I outline payment schedules. Credit card bills, student loans, power, utilities. I draw up grocery budgets and lists, in my elegant cursive, something I’ve relearned in recent months. More onions, less TV dinners, and Diet-Pepsi, containing more late-night sleeplessness. A tomato or two, if possible. Some granola bars, even.
No beer, save for the occasional six-pack of Coors Light.
I set alarms, payment alerts on my phone. I pay on time. Even a week early when I can. You never know when the Internet’s going to go down or the computer’s going to be temperamental.
And I avoid making random purchases like that plasma TV, whose name conveyed elegance. Status. Of course, it languished unwatched. Then there’s the trident I used to carry around, trying to arouse fear for the sheer, misguided fun. The idea was born during my SNL fixation, and in particular my love for Evil Boss with Will Ferrell. In that particular skit, he and an employee, played by the wonderful Chris Parnell, engaged in a trident fight. Of course, the employee ended up being felled by the trident, but I adored the energy, the motion of the trident, its strength.
Of course, some people called me a freak. Others just stared, transfixed by the lack of logic in the trident. I got kicked out of a McDonald’s for ordering a large fry and Chicken McNuggets, trident in hand too. They deemed it disruptive to the harmony of the McDonald’s family.
I’m thirty-two now. Middle age whistles like a train through a tunnel, drawing closer. Sweatpants are replaced by Khakis and button-down shirts. Navy blue, lavender, black. Colors that convey a utilitarian quality and a certain verve.
I have a desk, a computer, some plastic utensils, plates, bowls. Dixie cups, a tad flimsy, but practical. A couple plastic red ones too, a tad more voluminous.
In the still of night, I envision the payments being dispensed with one by one, a large zero besides the words “you owe.” Another image: I’m walking into the world and it is showering multitudes upon me. There are new card offers, a home, a semblance of deference. I imagine the option of rejecting and accepting each offer with a certain ease, with the flick of a hand. And I imagine being called Mr. Botkin, mister being pronounced with a certain precision and elegance. Mis-ter. Not mister, a rushed word.
But the numbers expand. I’m paying mere interest. Interest on interest, like layers of ice that you can’t chip away. My calculations crumble.
The power and utilities rates go up too.
I can pay X off in Y years, statements advise with litanies of exclamation points. If I go beyond the minimum payment. If I pay twice as much per month on X card.
If I go beyond the minimum payment, the grocery budget shrinks. I’m back to the days of Vienna sausages and sardines. Some Saltines too, if I’m lucky. If I make the full payment, I can buy groceries, but I can’t pay the utilities and the power. And on top of that, I’ll max the card again. Fast.
I even apply for other jobs, beyond the world of dispensing tickets and jumbo Cokes. I fill them out, even answering tricky questions, like how would you deal with an annoying co-worker?
Focus on the task at hand.
And how did you meet an extraordinary challenge in your life?
Dissect problems like a frog, delineate the needed tasks, solve, and preempt future challenges when possible.
Of course, I ripped those lines straight from Mr. DiCenzo, my supervisor at the Four Hills Multiplex. But there’s a strength in those words, something that conveys problem-solver.
I have several interviews. They smile and praise my creative writing degree and present experience working at the movie theater. They say they’ll be in touch.
Translation: Knowing words like philistine and apotheosis isn’t helpful, even for a coffee shop barista only blocks from campus. Or for a customer service position at a call center. On top of that I don’t have enough publications to gain a toehold at the university. The publications I have are not the right caliber. We received many, many experienced applicants, is what they actually say. But I find out that the man who received the assistant professor position was published in The New Yorker. It’s a story festooned with footnotes, subverted linearity, and other craft-related filigrees. On top of that, his name is Christophe Michel Dubois Chevalier, a name I must admit, has a certain cachet. A certain enigmatic quality. A certain danger.
Next thing I know, he’ll ride into class on a white horse too. In full armor.
I hang a punching bag in my bedroom, replete with water. It’s a gift from my older sister Nan. She thinks I really need this and I don’t want to argue with her. She pretty much raised me to begin with, because Mom was always traveling.
“You need a little release,” she says. “Trust me. It’s a good target when you can’t yell at someone. I go to town on mine every night.”
Of course, Nan, sweet Nan’s a teacher and talking about the Russian Revolution doesn’t mean you can cause chaos in the class. Although I wish she would sometimes, sweet Nan whose students fling invectives and mock her cat-eye glasses. I wish she’d let it all out in class. Nightly, I punch, punch, punch, fists pounding. The bag swings like a pendulum and sways, but it still hangs. I just want to see it tumble to the ground, admit my capability of victory. To dislodge something, however small and trivial in the broader scheme.
Another coffee shop and an indie bookstore turn me down for positions. I even email and ask for an explanation. I also ask them to describe one good personal trait. I offer a litany of choices: Assiduous, self-reliant, independent, fierce, Renaissance man.
They just thank me for my time and wish me well. They wish they could more personally respond to all their fine applicants. Shame rises to my mind. A picture: They’re deleting my email, my requests splayed on a page in 14-point Garamond. He’s sensitive, emotionally unstable. He’s crossed the line.
In all honesty, they relegated it to the electronic dustbin of history, but I can’t chase away the unease.
I restart my HBO subscription. Watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos. I have to admire Tony Soprano’s ability to deal with the dark underbellies beneath smiles, the power dynamics within a handshake or a hug. I buy a bottle of champagne as an incentive. It lasts less than a day.
But the rejections crawl out of my inbox. The interest rates grow.
I’ve filled out and been turned down from twenty jobs in less than five months. On top of that, my hours at the theater are cut. Rumblings of streamlining echo through the pink and brown floors with idiotic square and triangle patterns. On top of all this, my supervisor, Mr. DiCenzo says I need to smile more, take more interest in the customers.
“People don’t like sullen, Botkin,” he says, his voice reminding me of Al Pacino. He smells like onions, garlic, and Camels.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“I mean, you look like you’re scowling.”
“I’m just concentrating on the job, sir.”
“Sure,” he continues, brushing my words aside, “they like a sullen hero in the movies. But the sullen guy always blows something up and opens himself to the world. Always. You’re a decent guy, but you’re no action hero. No offense. Just open up a little more.”
“Yes, sir,” is all I can say, images of interest rates and hypothetical late fees dancing through my mind. “I’ll do my best.”
“Achieve, Botkin,” he says, smiling, patting me on the back, the slap of his right hand still echoing as he walks away.
“Call me Mr. Botkin,” I mutter.
When I do ask moviegoers about the shape and scope of their days, what movie they’re seeing, what they had for dinner, Mr. DiCenzo tells me to focus, focus, focus. This isn’t a bar, these people aren’t my friends.
I get my twenty-first job rejection. Twenty-one. A number that seems especially significant, like I’ve crossed some dark threshold and can’t go back. Like my time has passed. What will twenty-two bring? What do you do when you hit thirty?
The night of that rejection, I rescue the trident from the closet, its virility buried in seas of Khakis, Polos, and my theater uniform, a purple shirt and black slacks. I run my hands over its points, still sharp and beautiful. Dust it off a bit.
“It’s showtime,” I whisper, raising the trident and plunging it into empty space.
Then I tape printed copies of several applications to the punching bag. Trident positioned perpendicular to the punching bag, I rush it. Stab it over, over, sharp points striking. Stab, stab, stab, the point strikes the paper. Stab, stab, the trident strikes the blue surface. Harder, harder, harder. One job, two job, twenty jobs. Qualified applicants, we’ll be in touch, in touch, applications disappear, a new applicant rises to the top. Color inside this line, that line, do the right thing.
A rip assaults my ears. And then another.
I go falling backwards, propelled as water sprays full force. The trident slips and clatters to the floor. Pain rises to my legs, the half-naked bag swinging, surface ripped. A hole gapes, grotesque, like the aftermath of a bomb. Water soaks into me, around me, meandering, everywhere, anywhere, without end. I close my eyes and wait for something. The water keeps sinking into me and I open my eyes, very, very slowly, the half-destroyed bag sagging, but still swinging.