Things had gone badly, and badly in ways she couldn’t have imagined, not for herself, not for anyone she knew. The story had been in the paper—first on the bottom of the front page, then in the back of the news section, next to an article about a new chimpanzee at the Los Angeles Zoo. Thankfully, she had not been named. The only people mentioned were a few department heads who hadn’t been aware what their subordinates were doing. She knew. She had participated.
But now she was at The Program™ and had been handed a clipboard with a pen attached by a flexible spiral, the kind they give you in a doctor’s office. She was filling out the heavily Xeroxed introduction forms, with lines too short for anyone’s name or address to fit. Even though she’d used her tiniest handwriting, she ran out of room and had to squish her name around the end of the line, so that the rg in Lynn Von Whittenburg tumbled off the edge, as though the letters had had too much. She thought someone might interpret this as poor planning on her part, that she should have looked ahead to the end of the line, spaced out the letters with little dots first, making sure she’d have room for her entire name. She was positive they’d make something of it.
She lived at 3341½ West Allesandro Boulevard, so that didn’t fit nicely, either. She always felt a little ashamed when she added the ½ to the street address, as though she’d be branded as a person who didn’t merit an entire number. She half-considered asking for another set of forms, but the receptionist who’d handed her the clipboard was busy on a phone call, and if she asked for new paper they might think her wasteful, which was perhaps worse than lacking forethought and cramming her info onto the page.
Everything she knew about The Program™ came through a friend who’d been through every kind of self-help regimen—fad diets and new religions, real estate seminars and purification retreats, pyramid schemes and booty boot camp. With this wealth of experience, her friend had determined that The Program™ worked. Unlike other spiritual/empowerment/enrichment programs that were easy enough to come by in Los Angeles, The Program™ had a few distinct advantages. There was no travel to fancy Radisson hotels in other cities, no strange uniforms for neophytes, no belief in God necessary, and no high-profile celebrities. Best of all, The Program™ was cheap. Bargain basement cheap.
While her friend could not divulge any trade secrets of The Program™—lest she sabotage Lynn’s success—she did tell her about the founder, Morton Feingold. Morton claimed he was the last Jew living in East L.A., and despite his moniker, he was a fairly young man (he was actually Morton Feingold IV, but elected to omit the suffix, not wanting his mentees to feel he was stuffy). Mr. Feingold’s ancestors had lived in East L.A. when it had been filled with temples and kosher markets and before Canter’s Deli had moved over to Fairfax, where it’d remained ever since. When the borscht left, orthodoxy followed, and then even reformed types had moved, so that all that was left of the Jewish population were cemeteries. It was beside one of these cemeteries that Mr. Feingold had set up his self-help center. He said he liked knowing the history was nearby, although the only thing noticeably Jewish about him besides his name were the few Yiddish phrases he peppered his inspirational talks with, and even those he used incorrectly.
The introduction forms were lengthy, and they asked Lynn a host of personal questions she hadn’t anticipated answering.
Under the Health heading the questions included: How many times a day do you typically urinate? How many times a week do you typically defecate?
She wasn’t sure. It seemed like the kind of thing she should know about herself, but she’d never bothered tallying.
Farther down, the questions under the Relationship section were even worse:
How many times have you been in love?
It was hard not to doubt things when you had to commit a number to paper. She let the tip of the pen rest in the space, then decided on a small 3. It seemed a safe number; it included those people whom she could still say, with the wisdom of hindsight, whom she had loved. It excluded all her more short-lived obsessions, or people who had merely loved her and who she only thought she’d loved back. There was Lee, a bass player she’d loved with a teenage clarity she’d never experience again; Alan, a fitness enthusiast to whom she’d been instantly and inexplicably devoted to until she realized, far too late, that she didn’t particularly like him; and there was Craig, whose love had been so regular and steady, she’d once thought of it as continued nourishment, like small, refreshing sips of water. Until the drops had begun to feel like Chinese water torture.
The forms were long, and the sun shone on the left side of her face through the windows of the waiting room. She pinched her button-up shirt and pulled it away from her body, letting her skin breathe.
She hated forms. It was forms that had gotten her into this trouble in the first place. She had already thought about how much to reveal if they asked what had brought her to The Program™. But she hadn’t yet settled on the right response: she could just admit to being fired or explain that she was one of the city clerks who had thrown the documents away. More than half a dozen employees had been let go after it’d been discovered the department wasn’t processing city services forms but had been delivering them directly into the shredder. It had been a small-scale scandal in the news; investigations were pending, and more terminations were sure to follow.
It had been the kind of job where a person was doomed to swim upstream. There was always more paper in her inbox than out, even if she exhausted herself with eyestrain entering data. It was depressing to work hard and always be behind. There was a threshold she reached where she was so far behind she no longer cared about being behind: once she reached that point she couldn’t be tugged back again. For years, she’d been a paper pusher. Then she’d become a paper flicker, barely able to lift her hand to even shuffle the piles covering her desk.
If she were asked, she’d say: She’d gotten communist. She’d gotten DMV.
Because The Program™ was cheap, really cheap, there was no fancy orientation with miniature muffins or cheese Danishes with tiny cups of coffee. But there was a welcome video that utilized green screen technology and placed Mr. Morton Feingold in front of a montage of inspiring settings. There was Morton, with his slight paunch in front of the Eiffel Tower, and Morton placed awkwardly in front of a flowing creek, so that he appeared to be standing in the water.
The receptionist had had a hard time getting the VCR to work. She kept blowing on the tape and punching buttons, whispering, “Damn it. This damn thing.” In between curses, she turned around to smile at Lynn. All of this might have been off-putting to someone else (making him or her seriously question the legitimacy of The Program™) but Lynn Von Whittenburg would have been more wary if things had appeared too slick.
Mr. Feingold explained his program was easier than most: it wasn’t cost-prohibitive (and here he made a crack about the quality of the video), it didn’t require any unnecessarily strict dietary restrictions, and a person’s participation wouldn’t garner any emergency cult interventions from his or her family and friends (most likely because no one had ever heard of The Program™, Lynn thought).
When the video was over, the receptionist handed Lynn a three-fold brochure that read:
Was that supposed to read Accumulation? Lynn thought. “See you in two weeks,” the receptionist smiled.
The first step was simple enough. She wasn’t supposed to bathe or wash her hair or even brush her teeth for two weeks. For the full effect, the brochure strongly recommended that the participant not change his or her clothes. There followed a list of suggestions about how to approach your employer for support in your time of growth, and below that, a list of legal actions one could threaten if the employer proved unsympathetic.
Unlike other programs, The Program™ did not lure its participants with a litany of promised results, claiming to improve your sex drive, complexion, wardrobe, credit rating, capacity for love, colon function, or joie de vivre. At the headquarters, Lynn had found herself looking for bullet points or exclamation marks punctuating claims that were so far-reaching that their very incredibleness dared even the most skeptical to investigate further. She’d been puzzled at the end of the videotaped introduction. Where were the testimonials?
“Excuse me,” she had said to the receptionist when it was over. “But what does it do?”
“Oh,” she shrugged, as though it were an unexpected question. “It’s different for everybody.”
At first, Lynn found that unsettling. But the more she examined it, the more it seemed patently true; for a program to claim otherwise would be foolish. That explained why so many self-help seminars chose broad out-come measures to chart their successes: 80 percent of participants had a life-changing experience, or 90 percent would enroll again, they’d tell you, avoiding specifics.
Since she’d been fired, she’d worked at home stuffing mailers—it was the only job she could get—so she could fully participate in Step 1 by opting not to change her clothes for two weeks.
After several days, the khakis she was wearing stretched out and deep wrinkles formed where her hips creased when she sat down. Her hair was shiny, and she rubbed a little bit of talc into her scalp to soak up some of the grease before she headed out to the grocery store. She found herself looking down in the aisles, exposed by the bright lights. Looking dirty made her feel poor, like people were watching her, seeing what her choices said about her. She fumbled with her credit card at the register, as though she were afraid it would be declined.
“How do you like these?” the clerk asked her, holding up a can of low-fat potato chips. “I’ve been wanting to try them.”
“They’re edible,” Lynn said, not meeting the girl’s eyes.
When Lynn’s card had been approved, the clerk ripped off the receipt and handed it to her. “Thanks for shopping with us, Mrs. Von,” she said. Computers could never get her name right. And she wasn’t a missus, either, but it was just as well. She could be someone else, her doppelganger Mrs. Von. When she had first moved to L.A., she’d been afraid she might not be able to make it in the city. She would stare at vagrants she passed, wondering if she could end up among them. Now here she was, scraggly and yellow, her hair tangled. Looking like this, people could see her for who she really was. Her appearance finally matched her interior state, and there was almost a comfort in that.
It was already easy to get demotivated sitting around all day watching TV and stuffing mailers, but it was far worse without a shower and change of clothes to get her going in the morning.
Time became slippery. No matter how much coffee she drank, she could not make the morning feel like morning, and she began to take miniature naps throughout the day, waking up parched and disoriented. The sluggishness grew alarming and she began to wonder if she hadn’t developed mononucleosis. The grime caking her teeth was getting thicker every day. She scraped some of the crud away with her fingernails, but then wondered if that were allowed, if she weren’t jeopardizing the full impact of Step 1.
So far, The Program™ hadn’t expressly restricted any kind of consumption, so after 6 p.m. she fixed herself gin and tonics heavy with lime. There was a brief window of time where the gin lifted the fog and she felt light and clear-headed and she’d almost forget she was sitting in dirty clothes and underwear, and then the window would shut with as much breezy force as it had opened and she would be deliriously tired and fall asleep in a contorted position on the couch so that when she woke up in the middle of the night everything ached.
This could not be good, she reasoned. She had expected to be purified, scrubbed with a Steelo pad from the inside out, emerging with healthier looking nails and a better attitude.
As a kid, Lynn had attended a Podunk Christian school where they’d had to read Pilgrim’s Progress every year. Christian, the main character, had traveled with an unbearably heavy satchel on his back that made facing the challenges presented by characters named Greed and Sloth even more difficult to overcome. She’d always found it a little depressing because Christian was never able to lighten his burden, not until he’d crossed over to the other side. She wondered if she would have to die as well, or if a symbolic death wouldn’t do instead.
After two weeks, she had accumulated Pigpen-worthy layers of dirt on her body. When she looked in the mirror, greasy strands of her brown hair framed her oily face and she’d sprouted pimples on her chin and forehead. She felt fatter, too, though she’d hardly been eating. Without makeup or jewelry, she could see the irreversible effects of gravity in the crevices around her mouth or in the slight droop of her eyelids. She was thirty-seven, and she acknowledged each passing birthday as little as possible. Sometimes, when she wasn’t paying attention, she had caught herself writing down the wrong year; she’d even started writing 19 more than once. She knew she’d long been in denial about the velocity of her own life. She coped with this speed by refusing to do anything posthaste, to live as lazily as if her life were going to go on in syndication, never to die.
“You’re so dirty!” The receptionist smiled approvingly when she returned to The Program™ headquarters at the end of the two weeks.
“Thanks?” Lynn said.
She filled out more forms, assessing her progress over the past two weeks. She felt awful and was keenly aware of how awful she felt, like she’d been on painkillers her entire life and was just now being cut off, experiencing what the world was really like.
At the bottom of the second sheet, one of the photocopied forms was crooked and cut off. Do you see yourself as a
“One of these forms is cut off,” she told the receptionist when she’d completed the rest.
“What?” the young woman asked, taking the sheets from her. “Oh. That. That’s not important.” She shrugged.
It’s not? Lynn thought. Then why is it on there? The grease caking her body was making her cranky. She wanted to tell the receptionist just how dangerous too much paperwork could be.
“You have now completed the accumulation step,” Morton Feingold said on the second video. In the background, there were quick cuts of landfills and smog and polluted streams. “In this step, you experienced the effects of the environment on your physical body. You have felt the way that the bobkes and the shmutz of the world accumulate like bird feces on a windshield, obscuring your vision. The world is constantly layering itself on your physical and psychic self.”
She’d cleaned her bathroom during the last week, and it had remained spotless from lack of use. She wasn’t one to linger in the shower, but when she got home that afternoon, she shaved with a fresh razorblade, scrubbed her back with a loofah and her feet with a pumice stone, and lathered her scalp with extra gusto. She let the water run so hot she could hardly stand it, and it left red marks on her back and legs. The steam leaked out of the bathroom and into the hall.
Wrapped up in a robe and a hair towel, she poured herself a ceremonial glass of wine: she took a few sips that made her mouth feel dry and set the glass down. She’d never felt so accomplished from simply showering. She lit a few scented candles she’d bought at the drugstore and basked in the relief of her accomplishment. Her body felt like she’d just returned from an expensive spa where she’d been dipped in mud or scrubbed with microcrystals.
To her surprise, the inertia of the first two weeks lifted. Now she showered every morning, dressed herself as though she were heading out to a job, and sat down and stuffed her envelopes. She would take a long walk to work out the aches in her back, and she’d make herself a decent dinner. She didn’t understand how a shower could have relieved her of the sluggishness she’d slipped into like quicksand. She wondered if her bouts of inertia in the past could have been so easily reversed, if only she had known what would have set her in motion.
She had come to think about whole periods of her life in terms of inertia—she wouldn’t have called it that before, but now she could see more clearly the way it had been shaping things—compressing them into a dense, useless mass. What was most dangerous was the way it crept up until it had taken over, the way you could gain weight a few ounces at a time, not noticing and then not acting until you woke up one morning and realized you were fat.
Steps 2, 3, and 4 did not, as far as Lynn could tell, bear any meaningful relationship to Step 1, but she completed them with equal attention.
In Step 2, she was asked to keep the doors to her apartment unlocked for a week, which was supposed to make her realize the ways she didn’t trust the world and constantly steeled herself against it, materially as well as emotionally. The message was undercut by the four-page liability waiver she had to sign, releasing The Program™ of all responsibility should Step 2 result in her being burgled, assaulted, or otherwise harmed. When she went to bed at night, she couldn’t help but think she was asking for it. She liked to fall asleep to the radio but had to turn it off in case she should miss the sounds of an intruder. But the only nocturnal disturbances had come from the gentle creaks of a bed in the apartment upstairs, where some people were carefully having sex in a long, even rhythm. It was almost sad-sounding sex, which made her feel more pathetic about the longing it evoked in her. She trained herself to fall asleep early, and the week passed quickly.
In Step 3, she fasted on fruit for three days, which wasn’t designed to jump-start weight loss but to allow her to feel hunger, so that she’d have a new awareness of how much her body required nourishment, how it was not a self-sustaining machine. She felt hungry all right, but it was not an enlightened kind of hunger, like hot white light emanating from her belly. She spent less time thinking about her body than about food, all the fat voluptuous foods like scalloped potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
In Step 4, she was instructed not to smile for three consecutive days, and conversely, to consciously smile for the next three and observe the difference. Just sitting at home she was surprised how difficult it was not to smile at all, even just watching TV. Smiling turned out to be comparatively easy. Morton’s brochure explained that Step 4 was designed to make participants aware of the messages they send themselves and how much they influence their well-being. Lynn did not think she’d been successful; even while smiling, she was capable of thinking very negative thoughts.
Morton Feingold was even less inspiring in person than he’d appeared in the VHS tapes to which Lynn had become so accustomed. In the flesh, she could see that he was balding on top and was knock-kneed in a way that wasn’t as prominent in the tapes, and his overall appearance suggested Information Technology Help Desk, the kind of guy most women would turn down.
Lynn had successfully completed Part 1, and as part of her transition to Part 2, she was granted, along with a small group of other participants, a semiprivate audience with Mr. Feingold himself.
It was good to see others, if for no other reason than to see that they existed. She liked that this program did not require group confessions or camaraderie to propel a person along: she distrusted environments that used the energy of the mass to motivate an individual. Ultimately, she figured, a person had to go home without the cheering section, and no matter what he or she pledged to do when they returned to everyday life, it was impossible to recapture the adrenaline of those collective moments.
Lynn couldn’t tell much by looking at the dozen other participants. They were not a talkative group, and if The Program™ was working, it was not engendering the kind of newfangled love for humankind that made people open to perfect strangers. She did overhear one woman whisper to another that she was feeling much more “plugged-in,” but Lynn wasn’t entirely sure what that meant and did not think it applied to her.
It was an eclectic group, and a couple of participants appeared to understand only Spanish, because Morton Feingold translated portions of his presentation into a mangled, incomprehensible Spanglish. It was painful to listen to, but he was making such a well-meaning effort to make himself understood, and the Spanish speakers who were seated up front were making an equal effort to understand him as he explained that Part 1 had been about the Self or Yo, and Part 2 would focus on the Other, el Otro.
In Part 2, The Program™ borrowed heavily from other programs, like 12-Step and The Forum, in that it required the participant to reconcile with practically every person they’d wronged. Morton explained that they should even make a ceremonial mend with dead persons, which made Lynn think of the Day of Atonement before Yom Kippur, perhaps the last morsel of Morton’s Jewish faith that had snuck into his program.
“I know you all have some reconciling to do or you wouldn’t be here,” he said with a laugh.
There was a lot of nodding in the room. Lynn was not, by nature, a nodder. He explained that the folks who were only interested in the other part of The Program™ always dropped out in the beginning. So the guilty ones stayed, Lynn thought. That was the common denominator among them.
The presentation had been uninspiring, but afterward Morton Feingold was surrounded on all sides by people shaking his hand and scribbling down notes on the backs of business cards. Lynn waited in her folding chair, her butt sore from the misplaced ridge on the seat. As the crowd thinned, she approached, waiting her turn and hoping he would not decide to wrap things up right before he’d gotten to her. She felt like a student waiting to ask the teacher if she could make up a test.
“Hi,” he finally said, extending his hand. It was hairy, and his handshake was dead and unremarkable. He didn’t do the double handshake she’d thought all inspirational types liked.
“You’re nervous about Part 2,” he said.
She was relieved that he had at least that much intuition. She nodded. “Most people are,” he said, which somewhat diminished the impact of his insight. “Usually it’s one person. One individual they can’t bring themselves to reconcile with.”
“No,” she said. “It’s not that. It’s that there are thousands.”
“Ah,” he said. “The thousands.” He placed his hand on the small of her back. “Let’s take a walk around the block.”
The headquarters was surrounded by Jewish mausoleums sandwiched between rolling hills with Catholic plots and ornate statues of saints. All the cemeteries had been built adjacent on inexpensive land, which had created a stretch of still space in the dense city. Even though it might have seemed a morbid spot for The Program™ to locate, Lynn was struck by its odd appropriateness as they walked down Whittier Boulevard.
“There’s one question I have to ask,” he said. “Have you killed someone?”
“No,” she said, with more force than she’d intended. She had been caught off guard. “No.”
“Well then,” he clapped his hands. “It can’t be as bad as you think it is.” She figured that was a standard line. “Wait,” she said. “What if I had said yes, I had? Then what?”
He shrugged. “No one has ever said yes,” he said. “If they did, I’m not sure what I’d say.”
Even with the cheap, really cheap prices, she couldn’t believe this program was staying in business.
“Let’s turn in here,” he said, guiding Lynn under a moss-decayed arch that led into a cemetery. Unlike some of the spacious cemeteries without headstones, this one was crowded with elaborate family tombs and stones engraved with Hebrew letters.
“My grandfather is buried here,” he said, stepping up onto the curb that separated the grass from the paved road. “Most of my family is,” he continued, “but I like to visit my grandfather the most.”
“Is that his?” she said, pointing to a large family tomb that read FEINGOLD.
“No,” he shook his head. “That’s another Feingold.”
The right Feingold was farther along the road, near the modern mausoleum in the center.
“My grandfather sold tonics called Gold Blood. They were wildly popular for a while. Mostly just alcohol. They were supposed to cure bad temper, hysteria, surfeit,” he said. “I imagine they just got people drunk. You could say he was a swindler,” he said, pausing in front of the tomb.
This was not the kind of pep talk Lynn had imagined.
“People talk about corruption now,” he said, “but they should have seen it then. Cops were criminals and criminals were lawyers and lawyers were gossip columnists and they were all ministers or aviators or restauranteurs who made pastrami sandwiches. L.A. was full of those people. Making it up as they went along.”
He leaned in a little closer to her.
“I want to tell you something,” he said. “Please don’t repeat this.” He put his hands in the pockets of his rumpled Dockers and started walking away from the tomb, as though he didn’t want his grandfather’s spirit to overhear.
“The Program™,” he whispered. “It’s not really trademarked.”
She stopped walking and stared up at him. He grinned, then shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not!”
The trademark symbol was on everything, right down to the coffee mugs. “Why?” she said.
“It makes people feel better,” he said. “They like seeing that sort of thing.”
“But what if someone steals your ideas?” she asked feebly, as though anyone would want to.
“Great,” he smiled. He had a decent smile. He wasn’t so bad looking when he smiled. “Maybe they’ll help some more people.”
She confessed that she’d been one of the people who’d thrown away all those documents in the city clerk’s office.
“I saw that on the news,” he said excitedly. “People don’t usually confess to something I’ve heard about in the news.”
Oh God, she thought.
“Wow,” he continued. “It was a lot of stuff, right? In the thousands?”
It had been almost 100,000 documents in all, but Lynn didn’t correct him. She’d only thrown away a couple thousand herself.
“People were miffed,” he laughed. “Our tax dollars at work.”
“I know,” she said.
“Oh, don’t look that way,” he said, bending down to look her in the face. “It’s not so bad. I’ve heard much worse. Really. It was just paper.”
That was true. There were other people who’d snapped at bureaucratic jobs and shot their coworkers or called in a bomb threat.
Still, she’d always thought of herself as an essentially moral person, and a competent one, too—not the kind of person whose negligence on the job warranted newspaper coverage. She’d become one of those people, the ones she used to hear about on the news and wonder what the hell they were thinking.
Morton finally recommended she write a letter. “Write an open letter to the editors of all the papers in the city. This has come up before. There was a man who wanted to apologize to a woman whose trail had gone cold. He put an advertisement out in People because he remembered she used to read it. That was expensive. But it worked.”
“Do I have to use my name?” she asked.
He rocked his head from side to side, considering this, like he was playing a game of mental Ping-Pong.
“I don’t see why you’d have to,” he said. Then he laughed. “I guess I make up the rules, don’t I? So no, you don’t have to. Plus,” he lowered his voice a bit conspiratorially, “it might be dangerous in your case. You don’t want any vigilante justice.”
She did not like writing, had procrastinated in the past over memoranda and emails, and even felt nervous hesitation when a birthday or condolence card for a coworker had been circulated. She’d let the card linger on her desk, feeling the pressure to write a pithy comment to a person she barely knew. It was worse if she’d gotten the card at the end of the line and everyone else had already used all the canned congratulations she’d memorized. Hope the years get better as they go faster!
This open letter was meant to be an apology, but she felt she owed people something in the way of explanation. How to tell it without making excuses or being abstruse or turning it into a political treatise about the inefficiency in government.
Every time I hear a politician talking about trimming the fat, she imagined herself writing, I think of myself, being sliced off the shank of the world like a succulent piece of bacon. A real artery killer.
A clog in the wheel, she thought. Ha ha.
Even jilted lovers wanted more than a simple “sorry,” she thought—a person needed to know: Was it the kink in my hair or the overcooked steak? Was it me at all?
She did not want to be flip, to say that it wasn’t human to dwell in a cubicle, that you inevitably devolved into a cave person, content to smack at the ground with a bone, going millennia without a single worthwhile invention.
She knew human progress existed, but she had no idea how it happened. People had gone to the moon. They’d created computers. And at work, it had taken the staff development committee three years to put a soda vending machine in her wing of the building.
She had pursued the job in the clerk’s office in the first place because of her boyfriend Craig. She had followed him out to Los Angeles. She wondered how many people moved to L.A. not in pursuit of a dream but in pursuit of a person in pursuit of a dream. At first, she’d been content to be an accessory to Craig’s goals, and this had been easy because his career went well, and she hadn’t had to nurse years of his disappointment.
Most of the people Craig knew were in the film or TV industry, and he’d befriended a group of comedy writers. He was a film editor, and he wasn’t a funny guy himself, but Lynn watched the way he earnestly laughed at all their jokes, and he was a good sounding board. They called him Iowa and seemed to believe that if Craig laughed, audiences in the Midwest would, too.
Craig brought Lynn to many of his friends’ parties, which were always kitschy and themed, like the annual Guacamole Bowl, where guests competed with elaborate presentations like “Guac like an Egyptian,” “Tequila Guacingbird,” and the “Guac Ness Monster.”
Once, they’d gone to a Halloween party; the host opened the door bearing knives and covered in torn cereal boxes, as a “cereal killer.” Lynn had dressed as Raggedy Ann and soon realized that this was all wrong. She had to be sexy—as a prostitute or a bunny or a devil—or she had to be funny. She detected a look of disappointment on Craig’s face, as though he were embarrassed to have come with her, even though he was totally unoriginal in his farmer costume. But he was “Iowa” and he was supposed to be the straight man, so it was okay. There didn’t seem to be room for Mrs. Straight Man, too.
They all had interesting jobs at studios or media groups they liked to complain about. When they asked her what she did for a living, she’d smile and say she was a bureaucrat.
They’d point at her and start to chuckle, like she’d just told a good one. “No, really.” That was how she thought of herself. She pushed paper.
Of course, when Craig attended parties thrown by her coworkers, they never described themselves as such. They didn’t talk about work at all, except to report who had gotten drunk at a recent happy hour, and who had lost ten pounds. Those parties were not themed, and although few of the attendees had any idea what Craig actually did, they knew he worked in the business. They’d try to pitch projects to him, telling him how fascinating a drama that took place in the city clerk’s office would be.
“They’ve got cops, lawyers, doctors, firemen. What about the government? Crazy stuff happens in the government.”
“There are already too many shows about the government,” Lynn would sigh, pulling Craig away.
He liked the attention at first. Once, as they returned to their car after a party, he even took the opportunity to remind Lynn what a cool boyfriend she had.
“You are not cool,” she said sharply. He worked in the industry, but she did not think that made him hip. But he didn’t need to be cool. She didn’t want him to be.
With Craig, as with everything else, inertia had taken root; it moved so slowly and subtly that she couldn’t catch it while it was happening. One day never felt any more staid than the day before. The gears shifted imperceptibly, until she found herself looking back to the way things used to be. When should she have intervened, made an effort to reverse the course of their relationship?
One of their close friends from Iowa had moved out to L.A. soon after they had, hoping to be a screenwriter. They didn’t end up seeing him as often as they’d expected, but every time they went to drinks or to dinner, she was able to see herself and Craig through his eyes, and she remembered the way she’d clung to Craig like he was a lifeline back in Iowa. And then this friend had died, after a short battle with an aggressive cancer of the blood. Lynn and Craig had still been getting used to the fact that he was sick, had been steeling themselves for his long treatments. After he was gone, it was almost like they weren’t beholden to their former selves. No one knew the old Craig and Lynn and could preserve that picture for them, and it no longer had any life.
With her Part 2 instructions in hand, she Googled Craig and found his phone number within seconds. But it took her four days to finally dial. When she did, she got his voicemail.
“Hi. This is Craig. And Theresa!” a female voice piped in. Giggle, giggle. “We can’t pick up the phone right now, because we’re doing something we really enjoy! Theresa likes doing it up and down, and I like doing it left to right—real slowly. So leave your name and phone number and when we’re done brushing our teeth, we’ll call you back.” Beep.
Lynn sat on the other end breathing into the phone like some kind of stalker.
The Craig she needed to apologize to no longer existed. This Craig thought he was funny. This Craig was too busy getting laid to answer the phone. How could she have ever dated a man who would leave such a message? And what would she have said to the old Craig, anyway? “Hi, this is Lynn. The bureaucrat. Remember me? Sorry I let things get rote. Or let you let things get rote. It happens, right?”
One of the reasons she decided to work for the city was because the clerical jobs they offered paid more than their private sector counterparts, and the more she earned the more she felt like her life in L.A. had weight, and the more Craig would value having her there with him. But
he only seemed disappointed to be living with a woman with a boring job. He didn’t want to see himself as the kind of guy who’d be paired with a woman who worked for the government—not unless she were a spy or a crime scene investigator, jobs that she knew, from having worked for the city, were nothing like they looked on TV.
At first, she’d been nervous and eager to please on the job and overwhelmed by all the departments, the confusing corridors and incomprehensible work flow charts that were supposed to show her where she fit in.
But it was a culture suspicious of hard work. If someone nearby heard her fingers tapping the keys too industriously, they’d ask why she was so damned hyper. If she walked too briskly down the hall, she’d be told to watch where she was going.
She hadn’t started the rash of document dumping. She hadn’t even been an early adopter, but had watched for months as colleagues in the office threw things away, leaving their desks completely uncluttered. One of them even boasted about it, and Lynn kept waiting for the shit to hit the shredder, so to speak. But it didn’t.
An audit had estimated that they were backlogged by at least nineteen months. But Lynn didn’t see how throwing things away helped.
And then she got it. The document that swung it all. A Rent Stabilization Ordinance Complaint Form, not unlike hundreds of its ilk except that it had been filed by BERNARD LADOSTE and BERNARD did not even live in an apartment. She knew this because Lynn had processed his Request to Remove Trees from the front of his home, his Graffiti Removal Request, ADA Grievance Procedure Form, LAPD Complaint Form, Sign Language Interpreter Request Form, Street Light Service Request Form, City Ethics Commission Complaint Form, Alarm Permit Request Form, Excavation Permit Request Form, Industrial Waste Permit Request Form, DWP Service Application Form, Campaign Finance Form, Claim for Personal Damages Form, and her personal favorite, the Cable Television Comment Form.
BERNARD liked forms. If he’d been Argentinean, he could have been a despacho, one of those professional filers whom people hired to wait in lines in government offices for them.
It was BERNARD who clogged the system. It was BERNARD who kept things from working for everyone else.
So she tossed it. She held Bernard’s form over the slot atop the locked blue shredder bin, waiting a moment as though it might make one last plea for its life, and then she let it slip through, where she couldn’t retrieve it even if she’d wanted to.
She felt momentarily guilty and had to go to the bathroom and run her hands under cool water. But once she returned to her desk and keyed in the information for someone else’s request—someone who actually needed something—she was pleased to know that she’d been able to process the legitimate request just that much quicker without the encumbrances of BERNARD.
It didn’t take long for her to become indiscriminate about who needed something and who didn’t, and eventually she threw away several large stacks of forms on the basis that they were so old that the requests had to be obsolete by now.
It was the custodians—not the supervisors—who eventually realized what was happening in the clerk’s office.
I am writing to you and your readers as one of the clerks who was involved in the recent city of Los Angeles’ “Permitgate” as it has been dubbed by the press. I began working for the city ten years ago. I had no real aspirations to be a clerk.
The volume of permits filed in the clerk’s office is overwhelming, and many of the requests are perceived to be redundant or gratuitous.
It was all BERNARD’S fault.
I am deeply sorry for violating the public trust.
Slow service is better than no service.
Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.
The week after her letter appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the paper ran a small selection of reader responses.
It is people like you who make people lose faith in the government, and then they stop voting, stop fighting for change. And Democracy collapses.
I don’t understand how these cultures are created and then perpetuated. If governments could hire and fire at will like corporations, maybe this wouldn’t happen.
And then there was this:
For a gang member to be initiated into a gang, he or she has to perform an act of criminal boldness, to prove he or she has got the mettle. Welcome to the Gang!
The last letter had to be from Morton, she thought. Who would write that, who besides a self-help guru who was headquartered in East L.A.?
“You know,” Morton said to her after she’d returned for the Part 2 Evaluation. “You might have thrown away one of my requests.”
"Really?" she said.
“I requested additional street lighting on the block,” he said. “I don’t want any participants getting mugged when they’re trying to improve their lives.” He laughed.
“Have they?” She brought her hand to her stomach, like she’d felt something move. “Gotten mugged?”
“Not yet.” He shrugged. “You could be the first.”
The Program™’s graduation ceremony was only slightly more eventful than its orientation. There were M&M’s in a blue plastic bowl and generic soda served out of two-liter bottles into Styrofoam cups.
There were seven guests present, all milling around the conference room, spooning chocolate into their mouths.
“Do you think it worked?” one of the women asked her friend, pouring herself a cup of fluorescent orange drink. Lynn eavesdropped.
“Here’s what I think,” she said. “I don’t feel different so much as I feel different about how I feel.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I think I realized I’m not a certain kind of person. I’m just a person. I’m not immutable, you know. I’m good and bad. I’m happy and sad.”
“That rhymes,” her friend said flatly. She slumped, like gravity worked extra on her body. “You always thought that, though. You told me that years ago.”
“I did?” The other woman raised her eyebrows.
“Yep,” her friend said, biting a chunk out of the lip of her Styrofoam cup.
“Well, I might have said that before, but now I’ve realized it. Isn’t every truth something you already knew? Then you only remember that you knew it?”
“You read that in Conversations with God.”
“Did you read that book? You told me you never read it. You liar.” Her friend shrugged. “I’m not a liar. I’m a person who sometimes lies and sometimes tells the truth.”
The group sat down on the folding chairs set out for Morton’s parting words. He was wearing a necktie for the occasion, brown with a shooting stars motif.
He clapped his hands together once and surveyed the group.
“Well,” he said. “You all look very sharp this evening. I hope you’re enjoying the refreshments. I won’t say much, but I do want to tell you a parting story my grandfather shared with me.”
Great, Lynn thought. A story from the alcohol peddler.
“It’s a story about the farmer and the rabbi. If you’ve heard this one, bear with me. The farmer lived in a one-room cottage with all four of his children. The farmer went to his rabbi and told him he just couldn’t take it anymore. ‘It’s one room, for all five of us. I can’t stand it. What should I do?’ The rabbi said to the farmer, ‘You know those cows you have out in the field?’ ‘Yes,’ the farmer said. ‘I want you to take all those cows and bring them into the cottage.’ The farmer objected, but the rabbi told him just to do it.”
Morton had raised his voice, and feedback from the microphone screeched across the room. He jumped back, startled. He continued cautiously, dropping his voice.
“Then the farmer returned to the rabbi and told him he had done as he’d asked. ‘What now?’ he asked. ‘Now I want you to take the goats that are out in the field and bring them into the cottage as well.’ Perplexed, the farmer went home and followed the instructions. Weeks later he came back to the rabbi. ‘Please help me,’ he said. ‘This is awful. We’re all living in the cottage. This is even worse, rabbi. What should I do next?’ The rabbi told him to go home and take all the cows and goats out of the cottage. The farmer did that. And suddenly the crowded cottage seemed spacious, even with the farmer’s four children, and the farmer felt very relaxed.”
Morton motioned toward his receptionist. “Anna, could you pass out our gifts?”
Anna moved down the front row with a paper bag, placing something in each person’s lap. When Lynn got hers, she could see it was a bar of transparent glycerin soap, with flecks of gold inside and a piece of paper set into the middle of the mold. The paper said:
“You’re not allowed to save this as a keepsake,” Morton said. “I want you all to use this soap. I got the idea from the 12-steppers. Only their soap doesn’t say ‘bye-bye, shmutz.’” He laughed.
She wondered if she wouldn’t miss Morton, at least a little. It didn’t seem likely that someone so uninspiring could make her feel better. She sure didn’t feel warm in his presence. And yet. She lingered at the end, until the receptionist had put away all the Styrofoam cups and was turning off the lights.
He set low standards. Standards even Lynn felt she had met. “The world has got a lot of give,” he would say at the end of each of his green-screen videos, pulling his pants away from his waistline to show the little slack that was there, as though the Dockers could always accommodate another inch.
“Lynn,” he finally said, noticing her as he was about to exit the room. “After all this time, you’re still in the dark.”
Lynn said she had to ask him about the farmer. She moved up the aisle toward him.
“What happens the next time he gets sick of the one-room cottage?” she said. “It’s bound to happen again. It always does.” She’d been thinking about a similar problem ever since she’d taken the shower at the beginning of The Program™. It had worked so effectively, but she knew she couldn’t just not bathe every time she’d been in a rut, just so she could have a purifying shower at the end of it. “He can’t just move the cows and the goats back in again and again. It won’t work the same.” The story had to continue, she thought. It didn’t just end in the farmer’s one moment of relief.
“Does he have to keep coming up with a new trick?” she added.
She did not want to keep putting herself through regimens of randomness for the rest of her life.
Morton smiled broadly, like he was genuinely surprised and pleased that anyone had listened to his story and given it any thought.
“He just has to remember,” he said. “He has to remind himself every day.”
But Lynn thought that even if the farmer had tattooed himself with a cow’s head on his forearm, so that each time he looked at it, he’d be reminded of the smelly beasts lounging on his rug, it would still lose its potency.
“That’s what the soap is for,” Morton said.
She frowned. When her relationship with Craig had soured, she had tried to remember the beginnings. And although she could still recall those days, those memories lost their polish with age and no longer evoked any feeling. They were as flat and distant as scenes from a film.
In a women’s magazine she’d read that love in relationships is always growing or diminishing, and that every day you have to steer it in one of those directions. At the time, she’d thought that was nonsense. Most of the time, things remained the same, she’d believed. But Morton, a man who looked like he got dressed in the dark, had understood the invisible shifts. Eventually, there would be another job and another man and she would have to learn to feel the ground moving beneath her.
“Do you want an extra bar?” Morton offered.
She knew a lifetime supply of soap wouldn’t help. If she looked at it long enough, even the ridiculous bye-bye, shmutz bar would begin to look like any other bar.
“No thanks,” she said. She tucked the bar of soap into her purse. She couldn’t trick herself forever. She would have to learn to fight inertia the same way she indulged in it, in tiny shuffling increments. Morton put his hand on her shoulder and guided her to the door. She turned to look back at the room with its laminate flooring and folding chairs askew in their rows, and she wanted to memorize the particulars, knowing that by the time she was in her car she would already be forgetting.
"The Program" is excerpted from Dog Years by Melissa Yancy, © 2016, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.