— IN MEMORIAM, D.F.W.
The day Milo decided he was in a television show was also the day he died. It was unfortunate the two had to coincide so cruelly, given his long, almost sisyphean pre-occupation with achieving some semblance of recognition or fame.
The conclusion had emerged over course of several weeks, as bizarre little lapses kept accumulating. His missing bottle of Klonopin, for instance—he initially surmised its disappearance was due to the benzoid tendency to hide important possessions inside ovens or between mattresses and then not remember doing so later. But as the search became prolonged and increasingly frantic it came to him. This, he realized, would, from the perspective of a TV audience, be quite the farce—what with the crawling about on all fours and combing the carpet for one that might have perhaps dropped long ago and issuing guttural sobs that could only be described as the gargled squeal of a dying animal, yes—that’s what comedy’s all about.
His suspicions were further justified by the discovery of a tiny hole in the ceiling of his bathroom, just wide enough for a pill bottle, but instead of the pills he pulled out a coaxial cable for what looked like one of those little snake cameras. After this discovery he became unable to go to the bathroom in his bathroom, opting for a bucket by the bed which he would once a day empty into the toilet. He would do so under the cover of his comforter so that no one could even see his shit let alone watch him do it. Five days and a lingering odor later he realized that if they were in fact filming his bathroom they were probably filming the rest of his apartment and hence his shitting in a bucket had just aggravated the whole bathroom thing and blew it up into an actual quirk they would want to put on the show.
There had been a reality show which involved a carefully orchestrated collusion of all those dear to the subject, in which everything, from spouses’ implied infidelities, occupational termination, faking the death of a close relative, etc., would push said subject to the brink of nervous collapse before finally revealing the joke and sending them to convalesce all-inclusive on some pearly white cay. But Milo had thought the show was put on hiatus after that murder-suicide in season three. Perhaps they had re-tooled the premise to be more subtle, surreal, insidious; the slow attrition of possessions, the strange cosmonaut with the oil drum that appears in the smoky shroud of twilight, the HV/AC Van with the periscope always parked near the entrance of the arboretum.
And then his own landlord, Mr.Gesto, confirmed his suspicions when he asked Milo in rare moment of face to face if he had noticed a van parked by the entrance frequently, or anyone poking about the property. Milo told him about the periscope van but refrained from mentioning the cosmonaut. Mr.Gesto nodded, looking back toward the street and grimacing. Then he just grunted and walked on, as he was juggling several boxes of trash bags and what looked like a portable torch.
Now one could have easily dismissed Milo’s claims, if only on the grounds that he had withdrawn so far into his own head he could no longer distinguish extensive terms and their relations as anything but the effective product of his own existence, an existence that was of course irresistibly star-kissed and destined for great recognition. And though he was of somewhat abnormal intelligence, it was nothing prodigal—the sort of intelligence which can recognize and rejoice in the genius of prodigality but only in so far as it acknowledges its own failure to achieve likewise. Neither was his charisma—which surely lent him a certain electric charm in eloquence and gesticulation—of any sort of Ciceronian quality. His appeal was mostly due to a dark handsomeness in his hair and eyes which off-set his more puckish and puerile cheeks and jowl. Milo feared his face would become less endearing and creepier with age, like one of those progeriatric children always glad-handed by talk-show hosts. He would hyperventilate and pace about and imagine time slackening and extending in a broken straight line beyond him as his face congealed into a leathery mask and became swollen and putrescent before finally emptying of meat. This anxiety contributed to the inability to see a dentist even after he cracked his back molar biting into a corn muffin of all things. It was now definitely decayed and hollowed out and probably contributing to his halitosis and gum bleeding and was most likely infecting his jaw and the more he avoided the problem the more time he of course spent fretting over it to the point where he now had recurring nightmares of his teeth falling out or becoming soft marshmallowish knobs that reduced his phonemic inventory to shrill vowel phonations and Xhosan clucking.
Milo had moved back to his home city after he broke up with Mabel, finding a cheap place on the top floor of a Victorian slated for rehabilitation. It was a fairly extensive property on a small arboretum within the city, quite the ideal arrangement; he was completely isolated, yet only ten minutes away from the subway.
He worked in the inventory department for large book chain. One of his main tasks involved the ‘redemption’ of unsold copies of mass-market paperbacks. Every month he collected, following a designated corporate list, a thousand or so books whose covers he would rip off and send to the publisher for a percentile refund. The books themselves were then boxed and thrown into a dumpster. Milo once requested to take home the unused copies, but his manager launched into a lengthy explanation concerning the ‘tricky grey area’ that was the publisher’s legal protection of books meant to be discarded. The absurdity of the whole process soon created a justification for Milo to return late at night and crawl, commando style, through the little swatch of shrubbery lining the back of the parking lot in order to save a few boxes from oblivion. Soon he was collecting books he wanted and marking them in special boxes for later dumpster retrieval, and it got to the point where he was throwing away hardbacks and giant etymological dictionaries and even once the complete gold-leafed edition of In Search of Lost Time. His growing excesses lead of course to a growing paranoia, and he surmised he would have to quit before the next annual store-inventory.
Milo also felt pangs of guilt, which he liked to whisk away with a diatribe about corporate greed or something. But he wasn’t really fooling himself, and he felt bad, getting away with it, though he did nothing to stop doing it, just as he felt bad about spending most his time sleeping in a secret hide-out under the stairs and masturbating on the toilet whenever a certain part-time clerk was working. Milo even signed up for the dreaded Sunday morning shift to spend more time near her. He would watch her from the little nook underneath the stairs. This plan was eventually foiled by a whole clutch of spiders that descended upon him one morning, causing him to burst from the hide-out shrieking soprano and tearing at his hair.
He just could not bring himself to ask her out. This was not due to lack of confidence, but rather to the embarrassment of dating someone whom the others had deemed unattractive during their conversations on the hotness quotient of co-workers. And he understood; she could not have been more than five feet tall, pear shaped and especially bottom-heavy, almost double the proportion of her top half. And she had that granola priestess thing going, lots of shawls and beads, with frizzled curly hair like a mop, extremely pale complexion, almost translucent, very soft-spoken, all smiles, seemingly tolerant of everyone and everything. She bore herself with that certain belief in one’s own spiritual depth; quite foreign to Milo’s sensibilities.
After Milo heard she had given her two week’s notice, he became desperate, attempting to orchestrate chance encounters in cafés, bars, and even at the park by the river where she sometimes went for a run. He once waited down there all evening, until he finally fell asleep on a bench and woke up sometime in the early morning. And he sat by the water until well after dawn, lost in the current’s hypnotic and incessant gyrations, the water so black and oily he could not even see his own shadow.
Milo finally asked the clerk out on her last day under the guise of farewell drink. They met at one of those contrived dive bars churned out from the CBGB algorithm. A constant loop of post-punk was playing way too loud and the well bourbon cost twelve bucks a double. It was overcrowded, with a lot bike couriers and urban farmers and snakeskin-booted hipsters. The dress was an eclectic pastiche of several bygone epochs and betrayed its disjunctive homogeneity.
Milo shuddered and downed his drink in one gulp. After a few more they began to open up, recounting their various life-lessons and trying times that made them who they are today and whatnot. She told him about her conversion to Wicca after a bad relationship ended in restraining orders and mace, and her life goal of becoming an English teacher. She had just passed the Praxis, which was why she was leaving the bookstore. He told her about the break-up with Mabel, and his prolonged writer’s block that was driving him mad.
“You know you should come to my poetry circle”, the clerk suggested. “It would be good for you to write something about Mabel.”
“Oh I have. But I don’t really want to show it.”
“But that’s what I meant—you need to express yourself. And with others. I mean, I think if you shared something with the group, it’d be good for you.”
“I don’t know,” Milo winced. “I think the last thing I need is a forum to jack-off about my own manufactured problems.”
“No, they’re real,” she said softly. “But we have to look past these things. You know, focus on the positive.”
She reached out and touched his hand and looked directly at him, raising her eyebrows in a bambi-ish supplication for him to cheer up.
“It’s going to be OK. You just gotta let it out.”
She squeezed his hand. It was warm and sweaty and somehow conveyed voluptuousness, and he felt a sudden surge of arousal and shame.
“I don’t know,” he said, letting go of her hand and finishing his drink. “This whole celebration of ‘personal expression’ seems suspect to me… Working at the bookstore, seeing what gets sold, it’s the same confessional bulimia everywhere, all our sordid secret lives, like I care about some trust-funder Less than Zero that got himself all strung out, cry me a fucking river. As if, in the face of all the horror in the world, we have convinced ourselves that our problems of narcissistic discomfort and struggle for ‘personal fulfillment’ somehow outweigh our own spoiled grace of not having to starve. And this cottage industry of personal memoirs—like every writer was groomed at Iowa to write personal essays on what it meant to be a writer writing personal essays in all its profound and breathless wonder, like Hallmark pilfering an Emerson stanza and having fuzzy pink bear sing it—that shit, well, I just can’t stand that anymore, all this VALS methodology, aspirational branding, blah blah blah…It’s all Edward Bernay’s fucking fault…”
“That’s terribly cynical,” she huffed. “We have to find our own voice to write; that’s what it’s all about. What would inspire you without that?”
“I completely agree! Sure, being a child of the children of the sixties, I used to think myself special—just like everybody else. I too had dreamed of the some bohemia which would arise spontaneously around me and together we would somehow remain resilient against the boundary spanners and cool-hunters and all the other vampires lurking in the warehouses and bars of whatever neighborhood was prolo enough to be hip that year, but come on! What a marketing scam… Are you going to finish that?” Milo pointed at her drink.
“No…” she said, wrinkling her brow in a worrywart manner that seemed to be her calling card. He took the glass and shook it, stirring the straw about absent-mindedly.
“Mojito.” Milo said, relishing the words in a slurred Spanish. The clerk sighed.
“So what was I saying? Oh yes—I mean, as the years went by, and I kept fucking up my life, it seemed more and more like what I thought I was going to do one day, was rapidly closing in on me, everyday, until it seemed like that one day was almost gone, or maybe had already passed. And I used to tell myself I needed the filth and the solitude and the fucking up—suffering for the Capital A, the mad free-fall and then phoenix-like ascent into the immortal pantheon and whatnot. As if writing were an immaculate conception of great names, and not this ass-fuck, this chopping block for a lost history of the nameless failures—no one who has contemplated suicide would ever say that is why they did it, did because they were ‘too pure for the world’. You do it because you think yourself a pathetic wretch, and you hate even more the narcissism of wallowing in your own pitiful shit that comes with believing oneself a weak, pathetic wretch, and you hate most of all the hyper-awareness combined the total paralytic inability to act that arises from thinking oneself too weak, too base, too vile for existence, while still acknowledging that this belief is itself the fucking apex of masturbatory solipsism!”
Milo was now shouting. He slammed his hand down on the table harder than he expected and knocked a candle off. In his panicked haste he grabbed the wrong end and burnt his palm.
“Fucking Son of Bitch!” Milo screamed, involuntarily flinging the candle at a Stooges poster. All of the sudden the room was silent, due either to survival concerns or the appearance of sacrilege. It does not take much to rattle hipsters; some people had already fled the building and covered it up like they were getting a smoke.
“I’m really sorry,” Milo whispered, ducking his head down and turning back to the clerk. “I…I didn’t mean to just go off like that…I’m not having the best of times right now.”
“It’s OK. It was an accident,” the clerk said sullenly.
A large bald man with hands like baseball mitts suddenly appeared and grabbed Milo by the shoulder.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Wait wait,” Milo stuttered, “it was a complete accident!”
The bouncer shrugged his shoulders.
“Sorry, the bartender flagged you. C’mon.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Milo whined, and then awkwardly stayed seated, scanning the room. Everyone was holding their breath and glaring him. Finally he stood up.
“Well, you want to get out of here?” Milo asked the clerk.
“Yes,” She mumbled, jumping out of her seat and grabbing her pocketbook.
They mulled about outside, Milo shuffling his feet and sighing a lot, the clerk staring off and looking ready to go home.
“Sometimes I think I have PHD,” Milo finally said.
“What’s that?” She asked distractedly.
“PHD? ‘Psychosomatic Histrionic Disorder’—It’s a psychological disorder caused by one’s own psychosomatic belief in having a psychological disorder, and the unshakable, constant anxiety with diagnosing said disorder, though nothing actually seems to fit the symptoms. See, something’s always awry—it’s not quite this or only partially that, and on and on ad infinitum. One would think that the awareness of this disease would lead to its being ontologically negated. Yet therein lies the catch, right? Because acknowledgement of having PHD means acknowledgement of having an actual psychological disease, but that’s exactly what PHD’s premise denies—having an actual psycho-neurological problem, and so you have a psychological disease even though it isn’t one.”
“Did you make that up?”
“Uh…yeah. Of course.”
“You’re funny,” she said shaking her head. “And crazy…”
They both laughed, and a gentle homeostasis returned. The clerk, driving him mad with lust and disgust, touched his hand once more.
“It’s going to be OK; these anxieties fade with time. You’re still so young, what-25?”
“I’m about to turn twenty-seven.”
“Okay, twenty-seven. Look, this is just a passing thing that one learns to deal with with age, like I have, in processing all sorts of feelings of inadequacy toward my sister. I mean, she’s always undermining my achievements. Last thanksgiving, she laughed at my poem of gratitude to Demeter and the Harvest Moon, and in front of my whole family! I was so distraught I had to have several emergency sessions with my ashram.
Milo was tempted to ask her why she had an ashram if she was Wiccan, but instead he looked into her eyes with all the earnest conviction of someone who will say anything for a fuck, and told her, hey, he would never laugh at her poem. In fact, nothing would soothe him more right now, he said, than to hear her own personal expression of the ineffable beauty of the universe and trees and nature and stuff.
And so he found himself in her little eggshell condo, listening to a poem that seemed to be about an erotic encounter between herself and the ocean, sipping sake and biting his lip at the way her sweat pants hugged thick stout thighs, converging and then parting at the pelvis and drawing a creased V around her nascent cameltoe.
When she finished her ocean poem he sprung up and proclaimed it a masterpiece, and that he was now full of passion because of it, and he grasped her hand and kissed it and thanked her, and then, leaning down and delicately whisking a frizzled tuft of her hair to the side, he gave her the Harlequin Heartthrob stare of burning desire. But instead of the expected embrace she withdrew and shook her head. He had too much baggage, and she was trying to learn to be alone, and take care of herself first and repair her credit and finally have the courage to get a listed address and visit Drake in prison to rub it in his stupid face.
Milo stared at her dumbfounded for minute, and then leaned in even closer, whispered, it’s okay—he had wanted her since he first saw her, etc. But she shook her head again and asked if he wanted to hear another poem.
He threw up his arms in a grandiose declaration of chagrin, and then launched into a diatribe concerning mixed signals, such as the of touching hands and the inviting back to condos to listen to soft-core marine poetry and that she surely would never have a chance to be with someone as gorgeous as he. He was yelling now and realizing how drunk he was and already regretting his words but continuing to rant anyway, and then he tripped over her cat as he was heading to the door and knocked over that Klimt print which hangs in everyone’s foyer. And she just stared at him lying on the floor, shaking her head.