***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Jason Porter
I was in my bed when the thought came to me: Have we all sunken into a species-wide bout of clinical depression? A severe, but subtle, despondency, germinating in every single one of us. The thought hit me. Smacked me as true. Its flawless pitch rang on and on, adhering to my consciousness like shit on shoe.
I was on my back. My hands making a tent on my sternum. I was staring at the ceiling fan spinning above, its body wobbling gently in reaction to its rotating blades. It was a sort of meditation, focusing on the blades; an attempt to quiet my senses and fall into sleep. As if the thought were not distracting enough, a car alarm went off outside. A squawking robotic bird with Tourette's syndrome. But I pressed on. Still committed to easing my mind, I endeavored to appreciate the beauty of the silence that existed between the beeps and screams of my neighbor's BMW. It was a nearly impossible task, but in those spaces I did find something. I found the calls of the dead. I found the dinosaurs. They said, It started like this for us too. We were down. Nobody noticed because it was gradual. It snuck in like fog. We were moody and sluggish and complacent, and we were too busy eating things to take notice.
In time the car alarm relented. I stared with even greater focus at the ceiling fan. I could hear the buzz of the lighting element in the reading lamp. I was aware of every hair on my body. I itched. I knew that at the very least, I was depressed. I wondered if the depression had always been there. It was not unlike listening to the song "American Pie." You reach a point in the song when you ask yourself, "Have I always been listening to this song?" To answer yes defies rationality, but to answer no discredits your experiential reality.
I reconfigured. I fluffed the pillows. I got fetal. Closing my eyes, focusing inward, I tried to call up something cheerful that might set my thoughts on a hopeful course—a giggling infant, the toss of a wedding bouquet, a grandfather happy to receive a call from his grandson—but all I could think of were third-world viruses that sold newspapers and dissolved brains. I quickly composed a mental catalog of friends, colleagues, former roommates, elderly neighbors, and the anonymous faces who sell me gasoline, deliver my mail, and fill my prescriptions; I uncovered alcoholics, overwhelmed parents, hoarders, diet addicts, news junkies, tabloid gobblers, sexless marriages, teenage diabetics, cell phone dependents, and uninsured back pains resulting from unresolved childhood rage.
I rolled over to get my wife's opinion. She was lost in a gigantic children's novel. Her brown eyes, even bigger behind glasses, were scanning the pages left to right. In her glasses I could see the whole room reflected. I could see the white curtains we bought at a bargain through my employee discount, the matching dressers purchased through the same discount, and a fern that wasn't thriving. I took turns looking at her through one eye while the other was closed, toggling back and forth. From both perspectives she didn't seem to notice I was staring at her.
I said, "Brenda, is it me or is every single person we know depressed?"
She let out a dramatic sigh and slowly closed her book. She didn't want to leave the story. As she turned to look at me she spilled a little bourbon. It's a habit of hers. It drib- bled down her chin and onto her nightgown. She kissed me on the forehead like she was putting a stamp on a letter, and said, "You are." And then as she turned off her light and shifted onto her side, facing away from me, she said, "I'm not."
She wasn't one to dress things up. I let what she said settle, but it did nothing to calm my anxieties. I inched over and held her. She didn't feel dead. Nor did she feel awake. I then reached past her, taking the bourbon from her night- stand, almost knocking over her alarm clock. Like a baby bird being fed by its mother, I held the glass over my mouth for every last drop, enjoying the harsh warmth in my throat and chest.
The bourbon made no difference. I stared at the ceiling fan for hours.
Are you single?
No, I am married to Brenda Champs, formerly Brenda Brynschzchvsksy. She took my name, Champs, not out of some nod to tradition, but because she hated having a name nobody could ever pronounce, including her new husband, me. It certainly wasn't for the children, because we don't have any.
The following morning I found myself no less preoccupied. I was driving to work. My car stereo had been stolen the previous week. I could hear my thoughts too clearly: That man driving that car is sick. That other man driving that other car is sick. I am sick. We are all sick. Something is in the water. It is in the soil. We are all symptoms of a grieving planet.
I was coming up on the backup to the General Eisenhower Bridge. We were all merging to pay the toll. Traffic choked on itself here without fail. Red brake lights flickered. Drivers were greedy about their lanes. Their despair and emptiness reached out to me through the glass and steel and molded plastic. I could feel myself in each car. I was for a moment each of these people. I felt it all. And it was their breath mints that pushed me over the edge.
I realize that sounds a little crazy. But hear me out. I heard their talk radio: awful. I chewed on their fingernails: mindless. I sipped on their lukewarm coffee while gazing at their reflections in the rearview mirror: hateful. I felt the way they dreamed about what might happen next in their lives: lonely, depressing, barely imaginative. But nothing was worse than the breath mints. I carefully imagined breaking them down with my tongue. Pressing them into the roof of my mouth. It tipped the scales. It was revolting. They tasted as if the chemists who design all of our commercial food additives had developed a purely artificial flavor that was in itself the absence of flavor. They were minty, sure, but in such an intentionally absent way. Hardened on the edges by the sharp chemical nontaste of erased calories. It was absolutely horrid. The fact that all these people could suck on these mints, driving along in a limping herd, actively not tasting things—it overwhelmed me. Completely. This was disease. Rot. Evolutionary peril. My empathic sensors, or whatever the hell they were, were overheating. Watching the stuttering cars, and all the miserable, unsuspecting people trapped inside of them, it became obvious that I needed to either confirm or disprove my suspicion. I needed to get some irrefutable science behind this. Otherwise it risked carrying on in my mind like a phantom odor:What is that smell? Is something burning? Maybe I am only imagining that something is burning? Am I imagining that something is burning? Am I burning?
What I needed was an emotional Geiger counter that could objectively measure other people for sadness. I looked at the woman in the car next to me. She was applying makeup during the stops, opening and closing her mouth like a feeding fish, staring at her red lips in the rearview mirror. I imagined holding the Geiger counter to her forehead. I would ask her a question about her children. Were they an accident? What dreams did they make impossible? She would say, "They are the best thing I ever did," and the readout would expose her lie with a pixelated frown.
Starting up the bridge, I looked down at the water. It was the bottom of the bay, where the filth comes to die. Twigs and feathers and candy wrappers were suspended in a gray foam that was undulating along the shoreline. Ahead of me, the sun, charcoal orange and hazy, was beautiful like a bruise. It was hot, and it smogged down on me past housing projects and strip malls and strip clubs and furniture marts, into a shifting desert of corporate parks. About a mile short of our offices, I passed a billboard for a vacation resort that said "Put Your Dreams to the Test." The words were paired with a picture of a doctor in a Hawaiian T-shirt holding a stethoscope up to a piña colada. It was the stupidest thing I had ever seen. I couldn't make any sense of it, but the word test stayed with me. A test. An exam. A questioning.
Which led me to my decisive course of action: I would take a random sampling at work. All the necessary data was waiting for me in the office. It was too simple. The people there are compliant. They do as they are told, like sheep waiting for paychecks. Corralled over to meetings that serve no purpose. Filling out forms they never hear about again. Sitting in on career-development workshops with box lunches and guest speakers who had just flown in from the middle of the country. It was a natural fixture within the terrain, jumping through unnecessary hoops. If I were to ask a few personal questions, assuming the formatting was authoritatively insipid, nobody would be the wiser. That was the plan. I would compose a survey, deftly crafted to root out the true feelings of those around me. If the sampling supported my fear—the gradual but certain emotional demise of the world's population—then, well, I didn't know. I would have to do something. Reprioritize my life. Circle the wagons. Notify the authorities. Conduct more focused research. I would give the epidemic my full attention. This might not be good for my career. I would have to work part-time or take a leave of absence. There would be definite and irreversible consequences. Brenda would not be happy, but who was?
I turned into the parking lot next to the sign for our offices that read "LokiLoki: Everyday Living Is Getting Better Every Day," and found a space by a newly planted tree. The tree still had a tag on it. It was the shadiest spot available.
In the cramped discomfort of my Korean hatchback, I thought up questions that would trigger heartfelt responses from my colleagues. I found an empty brown bag under the passenger seat and scribbled down the following:
—Are you single?
—Are you having an affair?
—Why are you so sad?
—When was the last time you felt happy?
—Was it a true, pure happy or a relative happy?
The last question edged up against a greasy stain left by a pastry that was no longer in the bag. It looked like the wordhappy was going to enter a dark brown hole, as if the entire sentence was a train about to funnel into the side of a mountain. I thought briefly of caves. I imagined an afternoon stroll in the woods leading me to a hillside cavern, and curiosity drawing me in. I would lean against a wall at the very edge of where the outside light was lost to the world's dark interior. I would pause, rub my eyes, adjust to the lack of light, and without realizing it find myself talking to a company of bats. Sharing ideas. Learning about each other's worlds. It turns out they don't particularly miss seeing things. I would say, "I think it is precisely because I see things that I trip over them." The bats would laugh and fly directly at me and then around me and out into the evening.
I began to perspire. The sun, even through the haze, was stifling. The car was becoming a hot house.
I wrote more questions:
—Are you who you want to be?
—Would you prefer to be someone else?
—Are you similar to the "you" you thought you would become when as a child you imagined your future self?
—Is today worse than yesterday?
—If you were a day of the week, would you be Monday or Wednesday?
—What does it feel like to get out of bed in the morning?
A car pulled in next to me. I grabbed for my cell phone and pretended to be in the middle of a conversation: "No, no, no . . . That's putting it mildly . . . Of course not . . . Yes, yes, yes . . . You tell me . . . Well, that takes the cake . . . Absolutely not . . . Are you deaf? . . . That is not acceptable."
It was Bob Grasston. We started at LokiLoki on the same day more than a decade ago. I am a Senior Pictographer, North American Division. I draw the instructional diagrams for the assembly manuals. I can't remember what Bob does, exactly—something involving charts and projections—but I see him every year when they call us in for flu shots. We have consecutive employee numbers.
He was in a cobalt blue sports car that didn't suit him. It was too sleek. Too lecherous. It beeped as he waved his keychain, commanding the car to lock from a distance of several feet. I gave him a nod while I said, "You better believe I mean it," to my phone. He paused, maybe thinking I would get out and walk with him, but then he went on down the footpath toward the Business Development Tower. He was carrying a briefcase and a gym bag. The way his belt cinched his dress shirt into his slacks made him look doughy, like a pork bun with a goatee.
I did some quick calculations:
—Do you realize you have on average another 11,000 to 18,250 mornings of looking in the mirror and wondering if people will find you attractive?
—Do you think people will remember you after you die?
—For how long after you die?
I paused and looked up for more inspiration. The windshield was covered in dead insects. I wondered what it must feel like to have a speeding plane of shatterproof glass catapulting your exoskeleton into flatness.
—Do you believe in God?
—Do you believe in life after death?
—Do you believe in life after God?
—Do you hear voices?
—Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
—Do you think we need more sports?
It was a good survey.
If you were a day of the week, would you be Monday or Wednesday?
I would be a Wednesday, but in a week that went Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday, and repeat.
Every aspect of our workspace was decorated in strict reverence to LokiLoki's official colors: electric salmon and evergreen. Under the buzz of fluorescent lighting the colors could at times look radioactive. Walking through the maze of shimmering office partitions was like getting lost in a durably carpeted cornfield. Stalks of filing cabinets and impermanent desk dividers shot up taller than basketball players. Passing each row revealed another identical row, and the rows extended in every direction. I kept my bearings by looking for environmental markers within the cubicles. To get to my desk from the east entrance, I turned right at the puppy calendar, right again at the cross-eyed honor student, followed by a left at the fat black goldfish with the disfigured dorsal fin.
As a defense against the miserable fabric that covered the walls of my cubicle, I had posted as many photographs as I could find. Anything that might protect me from the obscene company pink. An amateur football player with turf caked on his helmet was crying in defeat. A bull with blood gushing out of its side was chasing after a matador. A frozen beach was littered with plastic bottles and dead seagulls. Some were photos I had taken. Others were cut out from magazines or the newspaper. One of my favorites, of a child soldier, stared down from above my monitor. He was pointing an automatic weapon at me. According to the magazine article about him, he was hardened by cheap drugs forced on him by his captors and from an adolescence that consisted of firing on villagers from the back of a pickup.
I wondered how he would answer my survey.
—I am single.
—I am too young to have an affair.
—What does "future self" mean?
—I believe in death after death after death.
—I like sports. We play soccer, but then somebody shoots at the ball with a gun because they lost, and I want to cry but am afraid that if they see me cry I will get shot or left behind.
—I am sad because my father has been replaced by a teenager in sunglasses. And this same teenager raped my mother before killing her, and now my choice is to be his friend or to have no friends at all.
—Today is worse than yesterday.
I felt that too. Worse than yesterday. I set to work on typing up the survey. I was in the middle of trying to decide which font would be the most therapeutic when Brenda called.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm your wife. I can ask these questions."
"I don't know."
"Well, that's an improvement."
"Okay, I guess I feel like a robot that was programmed to believe it was a little boy, but that just cut itself and to its dismay discovers it can't bleed."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
"I don't know what the fuck it means. What about you? How are you feeling?"
"You shouldn't swear at work."
I could hear people in the background at her work typing and talking business. Brenda works in marketing. She is Senior Sloganeer. She has done very well. She ascended quickly because she scares the shit out of people. I can't say exactly when this started. There may have been a make-over in there. Aggressive outfits and high-tech weekly planners suddenly appeared as if they had always been a part of her life. Maybe some of it was accidentally added to her personality when she got hypnosis to help her quit smoking. Or it might have happened around the time she became concerned with something she referred to as her "core."
"I saw a man that looked like your father panhandling under the President Truman Overpass on the way to work," she said. "I just thought I would tell you."
"What are you working on?"
"Don't get fired."
I tried to hang up first, but she beat me to it.
I added a few more questions:
—Have you ever fallen in love?
—If yes, were you surprised that it, like all other things, faded over time?
—Would you equate this to the way that gum loses its flavor, or more to the way all food loses its heat?
I looked over the questions, checking for spelling errors. I read them aloud, but very quietly, to myself, to make sure they made sense. I decided on a title that I hoped would lend an air of institutional credibility—"Emotional Well-Being Self-Appraisal"—but it still wasn't enough. After a little internal brainstorming I added: "Please complete forms within forty-eight hours and return to the desk of Raymond Champs, Senior Pictographer, Row 8, Pod D (Customer Acclaim, Employee Regard, Product Elucidation, Quantity Assurance, and Technical Support). All information will be treated as confidential." I read it back to myself several times. Would I believe it was an official document had I not written it? Would I get caught? Was this a good idea? I looked up at the child soldier's photo, and his hardened child eyes seemed to say, How the fuck should I know?, while also saying,Why the fuck should I care? He made a compelling argument holding that automatic weapon. I sent the document to print at the laser printer over on the south wing. Fifty copies.
Along the narrow corridor to the laser printer, the wall to my left was real. Real drywall painted a forest green, with windows looking into empty conference rooms. On my right was a series of three-quarter walls that could be reconfigured at the whim of a middle manager. As I walked past, I was able to steal glances in; my colleagues were all tucked into their stations like sailors in their bunks. They all shared a universal slump, their backs to me, their heads bending in toward the glow of their screens. Their hearts had slowed down. They were barely breathing. Soft, inert bodies with all motion isolated to one little hand clicking on one little mouse. That was their only motion, and it was incessant. They reminded me of hamsters sucking on water bottles, but they were clicking and clicking and clicking instead of sucking and sucking and sucking.
Nora Pepperdine was at the printer talking to Charlie Danglish. They were laughing. I didn't like the way he leaned in toward her. He was married. He wasn't young, but he was still athletic and attractive enough to sell things. He had broken the record for most hideaway beds sold in a year, a record he had set himself the previous year. His sales successes catapulted him to the head of the Customer Acclaim department. People, but not all people, tended to like him. He had a disarming smile. He spent a lot of money on dress shoes.
Nora was the object of all of our fantasies. No one needed to confirm this. It was in all of the male eyes, and many female eyes too, whenever she stood up to offer a little pep at one of the all-hands meetings. She had the perk of an Olympic athlete. I hated the perk, but sometimes I imagined myself pressed up against it, asphyxiating myself in the high altitudes of her exuberance.
They were reading my survey. The fresh stack had been waiting at the printer unprotected. That was why they were laughing. Nora's sparkling curls were laughing along with her, and Charlie was still leaning in. He put an arm on her shoulder, as if she might need some support while she laughed. In his laughing mouth were perfect white teeth. I looked at his perfect teeth and imagined the skeleton beneath the salesman flesh.
"I see you have the survey everyone is talking about?" I said it cool. I was focused. This was important.
"Raymond," Nora said, though I had told her so many times she was welcome to call me Ray. "What do you know about this? It's very unusual."
"How does it make you feel to read it?" I asked.
They looked as if they didn't see the connection between reading a survey on feelings and having feelings.
"All I know is I heard that everybody is meant to take it," I said. "It's part of our bi-quarterly assessments, not as a measure of our performance but merely as an opportunity to check in and make sure we are all doing fine, emotionally that is." It was a fib, fluttering out of my mouth like a moth in search of light. I added, hoping it might help convince them, "They don't want us to feel any of this low, quiet crushing that some suspect might be going around."
Charlie's hand awkwardly remained on Nora's shoulder for a moment, until it looked out of place. He must have sensed this. He slowly retracted it and put it in his pocket, and when that wasn't right he crossed his arms against his chest. They both looked at me, uncertain.
"But I could be wrong," I said. "All I know is that I heard Jerry Samberson really wants us to take this seriously, put some thought into it, and open up as much as possible."
Jerry was our boss. People joked that he was born in the company nursery, though I've also never heard it refuted. I don't think I have ever seen him leave the campus. He was the one who thought we should call it a "campus." I stared at Nora a little too long after I had said all of this. I got lost in her curls. They were like ribbons coaxed into coils by master gift wrappers.
I sensed Charlie staring at me staring at her.
I broke the silence. "Do you mind distributing the survey along your aisles? I am sure Jerry will appreciate it. I have to get back to diagrams for the new reversible book closet they are pushing for the holidays." I turned away before they could answer.
I worked on some drawings to get my mind off of the survey. I was at it for over an hour. I must have thrown away five or six drafts. The man I was trying to draw, the man I always draw, Mr. CustomMirth®, wasn't his usual self under my distracted hand. His potato-shaped body was not whimsical enough. It was agitated and shaky. Impatient. His balloon nose was edging perilously on the brink of ethnic. I was unable to work. All I could think about were the answers that would come back to me. And then all I could think about was how exactly I might go about alerting the world to its own infection. Who would listen to me? How could I continue to work while sending out the distress calls? If I wasn't working, how would I pay for a full-page ad in a major periodical?
I heard a throat clear and smelled the thaw of company bagels. Don Ables had entered my cube. Don worked a few cubes down, where he worked harder than anybody else. He was a soft man with milky flesh and hair that stained pillowcases. He lived with his sister. One of them took care of the other. Nobody had met the sister. There was a terrible photo of her on his desk that we all tried not to stare at. The light in the photo was all wrong. Her face was mostly shadow. You couldn't tell how many eyebrows she had.
He looked unsettled.
To break the silence, I said, "In the science-fiction movies you watch, what do the townspeople do when they discover something monstrous from beyond is breeding in the municipality's waste treatment plant?"
"Is this some kind of cruel joke?" He was holding the survey. His small gray eyes looked pinched.
"I'm not sure what you are talking about," I said. I knew exactly what he was talking about and was encouraged by his distress.
"Nora came into my cube and put this on my desk," he said. The words came from deep within his chest. His belly quivered. "At least four of these questions are explicitly targeted at me."
I had never seen Don so upset. Until that moment he had struck me as somebody who, however miserable, felt a certain sense of relief because he would never have to attend high school again. His presence no longer evacuated lunch tables.
"She said that you were collecting them. I don't under- stand what this is about."
"I don't either, Don."
"I don't like it."
For a split second I betrayed myself with the slightest smile, because I was pleased that my questions were uncovering these feelings in Don, but I quickly transitioned to a sympathetic nod, which I hoped masked any trace of authorship. He placed the survey face down in the workspace opposite my computer. I heard his shoes squeak as he walked back to his cube. I thought I could hear his office chair react to his weight. I listened for his tears, or cries, or perhaps a distraught call to his sister. Then I simply began to listen. People coughed. Throats were cleared. Fingers typed. There was whispering through walls. The north entrance beeped as somebody either entered or exited. The lights above hummed in all their institutional cheapness. Deep within the humming I thought I heard a foghorn half a continent away. Everything I thought I heard began to sound muffled by mist. Beyond the horn I heard my mother telling me it was too dark outside to play. Yelling at me from the front porch of our old house, the yellow one with the ivy growing up the sides. Yelling up and down, left and right, because it was quickly dark, and in shadows I could be anywhere and anything; I could be behind the parked car, I could be hiding in a shed, I could be up in a tree. She said, as if talking down a wild cat, "Come in and watch Love Boat."