Tomlin sits across from me. Pissed. He wants to smoke a cigarette, but he doesn’t do that anymore, and anyway we’re in the café of the Cherry Blossom Hotel. Tomlin’s got a tonsure of white around the back of his head but nothing on top. That’s the first thing you notice. Then the liver spots. Gigantic ones that might as well be birthmarks or bruises for all anybody knows or cares. He’s of an indeterminate ancientness. He’d gouge holes in the ground if he thought the earth could feel the pain. It’s freeing, really. It almost makes me happy. Fifteen minutes with him and I feel fortified, ready to go back and face one more day of blocked up toilets and garbage. I sip my lousy coffee and smoke down to the filter. I crush the butt out on my shoe, and nobody needs to understand.
The Kitchen Staff watches us from behind the coffee counter. Three women who used to work the x-ray machine at the airport. They are harder than pig iron and they stick together. They’ll beat you. I’ve seen them face down snarling dogs with just a chair, a broken bottle, and some language. Glaring over the espresso machine, they look offended by our existence, enraged, as if they can read our thoughts, sure that we come here just to stink up the place and make their lives harder. They comprehend all, see all. And what they see, they despise.
We are your filth-ridden, smoking co-workers.
We are having a cup of coffee. We excremental examples of janitorial wrongness are drinking your coffee. And, of course, I will exhale gray, poison death-fumes all over your asiago bagels.
The Kitchen Staff knows who we are. We know who they are. It’s a hate stand-off. They hate me and my smoking. They hate the fact that Tomlin takes his coffee black. They’re hate generators. They hate the sky, the birds, the flowers, the ocean, your mother, and dirt. Find something. Put it in the café. And they’ll bust hate all over it. The only thing they might not hate is hate, but they probably hate that, too.
In fact, we are hateful.
We’re maintenance. Janitors. Custodial staff. Sanitation engineers. We don’t have a lot to live for, according to Tomlin. He says this all the time and, lately, I’ve almost come to believe him. I’m not saying all janitors are automatically like this; somebody has to clean up the shit. But we’re employed by the world’s first and only fake Chinese hotel. Even if we work like imperial slaves, nothing else does. The lawn is always dying. It, too, stinks and is fake. Garth, the owner, bought lawn-carpets that look like grass and are supposed to eventually become grass. But now they’re just gigantic, rotting mats of corruption, and he knows it. The toilets back up or the pipes explode, weekly.
Eventually, everything stinks. Such is life.
As for us, Tomlin’s still hung over from his fourth divorce. And Marciel, our very own hypersensitive Oaxacan, is a now an Evangelical Spiritist awaiting God’s thunderbolt. The stable one might be Otis. He doesn’t believe in anything but television—not what’s on, but TV itself, the Muse, he says, of our civilization.
The news burbles low from a big-screen near the ceiling. These are strange days. A serial killer has just been given the death sentence in Texas, his execution a media event. Depressing, brutal wars in places we’ve never been taught to locate on a map. The earth hot, ready to pop, and everything dying all at once. We follow the news from the café or from our break room in the sub-basement—Otis shaking his head in dismay at what the Muse hath wrought, while Marciel prays under his breath.
The execution is now being performed in Dallas. The man on a gallows, black bag over his head, arms locked in a heavy leather harness. His picture squared in the corner of the screen: Warren Edward Ames, 35, hard cheekbones, mouth pressed to a single line, all 16 murders sitting in his stare.
“Death by hanging,” says Tomlin. “A classic. Rupture of the cervical vertebrae, laceration of the trachea, asphyxiation.”
“Not true.” He smiles at me. “It’s all in the knot.”
“Don’t tell me you were a hangman before you worked here.”
Tomlin looks at me for a moment, sips his coffee. “I sold Buicks.”
CNN live. Amazing that they would show this on national TV. A verse from the Bible being read for the prisoner, who, the reporter notes, is a professed atheist.
“You didn’t sell Buicks.”
“Buicks,” says Tomlin. He stands up on a chair to flip the channel.
If Tomlin’s still trying to unwrap himself from his divorces, I’m trying to get unwrapped, too. But not unwrapped as in shed, as with skin or hang-ups. Unwrapped as in untwisted, made smooth, ironed out. If I could have one wish, I’d ask for a little bit of that, a little smoothness. In the deep end of the night, the very basement of the blackest, darkest hours of the night, when I wake to hear Beth weeping in the kitchen, I imagine normal life, how smooth it could be. When she weeps and prays at the same time, she sounds like she’s mewing out a different language, spreading tears on herself and the table. Crying for the son we gave up for all the good reasons we both agreed were good. For a son we kept for approximately two minutes and didn’t even name. Beth has recently nailed a crucifix in every room. And that’s where we are as a modern couple.
I tell Tomlin I’m thinking about buying a snake, and he just shakes his head.
“Save your money,” he says. “It’ll die eventually anyway.”
“Well, maybe I’ll feed it.”
“The fuck you will. You’ll forget or your wife’ll start having nightmares and chop it up while you’re at work.”
“Maybe I’ll get two, then. And hide one. So when she kills the first one, I can tell her Jesus raised it from the dead.”
Tomlin sighs, stares into his coffee cup.
We are emotional janitors.
I look to Tomlin as my moral compass. He’s an atheist, he says, which means he can’t pray; he can only hope—for a global nuclear war. He’ll smile and wink and say it’s best for everybody. Square the books. Take it back to before humans got out of control and became an infestation. He’s one of the few people who’ll be happy when all that’s left is smoking ash and twisted rebar. It’s an interesting approach to the world. How bad can things seem if you’re ready to burn at any given moment? Still, Tomlin says it’s not going to matter when some crazy fool rolls a hundred pounds of diesel into the Blossom’s lobby and lets the bitch burn. He says the world is becoming a disease-ridden corpse. Eventually, we’re all going to have to face the consequences. Tomlin is also fond of reminding me that, in lieu of a redeeming bullet in the back of the head, a good low-carbon straight razor costs $5.78. Applying it to one’s own throat costs nothing.
The Kitchen Staff snaps the TV off with their remote.
“One of these days,” Tomlin says, “I’m going to take an axe handle to that espresso machine.”
I nod slowly and glare at the Kitchen Staff with a fierceness.
“What about this,” he says. “Get a horned viper. A horned viper can bite you and you’ll just go to sleep. No pain. Dead in seconds.”
“That’s a myth.”
Tomlin looks at me and raises his eyebrows.
Of all the venomous snakes in Africa, Tomlin, Otis, and I have learned that the horned viper is actually the least likely to bite a human. We know this because the high school football team that stayed up on the twelfth floor five months ago left one in a bathtub. Marciel has a phobia about snakes, and so naturally he’s the one who found it when he went up to unclog the toilet. Since then, the rest of us have done a few snake searches on the internet, and Marciel has stayed as drunk as possible. He’s still going to the Evangelical Spiritual therapist, who told him the snake was a physical manifestation of the Devil—but added that it’s natural to feel anxiety about Satan and that we shouldn’t sublimate our emotions. I don’t think Evangelical therapy has been helping Marciel much considering all the sublimating he’s been doing with the apricot brandy he takes from the kitchen.
My cell phone rings. It’s Beth, so I ignore it. It has been something of a general policy of mine not to answer when it’s Beth. She hired a private investigator a year ago to find out all about our boy. He lives in Arizona now. He’s in preeschool. His name is Robert. I discover her in bed some days, holding the phone to her chest, dial tone carrying out of the receiver, and I wonder was she calling his house again. Our son. Not our son. I’ve stopped asking. Maybe I wonder sometimes how it might feel not to have to come home to this.
In two minutes—less than 113 seconds to be exact—I will have to go get Otis and check out the drainpipes on the mountainside where the hotel plumbing is supposed to empty out. Otis tells me we’re expected to wear hip-boots for the job, which does not bode well.
Garth beeps Tomlin on his walkie-talkie and they have a conversation about the roach problem in the second floor east wing. Guests are upset. Garth is pissed, screaming, his angry little voice coming through the two-way like some kind of Lilliputian tent preacher. But years in the janitorial profession have taught Tomlin to breathe and be the Zen master who speaks calmly and in short syllables. He is Master Po. Master Tomlin, the Silently Angry.
“No,” he says. “Yes. I understand. Right.”
“Can’t you just tell him they’re authentic roaches from Shanghai?”
Tomlin says nothing. He gets up and stalks away, a grim expression on his face.
I pick up our half-full Styrofoam cups and walk through the café. It’s made to look like an ornamental Chinese garden complete with fake bamboo, red paper lamps, black lacquered tables, and an artificial stream that works fifty-percent of the time. Koi can’t live in it, we’ve discovered. On my way out, I place the cups right on the inside of the café’s round, wooden door. Ten-to-one, when some guest walks through it, rancid coffee will go everywhere. Two-to-one, Tomlin will be culling the roaches and Marciel will be sleeping off a pint of sublimation. That means I will get the call, because the Kitchen Staff has made it abundantly clear they can’t be bothered with spills. It means I’ll have to take the hip-boots off and hightail it back up the mountain. Sorry, Otis. You should have prayed more to the Muse.
Abundantly clear. Some things just are. Like the fact that the local villagers of Pine Bluff, Colorado, have no idea what to make of The Blossom. Actually, let’s be real. Nobody has any idea what to make of it—not even Garth, if you decide to qualify him as a person.
Architecturally, it’s about as bogus as a hotel can get, a series of interconnected towers made from cheap concrete and gridded into floors. When I was fifteen, my uncle took me to a donkey bar in Tijuana that looked like that: a parking structure closed off and painted in bright primary colors. The Blossom is essentially the same thing without the donkey. Instead, for lovers of wildlife, there’s the crazed grizzly bear who Tomlin named Claudia, after his first wife, and who occasionally puts the fear of god into the guests by trashing their vehicles in front of them.
In aesthetic terms, the main differences between the Blossom and a donkey bar come down to a few green, tiled dragon corners and fake round windows that help create a sort-of pagoda façade. Ergo, Chinese hotel. Ergo, occasional Pine Bluffians coming halfway up the mountain road or watching from the tree line, bewildered expressions on their faces. Standing in my hip boots, covered in human and animal fecal matter, I have stared back, painfully aware that the tree line was not the only divider between my world and theirs—and burdened with the knowledge that the Blossom presides over everything like the last remaining ruin of an abandoned theme park, a dead world devoted to particleboard and leakage, cheap moldings and graft.
But let’s go with the idea of abundance, get right to the heart of it: me and Otis working our way down the side of the mountain with climbing ropes to unplug the sewer so the waste can run down the mountainside, through the forest, and into town like it’s supposed to. The sewage pipe is about two-hundred feet below, sticking straight out of the earth like a busted rib. And here’s Garth on the walkie-talkie: “Where are you, Otis? Otis? Give me your exact coordinates.” Garth is worried. Garth has had more than his usual four Red Bulls this afternoon. Maybe a fun line of cocaine up his nose. Maybe two.
He walks around most days in a brown silk robe, Ming-dynasty-style with matching slippers, high, trying to look like Wise Old Grandfather. Needless to say, Garth is 36, a straight-up white boy from Hackensack. The closest he’s probably come to China has been the Nee-Hou Restaurant in Trenton. But on a mountain in Colorado, maybe that’s enough. In the nineteen months of The Blossom’s history, the only affectation Garth has missed is the long, Emperor Ming fingernails, which he’s probably growing right now while Otis and I risk our lives for plumbing.
“We can see it,” Otis says into the two-way. “We have visual confirmation.” He slides a little lower on the line and hammers a piton between two boulders.
“Why do you talk like that?”
Otis cranes his neck so he can glare up at me. “Don’t trip, Ellis.”
“I heard what you said. You said, ‘visual confirmation.’”
“You’re trippin’, Ellis. Don’t trip.”
“Oh, I get it. Now you’re all trippin boo, but a minute ago you were, ‘Check. Roger. Visual target in sight, Captain.’”
I laugh my hard laugh. I almost find him funny. I wonder if Otis is going to find it funny when I get to climb back up the line and he has to pipesnake the drain all by his lonesome. I’ll sure as shit be laughing then.
We secure ourselves on either side of the drain. This is accomplished by running nylon ropes through carabineers in Velcro waist harnesses that look like diapers. We’re wearing hip boots because, once we clear the drain, the nastiness will spray out like Hell’s own Trevi Fountain. For chest coverage, we’re wearing brown plastic trash bags. This is because, according to Tomlin (who’s done it before all by himself), it’s impossible to completely get the sewage out of rain slickers, coveralls, or hair. Otis pulls down his goggles and begins to unfold the deluxe fourteen-foot pipesnake.
I look down and imagine jumping. On his list of the twenty best ways for maintenance workers to die, Tomlin has defined number eleven as drowning in a water tower cistern filled with Bushmills single malt. Such a way to die would be, in the words of our beloved employer, the “quintessence of decadence.” With Garth, everything’s the quintessence of, indubitably, without a doubt, the paragon of, essentially.
In the world according to Garth, there are stylish ways to die and gauche ones, some flamboyant, others plain. Strange words from the man who pretends to be a different ethnicity to up his booking rate. But Garth doesn’t know what Tomlin claims to know: there may only be good ways to die; although, some may be better than others. Right now, dangling from a rope for the sake of someone else’s shit, I can’t think of a better exit than a lungful of County Antrim’s finest.
I’m waiting on the café spill call to save me, but it never comes. This means Otis sits on my right shoulder like a baby at the zoo—a large, bald, two-hundred-and-fifty pound baby, smelling of old cigarillos, in hip boots and a trash bag. I’ve got my own goggles on now because I’m the anchorman. And I really hope this works out since I’m staring right into the mouth of the pipe.
The pipesnake looks like a giant segmented bottle cleaner with a corkscrew at the tip. Otis works it in, giving it an angry twist every few inches.
“I hate this job,” he says.
“This job hates you.”
“You been hanging around Tomlin too much. Pretty soon, we’ll be out here looking for your body.”
“Don’t talk trash, Otis. Tomlin knows things. He knows things. You should listen to the man speak.”
“I listened to him,” says Otis, twisting the pipesnake almost all the way in. “Aha. Found the motherfucker.”
“You listened to him. But you didn’t hear him.”
I bend my knees and get ready to push off to the side. Otis will push off of me. And, if all goes well, the blocked-up shit will fire out between us. If all doesn’t go well, my plan is to at least keep my mouth closed.
“Tomlin never said much to me other than I should blow myself up for science,” he says.
We re-thread the ropes and get ready. I coil up as much energy as I can in my legs. Otis puts his left boot against my right shoulder, holds his line with one hand and yanks the pipesnake out with the other. We leap apart. A few hundred pounds of raw sludge goes into the air between us with a hiss. Aside from being coated by a fine sewer mist, Otis and I are mostly unviolated. We wait for the pressure to die down to a garden hose dribble before starting the slow climb back.
“You really think Tomlin knows a lot about science and cadavers and that?”
A few moments pass before Otis finds the energy to say, “Ellis, that’s just stupid.”
Beth has her friend, Lenorah, over with Lenorah’s two kids, Nell and Illy. I don’t know what the kids’ actual names are. Probably Nelson and Illyana. But who’s asking? The important thing is that, if the local toddler contingent is going to be represented, the local septuagenarian population should be present as well—namely Tomlin. He sits with a cup of coffee in the corner of the living room at our computer desk, surfs the net, and talks about as often as I do, which is to say, little. As Beth’s husband, I am required to sit right up next to the kids on the couch. I’m required to participate in socialization with my wife’s new friends, all of whom are fundamentalist Christians in their thirties with children under the age of ten. And they always get around, sooner or later, to the fact that we gave up our boy for adoption.
Tonight, it’s Lenorah: the sighing, coo-cooing, Jesus-loving center of the universe and her perpetually screaming, defecating offspring. But so be it. I got home from my mountaineering adventure, wanting nothing more than to shower off the corruption and go to sleep, only to find Lenorah T-minus fifteen minutes and counting. Enough time to entertain running to the car and flooring it or perhaps a few choice suicide fantasies. Enough time to say, “So be it,” over and over before calling Tomlin. I can always depend on the old smilodon to be free and available, even though to save face he has to say something like, “Well, I don’t know. I might have something going on. You’ll have to call me back.” Just like a schoolgirl. I usually call him later, and whatever it was has mysteriously fallen through.
Lenorah wrinkles up her nose and pokes Illy in the stomach. “Say Jesus loves me,” Lenorah says. “Say Jesus.” Illy gurgles “Jeegis,” before letting go in her diaper and trying to fit her fist in her mouth. Beth and Lenorah rejoice and laugh hysterically. Praise Jesus for such a cute kid. But Illy and I look at each other, and we know: just get the job done. That’s all life can ask. Say Jesus. Then it’s alright. Then you can load your diaper with a modicum of grace.
Much wooden laughter and baby talk from Beth and Lenorah. Though, occasionally they shoot each other highly critical, calculating looks. I wonder if my wife and her friend actually get along or if there’s some unspoken agreement that all fundamentalists must act like distant relatives meeting each other for the first time. Tomlin lets out a belch or my attention wavers, and I see Beth take on a different, yet equally critical, expression—the severe, smoking look of death that a wife usually reserves for younger, firmer women who may be trying to adhere to her man. However, when filth is adhering to your man ten hours a day, it appears that you get to save those looks for him and his buddies.
So be it.
Actually, I am rather undead. With every conversation about the goodness of adoption, I see Beth get a little more fundamentalist. As in “sinking into the fundament.” Buried in it. Brain-deep. She gets fundy and I get zombie. Now the process is almost complete for both of us. I sit, a faint smile on my face, and appreciate the kids. In instances where there are no kids, I nod seriously at Beth’s friends and make the little noises people make when they’re listening. I am allowed one beer. If I put on an especially convincing show, Beth will be satisfied that I’ve done my part and go to bed early, avoiding accusations, weeping, and the invocation of our Lord and Redeemer to brutally show me the error of my ways.
But I know the error of my ways.
“Here you go, Ellis,” says Tomlin. “Here’s your fuckin’ snake.”
There’s a general gasp from the couch. Tomlin points to the picture of a bright green snake with ruby eyes on the computer screen. He has no idea that all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world just shattered at once. Lenorah hisses the way I imagine the snake would if someone called up a picture of a human in its living room and uttered something profane. She yanks Illy into the bathroom to change her diaper, and Illy starts crying.
I don’t want to look at Beth, so I look at Nell. He grins, and I count six teeth in his mouth, three spaced on the bottom and three together on the top. He’s looking at the snake.
“See that shit?” Tomlin winks at the boy and slurps some coffee. “That’s a fuckin’ emerald tree boa. You like that?”
Nell nods his empty little head and keeps grinning.
“I think you’re leaving now,” Beth says to Tomlin, and I know she’s gone pale the way she does right before she starts to shake from too much stress.
Lenorah comes back and says, “No, I think we’re leaving.” She takes Nell by the
hand and carries Illy out the door. Over Lenorah’s shoulder, Illy waves at me with the fist that was too large for her mouth. I wave back. In her own way, Illy’s telling me, let’s face it, tonight there will be crying. And in my way, I’m saying yes, I know. She looks at me with big, mournful, blue eyes and a tiny part of me, deep down, a tiny non-zombified centimeter, feels moved—one worker to another, Illy and I, we understand each other.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Beth expects me to do something about the fact that Tomlin just belched, called up another emerald tree boa on the screen, and cackled like the snake was some kind of dirty joke and he finally got the punchline.
“I’m waving at the kid.”
We look at each other for a moment before Beth stalks into the bedroom and shuts the door. There will be reprisals. There will be screaming. I wait and say “So be it” to the carpet twenty or thirty times, sensing my zombification reassert itself, willing it to rise up and take away that last bit of me that might want to start screaming, too. I feel as if I’m slowly turning to stone or, given my life, at least a low-grade cement statue of a janitor. And I say, so be it. That’s alright. I’ve done my part, my screaming.
This was before Beth had her breakdown. I screamed a lot before she had it, the complete and utter psychotic rip down the center of her brain. The way I imagine it—like the window of an airplane getting punctured at altitude—the contents of her mind sucked out the hole with so much hiss. And then she woke up one day. But she didn’t wake up. And she realized I was there, had been waiting there. But she didn’t realize. And she found Jesus. And she refurnished the interior of her brain. But I’m not fond of the décor.
I say: so be it, and everything’s okay. The adventures of statues are many and various. Statues get to be left alone in this world and probably have fewer problems. There’s always a place for statuary. And the successful ones get put in the Louvre. So there really is no glass ceiling when it comes to a statue’s upward mobility. Glass walls, maybe.
“That didn’t take long,” grins Tomlin. He whacks his paper coffee cup down beside the computer keyboard, and I realize his teeth are not that different from Nell’s. “Now we can get down to business. Did you know you can buy these bitches with a credit card right now?”
In the end, I bought four. Four snakes and no more room on the MasterCard. That’s it. I winced before I hit CONFIRM TRANSACTION but, according to Tomlin, if you’re going to ruin your credit, you might as well do it on emerald tree boas from the Amazon basin. And, goddamn it, he’s right. Thank Jesus. Or don’t. I’ve been walking around all day with one of them in the sleeve of my pink-orange coveralls. It’s wrapped around my arm, and it likes it there. I address it as Satan. I refer to the others as Maltodextrin, Cleano, and Colorado State Birding Trail as these were words I randomly noticed in the break room when I came to work. But Satan is my favorite.
For his part, Marciel talks Spanish to the Devil while pushing a housekeeper’s cleaning cart down the halls, telling the Prince of Darkness to get away, get back, get behind him. And Marciel gives me nervous looks whenever I go by. Maybe he’s seen snaky lumps shift and tighten under my coverall sleeves. Maybe he’s looked into my face and seen a emerald swamp-light there with zombies and snakes—thoughts of my marriage like a half-sunk raft stuck with mosquitoes. The Blossom is there, too, in my eyes, in the center of my swamp, its dragon corners enfolded in a dirty gauze of webs and vines, creepers and mold.
The night of Lenorah’s visit, I sleep little and drink much.
The next day, Beth moves in with her parents in Boulder for a week of complaining and prayer.
Then the snakes move in and Beth moves back.
For the love of sweet whiskey I’ve slept with my new reptilian friends in the Caprice since her return. Seven holy days of snakes and Bushmills, of plungers and mops in the blear-eyed stuporous day, and feeding live, white mice to the boas at night. Stretched out on the Caprice’s backseat, staring up at parking lot lights, I want to jump on Jesus, beat him senseless, and raise my angry little fists to heaven. I want to dive into a cistern of Bushmills and find the mystical portal to County Antrim. To join the Devil’s army and execute the helpless. To load my diaper and hold my breath. The whiskey itself is a serpent, a burning firesnake twisting into my lungs and coiling around my heart.
The snakes move on the seats of the Caprice, slither over the headrests. The mice don’t stand a chance. I’ve been able to tell Satan apart by the blue-gray stripe across his nose. But when he strikes, he’s invisible, like the others. All week, I sat in the back seat while my new friends slid over my thighs. It’s been a weird experience—being part of the hunting landscape. This is what Pine Bluff feels when Garth goes out in his war chariot with his bow like the Emperor Ming of old.
Today, Garth has called the maintenance staff to accounts, to an inquest of sorts. We stand before his mahogany desk—Marciel, Otis, Tomlin, and me, all covered in different degrees of filth. Garth presses his fingertips together. His long nails are coming in nicely. His blond Fu Manchu has gotten downright respectable. He’s wearing a brown satin cap with Chinese characters on it and a yellow T-shirt that says, Boston Marathon 1988.
“You people,” says Garth, “have no values. No value system. No guiding functions. You’re acting like peasants.”
In the normal course of human events, when someone addresses a group with “You people,” a certain amount of hostility usually results. The phrase conjures up white-columned houses and tobacco plantations, red-faced state governors and chain gangs. Nobody wants to be “You people.” But my fellow sanitation engineers just sigh at their shoes, perhaps even in agreement. Peasants. Even Tomlin, especially Tomlin. What I took as Zen remove, as the calm, Master Po-ness of one who’s seen it all and is now wise beyond his station, is proving to be nothing more than tiredness, resignation, peasantry. It feels like a general, unspoken agreement that, yes, we all suck—not just because we’re janitors, but because we’re low-down human specimens.
Maybe we should blow ourselves up for science.
“You need iron balls to be in hotels. IRON. You know what iron is, Ellis?”
I nod. I also know what unemployment is and hate myself for knowing it while nodding.
“Now we have a fucking roach problem, second floor east. And five guests have left. Who’s fault is that? Mine? You guys fucked up. The roaches haven’t fucked up. The roaches are doing their jobs. They’re on-task. That means you guys are, right now, lower than the fucking roaches.”
Garth’s eyes are bugging out slightly from whatever stimulant has frothed him up to this angry place. His blonde Fu Manchu vibrates as he talks. That Garth is a strange cat is beyond question. Maybe at one point, the whole ancient Chinese motif was a put-on. But somewhere along the path toward having us pull his war chariot through the forest so he could shoot arrows at deer, Garth crossed over. He swivels around and sprinkles some incense on the hot iron brazier behind his desk. Then he presses his fingers back together and looks over them.
“You need direction.” He nods to himself. “You need a guiding philosophy.”
Just like the war chariot, his office is done up in red and gold. The black wrought iron incense brazier hangs down to desk-level by a chain. A jade luck dragon slithers across the front edge of his desk. And a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary always sits in an ornate wooden bookstand from the Eastern Han Dynasty, open to the word of the day.
We know about these artifacts because Garth takes the time to explain them. He’ll call one of us in to talk about, say, a forgotten puddle of vomit or a mess left by Claudia, Tomlin’s favorite grisly bear, who likes to rip off trunk hoods and upend cars. Garth will begin in a coked-out furor—all twisted up about how the puke bonded with the hallway carpet at the molecular level and how now everything needs to be ripped out or how Claudia couldn’t get to a bag of dog food and wound up flipping a Corolla down the mountainside in frustration. But Garth’s lectures invariably end with: This is an authentic. AUTHENTIC. Vhass from the time of Cao Cao. Look at it. See that crack? That was made when Hua Tuo delivered his famous speech on the significance of the sunrise. Like that. Garth knows what he’s talking about, as far as any of us can tell. We stopped trying to cross-check him with the internet long ago.
So, when he hands each of us a new copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we hold it in our hands and blink and nod. We’re lower than the fucking roaches, but we can read The Art of War.
“Simply put,” he says, “this is battle. This is conflagration. Chaos. Life is a struggle and you people—maybe not you, Tomlin—but the rest of you fuckers have no idea what’s going on. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. And you’re your own and the Blossom’s worst enemies.” Garth sniffs. His pupils are tiny.
I’d like to say I’ve never been spoken to like this, that I’ve got a smudge of self-respect left on my zombie heart, but I look at my shoes like everyone else. This isn’t the first of Garth’s speeches we’ve had to enjoy. I’m thinking about Satan, who’s traveled up my right arm and coiled around my shoulder. Marciel, looking as contrite as an altar boy, is doubtless dreaming about apricot sublimation or the Prince of Darkness, while Tomlin imagines everyone dead and Otis tries not to trip. But we all look sufficiently browbeaten by the time Garth takes another breath.
“One thing I want for you. One thing—no matter if you keep this job or not—is for you to pull yourselves up. Take responsibility for once in your sorry lives.” He sits back and wipes sweat from under his eyes even though the room is cool and smells of purple lotus. “So I need two things. One, no cockroaches on second floor east. Two, this immortal manual for life and warfare read by this day next week. There will be a test, and then we’ll see who keeps his job. Now fuck off.” Garth puts his feet up on his desk and closes his eyes, exhausted.
Tomlin takes a cigarette out of the pack on the desk and puts it between Garth’s parted lips. Otis lights it. Without opening his eyes, Garth blows a funnel of smoke over his head, where it mingles with the incense. We file silently out of the room and Marciel shuts the door softly behind us. I turn the book over, and read the back: An immortal manual for life and warfare written by perhaps the greatest military thinker of all time.
When I get home, a fundamentalist prayer circle is being held in my living room.
What does this mean, you ask?
I am a man of routine: after feeding five white mice to the boas (Garth’s voice in the back of my head tells me the most enterprising snake should get a one-mouse bonus), I plan to sneak in through the bathroom window for some stealth hygiene. Such an operation consists of showering, brushing my teeth, and shaving as quietly as possible in the dark. I am highly skilled. Catlike, I plan to slip out the window again and drive to the Blossom, where I will park and sleep in the car. But today, I’m worried. There’s a prayer circle in my living room where there should only be dust, vinyl, and remorse.
In a cardboard box in the trunk, I’ve got a bouquet of the silk flowers Beth collects, a new pink satin bathrobe (on which I paid to have a B monogrammed), a white teddy bear Jesus with a plush crown of thorns and a puffy red heart on its tummy that reads, I forgive you because I love you!, and a brand-new copy of Chicken Soup for the Quilter’s Soul to bring my wife’s Chicken Soup collection up to date; though, to my knowledge, she does not quilt. These are the peace offerings I plan to leave in conspicuous locations around the house over the course of several days.
But with ten fundamentalists in my living room, casting prayer circles and calling up Jesus from the netherworld or whatever it is they do, there’s no room for plush teddys and forgiveness. They close ranks; Chicken Soup becomes just another demonic manifesto; and I become 100% sinner in everything for all time. Period. Another possibility—that they’re actually in there waiting for me—means they could be some kind of protestant Inquisition, some kind of radical Christian Schutstaffel, waiting to crucify me over the fireplace with sanctified nails and eat my soul. I peer through the windshield into the big living room window for a few minutes then put the car in reverse.
Man: “What is corruption?”
Jesus: “It’s you.”
The Devil: “It’s nothing.”
Sun Tzu: “Have you looked on the other side of that hill?”
The hill: rooms 144 through 168. The roaches have been uncharitably horny. It doesn’t matter that we’re about to unleash a boiling tide of death-spray designed to kill them all or that such chemicals will probably shorten our lifespans by ten years. It doesn’t matter that we work for a corrupt, coke-snorting asshole who likes to play dress up. What does matter, according to Otis, is deception:
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Otis stands with us outside Room 144, delivering The Art of War as if it were a fiery Baptist sermon designed to cast out demons. He holds the text at arm’s length and looks down his nose through his spectacles, gas mask pushed up on top of his head like a second face turned toward heaven.
Tomlin’s got his own mask down, locked to the PVC collar of his hazmat suit. His breath comes in soft hisses. He sounds like Colorado State Birding Trail the morning I woke up on the backseat of the Caprice with its body outlining the curvature of my skull: don’t worry. Everything will be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. I didn’t have the heart to tell the snakes that I’m the one providing the mice, not some benevolent snake god in the sky. Tomlin isn’t a snake or a snake god; though, he sounds like a monstrous python when he breathes. And he looks like a cartoon armadillo—long snout, dual filters at the bottom of the mask suggesting flared nostrils or some kind of round baleen as if the air were a dirty ocean. Hissing, waiting, Tomlin glares at us, his thumb on the red button of his sprayer.
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy,” reads Otis. “Feign disorder, and crush him.”
“Yes,” says Marciel, oddly sober today and excited, ready for battle.
“Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where you are not expected.”
“In order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger!”
“That there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their REWARDS!”
“¡MATE A LAS CUCARACHAS!”
And with that battle cry, Marciel kicks open the door to Room 144 and opens up, screaming, with his NCC-18 B&G Sprayer, loosing a full gallon of Cypermethrin into the air. Otis and I also start screaming, running back up the hallway, trying to get our gas masks locked to our suits.
We go to the hospital to visit Marciel, who is in surprisingly stable condition after inhaling a massive amount of insecticide. In the small coppice of oaks and willows behind the pathology lab, I release Satan, Cleano, Maltodextrin, and Colorado State Birding Trail back into nature. I would have released them somewhere near the Blossom but for the fact that they are snakes. As a result of Claudia the Bear’s gentle ministrations with the cars in the Blossom’s parking lot, the guests are already nervous. Someone’s grandma would find Satan in her coleslaw and, much like Solomon Kane, the great Puritan witch hunter, I or one of my unfortunate colleagues would be called to destroy the evil with iron and fire.
“You realize,” says Otis, leaning against a tree, “that by letting them free out here, you’re probably killing them. This isn’t their . . .”
“Habitat,” says Tomlin.
I’m not listening. Everything will not be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. Maybe I’m the only one present who understands that. I feel sad as I watch Cleano test the air with his tongue and begin to move tentatively, carefully, under a bramble.
“Dead today. Dead tomorrow. What’s the difference?” Tomlin smiles and shrugs. But, quite frankly, I am sick to death of his phony death-worship shit. Only he survived our war against the roaches unscathed, the Blossom’s WMDs having blessed Otis and me with a certain lingering incontinence. More than any of us, Tomlin had been concerned for his own safety.
I turn toward him with lightning in my eyes: “Tomlin? Why don’t you go blow your ass up for science, you old phony bastard?”
“You’re gonna see,” he screams as I make my way back to the hospital lot. “You’re gonna see as you get old! It all gets worse! Worse!”
Maybe it gets worse. Maybe it gets better. For better or worse, I go home. There are Christians again in my living room. I know they are Christians because their expressions harden when they see me. They’ve finished another prayer circle. I don’t know what for. It must have been a long one because they all look a little drained. They’re sitting around, eating potato chips. Three of them watch a sitcom on my television, laughing when they should. I notice that Lenorah is absent, still recovering, no doubt, from her little, profane adventure at our house.
The guy making my wife laugh is fortyish with a bit of a belly. Young in the face but balding, delicate wisps of blond arcing over his scalp. His smile fades when he looks at me.
“Who’s this?” he asks Beth in the tone and manner of a nervous adolescent boyfriend about to snap.
Beth says nothing, looks at the carpet, stone-still.
“I live here, too,” I say.
Beth looks up at me. Suddenly. Like someone switched on the wattage in her face. “No,” she says, “you live in your car.”
“We put your stuff in the yard,” says the guy. He gives me a little, knowing smile.
“These are my friends,” says Beth.
A man who loses his home and his snakes in the same day is unfortunate, sayeth Sun Tzu. And if he didn’t sayeth it, he should have. It’s late. The Blossom café is empty. The Kitchen Staff sees that I am alone, maybe senses that something is amiss: chum in the water. They circle in the distance, letting their fins break the surface, swishing their tails.
The CNN loop doesn’t show the actual execution. The volume is off. Now it’s Warren Edward Ames looking out silently at the world. The news ticker runs across the bottom of the screen, informing us that the President has announced he intends to go back to school after his term is up. Then a lurid, two-second clip of the gallows, the red jumpsuit, the black bag over Ames’ head.
The Kitchen Staff stares. One of them ventures closer, wipes down one of the small black tables with a dishcloth. A true blue-collar veteran. Her face is leathery, eyebrows drawn in severe arcs. She’s got the forearms of a dockworker. She peers at me, curious. I’m a dangerous property. I’m plutonium. I look pretty worked-over. She’s not sure about me. She might be wiping tables at ground zero. When she straightens up, I see all her night shifts. I see her telling herself she’s hard. The stresses of the years that put their stamp on her. She’s marked by them, the way Warren Edward Ames is marked by what he’s witnessed. And Tomlin by what he hasn’t.
A terrible weariness sits on my heart.
I glance away. I don’t want her to see that I understand her. Because if she sees my recognition and her face falls, if she drops her hostility and stops believing she’s a tough, cast-iron broad, what then? At least, she’s got belief working for her. She’s found something, a shelter. Like Marciel with his brandy or Garth with his Blossom. I stare at my unlit cigarette, at my nails cracked with grime.
“What’s wrong with you?” She’s spooked, holding the dishcloth in front of her body like a protective charm. I smile and light up. But I guess my smile is odd.
“I’m not sure.” I blow a puff of smoke above my head and wink at her.
Garth’s voice crackles over the two-way: “The BEAR!” his precious, little squeal full of coke and dread. “The bear’s in the west lot! It just mauled a Honda! DO NOT GO OUTSIDE! For the love of god. Tomlin. Otis.” Garth weeps, mumbles. The signal breaks off with a beep.
The woman backs away from me, nervous, wary.
“I’ve seen your kind before,” she says. “Crazy eyes. You smell like shit.”
I shrug. Smoke leaks out from the corners of my grin.
“Fuck this.” She throws the dishcloth down and runs for the kitchen.
I want to cry but I smoke my cigarette, smile, and tell myself I’ve got a shelter.
* Note: this story appeared in Gravity, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2009. Buy it here.