The story goes that my family was once future-heirs to the Jack in the Box empire. At the last minute my grandfather got cold feet and backed out of the deal and now I drive a used Nissan Sentra. I have no idea if this story is true, but it has always defined my life in reverse. I am living this life instead of that one.
“It's like all the sudden all anyone wants to do anymore is be locked in a small room and then try to escape from it,” E says over drinks. There seems to be no end to the number of things that will float our boats. What floats my boat is not leaving my house for days on end while polishing off a liter or two of vodka and not reading any of the books I've promised myself I'm going to read before I die. The Brothers Karamazov. The Rachel Cusk trilogy. The Warren Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I watch TV instead and make deals with myself about which activities will trigger the need to take a shower.
Recently my wife and I moved into a duplex in the middle of nowhere. The cool thing about a duplex is how it looks like one house on the outside but on the inside it's really two houses. That's the duplicity of the duplex. A welcome change from the complexity of the complex, where my wife and I had lived in a 4th floor apartment the past five years. It's quiet out here in the middle of nowhere. Our appliances are all fifty years old. Manufactured by General Electric. In the event of a nuclear disaster, we can crawl inside our washing machine. The oven has a setting for BEEF HAM, an animal I can only assume has since gone extinct. The clock is busted. In our kitchen it's always 9:38, sometime in the 1950s.
I got drunk the first night in the duplex and saw a cockroach on the kitchen counter. It hid behind the knife block. I understood its hiding to be an act of fear. That cockroaches are capable of feeling fear struck me as devastating proof of the deep sadness that permeates every level of THE GREAT CHAIN OF BEING. I smashed it with a spatula. Cockroaches, as you know, are full of motor oil. It went all over the place. “Free motor oil!” I yelled and wiped it up with a paper towel. Later I woke up on the couch, having not fallen asleep.
Lately this weird thing has been happening to me where I wake up more often than I fall asleep. For example, I woke up three times yesterday but only fell asleep once. Similarly, I am shitting constantly but hardly eating anything. A problem of my inputs and outputs, my starts and stops. Hardly anything adds all the way up. “If you eat a quarter pounder, you'll only gain a few ounces,” C at work explained to me. Jodie says she gave birth to an eight-pound baby and lost five pounds.
Our neighbor in the duplex is an old fart named Darlene. She’s so old she might have seen an honest to god BEEF HAM. Our second day in the duplex, she rang our door bell twice. That was the first time I heard our door bell. It sounds like this: DING DONG! But when Darlene rings it, it sounds like this: DING DONG! DING DONG! I hadn't been out of the duplex since I'd walked into it the day before. Since then, I’d been drinking.
“I've woken you up,” Darlene said.
“No no no,” I said, but then realized she had.
“Maybe we should exchange phone numbers,” she said. “In case I'm ever being too loud.” But I knew that she meant the opposite.
“Sure,” I said.
“I live alone but I'm not lonely,” she said while I wrote my number on a neon pink sticky note. “Sometimes I play jazz at a low volume in the kitchen while I cook,” she said. I nodded and tried to remember why people tell each other things, a line of thinking that, like all lines of thinking, eventually leads to killing yourself.
“Whatever floats your boat,” I said.
“My boat?” she said.
“Your boat,” I said and handed her the sticky.
Over July 4th weekend, J goes to Canada to visit her grandma so it's just me and Darlene in this duplex with this thin wall between us. In the mornings I drink coffee on the couch and listen to Coltrane through the wall. That cat could really blow. Dead at 40 from liver failure. There are, of course, implications. I stay home from work so I can focus on drinking and binge watching a show about a con artist starring GIOVANNI RIBISI and arranging my books into various piles around the living room. Before bed, I look at my car in the garage and briefly but vividly suicidally ideate. I don't take showers. I don't sleep well. I dream about cockroaches. The exterminator told J they live in the trees. “Why would he tell you that?” I say. “Why would he think that was something anybody would want to know?”
I am not escaping the room. The room is the escape. I have McDonald's delivered. A twenty-piece box of chicken nuggets costs the same as a ten-piece box of chicken nuggets. A large Coke costs the same as a small Coke. The economics of Mickey D's astound. It is not possible to order just one pie. “I've woken you,” the delivery guy says when he passes the box of nuggets to me through gap in the door. “No no no,” I say, rubbing my eyes, waving him away.
I text my dad.
Me: Do you happen to know if it's true that grandpa Len was almost a founder of Jack in the Box?
Dad: It's true. He turned it down. We coulda been rich!
Our new city is in a dry county which means I have to drive fifteen minutes in any direction if I'm going to buy booze. You can tell where the county line is because it's lined with liquor stores. I wait in line with three liters of vodka under my arms while the guy in front of me asks for the smallest bottle of Jack they have. The clerk hands him the size you'd get on an airplane.
“What's one bigger than that?” the guy says.
“A pint,” the clerk says.
“What's one bigger than a pint?” the guy says.
“A fifth,” the guy says.
“A fifth of what?” the guy says.
“A gallon,” the clerk says.
“I'll just go ahead and take the gallon,” the guy says.
I heard once that if you know what time the liquor store closes you're a person who likes to drink but if you know what time the liquor store opens you're an alcoholic. After I heard that, I was very careful to not find out what time the liquor store opens.
I don't think there's any truth in wine. Just chloric acid and sulfur dioxide and a little bit of Spanish walnut.
Just kidding. I have no idea what's in wine.
Our new neighborhood seems quiet enough but just to be safe I drive to Academy Sports & Outdoors on a Saturday morning and buy a bat. A child-sized Louisville Slugger. It costs $34. The adult-size costs $109 but I think the child-size will do just as good a job at bashing in someone's skull and for a fraction of the price. I stand in the aisle and take a few over-the-head practice swings. I wonder if it's obvious that I'm picturing braining an intruder. To confuse any potential suspicion about my intentions for the bat, I also buy a pack of racquetballs. I am disguising myself as a person who does not understand which pieces of sports equipment go together. When I get home I get drunk and beat the shit out of a plastic trash can the previous tenant left in the garage.
When J gets home from Canada, late on Sunday, I wake up on the couch. “I've woken you,” she says. “No no no,” I say. Then I say a bunch of other things I don't remember saying. Not remembering saying them, I feel the need to say them again. As many times as it takes. I tell J about my bat. “Do you want to see my bat?” I say. And J says, “I'm worried about you.” At thirty-two, I seem to be experiencing early-stage symptoms of dementia and late-stage symptoms of existential dread. A bad combo. I wake up every morning at 3am sweating. Am I doing it wrong?! I think, about my whole life.
I like to imagine that things were simpler in the 1950s when this duplex was built and my grandfather was passing up the opportunity of a lifetime and we still didn't know that the moon is nothing but a big dust ball of disappointment. Men and women thought they knew what each other were for. The mighty BEEF HAM was roaming the Dallas suburbs, grazing on blue bonnets and discarded Whataburger fries. Unfamous people were on the cover of People magazine. Sex from behind had yet to be discovered.
I resolve to get healthy. “Both of body,” I say to myself, “and of mind.” The double whammy. The triple whammy includes finances but I'm not sure I have any of those. I buy a salad at Starbucks. It costs ten fucking dollars. There's quinoa in it. That's healthy! Maybe it's the quinoa that empowers me that night to lucidly dream. I do what I always do in a lucid dream. I run around like crazy trying to have sex with as many people as possible before I wake back up. Thank you, lucid dreams, for the myriad sexual positions you have helped us discover! Thank you, quinoa!
I get a text message. For the purposes of this essay let's say it's from Darlene.
Her: Random question...but I've been doing some research as a result of some therapy I've been doing because boy am I feeling just generally misunderstood and out of place. Do you ever feel like that?
Me: Constantly, my entire life.
Her: How do you fight the urge to just like...become a hermit and never interact with the outside world?
Me: Haha. Not fighting that urge very well tbh. How about you.
Her: It's not going well.
When we find a lawn mower in the garage, I pretend to not know what it is. “Maybe it's for digging holes,” I say. “Maybe it's art.”
My parents call at 9:30 one night “just to say hi” so I guess people are starting to worry. I haven't been seen in nearly a month. “We've woken you,” they say when I answer. I happen to be sober at the time so I make a point of acting REALLY SOBER by staying on topic and not immediately forgetting everything I say. I can tell that they're impressed. I sound great. Healthy of mind and body. I might visit New York. “New York!” they say.
The fifth cockroach I find is dead already of what appears to be natural causes. My dog bit its head off. “And that makes five,” I say. When the exterminator comes for the second time he says, “That's a problem” and points to all the dishes I haven't done.
“Don't bring me problems,” I say. “Bring me solutions.”
“What do you think this is?” he says and holds up the canister he's been carrying.
“I don't know,” I say. “Something poisonous, I hope.”
“Damn right it's poisonous,” he says.
When he's done spraying he says, “Wait, you don't have kids, do you?”
Nobody tries to break in. Nobody tries to break out. The bat seems to be working. Sometimes when J's gone I get naked and hold the bat to my crotch like it's a giant penis or something and walk around the duplex wagging it around. I don't know why I do that. You know what, forget I mentioned it.
I am offered a lucrative freelance opportunity writing a script to stroke the egos of the most powerful CEOs in the world. Men and women who knowingly or unknowingly CONTROL THE INVISIBLE HAND. “Someone's got to bring home the beef ham,” I tell J. I take the job and utterly botch it. “What is this?” M says about the twenty pages of incoherent, nihilistic ranting I turn in, carefully formatted in A/V. For this failure I am paid half the agreed upon amount, enough to cover one month's rent at the duplex.
I used to think I was going to make my living as a successful writer. Now I make my living as an unsuccessful one. Our lives are just whatever's left over after everything else doesn't work out. Reasons to drink abound. Nothing else in the history of maritime has floated more boats. But be warned: whatever it is that floats your boat is also the thing in which you might drowned.
After three days without showering my face gets shiny. I start to smell. A musty, animal smell that I neither like nor dislike but become somewhat intoxicated by. The primal smell of the BEEF HAM. My psoriasis clears up a little. My hair looks great.
Our neighbors on the other side play Mariachi music at night. The bass line travels into our duplex via underground pipes. It comes up through the drains. There is only one Mariachi song. I don't know what it's called but it's very sad. “Play it again!” I yell down the drain when it goes quiet, sometime around nine thirty.
Per city ordinance, on Wednesday nights I take the trash can to the end of the drive way. All the empty bottles inside rattle. “Shhhhh!” I say. I don't know about you but it's taking more and more to keep my boat afloat. My boat is heavy and poorly designed. My boat is named THE U.S.S. LIVER FAILURE. With all this drinking I've been doing you'd think I'd be better at the saxophone. “But what about the God-shaped hole in you?” S asked me once, in an attempt to lure me back into The Kingdom. “That's the great thing about vodka,” I explained. “It can conform to any shape.”
Has it started yet? I sometimes think about my life. And, sometimes, Is it over yet?
J and I fly to New York in the middle of a heat wave. It's a hundred degrees in Central Park. We get in taxis just for the air conditioning. “Twice around the block,” we say. We act like we're the rich heirs of a fast food empire. We put it on the card for future versions of ourselves to worry about. They’ll know what to do, I think. I have great confidence in them. On the second night we walk the High Line and eat cantaloupe flavored gelato. Then we visit a sex shop called The Blue Room in what J calls The Gayborhood. I never know what's offensive anymore. “No returns,” the old man behind the counter says when we walk in, a row of fat rubber cocks behind him, arranged like a skyline. “Check New York City sex shop off the list,” J says after we leave. “List?” I say. “What list? Was I supposed to be keeping a list?”
I don't blame my grandfather for his almost complete lack of balls. A restaurant called JACK IN THE BOX doesn't exactly sound like a safe bet, especially for a man not particularly inclined to bet on things. My dad once told me, about my grandfather, that he is the type of man who started planning for his retirement at age twenty-one and started collecting pension on his sixty-sixth birthday. Now he plays tennis in southern California and doesn't come to our weddings.
When we got back from New York J and I met with a financial advisor who told us that at our age and income level we should have $215,000 in savings. I laughed so hard I got the hiccups.
On Monday night I water the lawn. Fifteen minutes per section until it turns into mud. When the whole lawn is mud, you're done watering the lawn. I hire a neighbor kid to mow once a week for $20. My first employee. A simultaneous product of my protestant work ethic and my late-stage American laziness.
“Come anytime,” I tell him. “And don't feel any pressure to do a great job or anything.”
“You're so suburban!” J says when I tell her about hiring the kid.
A week later I fire him. He's useless and unreliable.
“We've decided to go in another direction with the position,” I text him, then let the grass grow and grow and grow.
And all that to say: in my early thirties I found myself standing outside of a liquor store in Dallas, waiting for it to open. I wasn’t the only one. I looked around. Who can say the decisions upon which our lives will turn. I wasn't much older than I had ever been and wasn't much younger than I am now. I was still hoping it wasn't too late to drift way far out and come back again. I was still hoping to make up for some things with some other things. I was still hoping to prove useful in an emergency.
Mike Nagel's essays have appeared in apt, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and The Paris Review Daily. Find selected nonsense at michaelscottnagel.com. Or follow him on Twitter @misternagel.