but also about difficult subjects like death and God and can God die? Most children lie to parents too, though my lies have been mostly moronic—mine have been lies of omission (and so you can understand why I’ve forgotten to tell you about them until now). I’ve told you I work at a pharmaceutical company, a few times I might even have said a pharmaceutical multinational—as if the sum of the countries malignly conspiring factor into my salary—but what I haven’t told you is that I work as a proofreader. That’s it, as a copyeditor, the lowliest of editors, a reader not even a writer, I’m not allowed to write, I’ve never met the writers. Their copy just shows up in my 9AM email from close of business in Delhi or Lahore, and I’m supposed to go through it—the label materials, the innards instructions for use—and mark mistakes. It doesn’t take a native to spot misspelled symptoms and dropped articles the and an, but it does take a native to sweat being outsourced every quarter (will Lahore proof Delhi? or Delhi proof Lahore?).
When I began my story I was proofing a drug called Nomenex, Mom—it’s supposed to make you “happier” (my word), maybe it does, probably doesn’t, but efficacy isn’t what irks me as Ronald Ray drives. What irks me is how people in the office still talk about it. If an officeperson is in a bad mood, Mom—say they’ve misfed their pets or their siblings have been imprisoned, leading them crying to handicapped toiletstalls and service stairwells to be used only in case of cardiac exercise or emergency, for private phonecalls to haute veterinarians and obscure lawyer uncles—they don’t say, She might need Nomenex, or, You might want to ask your doctor about Nomenex, they say instead, She needs to get Nomenexed, they say, Nomenex her or, Nomenex the bitch, and people will even say that about themselves, Nomenex me, I’m a week behind, I assfucked my diet, can’t sleep, and Heather hates me. Heather or weather or whatever depresses, Nomenex my ex while you’re at it. My coworkers all have names like Heather, Mom. How can you be a person with a name like that? how could you expect to be an original individual? Names aggregate, exaggerate, caricature everything too explicit. Two Ricks in Accounting. We all know Ricks, even Rick knows what to expect from a Rick. Marketing Steve. It’s fairly obvious how to market a Steve. Tucson, indisputably itself (handles distribution), Trenton sweet Trenton, the transparent worst (“our” lab), Ronald Ray drives and Patty patters.
Mom, I dress in whatever’s clean. Pants, shirt to which the tie’s always tied and buttoned into collar, jacket singlebreasted, all of it solidcolored except the tie hoisting miniature flaglike stripes, red fimbriated white, the pants dark to where I can’t tell blue or black, the shirt white disclosing dull stars of dribbled deli coffee, jacket matching pants whether exactly or inexactly depending on blue or black, socks definitely black, shoes definitely black (these last were bought together and the salesman gave his word)—what definitively coordinates this colorwise already possibly coordinated wardrobe is that all of its brands are utterly defunct. Dad having brought them over the years to my apartment, Dad having bought them years ago, decades and waistline inches ago, these clothes—now covering the nudity of my apartment that’s only a closeted bedroom with bathroom reeking of clogged piping adjoining—mean zero to me, their designers mean zero to me, their normally significant tags giving no contemporary indication as to whether the signified article was once expensively fashionable or just cheap and extraordinarily lame. My other shirts have pips and flecks but no logos, Mom. My other pants are jeans—manufactured in sweatshops sequestered in purda halfway across the innominate earth—and they certainly have their endorsements, but I purposefully purchase them hidden, to be hermeticized by my belt or within the inseam of the jean, facing the migraine strain of my erection—bet you’re glad to have that thought, Mom, as Patty jerks and shudders.
I take the train moving faster than any car traffic moves, without stoplight, without stopsign, but still Ronald Ray is routed reckless and the body humps around. Mom, they remain lost, as do I. Working at a multinational means that I work in only one nation and cannot travel, I commute. There is a spire often passed. There is an office in the spire oft passed. Not only does this pharmaceutical multinational have a name but its subsidiaries also have names and some of these subsidiaries sell pharmaceutical products with names and other of these subsidiaries license for sale generic versions of pharmaceutical products and even these generics have names (generic names)—and the spire has a name too, and the name of the spire is the same as the multinational’s name but before the spire was named for the multinational it was named for a company that was acquired by the multinational and the company’s name was added to the multinational’s name and so the spire’s name, Mom, was accordingly changed, respired (names I cannot mention, names I wouldn’t even breathe).
9AM, booting my workcomputer, my morningcomputer, to remind me of where I’d stopped the night before (I’d never stopped): I didn’t know where to bring Patty’s body, Ronald Ray didn’t know what to say about the body, we didn’t know what our responsibility to it was, Mom, with even our tenses undecided. He ranged about their nativity. It was unbelievable that someone could call this fictional strip familiar, but it was also believable. Impossible and yet possible that someone could call this commerce home (I was thinking about home when I wrote that). All around him was Vacancy with the vowels themselves vacant, Vcncy: the local errata of burned connections, burnt bulbs, Free Cable TV! as if in advocacy—what was cable locked up for this time? (That’s a line I’d been saving.) Didn’t we already pass this pass, Mom? make that exit or eat a meal? Did we take our meds or no? and if so, shouldn’t they have been taken with a meal? Light blinking lights. Mom, does a light blink on or off? or does just saying It blinks cover both? This was what I thought about for a week. Blinkblinking go the correx, the corrigenda. 9:30 email, 10 new product slogan session (even us galley drones are polled), 11 email, hunger, boredom (which is another kind of hunger), still Ronald Ray was driven and Patty not ceasing to be deceased.
Wednesday without breakfast, I realized he might be hungry too. Thursday with my 11:30 cancelled (a standards review, the proctor had the flu), I’d had enough of being desked. I thought, find a place to eat. I thought, find a place to eat, you’ll find a place to gorge your story. Not a job to shirk, Mom. Existence was at stake, survival. My own. That of, in motoric italics, my story. Murder, a hunger itself, gives such a hunger also. Both being matters of appetite, of denying yourself until you break. Of holding steady the wheel until the engineblock just cracks. Of going further—farther, Mom, or further? or are they interchangeable like signs, changing only their destinations over statelines? I refreshed my memory of the distinction before heading out to lunch. This was the last day of the first week I was blocked. I went farther than I regularly went, Mom, not to belabor this any further. I went blocks. I passed restaurantfood, passed barfood, he passed arcades serving arcadefood, passed billiardhalls and bowlingalleys offering billiard and bowling fare. But foodfood, Mom. You could’ve cooked for him, I could have if I cooked.
Food, the bottomless metaphor. Food like, or as, an insatiable simile. A pocket of inmeats carved from a cart. That was my objective. Courtesy of a sanguine sincere Halali who liked to practice Spanish. The money from every pocket sold went to feed and clothe his wife and son deserted in Halalabad. He’d asked me, What are the foremost headphones to obtain for my heir? what is the most stable skateboard one may acquire? My answer had been to avoid him for a month. Regrets, Mom. I missed his rotisserie physique, the carbonating banter. Standing talking terrorist economies on the corner of 10th Avenue & Inanity—my cart wasn’t there, my Spanish Halali wasn’t there. I bummed a cig (secretary), a light (deliverer), stubbed. That invaginated pita pocket topped with pickled veg—I’d enjoyed it there before, I would always have enjoyed it there before. Back in the lobby without a meal but within the hour, I surveyed what foodstuffs my fellow spireists preferred. Security pumped dumbbell wraps and protein shakes. 12’s receptionist left the elevator at 12 receptive to water and a salad. None of that would do, Mom. Back in my cubicle—Ronald Ray at his windshield, my screen—it took another hour to understand how badly I’d been poisoned.
Mom, I spent the next month stuffed, plugged, in the grip of a pathetic mogigraphia (I plucked a reference text from leveling the fridge in the office kitchenette to determine the technicalese for “writer’s block”)—unsure, or perhaps all too sure, as to where, precisely, my character should dine. Agonizing over why he would dine there, over what dining there would say about him/me—over which would be riskier: drivingthru a drivethru with Patty in the back? or just parking her carcass for a three course duration? Should he gratify the impulse to return to Patty’s diner? or could that be read as too safely laning tragedy between reassuring shoulders? Ronald Ray watched the backlit logos approach, every craven incarnation, every franchise of desire. So many amenities yet so many the same, so many ways to condemn them, yet all of them the same. Too many few choices: which restaurant I should go to? what to order at which restaurant he should go to? which suit to wear or wash? having skipped breakfast should I skip lunch too to write? I know nothing impresses you, Mom. During lunchbreaks I kept seated, kept him moving. Me suffering sedentary in a chair too crippled to swivel, him swerving for sushi prepared by Chinese, dialing ahead for Mexicali—but how would Ronald Ray dial, Mom? did he have a cell or would another payphone have to be implicated? I refilled the car with gas, kept his own tank unfulfilled.
By workday’s wane when I was supposed to be reproving an unapproved attention deficit aid—“NAME [the Indipaks aren’t allowed to know the names of the medications whose materials they assemble by template: names are privileged, to be inserted only by us employees with miles of clearance] may cause side effects. Tell doctor if any symptoms is severe or does not go away: nervousness, restlessness, difficult falling or staying asleep, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, change in sex drive ability”—I was having difficulty, Mom, paying attention myself (which is “the cognitive process of selectively concentrating,” according to a collaborative website I edited when I should’ve been otherwise editing, anything but changing that entry to read: “the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on what happened to that shawarma stand on 10th?”). Misprints slipped by, slopping my copy. I was warned, me who typically issued the warnings (that’s all my copy was): do this, don’t do that, if you experience nausea or upset stomach, with Ronald Ray dromomaniacal. The dictionary definition for dromomania linked to a thesaurus, which suggested (advised/broached/commended), drapetomania (that quack syndrome that caused slaves to flee captivity). I searched that up, left a page on my screen when I wandered to pee, was reprimanded for my (the subtext was racist) violation of corporate IUP (Internet Usage Policy). At least mine wasn’t “painful or frequent urination,” though with all this stress—though affect is not effect—I was experiencing “unusual weakness,” which once arrived in an Indipak email phrased as “unusual weakedness”—I’d never be capable, no computer would be capable, of writing as beautiful as that, Mom. I’ll never get a raise, or a promotion, and we use what’s called the serial comma. I typed pages I trashed, then feeling anxious a cospirist might find them retrieved them for shredding into piñata entrails, which I bagged in a bag inside a bag to dump to the dumpster of a nonneighboring impasse (if I could’ve, I would’ve shredded the impasse).
And this was every day, Mom, which is two words when talking about a repeated experience but one word, everyday, when speaking of the boring, the mundane. Anything on my workcomputer I’d email from: to: my personal email, delete. Once home I’d check email on my homecomputer, my nightcomputer, reread the day’s writing, rewrite. I’d skimp on dinner, email myself the night’s skinning and gutting then, tucked between bedsheets lined like obsolesced paper, turn off the light. Every day lived double, everyday duplicity. Nomenex us both, Mom, but read the smallprint first: Nomenex doesn’t exist, it’s an exemplar drug, a composite of composites—inspired by how an amphetamine can be combined with a dextroamphetamine into a single drug that both focuses your attention and helps you lose weight, which gives the attention of others something better to look at, someone slimmer on which to focus their own personal doses—a fictional stand in for an array of antidepressants that actually do exist and that I would prefer not to mention for fear not only of legal reprisal (in case this is published), but also of being fired. I couldn’t sleep, Mom, but I didn’t need a sleeping aid—I needed a hamburger. I won’t be disingenuous, I needed a specific burger—buns and pattymeat indistinguishable, but the burger distinguished by other criteria. I could taste it, Ronald Ray could taste it—could taste its very ingredients active and inactive—but I could not prescribe him what he wanted, what I wanted even: I couldn’t Nomenex any of us with nonexistent Nomenex, I couldn’t name and by naming bring into being, Mom, I was a wreck.
Ronald Ray, he will try this in third person. There’s nothing more efficient than third person (omniscience), and a story about fastfood should be nothing but efficient. The writer—J, say, the fictionalizing illeist, regular masturbator, and underemployee—can write but he cannot name, even though he knows what he wants to name, he knows what he wants to say, he knows the Word, he knows the letters that form the Word, he knows the sounds of the letters and the shapes of the letters, Ronald Ray, he knows them like he knows the word uxoricide, like he knows the hard and soft sounds and the shape of the J, but he cannot pronounce them or form them in order, he cannot assemblyline them into the…he can only have you cruise incommoded, making your mileage, your exits and turns, incarnating yourself and the grid, substantiating yourself within the grid as he maps his own failings—at night with his head centered on the white perfection of pillow that needs only a few scattered seeds and a moment’s toasting to resemble a bun—as wars and diseases roil around, bubbling up here and there like effervescing oil. He cannot do it, Ronald Ray, he’s sorry but even wretches must have standards, wretched fictional standards. He could invent a fictional restaurant for you to bite your burger at but any fictional restaurant would be, like Nomenex, a worthless simulant or inconcinne imitation, a generic’s generic. Any burger restaurant he invents would obviously be based on a real burger restaurant, a real burger restaurant everyone knows and has been to and that even he’s been to (the writer’s also trialed the succedaneous drugs on which Nomenex is based). Pity the burger outlet that must go up against a fiction? No, pity the fiction that must go up against a burger outlet! Ronald Ray, is the writer afraid to be seen as being in the pocket of his fake franchise’s competition? but can a chain that doesn’t exist have any competition? To invent one restaurant is to flatulate an entire chain? Yes, Ronald Ray, ridiculous! The writer would have to sit in his apartment unpublished (and lately the water pressure’s been stingy), and create a burger franchise, create a name and even a logo for it and falsely register and trademark and copyright the entire invention from its appearances exterior and interior to its gastronyms, the hammy neonames of its supersynthesized cuisine and why? only because he doesn’t want to be seen as endorsing any actually existing and beloved burger franchise in this crap creatic tale, apologies Ronald Ray, of your girlfriend’s hackneyed murder? Does the writer really think that if he mentions that existing famous burger franchise in his story he might help mayospread its fame—spread it like war and disease? like literary “influences”? Is he convinced he’d only further popularize its (he can’t decide on the one encompassing word) homogenization? is he convinced he’d only further homogenize the utter diversity of its damage? He shouldn’t be, he shouldn’t worry. This story will never be published, it will never survive—unlike plasticbags, unlike styrofoam, which will degrade forever. This story is closer to what’s packaged inside: unhealthy, produced by exploited labor (self-exploited), to be consumed or unconsumed, either way quickly gone, quickly forgotten. Excreted, excreated. Ronald Ray, you must be ravenous. Roll down a window and ponder the polysemy of “draft.”
RR, this is what your writer did: He stopped writing and began reading, library books and pages printed from the internet, pages on the internet, all about the history of this burger franchise he was thinking of, this burger franchise that cannot be named (but unfortunately cannot not be thought of) (while the job was ignored, while he neglected his word counts, his presence in the office that of a fussy, persnickety, ultimately rejectable caret, him stetting all carelessness by being careless himself)—reading about the brothers who’d founded a restaurant that made burgers and that was very successful, everyone loved their burgers and came to eat them from all over the area where their restaurant was located, this was California and the year was 1954 (information like a conglomerate restructuring imagination: 1954 the birth of color TV, your writer’s parents, desegregation!), and then another man approached these brothers, an entrepreneur with the entrepreneurial spirit, and bought from them their restaurant and along with buying their restaurant did something absolutely incredible—your writer remembers how shocked and incredulous he was when he learned this was possible, he remembers how naïve and immature he felt when he learned that not only could this be done but that it was done often and that there were even laws in place to govern such indelible transactions—along with selling this man their restaurant these brothers sold this man their name. The burger restaurant’s founding fraternity sold their surname to this man who promptly trademarked it, in doing so preventing the brothers from collecting any further monies based on its usage: If they wanted to open another restaurant—emburgered, unemburgered, regardless—they couldn’t use their own name, they had to use another, it was almost an indulgence that they were allowed to keep their surname at all, permitted to pass the name of their father as a birthright to their children (did they have any children? check?). This man as sole owner of the patriprefixed name of other men then took this sole restaurant he owned and duplicated it, triplicated it, corporatized the restaurant into restaurants throughout California to begin with before proceeding to culinarily colonize the country and then the world and your writer read about this, RR—this was his only attempt at research and his findings disgusted and that was winter, New York City, 2008.
A winter in which your writer avoided his parents and slacked on his quotas and for environmentally unsustainable months kept you driving insomniac throughout the Midwest or middling enough environs only because he couldn’t bring himself to write or type out the novenary letters that nominalized the restaurant you and he so desperately had to patronize, RR—with that body in the back, that bloody body in the back, with the corpse in your trunk, your writer thought, the corpse in pieces pocketed about your person, your writer rethought. The difference between freeway and highway being. The difference between a street and a road is. Verbs: to vor at vittles, to phage the grub. Adjectives: wet highway, green highway, bluegreen highway, knotted/involutedly tortuous. Tolls? (Incorporate: the relationship between procrastination and hunger, image: radio’s volume knob as areola, image: roadside ditch like a rumbling fryer, image: RR’s stomach a spare tire, image: in the backseat, only soured leftovers clunking around.)
12/08, pages/.txt files were surfeited with substitute titles for this unnamable pit: Melter’s, Grilltastic, Big Burger (“Where the Burgers are Big,” whose stale logo was to have been two linked Bs, two interlinked Bs—like the monogram on a newlywed couple’s luxe towel set—until he stumbled on the potential inherent in two Bs whose long vertical spines had been laid horizontally, lazy recumbent BBs suggesting two brothers with beerguts knocked flat on their backs breathing hard after a meal—as if a napkin had been pulled out from under them—or like four stomachswelling burgers queued up for an aftermeal snack: ). The hope was to make art, RR, not problems. Not recipes for prose, not prosaic receipts. Your writer couldn’t bring himself to wordprocess the name of this famous imitatee, searching instead for other names to call it, why? he asks himself, Why? Maybe he can’t mention the famous out of resentment? maybe he resents everything famous? After all this famous original—he should start calling it differently every time so that not even a reference or negation becomes its appellation by default: Famey Chain, or Fra-Fra-Franchise, Sobriquette, or The Restaurant That Resists All Monikering—after all, this infamous chain has never paid him, this cloying corny syrupy franchise that won’t or can’t etc. etc. has never supported his art.
RR, your writer is (hopes to be) a writer who writes, not a corner office capitalist on an expense account binge, bibbing himself with stock certificates. Why should he sponsor or be sponsored by that fastfood company by putting its brandname in his story? in yours? Would that foodstuff corporation ever print his scriving on its wrappers? would they festoon their fries containers with the opening of The Bloody Body? Could you swallow this, RR? “His girlfriend of the tawny mouthsized eyes,” descried across the apple pies, among the chicky nuggets—what tawny fries like fingers! and what a terrible title, The Body Dies Bleeding! Maybe your writer’s afraid of the present? of the genre of the present (ephemeraphobia)? maybe he doesn’t want to date his story? stories should be “timeless”—anachronistic? The dilemma being that even the slightest details—such as a car and feast of equal speed, pharmaceuticals and spires—serve to date and place a text, fix it in history and geography. Your story’s now become a text, RR, which is when you know the story’s over (it should’ve been over with that sizzly neon you had passed, neon scribbles everything pluperfect).
RR, maybe your writer’s the only writer who has this problem, maybe he’s too serious. Possibly other writers have been better adjusted to their circumstances, as people less inhibited. He would ask them if he knew them, knew any intimately enough. Only A.J. of the cursive moustache and Russian obsession (they were in school together, A.J. writes whodunit juvenilia). B.C.D. (another schoolmate hack, she wouldn’t dryhump) who profiles for a weekly more read for its less logorrheic cartoons. H. who wrote her dissertation on Nabokov in the voice of Nabokov: fractious, lilting, Germanophonic, Francophonic, superiorly unsuburban, the prize for which is tenure. Y. who doesn’t know if the plot he’s “fleshing,” the flesh he’s “developing”—his fiancée has learned to cook from the appropriate TV—wants to be a novel or screenplay. Fear not libel or defamation (I’ve even falsified initials), literature has lost that power. Fair use means only that the user’s unfairly used. Your writer knows visual artists who’ve sold their bodies to corporations, tattooing emblem and catchphrase on cadaverous forearms and calves. He knows more abstract composers whose music features dissonances that must be endured if only to more fully appreciate the relief afforded by a DJ snippet of pop from the 1990s or 80s or 70s or 60s or 50s. Art that samples other art, quotes that quote other quotes—your writer knows this phenomenon, in jargon he’s aware, he was raised in a culture of (not more ironic jargon, select only the most appropriate gustatory analogy): regurgitation, a culture of glutting to vomit and glutting again on the vomit until reemesis—chunky cheese mimesis—then licking that puddle again. RR, your writer knows that concepts regarding the usage of brandnames and sundry commercial verbiage in fiction have been thoroughly described by other writers using other words, using long words, multisyllabicized compoundlongfrankfurteresquewords that sound and look on the page as repellent as the copyrighted proper nouns they critique (he won’t “instantiate” them here) and, RR, your writer also knows—as fact! as fact! that all his concerns about brandnames & co. are considered old and trite and that most people meaning most of his peers consider him if intellectual then pretentiously stilted (what Y. said when he sent your story to him, “preciously stilted”), grinding and dull (Y. saying, “your story’s all grind grind grind and only then, dull”), they think his problem—that writing the name of a profiting entity in a nonprofit or negligibly profitable story causes him pain—is more like an antiproblem, a solution of years ago, a solution of decades ago, that in the very annus Reaganis your writer was born it was already OK to use copyrighted brands in one’s art. But what your writer senses now is that it has become not OK anymore and that what once was liberating is now just sad, is now also in some sense controlling. What once transgressed today merely oppresses. (Add a clause to the effect that people don’t smoke or drink as much anymore after a century of manipulation by the alcohol/tobacco industries/lobbies), but still writers insist on branding brandnames onto their stories, RR, doing unpaid product placement like this not because to avoid doing so would be incongruous or distracting but because the question to place or not to place does not even occur to them as a question, they’ll insert a brand into a story because brands have been inserted into their lives as if through stabbing gavage or rape and have become, what is the banality, second nature, yes brands have become a second nature to nature and breathing them in as natural as breathing. Today entire sentences can be made by brands jammed like cars, entire paragraphs like crashed cars your writer’s rubbernecked—his sore sloucher’s neck—on his commute: Redesigned mascot icecreamed telecom spokesperson in re: specialty flavor glitch w/ online airline ticketing. Revise, verise. Make even this technique proprietary. “He would die before he fell in love” translating to, Male celeb would [suffer the same fate as (he did in) his previous film] before he diamonds/dozen roses/boner supplement champagne. He checked his watchbrand. His smile as sticky as brand of tape or glue. Your writer is alone, RR, having no wife to carnificate into hamburger meat or future. He has no girlfriend to mold by pattycake into the burger of the future. An aborted novel he has, set aboard a space capsule that was to be revealed at novel’s end to have never been launched from Camden. A novella, a novelette, narrating at a page per minute an hourlong pornclip starring a pornstar named Jami Joyce. And this, the story of his neuroses, paranoia becoming a style: He never writes the word America, opting instead for allusion or ellipsis; he writes “the City,” CAP optional (instead of New York City); he writes “anonymous strip” (instead of I-95, though a foolish instinct counsels: “I-nonymous”); and, of course, he never uses semicolons. And while we’re at it, RR, let’s insist on “styrofoam,” which was likewise left above in lowercase, in minuscule, though it properly should be “Styrofoam™,” in majuscule, the term for “extruded polystyrene foam,” trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company. Possibly your writer has no reason. Is impractical. Is not practical. Like why, after all this time, is he still writing—“has no reason”—in third person?
I was tired of this, tired of inventing other worlds—“realms,” “dimensions,” I was exhausted by synonym, by quotationmarks too—tired of inventing alternate worlds while misunderstanding my own, yes, yes, but also I was starving.
I got up, left the house (apt.).
No more ambiguities. Imprecision renders nothing worthier, nothing universal.
The following writers have worked as advertising creatives: (fill this in later)
Nothing universal but, galaxies. Nothing universal but, the universe.
I walked—I mclive in Brooklyn, I mchave no car—to McDonald’s. There, there, walked, walked, a welfare visne, nobody has cars, there are barely buses. Gravesend’s what it’s called, the end of graves, the grave of graves (the British buried atop the Dutch). Cameras surrounded by barbedwire like they were gun installations, protecting. The parkinglot, empty, speckled with gums. Lines for the cars that were missing were black like grillmarks. The drivethru window everyone walkedthru was blacked too. When the shade was down you had to knock. I considered walkingthru myself and knocking, reconsidered. I had to force myself to full experience. “Full-Service”—a euphemism used only by callgirls and restaurants. This was not research but living, this was not living but life.
The location—the door sealing shut, leaving me a victim to airconditioning whose level was set, I believe, by corporate HQ—the physical plant. It smelled like grease, fat/soap/Our Lady of Guadalupe votive candle, acne ointment. I took a seat at a table. A table amid tile. I took out a pen and notebook with the intention of taking notes, wrote on the top of the first page, McDonald’s, then crossed it out and wrote the plural possessive, McDonalds’, then looked at the logo by the cash registers and crossed that out and wrote singularly again on the third line, McDonald’s, put the notebook back in my coat.
It was exactly as I’d imagined it, which is to say exactly as I hadn’t imagined it because I’d been imagining something imaginary to begin with—all down that sorry drain. Mopswishes, mopswishes on the floor, the fins of the mop, the mop’s knotted tentacles swish across the floor. A goldenarched pyramid—a sandwichboard—cautioning “Slippery When Wet,” and the sexual jokes that occasions, then that other phrase comes to mind, “on the clock,” and there’s a clock there, ticking shifts above the citations and mugshots: Employee of the Month wanted for armed robbery, nonsupport. Restroom coed but being cleaned, restroom coed but out of order (funny to think of each floor tile as a carton top, a carton submerged).
Burger culled from asphalt, results in pothole. L(ettuce), t(omato), o(nion), mushroomcloud of sodafoam. I can make a noose with three straws, I can make a noose from two. A thirty minute seating limit, regularly enforced: A customer changing his seat every thirty minutes would take exactly how long to have occupied every seat (whatever’s in that booth doesn’t have to be homeless)?
Microphones foaming interjacent to the registers. Everything on the dollar menu costs a dollar. A dollar never includes tax. $1.08. $2.15. $3.23. $4.30 $5.38 $6.45. I was no longer so hungry, predictably. Thirst was more difficult. No soda would have been sufficiently large or sufficiently small. I had a medium thirst, a mediocre thirst. Only mediocrity would suffice and so becomes mediocre. Preservative. A medium ensued. I sat, watched, listened. Big black and hispanic kids drinking blackcolored and hispaniccolored sodas. Fat old white man eating burger. The woman, his wife. Mashing pills into ketchup for fries. The climatized cold. The hard silence. A silence with edges. Open carton. Flip up top. Chew pen turning tongue graveyard dark. The old man drooled above his second. Wife still finishing her first. Big burgers for those bloodless bodies! Those big big big big burgers! (No more writing, nothing more intelligent than that.)