[This is the first draft of the first stab at a new story of mine, called "The Shit People Buy." The story ultimately hinges on the ambiguity in the word "buy" in English, as in, purchasing vs. believing. The protagonist is a sort of Travis Bickle meets Holden Caulfield meets Ignatius J. Reilly meets Patrick Bateman.
The one interesting aspect of this narrative is the fluid shifting I do between first person and third person. I'm not saying it's uniquely my own style, but I can't recall an author at the moment that writes like that. It is meant to accentuate the ambiguity between Derrick's running critique of society and his actual performance along, or not, those lines.
Anyway, see if you can tell where Derrick's actions are headed by the end of this excerpt. 2500+ words.]
¶ The shit people buy. I'm telling you. Looking at ads like they're going out of style, or, then again, just coming into style. Flip-flopping hot items in their hands at the checkout lines. Wondering where each one could fit in their bloated, hollow lives. Finally deciding to buy. Buying like there's no tomorrow, or, worse, like there is no yesterday. Like there is nothing other than this or that little something to define themselves. Silently demanding a refund on who they were up to that moment, that precious, defining moment of purchase. When all the past mistakes and future dreams dissolve in a wave of clever release. I got it while it's on sale! I can return it if I need to! That's why I avoid stores. Or any one place for too long, really. Just makes me more cynical, seeing people, all basically the same, ambling into the same monstrous nonsense.
¶ So I ride taxis. It keeps me out of a rut. Or at least gives me a rut that keeps me from getting into any other rut. I never see the same people twice. Their tired, streetside demeanors as vague and transient as the yellow of cab after cab.
¶ I have hailed cabs and only recognized them just as I was tumbling into the back seat. I have no compunction about tumbling right back out if not too much of me, don't ask me how much, has already tumbled in. If my knee or any part of my legs has touched the seat, of course, there's no way I leave the cab. I'm stuck by my own invisible ethics.
¶ "Where to, sir?" asked the cabbie. Derrick knew the face. A month before? A year? Could he really remember that far back? He could, but the cabbie probably couldn't. Would you remember the face of every fare that got in your taxi, honestly?
¶ "Harold's Hardware, please," answered Derrick, feigning interest in the smudges on the rear passenger window. Averting his gaze for form's sake.
¶ "Harold's Hardware? What street is that on?" asked the cabbie, glancing from window to window as sullen cars oozed around him in traffic. He hated being at a curb longer than ten seconds. He rubbed the back alley of his ear as if he were looking for a pencil that should be resting there.
¶ Had he spoken too quickly? He'd sat with this stubble-faced driver before, but felt confident he didn't remember him. Another fare, as unfelt and unremarked as the silent arching of his stubble away from his gritty skin. But did he remember Harold's Hardware? What are the odds he'd used the same destination twice for the same driver? Now he had to give the same street as before, or the odor of deja vu might curdle to an itchy inconsistency.
¶ "Street, oh, I know it's along Pemberton Drive," Derrick replied, buying for time and plying the cabbie for hints.
¶ "Pemberton! What isn't along Pemberton!" the cabbie snapped. His head was in constant motion now eyeing the cars oozing with disdain around this unmoving transport. For shame!
¶ "Well, yeah, that's what I mean," said Derrick, "I've never been there, but my friend swears it's got just what I need. Maybe I should check the phone book and go another day…."
¶ "What you need?" the cabbie asked, his head holding still just long enough to cock an eyebrow in the mirror. Forget begging off now. The tiniest root of rapport had wedged its way between him and the cabbie. Their Pemberton Problem was now a mutual destiny, a shared grief in their muffled, unmoving space by the curb.
¶ "Well, I mean, what my friend needs," Derrick replied, "for a project he's, we're working on."
¶ "Some kind of home design, yeah?" asked the cabbie.
¶ How could he not remember Harold's Hardware on Pemberton! It didn't exist, sure, but discovering that, or nearly discovering that, last time should have triggered something by now. Was he stupid or just implacably friendly? Time for a bucket pass out.
¶ He glanced at the dash. B. Clines.
¶ "Yeah, just some refurbishing before he gets married," mumbled Derrick.
¶ B. Clines grunted amicably. "You know, I'm sorry, but the meter is running. It's automatic," he said, shrugging apologetically.
¶ "Oh, by all means!" Derrick said, catching himself for sounding too starchy.
¶ "I got an idea," he suggested, softening his grammar to sound more simpatico. "Let's just head to another hardware store along the way, and then I can at least try to get what I need there."
¶ "Fine by me, sir," B. Clines answered, chopping at his left blinker and bulging into traffic like a foal out of its mother. He fought the urge to deploy one of his "just an average macho guy taking a taxi" lines with this B. Clines, but he decided he'd already drawn enough attention to himself this ride.
¶ "What's the B. stand for?" asked Derrick. He had to try covering his gaffe with chitchat. Sound like every other fare. I like my women like I like my coffee–– cheap and refillable. Ixnay! Ixnay!
¶ "You'll laugh," Clines answered. "You can call me Burt, but my mother named me Burton."
¶ "Burt, Burton. That's a fine– sounds like a good name to me," replied Derrick. He chuckled ineffectually. Simpatico. Anonymous. Distant without being enigmatic. The longer they drove, the deeper and hotter Harold's Hardware would burn into Burt's brain, thrashing about like hot coals rattling down a chimney, until it hit something tender and burst into flame. A memory. And Derrick would be pegged. So he roved the streets as dusk darkened over the day. Looking for any plausible detour.
¶ "You know, mister," mentioned Burt, "I have heard of Harold's Hardware before. I just couldn't place the name till now." Pegged.
¶ "Oh?" muttered Derrick.
¶ "A while back I had a guy looking for it too, on Pemberton, like you said," Burt continued. Was he playing with Derrick now? His cab, his turf. His turn?
¶ "Oh, really, well," mumbled Derrick, affecting a look of deep attention out the window. He must have sounded so ineffectual, like a drooping daisy. I like my women....
¶ "But I think it's closed," said Burt. "I mean, I couldn't find it last time, and if your friend didn't have an exact address, he might have just heard of it by, uh, hearsay. Who knows how long ago it might have been open, you know?"
¶ The cabbie was drowning the flame in the blind rain of his own kindness! What a break! Night fell and the traffic lights played their endless game of stop and go in full relief. Pretending to offer a way out just over the next hill, just past the next intersection, a way to green hope lit by green lights, a way to a warm red end lit by stop lights, but then showing up just over the next hill, after the next intersection, taunting the dreamer with a red to check his hope of green release, a panting green light to smother his longing for an end. Green light: no rest for you. Red light: no cookie for you. Yellow light: think about it but don't think so hard you don't keep playing.
¶ "You know, Burt," Derrick said in his warmest tone, "I think you have– got a good idea there." And then he saw it. Home Care Hardware.
¶ "That's it!" shouted Derrick, louder than he meant to. Burt jerked forward in his seat, yanking at the wheel with a start.
¶ "What, what?" he asked, suppressing a moment of unprofessional clumsiness like a lecturer edging in one step behind the podium after noticing his fly is down.
¶ "Home Care Hardware. Up on the right," Derrick directed, putting a virile tone of boredom into his voice. It sounded close enough to Harold's. A believable mistake. Harold's, Home Care. It's all hardware, right, Burt, right, Burty old baby?
¶ "Oooohhh," moaned Burt, gilding the sound with a crystal edge of mirth. "You mean Home Care, not Harold's. I could've told you that."
¶ "That's what you get when you take things by word from your friends, right…" Derrick said, losing the will to say Burt at the last minute. "Let me out here and I'll call my buddy."
¶ "You want me to wait?"
¶ "No, no, it's fine," Derrick insisted, "You've done enough already, too much, really. My mistake."
¶ Burt said nothing, but Derrick noticed he glanced over at the trembling red numbers on the meter. A little green bulbed flashed in the top left. The cab elbowed its way out of traffic to the curb and Derrick made a little show of reaching into his back pocket for his money, even he'd been holding a $20 bill since Cabbie Clines had started driving.
¶ "That'll be $13.65," Burt droned. He didn't want to rub it in Derrick's face.
¶ "There you go," Derrick replied, "Three dollars change, please." He couldn't tip too much or too little, otherwise he'd make that much more tinder in Burt's brain. He was already pretty sure Harold's Hardware was going to make the rounds in whatever little conversations Burt had with his fellow cabbies, at least for the next day or two. He took a clandestine comfort in the fact that it was just a matter of time before Derrick's peccadillo would get water logged in the sea of Burt's friendliness and dragged down to darkness like a fallen penny from the eyes of the dead crossing Lethe.
¶ So you can see what I mean about staying out of a rut. Something as seemingly simple–– sorry, as deceptively mundane–– no, something as humdrum and workaday as riding a taxi to a store that doesn't exist is rife with perilous missteps. What will I do if, per impossibile, I ever find myself tumbling into Burt's moist little cab? Who knows? That's just the point. No rut. No predictability. No patterns. No prison. Just me watching the shit people buy drag them down as soon as it lifts them up.
¶ Take two nights ago as an example. I was in the back seat of a taxi, pretending to copy important business contacts off of business cards. (They were just business cards and mini take-out menus I had palmed from restaurants I'd dropped in on the past few nights.) We hit a long red light near the city council, and so I hallowed the moment by leaning my head back onto my cushion. I find that little things like that–– say, fumbling without protest for something until the cabbie ever so kindly flips on the cab light, or dropping a few coins under the front passenger seat so the cabbie helps you dig around for them at the next stop light–– gives most cabbies a real sense of worth. Little things make your ride seem special makes most cabbies beam. Like seeing a fare make himself at home, almost comfortable and secure enough to sleep, on the well groomed head rest in the back seat at a long red light downtown.
¶ Anyway, there I was, living it up at the long red, when I saw a huge billboard across the street over a used car lot.
"Hair, hair, everywhere? Want a peachy body without the wolf man fuzz? Don't buzz that fuzz...
Try Foam-Alone Hair Removal! Guaranteed to remove unwanted hair without damaging skin. Available at all Cosmetic Bloom retailers."
¶ Strewn along the bottom were anime-style humanoids all displaying a unique hair problem: one grizzled old man with hairs bursting from his ears like TNT from a mine, a lumpy young lady frowning and staring at her mustached lip, a dazed rake-thin man whose arms and legs looked like redhead floor mats on a torso, a muscular dude with hair covering, I presume, his buff chest. And so on, right off the margins of the billboard.
¶ Shit people buy. People, that is, buy shit. How did Rudolph, Rudy the Booty, put it back in school? "People like dreck?" Good enough. Hat tip to Rudy, even if he didn't earn it. If it weren't for ads like that, there wouldn't be "unwanted hair." Small minds don't want the hair they have because they think they need to look like a billboard model. Everyone knows how fake ads are, and how companies just want your money, but they still go for products like Foam-Alone. Not even slaves to ads, since slaves at least know they are slaves. Worse: ants answering a call from a queen they don't even believe exists. The Market. Too abstract to fear, too abundant not to love. If Mommy Market told them their little whiskers had to go, their little whiskers just had to go. If Mommy Market stared at their soft bellies and pouted about six-pack abs, it was right on their backs to get rocked and pumped by an ab roller that seemed to cradle them at every grunting step towards six-packdom. I don't even want to imagine how expensive Foam-Alone is. At least addicts of other drugs get enjoyment with every fix. But these Market mummies just get a deeper sense of guilt every time they look up to the skies and see what they need next.
¶ The light turned green and Derrick's cab surged forward, trying to get around the thumping little Mazda that had gotten caught behind a pickup, warbling and growling like a dog in a cage. A few blocks ahead traffic was dispersed and only dull hum from the city. His cab turned right and dropped Derrick off at his apartment. As he got out Derrick offered the driver a very large tip without noticing it and Derrick was forced to take back almost $20. He walked up stairs, stuck his finger in his mailbox just for form's sake, and made his way upstairs as his shoes hissed on each splintery wooden step. He played with the change he'd gotten from the cabbie until he got to his door on the fourth floor, and then stuffed it into his breast pocket as his other hand reached for his keys. He entered and reached into the kitchen for a light switch. In the kitchen he leaned over the open door at the waist, one hand gripping the door jamb, the other arm sagging over the fridge door. He reached in for a bowl of soft mottled grapes. The money tumbled out of his pocket. He sighed, grunted, knelt down to collect it with his free hand, the bowl of grapes hovering in the dim light in his other hand.
¶ He stood up, closed the door, put the money down on the cutting board, and rested his hip against the counter as he slowly ate one grape after another. A mosquito buzzed by his ear. He reached up to swat it away, and then started rubbing his ear. He felt little hairs all over it. Tiny stiff probes jutting off the lip into his ear canal. Longer soft hairs perched on the upper rim of his ear, lost until now in the general hairiness of his head. A flimsy record needle sprouted from each of his earlobes; he could hear them scratching like drunken DJ's along the grooves of his studious finger tip.
[17.4.09, 367 words.]
¶ His one hand was becoming so transfixed by the stubbly wonder of his ear, in fact, that it seemed to jam the works in his other hand, that hapless other hand, which was, until now, blissfully occupied with the raising of grape after grape to silent, romping, maroon lips, but was now frozen with the transmuted anxiety of its partner hand. It was now caught in the glare of lips that no longer chewed so much as pantomimed the worry of the man's mind by slowly frisking a grape, long dead and nigh juiceless, the spoiled, split corpse of Hector around Troy, over and around his teeth in time with fingers at his ear as they frisked the hirsute impudence of the man's hormones, impudent for having covertly sprouted record-needle hairs on helpless earlobes, slender flags staked in the name of testosterone for studious fingers guided by an absent mind to find–– to find and to freeze that other hapless hand in midair as it raised a new grape to lips dedicated to thoughtless chewing.
¶ Now the feet heard the scratchy melody, too. The melody being broadcast from outside in from the earlobe to the fingertip, into the brain, down the sciatic nerve and into the soles of feet, cajoled the soles of those feet to scrape themselves from a grape-eating stance to a slow, pensive walk towards the bathroom. To the bathroom where one free hand, covered by another hand, full of assurance that the little hairs, like little foxes in a vineyard, would not get away this time, glided towards a bathroom mirror that, this whole time, this whole damned hair-sprouting time, had sightlessly reflected a pair of tweezers gleaming under neon lights. A gleaming pair of tweezers now poised in the free fingers of a free hand in the free air of a free man's bathroom, rising like the head of an adder, chrome tongue spit outward, chrome tines fused tweezerward, arching back in that no longer hapless hand, back, no longer blind and transfixed but silently fervent and guided towards an ear that played its scratchy little tune after all these weeks (days?) of growth under the relentless caress of an outraged finger.