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At Work



By Mike Quinlan
You said, 'Literature gives form to life,' I remember you saying that clearly. What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens, by itself? I hate all that, all these lies, so many words in all those books. What I like to read in the library is newspapers. I want to know. That old man is reading a newspaper, so is the man with the runny nose. Like me they want to find out what is going on, what is real. They don't have time in their lives for made up things. But I remember you saying that about form. Form. I don't know what that word means. Maybe my brother Jules would know, I don't know. I myself am a certain form, a shape, sitting here with my head emptied out and afraid, that is all...

"Maureen Wendall," addressing her creator, Joyce Carol Oates, in Oates's 1969 novel, Them

Jack has found himself at the edge of the other driver's neighborhood, and the surrounding wind-blown, shape-shifting trees of a late autumn afternoon, not running and not walking, his arms and legs set in repetitive motion with the unwitting yet self-propellant exertion of the hypnotized. Each gangly stride, like the random, spindly patter of a Remington typewriter's type-bars, makes incremental inscriptions in the dirt below, a linear hieroglyphics, exacting yet random. Jack's breathing - an affront to the stillness of the semi-rural subdivision - rises and falls from him like puffs of smoke, a sequenced incantation thickening the air, signaling his uninvited status here. Jack is following the old man, heading towards a pale green and grey house at the end of the dirt road. Jack feels foolish. About 100 yards from the driveway, two cars are parked inelegantly in single-file, still as unvisited tombstones, indifferent to the wanderings of their now errant owners, save for a pair of entangled, undulating car-keys, back and forth like a silent alarm. Two driver's side doors stand ajar in an awkward formation, outstretched limbs frozen as in a tableau.

The division of labor. Such a tidy, obnoxious turn-of-phrase. We're all in this together! The NPR woman had just said it like it meant something, but Jack wasn't really listening, anyway. Driving these ultra-familiar roads, Jack had entered a favored thought pattern of bitter rumination, what pop-psychologists call "tapes." Unwanted interruptions from outsiders to the spell-binding nature of the tapes had the potentiality to enrage poor Jack. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Jack had finished a day's work and was heading home.

Maybe it was his uneven mood, or the glimpsed bumper stickers, talismans of a sort, which came into his purview, revealing themselves phonetically, as the enormous Dodge Durango merged abruptly in front of him from the right-lane, moving right to left like a cable news crawler. His new found opponent had only just appeared, as though conjured, gesturing jerkily with his outstretched left arm. Awkwardly and intermittently the opponent continued to jab his arm, then pull it back, in what Jack recognized as an outward expression of the internal deliberation between composure and retaliation. Through the blanked containment of Jack's car, the scene had the appearance of a silent movie. Shut off and confined. The opponent believed he'd been cut off, just a moment before, and was now returning the favor. Such unwanted intimacies. The opponent's arm then appeared outside the driver's side window, like a distressed elephant trunk, jabbing at the air, middle finger ram-rod straight, then up and down as if in sexual frenzy. "Gross," Jack thought, ready to move on, but then, after spotting the hyperbolic, boastful bumper stickers, "Let's just see where this takes us..."

Hugh Craven picks up a pencil and a scrap of paper, and sits in what Sandy called the breakfast nook, unconsciously stiffening his body so as to keep balanced because the kitchen chairs, for some unknown reason, have wheels on them. He'd not wanted nor liked these chairs, but "the wife," (Hugh's thinking was often formulated as though he were having an imaginary conversation with a sympathetic contemporary), had chosen them, and what did he care. He never did anything but eat in the kitchen. But now he often worked at the kitchen table, as the kitchen was centrally located in his modest (Hugh glowered internally at his own euphemism) home, and was less claustrophobic then the little back bedroom "office" he'd set up almost ten years ago, when they'd first moved here. Still, he felt like a child, scooting around like a toddler, or like the undignified fools he'd seen spinning around in circles with glee in wheelchair infomercials, apparently waiting for the onset of senility in motorized ecstasy. The scrap paper in front of him he'd methodically cut into note card sized squares earlier that year – the remnants of a letter he had drafted and typed up for review a dozen separate times to an attorney in Ft. Lauderdale, so that one side of the paper had little random blurbs of secretly fussed over but (he hoped) quite terse sentences he'd written:

  • umerous calls were not returned by an
  • signed acknowledgment from the benef
  • forms at which point she said she would
  • no court dates or document preparation

But there wasn't time to worry over that letter now. Hugh had to get going to the grocery store for his weekly visit (the scraps of paper were for his grocery list, though he usually never managed to write one out) – which since Sandy's death had become a lonely and somewhat bewildering exercise as he wandered the aisles as though in a trance, confused and embarrassed and emasculated pushing the stupid buggy around like a goddamn woman. Hugh shuffled into the garage, his left arm extending towards the garage opener button by rote, his Dodge Durango facing him like a giant, slothful dog, waiting for its evening walk.

Cherished grudges. Pathetic victories. The opponent was now in Jack's crosshairs. He would follow the rude-as-hell motherfucker home. Give the old man a cheap scare. Jack felt oddly indifferent at this outrageous idea. The grey day, the radio's white noise, the familiar scenery, the dome of individualism and self-satisfaction that was Jack's tiny, claustrophobic car, led him to this decision unconsciously, as the blurring of action and awareness distorted his senses. Unlike the old man, he was not conflicted. Jack's eyes trained on the Durango, fixed forward on it to the exclusion of everything else. His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. The driver of the Durango looked decidedly faded to Jack, like a blank though cracked canvas. Perhaps it was only the effect of the dirty windshield. The grey streets and the rain. They were alone. The driver was in his early-sixties.

The Durango must have become aware that Jack was tailing him, for he'd slowed to a snail's pace, pitching forward at 20mph in a 45mph zone, but Jack was undeterred, delighting in the confusion and panic that the old man must be experiencing. Other cars had to swerve around them, several honking or staring at the two. They were a spectacle. Perhaps next time the old man would think twice, and besides Jack would soon enough end this, zoom past the Durango, issuing his own rude gesture as a final indignity, the coup de grâce of the confrontation. But the Durango suddenly stopped dead in the middle of the road, forcing Jack to do the same. It was a contest of wills. The Durango turned on his hazards. He wasn't going anywhere. For a split second, Jack entertained the idea of moving on (this was getting ridiculous!). But he quickly decided to stay put. He only need reread the bumper stickers to recalibrate his rage. Jack too turned on his hazards, staring forward at the Durango's flashing lights, a decidedly downscale version of Gatsby's flashing pier light. Cars whizzed by the pair, indifferent to the absurd melodrama playing out as they passed.

How long would they sit here? Jack was annoyed, but determined not to cave in. A game of chicken. Jack and the old man sat motionless, not gesturing at all now. The old man was as still as a Buddha. Jack's radio still chitter-chattered on, it too was indifferent. The old man turned off his hazards. The Durango began to lope forward. The sound of the gravel. Jack was beginning to feel his anger cool in the icy waters of humiliation. This was ridiculous! But still, why should he stop now? Jack switched off his hazards, and began tailing the Durango again. The old man turned quickly down a side street, accelerating now. Jack followed at a distance, but still kept pace. He only intended to scare the old man, he'd end this soon. The Durango turned again, into a small subdivision. The old man slowed abruptly, got out of the car. He did not look frightened. He gave Jack the finger as he exited the vehicle, bold as anything. Jack got out too, leaving his door open. The old man says nothing as he nears his front door. Jack follows to the end of the driveway, and then goes no further. The old man goes inside, shutting the door behind him. The drone of an airplane is heard over Jack's head. The old man hears it too, from inside his modest home.

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