20th Century Apartments


   The coffee maker started sucking, groaning, and growling, simultaneously resembling a huge salivating insect and an angry crowd off in the distance.
   "Shit," he thought, "I should have put the water on first." The water for the oatmeal would have boiled by the time he was done making the coffee if he had followed the right sequence.
   He was going to be late again. As he was dumping the second cup of water into the pot for oatmeal, he remembered that he had vowed the night before to be attentive to everyone at work. Strive to make eye contact and actually listen and respond thoughtfully even to small talk, he had told himself.
   He sighed as he was stomping toward the shower after waiting for the water to boil, not because he wasn't feeling well-adjusted but because he didn't feel awake.
   "You're a jerk," he hissed under his breath as he adjusted the hot and cold water faucets, launching again the litany of self-deprecation which had begun in early childhood and which flowed out time and again when he was having an allergic reaction to foods such as wheat or corn. This was the classic stage three reaction: the onset of depression, which included a lot of self-deprecation. Fortunately, all he needed to do was adjust his eating habits, alternate his foods more, and he might be emotionally placid in several days. If he didn't take those measures, he might be mumbling to himself on some street corner in no time. He was one of the lucky ones who could identify his allergies and chemical sensitivities, but he laughed bitterly at himself for striving to overcome alienation at work.
   As the shower drops pelted him, he thought, "Everyone else flies along steadily with a little turbulance now and then. But you have to go suddenly into a tailspin, spiraling downward always when you least expect it. So far, you've been able to pull yourself out of it, and every time you believe it won't happen again. You should never make that mistake again, you idiot."
   He, of course, hid his symptoms from everyone at work and at home as much as possible. Even his mother suspected he was faking. The illness was undeniable when he had doubled over for hours on end as a child from his allergy to eggs. Physical symptoms carried no stigma. However, self-hatred and depression were psychological problems, not connected to anything in the environment: he should be able to overcome his negative feelings through sheer effort of will.
   Suggesting that chemicals in foods caused debilitating depression made people uncomfortable. By questioning the effect that chemicals and basic foods had on him, Justin was also questioning authority, questioning the capitalist system and America's blessed way of life, questioning a government that had conducted a de-facto experiment on the populace by allowing copious amounts of chemicals in food and air and water for over half a century. If his illness were real, major changes needed to be made, changes beyond the ability of average citizens to make unless they banded together and organized a huge movement. For the most part, he realized he was considered either a liar, a madman, or a revolutionary, or a little of each. Those who actually believed him, even if only a little, treated him like a personal and political oddity, something between a communist and a leper, so he kept his illness to himself as much as possible.
   He towelled himself off and suddenly found it difficult to get dressed. This is just another bad reaction, old man, he thought to himself. You'll be okay in a little while. Just hang on. He slowly put on his clothes, feeling suddenly exhausted, shaking a little. He downed his coffee and dashed out the door.
   John Blackmore had pretended to understand, only because John at first wanted to appear to be Justin's friend, so that he could destroy Justin more easily later on, and with less suspicion.
   Justin barely made it to the office on time, where he worked as a part-time, contracted employee, a "quality control consultant" for a video distributing company, which meant that he sat in a cubicle all day long and tested a program being developed for a new computerized cash register which, besides handling transactions, also kept track of the inventory and remembered your childhood. He would go through the motions of conducting every transaction possible, in every imaginable order, writing down each new path he had taken, finding "bugs" just about everywhere in the new system. When the programmers fixed one bug, two more would surface. He could tell that everyone in programming and management was getting angry at him even though he only documented the bugs.
   Around 9:00 AM, while the radio was playing "Don't Forget Your Second Wind," a pop song where Billy Joel candidly admits that he had once considered suicide and then encourages everyone to hang on, a real live bug, like none Justin had ever seen, crawled out of his computer. At first, he thought the insect was beautiful, but on closer inspection realized that it was just extremely odd--pale yellow with a faint stained-glass-window design on its body, and with long, stick legs and a thin abdomen. He had read about synchronicities where external reality suddenly mingled with a person's internal state during moments of extreme emotion, as though both were actually part of one reality, so he pondered the bug carefully. It sat on the face of his computer, fearless, in no hurry, completely at home, while he inspected it. He finally realized that he couldn't waste any more time, so he brushed it onto the floor with a piece of paper. Twenty minutes later, realizing that it might have been shipped inside the computer case from another country, Justin looked for it and couldn't find it. He wondered if it had crawled back into his computer, but he couldn't find a hole large enough for it to crawl into.
   He decided to search for it on the way to the restroom. He ambled along, gazing at the floor of the hallway and at all of the cubicles he passed, without any success. He realized the bug might be on the wall or the ceiling, so he paused and gazed all around. Still no luck. As he proceeded to the restroom, he recalled another bizarre experience with bugs that occurred many years before, not long after his father died. He was on a camping trip with his brother and mother; they were all eating cold cereal for breakfast. Justin remembered complaining for some reason that his mother didn't seem to care that his father had died. His mother cringed and groaned, staring down at her cereal bowl. Innumerable bugs were squirming in her cereal.
   "How could they all end up in your bowl?" he demanded to know, spooning through his own cereal and then searching through the rest of the cereal in the box carefully without finding any other bugs. "You put them there yourself," he said accusingly, and then stormed away into the woods. Could that have been some kind of synchronicity, he wondered, as he was peeing into the urinal. He recalled a dream that had occurred soon after his father died. He was fixing lunch while watching television and bugs started crawling out of his sandwich. Soon he noticed that bugs were crawling out of the TV, so many of them that he couldn't find a place to stand that was free of bugs.
   When he returned to his cubicle, he discovered Brian, the head programmer, standing by his desk. "Oh, there you are," he said. "I've been looking for you. Let me guess, the program still isn't bug free?"
   "That was a lucky guess," Justin joked.
   Brian smiled and looked down. "Justin, I'm afraid we have some bad news. We are running out of the money that we had budgeted for quality control. I'm afraid we can't keep you any longer than the end of this week."
   Justin grimaced, "What if the program is still full of bugs?"
   "We're going to have the other programmers do some quality control and pray that the program works good enough after we release it out in the field. We can't afford to do anything else, at this point. You've been doing great work, but we need to move this out of production. I'm sorry, but it's time we make a real-world business decision here."
   "That's understandable," Justin said, partly relieved that his work was over.
   "Thanks for understanding," Brian said sympathetically. "Just try to document as much as possible before the end of this week. Thanks."
   "Sure, no problem," Justin replied as Brian was leaving. After Brian was gone, Justin muttered, "This is the worst possible fucking timing!" Then he quietly hissed, "God damn it, nobody gives a shit."
   Just then the head of production walked by with "a suit," examining the recently installed cubicles. The suit said, "You can see how the cubicles are effectively eliminating waste conversation." The head of production smiled and agreed, unaware that the programmers had obsessively talked with each other exclusively about their work before the cubicles were installed.
   "You better watch what comes out of your mouth," Justin thought. "You still have two more days to go."
   Then his phone rang. "Who the hell could that be?" he wondered. "Nobody ever calls me." He imagined a huge insect at the other end holding up a telephone.
   "Hello," his wife said. "Can you talk?"
   "Oh, hi," he said. "Yeah, but why are you calling here?"
   "They found Russell's body," she said. "From what I hear, he surfaced with roses tangled in his hair."
   "Oh, my god, I'm so sorry," Justin said.
   "I just thought I'd let you know."
   "Thanks," Justin said, and hung up. His wife had been having an affair with Russell, or at least Justin assumed that she had, which served Justin right, since he had been having an affair with someone else. They had agreed to have an open relationship, which had led to her staying out all hours after her shift at the IRS.
   Suddenly Justin saw the bug crawling up the wall. He felt the urge to squash it, but he was too appalled to move. His wife had been staying with a friend for several weeks. The last time Justin had heard from his wife, she had informed him that Russell had drowned. Russell and his brother had gone out drinking in a boat at Millerton Lake at night with a friend. The brothers had gotten into a fist fight on the boat, and, according to the friend, Russell's brother had fallen overboard and Russell had dived in after him. The friend had waited and waited, but no one came up. They dredged the lake but found nothing, a week later holding a memorial service on the lake where the two had disappeared. Russell's wife threw roses into the water at the service.
   "Explain that," he demanded of the bug, which was just underneath the clock on the wall of his cubicle. He had the feeling that the bug was going to crawl inside the clock, which made him again a little uneasy. Maybe John Blackmore had planted the venomous, exotic bug in his cubicle. Blackmore had always wanted Justin's wife, and had spent years attempting to commit the perfect murder to accomplish his goal. Now that Justin was finally separated from his wife, Blackmore was too old; Justin's wife was only interested in Blackmore as a friend. But Blackmore had focused so much time and energy on his evil task that he just couldn't give it up; Blackmore had channeled the most negative energy in the universe for so long that he was like a man possessed. Unexpected rejection only made the resentment worse.
   Something even stranger: Justin and his new girlfriend had eaten dinner with Russell's widow and her new boyfriend the previous Saturday night and had watched a video afterwards. Justin's girlfriend and the widow both worked as waitresses at the same restaurant and had become friends. Fresno was not a small town anymore. The odds were overwhelmingly against such an occurrance. He had seen Russell only once as Russell was driving away in a pickup at sunrise. How could this man Russell have come to figure so prominantly in his life, even after the man was dead? After dinner, the two couples had watched the Star Trek movie where the alien, some superhuman Latin lover type, had placed a bug that looked like a tiny crab into Checkhov's ear. Chekhov had writhed and screamed. Justin couldn't watch--he had grimaced and turned away.
   He took his eyes away from the tiny computer screen, no longer motivated. The bug was gone again. Justin suddenly wondered again if the bug was poisonous, and stifled the urge to dash out of his cubicle.
   "This is just shit," he whispered. He couldn't hold on to a job. He couldn't hold on to a relationship. The whole world was being poisoned by mindless videos full of hatred and violence, which people would soon be able to rent at their corner mini-mart, thanks to him. It was being poisoned with impunity every moment by powerful, greedy people. At that very moment, as he was staring at the computer screen, his own government was making and stockpiling weapons, chemical and biological and nuclear weapons that were unimaginably destructive and poisonous to the environment. Justin took a bite of a candy bar and gagged.
   On the way to the restroom, he cringed when he saw a programmer, a woman who had attracted him for weeks, talking to another programmer in the hallway. She didn't notice him, but as he passed, she wiped a strand of hair from her mouth, and for a moment, it appeared to Justin that a bug had just run out of her mouth and down her neck, and he had to stifle the urge to run screaming down the street.
   Justin returned to his cubicle and turned on the computer in the corner, his head glowing as he squinted into the computer screen. He felt a tickling sensation on the back of his hand but did not look down and did not move his hand away from the keyboard. Instead, with his right hand, he picked up the soda can and took another sip, placing the can down next to the computer, in direct violation of the rules regarding food in the work place. Instead of swallowing the soda immediately, he swished it around in his mouth, feeling the tingle of carbonation on his gums, holding the soda in his cheeks a moment before fluttering his tongue to rinse his palate. Then he took another bite of the candy bar, which contained more than several harmful ingrediants. He felt the tickling sensation again on his hand; this time, realizing with great certainty that sensations, even very small ones, don't occur without reason, and imagining an ant manuveuring between the hair follicles on the back of his hand, he shook the hand violently and returned it to the keyboard without looking down. The motion, though practically unconscious, distracted him for a moment, just long enough for his eyes to wander to a painting above his desk. The painting was extremely bright, with a large, intensely orange oval floating just above the center of the canvas. The paint appeared to explode around that orange balloon, as if it were a source of life. At first, to Justin the painting appeared to contain depth, as though it were an expressionistic landscape, but after a few moments of scrutiny he realized that, in fact, nothing was delineated enough for the painting to be considered figurative. The orange oval, though evoking the sun and its symbolism as the source of life, was really only bright orange paint on canvas. It just was, or is, he thought, like a flower. Again he shook his hand and placed it gently back on the keyboard, envisioning the hand of Buddha lifting up the lotus flower in his most profound, wordless sermon. On the computer screen, a man and woman coupled doggy style, the woman with a pained expression on her face. Justin felt a slight, involuntary stirring between his legs, as though a slug were slowly stirring awake. The figures seemed for a moment almost alien, a coupling of inscrutable protoplasm. Just as he lifted the soda can again, imagining that he was lifting a flower, he felt a stabbing pain in his left hand. A bite of some kind was all he could think as he shook the hand violently, before his vision blurred and went black.

Go to a mystery room.
Go to a scary room.
Walk the hallowed halls.
Meet a juggler.