UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
NATHAN KAMAL

Office

          This is hell, the newscaster says and breaks down in tears. They drag him from his desk,

Odilon Redon
gouging away, until the television screen bursts into flame and a wall of heat seeps through my bedroom. A newscaster gone already. Bad start to the week. This is hell.

          Overnight, I have become a cloud of flies, black and hairy and buzzing. My dreams have been awful. I manage to pull it together and I look somewhat decent again. Itís kind of like a hangover, if your demon of choice makes you bleed from your tear ducts and anus the next morning. The dirty sheets are stiff with sweat and night refuse. The blinds fight against trickles of oily light and I force myself to turn them open, force myself to shamble out of the twist of blankets and into the day.

          The city explodes into me like an anthill drenched in gasoline.

          This is hell.

***

          Brushing my fangs is a chore.

          Polishing my horns is a chore.

          Buttoning my wrinkled IBM-drone shirt and knotting the faded black tie is a chore. Thereís still a spot on it from last weekís lunch. Iím so lazy.

          Outside my cramped apartment, through the perimeter of takeaway boxes and discarded fused lumps of Kleenex, I can hear traffic. Screams. Flames. Prayers.

          I stuff my bus pass into my pockets and grab an expired yoghurt out of the refrigerator and then itís out into the open, out into the cavern.

          When the door opens, red light floods into my home and all the torment of the world seeps into me. Itís a chore.

***

          I spend twenty minutes waiting for the bus to come. Twenty minutes surrounded by gibbering morons, smoky-suited mutterers, twenty minutes of sullen intimidation and old men rank with morning-after beer stink blowing their filthy noses straight into the gutter. No shame at all. Itís like living in a madhouse. It didnít use to be. At least Iím told so. Maybe it did.

          It doesnít matter. A day is a day.

          A cloud of brimstone pulls up to the curb and we all climb aboard, fidgeting and desperate for a seat, desperate to sit with a derelict soul smelling of piss and shouting into a rosary while we just try to get through the day. A day is day, just like it says on the gates.

          A screech of wheels and weíre off.

          Paved with good intentions, indeed.

***

          Late again, my supervisor says. Heís a fucking prick. Donít you ever even try?

          I ignore him and slouch into my cubicle.

          The clock moves forward a single aching tick.

          Donít you ever try?

***

          Stamp.

          Sort.

          File.

          Thatís how it goes.

***

          The funny thing is, I find it harder and harder to remember the days before this. There must have been other days, because I know itís not always been like this. Once, there was cool water and blue skies. There was ice in December, sheets of ice over the river and snow falling from puffy white clouds, and there was time to lie back in the blue green grass and think. And there was air-conditioning.

          I donít think I was ever a human soul, but who knows. Itís pretty much all the same here. Maybe I once had a family and a finite stream of life that ended with a cough and a rattle, but who knows. For now, I am a cloud of hairy black flies and if I was once anything but that, I must have been a terrible sinner.

          Time for a coffee break.

***

          Iíve barely dumped the powder into the black stuff before my supervisor is on my back. When he gets agitated, his pathetic little wings beat faster, like a broken accordion sucking in air. Heís playing a fancy tune now.

          Did you finish the YX-reports?

          I think guiltily of the stack of moldering parchment in my cubicle, but say nothing. Everything gets done eventually, I tell myself. If it doesnít get done, it probably wasnít important to begin with. Donít sweat yourself. Well, did you?

          I sip my coffee and stare blankly over his shoulder, at the tattered calendar tacked to the wall. A kitty is dangling from a clothesline. Poor kitty.

          Flap flap flap go his little leather wings. Putrescence trickles down his cheek. I suddenly feel sorry for him, despite the ages of petty browbeating, the insults, the one-on-one meetings going nowhere. Donít you ever try?

          Well?

          I feel a sudden flush rise up like vomit and remember why I hate him and the office and every little piece of the day.

          Take it up with the Boss, I spit.

          Oily discharge floods out of one of his warts and he spins on his hoof. He slams his office door and the walls rattle.

          No one sees the Boss.

***

          Sometimes, I get to shred a document. Thatís a good day.

          Stamp.

***

On my lunch half-hour, I masturbate furiously in the toilet. I donít really feel like it, but all the coffee has made me twitchy and brittle and I know for a moment after I spew my noxious little death into the bowl, Iíll be cool, calm and collected. Of course, then Iíll need to wash my hands.

          Last week, my supervisor had a team meeting regarding the lunchroom fridge. Apparently some of us are taking up to much space. Apparently we all need to review the associate manual. Apparently there have been complaints.

          We have assigned shelving areas for everybody in the refrigeration unit, he said. Please use your area and do not intrude in others. We have to work together, donít make it harder than it needs to be.

          I couldnít help myself.

          Canít we just behave like adults and put our goddamn lunches in the fridge? Do we really need a whole paragraph in a manual to tell us how to put lunches in a fridge?

          Whenever thereís silence, you can hear the distant white hot noise of fire and static.

          My supervisor stared at me glassily, and his claws twitched. To my surprise, he said:

          Alright. You can organize the refrigeration unit for the week. Good luck.

          End of meeting.

          My lunch has been stolen every day this week.

***

          Thereís a memo in my inbox when I get back to my cubicle, blinking slowly in the dim red fluorescence. Itís been CCíd to everyone, all the way back to the first circle. Lucky unwashed bastards.

          Itís from the Boss.

          Reminder:

          Think different. Never forget why you work. Live your life. We got people. Experience the power of newness. Deliver functionality. Maximize your good neighbor.

          It goes on like that for pages.

          At the very end:

          Today is the first day of the rest of eternity.

          Outside my cubicle wall, I can hear walls of flame and feel the roof of the world like a great black beetle rolling the sun around my head. I can feel the sluggish air, thick with greasy ash, fill my lungs and mouth and taste the bitter seed. I can feel everything.

          Donít you ever try?

***

At quitting time, when weíre all filing out, shoulders heavy with defeat and foreknowledge of the slow ride back to our solitary apartments, my supervisor leans over my cubicle wall. His presence corrodes the partition and the felt begins to turn a washed-out drab asparagus. He speaks softly and his tone is kinder than Iíve ever heard.

          I know you think Iím a bad guy.

          He wants me to lie. I donít.

          But donít you want to go places? You want to be a paper-jockey forever? You want to sit down here in the Pit and fart smoke until you keel over and they turn you into furnace fuel?

          Well?

          The bus ride back home is long and fetid. A man talks to himself the entire time, whispering and tugging at his greasy hair, and no one has the courage to tell him to shut up. Especially not me.

          Well?

***

Thereís a different newscaster on the television now. I donít wonder what happened to the last guy. Thereíll be a different one when I wake up in the morning that isnít really a morning. After all, there has to be a sun for it to be morning.

          I microwave a dinner and take off my socks.

          I watch a porno and hang up my shirt.

          I fall to sleep somehow.

          Donít you ever try?

Nathan Kamal lives in Portland and doesn't mind the rain. In fact, sometimes it's better than taking a shower. He grew up in a tiny Czech town called Hluboka (where it also rains a lot) and enjoys working with other people's money. He can be contacted at dandycheshire@yahoo.com







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