A work of fiction
by Ethan Cutler
Every day, Hurl Truman woke up from a dream of treading water at sea. He would look around frantically but see no land in sight. He would slowly realize he was in a dream every time, but he would only ever be half aware. Boredom would come over him in the dream and his treading water would turn into a kind of desperate floating. Eventually he would sink and wake up feeling as adrift as he had felt asleep. But it was routine, and the feeling almost always faded by breakfast. Today, though, the residue hung around through bagel and OJ, through the paper’s front page and the Business section, and it only began to fade by the Science section. The key, Hurl knew, was to just stop noticing the feeling. He was able to function as soon as he slipped into whatever was at hand.
But today he had to really get deep into the paper to forget the feeling. And so when in the Science section he came across an article about a beetle that was killing North American pine trees in huge swaths, he read it with his full attention. But halfway through the piece he fell back into memory and he started to think about mountains in Montana and the Texas desert and the mountains versus the desert and all that. He had moved from Montana when his parents died, his mother two days after his father, about a year ago.
The memories were all-consuming, sharp images that sparked a feeling without calling forth the feeling’s name. He thought of the desert first and he saw it clearly: Dead leaves tumble and click on cracked rock. Fields of crushed quartz twinkle in the mean sun. High clouds condense and dissolve in stringy ribbons. Highway noise can almost be mistaken for a steady ocean breaking. He could look closer: red dust welds itself to all hot flesh. Lost worms brown and crisp on the stovetop rock. Desert grass nods and shushes in the wind. A lizard stretches its neck and aches for water.
The mountains are far off. The mountains where lithe deer hold your gaze and webs of vines hug the trees. Columns of late yellow light hum with bugs. Countless pebbles of that light skitter over quick clear streams. And the swallows’ far off coos call and coo, call and coo. The song like slippered feet on the surface of his brain.
A cream cheese stain on Hurl’s khakis interrupted his early daydream. He went back to his room to change and thought for a second the lump of pillows under his sheets was a person. Then of course he thought how nice it would be to wake up with someone in his bed, still sleeping. To make coffee for someone, to wait around for someone.
He would sometimes wake up and gaze at his rumpled sheets, pretending there was someone there. He would think about making some extra coffee for this hypothetical person while he actually made the coffee. He sometimes played the story out, once even going so far as to bring a mug back to his room and set it down gingerly on his night table. It turned the morning routine into a ritual, and on those mornings when he allowed himself the little delusion, the coffee tasted better. He would find himself noticing little things, is all. The pleasure of warm water over his hands, the swirl of the door’s wooden grain as he left the apartment.
The pretending was so private Hurl had hardly even articulated it to himself. That one morning he brought the mug to his room was the only time he ever felt stupid about it.
But today he ended the nonsense at the bed, put on new pants, and left the apartment for the bus station.
Olive Dermut was horribly aware of the fact that pretty much the only thing worse than living with someone who doesn’t love you is living with someone who loves you and whom you can’t love back. She knew this because for a few years now she had had the sick privilege of waking up sans alarm at six a.m. in the shapeless dark of her bedroom to the faint sight of her husband sleeping like a suckling pig on its back, dead still and mouth agape. She would wake up and study him, trying to will herself to some softness—to see him as she used to. But all she could ever muster was pity, and what kind of a fucking monster can’t feel anything but pity for the man she purports to love? That’s what she had asked her sister a few months ago. Her sister did not, could not understand. Her sister had married her high school boyfriend.
It wasn’t that Olive regretted marrying her husband. Halfway through their first date she had interrupted some banal nonsense he was saying to hit him with a one-two punch to the ego: “Michael, I’m sorry—I’m sorry but can we not talk about the fucking weather and our mutual friend who we both know is a stupid pig? And let’s quit the talk about my job, as if you actually give a fuck about my, I don't know, my daily grind.” Michael looked not only taken aback, but also entirely confused. He said, “I, well, I kind of do want to know about your job.”
A long and unbearable silence ensued until Michael worked up the guts to say, “And you know what? I also want to know about what you ate for lunch and who you’re close to at work and what gave you the little scar on your wrist and I mean to be honest you could really tell me any little thing about yourself and I would be all ears, and frankly, I’m being really forward now, but it’s not too great to hear that you don’t care at all about my day.”
And so the kind of woman who wears dungarees and combat boots, and is described skeptically by older men as "spunky," found herself listening to the kind of literally white-collared accountant who says, "gee" because his Dad said "gee" and Dad is the best. Yes, Olive had married Michael because she loved him. She had married him because he had asked four times, and each time she felt herself more surely in love with this embarrassingly earnest accountant. Still, if you had told a younger version of herself that she would marry an accountant—much less an accountant who liked being an accountant—she would have scoffed and laughed simultaneously in that distinctly liberal aloof way. She was an artist—is an artist, still, and he most certainly is not, and never was. But she came to see him as a sort of hero in spite of how normal he was. Or because of it, maybe. She could never tell him that, but for a long time she really was enamored by how he took the job that was handed to him and devoted his whole self to it, not asking why the numbers must be crunched or what exactly is the societal benefit of number-crunching, but tirelessly doing the tedious job all just so that he could afford to buy Olive decent things she pretended to want.
But there he lay, as boring asleep as he was awake. That’s it, Olive thought. From the beginning there’s a little thing—well, he’s not the most exciting guy in the world—and you dismiss it as cynicism or you say it’s just your fear of commitment. And then twenty years later the little thing comes back and tears the whole thing apart.
She went to the bathroom, closed the door quietly, flicked on the light, and shut her eyes to the brightness. She blinked at herself in the mirror. It was this that killed her. Her skin was looking more and more like dried dough melting off her cheekbones. She would catch a glance of herself in the morning like this and she’d always be surprised by her own visage. Olive’s own image of herself was no longer remotely accurate, so she had to sort of die every morning and re-accustom herself to the person she actually was. Well she thought this way—dough metaphor and all—but she was "catastrophizing," as Michael put it. As she was examining her crows’ feet, she thought she heard Michael open the door behind her and she jumped and smashed her big toe into the wall. She bit down on her lip to stifle a howl.
Olive occasionally spent time at the mirror trying to get herself to be sad, which she found so fucked up that she was sure she would take the practice to the grave without telling a soul. Sometimes she would really end up sad, just bawling about nothing in front of the mirror. But most days she would feel nothing. She would stare at herself and feel nothing and this, she knew, was the real enemy. Some pathetic melancholy she could at least turn into a few thousand dollars by way of a half-baked painting. But the nothing was worse by far. This, notably, was another thought on the long list of thoughts Olive was sure she would take to the grave.
This morning was a worse-by-far-morning. This was the sort of morning that involved trying to mentally replay an episode of Friends in order to avoid thinking about the various unthinkable parts of her own life. For instance, the fact that the car was being fixed so she would have to take the bus to get to a meeting with a gallery owner—this was a thought she was trying to avoid while in the shower. But she failed and the water got cold.
Olive changed her clothes facing away from her mirror. She made coffee and, mug in hand, watered her flowers and her neighbor’s weeds (a kind of tacit game they were playing). She went back to the bathroom and made a face at herself in the mirror. She cooked her scrambled eggs perfectly, which brightened her mood. But then her husband came downstairs so she had to deal with that shit. Michael didn’t even ask why she hadn’t made coffee for him. He just made some for himself, and some more for her. Of course he knew she would have to drink it now, the fucker. Then he read her a Post headline she obviously wouldn’t care about. So she read him a line from a gallery review that was only funny to gallery insiders. He asked her if she had fed the cat, surely knowing she hadn’t. So she fed the cat but gave him less food than normal, somehow feeling like that constituted revenge against Michael. She left the house early, thinking about the one or possibly two-sided silent war she had been waging all morning.
As Olive was walking out she decided she would talk about Michael's psychological warfare with her analyst, who would be impressed by her honesty.
Carla felt someone tugging at the frills of her wedding gown. Someone was pulling with increasing ferocity, and actually it was starting to feel like more than one person when she woke up and felt the familiar tug of little hands on her nightgown (actually an extra-large men’s Yankees shirt). Francisco and Maria were both at the foot of her bed. They had looped their fingers through the holes in their mother’s long shirt and had been whispering to each other for who knows how long. They didn’t realize she had woken up, so she stared and stared at them. The sun was at just the angle where it came through a thin t-shaped gap between the apartment buildings next-door. The little diagonal cross of morning light fell over the sheets at the foot of her bed and onto the chests of her two chattering children. This, she felt, was a blessing from the Lord. It would be a good day.
Carla got up and kissed her kids good morning. She ambled behind Maria and in front of Francisco to the kitchen, where she discovered a white platter covered in cake crumbs. “Oye,” she said and met the kids’ eyes, “There was a lot of cake on that plate when I went to sleep last night.” Francisco’s eyes immediately gave him away as the sweet-toothed thief, but Carla wanted to test him so she asked the kids who ate the cake. Maria pursed her lips and crossed her arms, staring expectantly at Francisco. Carla watched Francisco’s eyes flit from the lack of cake to his grinning sister to his mother, when he finally realized he was trapped. “Mama, I just love your cooking so much. I couldn’t help it.” Crafty, this one. Carla took him up in her arms and brought his face inches from her own. He put on the please-don’t-punish-me-I-didn’t-even-know-it-was-wrong face, which almost worked.
But she knew she had to impose order, so she bent him over the table and slapped the boy’s bony butt while he squirmed. She hated doing this, but what else can you do? When Francisco yelped, she stopped and told him to scram.
Twenty minutes later Carla was at the door shouting, and little feet were racing dutifully. The three of them walked ten minutes to the bus stop. Carla kissed them on the top of their heads and demanded kisses back. They were just about at the age when they would stop kissing her in public. They were already a little wary, in fact, which terrified her. She waved to the bus driver and watched the bus vanish down the road. Carla crossed herself and set off to her own bus stop to go to work.
Work was as a low-level manager at Coors. She had started in the warehouse and then worked her way up to warehouse manager, where she worked her butt off and finally gotten the attention of the main office. After much reluctance from an old HR guy who suspected her of being “an illegal,” she was finally allowed to take the place of the former manager. Her predecessor had groped or at least harassed just about every woman in the office, so she didn’t exactly have large shoes to fill. She’d been managing for a year now and, though Carla didn’t say this often, she was good at it. She knew when people were upset and when they were bored or tired or having a hard time at home. She just knew, and that was really the only skill she needed. She did have to learn to say no to people, which was difficult. Saying no inevitably resulted in people being upset with her, at least temporarily. She took to consoling employees with Fridays off early, which she quickly saw to be the highly effective adult equivalent of consolation by candy.
Carla also had a part-time paid position at the Church. Some of the stricter Catholics at the church gave her hell for working at Coors, but Carla maintained that the Church and Coors were essentially different brands in the same industry. She prayed a lot and gave a few of the tight-asses free beer, so no one complained anymore.
It was a twenty-minute walk from the kids’ bus to the nearest bus stop. A dangerous twenty minutes, too. Not because of the neighborhood, but because it gave Carla time to think. And when she had time to think, she thought about her husband. He was bucked off a high tower at a construction site five years ago. The family had gotten a bunch of money for it, but it meant nothing—obviously. Carla was still grieving. She had hardened since then. She had to become someone who could say no, who could work two jobs and care for two kids. But grief crept in from the edges when there was no one around and nothing that had to be done.
On this walk, on this day, the grief was there, and she was too slow to stop it. Soon she was asking what she had asked a thousand times: where is God in all this? Why had He, who had been with her every moment of her life, left her in her hardest time? She had asked this first to a priest, who promised God was still with her. An empty promise. She asked her sister, who suspected God was testing her faith. This was now Carla’s leading theory. She had struggled her whole life, of course—to finish high school, to get a degree, to get a job, to find a man, to raise the kids—all of it. But she always survived because she rejoiced and suffered with God.
But no longer. She recalled a saying, “laugh, and God laughs with you.” Yes, she thought, when you don’t need him, there He is snug in your chest. But grieve and you grieve alone. Houses filled with friends are empty. Lit windows might as well be dark. Every step is a step through drying cement. But she still walked and she still prayed.
Carla looked up pleadingly at the sky—an old habit from her mother—and asked if she had not struggled enough. If He could fill her silence like he used to. But she heard no answer, and all she saw were the low clouds, a gray ceiling bulging with a terrible weight. She became aware of the awful click of her shoes on the sidewalk. The ground pressing up and the sky pressing down. She sat down against a stranger’s chain-link fence and crossed herself and pressed her palms to her eyes to keep back tears. Her head between her knees now. She was ashamed she could not feel God—just now this occurred to her and made her choke on a sob. She thought she saw a young man staring at her from across the street. She took deep breaths but they caught in her throat. She stumbled to her feet and wiped her eyes. The chain-link fence had pressed a grid of X’s into her back. Crossing herself once more, she walked to the bus.
Carla had taken many deep breaths by the time the bus arrived. She reminded herself to remain positive with a religious fervor. The bus came to a grinding stop and the door hissed open. The driver was the one she knew. “Hi Harry, how are you?” “I’m good, Carla. I’m good, how are you?” “Good, thanks.” And so Carla and this bus driver again preserved the tradition of two-faced pleasantries. (Full disclosure, neither one of them was doing very well, and in fact both were on the precipice of absolute misery.)
There were two people on the bus, neither of whom she recognized. One, a smartly dressed young man who looked like he was doing something very serious on his phone. The other, a woman who was staring listlessly out the window at nothing. Carla took a seat behind them both. She began to imagine what their lives might be like, these two. She examined the fade of the man’s haircut, imagined him cooking dinner for his girlfriend and them staying in on a Friday because why go out when you could have this? He seemed like a good-boyfriend type, so Carla granted him that. What a nice image, she thought, this young man and his girlfriend, a mass of tangled limbs on a frayed couch in a cozy apartment.
The image dissipated and Carla started to think of the woman a few rows up. She was dressed too nicely to be taking the bus. Her hair was beautiful, layered thick with shades of brown in a way Carla would have been envious of ten years ago. It was the kind of hair you would imagine on the head of a CEO. She pictured this woman running some high-level meeting, the balding men at the table all both attracted to her and resentful of her success. Carla grinned at the thought of it.
Eric wrestled his arms from his blanket to slap his alarm and shut it the fuck up. He squinted at his phone’s screen: 7:35 a.m. Only two snoozes, not bad. He swiped the phone open, still squinting, and went to Reddit. He held the phone above his head, close to his eyes. A CNN update about someone who was shot by the police. He tapped the update and skimmed the article. He paused for half a second to look at a blurry photo of a wrongly twisted corpse and a pool of maroon on a sidewalk. Back to Reddit. Upvote, upvote, downvote, upvote, downvote, downvote, downvote. A cat caught under a box running around so that it looked like the box itself was running. Six seconds. A GIF of two politicians yammering, each overlaid with animals’ faces. Three seconds. Wondering for the umpteenth time why anyone would ever pronounce it JIF. It’s not fucking peanut butter. Shift to Facebook. A fifteen second scroll through twenty-nine photos of places You Have to Visit Before They’re Gone. Depressing. An ad for something he didn’t want. An ad for something he didn’t want to want but did want. A five second video of a man walking up to some guy and punching him square in the jaw for no apparent reason. He watched it again, and once more. A three-minute scroll through a Facebook polemical between two fuckwads he kind of knew from Chemistry. Six minutes reading the entire thing even though he could see from the first comment exactly where this was going. Eric inserted a comment concerning the comparative size of a thumb tack and a certain politician’s penis. A winner to be sure. Keep scrolling. Photos of girls Eric kind of knows sporting straightened hair and long, glistening legs in all the same tight black dresses that look painful to walk in. He clicked through, spending half a second on each photo, rapidly scanning each one for beautiful faces or attractive bodies or especially interesting stuff like vomit or people jumping off of large objects. He came to a photo of Jamila in which she was laughing and kind of hanging onto the guy who presumably had made her laugh that hard. 46 second pause. Eric’s chest felt hollow and hot and like a pinball was knocking around in it. Another alarm went off on his phone and scared the living shit out of him. He half-seized in his bed and dropped the phone directly on his face. A seven second string of curses. He looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the idiocy, but of course no one was in his room.
Eric brushed his teeth while reading what someone with a degree in something had to say about something involving healthy living and obesity. Clearly written by someone skinny. You see, OK, Eric commented on the article. OK, fine, you wanna know? I say a fat girl always has someone to talk to. There’s always at least some fat guy who’s ready to settle. But no one likes a fat guy. No one. It’s incredible how people look away and even kind of move away, as if repulsed by a bubble that’s proportional to a person’s actual size. You have no idea. No idea.
He closed his phone, thoroughly angry by 7:50 a.m. His mom had already left for work so he made Eggo Waffles with cream cheese. It’s a classic. Don’t judge. While he ate, he opened his phone to check a political message board he frequented. People were supporting—supporting—the U.S. political system. “You’re all sheep,” he wrote. “Fucking sheeple. Today’s gvmt = tmrw’s ashes.” Eric left the house to walk to the Bee Line Bus, which he believe it or not had to take just to get to the school bus because the lazy public school government shitheads wouldn’t drive twenty minutes out of their way to get a kid who had to go to school. So he had to walk to get to a bus to get to a bus to get to a school to get fucking nowhere. Eric hated walking—it’s a waste of time.
Four people plus the driver sat on the Bee Line Bus when it arrived at the Central & Maple station the usual five minutes late. Eric got on, and while he slid his ticket through the scanner he looked down the length of the bus. He was struck by how everyone on the bus looked like a cow in one way or another. The woman in the front, obviously—the limp wing of arm fat still jiggling from the bus’s hard stop. The skinny guy behind her somehow also looked like a cow, though. He was slumped down in his seat and looking up at the sky through the top of the window. Though he couldn’t even really be said to be looking. His eyes just pointed in that direction. And the lady behind him was easily cow-like, too. She had the dead-eyed stare of the cows you see in documentaries. The ones who leave their tiny crates like once in their awful lives. Eric wasn’t sure if this was a particularly bovine bus or if he just had an abnormal awareness of things being cow-like. Either way, within a minute he had taken his seat and forgotten about the cow thing and everyone else on the bus, too.
Something is caught in one of the bus’s tires. It clicks on the cracked road with every rotation of the wheels. The bus is gray, formerly white, and there’s an advertisement for Claritin Clear on each side of it. Someone used a thick pen to draw a long, curvy mustache on a young girl in the ad. Her mother sports a Hitler mustache drawn in the same pen. Inside, the air is stale and whirls with dust motes that glow in the early light. One passenger holds another’s eye, warily, for a little too long. A few little black pebbles of something skitter on the floor and click against the bus’s walls on sharp turns. Sweaty skin sticks to clothes and dampened clothes stick to the scratchy red seat fabric. The bus bumps and chugs along, taking its wide lefts and making its too-sudden stops. Everyone on board is dimly aware of the bus lurching back and forth and back and forth and the engine’s baritone humming and something else, too, putting everyone into a sweaty daze in which they're both asleep and not.