Wednesday, 1:35 P.M. (Excerpt from Slouchers)
(Originally appeared on McSweeney's)
Wednesday, 1:35 P.M.
“Let’s take it from the top,” announces Toody, stroking his soul patch. It is in the shape of a perfectly-formed question mark—Toody thinks it signifies his philosophy pretty damn well.
He might as well look good while barely existing, right?
As if to prove this point, Toody is wearing his special black spandex cycling shorts over his white cotton long-underwear that’s been jaggedly cut off just beneath the knees.
Combined with the flannel work shirt he’s found at a garage sale, he looks supremely casual. The shirt was sold by the widow of the man who wore it for twenty-five years before dying of a heart attack at the gas station where he toiled for less than minimum wage.
It’s a cool look, months before Urban Outfitters will adopt anything even remotely similar for five times the price.
In his right nostril, Toody has inserted one foam ear plug. No one dares question why. Spin magazine had already written about Toody’s special look, calling it “thrift shop hip.”
The Tower Records in-house magazine, Pulse!, had disagreed, calling it a look you might see inside a hospital for the “insane,” but Toody takes this as a compliment.
He might as well look insane while barely existing, right?
Being crazy is a cool thing.
Genius or insane person?
Don’t much matter …
Regardless, it’s so much cooler to be insane than to be a “cob nobbler,” a term Toody just read about in an article in the New York Times about grunge. He intends to adopt this word, as well as all the others—maybe even claim that he was the one who coined them. “Cob nobbler” means “loser.”
But not a good loser.
A bad loser.
A loser who doesn’t want to be a loser.
It gets complicated. But every Gen X’er knows.
Toody grew up three hours west of Seattle, in Aberdeen. He knew the Great Man, himself. Didn’t know him all too well—Kurt was a little quiet and selfish and a bit into himself—but Toody sat next to him in home room and watched him closely. Also not the chatty type. Head in his journal. Bit of a loner, truth be told.
Toody would sometimes tease him between classes.
But Toody studied Kurt. And when the time was right, Toody emerged like a loose-fitting, unkempt butterfly from out of his lethargic chrysalis, straight into the narcotic ’90s.
Toody now has reason.
While others zig, he zags.
Now is his time to drably shine.
Toody has attempted to reach out to Kurt. To thank him for being such an influence. He’s yet to hear back. But it’s just a matter of time. Because once Kurt learns that these two are now creative equals, he’ll surely be in touch, perhaps even eager to take part in Willow’s MTV documentary.
Toody is sure of it.
They practically came up together!
“Hey, Wills,” says Toody to Willow. “What’s the tribulation?”
Toody bats his large, brown eyes. It’s one of his best features not hidden by clothing. There is a definite sex appeal to Toody … not hurt by the copious amount of gas-station sexual-enhancement pills he consumes daily.
“I’ve missed you!” says Willow, meaning it. “Have you missed me? I haven’t seen you in a few days!”
“Did you like my fax! The one I sent this morning?” Toody asks.
“Of your penis?” explains Willow.
“Could you feel my urgency?” asks Toody. “Might be worth something if you keep it long enough. I used the fax machine at the library.”
“It’s … lovely,” says Willow.
“Whaaaaaat?” asks Toody. “I didn’t hear you.”
Toody has a touch of tinnitus, the “club disease.”
“Lovely!” says Willow louder. “Your faxed penis was lovely!”
“I get it,” half-screams Toody, not getting it.
“Anyway, I missed you Toods. Was thinking we could get together tonight at the Bean There and play some board games.”
“Board games? Willow, are we going out or something? Going steady?”
“I … thought we were,” says Willow. “Aren’t we?”
“You’re spizzin’ off the spazz wazz! You know I’m slammin’ on other Bettys!”
“Aw, c’mon,” says Willow. “I know you love me, Toods! And you’re trying to play it real cool but …”
What in the hell is she talking about? Toody stares at Willow’s mouth as it moves. It’s hypnotic.
It keeps moving. Toody hears nothing.
“From the top,” Toody eventually declares, blinking himself out of his spell.
He grabs a super-fuzz distortion box which he carries around and speaks into whenever he wants to sound extra alternative, which is practically all the time.
“From the top!” he declares, this time through the box.
Willow steps away. Maybe he’s just in his “creative zone.” She’ll talk to him later. Or not.
What she won’t be doing is crowding him.
True artists are like cats. If you get too close, they’re liable to panic, shit, and vomit. In rare cases, cause terrible injury to vulnerable body parts. Best to just keep your distance until they need something.
Toody’s band is called That’s Your Problem and it is now swinging on the “flippity-flop.”
The previous band’s name was Jim’s Flavor-Aid.
They are loud. Crushing. Extreme. And they have only six days to practice before MTV arrives to choose one band from the entire Seattle area—and only one from the thousands—to be launched into super stardom in the wake of Nirvana’s colossal success.
“The Great MTV Grunge Off”!
First year in existence. Live. On the air. The entire world tuning in!
That’s Your Problem is expected to win.
Not one member of the band plays an instrument.
It’s all about the look … it’s all about the collective alienation …
Up on the makeshift stage, Toody takes a flying leap into the audience—or an audience if there happened to be an audience.
There is only a tumbling mat.
“That was extreme, dude,” says Tad, the bass player, not the drummer who is also named Tad.
Yeah. It was. It was truly very good.
Toody is a twenty-four-year old who feels there is so much more to life than working five hours a week as a bike messenger delivering hand-blown glass crackpipes to bow-tied lunchers in the business district: specifically, his face on the cover of Spin magazine, frowning, scrunching his shoulders to show just how painful it feels to have the weight of the entire world resting on them.
He plans to wear a “Corporate Magazines STILL Suck” T-shirt and brag that he’ll soon be dating top junkie models.
Toody has an air of danger and a sensuality reminiscent of an aged Jim Morrison.
Once, back in Aberdeen, he failed a mirror self-recognition test typically used on monkeys and other higher functioning mammals. He punched at the mirror and howled in frustration. He thinks of himself as the chosen one.
If nothing else, Toody is the first man in his family to have ever worn belted jeans without a shirt.
He’s a kind man, who loves nothing more than to visit sick children in the hospital.
One day he’ll ask permission first.
Beyond these noble achievements, Toody is also the inventor of the “crouch sing,” squatting awkwardly, one foot stretched towards the crowd, one foot propping up his ass, two hands grabbing the microphone. He’s copyrighted this move on a bar napkin … but never had it registered. A genius with ideas, but not the best with follow through.
Toody is every character in an S.E. Hinton novel who allows his younger brothers to eat pizza for breakfast and pancakes for dinner.
Willow is his biggest fan.
True, he never apologizes after farting … but you can’t have it all.
“That was amazing!” exclaims Willow. There is a rawness to Toody that is missing in Willow’s own genetic makeup. Although she was a straight-A English major back at her fancy Northeast college—of which she received a full ride courtesy of a poetry-slam scholarship—she’d so much rather be a seamstress for the grunge band, not that they would ever particularly need one.
“Yeah,” says Toody, through the super-fuzz distortion box. “Anguish! Angst, you know?”
Toody find it easier to communicate his feelings by simply announcing them rather than going through the laborious process of having others attempt to decipher them.
“We going out tonight?” asks Willow. “Been looking forward to it all day. Yesterday was a tough one at work. Three customers! I’m exhausted!”
“No,” says Toody, still speaking through his box. “Have to practice my guitar-solo prance. Like, when the guitarist does his solos, or would if he could play and I have nothing else to do but to just stand there. Like then.”
“Maybe another time,” she says.
“Maybe,” says Toody. His attention dissipates like a simile of something or other. “Then again, maybe not. Tormentttt!”
His heroin-induced insouciance is delicious. Willow wouldn’t trade it for the world!
“Okay. Well, see ya,” says Willow, as casual as she can muster but not quite as casually as she was hoping for. This is not easy for her. She doesn’t have the knack.
“Cool Ranch,” says Toody, climbing back onstage with a little help from Tad the guitarist. “I’m starting at five feet. Then gonna work my way up—hoping to leap from a fifteen foot speaker stack by the time MTV arrives!”
Willow doesn’t doubt Toody. When he puts his mind to something, he is unstoppable. Like that rock fest he organized in ’88 to shed light on women in the mosh pit. From the stage, as three women were being terribly injured, he had announced it was “time to allow the feminine species to reign everywhere, even in that most male of arenas: the mosh pit. Open up the pits to girls! I love them girls’ pits!”
Jim Gordon in Rolling Stone had deemed it a great, historical move forward for women. Three women died for the cause, which made it all that much more significant.
“Okay, well, talk to you soon,” says Willow.
Toody says nothing.
Willow walks out of the practice space and back into her own apartment. There are twelve large apartments in this four-story building on Capitol Hill.
Willow is friends with every Gen X’er within them. This is the way it works in Seattle in the early 1990s. No doors. If a friend wants to chat, they just walk into the next apartment and do so. A den of slack. No doors. I just said that.
In the front of the building, within the courtyard, a fountain burbles soothingly. The rent is $495 a month, way too much for a simple MTV documentarian with a 12-hour-a-week record-store job.
But not too much for her parents back east to pay due to the relative safety of this building’s location and the fountain out front that burbles so soothingly.
Better, each apartment contains huge wood spools and at least one very modern, tremendously large halogen lamp.
Vicky—Willow’s roommate for two weeks now (ever since they met on the plane that landed in Seattle)—is already eating breakfast in the apartment’s nook, just next to the split-bamboo rolled blinds and the milk crate that holds philosophy books stolen from the library.
The two immediately bonded over their love of the Northwest and their hatred of their hometowns back East.
The Northwest is their future.
The Northeast was their past.
Vicky is into swing dancing and plastic hair barrettes.
Vicky is into bands who combine gypsy jazz, Delta blues, Klezmer, Theremin horror and anything involving medieval instruments.
Vicky only cooks “light” but can’t lose the weight she gained in the 1980s from all those fat-free Dove bars.
Vicky draws fliers for alternative bands and staples them to telephone poles. In most cases, she’s sleeping with the lead singer.
Vicky never wakes before noon.
Vicky imbibes boysenberry wine.
Vicky writes and edits her own hand-lettered Fanzine—or “zine”—about the author Naomi Wolfe and third-wave feminism. It has a circulation of ten. She is never without her X-Acto knife, glue stick, and box of crayons. The zine is called “The Wolfe Pact.”
Vicky adores men.
But especially those who are sweaty and unceremonious in their tight black chokers. That’s the way she likes ’em: sludgier and grungier. And they like her right on back, at least for the night.
“Want to meet up later for a drink?” Vicky asks, nibbling on a microwavable stack of “light” waffles. “Maybe rent a party beer ball?” Her Romanian clove cigarette dangles from her mouth. “After work? You could probably use one or five.”
Vicky stubs out the ash next to the syrup.
“Would love to, Vips, but I need to capture the brilliance of my generation.”
Vicky nods. She understands. “Guess I’ll just keep getting high off of life, is all.”
“Besides, we’re waiting for Brendan Bryant to show up in the lot.”
“The inventor of the hacky sack with the new South African colors? From the infomercial? Please! I’ll believe that when I see it!”
“This could really happen. He’ll be in town. I give the odds at 50%,” says Willow. “Want to meet him? I’ll call from the pay phone. Or page your beeper?”
“I’m booked super solid,” says Vicky. “I have my, like, swing-dancing lessons. And then over to the cigar bar to meet Rod. We’re gonna talk about what we can do to help the environment.”
On the wall, behind the television, is a spray-painted message that read:
We shall not EXXONerate!
Next to that one is another spray-painted message, this in MTV font:
Beneath that sign is the word “ESSO.” The word is bookended by other letters so that it spells out:
Handsprayed graffiti slogans make an exceedingly serious environmental point. This is definitely serious business!
But Vicky and Willow have run out of large oil companies to disparage, at least with the names of companies that can be used effectively within other words.
Plus, they imagine that their boomer landlord might not be as socially conscious as they are, which is a shame and a bit sad.
“Wait,” says Willow, picking up her sheepskin-lined denim jacket draped haphazardly across the well-worn couch. “Who’s Rod?”
“The lutist from Bean There coffee shop,” says Vicky, taking another cloved drag.
“Weren’t you sleeping with another lutist?” Willow asks, perplexed. “Who worked at a bookstore that only sold communist manifestos?”
There is only one coffee house in Seattle where everyone of a certain age likes to “hang.” Happily for Vicky, it features local musicians who play medieval instruments. Also board games, such as Life and Candyland.
And serves breakfast cereal and Fluffernutter sandwiches.
And for those who like to eat as if they’re once again a helpless, shit-flicking toddler, strained vegetables and pureed fruits on baby-friendly, divided plates.
“That would be Jethro,” says Vicky. “But he doesn’t play the lute anymore. He plays the hurdy-gurdy. Wait. No, that was Ebeneezer.”
“Super alterna,” says Willow, mentally tabulating the amount of men Vicky has slept with in just the past week. She counts up to ten and stops. The thing about Vicky is that she’s attractive, most certainly, but not in the traditional, cinematic sense. Perhaps that’s why she tends to sleep around more. Or perhaps it has more to do with Vicky constantly announcing in public—even once in line at the Motor Vehicles Administration—that she is very much “in touch with her sexuality.”
Vicky used to have a lame job as a caretaker at a hospice tending to the dying. But it was a McJob run by a strict boss who just didn’t understand Vicky’s need to “have fun.”
She had worked there for an hour before being fired for dancing in her socks to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Behind the kitchen table—linoleum and chrome, retro—is a radio. Vicky flicks on the power. It’s time for “Tellin’ It Like It Is,” Seattle’s daily pirate radio broadcast on 10-watt FM mono station 88.3.
The voice is that of DJ Morning Glory—aka, DJ Truth—the coolest DJ in all Seattle. All Gen X’ers listen each and every morning:
“We’re all in this together. I believe in the human spirit. I believe in love. I’m in love with love. Won’t someone be in love with me? I would love that. And I think you would love that I’d love that also …”
No one knows for certain who the real man is behind this bold, plummy, masculine voice, but the entire city knows what this man represents.
Seattle before the hordes arrive.
Willow and Vicky are grandfathered in. They landed two weeks ago, a few minutes before MTV premiered “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and a few hours after the soap opera General Hospital played a Mudhoney song during a colonoscopy scene (“In ‘n’ Out of Grace”).
Willow sometimes laughs at how innocent she was then: not wearing a stitch of black, and stinking of Country Apple Body Splash bought at a store appealing to the happy.
“He just needs someone to love,” echoes Vicky.
“Sure sounds like it,” says Willow.
“There’s too much darkness and not enough light. Let’s all let in the light! Let the light come shining through! Let’s do this together, me and you….”
“God, I wish I could meet someone this smooth-talking in real life,” says Vicky. “I’m so tired of dating men who don’t talk. Or who just grunt their affections. ”
“One day you might,” says Willow, doubting it. “I’ll see you tonight. If you have a … very special guest, place a hair band around your bedroom’s doorknob.”
“Say hi to Skip,” says Vicky and laughs. “Poor guy has zero game!”
“Will do. Maybe tomorrow we go thrifting?”
“Sounds score,” says Vicky, using the latest in grunge slang. “Sounds real score.”
Willow exits the apartment, clutching an ironic Charlie’s Angels lunchbox that contains her lunch (a PB and J with the crust cut off).
If Willow is lucky, she’ll arrive to work to find Toby the Wonder Pooch dressed as one of the Angels. Or even Charlie, himself!
Willow needs something—anything—to take her mind off the three hours of pseudo-work that exists before her.
She takes the freight elevator down and into the courtyard and past the fountain, then over to her recumbent bicycle with the safety flag (featuring a pirate skull and crossbones) locked against a wrought-iron fence. She attaches her Fuji DS-100 digicam with 3-power zoom to the handlebars with a bungee-chord, facing outward, and presses RECORD.
Can’t afford to lose even one potential shot!
What she is doing is that important.
Not just for her.
The streets are slick, cinematically so, the puddles reflecting back the local attractions: the modernity of the Space Needle, the splendor of Mt. Rainier, the Pike Place Market, where fish is tossed for the amusement of easily-amused locals and foreign tourists wearing pleated jeans.
Seated in her recumbent bicycle, cruising through the city streets on her way to work, earphones attached to her banana-yellow Sony SPORTS Walkman (waterproof, shock proof), Willow thinks back on her college graduation ceremony. She graduated summa cum laude from a school with the Latin motto: Tanto maiore pecunia artium historiam modo consumptis.
Translated loosely it comes out as: “One spends way too much money on an art history major.”
She had been chosen as the student speaker.
Wearing flip-flops beneath her graduation robe, and with Pomp and Circumstance in D Minor warbling over the sound system, Willow had confidently stepped up to the lectern and looked out across the huge crowd.
She pointed to her parents, sitting just a few rows back:
“I want to thank you—and that’s you, mom and dad—for what you’ve provided for me. It hasn’t been easy but I’ve made it!”
She waited for the applause that was sure to arrive. After it did, she continued confidently:
“I also want to thank you for showing me what not to do. And who not to become …”
There were murmurs amongst those in the audience, especially those above the age of twenty-five.
Willow ignored them.
Fuck do they know?
“In your comfortable—“
She practically spit out the word “comfortable”—
“… suburban houses, with your wasteful lawns and your plastic fences to keep out all those scary urban invaders. With your blue BMWs and easy-listening Muzak. With your colorful clothing and easy answers. Like lambs to the slaughter, marching together lockstep straight out of your pens and into the killing fields, without a sound, without so much as one solitary complaint. Pathetic! Ponderous! But I will not do that!”
There was some applause, scattered among the older parents and relatives. Screw them all. They didn’t understand that today was a new dawn. Consumerism was dead. There is no reason for anything.
Slouchin’ toward Slackerdem.
Doin’ nothin’ and nothin’ doin’ …
Encouraged by the positive reception, Willow had continued: “You can take your eighty-hour work weeks and stuff them! You can take your Nike shoes and run circles with them! You can take your German contraptions and drive off a damn cliff with them! It is time for a fresh generation to do what the Boomers couldn’t! It’s time to clean up this mess they left us! Fellow graduates …”
Willow paused. There was only one thing left say:
“BURN THE WORLD DOWN WITH LETHARGY!” she cried.
Willow had once read this phrase in the Anarchist Cookbook she had stolen from a B. Dalton’s. Now was the perfect time to plagiarize it.
Now that’s anarchy!
Throwing her cap into the air—in direct solidarity with those suffering in East Africa, or was it South Africa?—Willow gave the victory sign and pointed offstage.
The song “My Sharona” by the Knack kicked in over the sound system, loud and crunching. The thirtysomethings and olders winced.
Willow danced on stage as some of her braver friends joined her in unity, crazily and uninhibitedly. They boogied and swayed until the graduation speaker—a Desmond Tata? Tonto?, Willow had never heard of the guy, he wasn’t young and he wasn’t handsome—complained until Willow and the rest were dragged off by security.
Guy just wasn’t into the “kook.”
The nerve. Fuck ‘em all. And fuck her parents!
She’d never have to talk to them again! Time for a new and purposeless life in a moister location—
Willow is thrown backwards, out of her recumbent bicycle and onto the street. The force is awesome.
She finds herself staring at a gray sky. What just happened? The sound of South African township music can be heard. Is she hallucinating? A white singer warbling over African backup singers. Is Willow back at graduation? Has everything that’s happened since been a mere hallucination?
Or is she in soggy heaven?
Is musical subjugation a thing there, too?
“Record store girl?”
Willow squints upwards.
It’s Mr. Straight, blocking out the sun, or the sun that would exist if Seattle ever saw it.
The music blasting out from the car is Graceland by Paul Simon, the album Willow considers to be representative of the worst that North American singers in particular, and the Western Hemisphere in general, have to offer.
Her parents listen to it nonstop.
“My god! I’m so sorry! I had a map out, not paying attention!” says Mr. Straight earnestly. He’s practically screaming. “I drive this route every morning but I had a map blocking my view this time! Last time it was the airbag and this time it was the map.”
“On my way to work,” mumbles Willow. “Must get to work to not work …”
“Here, let me help you stand,” says Mr. Straight.
Willow notices his car is a BMW. Just as Wes had told her. With CALIFORNIA license plates. Double figures.
And, as Wes had said, there are no bumper stickers. Not one about ACT UP or the AIDS COALITION TO UNLEASH POWER and not a thing about animal rights.
Who has no bumper stickers? Only those with zero concerns about the world’s complexities, that’s who …
“I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere with this bike,” says Mr. Straight, pointing to the back tire, bent, deflated. “Were you asleep? You were lying back.”
“Recumbent,” mumbles Willow, standing—or trying to. Feels like a twisted ankle. She takes a step forward but falls back, caught just in time by Mr. Straight. It doesn’t look as if she’ll be headed to work this morning to hardly accomplish anything, after all. There goes $15 for her three hours of toil.
“Let me put this in the trunk,” Mr. Straight says, picking up the bike as if it weighs nothing and placing it within his red BMW. He hasn’t even asked permission! “Let’s get you to a hospital right quick.”
Willow is gently led over to the car. Before entering, she takes a glance inside for anything that might signify that this man could be a danger to her and best be avoided—say, a knife, or a rope, or a T-shirt that reads I AM THE GREEN RIVER KILLER.
No. Just a huge and floppy zippered-canvas CD binder with hundreds of vinyl sleeves and one issue of Vanity Fair with a hefty, dowdy woman on the cover.
Willow doesn’t know who this woman is. An overweight actress? A very bloated singer from the vaudeville era?
Willow looks closer. No. Just the new president of the United States, Bill Clinton.
“Hospital’s only ten minutes away,” Mr. Straight says, helping her into the car and running around to the driver’s side. “I can get you there in no time at all! I’ll put the map down!”
He seems most excited by this adventure.
Willow has to admit that it feels good for a man to be paying attention to her. It’s been awhile. The last time Toody had acted all the gentleman had been when he had paid extra for those tighter, higher-end condoms and not the baggier, “loose-fit” distressed variety he typically purchased at the dollar store with pocket change.
“Don’t really think that’s necessary,” says Willow. “Just a bruise. Will be fine. But I do need to call my boss. Can we stop somewhere to call?”
“That won’t be necessary,” says Mr. Straight, pulling out from the glove compartment—and Willow can’t believe this, could it even be possible?—a cellular car phone!
Willow had thought only presidents and balding action stars owned cellular car phones!
“No need,” says Mr. Straight, as if reading her mind. “Just call with this. I use it all the time. For my work.”
“What do you do?”
This guy was important.
“What specifically about Business?”
“Just … Business,” he says, handing over the phone. “Finance. Business. Commerce. Before that, I was involved with environmental matters.”
“My roommate and I absolutely love the environment!” says Willow. “What did you do? Hijack and dynamite whale-fishing boats?”
“No, no! A little of this. A little of that.”
“But what exactly?” asks Willow. “About the environment?”
Mr. Straight shrugs.
Maybe he’s just being modest.
Willow rolls down her window and sticks the six-inch antenna out. It’s expandable. It reminds her of a dog’s penis. She dials the store’s number. It goes through.
This is a technological miracle.
This is like calling from the moon!
“Yeah?” says Skip, in a foul mood even when answering the phone.
“Bet you’ll never guess where I’m calling from,” Willow says, unable to move because of the coiled cord hooked beneath the pleathered handbrake.
“The rubber room?”
“Very funny. From a car. That’s moving.”
“You sell out?”
“Never,” says Willow.
“You coming in today?”
“Don’t think so. Actually … I just got into an accident.” Willow pauses. She whispers: “You’ll never guess with who.”
“The idiot who was in the store buying Aerosmith?” Skip asks.
“Yeah … how did you know?”
“Just a seventh sense.”
“What was he listening to when he hit you?”
“Graceland. Paul Simon.”
“Pathetic. You know what would have been better? ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by the Smiths. Hmmm. What would be number two? Depeche Mode, ‘Enjoy the Silence’?”
“See you tomorrow,” says Willow.
She goes to hang up but can’t quite figure out how. Before she manages to find the OFF button, Willow can hear Skip hurling abuse at a customer who has dared to ask for a Best of Kansas CD.
“Dust in my fucking asshole, you … asshole!”
“What a peach!” says Mr. Straight, when Willow hangs up. He’s overheard the conversation. “Terrific boss you work for there. A real gem!”
Willow laughs. “He’s just a guy who … I don’t know, likes people with good taste.”
“Taste that totally mimics his?”
“So are you saying I don’t have any?” asks Mr. Straight, turning up Graceland. He doesn’t appear disheartened, only mildly curious.
“I’m saying …” begins Willow, but stops. “I don’t know. Who knows?”
She turns down Graceland. It’s only making her sensibility throb.
She ain’t no “NPR Nancy.”
“I suggest that we have breakfast,” says Mr. Straight. “It’s the least I can do.”
Is he asking her out on a date? If so, what exactly would be the harm? She has nothing to do for the rest of the day besides work. And who wants that? Life languidly stretches before her into an empty infinity. All she has is time …
“I would rather see your workplace,” says Willow, staring out the window.
It comes across more boldly than she had intended but she likes the sound of it.
“Would you now?” Mr. Straight asks, with a slight grin.
Willow has seen a million comedies in which a man and a woman meet in a cute fashion, such as in that film in which the rich woman is out walking her dog on a New York City street through gorgeous snowdrifts but then trips and falls over a homeless man who is urinating a heart with an arrow through it and they then instantly fall in love.
Or in that other film about a man smuggling 80 wax-coated balls of hashish in his stomach on that overnight flight from Turkey. He meets a young, gorgeous customs officer at O’Hare who has been put in charge of making sure the laxatives forced down his throat do their job.
It is all very romantic.
But in real life, Willow has never once heard of a woman falling in love after being hit on a recumbent bike by a man in a BMW without a single socially-conscious bumper sticker.
Then again, this doesn’t mean that this relationship couldn’t work. At the very least, she’d get to spend an innocent day at a professional office, with real syndicated comic-strips taped inside cubicles, with actual work being done for a very tangible reason.
She’s always meant to see such a thing.
“Yes,” she says. “I would. Really. But I have to be honest with you.”
“Always,” says Mr. Straight.
“I gave my graduation speech on capitalism and commerce,” Willow announces and waits for his reaction.
His reaction is laughter.
“What’s so funny?”
“For or against?”
“I’d love to hear it one day.”
“Play your cards right and maybe you will.”
Willow can’t believe what she just said. Such boldness! But why not? She’s in the real world now. With real-life adventures! Anything can happen!
The ride to the office takes only a few minutes, but it’s enough for Willow to learn that Mr. Straight’s real name is Kevin Franklin—Kev to his friends and colleagues—and that he’s been in the city for less than one year, originally from Sacramento, isn’t yet married, has never heard of the underground writer Lester Bangs, has never seen the Star Wars holiday special, is twenty-six years old, a man with no greater aspiration than to work very hard at an important job inside a well-lit office, have a few wonderful children, and to live a good, decent life. He attended Lallopalooza the previous year—the first year of its existence—but left early when a “grunge mime” took center stage and spent an hour walking through a driving rain without complaint.
When they reach Kevin’s office, in downtown Seattle, Willow sees that there are many professional chairs, as well as sizeable computers and even a few typewriters and a water cooler or two. There’s a “Fun Hang Area” filled with foosball and pool tables. There’s a large chainsaw-carved wood sign that reads, in block letters, “Your Business Is My Business Consulting.”
There’s even a wood underline beneath “My.”
When Willow asks one of Chip’s cubicled co-workers what exactly she does in this professional office, day after day, week after week, year after year, the woman—in blazer and white stockings—answers, “Commerce,” and Willow nods knowingly. There is an office kitchen and an office meeting space and an empty box of donuts because it is Wednesday and she has been told that the office always has donuts on Wednesdays. There are pens and paper and erasers. Heaps of Xerox paper. Envelopes. A few people working hard. The rest daydreaming about piercing hidden body parts.
She learns more about Kevin: he owns three CDs—Graceland, the soundtrack to the musical Cats; and his latest acquisition, Best of Aerosmith. In Sacramento, he had dated a fellow USC grad named Kerry for two years before she up and moved to Philadelphia to work for Teach for America.
She had broken up with him via registered mail.
Sorry, she had written, I met a snowboarder named Max. He once modeled for Sassy.
Willow passes a cubicle with a sign that reads in fancy, cursive dot-matrix: BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY!
If Willow didn’t know it before she arrived here, she definitely knows it now: this place is important.
“This is Ben,” says Mr. Straight, as a young co-worker approaches. “He’s in charge of trust exercises for the office.”
“Hi,” says Ben.
“Hi,” says Willow. “What are trust exercises? Like you fall into another’s arms? Or you blindfold a person and have them navigate a room?”
Ben laughs. “No, that was the ’80s.”
“What’s the exercise now?”
“Trusting that the company won’t look into your personal information on your computer.”
“That’s terrible,” says Willow. “Who would you ever do that?”
Ben remains silent.
Mr. Straight laughs nervously and pushes Willow along.
“And this is Marcy!” Mr. Straight says, a bit too eagerly. “She’s in charge of Donut Wednesdays!”
Marcy is too busy to talk. She scuttles past like an animated lobster. Willow wonders if all Wednesdays are this busy for her.
“Would you like a donut?” asks Mr. Straight. “Or watery coffee in a paper cup in jazzy purple and turquoise design?”
She nods her head no.
Willow passes a sad-looking man wearing a Baltimore Orioles hat playing computer solitaire. His name is Mike and he’s generally left alone.
So this is what an office is like! thinks Willow. Growing up, she’s only worked as a babysitter for a few dollars. She spent the rest of her free time writing poetry about the unbearable loneliness Emily Dickinson must have felt not being invited to prom.
Emily Dickinson: the original grunger!
Willow passes a Green Peace bumper sticker attached to a cubicle’s wall.
Warrior, thinks Willow. This heroic woman in front of her large computer with the milky-green screen and blinking white cursor is yet another combatant for our beautiful goddess, Earth!
This is all so fascinating, Willow thinks. I could really get into this!
“Hello, Kevin,” says a passing male co-worker, drinking from a huge ceramic mug of coffee.
“Hi, Kev,” says another passing co-worker, this one female, but also drinking from a huge ceramic mug of coffee.
“C’mon, Willow,” Kevin says. “I want to show you my office. Do you like lucite?”
Mr. Straight works in a glass-enclosed office that sits dramatically in the center of it all. And a map of Seattle with giant X’s marked all over.
“What are those X’s?” asks Willow, pointing.
“Locations,” says Mr. Straight, taking a seat in an Aeron chair. Willow recognizes it as the same type her father uses at his law firm. “Of our businesses.”
“Can I look?” asks Willow.
“Sure,” says Mr. Straight, feet up on his lucite desk, arms behind his head.
“So many,” says Willow. She looks closer. “And even some near the record store.”
“We might just bump into each other again soon.”
“Ha,” says Willow.
“You sure you don’t want a donut?” Mr. Straight asks.
“No, I’m good,” says Willow, looking around. It’s all so neat compared to Skip’s office! And no funny rubber chickens! And not a single “NO DUMPING!” sign to be seen!
Willow picks up a round lucite paperweight. She reads it: “‘I’ll take care of it when I get round to it.’”
“And it’s round,” says Mr. Straight, smiling. “It’s funny.”
“It is,” says Willow. She walks over to a small device that holds five metal balls hanging from wires.
“That’s an Executive Ball Clicker,” says Mr. Straight. “Pull back the first ball.”
Willow pulls the far right ball to the side and lets it go. The balls swing back and forth, colliding, clicking to the right, then to the left, then to the right. She watches the movements, the steady and soothing clickety-clicks of its officious rhythmic clickity-swack, clickity-swack.
Yes, Willow thinks, this is even more romantic than the guy shitting out the smuggled 80 wax-coated balls of hashish!
This really could work!
Later that afternoon, after Mr. Straight drops Willow off at her apartment building and drives back to his lame suburban home, after Willow notices a hair band around Vicky’s doorknob, after Willow places an ice pack on her ankle, after she watches MTV’s 120 Minutes, after she tries to fall asleep—not so easy considering the noises of pleasure emanating from Vicky’s bedroom, which, to Willow, sound a lot more like the screams in the final scene of Amadeus, within the madhouse—Willow does eventually fall asleep, and—for the first time in a week—fails to have a dream about Toody ignoring her while he half-heartedly designs his band’s cassette demo, the tape that contains no music, just random sounds of fans applauding his most exceptional, nearly flawless stage dive from a stage monitor.
Mr. Straight had not asked her out for a date—either when he dropped her off or since by phone—but that’s fine.
Willow has a feeling that she will see him again soon. Everyone runs into everyone in Seattle, typically while being filmed while pretending they’re not.
A song can be heard from Willow’s small radio. She turns it up. And sings along.
It’s called “Lazy in Love”:
Lazy ‘bout work, lazy ‘bout school,
Lazy ‘bout dope crunks,
Can’t bother to be cool.
Ain’t no thang, baby:
Let’s be lazy in love.
Lazy ‘bout my folks, lazy ‘bout my friends,
Lazy ‘bout them bills, all that money I get lent.
It’s all good, baby: let’s be lazy in love.
I know you want that diamond ring,
Or at least a night on the town.
But why we need some commitment thing?
Baby, slow it down!
Lazy ‘bout books, and seein’ movie flicks,
Lazy ‘bout the news, so sick ‘a politics,
You heard me, baby: let’s be lazy in love.
Lazy ‘bout my bod, lazy ‘bout my brain,
You better not be inhalin’,
Cause I’ll be sayin: Lazy ‘bout religion,
those people so insane!
Whatever, baby: let’s be lazy in love.
Why you gettin’ outta bed?
I swear this ain’t no fling.
Just need time to think, to sleep,
Can’t rush into no such thing.
I’m Lazy ‘bout!
I’m Lazy ‘bout!
I’m Lazy ‘bout!
I’m Lazy ‘bout!
I’m lazy ‘bout love!
I’m lazy ‘bout love!
I’m lazy ‘bout love!
I’m lazy ‘bout love!
Cause I am L-A-Z-Y,
Too lazy to rhyme!!!!
Excerpt from Slouchers by Mike Sacks. Available everywhere including Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org