This is an excerpt of a story that appears in the current issue of Tin House (#42).
At work today, Thomas the Dead, as he had privately named himself, made a grave miscalculation by using baby talk with a colleague. He had not previously stooped, even with his own child, to baby talk. Why give the boy another reason to look at him in that cold, queer way of his? Nor had Thomas indulged the sweet-toned animal coos that his colleagues babbled at each other when they banked and crashed around the lab on their foolish errands. Thomas preferred last words, the sort of speech to be discharged on one’s deathbed. He guessed that some unpleasant number of decades ago as a teenager, when he wore a full beard and sported a tie with his short-sleeved dress shirts, he must have sounded old and tired and bitterly impatient, a youth who had already drawn firm conclusions on the key issues of the day, back when certainty was a young man’s best chance at securing a mate and avoiding a life of hellish solitude, not that this had worked so neatly for him. Thomas was one for whom speech, the bursting, songlike kind that showed the world what an imbecile you were, was an annoyance that also happened to sour his body like a toxin.
Thomas and the colleague had been refilling their coffees at the same time because he had failed to calibrate his advance on the self-service beverage cart. Thomas’ mistake, like nearly all of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that. Avoidable, avoidable, avoidable. After all, he had seen the colleague approaching, a tumorous, hand-painted mug dangling from her finger. Thus the peril of a bald, unpoliced encounter with her could not have been more glaringly clear, and the blame was squarely in his corner. Possibly it was the way the colleague glided shamelessly past Thomas’ desk. What is it called, he wondered, when you provoke feelings of inferiority and general shittiness in others simply by the way you walk? When your mode of personal locomotion, in all of its devil-may-care mastery, serves as a scold to everyone fat and leaky and ingloriously failed, sitting in their chairs, tired, swollen, and angry?
The warnings didn’t matter. The colleague gusted past his desk, flaunting how unmistakably alive she was. He could smell her superiority and sheer you’ll-never-have-me-ness, the bottled freshness that had shrouded her in a twister of perfume. Can one copulate against such a column of wind, he wondered? Are there handholds? And Thomas, triggered by scent and irritated lust, swallowing a powerful urge to dry heave, sprang after her as if she was riding on a vehicle he suddenly needed to board, despite knowing (or not knowing vividly enough) that he’d only have to wait behind her at the coffee cart and worry the air with his oversized body.
Anyway, Thomas couldn’t fathom how a person who hoped to live through the day could subscribe to such a Lego-ridden fantasy of worker relations the word colleague implied: as if a group of people whose heads were darkened by the very same hovering ass—something he decidedly never learned in night school was the term for how the human voice sounded when the mouth was smothered by an oily slab of buttock—would ever link arms, sing songs, and be massively productive together, just because they peed against the same wall or starched themselves into a stupor on the salted Breadkins from the vending machine every day. Colleague was a dressed-up word for the coworkers who would feast on his chest if they ever found him unconscious in the bathroom, yet she was his colleague, or coworker, or peer, or well, enemy, just the same, and Thomas couldn’t help thinking of England. Really he pictured an old, sodden map of England which, even as it molted in his undisciplined imagination, he knew could not be prodded for even the most glancing accuracy (who policed, he wondered, just how badly people imagined things to themselves?). It wasn’t so very far away, this England, with its bearded men who fought to the death over Plato, who politely disrobed and entered the sexual transaction without a break in their conversational patter, as if it would be the highest rudeness to gasp or cede rhetorical ground at the moment of penetration, even with a half-ready British piece of genitalia that reeked of potatoes.
The colleague walked gaily down the hallway, while Thomas, drafting in her tunnel of outsized merriment, took up the somber rear. The two of them in procession—like a dashing mom with her slob kid in tow, thought Thomas (a kid who was very noticeably older than his mother)—past the outlying desks and mail bins and various lab doors that were fitted with, instead of door knobs, the long chrome lever arms that one normally saw on walk-in freezers. Thomas may as well have called after her: Mommy, wait, and he felt a sudden urge to gurgle, fall to the floor, and rub himself for comfort. Chalk that up to another entirely appropriate response he would never indulge. If only he had a dead body, or was it money, for all of these, uh, unpursued urges.
They were not exactly friends, Thomas and the colleague, but the two of them coffined up in the same stinking, diesel elevator enough times, trespassing each other’s borders with wartime regularity and altogether too little overt treachery, that didn’t it, he thought, merit some kind of default marriage in the end? Was there a better working definition of marriage than a weapon-free battle between exhausted and defeated adults, with an agreement to gaze just above each other’s heads, icing each other out with indifference? Cold War would be the way Ramsey, in equipment, would dismiss it to Thomas, Ramsey who delivered transmissions on married and fathered life whenever Thomas had to sign out gear—a beaker, a tray, and an allergen percolating tool the office referred to as the Bird’s Face—and who frequently just reported the sickeningly early hour he was wrenched awake to monitor his paper-eating, tantrum-spurting kid, a youngster who by 8:30 in the morning was at least four hours deep into his terrible day, exhausted and battle-scarred and as strung out as a torture victim, which, come to think of it, was a pretty adequate description of Ramsey himself. In fact, whenever Thomas tried to picture Ramsey’s boy, he just pictured another Ramsey, and saw two old, redfaced Ramseys chasing each other around an oatmeal-splattered room. Big Ramsey and Big Ramsey, trying to kill each other. A classic story of father and son.
Thomas guessed that at times, maybe in the elevator, the colleague could smell how little he had slept, while in retaliation he could see the sauce stain on her back, or the rumpled tidings of underwear crested over her waist line. That was a fair piece of intimacy, in the end. Shouldn’t they, by now, have already trucked past the romantic swells and decadent fits of sharing indulged by the other middle-aged marrieds, toward a brisker season of restraint and theatrical indifference regarding each other’s mild but steady pain? If they knew each other at all, that is.
For Thomas there was only one outlet for a journey down this hallway—the coffee cart—since he lacked clearance to any of these rooms or freezers or whatever they were. On bright-lettered signs the doors might have cautioned: Carcass Inside. Turn Back! But turning back would draw too much notice, and he doubted he could rear up and reverse course without some kind of verbal narrative support of his decision—I’m turning back now because I’m scared!—and the thought of such a strange and conspicuous outburst, even one more finely stated, made him feel vaguely sick. What kind of idiot does things, then says why?
So off he trotted after her, drugged with regret and adrenaline and the sort of fear that felt like a boring old friend. He had no mug of his own. He’d have to work that out later. And there was an issue with his, uh, pants. Ahem. But for now he was up and at-large and he did his best to gather his face and body into an expression of deep purpose, even if there was none he could rightly claim.
The colleague was a long woman, medically attractive, perhaps intensely attractive. But when Thomas, as was his habit, called up in his mind the nude and indeed the coital prospect with her, simply to work out the mental visualization side of things, in place of vaginal goods, Thomas could only conjure a charcoal sketch of the area, just a shabby pencil drawing of something he was supposed to want to bury his face in and weep with relief into. This bothered Thomas because although he could not draw, he could imagine all sorts of drawings, an encyclopedic catalog of, uh, especially rich imagery, which turned out to be an entirely useless ability.
It wasn’t the specific armature of nudity that he longed for anyway (the canals and curves and rough red patches bursting with boiling hair), but something dutiful in him—as if his erotic strategy was being assessed by specialists—bowed to an elementary form of sexual speculation, and he customarily launched this material on his inner slide show for their sake. Perhaps these specialists would see that Thomas could hew to the national erotic standard. But, if anything, he was fair-minded about his crotch pictures, courteously rendering them from the hips of nearly everyone he passed. The result was a kind of gallery, the mug shots, he called them, and it calmed him to realize that his central-most imaginative act, the vision work he was called to most consistently and which occupied him more than any other creative task, was to flesh out in his mind the sexual organs of everyone he saw and to catalog this data for later use. Mostly the genitage that colored his gallery was rendered from some distillation of a person’s face, that is if the face had been squeezed like a sponge or crushed underfoot. The aesthetics here—what Thomas thought of as his functioning design paradigm, because he had read in one of June’s All About People! folios that we create our private images out of a deep sense of order, logic, beauty, and inevitability whether we like it or not—involved the notion that a dog (or spouse or child or anything we care for and, in particular, feed) comes to look like its provider. Or something from the stronger, more powerful face is sprayed over the weaker face, rendering it nearly identical. There was a funny-sounding scientific rule to be invoked here, whatever it was called. An old biological trick, which makes us think, Thomas guessed, that we are really caring for and feeding ourselves. One’s crotch-stuff should in some way invoke the face, tell a story about it, Thomas felt, or, rather, one’s face should in its lines and swollen crags map the sexual terroir. Someone more poetically afflicted could charge up better metaphors about that one. Or maybe it all just meant that his imagination was severely limited, deriving all of its ideas from the face. He guessed that artists would laugh at how obviously sourced his material was. Or maybe they’d just be bored.
Once they arrived for their coffees, Thomas would have to try to drum up some chit chat with the colleague that would not, when it was analyzed for content and style and delivery, by just whoever gave a shit, get him committed to a home, or tossed in a closet that someone somewhere must keep warm for the miserable and lonely and disturbed. That’s what these people did, wasn’t it? They spoke in cold chunks of wordage and no one ever wept or seized or died. The nearly sexual urge Thomas had to destroy himself through difficult encounters, encounters just like these with women who surpassed him in every measurable way, would provide the sweet subject matter for days of mistake analysis, which Thomas found was as rich a pastime as there was. Now I know what I’m doing this weekend, he thought. It was as though he’d been programmed to do exactly the wrong thing, and not for the first time he pictured a keypad on his back that anyone could access, a sweaty keypad that he couldn’t very well clean without one of those curved brushes. This would be another part of his body that itched and hurt and broke and sometimes bled. Just add it to the list. Fat Men with Itchy Backs, would be the support group he would join. Let’s go program Thomas, all the kids might say, and he would quietly lift his shirt so they could have their fun, tucking himself forward so his belly bulged over his legs. Whose idea was it, this body of his? Do we need yet more reasons to feel disgusting? Or if not a keypad, maybe just a kind of embossed symbolage belted over the high rear ribcage—if you can find my ribs, he thought—raised up in scarred topologies like a cattle brand, so pedestrians and god knows who else could effortlessly dispatch him into crisis and shame and encounters of exhaustion simply by coding him, even as he spent nights at home trying to fashion a utensil that would allow him to take control of the area, or just to shield it from poking strangers.
Protection was what Thomas wanted, from people, their words, their bodies, and the storms they kicked up when they came anywhere near him. Couldn’t the office supply a salt-water receptacle for him to hide away and brine in when there was no actual work on his desk? A casket—upright, translucent, so the others could see him suspended in saline—to keep him from harm?
It wouldn’t matter. He’d sniff out the surplus misery anyway, and grind his face in it until the itch stopped, but pretty fat chance of that.
It had been a day of no apparent weather, with grey cars hushing by like silent tracers, and air so swaddled and wet it seemed filled with foam. Last week at work a streak of birds had been sent forth to pop and burst against the office window. Thomas figured it to be some pageantry tossed off by the city to stuff the sky with some color, but the official word from the listserv was that a new time-keeping system was being tested. He hadn’t bothered to calibrate his watch to it, even as, hourly, birds smeared through the air—fired from one of those pipes, or under their own power, Thomas wasn’t sure—struck the office window, and dropped from sight after the impact. A neat poof, a bright burst of dust, and the bald white clock on the wall clicked off another hour.
No one in the office, as far as he could tell, had even blinked, as if, oh, this kind of slaughter was just a matter of course. And if Thomas never actually saw a pile of birds rotting in the courtyard, such a pile was inferred, wasn’t it, which was quite enough of a worry to nurse until the office lights were browned down at sunset and the employees were released into the streets, so they could stagger home, hump their wooden comfort dolls, and moan into their blankets all night. Or whatever Thomas imagined them doing when they weren’t construing allergic thresholds, putting the beaker to a theory, or just tearing into lumpen sandwiches with a single, angry finger.
That was all history now, sucked into some brownish whatever. There was no one else on their feet now but Thomas and the colleague. Thomas looked back into the cluster and saw sweaty necks and heads, fat red arms. It was error sampling time, at least in his unit, and it was nervous, spastic work. So much lab work resembled one’s early attempts at masturbation. There were angry little bursts of typing, and the group of employees seemed to wheeze as a single beast with one faulty lung. He was careful to silence himself while he walked after the colleague, to guard his breath and keep his pants legs from shooshing. But just because no one was looking at him didn’t mean his pursuit was going, uh, unnoticed. Thomas kept his head steady, but stole his eyes toward the greasy camera, a lens jammed badly into some mottled sheetrock, behind which Solly in the security room would be fastidiously ignoring them. Thomas guessed that Solly’s pants would be shucked and he’d be wrapping a slice of soft white bread around his penis while the security monitors revealed in blue light all the morons who walked and slept and stood and self-groomed around Crawford Labs.
This was the easy part. A straightaway down the lab’s pale hallway that would allow him to get himself together. Big goddamn ha, ha to that. He pulled down his shirt as he walked. He got his thumbs between his belt and pants, deep into his bready sides, but this did little. You can’t very well hang onto yourself! The wise old maxim of someone important who was now rotting in a hole, a phrase lost to needlepoint and coffee mugs. He licked a finger on each hand and worked some dried out spit over his eyebrows. Such pointless grooming. If only he could shed a limb, or just reach inside his face and reshape it so he looked, maybe, just a small bit less Thomas-y. Let’s do a little work on that face, how about? As it was, his face looked as though someone had tried to reshape it, and failed.
The colleague in her cloud of superiority had done her prep in private, no doubt. She was born prepped, Thomas thought, and he pictured her in adult form being birthed in a clean bright room somewhere to a team of scientists, who wiped her off, hosed her down, and fitted her in specialized gear so she could go out and make other people feel bad. She actually, probably, looked forward to such workplace soujorns like this, so she could flaunt her shit here and there and take everyone down a notch.
But was there a lower notch, Thomas wondered? Let’s invent a new notch, underground, and let’s get you all nice and cozy there. He’d find out pretty soon, at the beverage cart, where the basic transaction of drink retrieval, the animal quest for hot, black fluid that Thomas rigorously pursued alone so as not to ever, and that would mean never, have to enter a discussion, would be precisely too long to undertake without some kind of conversational exchange.
The problem was that the beverage cart was lodged all alone in an arena-sized space referred to by the laboratory staff—by pretty much anyone who worked and drank and ate and felt pain at Crawford Labs—as the Moors. The Moors was so misconceived architecturally that none of the so-called founders of Crawford could do anything except stash the coffee cart in it, stain it with some Germanic decorations that seemed spritzed from a hose—a hose with different, ethnic tips—and hope not to die. Somewhere there were architects rubbing their hands together, laughing at the idiots who were daily demoralized in the spaces they designed. Demoralized, crushed, belittled, and then, just for fun, de-sexed in the most complete possible way. Genitals flicked off neatly at the base. Holes smoothed over with one of those Photoshop tools. Bottoms filled in with putty.
The Moors may just as well have had a genital removal station you visited on your way out, water fountain height, retractable into the wall. Tilt in your hips and come back clean. And the egghead architects laughing and pointing, maybe even rubbing themselves into states of ecstasy. Their brains probably sat outside of their heads, simmering in jars of cola. It was a pornographic pleasure, no doubt, to watch people killed in buildings, killed slowly, brought just near death and held in suspension simply by pre-calculated dimensions, by room design. Someone had already thought of this, he knew, the killing power of buildings, so, who cares, another great idea he could not claim as his own. Buildings were coffins, of course, but that came later. First they were killing machines. Did it matter to anyone how mixed that metaphor was, and where had he read that, anyway? It was probably one of those folios that had been ribboned together as a wedding present for him and June, someone’s younger brother’s dissertation. Best wishes, here’s my fat brother’s piece of obscure scholarship. We love you guys! He didn’t remember ticking that off on the registry at the fucking Shoe Hole, or wherever he and Juney had listed the material bill of goods that would transform their ordinary marriage into a super-powered alliance, or whatever.
No doubt there were cool loaves of data on a server somewhere devoted to the subject of architectural annihilation, and the theory was clearly infallible, Thomas thought, lumbering after the colleague, who was bouncing out of sight at the end of the hallway. Yet anyone who likened a building to a coffin, anyone who went public with what every known human in the world already totally accepted to be true, was officially considered an asshole.
Of course the Moors must have been built to enable the kind of productivity that architects fantasize about while at work in their hoteliers—whatever those studios were called—where their young assistants, wearing t-shirts and no pants, rendered drawings, bound by contract, by the apprentice’s promise, to relieve all impediments to their masters’ creativity. The Moors was probably meant to be a place where people will be thinking and performing at their best, why not, a blueprint premised on the belief that the actual people who would seize this space for their displays of high performance creativity would not be defeated, exhausted, unattractive, and sad. Excepting our friend the colleague, of course. Immune to space. Sadproofed. The Moors was designed for people who just couldn’t be bothered to die on time. Architects don’t make buildings for people who are a bloody mess, just soup, really, because then there’d be no buildings, just tureens. Had there been a dissertation on that? Whose fat brother wanted to take that one on, wondered Thomas? Tenure fucking awaits. Vats would be trucked in from the factories and the people would be poured in. Architects have somehow gotten away with thinking that people are not already technically dead, dead beyond repair, according to the accepted measurements, while really they are sloshing inside their clothing, walking spills. It is their first mistake, Thomas thought: believing they are not building coffins. Why weren’t architects simply called coffin makers?
The complete story is available in Tin House #42.