"Perfect Hunger" by Mark Miller
There is no good way to call up my old dealer and ask if he can get me some cocaine because I kind of burned that bridge when I called him a murderer and a Satanist on par with pedophiles and then threatened to tell the cops about him if he ever contacted me again. It’s especially awkward because he is my brother-in-law and I have to spend holidays with him. But receiving an email from old college friends instills in me a Pavlovian desire for the old ways, and I actually dial the number before I realize that I have to hang up. There is nothing suspicious about calling my sister’s house, but the phone might be tapped, and I am pretty rusty on the old code, which was something about clam bakes and new music. Richard keeps a pretty low profile as a database designer, but cops are clever, and it would be bad for mom and dad to find out their son in law was a dealer, but even worse to find out he was dealing to their son.
So thirty minutes later I am driving to their house in a way that suggests I am not trying to drive to their house. Since payphones are like dinosaurs that no longer roam the earth, the only evidence that man once communicated at all is a ragged chunk of plastic strung on a light pole at the edge of my neighborhood. The receiver has been ripped from the cord, and many of the buttons are missing, and all that remains of the sign that surely once read “Payphone” is a skeletal frame of rusted metal. So I drive to a shopping center, park at one end, and try to figure out the best way to contact this lucky prick who works at home and has a tax-free second income while I can’t get a job at a fucking Wendy’s. I go to a street where I know there are two gas stations, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Taco Bell. Surely one of them will be amenable to letting a guy whose car broke down call someone to pick him up and take him the rest of the way to the hospital. The Taco Bell proves to be staffed with exactly the kind of heartless bastards I assumed it would be, so I limp out the door, my terrible cough rattling the windows. It is a horrible malady that affects both lungs and legs.
The first gas station lets me use the phone, and I try to find a way to patch up a strained relationship and score some good shit while making it sound like I need a ride to the hospital. As the phone rings, my mind churns: Hey, Richard, it’s Dave. I am on my way to the hospital with this terrible leg and lung disease that you might have heard about on the news, and I thought it might be good to stop by your place on the way there and listen to some new music or bake some clams or whatever it was we used to say…
But then he answers the phone, and my mind blanks.
“Hey Richard, it’s Dave.”
“Rachel’s not in right now. Can I help you with something?”
The attendant turns his back to me to restock some chewing gum, and I see my opportunity. “I wonder if the clambake is still on for later.”
“Is there any new music to listen to?”
The attendant has turned from the gum and stares at me with sharp, diamond eyes. He knows I am a dope ninja.
Richard says, “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m at a gas station on Bell.”
“Why don’t you come by.”
He hangs up and I say to the dial tone, “I have this terrible lung and leg disease. Come pick me up and take me to the hospital. Great, thanks.”
I hang up, thank the attendant, and limp out the door coughing.
Thirty minutes later we’re standing in the portable metal building behind Richard and Rachel’s upper-middle-class house, and I hate them both for the success that has eluded me, even though I have more letters after my name than both of them put together. We negotiate the trade of several bills for a tightly rolled baggie.
“Didn’t know this was your thing,” says Richard.
“It isn’t anymore. But I was feeling nostalgic.”
“This will get you there,” he says and smiles with what I perceive as a twinge of guilt. “It’s a shame we never hang out anymore. How’s your wife?”
“She’s okay,” I say, thinking that Gina is pretty much the opposite of okay. “She is kind of tired of being the sole wage earner, but eventually the economy has got to come back, right?”
“Eventually,” he says. “I can talk to a couple of people I know who might need some freelance copywriting. I’ll email you about them.”
Then he hands me back two of the bills and tells me to take Gina out to dinner. I hate him with all of my heart and say, “Thanks. We’ll all get together soon.”
There are plenty of rules, the first being only deal with people you know. Somewhere down the list, not prominent enough in anyone’s mind is, never go to The Container Store in the middle of a coke binge. Everything seems possible, and I’m not unemployed, I’m just taking a break between jobs and figuring out what I really want to do with my life. I wander from aisle to aisle thinking of the tremendous clutter enveloping my computer desk. I’ll buy shelves and file cabinets and hanging files. And fuck it, I’ll just buy this whole damn new desk with all the built-in stuff. I wander from aisle to aisle looking at all the things I can buy to increase my productivity, organize my job search and make me prepared like I have never been before. Some guy is going to give me a phone interview and ask me where the new three-hole punch is, and I will say, “On the shelf right in front of me next to the stapler.” Then he will ask who the Assyrians are and where in Chicago he can find them, and I will have my keyboard at my fingertips, ready to answer, and he will hire me to be the dude who knows everything. I replay the recent humiliating conversation I had with the manager of a Wendy’s. He would not hire me as a shift manager because I lacked pertinent experience and seemed “overqualified.”
“How can that possibly be a problem?” I asked. “If I have the wherewithal to get a Ph.D., don’t you think I will figure out how to work the shake machine?”
Screw that guy. Our whole apartment will be the standard for efficiency and neatness. All these containers will make cleaning easy. I’m looking forward to staying at home. Life will be so sweet Gina will realize I don’t even have to work because I have saved us so much time and money by buying all this stuff to simplify our lives. They’ll deliver our new life in a moving van, and she will wonder about the palpable buzz of excitement. I can see her smiling and shaking her head. What would she do without me?
Everything seems possible, and pretty soon I am looking for containers to put containers in and laughing as I try to explain to the attendant in each department about how limitation begets choice as choice begets limitation, and both dynamics erode possibility, which is the only truly infinite thing. And how do you regain possibility once you’ve made your decisions? I’m asking this to the guy in the closets department, as if he knows the choices of which I speak. He’s probably 16, so he has some time left to play with, but that little shit needs to be prepared. He needs to be aware. He needs to be—“Oh, do you guys have those wire basket things? That would be awesome!” And then there is something about the paradox of infinite smallness thrown in for good measure. In this manner universes are born, collide, and are destroyed for the next 20 minutes until I find myself in my car pounding the radio’s drumbeat on my steering wheel. The credit card in my hip pocket still seems warm, and I will presently realize that it is enshrouded in a receipt totaling $6000, which I will calculate to be most of the money I set aside in savings over the last decade of doing jobs I did not like but which supported me.
They’ll deliver everything on Monday, the morning after I return from the bachelor party, and everything will make sense because this weekend will be the last hurrah. I will have had one last blast of fun, will no longer be plagued by regrets and indecision, and will be ready at long last to get back to work. My marriage will be saved once Gina realizes I have finally grown up. My one resolve is to not cheat on her. And also to not worry about the future, which will fall effortlessly into place once I return.
It does not dawn on me until I am home that they sent me an invitation this late because they don’t actually want me to come. But Phil can’t still be mad about the bathroom incident. That was almost eight years ago. I think through the attendees I know will be there. It’s true I haven’t talked to most of them since college, but we didn’t part on terrible terms or anything. Besides, why would they even tell me at all if they didn’t want me to come? I decide that I’m being paranoid because I did the last bump outside in the car.
The place is a mess, and I know I felt like cleaning when I was in The Container Store, but now that I am confronted by my slovenliness, I am content to smile at it and think about how I will take care of it eventually. Nothing has a place of its own, and some day I will get right on that. I walk to the fridge and get a beer, convinced that spending my life’s savings on new containers was the right decision. Doesn’t chaos long to be contained in the same way that dogs are happier when they have had obedience training? I go to drop the bottle cap in the recycling and realize that the lid no longer opens when you step on the thing. Damnit. I should have gotten new trash cans.
At 6:00 Gina comes home. She is apparently still not talking to me. She walks in, drops her purse on the couch, puts her hat on the coffee table, and puts her keys on the kitchen counter. I stifle a giggle thinking how everything will have its own place starting Monday. She scoops up a dirty plate and glass from beside the couch and takes it to the kitchen sink. “This place is a mess!” she exclaims. I am not sure if I am expected to answer or not, so I say nothing. Then she calls out, “This goddamn trashcan is broken!”
I sneak back into the bedroom and call The Container Store. “Hi, I’m the guy who dropped six grand in there about three hours ago. Could you throw in a couple of those trashcans with the little things you step on to make the lid come up?....Medium-sized….Black….Sure, let me get my wallet….” She will love me again.
That night in bed the silence is crushing, so I finally say, “Are you still mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you. I’m disappointed in you.”
“I’ll get another job. I even talked to Richard today about some people he knows looking for a freelance copywriter.”
“You talked to Richard?”
I know what is buried in the question. “Yeah, I called him today just to ask if he knew anyone. You know, people who have jobs know other people who have jobs.”
She doesn’t think that’s as amusing as I do, so she says nothing.
I ask, “Are you mad that I am going to the bachelor party?”
“You don’t even like those guys.”
“I’m curious,” I say.
“You’re not curious from the right place. It’s because you want to see if they’re still a bunch of losers or if they’re doing better than you are. Either way you lose. You’ll either get sucked down into the shitter with them or you’ll beat yourself up again for going to school instead of joining whatever idiotic internet venture they got in on early enough to make money off.”
“Or maybe I just want to rekindle old friendships.”
“And get sucked into the toilet with them.”
“I turned out okay. Maybe they did too.”
“Right. You turned out okay, then you relapsed, then you turned out okay, then you relapsed, and then you turned out okay.”
“I didn’t relapse. Relapsing means you are addicted and you have no control. I’m not addicted. Just every once in a while I like a good bender. What harm has that ever done either one of us? Besides, I doubt there will be anything there this weekend. The sense I get from corresponding with Henry is that everyone’s gotten clean.”
“Right,” she says and rolls over on her side to feign sleep.
“When I get back on Monday it will be a whole new day. You’ll see.”
The next morning I pack and dig up my old silver flask. I fill it with Irish whiskey and take a drink as part of my pre-flight ritual. The complex procedural has seen me safely through dozens of flights, and I am not sure what it would be like to de-board a plane sober. But I have no intention of finding out, as I do not want to tamper with the magic. I tidy the living room and the kitchen, and I leave a note on the counter telling Gina how much I love her and that I will be home on Sunday evening.
When I get to the airport, I take the second swig of the ritual, and then I wander from airline to airline until I can find a cheap standby flight to Dallas. I find out I won’t be able to leave until 3:30, and I take the time to familiarize myself with the new carry-on rules. They shake their heads and tell me that I will not be allowed to take my flask on carry-on, and that I will have to check it. I think better of telling them that if I can’t complete the ritual we will all die in a plane crash.
I have 6 hours to kill before my flight, so I frequent the bathroom and take slugs of whiskey. I read the books I brought until I realize that I am too drunk to concentrate. I call Henry to let him know that I am coming. He seems surprised and not unhappy. He tells me where to meet them that night, which is some place I have never heard of in a newly hip neighborhood. I hang up and eat a vegetarian hotdog for 6 bucks. I drink a bottle of water for 4 bucks. I walk around and look at things. I eat a pretzel for $4.50. I sleep on a bench until a security guard makes me move. I am in hell. A vast, never-ending hell the likes of which not even Lucifer has seen. By the time I board my flight, I have a hangover.
It is too expensive to order enough drinks to keep up the ritual, so I put my life in God’s hands and buckle my seatbelt. A few minutes into the flight the woman next to me tries to start a conversation about her faith and salvation, to which I am non-committal. Since I can’t do the ritual, I wonder if I should hedge my bets. She tries a couple more times before I realize that passive resistance is the best approach. When she asks me if I know Jesus, I tell her that I don’t really follow politics and apologize. She looks confused and tells me that he is the son of God and that he died for my sins, so I tell her that I appreciate how nice that was of him. I lament that no one is ever that nice anymore. She looks baffled so I ask her if he has a blog or anything. Then I take a cue from my wife and roll over and pretend to sleep. Eventually, I do fall asleep and am startled to realize that I have been awakened. We are there, and we are still alive. I want a drink.
My first call is to Angie, an old college friend of Gina’sand mine, who still lives in Dallas. I am in the middle of an incoherent but—I hope—charming voice mail to her about how apocalyptic it would be to see her when my phone dies. “Fuck!” I yell when I realize that not only did I not charge my phone, I didn’t bring my charger. I look up from my backpack and catch the scornful glance of the woman who had sat next to me on the plane. I am so going to hell.
The sun has set, and I catch a cab and tell him to take me to the place I have never heard of. He nods and starts the meter. About twelve bucks into the ride I start to feel like we are going in circles, but I am so far removed from this town that I have no way of proving it, so I bite my tongue and wait. And wait. I wait for 26 bucks worth of talk radio before he finally lets me out on a street thronged with college-aged foot traffic. I walk into the restaurant, find them, and am struck by how we all look pretty much like we did except thicker and hairier. I am still not sure if I am supposed to be here or not, so I sneak over to the table and sit down without alerting them of my presence. They are drunk and lost in conversation, so that’s pretty easy. Raoul is the first person to notice me. His eyes widen for a liminal second before he smiles and yells, “Holy shit!” All of them turn, and holy shit, they are glad to see me. I think.
We meet well, and I can’t tell that they didn’t want me here, if indeed they did not want me here. I am handed a beer, and I toast with Raoul, Greg, Phil, Henry, and finally with Steve, the groom-to-be. We compare notes on weight gain and hair-growth and loss, how much or how little we have changed, and what we’ve been up to. I seem to be one of the success stories of the table, having procured a fine assortment of letters after my name. When they ask what I am doing for a living, I tell them I am an efficiency expert at a small company.
Nothing takes hold of the conversation, and I can tell that we are all waiting for that spark that will ignite the conversation like it did in the old days. We were all crazy and thrilled by the endless possibilities of our lives and how we would grow together and make things happen with each other, as if our potential energy would cycle through each of us and turn kinetic in a giant explosion of mutual lust for life. We were college kids, and everything fell apart on its own. I moved away; Phil got married and divorced; Greg went all Zen-Buddhist for a while until some chick dumped him in Colorado and then nobody heard anything about him for a few years; Henry and Steve started a website, made a bunch of money, sued one another, slept with each others’ girlfriends, became friends again, and apparently decided that they should be one another’s best men; and Raoul was a complete mystery to me. Raoul had changed his name in college because women were attracted to mysterious men. Now all they want is some schlub who’s going to be there to carry groceries when they get home from the grocery store, but back then they wanted turmoil. So one day Raoul showed up in the dorm cafeteria and said that his name was Raoul. None of us questioned it, and pretty soon that was his name. Tales of his efficacy with mystery-seeking women were often of a dubious nature. I could not say what he had been up to since we had parted because I hadn’t known what he’d been up to when we were friends.
I have no idea what I am doing here.
Eventually Henry sidles over to my end of the table. “Refreshments?” he whispers. Before I can answer he slips a pill in my palm and I feign a cough and toss it back.
“What was that?” I whisper.
“Low dose of v,” he says. “It will be like drinking a couple of beers.”
“Any time. Glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“Glad to be here,” I say.
“Who else is coming?” asks Steve.
“Mike said he would try to make it a little later,” say several people. Oh yeah, Mike. How could I forget Mike. How does everyone but me know who everyone is?
Dinner is a variety of meats, all of which I feel obligated to decline because Gina is a vegetarian and I love her enough to go along with it. Pretty soon I am feeling a decent buzz, and everything comes easier. Henry and Steve are recounting the story of some other bachelor party they attended. Their telling is oddly rhythmic, and the refrain seems to be, At the same time! I gather that the evening held much synchronicity and a variety of unconventional fluid swapping. Someone is talking about Jim. Who is Jim? I am finding it difficult to focus on any of the tales flying around the table. The table is thick, dark wood. The decorations on the wall suggest a rustic, Italian farm brimming with dried sausages and grandmothers. I am meant to feel certain things. Greg is talking to Phil about chakras, and I want to punch him. Phil seems as disengaged as I am. He smiles. I smile. We make eye contact and nod, as if savoring the mutual secret that this is all pretty stupid. I decide that he is the only one I will talk to for the rest of the night. Or is he still mad at me? I think I saw something of jealousy in his eyes. Jesus Christ, I am bored. Who gave me valium and why? Everything is still kind of happening around me, and my mouth is filled with mud. I have no idea what I would say if I wanted to say something. Jim again. We hung out with that Jim guy a lot, but I have no idea who he was. Was Jim that one guy with the weird teeth? Jim? I must not have known Jim. Why was I never invited to Jim’s parties?
Dinner is over and we walk to a bar down the street. Spirits are high, and I am confused. About halfway there we stop in the middle of the sidewalk and huddle up. Some powder is shoved between my nose, and I inhale.
“What was that?” I ask. “Coke?”
“Coke,” says Henry.
“Any time. We came to party! This is Steve’s last night as a free man!” We all whoop it up accordingly. It seems empty.
They break into pairs and talk, and I watch them. Greg says, “Jim, whatever happened to Jenny?”
Raoul says, “Punk-rock Jenny?”
“No,” say Greg. “Blue h—“