Joyland

New York |

Vincent

by Shane Jones

edited by Rebekah Bergman

I just ate eggs. Breakfast for dinner is what Robin called it. Is there such a thing as dinner for breakfast? I’m sure some jabony has fired-up a cheeseburger and fries at 8 a.m., and hey, why not. I’ve read how clocks are just inventions for us to feel structure in what is a chaotic world. So there’s no difference between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s all one structure-less space we’re floating around in. Kind of bleak, but comforting.

Eggs are in my top five, maybe three, breakfast foods, with bacon and French toast. It’s difficult to make an exceptional scrambled egg because your brain thinks it’s simple. Then you get confident and mess the whole thing up – dry the eggs out, over salt, maybe an eggshell stuck between your teeth. A lot can go wrong with eggs. And if you think about it, cooking eggs is a lot like living life.

My marriage was an adventure, but it’s not something I’d want to tell everyone. It wouldn’t make a good movie because the dialog would become a trickle, and the last forty-five minutes would be silence. God, I can see it now: Robin and I standing in the kitchen, not talking, two sausage links sadly frying in a pan.

I’ve been thinking about a conference call.

A conference call is when everyone lives in different places but you call a number and suddenly you’re on the phone together. It’s amazing and awful. When I’m on a conference call I imagine what everyone else is doing. Is executive-assistant Michelle in the tub having a bubble bath, shaving a raised leg? Is lobbyist Steve doing that move where his hand is in his pants pocket, adjusting himself by swirling two fingers?

How many of us walk through our home on our cell phone and surprise ourselves in the mirror because we have identity issues?

This particular conference call, the one I’m thinking about now, had thirty people on it. How the phone’s fibers can stand so many terrible voices I’ll never understand.

Typically, four or five people do all the talking on a conference call. And it’s never the smartest people. If you want to be taken seriously on a conference call you need to talk over everyone else. You need volume. The louder you are, the more powerful you are. Shout, “Good morning!” when you get into work and you’ll see what I mean. If done correctly, and with enough force, you can take the rest of the day off.

On this call, six people were fighting about which Councilmen to go after. Who should be labeled a Hit. This lasted about an hour, so I clipped my toenails with the phone wedged between my head and shoulder. I heard noise, but it sounded like whappa whappa, coughs, sneezes, whispers, keyboard clicks, heavy sighs, beards itched against a receiver. I don’t remember how long I wasn’t paying attention, but my mind woke when someone said my name.

“Sorry, repeat that,” I said in my professional work voice.

Imagine thirty separate laughs coming at once through a single hole and into your ear. I wanted to die. Picture your wife saying she doesn’t love you and you know it’s your fault.

I put the clippers back into the medicine cabinet. When I closed the door, I was looking in the mirror.

“Peppers,” said my boss. “Tell me. What’s your opinion on what we were just discussing?”

Certain events and images you remember forever. Every person has, probably, like, ten open slots to fill and then you die and the slots flicker around your eyes. What would I see? Pastrami sandwiches, computers, Councilmen’s fat blurry faces, Robin slamming a bedroom door, and myself, standing at the bathroom mirror on a fucking conference call.

“A-hem,” went my boss.

I’m not sure why, but what I did was laugh. Not laughing at the conference call, but how I appeared in the mirror and the idea I participated in something called a conference call with a bunch of people who only had one thing in common: they were paid to be on the line. We didn’t want this. No human being would put up with something so absurd. No one felt anything good from a conference call. We were being paid for a job and we were doing it and that gave it some strange and terrible meaning.

I don’t think I cried on the conference call, thinking about Robin. My eyes were just watery. I couldn’t stop looking at myself. I appeared old and sad. I wondered what the ten-year old me would have thought if he saw me on a conference call. I imagined my shins being kicked.

“Everything will work out,” I said into the phone.

“What?” said my boss, followed by laughter scattered across the city.

I don’t think I was thinking about Robin.

“I’m on it,” I said.

My boss sneezed. “Um, elaborate?”

I put my mouth an inch from the mirror and spoke into the phone, “Going forward on this project I will implement synergy to achieve positive results. Good night.”

Total silence.

Every motion performed by a man in a suit is tethered to consumption.

“Thank you,” said my boss. “Whew. Thought we lost you there for a second, Vincent. Great work. Everyone hear Vincent?”

My breath created an egg-shaped fog on the mirror. I wrote my initials on the shell, and over my initials, a question mark. The bathroom tile was cold on my bare feet. I felt empty.

“Good night,” I said into the phone again, my voice near a whisper, and hung up.

When businessmen look in the sky, they see conference calls.

The reason I let Robin sleep with another man was because I wanted her to be happy. I wasn’t enough. People are like bags, and the more problems you have, the more holes in your bag. Not like an Oh, I’m hungry for peanut butter crackers but I don’t have any in the house kind of problem. More like, Everyday I lose another day and get closer to death. That’s a problem everyone has, even if they don’t think about it. That’s a hole in your bag. For Robin, needing someone to fulfill her sexually was a hole in her bag. And a big part of life is having few holes in your bag. You want to give yourself the illusion of moving through life as a solid form.

As a kid, I had a hole in my bag and didn’t tell anyone. The hole lasted a year. I spent nights in bed looking at a poster of a basketball player on my ceiling. I can say now with 100% certainty that I will never slam-dunk a basketball. You don’t think about that stuff as a kid. You think you can do anything because you don’t count days and you don’t fully understand that there’s an end. A few years ago, after work with colleagues for drinks, we walked through a parking lot and saw a basketball hoop near some dumpsters. I ran and jumped and felt my hand graze the bottom of the net and Kevin said to me in the car, “Not too shabby, Vincent.”

As a kid, any time I went for a bike ride I had an impulse to steer the bike off the road. Even worse when I went over bridges, or near cliffs, or near the railing around The Bend. Did other kids have this desire to glance down at their hands on the handlebars and envision their left hand rising, their right elbow coming into their ribs, their bike losing control beneath them and floating away? Many times I saw my body, wind-blown, go over a bridge. The impulse went away when I felt too old to ride a bike and got car rides from friends. Then I got my license and it came back. I drove as close to the guardrail as possible. My car swerved from imaginary squirrels. You can drive pretty close to a cliff and not fall off. One time, late at night, I drove outside the city until the road fell apart to gravel, and then, a field. No one was around so I backed the car up until the rear tires crunched. I hit the gas and drove into the field and turned and weaved the car and screamed and yelled. The back end of the car skidded out and pushed dust-clouds into the sky only the headlights could grab. I cracked my head against the driver’s side window, and from then on, I never had the impulse again. That hole closed up.

Robin often asked me if she was destined to a life of sexual un-fulfillment. I always said something like, “I’ll work on it,” to which she would say, “But what if you’re already doing your best?”

Here are some other holes in my bag:

- Fear of orange cats.

- Habit of saying for five minutes straight this day is a grave in order to fall asleep.

- Do I need to eat or I want to eat?

- Fear of being alone when I’m dying (no one in or around my bed).

- I’ve imagined throwing coffee into a stranger’s face to experience the consequence.

- Too much time spent re-watching television shows I’ve already seen and disliked.

- Fear of cars exceeding 100 miles per hour (metal coffin).

I have more. Everyone has things to work on.

I had days at work where I didn’t talk. I just sat in my cubicle and listened to my co-workers, which is easy, because they couldn’t see me. I had the best cubicle in the office because it was located in the back corner and the padded carpeted walls were just high enough where I was basically invisible. It’s like I didn’t even exist. Sometimes they’d talk about meatball subs or butt fucking. On occasion, my boss called, and I had to speak, and the words hurt coming out of my face after hours of silence.

I’ve been thinking about my body lately.

If you’ve ever worked in an office building you’ll understand that there are some truly horrendous bodies that enter and exit an office building. I’m not sure how they make it through the air. Lots of people dragging their legs. Lots of people seemingly shoved by a thinner version of their current self who seemingly wants nothing to do with squeezing through the security portal and entering the work elevator they’ve entered a million times before.

Once I saw a man in the elevator press his body, his entire face, against the gray doors and, for a moment, fall asleep as the elevator went up to my floor, 14. I had to peel him off.

But my God, all those bodies. Having to see all those bodies full of hurt and non-love on a daily basis gets to you. I haven’t traveled anywhere outside this city so I haven’t seen much, but I do believe images get inside you.

One time I saw a three-hundred-pound man eating a family size bag of chips on the front lawn of my office building at 8:30 in the morning.

Even from my cubicle, during all day hours, I could feel them, those bodies, outside the walls moving in ways they shouldn’t be moving. I’m in a better environment now. I’ll do the occasional conference call and then spend the rest of the day doing whatever. I’m okay now because I’m here.

I was always the skinny guy in my office because everyone else was overweight, which made me extra skinny, someone near dying. A constant joke at lunch. A mouth to push unwanted pizza toward. Once my boss said that if I skip my next meal I’d disappear.

“Really?” I said. “Sounds nice.”

Everyone laughed because they were uncomfortable. Most people don’t actually believe they are going to die. They just think it might happen.

What they, my co-workers, were really uncomfortable with was their own bodies and my weight was a direct insult. I get that. It makes sense. They wanted to blow me up and have someone else to share the misery with.

I’d do push-ups in my cubicle quietly and hide salads. Sometimes I’d make a show of eating a chocolate bar in the common area.

Once, I had this moment with Sarah, a receptionist. I can still feel the way my blood was during this odd little moment. I always liked Sarah’s face—a kind of tragic fat but loving and wanting. I liked her. She was a good person. We were talking about how skinny I was. The conversation had carried over from a hot dog lunch where I denied eating a second hot dog. You should have seen the looks. I eat so much now, where I am now. I’ve gained so much weight in this place.

What Sarah and I were talking about specifically was how in ads, sexy ads featuring men, the camera always scans up/down on the man’s abs. How a man’s abs were the definition of sexy. Sarah said something about a celebrity and what I did, just totally random and not thinking, was lift my shirt up. I didn’t have abs, just a flat kind of white and a little hair around my belly button but what Sarah did, very quickly and almost instantly after I randomly lifted my shirt up, was place her hand, flat, on my stomach.

Like I said, it was a weird moment, with no talking, just me standing there next to Sarah in her padded swivel chair holding my shirt up, crotch kind of toward her, and Sarah’s hand feeling all warm on me like she was feeling something inside me. It lasted somewhere between five seconds and five minutes. I never talked to her after that.

I want to think she was trying to transfer some wound or burden, or both, into me.

Now I want a hot dog but I don’t live in the type of city where there are hot dog vendors. Not sure there’s anything more depressing than buying yourself a package of hot dogs. But you do what you have to do and keep going under all these stars and weight.

I just thought this day is a grave. Terrible words to have running through your head this early, but I can’t help it. I’m waiting for a scheduled 11 am conference call. I live alone and sit when I pee. I have problems with reality. As a child, I’d stand in my family’s driveway and close my eyes and think so hard about being alive that I’d give myself a panic attack. I can’t do that anymore.

The reason my boss pushed me to apply for the work from home program, which I’ve been doing now for two weeks, is because of what happened at the podium.

Every summer my boss gives a speech at the annual summer picnic, sponsored by the higher-ups who rarely attend. They print banners. They print directional signs on where to park. They have it catered with the finest deli meats and all the Michelle’s and Sarah’s and Steve’s of the world make colorless and unhealthy salads. Everyone pays five dollars. Doritos are poured into large plastic bowls. And every spring my boss picks one employee from a hundred and fifty to introduce him in what is supposed to be a light and funny roast with some brown nosing at the end. He chooses randomly, pulling the name from pieces of paper he swirls around inside an empty jumbo sized cheese puff bucket. It’s a real show. They applauded my name. Brian said, “Show the boss who’s boss!”

It makes sense why everyone laughed on the conference call I explained earlier. They remembered what happened to me at the picnic. They remembered Chuck and Dan, two shipping clerks, walking me to my car before I even got the chance to eat a cheeseburger.

“Vincent, good luck today,” said my boss that morning. “Get me good!”

I walked to the podium and took out my speech. I wore my best suit, the one I got married in, the one I never wore to work because it was a summer suit, baggy clothes (fitting = too tight) are popular in my work place and this suit was tailored. Besides, our office was always cold. Do you know that the number one complaint in the American work place is that the temperature is too cold? And do you know what the second most common complaint is? That it’s too hot. How wonderful is that?

Everyone waited for me to speak at the podium. All those bodies in khaki shorts and short sleeve button ups held paper plates of meat. My boss stood off to the side, laughing and hitting elbows with Sarah. Were they fucking? Maybe they loved each other? A few guys, way in the back, played Cornhole on boards they had painted in the American flag with bordering yellow snakes. There was one cloud in the sky and it was shaped like a chicken. The chicken kind of fell apart as I stood there thinking about my life.

“Come on, Vincent!” someone yelled. “Blast him!”

Everyone’s face went blurry and I felt extremely hot. Things looked a little fuzzy. My head started to spin a little. I realized I hadn’t formed a human connection with one of the hundred people in the audience. I realized none of us would remember this moment in a few years, and if they did, how scrambled it would be from reality. How great is that? How all our daily tasks, even something more heightened like a summer work picnic, will be twisted from what truly happened or forgotten completely?

Steve started a chant. There are people in the world like Steve who do things like this and we follow. We never say no to Steve, although I imagine a small percentage just pretend to mouth the words, like I always did in school chorus, standing in the back and opening and closing my mouth with nothing coming out. I fainted once during school chorus. I left in the middle of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and walked from the auditorium and into the school and right before the nurse’s office, I collapsed. I was on the school floor in the hallway and no one was around and all I remember is seeing stars and how cold and alone and embarrassed I felt.

Someone like Steve, just imagine what he’ll see when he dies. He’ll be at the center of every experience because he was the beginning of every pool party applause, stadium booing, raised lighter, protest slogan, traffic jam car honk, and first name chant. The Steve’s of the world are the energy cores.

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

My boss was the first to realize something was wrong. He took a few steps toward the podium. People stopped chanting. Even Steve. People looked worried. My boss immediately regretted picking me for the big introduction. He should have known. I never really talked before, so why would I now? Why would I do a good job?

I stared at the speech because it was my wedding vows to Robin. The paper had been in the suit all this time. The speech was in the opposite side pocket, but I couldn’t stop re-reading the wedding vows. So sentimental! So sappy! Not that they were so heartbreaking and true, it was the opposite, the vows were clichéd and rushed and I couldn’t believe I confessed these soggy words to Robin. Did she think this when she heard them? I’ll have to watch the tape again. Did her father, who paid for the wedding, understand then that she was making a terrible mistake? Did everyone know we would end in divorce?

What I did at the podium was smile and put my professional voice on. It’s the same voice I use on conference calls. I made a joke about my boss drinking so much coffee that when he went into the hospital for a colonic they hooked him up to an IV drip of Dunkin Donuts dark roast and everyone laughed. I don’t think I had tears in my eyes when I made that joke. I don’t think I was still thinking about Robin. I made a joke that when my boss approved personal time requests he wrote our names in a little black book called the “Hit List” and not everyone laughed. I told the crowd how my boss is the most compassionate, fair, and hardest working boss I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for. I didn’t hear any applause. No Steve power slapping his hands together first in a booming echo because I looked up, laughed at the chicken in the sky, which was just a mess at that point, and fainted.

I sat in my car for a good twenty minutes supervised by Chuck and Dan, who didn’t say a word, before driving home and getting a phone call from my boss that everything was okay, that maybe the work from home program would be a good idea. He told me to think about it. Then when I returned to work the next day and everyone treated me differently he pushed hard for the work from home program. I knew what it meant.

Conference call time now. I should have grabbed a snack because this could be a long one. The conference calls have been getting shorter and less frequent. I don’t have very much work to do. Maybe we’ll break the record for voices on a shared line this time around. A hundred? A thousand? A million? Could there be a conference call with all of America on it? What would that sound like? Would it be absolutely horrific? Or would it be strangely beautiful to know everyone was in one place? Could you pick out your mother or father and say that you missed them? Could you find your sister and ask her if she’s okay after the car accident? Could you ask a stranger what it’s like to live and get an honest answer?

Through all the yelling and power-grabs to be the loudest person in America, could I find Robin? Could I pull her through all those voices and tell her that I loved her?

Would America be on my side in weepy silence? Or would America just laugh?

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Illustration by Carolyn Tripp