The rain is pounding out of a black sky, hard as stones. It’s spattering on the hood, and I’m driving. All-but invisible, wisps of steam rise where the cold droplets meet the transferred heat of the engine. I hit the lip of the bridge. A sign urges
The road curves right. I take it and pound the pedal. There is a strong, gut-lurching, past-the-point-of-no-return, heart-in-mouth feeling as I break through the aluminum barrier and into space. I am no longer driving. I am a passenger. There is no splash.
It’s 3.40. I’m awake. I’m dreaming. I’m awake and I’m dreaming. The Marlboro between my fingers is burnt down to the filter, and I don’t remember lighting it. I stub it on the nightstand, marking the scratched wood black.
It’s 3.47. I’m sitting on the curb at the 7-11. It’s not too cold tonight, but the odd gust parts my robe and I draw it closed. The concrete of the handicapped parking space is warm beneath my bare feet. It’s not raining. I wait till the air is still and exhale the thick, white smoke. I watch it rise and dissipate. It’s 4.02.
6.20. My alarm is beeping, has been beeping for five minutes. Rise and sigh. Shower. Coffee. Toast, plain. Marlboro. Coffee. Clothes. Toothbrush, toothpaste. I run my fingers through my hair a couple of times, staring at the coffeepot. Cigarette, coffee. It’s five to seven and I’m out the door.
7.15. Bus. Exact change. Around me, the passengers are in every stage of consciousness except wide awake; they’re saving it all for 8-5. The woman next to me has just done her hair and makeup and now she’s nodding off. The smells of the morning are everywhere: a solid, invisible wall of soap and cheap cologne. NO SMOKING.
It’s 8.05 and I’m tucked into my cubicle. I process orders and avoid eye contact. Chatter drifts around the place like smoke, annoying yet insubstantial. Everywhere, people are scheduling meetings, attending meetings, waking up, catching up, following up and touching base. Our corporate colour is grey.
8.45 and I’m stubbing out my cigarette on the fire escape. Five to ten my boss arrives. He looks at his watch. It’s studded with diamond-looking cut glass. ‘What time’d you get in?’ he says, smiling. I say, eight. I can hear him chuckling as he closes his office door.
1.42 I’m eating bad Italian food in a cafe whose name I can’t remember. The owner nods hello to me.
5.13 and I’m on the bus. It smells of sweat and tobacco smoke. It makes its noisy, jerky way back to the suburbs, a giant worker insect leaving the hive to dump refuse.
5.48 I open a book.
6.00 I close the book and reach for the remote. I can’t remember the name of the program, but it’s my favorite game show. I finish my instant dinner as some teenager wins a dishwasher. She’s crying. Coffee, cigarette. No messages.
The gas sloshes around in the can. Be patient, I say. I pour it around – the television, carpet, sofa, table. I hold it up and empty the rest over my head. I hug the can and light a cigarette. SMOKING CAUSES HEART DISEASE. There’s a woof! as everything ignites. I can smell burning flesh and see red, orange, yellow and blue. I’m not screaming. I take another puff.
It’s 3.40 and I throw another butt out the window.
3.47, 7-11, robe, slippers. Cold.
10.27. Work. My boss is stamping around the printer. He’s printed an entire run of reports but forgotten to use the new corporate font. He’s scooping armfuls of paper and dumping them in the recycling bin. ‘Times New bloody Roman’, he’s muttering as the recycling bin fills.
10.34. My boss calls a meeting to discuss the new corporate font. As an addendum, he delivers a lecture on wastage in the office. His legs are crossed and his pants are climbing his shin. He’s sitting there in a conservative grey pinstripe, cufflinks, tiepin. His socks have pictures of Scooby Doo on them.
I bought the gun at a shop downtown. Just put it on the counter and paid cash. I’d never loaded a gun before but it was easy enough. I stick the barrel in my mouth. The steel tastes like blood and dust, and I can smell strong oil. I change my mind and point the muzzle into my temple. I try to capture my last thoughts in mental cement but there’s nothing there. I pull the trigger and everything goes white.
There’s no blast.
3.40. Butt my cigarette.
3.48. 7-11. Beef Jerky. Energy drink. Back to bed.
6.15 and, in theory, my alarm goes off.
7.40. I wake up, double take the time on the clock, shoot out of bed, showercoffeeclothesbus.
9.00 and I settle into my cubicle.
9.45. My boss arrives, asks me what time I got in. I say, eight. He asks to see me in his office.
9.48. I close the door and sit opposite his desk. He asks me if I know what he wanted to see me about. I say, no. I’m thinking, he forgot. He sighs, looks at his keyboard. It’s a blue ergonomic. ‘Punctuality goes a long way with me’, he says. ‘I don’t say this flippantly, but you are an exemplary employee. You are punctual, hard working, cheerful and punctual.’ He says, ‘There’s a position in management coming up. Are you interested?’
4.12. I’m smoking on the fire escape. My tie and jacket are at my cubicle. I am an exemplary employee. I finish the cigarette, climb down the fire escape and go home.
3.40. I wake, turn over and go back to sleep.
9.04. I wake, turn over and go back to sleep.
12.27, I sit at my cubicle.
12.43. My boss comes by. ‘This is great work. Did you finish it this morning?’ I say, yes. I say, what is it? He chuckles, his head bobbing up and down. ‘I want you to know’, he says, ‘I don’t take this flippantly.’
5.12 I’m on the bus. I light a cigarette. The driver gives me an annoyed glare. The other passengers watch me, hungry, as I smoke. No one says anything.
6.18. The TV is on, no sound. I’m sitting in front of the window, sketching the street.
3.40. I wake and turn over. The sketch is propped on the chair by the window. I turn on the light and sit on the edge of the bed, examining my work and smoking. It’s funny – it looks just like the street, but brighter.
7.21 I’m on the bus. I’m smoking, and I’m sketching. On my page, an almost exact replica of the interior of the bus takes shape, with subtle differences: people are smiling, chatting. Everyone, including the driver, looks content, happy to be there.
8.12 I’m sitting on my desk, facing the rest of the office, drawing. It’s almost identical. Almost. People wear small smiles. They look eager. Eyes are bagless. Everyone has a printer. There are no clocks. Computers are off.
9.40 I finish my smoke and return to my desk. My boss is there, looking at my sketch. Frowning, and looking at my sketch. He tells me to sit. I sit. He perches on the desk, looks at me over the sketchbook. ‘Are you happy here?’ Before I can answer, he puts down the pad and raises his hands, palms out. ‘Now, I know this is not the ideal working environment, but we’re committed to improving things.’ He considers the sketch on my desk again. ‘This is great work. Where did you learn these conceptualization/visualization techniques?’ He uses his index finger to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose. ‘You’re a visionary.’
I say, thanks. So now I’m a genius or something, this big visionary. By the next day I have my own office. Smoking inside is frowned on, but in my case it’s a frown that’s half smile, followed by a wink. I spend half my day reading and half my day sketching. Reading fuels my creative process, I tell them. Now leave, I say, you’re standing on my originality. I am no longer a candidate for management. I no longer work for the company in an official capacity. My actual title is Productivity Consultant. Visionary. Exemplary employee.
‘Hi’, she says. ‘My name’s Jude.’
I say, what?
I say, Jude.
‘My name’, she says.
I say, oh.
‘Are you busy right now?’ she says.
I say, yes. I say, I’m always busy.
I close the book and look up at her. I say, what?
She smiles. ‘I just came to introduce myself. Would you like to have lunch?’
I say, no thanks.
‘I didn’t mean today. Anytime. This week, or next week.’
I say, oh.
I say, no thanks.
‘Look, it’s been nice meeting you.’ She smiles again. Her teeth are so white, they’re almost silver.
I eat lunch in the little café whose name I can’t remember. The owner nods hello to me and I order bad Italian. I’m eating and someone sits across from me. It’s the girl. The girl with the teeth.
‘Oh, isn’t this nice?’ she says.
I say, what?
‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ she says.
I say, that depends. Can you be quiet?
She says, ‘How come I haven’t seen you around the office before?’
I say, that doesn’t sound like quiet.
‘I would remember a guy like you.’ She has a run in her stocking.
‘I would remember’, she says. And a scar on her cheek.
‘Why don’t we go for a drink after work?’ she says.
I say, no thanks.
I say, I have drinks at home.
‘Great.’ She says. ‘Your place it is.’
On the bus she’s chattering about something. I don’t even think of lighting a cigarette.
We’re drinking and we’re watching that game show. Jude loves the show. She has this habit of shouting out the answers before the dumb teenagers, and she’s always right. It’s annoying, but I think I like it.
This time the carry-over teenager wins a 13-piece dining set for two. She’s ecstatic. She stops breathing. She faints. She stops breathing, and faints, and her eyes roll back into her head.
Jude is almost crying from laughter. She stops and looks right in my eyes. It’s uncomfortable, but I like it.
‘What would you do if you won that dining set?’ she says.
I say, I don’t know. I swallow.
She puts her hand on my knee. ‘Would you give it to me?’ she says.
I say, I guess. I swallow.
She says, ‘I know you would.’ She says, ‘You’re so sweet.’
And then she’s kissing me.
I wake up well before my alarm. Something is different. I look next to me, and there she is. Jude. I’m sitting by the bed, sketching. Light enters the room and I’m sketching. The alarm goes off, and she wakes. She looks at me, and smiles. She smiles, and comes over. She comes over, and kisses me. She kisses me, and then she notices the sketch.
‘Oh, that’s me! While I was sleeping!’
I say, yes.
‘I love it, oh, it’s so sweet!’ she says.
I say, thanks.
She looks again, hard. ‘It looks just like me.’ She says.
I say nothing.
I look at her.
And she’s right.