Thursday, September 15, 2005

Start Something, Part V


Part V.

He saw the red light blinking first. He hadn’t turned on the light when he got into the room, and it was dark when he returned. After inserting the little card into the slot and turning the brass handle, he pressed inside and saw the tell-tale flashing on the night stand through the blackness like something on an airport runway.
A phone message. Aw shit, he thought. There was only one person it could be.
‘Glad we finally caught you,’ his boss said when John dialed up his cell phone. ‘There’s a major mistake on the income projections, page 12. Figures II-a. and II-b. You know, those graphs?’
John knew. ‘Yes,’ he replied, while his heart belly-flopped into some inner pool of despair. So much for relaxation. Time to leap through flaming hoops.
‘You’ve got your laptop with you, I’m assuming.’
‘Yes, of course, for just this sort of contingency.’ He’d like that one, thought John.
‘Absolutely. Log in, let’s get started. I can wait.’
John booted up the machine.
Start something, the voice rasped in his brain. Start something. The screen came aglow.
He typed in password. The poet walked off into the night, past the lamppost.
Start something. What did that mean? Should he just put down anything? Start
‘Hey. John. Are you with me?’
‘Yes, sorry. I’m just waiting to get booted up here.’
‘Okay. Well, keep your head in the game. This is important …. a great deal of revenue ….. profit margin…..premiere opportunity …. I know you’ve had a long day, but right now, as I’m sure you agree, getting this proposal right and delivering it on time is literally all that matters.’

Two figures had been inputted incorrectly, reversed. When corrected, a red bar on two graphs rose three notches. Fortunately, both graphs appeared on the same page, the infamous page 12. But the page had to be entirely replaced. The binders opened, the faulty pages torn away. Have you got a blank CD with you? his boss wanted to know. Please say yes! Yes, John said.
All that remained was to import the graphs from Excel into the Word file. It wouldn’t work. They tried it over and over, his boss telling him on the phone the steps to take, patient at first, then growing irritated. Small children hollered in the background. John glanced at the digital: 9:02 p.m.
‘How the hell did you get these graphs in there in the first place?’ his boss pouted.
‘The same way we’re doing it now.’
‘What’s it say on the screen?’
‘”Error! Link unknown—“’
‘Fuck.’ The children hollered in the background.
After another hour, and yet another call to someone unsuspecting at home, this time the systems guy, they were able to figure it out. The graphs were inserted, the page finally complete, now it had to get printed out and copied. John had his orders: find a Kinko’s, take the disk there, get eight new pages made, switch ‘em out, deliver the thing and come home.
It was 10:22 p.m. when John hung up with his boss, grumbling. Opening up the yellow pages from the night stand drawer, he located a Kinko’s, open 24 hours. He talked to the guy there to let him know he was coming, and when he asked if he could wait on it, the response was belly laughter and a suggestion to bring a sleeping bag.
Frustrated, John finally was able to at least confirm that the pages would be done and ready by 7:00 a.m. He’d have to come back for them. I hate my life, John thought as he hung up the phone, grabbed the CD and his room card, pocketed his wallet, laden with $17, and left the room again.

In the elevator to the lobby, John heard the poet’s voice again.
Start something, it rasped. He could almost hear the smoke flowing through the poet’s lips, part of the overall message somehow. Start something.
Right now? John thought. What was he supposed to make of it? He assumed that the poet had meant just to start writing. That’s what he’d first taken it to mean. But the more he thought about it, and particularly the more he kept hearing the words in his head, as if there was urgency attached to the message and he wasn’t responding quickly enough, he wasn’t sure. ‘Something’, after all, could mean anything. But surely he couldn’t start anything until he got this ridiculous job, growing more so by the minute, out of his life.
He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t drive until he had to, and by God, he wasn’t going to break that now, at 10:30 at night. So he had called down to the desk, and when he arrived a taxi was waiting. John nodded to the receptionist, stepped into the surprisingly brisk night air once again, the precious CD in his hand, and gave the address to the rotund Italian man, chomping on some sort of trail mix, poised behind the wheel.
‘You know where that is?’ John asked.
‘Yeah, sure,’ said the driver, screeching away. ‘More or less.’
John leaned into the backseat, his eyes closed. He was tired and irritated by where he was, what he was doing. But in another portion of his brain, wheels were turning. The strange night, the encounter with the poet, even the sense of being somewhere odd where no one knew where he was – it was all conspiring to make him wonder if there was some greater purpose for his presence in this town on this night. He could do anything right now, no one would know. Tell the driver to drop him off at a bar, drink for a while, roam the streets, look for a girl, collect bits of this, scraps of that ….. or, he could go back to the room, strike up the coffee maker, hunker down and take the poet’s advice to heart: write lame poems until the sun came up.
Screw it, he thought. Forget ‘good’, forget ‘bad’, I will just start putting things down. What things? What I see, what I care about, how everything connects. It’s what I want to do. And who else cares?
For a while, outside the window, he saw nothing but more gray stone and windows you couldn’t see through (what was the point?), and he had the sensation of being in a maze or a labyrinth. Rodents came into his mind, crawling everywhere. But, really, no matter how bad it was, it was not that bad. At least he had a job. And eventually this would be over, life would go on, they’d get the new business probably, he’d get squat. He refused to get too morose. It was simply not worth the trouble.
Soon the external landscape changed, however, giving way to residences, first upscale, then not so much. The taxicab wound through what might be described generously as a lower-middle class neighborhood. Few lights were on in first floor windows. No one out on the sidewalks. There seemed to be a pallor of the approaching work week hanging over the streets, or maybe John supplied that himself. Who here is happy? he wondered. Who among these looks forward to the dawn tomorrow brings?
The poet stood before him, both feet planted on the cobblestone path. John Francis could not see his face.
The light changed again, garish brightness intruding, working against his imagination. There before his eyes, the oasis for the thirsting suburbanite, the strip mall. Everything you’ll ever need, although most of the stores inconveniently closed. But at the Bank of the USA, the automatic teller machine never closes, money is available even if you don’t have it, this is simply a matter of overdraft protection. Relax. Inside Foot Locker, Talbot’s, Jenny Craig, GNC, shadows stretched out in slumber among the racks, and the computer monitors were shut down and silent. But in the places that really meant business – Target, Stop n’ Shop, WaWa, and, God bless them, Kinko’s – the lights were on and the night shift stood prepared.
At least, the strip mall’s huge sign out on the road said there was a Kinko’s: only John didn’t see it. Not to worry, barked the cab driver, the entrance is around in the back of the strip. Turns out he had been there before. The Kinko’s was technically in the basement, spreading out underneath the Supercuts and Tiger Schulman’s Karate school. Sure enough, they traveled about six miles down the length of the strip and circled around, and John saw a red awning, sheltering its neon glow all alone among dumpsters, landing docks, broken pallets, beer cans, and the pot-holed tarmac. There was no parking, far less light, and a surprisingly slender area of maneuverable pavement given the fact that they certainly must have received fleets of delivery trucks in and out of there all day long. On the other side of the lot, behind the entire length of the structure, there were only woods, tree limbs rustling in the late summer breeze.

The taxi pulled up next to a dumpster, twenty feet from the awning. Kinko’s, 24 hour service, the luminous letters read. John asked the driver to wait. He wasn’t paying, it would be expensed, God bless the firm for these perks. The cab driver shrugged, rolled down his window, produced a cigarette, and lit up. John stood on the chewed-up back lot, and briefly watched as the first puff of smoke drifted silently out of the window, emerging like an emancipated soul.

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