The Man Manque

 

Ten Years of the Man Manqué in Austin, TX

 

By Kevin Smiley

 




Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

-Oscar Wilde

 

…And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

– from Pink Floyd, Time

 

From Wikipedia (a reference manqué):

Manqué (feminine, manquée) is a French word – the past participle of the verb manquér, to miss – which is applied as an adjective in English to someone who might have become something but did not. It is placed after a noun (as in French) and is used in particular of professions: for example, a civil servant with a highly pronounced political sense or inclination (and who thus might have made a good politician) might be described as a “politician manqué“.

 

Disclaimer:

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental. At times you will read dialogue that seems unbelievable to you. The author encourages you to consider that perhaps this was intentional.






April 17, 1998

This was the result of his father’s $75,000, four-year investment:

A pair of thrift-store, olive-drab pants that hung loosely from his college-fattened frame.

A shirt that was similarly nondescript and baggy, carelessly adorning a well-fed torso.

He strolled into the Subway sandwich shop, where he’d once sweat as a teenager, with the nonchalance of someone who doesn’t have a deadline in the world. The brand-new sandals certainly helped him effect this attitude. Why had he waited so long to buy sandals? Oh, right. Real men, men from small, crappy towns like Murphy’s Falls, would never be caught dead in sandals unless they were on a timeshare vacation in Cozumel.

From his brand-new, wireframe John Lennon glasses, he spied one of his high school classmates, Shane Kleeg. While Kevin and Shane had run in different circles back then, the two had never shared a bad word, as Shane wasn’t really an uberjock—just one of those small-town guys who play sports in high school before learning a trade and settling down to a life of barbecues, church and little league.

“Hey, Shane, how you doing?”

Shane carefully looked Kevin up and down a few times before deciding to refrain from smiling much.

“Oh, hi Kevin, what have you been up to these past four years?”

“Oh, you know. Little of this, little of that. Still finishing up my English degree, and trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. Drinking a lot. Still don’t get women. I mean, I’ve yet to even be with a woman. Figured out the college drinking game pretty easily, and do it well, but women? Not so much. What about you?”

“I got my paramedic license a couple years ago, and I’ve been an ambulance driver ever since. Just been busy saving lives.”

Shane sneered at Kevin, perhaps feeling superior to this man manqué standing in front of him who couldn’t even dress himself properly after almost four years of college.

The words would echo in Kevin’s brain for years to come, as he moved from attempt to attempt at figuring out who he was going to be when he grew up.

“Just been busy saving lives.”





















Year 1

 

April 17, 1999

 

“Good morning, lover, I hope you slept well.”

 

She groans. “What time is it?”

 

“It is still early, um, 9 AM.”

 

“Too early. I’ve had to work all week. I want to sleep in.”

 

“Okay, no problem, lover. I will spoon with you, and exult in knowing I am no longer living in Missouri.”

 

You will spoon with her in the guest bedroom that belongs to your Aunt and Uncle. She has a job in this city, and you do not.

 

You are hot and eager to begin exploring the area. The classifieds await you, full of technical writer positions that pay twice as much as you made in Kansas City; and at these jobs they will feed you catered food every single day; and there will be company picnics every single weekend. You will also drive a Lexus. These jobs are made available to anyone with a BA in English. You know this because Aunt, whose house you are residing in as a guest, told you so at your little brother’s funeral this past January.

 

You also need to look for a place to live. The place you live will likely be in some charming neighborhood in this city, near the city’s university or close to downtown. You will be getting a big dog to go with the house you rent, so your place will need to have a yard, and its landlord will most definitely have to allow you to keep a big dog there. You, Kevin Smiley, and your almost-like-new lover, Olivia Gruene, agreed back in Missouri that the proper Austin experience must include a large dog.

 

“What are you doing?” asks your lover, as you begin to kiss her neck at 10 AM. She seems displeased that you would be doing this.

 

“I don’t know, I just thought…”

 

“I’m not in the mood right now, I feel gross.”

 

She is remarkably cold this morning, having become this way the first morning after starting her new job on Monday.

 

“What’s wrong?” you ask. You were a virgin four months ago, but you know enough now not to ask her if she is getting her period.

 

“Nothing, I’m just really tired. It’s been a long week. Why don’t you go ahead and get some breakfast?”

 

You don’t need to be asked twice. The two of you, under Aunt’s comforter, blanket and sheets, have become unbearably hot, body temperature-wise. Emotionally, Olivia seems to be frozen solid.

 

“Kevin,” says Aunt, as she and Uncle stop talking abruptly and chuckle at the sight of you, “Are you and Olivia going to look at places to rent today?”

 

“I thought we would, Aunt, yes, but she is sleeping in right now.”

 

“You all should drive over to the University area, and look at houses there. I’m sure there are some nice affordable ones for a young couple, yes.”

 

Aunt often ends her sentences with an affirmation, as if to ward off any disagreement with what she has to say.

 

“You also need to look for a job,” says Uncle authoritatively, “We love having you both as guests, but you can’t stay here forever.”

 

The two of them laugh uproariously at this, as if you and Olivia were a pair of complete slackers, having arrived with no plans except to mooch off of Aunt and Uncle.

 

Aunt says, “You should let us look at your resume. I once took a class on job hunting, filling out resumes and interviewing. I totally froze up at the practice interview I went to, but I am sure I can help you. You will need to print your resume on nice, high-bond paper at a print store. Fake parchment with your name gold-embossed—this is a charming touch. Make several copies for each employer, and take it to Dell, 3M, NI, FC, IBM, AMD, and the State Capitol. You need to show up at these places in person with your resumes, so they can see that you are a young man with a vigorous, go-get-’em spirit, yes.”

 

“You will also need a new suit, or at least a professional sport jacket,” says Uncle, chiming in lest Aunt forget this important detail. “While you are waiting for Olivia to wake up, I can take you to some second-hand stores, to pick out a nice, men’s sport jacket. We saw the one you wore at your little brother’s funeral last January. It hardly fits you, and is ten years out of style.”

 

“I thought your friend’s daughter Beth, who got the Technical Writing position with nothing but an English degree, was going to get me a job once I moved down here,” you say, reminding them of their big sell to get you and Olivia to live in Austin.

 

“Oh yes,” says Aunt, “Would you like me to get her phone number and e-mail address for you?”

 

“That would be very helpful,” you say.

 

You walk back into the guest bedroom to see if Olivia has come alive yet. She has not. She has pulled the comforter, blanket and sheets around her tightly, and is breathing blissfully with her mouth wide open. Her hair is streaked with sweat, and she is drooling a bit. The room smells musty. The sight and smell of her are not sexy to you.

 

First, Uncle takes you to the Goodwill thrift store. Racks of suits and sport jackets await your arms.

 

“How about this blue blazer with gold buttons, and the red anchor logo on the breast pocket, with a fake kerchief sewed into it?” asks Uncle.

 

You like it as well, because it is one of the few items that doesn’t look threadbare or stained, and actually fits you. The only problem is, “it looks like something I would wear if I were employed on a club med cruise ship, or perhaps working as a flight attendant.”

 

Uncle is a bit miffed that you do not agree to let him buy you this blue Captain’s blazer to show that you are in earnest about becoming a Captain of Industry, but he understands that a young man just out of college will not actually wear an item of clothing purchased for him if he doesn’t like it.

 

The two of you return from another second-hand store with a nice blue blazer with a more muted presentation of flare: blue and silver buttons instead of flaming gold ones, and no emblazoned anchors or fake kerchiefs. The jacket has giant, boxy shoulders, and looks to be no more current for fashion than the one you wore to Roy’s funeral, but it fits your college-fattened body better.

 

Olivia is now up. “Nice,” she mutters, barely forcing a smile.

 

“Is everything okay?” you ask her again, as the two of you leave Aunt and Uncle’s in search of a house to rent. The classifieds offered affordable houses only in far South Austin and in East Austin, and Aunt assures you that you do not want to live in East Austin if you are white.

 

“Would you stop asking me that? I am fine. Everything is fine.”

 

“You seem to have changed since we arrived in Austin. The spontaneity and spirit we shared together in Missouri appears to have faded substantially.”

 

“I’m just getting used to a new job and environment. Everything will be okay. Hey look, that’s a really cute house!”

 

The two of you find no houses under $1200 a month anywhere close to the University or downtown. East Austin is, of course, a non-existent place from now on, because Aunt said it was bad and the hipster weekly won’t list many activities in East Austin for another six or seven years.

 

“I can give you the number of a contract agency,” says Beth, the daughter of  Aunt’s friend who has a really nice job as a Technical Writer and drives a Lexus and eats company catered food every day using only her BA in English, “Do you have any Technical Writing experience at all? Maybe you wrote for someone during your college internship?”

 

“I didn’t do an internship,” you say. “I worked on a novel.”

 

“Oh, well, I’m not sure how much this agency will be able to help you, but you can give this guy a try. He’s supposed to be pretty good.”

 

“How did you find your job? Did you use this contract agency?”

 

“No, I went to school down here, and knew people from my sorority. That’s how I got the job.”

 

“Oh.”

 

You hang up the phone, and realize you are all alone in Aunt and Uncle’s house, with Olivia.

 

“Olivia,” you say, “Would you mind putting on this cute short dress and letting me make love to you?”

 

“I don’t know,” she says, “I’ve gotten fat since I fit this dress, so the back won’t zip up, and I feel squeamish about having sex in your Aunt and Uncle’s home, even though I’ve had many boyfriends in their parents’ bedrooms over the course of my high school and college life.”

 

“But, why not now?” you ask, having not made love to her since you were in Missouri.

 

“It just feels different here, that’s all. Plus, a lot of stuff I did in college I am way too mature to do now.”

 

She puts the dress on, though, as she can see how happy it will make you.

 

“Can you take your panties off?”

 

June 13, 1999

You are sitting in the kitchen of the duplex you rent with Olivia Gruene. She is getting ready to fly up to Missouri to visit her family. It’s someone’s birthday, or maybe she just found time off for a couple of days, and wanted to visit them. Since you are traveling back in time to 1999 from nine and a half years in the future, you are recreating these situations as best as you can with your memory as it serves you at the end of 2008.

 

Before traveling back to this time and place, you drove down to Slaughter Lane in 2008. Slaughter Lane in 1999 was on the outposts of Austin before civilization disappeared into the wild, redneck outlying territories of Manchaca (pronounced “Man-check”) and Buda (pronounced Bew-duh).

 

Today, the far south reaches of Austin don’t look much different from its northwest territories, as it has been almost completely settled with the McMansions, chain restaurants, and strip malls that people were only discussing in hushed whispers over blueprints back then.

 

You drove down here in 2008 to see if some extra memories would be stirred up before traveling back in time to write this chapter, but you honestly can’t remember why Olivia is flying off to Missouri after only two months of living in Austin, but there she is.

 

“I am going to miss you,” you say, and you don’t mean it. You are actually thrilled to have a place to yourself for the first time since college. It will just be you and Miss Stasie, or Anastasia, as you and Olivia have named the large dog you both adopted from the animal shelter. Miss Stasie is a submissive, gentle lamb of a Siberian Husky dog who has successfully destroyed two sets of blinds and the carpet around your front door during brief moments when you and Olivia are not home.

 

“Ah, I’ll miss you, too, honey,” says Olivia, giving you an absentminded kiss. She doesn’t seem to mean it, either.

 

You are preparing eggs wearing only your boxer shorts, letting your hairy gut flop around the kitchen. You are still waking up from a night of mixed, sweet drinks of gin and fruit punch—a night also filled with movies from Blockbuster, and maybe an abortive, drunken effort at sex. You pause occasionally to step out on the porch with a cup of coffee to smoke a cigarette.

 

“When does your flight leave?”

 

Olivia rolls her eyes, “What, are you really in a hurry to get rid of me, or something?”

 

“No!” you protest, a little too defensively. “I just want to make sure you don’t miss your flight. You can never get to the airport too early, you know.”

 

“Just let me finish my eggs and read the paper, and we can leave. I’ll be fine, honey.” Olivia laughs, as your outbursts at this point in the relationship are merely boyishly charming.

 

You receive a call from someone.

 

“Hello, is this Kevin Smiley?”

 

“Yes, it is. Who am I speaking to?”

 

“This is Karen Winthrop, of Ahmis Communications. I received your application to be a Quality Assurance Coordinator with our Technical Writing team.”

 

“Right, right!” you exclaim excitedly, not really remembering which job you applied to, but it sounds like your ticket to the sweet and fabled Austin Technical Writing gig.

 

“I’m looking at your resume—not sure if you really want this position or not, it might be a little beneath your educational background and skills set. We are looking for people to provide Quality Assurance and make corrections to documents proofed by proofers who proof what the editors have edited.”

 

“And, what about your Technical Writers?”

 

“They are all people with Master’s degrees and PhDs in different areas of specialty, depending on what our corporate clients need. You won’t see most of them, aside from a few old codgers that lurk around the building.”

 

“But, I could work my way up to being a Proofer or Editor there?”

 

“Look, are you interested in learning more about being a Quality Assurance Coordinator, or not?”

 

Karen Winthrop tells you where Ahmis is located, and you are thrilled to inform Olivia that the location is downtown, not far from where she works.

 

“That’s great, honey. We can walk to Whole Foods every day, and meet for lunch, and carpool together.”

 

You drive Olivia to the airport, and since it’s 1999, you could leave your car parked out front of the passenger unloading area, and walk inside and up to the gate with her, but she isn’t one for long, mushy goodbyes. She lets you give her a heartfelt kiss and hug, though.

 

“Honey, remember, you don’t want me to miss my plane.”

 

Since you are essentially of two minds—as much as someone can get without being schizophrenic—you immediately start missing her as if you were missing your mommy on the first day of school. It is, after all, going to be the first time you’ve spent the night alone since Roy died. You also start thrilling to the prospect of getting as fucked up as you can get—not having had the opportunity to do so since college.

 

Olivia has been pretty permissive of your experiments with alcoholic beverages, and almost every night she shares a few drinks out of the frozen concoctions you produce in the blender. You are in Austin, which is a tropical city compared to your boyhood home of Murphy’s Falls, Missouri, so you have opted to make a lot of fruity, frozen drinks, wear Hawaiian shirts and panama hats, and sit out on the back porch with the dog for five minutes at a time until the mosquitoes turn you into a mess of welts. You think you can channel Jimmy Buffet in the Caribbean, if you work hard enough at it.

 

However, with Olivia out of the house, you will want to get really fucked up, so that means taking something that Olivia probably wouldn’t approve of.

 

“I’m in St. Louis, honey,” she says, “I just landed. I’ll call you later.”

 

“I really, really miss you,” you almost sob, curled up on the floor of the living room, hearing voices of the dead crying for help. “I love you so much, Olivia.”

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“I took way too much cough syrup.” You don’t know anyone in Austin yet to provide you with something more appropriately illicit, so you take what you can get from the supermarket.

 

“What did you do that for?”

 

“I was feeling a little sick.”

 

“Really? No, why did you take too much cough syrup?”

 

You can’t lie to her at this point in the relationship. And, feeling the way you do right now, as if you are at the bottom of a well of death looking up at the living, you couldn’t lie to her if she was a stranger.

 

“I read online that DXM, the active ingredient in cough syrup, offered an experience akin to tripping if you took it in large quantities.”

 

“Well, just try to get some rest, and I will be home in a couple days.”

 

There, there, now Kevin. You just get some rest, and your surrogate mother cum lover will be home soon to make you feel safe again.

 

Someone else calls.

 

“Kevin Smiley?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“This is Alicia from one of the many rent-an-office-schmuck agencies here in Austin. We have a gig for you—temporary, but full-time, and it pays as much as what Karen Winthrop will end up offering you, and as much as you made at the crappy, customized birth announcement place in Kansas City where you met Olivia Gruene.”

 

“What is the gig?” you ask, not so far gone you can’t filter out the nonsense in your head from what the lady at the other end is actually saying.

 

“Writing for a dot com. Dot coms are hot right now; thirty-year-old companies like Ahmis Communications and the mom and pop publishing house where your girlfriend Olivia works are not. This dot com is like all the others, except instead of books, pets or gardening, they hope to become the destination portal online for furniture buyers. And, everyone I know is a furniture buyer.”

 

“I’ll need to think about it.”

 

“Let us know soon. Like I said, dot coms are the place to be if you are young and hip. Did I mention this dot com has lunches catered to its employees daily?”

 

You really think the dot com offer sounds more like what you moved to Austin for, but there was something about that lady Karen Winthrop’s voice—and, it was the first time a prospective employer acted like she had to sell the job to YOU. Besides, it’s not like the dot com was offering a salary large enough for you to be able to drive a Lexus.

 

You start thinking maybe you can astrally project yourself, but this frightens you. You also consider the fact that, in this mental state, you might receive a visit from Roy, your little brother who has already passed into the great beyond. You do not want to experience this, either. You curl up into a little ball and sleep off your bad cough medicine trip most of the rest of the weekend.

 

July 29, 1999

For some reason, this evening stays with you even as there were many others that should have lingered longer in your head. You are pretty sure this was the only time you and Olivia ever walked around Town Lake together.

 

Before you travel back in time, you go for a run in 2008, covering the same distance you plodded with her that night in 1999. You have a new dog now, and don’t worry, you’ll get to cover the moment you lost Anastasia to cancer and found this new dog, but first, some insights.

 

You cover the distance easily, without thinking twice about it. You know every single curve and bridge along the trail, can spot easily where someone will run out in front of you to avoid an especially bumpy patch of rocks or enter the trail without paying attention to who’s already on it.

 

You’ve run or walked or biked this area almost a thousand times since the night you are traveling back to. But, that night, everything that lay out of sight was all at once a paradox of being frightening and wonderful. What if you got lost, or found yourself in some strange new part of Austin, miles from where you started? What if the trail went all the way up the river to Lake Travis? You would later swear you walked at least ten miles, where the distance is actually about four.

 

What is it about you, that makes you so afraid to try something new, but also causes you to gain contempt for that same thing once you’ve tried it a time or two?

 

“Hi honey, how is work treating you?” she asks sincerely.

 

“I don’t know, I am having trouble fitting in with this Ahmis crowd. The position Karen Winthrop promised me wasn’t available, so, I’ve been sitting here binding and collating the documents we produce. Sometimes I have to cut and paste figures.”

 

“Manually, by hand?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“That sounds silly. Well, how about we go for a walk this evening?”

 

“You mean, after work?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, I sure hate to leave Anastasia at home for that long.”

 

“She’ll be fine.”

 

“What time are you getting off work?”

 

Olivia, you’ve discovered, loves sleeping in late, even on workdays. She never gets up before 9:30 AM, and is rarely at her workplace before 10:30. This means that she will not be getting off work until 7 PM or later.

 

“How about we meet down at the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue at 7:30?” she asks.

 

“Gosh, that’s kind of late.”

 

“You’re the one who’s always saying you wish we could do more stuff together as a couple after work. And, I am not willing to ever bend or compromise my sleep and work schedule for you, so you will have to adjust in order to make this work.”

 

“Yeah, but our poor dog. And, she’s always tearing something up if we leave her alone for too long.”

 

“Listen, Kevin. We both agreed that we weren’t going to let the dog dictate how we live our lives. And, I simply cannot leave work early, ever. My job is too busy and too important. It sounds like yours is not so important—why don’t you just go over to Book People and wait or something?”

 

You really do want to do more stuff with Olivia outside of the house. She is never up early enough to walk Anastasia with you in the mornings. She is always too tired in the evenings, and wants to watch her must-see TV and have a drink and cigarette. And, on the weekends, she will typically sleep in until noon or later. So, this is your chance. Anastasia will just have to wait.

 

The two of you begin the walk around 8:30 PM. You waited for her with Stevie Ray for an hour, hoping she is okay. You will not own a cell phone for almost another six years.

 

“Sorry, I got busy with some last minute work at the office,” says Olivia. “Which way should we go?”

 

“I was thinking we could go left, and then just follow the trail that way.”

 

“How about we start right, and cross the South 1st St. bridge? I’ve never walked on that side, and we’ve already seen Auditorium Shores a million times.”

 

The two of you do not say much. You smoke a pack of Marlboro Menthol Lights every single day now, and you squeeze into a size 36 pair of pants. Olivia wears nothing but shapeless summer dresses that hang on her like feed sacks. For a couple of people that frequented the gym in college (or talked about how they used to frequent it a lot when they first met), the two of you are terribly out of shape.

 

You can walk faster than Olivia, though, because in spite of being the one who smokes more cigarettes, you are in slightly better shape since you occasionally go for a three mile wheeze with the dog.

 

At some point along this walk, you get rather tired of Olivia setting the pace and leading the way. Any time the two of you are in public, she flatly refuses to follow you or even take a suggestion that you both go in a certain direction as a couple. She insists on either walking by herself, or leading the two of you around.

 

“Let’s see if there’s a way to walk back through these soccer and softball fields.”

 

“You can, Kevin, I’m staying on the trail.”

 

The two of you eventually meet back up just beyond Lamar St., which you were forced to cross due to it being in your way, and she went under Lamar St., having stayed on the trail.

 

“See you at home,” she says, matter-of-factly.

 

You permit yourself to have just a tiny little fantasy about what it would be like if you and Olivia broke up, as she gets into her Isuzu Trooper, and gives you an emotionless sort of look. Is there love there?

 

A song comes on the radio, the organ chords chime with the full intention of yanking at the listener’s heart strings. Some station in Austin is bringing back the eighties because the eighties are cool again. They play songs you never heard or don’t remember from that decade, because you were only thirteen when the eighties ended.  “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream its over. Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in. They come, they come, to build a wall between us. We know they won’t win.”

 

Your heart is schizophrenic at that moment. It aches with an intense amount of love for Olivia, and aches with a sweet sadness of an imaginary parting of ways.

 

Anastasia has demolished the sofa and more of the carpet. She is almost manic with anxiety over being alone in the apartment for over twelve hours.

 

You are harboring more than a little anger toward Olivia for her insistence on staying at work late, then forgetting what time it was, then refusing to take any of your suggestions where the two of you should walk. You take this out on the dog who is already frightened out of her mind, and yell furiously at Anastasia.

 

Anastasia, who was obviously abused before she became your dog, pleads with you not to hurt her. You come to your senses, cry a little bit, and give her a hug, and take her out to do her business.

 

Olivia has already started watching television and smoking a cigarette. She mutters something about having to miss one of her favorite TV shows.

 

August 28, 1999

When you first started dating Olivia, she told you that she was a camping girl. She said she loved doing stuff in the outdoors, and the two of you explored parks around Kansas City together on a regular basis.

 

Which is why you are a little surprised at how awful the results have been the three times you’ve attempted to go somewhere with Olivia in the outdoors here in Austin.

 

First, there was the walk around Town Lake that just wrecked her TV watching schedule, and made the poor dog practically lose it for good. Then, the two of you attempted to walk together at nearby municipal parks a couple Saturdays this past summer.

 

The first attempt found the two of you in the middle of frisbee golf every time you set foot in a new direction. On the second attempt, the two of you did nothing but fight the whole time, and she complained about brambles, stickers, the heat, the sun, and how lacking Austin was in having a decent natural park to go for a hike in.

 

The third attempt saw you both out at Enchanted Rock, where she was reluctant to hike all the way to the top because it was getting late, and then you got the standard asshole Texan riding her bumper all the way back to Austin, because Olivia flatly refused to drive faster than fifty-five down some windy unknown highway in the dark.

 

So, in the spirit of trying to prove that she is really a camping girl, and that the two of you really are soulmates who love the outdoors equally, you both set out this weekend toward the Gulf Coast, finding a spot on the map that some book said was good for people with dogs.

 

It is now Sunday, the day after a nightmarish Saturday night, where rednecks in SUVs raced up and down the beach half of the night.

 

Both of you started out trying to sleep together on the blow-up air mattress inside her truck. But, the salt, the sand, the sunburn and the body heat you both gave off made it impossible to sleep. She moved outside, to the ground. You were still too hot. She moved inside the truck, to the air mattress, which had a hole in it and kept deflating.

 

This was how you and Olivia “camped” the one time the two of you went camping.

 

You attempt to revive some of the same upbeat spirit you had on the way down, singing loudly and off-key when a CCR song that comes on the radio. Olivia is driving. She is steely-eyed, coldly fixed on the road ahead.

 

“It wasn’t so bad,” you say.

 

“I got no sleep at all.”

 

“Come on, babe, you slept after they stopped driving up and down the beach, didn’t you?”

 

“No, I was too hot.”

 

“You should have joined me outside on the ground. I slept like a baby once I stopped seeing headlights directly bearing down on me.”

 

“You snored, I could hear it from inside the Trooper.”

 

“Ah, come on, it wasn’t that bad.”

 

“I’m covered from head to toe in salt and sand. I’m sunburned. I just want to go home, take a real shower, and go to bed and sleep until I have to go back to work on Tuesday.”

 

You yank off your Panama hat, and scratch your head and beard furiously. You do not feel so much like Jimmy Buffet anymore, but more like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway.

 

The pictures Olivia will develop from this weekend confirm that you look like Tom Hanks from Castaway, albeit a very chubby castaway.

 

“Want to stop and eat some seafood?” you ask. “Remember, we were going to try this place outside of Corpus on the way back.”

 

“I guess.”

 

Some seafood and beer cheers the two of you up a little bit. It reminds you of Joe’s Crab Shack, which you don’t particularly care for, but Olivia loves. Eating seafood here will remain one of your happiest memories for at least three years, until other happy memories come to replace it. You both stop feeling snarly, and are two lovers discovering the world again.

 

You start singing to the radio. Olivia is playing one of her Bob Marley CDs. The first time you saw it in your collection, you thought, how predictable—she’s just a college girl trying to be hip and cool with her musical tastes, and gets some Bob Marley to go with her Sarah McLachlan, Ace of Bass and ABBA—but at this point, you don’t mind. You are happy.

 

“Kevin, when are you going to make some friends in Austin?”

 

“Olivia, you’re the only friend I need. You and Anastasia.”

 

“I’m flattered, but maybe we should start being a little more sociable. Every Friday and Saturday night, all we do is drink our mixed drinks and watch our rented movies. Sometimes, we might go see a band downtown, but not very often.”

 

“But, you said Friday nights were our nights to spend together.”

 

“Sure, but not all the time. A friend of mine at my work, Judy, has invited me to a happy hour with the gang next Friday.”

 

“But, you begged me to stay home last month when someone from Ahmis was having a going away happy hour.”

 

“That was just that one time. This is different. This is my chance to really make some new, Austin friends.”

 

You drove the rest of the way back to Austin, and didn’t say much of anything to each other. For what it’s worth, Anastasia hated the camping trip, too, and spent most of it trying to dump her food dish and bury the kibble with the sand. She was delighted by the waves at first, and then became bored with them.

 

September 13, 1999

“What’s up, Grasshopper?” says Gavi Ashkenazi, sneering at you, as you sit binding and collating. Gavi was hired right before you were, and he is the man Karen Winthrop gave the role of Quality Assurance Coordinator to. He is about seven years older than you, and reminds you a bit of Woody Allen, but just the negative, whiny parts—none of the self-effacing charm.

 

“Huh?” you ask, catching the tone of voice of a bully, something you haven’t heard since you worked at a McDonald’s in college, where someone bullied you a bit for being quiet, helpful and nice.

 

“You need to PAY ATTENTION Grasshopper, remember what I said to you on Friday?”

 

You laugh a little bit, as other people in the Document Production department are milling about around you now, and you still would like to get accepted into their group so you will be invited to the official happy hours.

 

“GRASSHOPPER, I have a job for you—be sure to PAY ATTENTION to the SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS in the folder.”

 

Gavi drops his completed work into your basket, which you will then have to make copies of, and if required, cut and paste figures into it before copying, and bind and collate.

 

“What’s that all about?” asks someone walking by.

 

“Oh, nothing, just part of some conversation we had at his party last Friday.”

 

“Kevin,” says Karen Winthrop in a demanding, impatient tone of voice, “have you checked to see where every single job is in every single department yet?”

 

“No, I was getting ready to, though.”

 

Ahmis is still five months away from being able to track its projects using software, and so your legs and shy eyes, approaching every Ahmis employee in the building, are the means of tracking projects. Nobody is all that nice to you, either, often irritated that you are asking them when they will be finished with work—you have to do this as you are helping Karen be accountable to her bosses downstairs.

 

Gavi thinks he is your guru now, like some Kung Fu master you’ve appointed to train you in the art of becoming a true man of this world. Gavi, in all of his conversations, doesn’t fail to admit that when he was your age, he was a man manqué, and by the looks of it, not a whole lot has changed. He is simply louder and brasher now, and sounds like one of those little short-man complexes you knew in high school that were rabid about sports they could never play.

 

Upon arriving in Austin, you still believed that God appeared to you in signs, delivered up to you in the form of coincidences you read into way too much.

 

Friday last week you overheard Gavi mention how his mother had died tragically, and that his birthday was on the 10th of September. Being one who still believed in signs, your ears pricked up when you heard this. Roy, your little brother who died in a car accident this past January would have turned 17 on the 10th. This was Roy’s first birthday without Roy. You were trying not to think about it, but hearing of a fellow soul who knew deep tragedy, you decided that maybe Gavi was someone you should get to know.

 

“But, this is not a birthday celebration, damnit!” he cried. “We are celebrating the end of an era, as my roommate is leaving me for his own place.”

 

As an afterthought, Gavi had walked up to you that Friday, and said “You can come, too, if you want, Kevin.”

 

Gavi had made it clear how much he wanted all of the “cool kids” of Ahmis there at his party, and probably just invited you because he knew you could overhear him blasting his event announcement from the other room.

 

Gavi was loudly and unapologetically a pot smoker and Jew. Those were the two things he didn’t ever fail to mention in any discussion that took place in that room. To hear it, you’d think there was little else to his identity, other than a pair of Jewish lungs that remained as full of cannabis as often as possible.

 

“Remember how you were saying I should make more friends here in Austin?” you asked Olivia that night.

 

“Sure.”

 

“Guess what? This guy Gavi at my workplace is having a party tonight.”

 

“But, Fridays are supposed to be our night together,” groaned Olivia.

 

“But, you spent last Friday evening out with your friends. Why don’t you come along with me? It will be fun. Gavi seems like a pretty cool guy. I bet he’s going to have a lot of weed to smoke. You told me you smoked a bit in college.”

 

“Yeah, in college. That was one of those things I did when I was young and foolish. I don’t know that I really care to do it now. Isn’t today your little brother’s birthday, though? I thought you wanted to just kind of keep to yourself tonight?”

 

“I do. But, I really don’t need an excuse to throw a pity party for myself, and the prospect of participating in a shared pity party—developing a tragedy buddy—seems so deliciously wonderful. And, the more that I think about it, I really would like to have you along to hold my hand, as I am really bad with making new friends at parties.”

 

“Okay, well, as long as I am mostly just along to hold your hand while you venture into the waters of becoming a social animal here in Austin, and not there to smoke weed or try to actually befriend any of these Ahmis freaks you keep telling me about.”

 

You and Olivia showed up at Gavi’s address a little late, as you’d decided to have dinner and a few drinks by yourselves before coming over.

 

“Where is everyone?” you asked, as Gavi let you into a spartan, hardwood-floored home in downtown Austin blocks from Ahmis. Gavi was renting the house you and Olivia had looked for when you first arrived, AND he had a dog that was kind of on the big side, too.

 

You were slightly jealous.

 

“Oh, they all left to go bar hopping. I didn’t feel like drinking heavily. I am pretty much a pothead, myself.”

 

“Cool,” you said. “Hey, I overheard you saying that your mom died tragically. My little brother did, too. This year. His birthday is today. I’m going to tear up a little bit now, so we can become tragedy buddies.”

 

“That’s cool,” said Gavi, “And now, as you get stoned out of your mind, and I can see that you are not used to having this much cannabis in your system, I’m going to tell you a bunch of crazy shit about the spirit world, your future, and really insert myself into your head, deep, so that when I call you up a year later and you’ve completely tired of my negative, draining presence, you’ll still say ‘yes’ to whatever I ask of you.”

 

“That’s cool,” you said, “Olivia, would you like to smoke some of this fine stuff as well?”

 

“No thanks, Kevin,” she said, “I’ll just stay here and allow you to bond with your new tragedy buddy so that you’ll have a safe ride home. I’m glad you’ve found him, though, as I’ve gotten rather sick of hearing you whine about your little brother’s death when you’ve had too much to drink.”

 

So, you got higher and higher, while Gavi riffed on whatever popped into his head. Olivia later told you she thought it was a bunch of nonsense. Gavi seemed to take the philosophy provided by the show Kung Fu as being the end-all, be-all to the meaning of life, and decided you were his “grasshopper,” and he your “master.”

 

You grinned a lot, and nodded at what he said, because the more you smoked, the more your recently developed, thin little layer of manhood was shed off of you, and what emerged was the silly, sycophant of a boy from high school and college that any slightly stronger personality could push around.

 

“You don’t want to fuck with the spirit world,” said Gavi. “You want to get in touch with your brother? I know someone that will do it for you. She’s good. She’s a psychic. But it will cost you money. And, you really don’t want to do it. What you want to do, is take tips from me, a complete social misfit who rarely has a girlfriend, on how to become a true man.”

 

“But, I won the heart of this beautiful lady here,” You said, pointing to Olivia, who was, in fact, looking very pretty. “And, I’ve got a nice little family started with her and a dog in a duplex in South Austin. I’ve successfully moved to another state and found work. Why do I need tips from you?”

 

“You might think you have it all figured out, and that you’re on the right path,” said Gavi. “But, you’re not. You still have so much to learn, Grasshopper.”

 

And that’s pretty much all you remember of what he put into your head. Now, it’s Monday, the 13th, and here he is making you feel about as big as a grasshopper, shouting at you every time he sees you, and trying to dominate you with his personality. Nobody else in the building seems to notice.

 

“We are going to be friends for life, Kevin,” he says, “think about it, for life. When you swear loyalty to me, it’s for a really long time.”

 

October 20, 1999

In spite of Gavi’s advice that was just dripping pearls of original wisdom, you did want to get involved with the spirit world, as you became quite involved with it at the University, once it was clear you weren’t going to get laid.

 

However, you opted NOT to have Gavi take your money and give it to his psychic, no matter how good she was. A spiritual journey was not worth much of anything at all if it was taken mostly by someone else.

 

About once every two weeks, you and Olivia planned your day such that the two of you could carpool. Usually, she would want to work at least a nine hour day, and on top of that, take a full hour’s lunch. You, on the other hand, worked at Ahmis only as much as you could stand, stealing away to Book People or the library for an hour if your boss Karen Winthrop was especially strict that month about everyone taking a lunch hour.

 

Once a month or so, Olivia would actually allow her lunch hour to coincide with yours, and agree to meet you for a falafel or sandwich from the coffee shop inside Book People. She was generally of a mind to hurry things along so she could get back to her important work, so you found the little window of the lunch hour or the hour after work as the perfect time to slip into an altered state of mind from the incense that permeated the air, and read books on mystical things like Kabbalah and Kundalini.

 

Sometimes you’d buy one of the books, instead of just stopping to graze as if you were in the produce section of the grocery store devouring tidbits you’d never pay for.

 

You should really think about going down there right now in 2008, and seeing if any memories pop into your head to make this time traveling experience more interesting. You need to try really hard to remember if there was a time in Austin where you and Olivia actually shopped together, as that couple in love in Kansas City did. No, you following her around doesn’t count, and no, you begging her to leave off whatever she was looking at to come share your discovery with you really doesn’t count either.

 

You see, that was one of your bigger pet peeves. Olivia didn’t care to discover Austin with you. You were still unemployed back there in May when she brought home a falafel from Whole Foods. She discovered bars and clubs and restaurants and bands with her happy hour gang from work, because when the two of you went out to discover a place together, she made it abundantly clear how much more superior Missouri was to anything the two of you found in Austin.

 

Was her change in personality upon arriving here due to the fact she worked the night shift with you back in Kansas City, and her sleep patterns had caused a different sort of Olivia to emerge? Did she simply feel sorry for you because Roy had just died, and wanted to be a supportive lover, feeling it was time to cut that off upon arriving in Austin? Or, maybe, she expected you to change, to get more serious about a career, and drink less when you all came down?

 

Or maybe, you changed, but for the worse, becoming a different sort of man—maybe she left Kansas City thinking she was in love with a man, and arrived in Austin only to discover she loved a man manqué?

 

See, if you could just nail down what that thing was about you or her or the both of you that changed between Kansas City and Austin, you would never lose the one you love again.

 

Go now, to Whole Foods and Book People, and see if you can find the Kevin Smiley of 1999, all alone, waiting for his lover to finish her work and come pick him up at the store entrance, so they could go home to their dog and watch TV and get drunk.

 

He’ll be upstairs in the section of spiritual books, trying to decide if some fat tome full of intricate spells by Alistair Crowley is the way to go, or if a more purist approach to finding original Kabbalistic texts will turn him into a magically enlightened being.

 

“Kevin,” you say to him, tapping him on the shoulder gently. He leaps up startled. A look of familiarity crosses his face.

 

“I know you from somewhere. College?”

 

“Yes, I went to college with you, and high school, and grade school. Heck, I was right there in the womb with you.”

 

“Are you a doppelganger, or my future self?”

 

“Future self.”

 

“Pray tell me, future self, what books should I read to become enlightened, and take on the world?”

 

“The Holy Bible and Tony Robbin’s ‘Unlimited Power.'”

 

“You’re joking, right? Shouldn’t I include something about Zen Meditation? Chakras? Past lives? Telekinesis? Jungian Archetypes? Crowley’s ‘Golden Dawn’? Dianetics?”

 

“No. All that shit is a waste of time. It has no practical value whatsoever. You hate the Bible because you had to read the whole thing as a kid, and you think that it will offer you no new insights. Try reading it with your grown-up’s eyes and your little boy’s heart. You think Tony Robbins is another rip-off motivational speaker. Maybe so. But, ‘Unlimited Power’ is his distillation and explanation of Neuro Linguistic Programming; the original techniques he used to help himself get to where he is today. It will help you realize your own self, too.”

 

“I don’t know. This book full of secret Hebrew permutations of alphanumerics looks promising.”

 

“Fine, then. Also read, Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum,’ and then see if you think you need to waste your time with all this mystical crap.”

 

“But, Kevin. Gavi Ashkenazi put something in my head. And, I am already bored with my relationship with Olivia, as you probably know.”

 

“Tell her you want to go to Mass with her. She’ll like that. Then, after church, kiss her neck passionately, and SLOWLY. You gotta move slower and more delicately at first to warm her up and get her moist. You can’t melt that ice with a blowtorch.”

 

“Hmmm,” you say to yourself doubtfully. “Catholic church is all fine and good for her, but I think I’m a little bit more advanced in my spiritual studies.”

 

“No, you’re not. You still like to get sloppy drunk every night, you can’t kick your cigarette habit, and you are dangerously on the verge of making friends with a bunch of nowhere people that do nothing but get drunk every night, too. Reading a bunch of books on mystical things and having a few lucid dreams does not make you more spiritually advanced of a man. Don’t aim for things that are too high for you.”

 

“Me of the future,” you say to you, “Leave me be. I think I know what I’m doing. You are probably some kind of demon or illusion or acid flashback, anyway. If you are who you say you are, why don’t you go back a year earlier, and save Roy?”

 

“Well,” you say, “I wasn’t really expecting to save anyone, since I am unable to change the past. The thing is, I’m still in the process of finishing the one book you really need to read, and in order for me to finish it, you’re going to have to go on just being you—the way you are—for another nine years or so. You are of more help to me than I can ever be to you, sad to say.”

 

Being as self absorbed as you were, you have stopped listening to Future You already, and the Kevin Smiley of 1999 is back to being immersed in his little world of mass-marketed mysticism and incense. You of 2008 goes looking for a book that is more fitting for the present you—something about the Nazis, Cold War or spies, or perhaps a magazine devoted to foreign policy or muscle cars would be nice.

 

December 10, 1999

Ahmis is having its Christmas Party. You are invited, of course, and you aren’t sure at first if you want to go. Olivia doesn’t really want to go.

 

“I don’t particularly care to go and have a Christmas Party with a bunch of people you’ve been bitching about for the past six months, Kevin,” says Olivia, “but I am your girlfriend, and I’d hate for you to have to face them alone.”

 

At this point in time, some of the Ahmis folks have actually been kind to you, or at least polite. No longer do you completely feel unwelcome and unwanted there. People at least act like they expect you when you walk up to them and ask where a job or project is at. Gavi has become immersed in building his bar, and leaves you alone. A girl named Deidre, who was kind of mean to you at first, now speaks to you as an equal.

 

Karen Winthrop continues to ride you hard every single day about what it is you are doing at any given second, and allow other folks in the department to spend all day checking their fantasy baseball scores or chatting on their cell phones with their spouses.

 

Something unholy has happened involving Karen Winthrop, too. In spite of her meanness, you have discovered that at times, she can be very sexually attractive. Not pretty to look at, and she is certainly full of that “drunk demanding Southern belle” abrasiveness, but some days, she just seems to exude a sexiness like nobody else. You have masturbated to visions of Karen Winthrop on more than one occasion.

 

Olivia will meet Karen Winthrop tonight at the first Ahmis Christmas Party you are to attend, and Olivia already dislikes Karen from the stories you’ve told about this woman.

 

“Kevin, how long are we going to stay at this place?” demands Olivia, looking around in disdain at Sholz Biergarten. To her eyes, it looks too much like a cheap roadhouse that should have been torn down with everything else around it to make yet another parking garage.

 

Lots of people you don’t know start to arrive. These are the Technical Writers, the brains who actually author the content for Ahmis Communications’ training manuals and software. Every single one of them is a nerd, and keeps to his or her self, until Ramsey Ahmis arrives.

 

Hey, Everyone, look! It’s Ramsey Ahmis, the founder of Ahmis Communications. Back in the day, when a man named Mr. Greentree also worked there, and managed most of the day-to-day business of the company, Ramsey got to come in and play the nice, friendly Uncle from out of town, handing out cash bonuses and throwing extravagant parties at his place while Mr. Greentree did the firing and screaming at people.

 

Fortunately, for almost everyone who works at Ahmis, Mr. Greentree came down with a nasty case of Multiple Sclerosis, made some bad real estate deals, had his wife divorce him, and blew his brains out. Now, a lady named Wanda Dennis, Mr. Greentree’s “protege,” runs the company in his place.

 

“Kevin,” says Wanda, “Your name is Kevin isn’t it?”

 

Karen Winthrop is standing over there in this muck of busybodies and asskissers. “It sure is.” Karen replies for you. “Kevin is such a hard worker.” She smiles almost flirtatiously.

 

“Kevin, meet Mr. Ahmis, our founder.”

 

“Hello, Mr. Ahmis, nice to meet you.”

 

“Kevin, they tell me that you are very talented. These ladies are sure lucky to have a guy like you working for them. Guess what? For the next eight years, every single time you see me, which will be about ten more times, I’m going to say the same thing, and act like I’ve never seen you before. You see, Kevin, I am more interested in meeting random people abroad, and giving them opportunities to succeed. I could give a shit about the people who work at the company that bears my name, except Wanda here. I just keep this company around because it helps me look good in the community, and I have a soft spot for Wanda.”

 

“That’s very nice to know, Mr. Ahmis. You are very rich, and can do what you like. Since I am very poor, and do as I’m told, I will take the opportunity tonight to drink as much of this free booze and eat as much of this free barbecue as I can. I will also perform karaoke. And, for some strange reason, even though everyone at Ahmis will go on to agree that karaoke was so much fun, and this was the best place to have the Christmas Party, Ahmis in the future will decide to go back year after year to a restaurant on 6th St. where several people continually get food poisoning.”

 

“That sounds real nice, son. Enjoy your karaoke.”

 

And, you do. You go on to wow and stun your coworkers who thought you were such a shy type with some amazingly bad renderings of average eighties pop songs. Nobody cares, because they are all getting as drunk as they can on Ramsey Ahmis’ dime, and they enjoy seeing this stupid kid who is so shy throughout the week make an ass of himself.

 

You will think for many years that your ability to come out of your shell in front of your coworkers that night was due to the booze, or due to your increasing confidence and manhood, but you know that you were wrong about why you were able to perform karaoke so fearlessly.

 

Having Olivia in the audience made all the difference.

 

Of course, now that the cat is out, and you have demonstrated this fearlessness to perform to your coworkers, you will return Monday with a huge shot in the head full of confidence which will last until you go to another party at Gavi’s and get cut back down to being the tiny little grasshopper he says you are.

 

Olivia is impressed with none of it, not you and your singing, not your coworkers, not the Biergarten, and certainly not Karen Winthrop.

 

“Your boss seems like kind of a bitch,” says Olivia, as she drives you home. She is mildly irritated at how drunk you are, but no more than usual.

 

“Yeah, she can be, but she was pretty nice tonight.”

 

January 1, 2000

You spend Y2K in a fully furnished cabin in Rockport, Texas, having driven your brand new Mitsubishi Mirage all the way up to Kansas City and St. Louis and back. You survived several days with both sets of Olivia’s parents, and felt no real unpleasantness during any of it, in spite of being so shy around a bunch of new people. You drove in snow for the first time in a year, and you were ready for whatever Y2K was going to bring.

 

“Let’s spend it near the ocean, if the world must end!” cried Olivia, and she found a place right on the gulf coast where the two of you could hole up and watch fireworks and planes falling out of the sky on TV to ring in the New Year.

 

You attempted to provide cunnilingus for Olivia on the floor of this cabin’s shower, but after forty-five minutes of water hitting your face and your jaw going numb, Olivia rescued you so you could celebrate the one year anniversary of your relationship with a quick one in bed.

 

It wasn’t really that quick, as the two of you had already finished a bottle of champaign, and you were feeling tired and sloppy, but you finished the act so that you both could get back to watching television.

 

“It’s okay, honey,” she said, “I don’t need to come every time.”

 

It seems like the few times you’d succeeded at it were flukes, and that Olivia was slipping away from you further and further as your lover.

 

“There are things that could be improved about our relationship,” she later says to you, after you both make sure the world didn’t end, “but, over all, I can’t complain.”

 

“What kinds of things?” you ask, really wanting to know to make it better.

 

“Oh, nothing big. You know, just little details, like paying more attention to me, and communication stuff. Don’t worry about it. I think our relationship is going wonderfully.”

 

Okay, you think, I’m not going to worry about it. We have finished off two full bottles of the bubbly, and I think I did most of the finishing, so, I’m going to sleep in a hazy bliss of motel bedding and boozy, sexed blood coursing through my veins.

 

It is important to include this date in the history of your time in Austin as a man manqué, because it is a turning point for your mystical belief system, that still secretly entertained a sense of there being a high probability that the entire world would end on Y2K.

 

Because the world did NOT end, life was going to have to throw a lot more at you in order for you to wake up and start growing up.

 

February 14, 2000

“For your Valentine’s gift,” said Olivia, as you pick her up at her workplace because you carpooled that day, “I will be giving you a pair of cotton boxer shorts with little red hearts on them, a bottle of inexpensive vodka, and a carton of Marlboro Menthol cigarettes.”

 

“Are you going to play the Fraulein, like you did last year, and wear garters and red stockings, and tie me down to your bed?”

 

“No.”

 

“Are these undies edible, or perhaps you are wearing matching heart panties you will show me later?”

 

“No.”

 

“Perhaps you have some other sexy surprise that my imagination can’t conjure up, like a VHS tape from the porno store?”

 

“No. But we will be watching television.”

 

“Some sexy cuddling and kissing on the sofa that gets hot and heavy and leads us to the bedroom?”

 

“Kevin, how often am I hot about anything? You know I’m a rather emotionally retarded, cold and passionless individual. Just drink your vodka, smoke your smokes, and in the next few weeks when I’ve had a few too many mixed drinks myself, I’ll hint at how nice it would be to see you in your heart-covered boxers. But not tonight.”

 

“Fine, but I will need to exchange these Marlboro Menthols at whatever store you purchased them.”

 

“The Racetrack gas station on South Lamar—but, why do you want to exchange them—don’t you smoke this kind?”

 

“Olivia, Marlboro Menthols make me sicker than the greenest cabin boy. I thrive on Marlboro Menthol LIGHTS.”

 

“Oh, well, excuse me. Is the vodka to your taste?”

 

“The vodka is fine.”

 

As you start to pull left out of the Racetrack to head south on Lamar, Olivia instinctively touches your arm, and says, “watch out, honey.” A car is entering into the turn lane, and you almost pull right into its oncoming path. You are very touched by this.

 

You have believed for a long time that you have a Guardian Angel.

 

Often, when driving your pickup truck, you would sense an extra weight in the passenger seat at moments when your mind wandered and you almost made some stupid driving error. You are to this day unsure why Roy didn’t have his own Guardian Angel, but there is increasingly more and more about this Universe you fail to comprehend, the older you get.

 

That evening, after Olivia has firmly planted herself in front of the television, you sit down next to her, full of love, still thinking about the wonderful, life-saving gesture she made.

 

“You know, Olivia, I used to have a guardian angel next to me wherever I drove.” You smile at her, taking her hand. “But now…”

 

“Would you shut the fuck up!” she screams. “Kevin, when are you going to just get over it?” She thinks you are about to lapse into speculating as to why Roy died the night he did. You were not going to do such a thing, you were feeling so close to her after the gesture she mad, and wanted to share.

 

You could reply with something like “Jesus H. Christ, I was just trying to pay you a compliment about how lucky I am to have you in my life, and if you are asking me when I’m going to get over the tragic death of my little brother, the answer is fucking never,” BUT…

 

You are undaunted by this outburst, and think maybe she just needs to loosen up a bit.

 

You mix her a drink with the new vodka, and take all of your clothes off, wearing only the heart-covered boxers.

 

“Oh, Kevin. Not now. I told you, not tonight.” She takes your drink and refocuses all of her attention on the television.

 

You go into the spare bedroom, turn on the computer, and find some porn online. After enjoying it, you put regular clothes back on, and re-enter the living room. For some reason, her coldness and bitterness hasn’t gotten to you yet. The break to masturbate helped cool things off for you.

 

You put her arm around her.

 

“Olivia…”

 

“What?”

 

“We are soon going to be homeowners.”

 

“I know, isn’t it exciting!”

 

Your father, who has planned to retire in Texas since you were a very young boy, called you up and made you an offer. Find him a home he can buy in the area, and he will let you and Olivia live there for cheap rent until he and your mom move down.

 

In the process of looking at homes this past Super Bowl Sunday, your agent showed you all a home that turned Olivia into a strange beast.

 

“Your father would be a fool not to buy this house!” she shrieked, when your dad refused to send down money to take the house off the market without looking at it first. “We MUST own this house! I will not rest until this house is mine!”

 

So, your agent did some calculations and discovered that with your and Olivia’s salaries combined, the two of you could own the house yourselves with only a small loan from Daddy.

 

Not wanting your year of life-changing and man-making events to come to an end, and thinking you are enough of a man now to own a house, you’d agreed to go in with Olivia on buying the house.

 

It is out in Oak Hill, a good thirty minutes from downtown Austin, not exactly the cute college neighborhood house you were looking for when you first arrived, but it has an immaculate interior, the price has been marked way down, the market is still getting hotter and hotter, the view is nice, the deck is perfect and Olivia has mentally hung colorful pepper lights a la Joe’s Crab Shack around the deck, and…you would have been a fool not to go in with Olivia, and buy that house.

 

Olivia at least gives you a Valentine’s Day cuddle there on the sofa.

 

“You know what, Olivia? I’m going to quit smoking, and start swimming every day before work. I think it’s time for me to really clean my act up.”

 

“Okay,” she murmurs, but she is already dozing off, ready to trudge to bed.

 

Year 2

 

June 19, 2000

So, what is the first thing anyone says to you after you tell them you are a new homeowner?

 

“Dude, when’s the housewarming party?”

 

Throngs and masses of people walking the earth come forth to find out the date, time and place where they can be to obtain a lot of free booze and food in exchange for bringing over a small token gift, like a six pack of cheap, light domestic beer or chips.

 

“We need to have a housewarming party,” you said to Olivia.

 

“Of course,” she said, “Every single individual at my work will be there, or so I’ve been told.”

 

“Mine too.”

 

In the interim between you and Olivia setting the date and posting the invite all over both of your workplaces, at least half of those same people that lustily drooled for the opportunity to attend your housewarming party have declined with other obligations for this evening.

 

“Sorry, but my cat has a scheduled cleaning that evening.”

 

“I will definitely be out of town from the moment your housewarming party starts, until the moment it ends.”

 

“Nice invitation of you and your girlfriend superimposed over your new house. You must have spent a lot of time on it.”

 

“I did. Because, it’s the year 2000, and not nearly as many people have mastered the art of Photoshopping various images onto others in transparent layers. But wait, there’s more. Olivia and I have made our own Amaretto Sour and Kahlua liqueurs, we have cooked up huge batches of chicken wings and chimichangas, and will have large platters of barbecue, vegetable, and seafood hors de oeuvres, not to mention three different kinds of liquor, two different kinds of wine, and four different kinds of beer. And, the most important thing—Olivia has strung hot pepper lights around our deck to make the atmosphere festive, like Joe’s Crab Shack.”

 

“Sounds great, but you know, I am anticipating an old back injury welling up and knocking me down that evening. Say hi to everyone for me.”

 

“Where is everyone?” Olivia asks around 9 PM, after Aunt and Uncle came and went.

 

“Some people told me last week that they couldn’t make it. Other obligations this evening.”

 

“But, we were inundated with dozens, if not hundreds, of requests to have a housewarming party upon disclosing the fact that we are now homeowners.”

 

“Maybe that’s just something you say to folks. Like, have a nice day.”

 

Around this time, a bunch of Ahmis folks, and people from Olivia’s work show up.

 

“Where is that homemade Amaretto sour liqueur you guys made?” they demand.

 

“Hey, don’t you guys want to try some of this barbecue, or chimichangas? We’ve been preparing this stuff all day.”

 

“Nope, we’ve been out at the bars having fun, and now we are going to finish ourselves off with your Amaretto sour liqueur, and drink copious amounts of it.”

 

“Well, okay.”

 

“Hey Kevin, honey?”

 

“Yes, Olivia?”

 

“What are we going to do with all this leftover food and booze?”

 

“Well, the food we can let sit in the fridge for about a month until it rots and you bitch at me to throw it out. And, the booze, I’ll be guzzling that every night as quickly as I can until there’s nothing left of it.”

 

“Don’t you think maybe we should save some of the booze for a future party?”

 

“No. I am unable to control myself when there is booze in the house, so I will need to consume it every moment I am not working or sleeping. You’ll see, everything will be fine.”

 

Karen Winthrop and Deidre show up and stick around for about an hour. Karen has some scruffy, mustachioed dude in tow, and they are polite. They don’t say much, though.

 

Olivia’s happy hour gang from the publishing house is more of a college-educated, snobby sort of bunch that actually prefers the conversation part of a party more than the booze. Ahmis folks are there looking to get fucked up, but are a little annoyed that they had to drive so far on a Saturday night for their fun.

 

July 27, 2000

So, you bought a house, bought a new car, got a dog, moved three states away, lost your little brother in a car accident, had a hernia operation, lost your virignity, all in the course of about a year, the last three events taking place over the course of twenty-four hours.

 

And now, you had a new job that paid 1.5 times as much as Ahmis did, and you had it with the State of Texas. You got the job based on skills you obtained from being that freakshow at Ahmis who was willing to take on gruntwork like manually cutting and pasting figures, and running the copy machine. Now, you made considerably more than Olivia, as well as most of your fellow Ahmis coworkers.

 

Did I tell you? You chose to stick around and work at Ahmis part-time, maybe fifteen hours a week, because Karen Winthrop finally went to bat for you, and convinced Wanda that Karen and Kevin could redesign the Ahmis website.

 

You, who had played around with web pages and HTML in college, and Karen Winthrop, who until very recently, had trouble using any given MS Office tool, were going to combine forces to unleash a corporate website upon the world, the likes of which mankind had never seen before.

 

You thought, a little extra money was good, and it was a good thing not to completely cut the cord to Ahmis, right? Why, you and Karen were like peas and carrots now, as Forrest Gump would say. Never mind that Karen had flatly refused for the past six months to put you on any special projects, and Deidre had finally out of mercy and kindness traded her seat as a Quality Assurance person with you to cut and paste + bind and collate, so you could learn those new skills that Karen had promised you when you started at Ahmis. All was forgiven, because you were going to get the opportunity to help redesign the Ahmis website.

 

So, every day in July 2000, your schedule started early in the morning, before 5 AM, at a time when rousing an army of dead women would be easier than rousing Olivia. You got in the right lane on Highway 71, and if you stayed in that lane, it veered left toward Austin, and became a merge lane onto MoPac, then ended as an exit lane to Enfield where you needed to turn and go down to the San Jacinto parking garage to begin your day at the Texas State Capitol doing important things that were vital to the process of legislation. You took this special lane that was all yours, all the way to San Jacinto St., as a sign from God that you’d found the job you were meant to find.

 

Your new boss, Celia, provided one little hiccup in all of this nice little morning setup: “Kevin, while technically I am the boss of this department, this is a State Job, which means that since I have lots of tenure and don’t want to get my hands dirty by coming down this early and telling you people what to do, you are going to be quasi-responsible for the people in this department. There is Michael, a nice and probably gay guy, who gets pushed around easily by the others and is about to leave. There is Guillermo, the real stinker, who leaves to do god knows what as often as possible and only does the minimal amount of work possible—we keep him on because he allegedly knows so much about his work. And, Jose, who was hired based on Guillermo’s recommendation, pretty much does whatever Guillermo does, meaning he leaves the building to slack with Guillermo every single day. You need to keep those two in line. Michael, who you will quickly come to like, is leaving.”

 

You thought your manhood was so far advanced, your confidence was soaring so high, and suddenly you find yourself seizing up in utter paralysis at the thought of having to tell Guillermo, who looks like he would cut you some morning on the way in, what to do.

 

You step outside a lot to smoke cigarettes and think about this problem.

 

As Guillermo and Jose are only part-time, around 9 AM the shifts change, and people who provide admin support to the State Legislature during the day come in. A milk-skinned, ultra-fine, supergorgeous, very young, very blonde lady shows up, and she likes you, or you think she does.

 

Olivia Gruene seems to be a rather unappetizing blob of sexless flesh compared to the supermodel you work with in the final four hours of your morning.

 

After you finish working through the morning at your State job, you drive back over to the Ahmis building, where Karen Winthrop awaits you with lots of impractical ideas for things that neither of you have the technical know-how to implement for the website, and things that crash all current web browsers in the year 2000—things that no user except Karen Winthrop would ever want to encounter on a business website.

 

“Let’s animate all of the text, and have it swirl in over this pattern that looks like an Afghan rug, before disappearing behind little pieces of the rug you mouse over to open doors like one of those trees in a pop-up book where animals pop out.”

 

“But, the text is so hard to see,” you say, smoking lots of cigarettes with Karen outside in the Ahmis break area.

 

“I know, we’ll add a fuzzy pink glowing effect behind the text using Flash or CSS or something. Do you think you can do that? If not, I’ll have Ahmis buy more software to make it happen!”

 

Miraculously, you got all of her ideas to work, and then the site would crash the other browser, or crash someone else’s computer. Karen Winthrop was getting on your very last nerves, trying all of the patience left inside of you, making you smoke an entire extra pack each day, causing you to trash and scrap every idea you came up with for the website, making you print out and put in binders every single web tutorial you found on the web along with the source code of thousands of corporate websites she liked, and demanding more and more from you, paying you nothing more than the salary you made the day you started at Ahmis to bind and collate, and causing you to think impure thoughts about her when you weren’t completely hating her guts.

 

You’d go home to having four or five hours of the day to yourself, and be so zonked from stress and coffee and cigarettes and eating crappy junk food lunches. Olivia would come in late from work and plop onto the sofa to watch her must-see TV around the time you needed to head to bed.

 

So you turned to the bottle again, drinking as much as you could drink and still get up early in the morning. Hell you were only twenty-four years old, so you had plenty of energy in you to live this way until one day…

 

“I quit!” you yelled at Celia your new boss at your new State job. “I don’t like the way you run things here, and I don’t need this job. The State is full of crappy restrictions on everything we can and can’t do, and I feel like I’m working with both hands tied behind my back.”

 

“Kevin, you’ve only been working for a couple of weeks, shouldn’t you give this job a bit more of a chance before deciding something so rash?”

 

“No, I hate it and I want out. However, I might still be willing to work part-time later in the day, about the time the really pretty blond lady comes in.”

 

“You can’t stand it, but you are actually asking us to consider having you work here part-time?”

 

“Well, it’s the early mornings I can’t stand. That, and being too chickenshit to tell Guillermo and Jose what to do, and ask them to get back to work when they start surfing the net and talking about soccer. I’m afraid they might cut me or something when I first arrive in the mornings.”

 

“Wow, Kevin Smiley, you seemed like you had more of a spine than that when we first hired you. Goodbye.”

 

You drove to Ahmis after that.

 

“Hi Karen, guess what? I quit my decently paying job with the state so I could come back and work exclusively by your side. I am willing to work here part time at Ahmis, making next to nothing, in a position I’ve absolutely loathed for a year, for a boss I can hardly stand to be around except when she charges me up sexually, all so I can get a little web design on my resume.”

 

“Wow, Kevin. You’d only been working there a couple weeks. Are you sure you aren’t going to give the State a little more of a chance than that?”

 

“Nope, I’ve already burned my bridges.”

 

Then, after a day of intense cigarette smoking and lots of pouring over the meaning of the magic symbols wrought within the source code of thousands of websites—all printed out and tossed around the break area—you drove home and collapsed and napped before facing Olivia.

 

“You did what!? Shouldn’t you give the job a few more weeks or even months before deciding this?”

 

“Nope, too late.”

 

“Well, I am going out until the wee hours of the morning, after the last bar in Austin has made its last call and kicked me out, and I am going to repeat this every night for the rest of the year, trying my best to avoid seeing your face, with the exception of around Thanksgiving when I will need you to drive me up to visit my folks—but other than that, you can stay here and get drunk on the sofa watching TV, so I can go out and try to pretend I don’t have a boyfriend.”

 

“Wow, Olivia, that wasn’t exactly how I planned it. I thought, based on how loving we were with each other last night, that you would be more accepting and understanding of the stupidest decision I will ever make in my entire life, and say ‘whatever you need, honey, I’m here for you,’ so your reaction comes as a bit of a shock to me.”

 

“Why should it, Kevin Smiley? What every girl wants in a man is someone she can brag about to her friends and parents. You started out doing fairly well, you seemed to have some real initiative when you put your resume in at all those big companies and took those temp jobs. I thought it was a little strange that you picked Ahmis over a hip dot-com, but you continued to strive to find a better-paying job, and you found one. But now, you’ve gone and thrown it all away, for what? To return to that horrible shrew of a woman that has made you, and therefore me, so miserable for the past year!”

 

“So, that’s all you care about, Olivia, is how much money I make?”

 

“No, you don’t understand at all. I want something I can show and tell my friends and parents. Write a novel, make a movie, get in a band and tour famously—do something I can show them. If all I have is a boyfriend I must love unconditionally, then you’re just as good as the next Tom, Doug or Harry. And, so far, the crappy mockup excuses you call websites you’ve concocted with Karen have proven to be nothing I would want to show anybody.”

 

“There are things I don’t like about you, too, Olivia Gruene.”

 

“Oh, yeah, like what?”

 

You offer up her lack of passion as an example, but you are getting good and drunk, so you start to pick her apart. You find flaws with everything she does and says, the way she dresses, the music she listens to, her friends from college and the friends she’s made in Austin, her family’s snobbish attitudes—everything is fair game for your contempt.

 

Finally, you offer the real kicker: “and I’m not so sure I even like you anymore, and I definitely don’t like the fact that I’m stuck in this house so far away from anything and anyone in Austin. I didn’t even want to buy the house, but you said anyone would be a fool to pass it up.”

 

She leaves, goes off and hits the bars, and will have an envelope waiting for you the next day that holds a note to say everything she couldn’t while you sat there drunk on the sofa ranting. She tells you that you must take a weekend to go camping somewhere on the gulf, and open the letter to read the note then. You know you have severed the last functioning artery of this relationship, but think you can somehow repair the gusher as it bleeds to death the rest of the year.

 

August 14, 2000

“Olivia, do you feel like doing some yardwork on this lovely Saturday?”

 

“Not right now, I am tired and just want to watch television.”

 

“But, you just woke up four hours ago, went into work for a couple hours, and came back home.”

 

“I have a lot of stressful work on my plate right now, and even though it was only for a couple of hours, I was very occupied with it.”

 

“I see. Well, the grass needs to be cut. We haven’t cut it yet this year, and it’s been one of the driest summers on record. We could be responsible for a fire if someone goes by and flicks a cigarette butt on our lawn.”

 

“I’ll get to it tomorrow with the inexpensive weedwhacker I stole from Target, because someone left it sitting at the end of the checkout kiosk. You don’t have to mess with the grass. I would like to do all of the yardwork and house maintenance myself around here.”

 

“Why is that?”

 

“Because I am still trying to prove to myself and a past boyfriend that I am every bit as equal to any job as a man is. Besides, you tend to screw things up, anyway. You are kind of a lightweight and a scatterbrain when it comes to manly chores.”

 

“I’m a creative type. That’s something you once said you really liked about me.”

 

“And, I still like you.”

 

“Do you love me?”

 

“Of course, now let me watch this show on TV.”

 

The two of you had made up since those damaging words flew out of your mouth a month ago, or so you thought. You and she had even made love once, a rather lengthy, drawn out episode that started in the shower, lasted until her knees got weak, then ended on the bed with you barely feeling yourself climax and Olivia curling up afterward to sleep as close to her edge of the bed as she could.

 

“What are you doing, Kevin?”

 

“Just being sweet.”

 

“Your beard is scratchy.”

 

“You’ve always liked my beard.”

 

“Yeah, when it’s fully grown out. Right now, it’s still growing from when you shaved it for the state job. It feels like sandpaper.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Kevin, please don’t touch me there, it feels like you’re jabbing me, and I’m trying to watch this show.”

 

You go into the kitchen and fix yourself a sandwich. This requires some thought. Obviously, the two of you haven’t quite fixed things between each other.

 

Olivia comes up behind you, and plants a kiss on your neck, putting her arms around you. “How about that?” she asks, playfully.

 

This is promising. The two of you go into the bedroom and begin to kiss deeply and slowly. This time, she doesn’t complain about the sandpaper. Some necking takes place for what seems like eternity, but things are moving too slow for you. How do you get the old flames stoked again so you can sex her up? You remove her shorts and panties, and decide it’s time to go down there with your sandpaper.

 

“Oh, getting out the big guns are we?” she demands. “Kevin, don’t you remember how to make love? Gawd. I’d like to move a little slower than this. I don’t even want you down there like that right now, anyway.”

 

“Oh, are you starting your period?”

 

“It’s not that.” She puts her shorts back on, and returns to watching television.

 

“Olivia,” you say, following her in there. “Do you think I’m special to you?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Am I the most special boyfriend you’ve ever had?”

 

“No.”

 

“No? I’m not any more special than Joey Seymore, your first, or that guy before me, the Brazilian dude—”

 

“Gilberto.”

 

“Gilberto, yeah. I’m not any more special to you than any other guy you’ve dated, even though we moved across three states and bought a house together?”

 

“No, not really. Now let me watch television.”

 

“But, you do love me.”

 

“Yes, of course. Look, Kevin, right now I still love you very much. I’m just not…in love WITH you, if that makes sense?”

 

It makes perfect sense, and it is everything you need to know. Now you are certain you will never be able to ask her to marry you, and a slightly older you would know that a relationship is completely over once a woman talks like this. But then again, who wouldn’t try to make things work after you’ve gone to all this trouble? Heck, the housewarming party was more work than signing all the stupid papers to buy the damn house.

 

Anyway, you’re still making a crappy part-time salary at Ahmis, because Karen Winthrop has yet to convince anyone to give you your full-time job back. You need Olivia and this place to live, because otherwise you’d have to pack up and move back to Kansas City to live with Mom and Dad.

 

Actually, now that the time-traveling you of 2008 has written that—in hindsight, that actually sounds…not so bad—Mom and Dad, your sweet, caring parents, vs. angry, cold Olivia.

 

But, hindsight’s wisdom does not a man make, it only makes more of a man manqué of him. So, let’s stick to the script with the understanding that you really cannot reshape these events because these are the events that have shaped you.

 

“Kevin?” asks Olivia a bit later.

 

“Yes, Olivia?”

 

“What are you doing tonight?”

 

“I’m probably going to be studying for my classes. I’m taking three web development courses online right now, which means I can complete the exercises any time I want. I thought I would get caught up on them this weekend. Why, what’s going on?”

 

“I was going to see if you’d like to come and hang out with the happy hour gang from my workplace. I realize that I’ve often neglected to invite you to anything I’m doing, and I figured we could go do something together. As a couple.”

 

“Is there a show or something?”

 

“Yeah, actually. There’s this guy at my work—you’d really like him. He’s in a rock n’ roll band, and plays guitar. I’ve been to a few of his shows. He’s really good. Some of his guitar playing sounds like your old college jams that you played me on those cassette tapes, only he remembers what he plays and can repeat it every night for his adoring fans.”

 

“Oh yeah? It sounds kind of interesting, what’s the name of the band?”

 

“The Brimstone Broadcasters—it’s an instrumental, prog rock, jam band. Let me play you one of the tapes he gave me. I think you and this guy would really get along. His name’s Doug Johnson. He has a beard, like you.”

 

“Nobody sings.”

 

“No, just gorgeous, fifteen minute epic instrumentals. Some of them make me cry.”

 

You see what she means. You can only take about eight minutes of the grungy noodling that employs variations on the same five or six-note pentatonic scale.

 

“Wait, it gets really good here!”

 

The tempo picks up, and the grungy noodling tries to keep up with the faster tempo—tries valiantly—but then the guitar soloist, who is no Alex Lifeson, finally settles for riding the whammy bar to the cymbal-polluted climax. It kind of reminds you of making love to Olivia—unbearably slow and boring for what seems like an eternity, and then a quick, sloppy gallop to the finish to get back to television—but you don’t say anything.

 

You just nod and smile.

 

“Isn’t Doug Johnson really good? His band kind of reminds you of bands like Rush or Dream Theater, huh?”

 

“Kind of. I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass tonight, but thanks for the invite. I have to really focus on studying this JavaScript stuff.”

 

“Oh, which reminds me. Kevin?”

 

“Yeah, Olivia?”

 

“I’d prefer it if you do not leave computer books in the kitchen. It messes up the feng shui of the house.”

 

Your computer books make a few loud thuds inside the doorway to the guest bedroom where you are studying online and will be sleeping soon enough. You hardly notice the messy sheaf of papers from her workplace sitting on the kitchen table (neither of you eat at) as you step into the kitchen to make yourself another drink. It seems appropriate tonight to get as drunk as you possibly can.

 

September 8, 2000

“Kevin Smiley.”

 

The voice at the other end is grinding itself into your skull, your soul. Seems familiar.

 

“Do you want to be a part of a movie, Kevin?”

 

“Uh, hi, Gavi. Uh, sure.” You do not want to be a part of a movie. You had thought very briefly about making movies as a career option, then decided that being a web designer was a quicker ticket to a six figure salary. You’d heard from Aunt that people who knew only a little HTML and Flash were busy making good money at dot com companies around the country. All you had to do was hang on to the miserable situations at Ahmis and home for a little longer, finish up your adult continuing education classes at the community college, and go find your fortune.

 

“Of course, you do. This movie project is going to go down in history as one of the greatest documentaries of our generation. You’re lucky I called you.”

 

“Uh, yeah, Gavi. Hey, I just rented a really cool movie by Martin Scorsese, called ‘Bringing Out the Dead.’ It’s about this ambulance driver, played by Nicolas Cage. I also saw a good movie by Errol Morris where he looks at the world through the eyes of a holocaust denier.”

 

“Kevin, I hate Martin Scorsese. I hate Errol Morris. I hate Nicolas Cage. In fact, I hate all the movies you like.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Hey, listen. I’m having a little gathering at my bar this Saturday, and you’re invited to come.”

 

“Oh, that’s right, it’s your birthday.”

 

“I am NOT celebrating my birthday! This is NOT a birthday celebration, just a little get together, you hear?”

 

“Yeah, sure.”

 

“Now, I hope you’re ready to listen, because I’m going to talk your ear off for about an hour, going over every moment someone slighted me since I was twenty-years of age. You are going to agree with everything I say, and not try to offer me any advice on how to fix these problems, as I am not looking to solve them. Are we clear?”

 

“Yeah, sure, Gavi.”

 

You had just started to carve out a little window of your own life, your own thing, and were getting used to knowing that Olivia was slipping out of your life for good. You had reached a moment in this Austin experience where you almost felt like you were starting to be in control of things again, when Gavi called. You were still way too much of a man manqué to know how to say “no.”

 

November 11, 2000

You go with Olivia and her friend to see Doug Johnson’s band. A bunch of people with mod haircuts and olive drab peacoats show up and sneer at you, stand with their arms folded and nod their heads to the grungy progrock sounds of the Brimstone Broadcasters.

 

You walk up to some of them, thinking they might be friendly. Sometimes, back in Missouri, you could just walk up to folks who were standing in bars nodding their heads to music and talk to them, and they’d be nice.

 

These retro yuppies all shift their shoulders and turn their heads slightly to avoid making eye contact with you. You grab a five dollar Shiner from the bar. It comes in a tiny plastic cup, and they’ve watered it down a bit. Walking toward you are some nice folks that are smiling and appear to be friendly.

 

“Excuse me,” one of them mutters, as she barely makes the effort to look your way.

 

After his set is over, Doug Johnson comes over to a table outside where you sit smoking with Olivia and her future roommate. His eyes lock on Olivia’s and they gaze the way lovers gaze. He eyes you coolly.

 

“Kevin, this is Doug.”

 

“Um, nice music, Doug.”

 

He glances at you, irritated, then lights a cigarette. “I need a beer.”

 

Olivia starts to get up to get one for him, but Doug has spotted someone he knows at the bar and runs off.

 

“Isn’t Doug extremely talented?”

 

“Yeah, he had some moments where he got into a nice groove.”

 

“Doug is such a nice guy. Not a mean bone in his body.”

 

“Seems to me like he’s a little too cool for school.”

 

“Oh, he’s not like that, he’s just shy.”

 

“I’m going to go now. I would rather buy a twelve pack of Shiner for the price of two of these tiny plastic cups of watered-down Shiner, and watch television at home, while I get drunk.”

 

“Oh, Kevin, you know you should get out more. This is fun.”

 

“It’s cold out here, and the people are even colder.”

 

December 25, 2000

You’ve spent all of your extra money these past six months on booze, and so, you can’t afford a plane ticket to visit your parents, who are still in Kansas City. They drove down with the first little bit of their stuff and the neighbor’s cat in the back of the moving truck a couple weeks ago, as they’ve bought a redneck’s dream home out in Bastrop. You decorated their new home that they’ve purchased down here with lights and a live tree, and celebrated what must pass for your family Christmas. They flew back shortly after that.

 

Olivia managed to scrounge some money for a plane ticket, and has flown to St. Louis for Christmas.

 

You are all alone. It’s Christmas Night. What do you do? You begin the night getting very drunk by yourself.

 

“Whatcha doin’?” asks Deidre from the other end of the phone.

 

“I am getting drunk alone on Christmas evening, because I can’t afford to see my parents, and my girlfriend has flown home to see hers.”

 

“That’s sad. Why don’t you come over to my place—some of my friends and maybe a few Ahmis people are going to be there.”

 

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve ever spent Christmas day away from my parents. It feels weird and kind of bad. I think I just want to be alone.”

 

“Look, Kevin. Lots of young adults have already gone through half of their lives not getting to spend Christmas with both parents. You are twenty-four years of age. It’s time to be a man, and get drunk with adults and play cards.”

 

“Can I bring my dog?”

 

“Sure, just don’t let her poop on the rug.”

 

Karen Winthrop is there, with her tall, handsome boyfriend Roger. Apparently, he was good friends with the scruffy, mustachioed fellow that showed up at your house party last summer, and Karen has traded up. Roger is about fifteen years younger than Karen, talks like Pierce Brosnan, looks like a member of Lynnyrd Skynnyrd, and is from Australia. Karen is giggly like a schoolgirl, and hangs on him.

 

“Hi, Kevin, so this is your mutt?” she cries.

 

“Yep, this is Anastasia.”

 

“Kevin, this is Roger. Isn’t he a dream?”

 

“Hi, Kevin,” says Roger, “Karen tells me you both have been collaborating on the Ahmis website. I’d be interested to hear more about it. Though, you know, HTML is soon going to be replaced by Perl. I’m thinking about learning Perl. I picked up Java last summer, and I’ve been making some easy, part-time money when I’m not making music, but I think Perl and XML are where it’s at.”

 

“I’m learning some Flash.”

 

“Flash is on the way out. Newer browsers aren’t going to want to handle the security risks involved with it, and users won’t bother to install it manually. Learn some Perl.”

 

“Flash is cool, though. You can make animated stuff with it. Perl is a headache. I had to write thirty lines of code just to make a script that would process a basic form on the Ahmis website.”

 

“Security issues, man. Perl’s got them covered like nobody’s business. Listen. I like the blues, man. Do you listen to the blues?”

 

Someone had put in one of Karen Winthrop’s CDs, hence the abrupt change in subject.

 

“Yeah, sure. Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters are nice.”

 

“Oh, everyone’s got those guys in their CD collections. You should get some Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith. Female blues singers just slay me—absolutely bring me to mah knees.”

 

Karen had some Etta James, and was making Deidre play it. Roger scrunched his face up like he was constipated and knocked his knees together and started shaking.

 

“He’s got a lot of passion,” said Karen, grabbing his arm and rubbing it and looking up at his face. She stood a good foot and a half shorter than him. “Let’s go inside where it’s warm and play some cards.”

 

“Do you know how to play spades, Kevin?” asked Karen. “Do you want to be my partner? I play to win, so you better be sharp with the cards.”

 

You played spades once in college, and once at summer camp. You thought you could remember quickly. They were playing for pennies, and nobody seemed to be taking the game seriously except Karen. She started snapping at you.

 

“Pay attention, Kevin! We are going to lose this hand if we aren’t careful.”

 

She was getting visibly and sloppily intoxicated at a rather rapid pace.

 

Anastasia started to woof at some sirens. She was out on Deidre’s deck, and the door was ajar. When you’d gotten Anastasia, she had heart worms, and the treatment had shocked the worms into her lungs, causing the lungs to scar over and prevent her from howling like most Husky dogs do. So, when she heard sirens, she would throw her head back like a wolf, and woof.

 

For some reason, even though Anastasia’s rasps were barely audible, Karen Winthrop started getting really annoyed at your dog. “What the hell is that dog doing? Why is she making such a racket?”

 

You smiled, because everyone you knew thought it was cute—and, you were a little surprised she could hear your dog, as nobody else was paying any attention. “Listen, she hears sirens, and when she hears them, she tries to howl.”

 

Nobody listened but Karen Winthrop. She scowled at your words. “Would someone please shut that dog up?”

 

You grabbed Anastasia, and motioned to Deidre. The three of you walked out to your car. A light, icy mist had started, and a fog set in. For some reason, Deidre, even though she was a big girl—and you normally aren’t attracted to big girls—looked very attractive. You know, come to think of it, it had started to seem as though there might be chemistry between the two of you.

 

“I’m sorry, Deidre, but I have to leave.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Karen Winthrop is getting on my damn nerves. She’s yelling at my dog, who’s not bothering anyone, and she’s taking a stupid game of cards way too seriously. I really don’t want to be around that kind of negative energy right now.”

 

“I understand.”

 

When you got home, the phone rang.

 

“Kevin, it’s Karen. Deidre told me you left because I hurt your feelings.”

 

“No, it’s not that, I just…”

 

“Roger told me I was behaving very badly, too…” her words were slurred and slow, and she sounded like she was about to pass out.

 

“Look, I just wanted to spend this Christmas in a happy place.”

 

“I’m so sorry, Kevin. You know I would never hurt you. I want so much to be your friend. Are we friends?”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Are we friends?”

 

“Sure, Karen, yeah, we’re friends.”

 

“Good. Merry Christmas, Kevin. We are going to have a lot of fun working together, you and I, I just know it. Capiche?”

 

You’ve emptied the fridge of all of Olivia’s beer, and polished off the other half of a bottle of red wine she’d purchased a month ago and was taking forever to finish. She has a commemorative bottle of Tequila she bought when she studied abroad in Mexico, but you know better than to touch that, even when you are at your drunkest and thirstiest. Oh, look. Here is the last little bit of the homemade Kahlua from your house party sitting there in the cabinet. How on earth did you ever miss this?

 

March 30, 2001

“Is that everything?” She asks you in a voice that sounds almost sad.

 

“I’ve left some things in the space above the garage. I can come back for them, but I think I have everything I need.”

 

“What’s that in your car?”

 

“Birthday balloons. My mom sent me them to my work today. I was really embarrassed.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I guess I didn’t want anyone making a big deal about my birthday this year, and it just sort of called attention to me. I’m glad Gavi wasn’t there today, or he would have mocked me mercilessly.”

 

She grabs one of the balloons out of the car and sucks the helium out of it. “Why don’t you want anyone making a big deal about your birthday?” she asks in a squeaky, helium-pitched voice.

 

You grab one and suck on it.

 

“I just want to focus on tomorrow—I gotta fly up to Missouri, see the old home for the last time, and drive the family Taurus down.”

 

The two of you start spouting nonsense at each other in your helium voices, and have a laugh.

 

“So, this is it?” she asks.

 

“I’ll be by as many weekends as I can to see Anastasia. Maybe in a year, we can trade, and you go rent somewhere in town, and I can live out here.”

 

Her face looks doubtful. She seems ready to cry. “Want me to take you to dinner tonight?”

 

“Sure, if you’re buying. I’ll take you up on that.”

 

The two of you go to Shady Grove, and you order your favorite dish—a double helping of fried catfish covered in queso. You also order several rounds of beer.

 

“Next month, Olivia, you won’t even know me when you see me.”

 

“Why do you say that?”

 

“Because,” you say, drawing a thick drag from a menthol cigarette, “After I drive my parents’ Taurus down here, I’m going to experience a deep sadness and loss of control of my life, and crash my car trying to make a U-Turn. I will have just walked through the house I lived in for over sixteen years of my life for the last time, having just moved out of the house I bought with a lady I will later realize I took way too much for granted, but instead of coming to grips with it next week, I’m going to repress the grief of the loss of our relationship for years, and pretend that I can start an entirely new life in a studio apartment near Ahmis, quitting smoking and giving up alcohol and purchasing vegetables to cook.”

 

“But, you’re still going to own this house with me, and you’ll be coming to get Anastasia almost every week.”

 

“Well, yeah, but the rest of the week, I can pretend that I’m starting a brand new life.”

 

“But, you’re still going to be working side by side with Karen Winthrop on the Ahmis website, getting overly stressed and worked up about every little nagging thing she requires of you, and remaining good friends with people like Deidre who love to go out and party all the time.”

 

“Yeah, but I will be 25 years old starting tomorrow. I think I am ready to show you and the rest of the world what willpower and fortitude and focus I have—I’m ready to make something of myself.”

 

“We’ll see.”

 

“Olivia?”

 

“Yes, Kevin?”

 

“We’re still going to be friends, right?”

 

“Oh, of course. We will always be very good friends. We’ve shared too much together not to remain friends. We’ll still meet for lunch at least once a week at Whole Foods, and just chat—it will be like Ross and Rachel after they broke up.”

 

“You know, you’re not the only one who’s sleeping with someone new,” you say to her, hoping to provoke a little bit of jealousy, or some kind of emotional reaction.

 

“No?”

 

“Well, I’m not exactly sleeping with her now, but Deidre and I tried to do it, but I was too drunk to finish the act.”

 

“That sounds lovely.”

 

“Yeah. When we go out to a bar, she gets really hot and sexy to my eyes, the more I drink—but then, I reach a point where I’ve drank too much and I’m really no good down there, except, she’s ready to do it if I keep kissing on her.”

 

“That must make your work life pleasant.”

 

“Oh, it is. Perhaps after I spend all next month not drinking, smoking, or masturbating, I’ll be all balled up into such a twisted pile of sex energy, so that when Deidre invites me out for a few drinks, I’ll wake up in bed with her again, having attempted AGAIN, and failed to finish the act.”

 

“Nice.”

Year 3

 

May 19, 2001

And, you did exactly that. Deidre was mad at you for not finishing the act, and not offering a word of explanation. Being a big girl, she naturally assumed you didn’t find her sexy enough. It wasn’t that, of course. It’s just that you kept getting so drunk when the two of you hung out together, because it made her that much more sexy. And, you had kind of gotten used to being aroused by stimulating Olivia orally, which you certainly weren’t prepared to do to Deidre, even if she’d asked for it.

 

So, when Karen Winthrop called and asked if you wanted to go to the Ray Charles concert with Roger and her, you felt all the more like you needed to run to the arms of another Ahmis woman to hide from Deidre.

 

“What are you doing?” asks Karen on the phone.

 

“I’m totally trashing my efforts to clean up my act and live soberly by drinking this nasty sweet, bag-in-the-box wine, listening to Wilco and Billy Bragg’s ‘California Stars’ over and over again, and hitting on women in Yahoo chat rooms. I’m fantasizing about leaving Austin with my dog Anastasia and one of these women, and living in California as if I were some playboy like Brad Pitt.”

 

“Sounds like bliss. Would you like to go to a Ray Charles concert with me?”

 

“Just you?”

 

“Yes, well…Roger may come along, he may not. He hasn’t made up his mind yet.”

 

“I’m up for it. Anything to make me stop thinking about how awful I feel right now about what happened between me and Deidre.”

 

“Roger dumped me,” says Karen to you, as the three of you sit on a blanket, and Roger occupies himself with the opening blues acts. He’s calling all of them by their first names, though it’s hard to tell if he actually knows Guy, Toni, Patrice and Jimmy well enough to do so.

 

“Um, but he’s sitting right here with you, and you held hands coming into the park.”

 

“I know, but he’s told all his friends we’ve broken up—just hasn’t told me.”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that, Karen. Why would he do that?”

 

“I don’t know, but it’s tearing me apart.”

 

Roger continues to offer inside commentary on the social lives of Austin blues musicians, and waxes rhapsodic about Stevie Ray. When a female singer comes on, he excuses himself from the blanket, and runs up to the stage to convulse and spasm to the music.

 

“Does Roger know all of these people? Did he actually meet Stevie Ray?”

 

“No, sweetie, Roger moved here from Australia two years ago. He’s 100% Australian, and simply read about Austin on the internet.”

 

Karen Winthrop is really starting to seem hot to you now. Maybe, just maybe, since she and Roger are soon to no longer be an item, you could have her. Wouldn’t that be cool?

 

You work by her side all day long on the website, patiently listening to her complain about every last pixel on each page, then, you can go home with her at night a few times a week and make love to her, likely having that same critiquing voice applied to your bedroom skills.

 

It is so hot to think about, you start planning for how you will charm her into bed with you.

 

A chopper sounds overhead, lifeflighting someone in to the nearby hospital. You start to cry.

 

“Why are you crying, baby?”

 

“It’s nothing.”

 

“You can tell me.”

 

“It’s just that, when I hear choppers, especially lifeflight choppers, it reminds me of my little brother’s death.”

 

You start to cry a lot more than you’d intended, thanks to the booze knocking out some emotions you’ve kept repressed for two years. Karen puts her arms around you. She feels very cold. “There, there. Just let me hold you. How did it make you feel? Did it make you hate?”

 

“It made me hate God, but not people.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“I mean, I still think that there must be such a thing as reincarnation, because…”

 

Karen gets this dark look on her face. “Don’t ever discuss that—there is only us in the here and now, and that’s it.”

 

“Uh, okay.”

 

She goes back to holding you awkwardly, like a little girl pretending to be a mother and comforting a doll, but not exactly treating it with human empathy.

 

It feels weird, like the two of you are both faking your behavior. You thought maybe her bosoms would feel nice against you, possibly causing your pulse to quicken, but no. You want to pull away now, and Roger is standing there, looking a bit peeved that Karen has latched onto you so tightly.

 

She finally unclasps herself, goes and sits next to Roger, and rubs his back.

 

Ray Charles comes on stage, and it is now completely dark outside. You kind of just want to see Ray by yourself, this being the first time you’ve ever seen him in concert, and then go home alone. After two songs, Roger stands up.

 

“Well, I’m ready to leave,” he snaps.

 

“But Roger,” says Karen, “Ray’s just started playing.”

 

“Aw, come on. We’ve all seen Ray a million times, haven’t we? Kevin, you’ve seen him before, right?”

 

“Uh, no, but if we’re in a hurry to go…”

 

“I just need to get out of here and have a drink somewhere.”

 

So, you go, knowing you’ll never see Ray Charles perform live again, but you are too drunk to consider the fact that perhaps you could just call a cab or even walk home from here if you absolutely had to.

 

“Come on, baby, why don’t you join us?” asks Karen.

 

Karen spills her guts at a bar somewhere. You are very drunk now. Roger has gotten up to socialize with other people, and Karen confesses that she was a porn star and a call girl once, and hadn’t told Roger until very recently. You think this is very hot news, and it makes you want her even more, but you take cues from her earlier gesture of comfort, realizing it’s your turn to awkwardly put your arms around her.

 

“Everything is going to be all right, Karen Winthrop. I love you.”

 

She is very touched by this, and will remind you of this moment for years to come. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

 

June 2, 2001

Without the oasis otherwise known as your parents’ retirement home in Bastrop, you probably would have never gotten your shit together to eventually recover from the mess you were just starting to get into.

 

Sure, you left the home you owned with Olivia having $25K in credit card and car debt. And, while you were still living in that home, you drank a bottle of tequila, box of wine or twelve pack of beer almost every single night.

 

Nevertheless, the worst of the mess was yet to come. Karen Winthrop had only begun to put a number on you. Working on the documentary with Gavi was still an occasional weekend afternoon of fun—fooling around with a camera or planning Gore’s trip to Rwanda. Gore was the guy who actually got to go and film the documentary that you, Gavi and Gore will talk about producing for the next year and a half.

 

Anyway, with the stress of waking up each day hungover and having Deidre hate you for not finishing the act, and Karen ride you hard about the Ahmis website, you were beginning a phase where you frequently drove drunk, something you hadn’t done since your collegiate DWI of 1996.

 

Every other week, you drove down on a weekend morning to Oak Hill (usually sober), grabbed Anastasia from the house you owned with a woman who was bedding another man inside it (but was remarkably never there when you arrived for the dog), and drove your little Mitsubishi Mirage (whose front end you’d wrecked after returning from Missouri) out to Bastrop to do not much of anything except sit on the porch of your parents’ new home and talk to them.

 

The three of you never talked about Karen Winthrop or Ahmis or how drunk you got all the time. You never discussed Deidre or Olivia or your addiction to cigarettes, or your hopeless and endless debt. The reason your parents never discussed these things with you is because they had no idea you lived this way back in Austin.

 

You still occasionally would take a week to go running and pretend you were training for a 5K, and you held down a steady job that was now full-time, so you had something respectable to show Mom and Dad—a smokescreen to cover the fires you were starting everywhere in your life with the full intention of one day being capable of putting them out.

 

You never told them about much of any of it, because you loved this oasis out here. As long as there was the rock of Mom and Dad somewhere far away from that bubbly cauldron of chaos you called your Austin life, you could see yourself as being someone who would one day clean up your act and be a totally different person than the one the Deidres and Karen Winthrops of the world knew and said they loved.

 

The Summer of 2001 was the summer of the Endless Happy Hour, except for a few hours every two weeks out in Bastrop, where you caught your breath and asked your Mom how she was doing with making friends at her new church, and how her nursing classes were going, and how your Dad’s latest projects with ceramics or steel or planting trees were coming along.

 

The three of you could discuss things that happened in Missouri that nobody else knew about, or would care to talk about if they did. The three of you were still very much grieving the loss of Roy—time seemed to just stop the day he died. In spite of what Dr. Phil might like you to believe, you don’t ever get closure for the sudden, senseless loss of a sixteen-year-old son and brother.

 

The four-acre spread your father purchased pretty much offered the same criteria required by your father when you went looking at homes with Olivia. Only this time, the workshop was more than just a “yuppie kit” piece of corrugated metal, and the yard something big enough for a retired man to properly piddle in with several projects at once.

 

The land they bought actually had four standing buildings on it—the double-wide manufactured home that made your snobby Austin friends sneer with contempt, the giant standalone workshop garage, a Morgan building, and somebody’s bizarre alcohol-induced project, consisting of two stories: an area below for hog pens, and a floor above for a teenage makeout sofa. The last structure was supported by giant, reclaimed telephone poles, and its second story floor looked like it was going to cave in at any moment.

 

“Watch out, Kevin,” said your father, “I’m going to push this old sofa off the ledge over there, and it sounds like its full of rats.”

 

“Sure, Dad,” you said, wandering around with Anastasia, examining the areas where hogs once ate and shat.

 

The sofa landed with a crash, and all of you could now hear the raised screams of the animals inside it. Before you could stop her, Anastasia ran over, and had one of them in her mouth. It looked like a possum from the distance, judging by the long, ringed tail. Your dog gingerly carried the animal away from the messy structure, laid it on the ground and began licking it with her tongue.

 

“These are kittens!” you cried.

 

“I see that,” said your father. “Damn, just what I need, a bunch of cats running around. Maybe we should just go haul them off into the woods and do a proper country kitty killing: toss them into the creek in a garbage bag and let Mother Nature take her course.”

 

“Good idea, Dad.” You already could see the day when this place would be overrun with kittens, and you had to keep your dog tied up to prevent your parents from freaking out when Anastasia wanted to chase them. Further into the future, you could see your parents passing, and you having to decide how to dispose of dozens of critters that had become family.

 

“What’s all the noise?” cried your Mom, running up from the house.

 

“Oh, nothing,” you said.

 

“Kitties!” cried your mom. “Well, Kevin, since you screwed up your best chance at producing grandkids for me, these little things are going to become my surrogate grandbabies.”

 

“I don’t think Dad wants to keep them. Maybe we should just have them euthanized.”

 

“We will never do such a thing!” cried your Mom, who always argued in favor of preserving the lives of all living things no matter what the cost, with the exception of death row inmates and radical Islamicists.

 

And with that, your parents adopted a new family that would only grow and grow for years to come.

 

The Summer of 2001

 

“You know, Karen Winthrop,” you say to her a week after you tell her you love her, and that everything is going to be all right, “I really can’t afford to spend the summer of the endless happy hour. I have over $10K in credit card debt, and owe almost as much on my car. Since I’ve only gotten the teeniest of raises at Ahmis for all the hard work I’ve done with you while chain-smoking cigarettes and churning out endlessly impractical ideation, I honestly am barely able to pay my bills right now.”

 

“I understand, sweetie,” she says to you, “why don’t you have another Guinness? They are really good when they are served from the tap instead of the bottle.”

 

“That actually sounds like a fine idea. And, maybe tomorrow, we can go to the Alligator Grill and have $8 foo-foo drinks, and I’ll order four or five Long Island Iced Teas. The day after that, we can have happy hour at Baby A’s, and I’ll order four purple margaritas.”

 

“And,” says Perry, one of the friends who will be with you during the summer of the endless happy hour, “don’t forget countless Mexican Martinis at the Cedar Door, and our night of chicken wings at Buffalo Wild Wings and those giant 24 ounce glasses of Lone Star beer.”

 

“Oh, oh, guys, guys,” says Deidre, “You must remember that we should hit Curra’s for multiple rounds of Avocado Margaritas, too.”

 

“Lest we not forget that this is the Live Music Capital of the World,” chimes in Karen, “We should finish the night at some bar where they still attempt to play Austin-y sounding music—like the Saxon Pub. I dig rock musician types, and would like to pick up a different one every single week.”

 

“You guys are really talking some sense into my head. There for a minute, I was almost going to just finish my beer and walk back to my apartment from the Saloon here, but now I see that we really have our work cut out for us. I need to prove to Olivia that I can be just as sociable as she.”

 

“Hey gang,” says Brock, Karen Winthrop’s current best friend, who works in the office with you. He is the Ahmis Systems Admin, and he is gay. “Don’t forget about Oil Can Harry’s. They have free taco night, pool tables, and lots of yummy dancing with boys AND girls. There’s also the Boys Cellar, and some great Tapas bars on 4th Street that are more trendy than anything you all have mentioned.”

 

“I have an idea,” you say, “why should we spread all these wonderful places out across multiple nights? Why don’t we try to go out each night and hit as many bars and restaurants that serve strong drinks as we possibly can? I want to try to see which bottoms out first—my credit cards or my liver.”

 

“That sounds like a fabulous idea,” says Brock. “Let’s go dancing.”

 

You put your arms around Karen Winthrop at Oil Can Harry’s, and rub your body close behind hers. You are certain that this is exactly what she wants. Except, it’s not.

 

“Sweetie, what are you doing?”

 

“Um, nothing, Karen, just dancing.”

 

“Just dancing?”

 

“Yeah. We’re in a gay bar, and there are lots of pretty girls in here, and I want to dance. First, I’ll dance with you and try to sex you up, and if that doesn’t take, I’ll hopefully have worked up enough confidence to dance with one of them.”

 

“You don’t actually think that there can ever be anything romantic between us, do you?”

 

“Uh…no, no. I just want to be your friend, or like a brother to you. Yeah.”

 

“My brother. I like that. You are going to be my brother for life. You understand that, Kevin? We will never part ways. What you said to me the night of the Ray Charles concert touched me so deep inside, and once a bond like that is made, it can never be broken. Capiche?”

 

You have had a few more drinks at Oil Can’s, and are ready to say anything to Karen to make her love you.

 

“Capiche.”

 

A little later in the night, you are almost ready to tell Karen how much you love her and want to be her boyfriend.

 

“Hey, Karen, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

 

“What’s that, Kevin?”

 

“You and I, we should…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“The two of us, together, as one…should start our own web design business!”

 

“That’s a great idea, Kevin! We have so much experience now, after I rode you so hard to redesign the Ahmis home page a thousand times, and everyone still hated it!”

 

You get so drunk you accidentally leave behind your credit card at one bar a week, and Karen, true to her word, picks up a different guy each week.

 

Dennis, another endless summer happy hour regular, has an idea:

 

“Let’s all go tubing!”

 

Why not? It gets boring either drinking bag-in-a-box wine by yourself in your apartment every Sunday evening while hitting on women in Yahoo chatrooms, and drinking beer with the gang playing trivia and eating wings every Tuesday, and drinking foo-foo drinks and Long Islands with the gang and eating $.20 cocktail shrimp at the Alligator Grill every Thursday, and drinking Long Islands or shots of Bourbon with the gang and doing Karaoke at the Common Interest every Friday, and drinking Manhattan’s and smoking pot at Gavi’s new bar and watching heavy metal bands every Saturday, and drinking foo-foo drinks and playing pool and dancing with the gay men of Ahmis at Oil Can’s every Wednesday, and drinking pint after pint of Guinness and playing darts with the gang at Mother Egan’s every Monday, and trying to do all of these things in one night on any given day of the week that you and the gang feel up to it—it gets boring being drunk in Austin, so let’s go get drunk on the Guadalupe River and lie in rubber donuts for three hours, getting scorched by the sun, and losing our inner tubes and getting banged up when we go over the falls and discovering that the rest of the gang has all gone downstream except for Brock, Karen’s best friend and roommate and Ahmis’ very gay IT guy.

 

“You know, Kevin,” says Brock, after the two of you commandeer someone else’s inner tube, and ride it together downstream to catch up with the gang, “I have a confession to make.” You are riding belly down on the tube, and Brock is riding half on the tube, half on your ass.

 

“What’s that, Brock?”

 

“I think you’re really cute. In fact, my boyfriend Mike and I both think you’re pretty cute. And, we were wondering if you’d like to join us for a threesome, just us guys.”

 

“Gosh, Brock,” you say, “I’m terribly flattered. I mean, on one hand, I haven’t had anyone all that interested in me since Olivia, my ex, faked it believably enough almost a year ago—unless you count Deidre, but that turned out to be a horrible drunken mess for both of us. But, on the other hand, I am not really interested in participating in homosexual activities, outside of dancing with y’all at Oil Can’s to prove to the world how secure I am in my manhood.”

 

“I understand. And, I respect your candor. You just seemed like you might be the kind of guy who could swing both ways, given the right opportunity.”

 

“And, I see why you would see that. However, I am what’s known as a man manqué, of which some gays, bis, lesbians, boys, and even sometimes dogs are subsets of—we are all creatures who pretend to be real men, but are not. But…but, males who are primitives or proto-men–ie, they possess no real adjustment to their bodies and their environments—are also men manqués.”

 

“So, you’re primitive like a caveman or someone who is socially retarded? I don’t think so. You have fairly advanced social skills, as far as I can tell.”

 

“But, that’s the thing. A primitive man manqué has learned to mimic other members of the manherd, who are highly advanced in their manly training—enough to fool them and progress along a career path more or less at the same time. But, on the inside, he is really just a beginner. Like, the difference between the kid who has learned to drive the family car around the block, and the dude who can street race his nitrous-oxide fueled V8 muscle car around all different kinds of obstacles, and not crash it, and not get caught by the police.”

 

“Ah, hmmm. Well, Kevin, best of luck with that. If you change your mind, just let me or Mike know. We are always up for discreet threesomes with the boys.”

 

Karen Winthrop and most of the gang are at the inner tube pickup point, waiting for you and Brock.

 

“Okay, we’re ready to head back upstream,” she says to the bus driver.

 

“Um, Karen, didn’t you bring a guy—some random dude you’d just met in a bar last week—down here with us? Shouldn’t we wait for him to join the group before we head out?”

 

“Naw, I saw him flirting with some much younger ladies over there. If that’s what he wants, they can give him a ride back to Austin. Besides, he’s not in a band.”

 

You’ve left your car at Karen Winthrop’s, and as she says her goodbyes to you, a pickup truck comes screeching up to her driveway as if the driver is going to toss a Molotov cocktail out the window, or do a drive-by job on the two of you.

 

“That wasn’t too cool, Karen Winthrop, leaving me back there on the river. One thing you never do is leave behind your friends.”

 

He speeds off.

 

You turn to Karen, and say, “What a loser, he had it coming.” Now, you think, she can focus on the one man she really needs in her life.

 

“Say, Kevin. Would you like to stay over and sleep together? No sex, just a sexy boss and her employee, her colleague, crashing in her bed and spooning through the night. Co-ed friends in other cultures do it all the time.”

 

“Yes, Karen, I sure would.”

 

You tried with all your might not to try anything with her, and you woke up feeling very weird. Would a real man have just said, fuck it, and tried to sex her up, and risked losing his job and reputation as a nice guy? The fact you even asked the question betrays how utterly and completely you were a man manqué in those days.

 

July 4, 2001

“Do you think that’s going to be enough beer?” asks Karen Winthrop, eyeing the six four-packs of Murphy’s Stout and Guinness, and the four six-packs of Lone Star tallboys that you and Dennis are bringing out to her car.

 

You all are meeting up with some of Dennis’ and Deidre’s friends, as well as Mike and Brock, at McKinney Falls.

 

“Well, Karen,” you say, “I’m sure we can grab some more later on if we need to.”

 

“Okay, Sweetie, just be sure to ice them down good. Want to get started?”

 

“Uh, isn’t it against the law for the passenger to be drinking one while we’re driving around?”

 

“Just keep it down low when we’re at traffic lights. Put mine in a coozy.”

 

“Oh man, I forgot my smokes.”

 

“Have one of mine, Baby.” she gives you one of her thin little pieces of paper she calls a cigarette. You begin puffing like crazy as you ride shotgun shirtless in Karen Winthrop’s aging Honda.

 

“I wonder if she thinks I’m hot with my shirt off?” you ask yourself, eyeing your paunchy, hairy belly. You still kind of have the remains of a bicep from three summers ago when you worked out all the time. “I bet after I start swimming around in the water, my biceps will get tight, and Karen will dig me.”

 

You all get properly sunburnt, drunk and dehydrated before deciding to move the show over to Bull Creek.

 

“Y’all never had a good old-fashioned, drunken creek hike, have you?” asks Karen Winthrop.

 

The gang and friends of the gang are now moving up Bull Creek away from the families celebrating the fourth by the park entrance; and you standing in water that is turning you to prunes as you lazily throw down your tenth beer. It’s been so long since you started drinking, that you don’t even feel all that drunk, just kind of sunburnt, waterlogged, and lousy.

 

Back at the Bull Creek parking lot, a middle-aged man has inserted his brand new Toyota 4X4 in between some families, and is blasting out the alternative rock radio station he thinks all the young kids listen to. Karen Winthrop ditches you in favor of him, and begins flirting with him.

 

Everyone else finds a ride home, and you go off and mope for awhile.

 

“Kevin, want to come to the Shady Grove with us and throw back some Long Islands?”

 

“Yeah, sure, Karen. I can’t get enough of watching you meet and pick up men every time we go out.”

 

This fellow is nice and respectful enough, which means that he probably won’t last more than a night with Karen.

 

Some time around 2 AM, you discover you are very drunk, almost to the point of being sick, and Karen Winthrop, who is also pretty trashed, has taken to sloppily arguing with the fellow some “man vs. woman” kind of point. That’s usually what turns her off from these men—they all end up being men who do not want to put up with Karen Winthrop’s shit, and she takes it as being misogyny.

 

“Come on Kevin, we’re leaving. Do you want LeRoy here to bring you back to my place?”

 

“Well, that is where I left my car.”

 

“Maybe we’ll hang out again,” says LeRoy, as he drops the two of you off.

 

“We’ll see,” says Karen Winthrop. “Sweetie, you are in no shape to drive, why don’t you come in and sleep in my bed with me?”

 

You are in no shape to drive, but feel like complete ass after going to bed with this woman who will never put out for you, and is so nasty to the men she does put out for.

 

July 13, 2001

Fortunately, God had prepared for you, along with the little oasis of your parents’ home, a new lady at Ahmis who was the same age as you and is nothing like Olivia, Deidre or Karen Winthrop. You thought she was pretty cute when you squinted at her from a distance, and liked the fact that she was ballsy enough to wear a Ralph Nader shirt after the 2000 election.

 

“Hey Vera,” you said to her one day.

 

“Yes, Kevin?”

 

“Callie tells me you might be interested in going out with me some time.”

 

“I might be, what did you have in mind?”

 

“Well, really, it’s all pretty much going to be the same to me when I look back on this summer—just one drinking binge after the other. I mean, honestly, I could just take you back to my place and we can get tanked on cheap, bag-in-the-box wine until we’re both senseless and naked.”

 

“I’m an Austin native,” said Vera, “There might be a few places I know about that you and your gang haven’t gotten drunk at yet.”

 

So, the two of you go to a little dive bar on South 1st  called something like the S&M or D&D (where the owner/bartender will throw you out if you stand too close to his beer fridge and South Austin hipsters sneer at you from their pool cues), and she almost drinks you under the table.

 

Almost…she matches you beer for beer anyway. Vera’s a pretty big girl. She’s not quite as fat as Deidre, but she’s got some big bones and some muscle on those bones. You end up back at your place, and she doesn’t want to do it.

 

“Thank God,” you say to her as the two of you pass out on your little futon bed inside your tiny studio apartment.

 

“Why do you say that?” she asks.

 

“Well, I was afraid I’d end up with another situation on my hands where I was too drunk to really perform well, and had to exit and crawl off of you before I finished the act. Then you’d hate my guts and make my work environment more uncomfortable than it already is, if that were possible.”

 

“We’ll take it slow, Kevin. The next time I see you, we’ll meet at my place instead, and I’ll just try to suck your face off for about an hour, then we can do it a week later when you’re comfortable enough around me not to need too much booze (no more than, say, a bottle of wine), and I feel confident enough about letting you see me naked after I’ve smoked enough weed to kill Willie Nelson.”

 

“Gosh, Vera, I am so lucky to have found you. You’re a rare find, indeed.”

 

And, you were lucky, because now you had an excuse not to go spend all your money, run up the last of your credit (which was dangerously approaching its limits), and end up waking up next to Karen Winthrop after she told you all night that the two of you were siblings for life (while you painfully suppressed your taut erections).

 

You woke up that first morning after spending the night in Vera’s bed (and you felt compelled to do more with her than just spoon, AND you weren’t too drunk to finish the act).  You thought you’d feel a lot better about it. However, she liked to keep the sheets and the bottom blanket tucked tightly into the mattress, and so you had to move your body all askew just to keep your feet from feeling like their circulation was getting cut off. Then, she demanded that you spoon with her all night, even when things got unbearably hot, and your spine felt like it was going to collapse into mush.

 

August 18, 2001

“Maybe you can stay a while longer, and we can do it all morning,” says Vera to you. It is the third Saturday morning you’ve woken up next to her. She smells funny, her hair is all stringy and sweaty, her skin is covered in eczema patches and hairy spots, and you feel like you are tethered to a shapeless blob of questionably feminine flesh. This is Morning Vera, the girlfriend you are seeing at your most alert and sober. Her face has no makeup, and it’s already catching wrinkles and crevices, breaking out in places and oily and grimy in others.

 

She is smiling so sweetly at you, and you can clearly see that this woman has fallen madly in love with you—wants you in a lustful, greedy sort of way that you are not feeling in the least bit like reciprocating.

 

With Olivia, you had morning wood almost every single morning, and she almost never acted turned on enough to do it. You feel around down there, and discover that your stuff is quite cold and shriveled, begging you not to arouse it.

 

“Um, I was actually going to get started on some website design ideas I have with Karen.”

 

“Maybe we could just do it one time,” she says, leaning into you with a big open maw that reeks of morning breath.

 

You’d promised yourself that you were going to try harder to make this relationship work. And, you were afraid of becoming absorbed by Karen Winthrop to the point where you had no identity of your own.

 

So, you close your eyes, and begin jamming your tongue into her mouth. Vera seems to like this a lot. Nothing is moving down there, though. You kiss on her harder. Still nothing. You imagine you are sexing up Karen Winthrop. Boing! You are ready for business in a matter of seconds.

 

Vera sighs happily as you collapse into her flesh.

 

The Endless Summer Happy Hour Continues

You’d sabotaged your decent-paying state job, happy relationship, and attractive home a year ago because all of these things were robbing you of your freedom.  But, for some strange reason, the more you pursued freedom with the happy hour gang and Vera, the more constricted and smothered you felt.

 

The endless happy hour gang got really efficient with its drinking activities. You knew the three or four bars to hit each night, and you knew exactly what drinks to order, and which bands to see on the rare occasions live music mattered.

 

“Guys,” said Karen Winthrop one night. “We really need to take this up a notch. I mean, as much as I like getting drunk and picking up new men who play in bands that will never be signed by any major label, and as much as I enjoy Kevin’s karaoke stylings, and Perry groping me, and Dennis telling stories about times he got drunk with people we don’t know, and Deidre creating a weird sexual tension between you guys when she comes along—as much as I absolutely love sticking with the summer program, I should mention something Kevin said to me when this was all just getting off the ground.”

 

“What’s that, Karen?” you asked, expecting to hear for the fifteen-thousandth time how you’d told her how much you loved her right after Roger dumped her, but it was a brotherly sort of love, and you were both going to be siblings for eternity.

 

“Well, you’d mentioned that you’d almost run your debt clean into bankruptcy. Now, we can’t let you go out to the land of being the angry, dry drunk—who is harassed by creditors—with only a sad little drunken whimper, can we? We need to book a trip to Cozumel! The entire gang plus anyone else at Ahmis that wants to come!”

 

“What’s Cozumel?”

 

“It’s a Mexican hot spot that’s much cooler to go to than Cancun, that’s what it is.”

 

“Let’s go!” you all shouted.

 

“Let’s all go tonight!” shouted Perry.

 

You all looked at him, and then laughed. “Ha, ha, Perry, we’re not THAT crazy!”

 

There were about five or six of you that night who agreed that some time in mid-September, after Labor Day, you were going to blow out the endless happy hour summer of 2001 with a getaway that would shut Ahmis down all week.

 

You, Kevin Smiley, had no idea how you would afford it, but you didn’t think it was the time to show anyone how uncool you were by saying no to  drunken ideas put forth by the happy hour gang.

 

You all brought your plan back to the less-cool Ahmis people who weren’t there to agree how wonderful this idea was.

 

“I’m up for it!” chimed in another half dozen people.

 

“Come on, Kevin,” said Karen, pulling you into her office. “We need to find a travel package that these poor slobs who don’t make shit here at Ahmis can afford. Let’s devote at least three days to debating the merits of various packages by printing them all out on ream after ream of paper and poring over them in the break area while sucking down cigarette after cigarette.”

 

For each day you look, two people come up with an excuse as to why they really can’t get away.

 

“I mean, it sounded good and all that night,” says mannish, short-haired Kathryn, who drinks beer with you guys while her long-haired, effeminate boyfriend drinks cosmos, “but George and I realized we made plans this September to fly up to Las Vegas and meet his mom there for Cher’s eleventh final show.”

 

“You thought I was being serious?” cries Perry. “I prefer to spend all of my money on booze and weed, and unlike you guys, I had my big debt blowout three years ago, and couldn’t get a credit card these days to save my soul.”

 

“Gosh, guys, I’m really sorry,” says Deidre, “but my new boyfriend wants to take me to Abilene to meet HIS folks the weekend after Labor Day. I haven’t been to Abilene in at least a month.”

 

Others chime in with excuses of family, boyfriends, girlfriends, pets, money problems. It seems as if nobody wants to fly out of the country next month.

 

“That’s okay, you all,” says Dennis, “Karen, Kevin and I are still going, and so is my best friend Sven. A foursome is a nice number for a getaway like this. Too many people would have made things especially complicated and cumbersome.”

 

“I don’t see why it needs to be complicated at all” says your relatively new girlfriend Vera to you a little bit later. “Just get an all-inclusive plan. That’s what I did when I went to Jamaica.”

 

“What’s an all-inclusive plan?”

 

“You get your airfare, hotel, and food all paid for. You get someone from the hotel to shuttle you out there. Lots of entertainment at the resort, and all the food and drinks you can fit in you.”

 

“You mean, ALL of the alcohol is paid for?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“ALL of the booze you can stand?”

 

“Did I stutter?”

 

“Why don’t you come with us, Vera? You’re my girlfriend. We could have a lot of fun at a resort—we get our own room, and let the others go off and do their own thing…”

 

“No, Kevin, I can’t afford to right now. I just went to Jamaica with Sally, my supercute, hot skinny roommate and best friend—the one that you’ve done such a wonderful job of not noticing when she comes into the room in her pajamas to smoke weed with me.”

 

“Oh. Right.”

 

You go back upstairs to the web page Karen is looking at.

 

“Here, honey. I’ve found us a hotel that has three stars, and has a view of the ocean.”

 

“That’s $1250 dollars after adding on the cost of the plane ticket, though, Karen. Go to this site. Vera just told me about it. She used to work at a travel company. All-inclusives sound like the way to go.”

 

“Oh, hell, honey, I don’t want to do some kind of club med bullshit.”

 

“I don’t have $1250 to spend on hotel and airfare—and heck, that doesn’t even include the food and booze. All I want to do on this trip anyway is just sit by the pool and get drunk.”

 

“Sweetie, we can go to the South Austin Motel if we want to do that.”

 

“I’m just saying—look! Look at that! Here’s one in Jamaica—$650—airfare, resort, food, drinks—all paid for—and a day trip out to Dunn’s River Falls at no extra charge, plus a shopping shuttle into town on the hour.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

“Guys,” says Dennis, “I have some unfortunate news. Sven, my best friend, the one that was hitting on Karen that one night we went out? He’s decided to cancel.”

 

“Really?” you cry, wondering if it is going to really be worth it to go at all with just the three of you. “And, what was his excuse?”

 

“His excuse?” asks Dennis. “He doesn’t need one since he doesn’t have to look any of us in the eye after promising to go. He just doesn’t feel like going.”

 

“No, really, what was his excuse?”

 

“I think he realized that Karen wasn’t going to give in to his advances the last night he went out drinking with us. He’s not going to spend hundreds of dollars to travel to a Caribbean island if he’s not got a guaranteed hook-up chick traveling with him.”

 

“I thought Sven was very spiritual.”

 

“All that meditating gives you a serious sexual appetite.”

 

“Well, Karen and Dennis,” you say, decisively, “I’m going to go ahead and purchase this all inclusive package to Jamaica. Are we agreed that this is where we want to go and what we want to do?”

 

“Sure!” says Dennis.

 

“Yeah, honey, that’s fine, I guess.” says Karen Winthrop.

 

September 10, 2001

“Kevin, it’s Gavi. We need to have a meeting about the movie.”

 

“Oh, hi Gavi, isn’t it your birthday?”

 

“I’m NOT celebrating my birthday this year. Why don’t you come on down to my new bar and have some drinks and smoke some pot with me, and after I’ve completely ignored you for an hour while trying to show these bands how cool I am, we can talk about the movie.”

 

“You know, I’d really love to, Gavi, but Vera, my girlfriend, wants to spend a quiet evening on her porch sipping wine, smoking mentholated cigarettes, and then going back inside and having neatly choreographed, highly efficient sex before watching Letterman and Conan.”

 

“Oh, I see. So, you’re whipped, huh? You know, you should bring Vera down to the bar. Is she pretty?”

 

“Uh…yeah, sure. I’ll bring her by soon.”

 

“Okay, I’m going to remember this conversation for months and needle you about it, Kevin, okay?”

 

“Sure thing, Gavi.”

 

You arrive at Vera’s.

 

“You’re late, did you get held up at the office with Karen?” asks Vera in a tone of voice that sounds like it could be authentic jealousy.

 

“Naw, Gavi called and wanted me to come by his bar and talk some more about the movie.”

 

“But you told him we’d planned this as our night, right?”

 

“Oh, yes, Vera, of course.”

 

“Good. Then let’s get down to business. You can open the wine.”

 

“You know,” you say to her as the two of you sit outside on her porch, sipping a Chilean Cabernet, eating sushi, and smoking menthol lights, “today, my little brother Roy would be turning eighteen were he still alive. He’d be having his Senior year, and then go off to college. Man, but time flies.”

 

“You miss him, don’t you?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“I miss my Grandpa. He died of old age in his sleep at the age of 92. I cried for months.”

 

“That’s sad, too, and kind of like losing your kid brother in a freak car accident, I guess.”

 

“Oh, it’s quite sad. Come, though. Let’s make ourselves happy by crawling into my bed naked and having efficient sex, then watching Letterman and Conan.”

 

“Sounds like a plan.”

 

September 11, 2001

 

“So, in light of what happened,” says the travel agent, “The airlines are canceling flights this week.”

 

“But it’s Jamaica Airlines!” you cry, exasperated. “Who wants to terrorize them?”

 

“Doesn’t matter. FAA regulations.”

 

“Crap. You’d think people had never seen a few planes hijacked and buildings blown up before. Can we get our money back or maybe get a flight out next week?”

 

“Well, you can’t get more than 30% of your money refunded. I’ll see what I can do about getting a new package for you guys the following week. Just keep in mind that the FAA may not have lifted restrictions, depending on what they find out about the terrorists.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Stay in touch.”

 

You tell Karen and Dennis the news.

 

“Maybe we should just cancel,” says Dennis.

 

“I’m okay with that,” says Karen. “But, I’m open to next week if something comes up, too.”

 

Thirty minutes later, the travel agency calls you back. “If you each want to pay $200 more, I can get you a similar Jamaican package next week.”

 

“What do you think guys?” you ask.

 

“I think we should do it,” Karen says, “We haven’t come this far just to back out because of what a few terrorists did.”

 

“Yeah, I’m in,” says Dennis.

 

“Great!” you say. “I think we are doing the right thing. We’ll show those terrorists what real Americans are made of by flying to Jamaica and staying drunk on the beach for three days while the Jamaican peoples wait on us hand and foot. Let’s go celebrate this decision by not canceling our Tuesday night of wings and trivia, either, and drink lots of beer, and watch the planes hit the WTC towers over and over again on their monitors that ordinarily show sports while we listen to Van Halen in the jukebox, and I KICK YOUR ASSES AT TRIVIA!”

 

“Rock on!” cries Perry, Deidre and Kathryn, hearing the good news. “Tuesday night wings, beer and trivia!”

 

“You know, Dennis,” you say to Dennis later, after everyone is stumbling back to their cars or off to more bars, “I certainly wouldn’t say no if Karen Winthrop invited me up to her room, or even wanted to share a room with me in Jamaica. Maybe, being away from the gang in Austin and Ahmis, she just might get a little frisky.”

 

“Maybe,” says Dennis. “I won’t object if she invites me up to her room, either.”

 

Jamaica, 2001

You are going to be boarding a flight from Houston International Airport on Jamaican airlines at 6 AM, the Thursday after 9-11. The boarding pass and the FAA say that all international travelers must arrive two hours prior to departure time. You booked a hotel room near the airport for you, Karen Winthrop and Dennis; and you all agree that if you leave work a little early that Wednesday, you’ll beat rush hour traffic, arrive at the hotel in time for dinner and an early lights out for your 3:30 AM wakeup call. It sounds like a nice, sensible, responsible, adult-like plan—the kind of plan a man would make, so you make this plan.

 

But, you are a man manqué. You are not running the show.

 

Wednesday, 4 PM

“You boys can go ahead and run on out to my place and I’ll meet you there. I have some last minute packing to do, then I can drive us to Houston.”

 

Dennis gets his suitcase out of his car. You have your backpack crammed full in the backseat of your car, next to your Panama Hat. You put the hat on, and begin your vacation.

 

“Dennis, since Karen’s not going to be done with work for another hour, let’s stop at the Saxon Pub for a beer and play some Golden Tee.”

 

“That seems like a fine way to start a vacation, Kevin.”

 

After having two beers each, and arriving at Karen Winthrop’s house, you find she is still not there yet.

 

“Sorry, boys, I got hung up in traffic. It’s really vicious out there right now. Why don’t we go ahead and wait until after seven before we leave? We can have some dinner here, have a few beers, and still arrive at our hotel in time to catch some z’s before we have to be at the airport.”

 

“But, Karen. Don’t you think it would be better to go ahead and get on the road so we’ll have plenty of rest by tomorrow morning? And, who knows what airport security is going to be like right now.”

 

“Sweetie, do you want to drive? I’ll be happy to let you get us out in all that Austin traffic, if you want to go now.”

 

“No, Karen, that’s okay.”

 

“Good, let’s start our vacation.” She proceeds to rapidly catch up with you and Dennis by chugging three cold bottles of beer. “Oh, shit,” she says, “I still need to pack. You boys feel free to have another beer.”

 

At 8 PM, you and Dennis are helping Karen load all of her luggage into…your car.

 

“Sweetie, I think I’m a little to drunk to drive,” she says, after you’ve had two more beers, bringing your total to four. “Can you drive?”

 

“Sure, Karen.”

 

“Good! Then, I’m going to run back inside, and fill an ice chest full of beer, so Dennis and I can get sloppy drunk while you drive us to Houston.”

 

At around eleven pm, you realize you have been on the interstate a little too long, and are rapidly approaching downtown Houston.

 

“But, there was clearly an exit on the map!” you cry, since you’d originally agreed to be the navigator, and nobody else has bothered to look at the map since you took over as driver.

 

“That’s okay, Sweetie. Let’s pull off the freeway into one of these rundown little gas stations here in Houston’s Fifth Ward.”

 

“Gosh, I don’t know, Karen,” says Dennis, “This is supposed to be one of the most crime and poverty-ridden parts of Houston.”

 

“But, I have to pee, and we need directions.”

 

“We have no bathrooms,” says the man at the first gas station. “They are broken. To get to the airport, get back on the freeway and go back the way you just came.”

 

“That man is a Pakastani who hates women that wear shorts,” says Karen, as the three of you walk across the street. “This gas station owner appears to be Persian. I’ll pee here.”

 

An albino African American walks up to you and asks you if you would like to buy crack.

 

“No thanks,” you say. “I only smoke Marlboro Menthol Lights, and sometimes Karen Winthrop’s paper-thin girlie cigarettes.”

 

She walks back out to your car.

 

“I guess I’ll just have to hold it.”

 

“How did you know the nationalities of the two gas station owners?” you ask Karen.

 

“My best friend in college was Persian. I can just tell. Usually. Turns out the other gas station owner was Pakastani, too, and didn’t like my hoochie mama shorts, either.”

 

Thursday, slightly after midnight

The three of you arrive at the hotel slightly after midnight. You plop down on one bed, and Karen leaps into the other bed beside Dennis.

 

“Kevin, you can try to sleep for the next three and a half hours, but Dennis and I are going to carry on an inane conversation about how much I’d like to go explore those woods across the street, and laugh and make lots of noise.”

 

“Thanks, Karen. I’m going to at least pretend to sleep, because I’d like to believe that you are no longer getting on my nerves, even though you are.”

 

Six hours later, on the flight to Jamaica, you have a nice conversation with an older gentleman who is returning to his country after working in the US for a number of years. Jamaicans are quite pleasant, you think. I am going to enjoy getting to know the native peoples of this country.

 

“Would you like champagne, sir?” asks the Jamaican flight attendant of the Jamaican airlines.

 

“Of course.”

 

At the all-inclusive resort, you all arrive early, and wait in an open air lobby with your luggage.

 

“Let’s get started,” says Dennis.

 

“What are you drinking?”

 

“Rumrunners.”

 

“That will work for me.”

 

Karen spends some time at the nearby bar, then comes back. “He said they’re not supposed to take tips, but he took my two dollars, anyway.”

 

“Two dollars?” you ask, sipping your sugary sweet purple drink from its tiny plastic cup.

 

“Well, we are getting the drinks for free, so I’m going to tip everyone handsomely, and make you feel guilty if you don’t.”

 

“Jesus, Karen. If I tip two dollars per drink, I’ll spend all the rest of my money tonight.”

 

“Honey, do you need to borrow some money? You can pay me back.”

 

“No, I’m just going to go get my drinks from other bars around the resort where you can’t see me tip them nothing.”

 

“Okay. So boys, it looks like our rooms have opened up. I’ll take the one above you and you two can share one. How does that sound?”

 

It is now three rumrunners later. You are about to pass out from exhaustion, dehydration and a medium-strength booze buzz. Having a room away from Karen sounds excellent.

 

“Dude, go look at your face.”

 

You finish unpacking some of your stuff, and walk into the bathroom. The rum runners and Jamaican heat have caused you to have a giant purple birthmark-type splotch all up and down the side of your face.

 

“What does it mean?” you ask, having never seen this happen to your face before.

 

“It means you’re allergic to rumrunners.”

 

“Or Jamaica.” You have no idea.

 

Friday, 9 AM, Jamaican Time

“Wow, that grass skirt performance last night was terrible,” says Karen. “Let’s go find out when the shuttle to Dunn’s River Falls leaves.”

 

“It left an hour ago,” says the concierge.

 

“An hour ago? What kind of lushes at an all-inclusive resort get up that early?”

 

“It takes awhile to get there, ma’am, especially with a large group of people. You might be able to find a driver in Montego Bay. We have a shopping shuttle leaving in half an hour.”

 

“Okay,” says Karen, “We’ll take the shopping shuttle…assuming you guys still want to see Dunn’s River Falls?”

 

“Yeah, yeah!” you and Dennis chimed.

 

Half of your own self just wanted to stay at the resort and try out the swim up bar, then the British Bar, then the Tahiti Bar, then come full circle back to the lobby bar and finish the day off with some rumrunners, passing out, and waking up much later for a dinner and more booze, along with whatever club med entertainment the resort happened to provide.

 

But, your other half wanted to continue the progress of the summer of the endless happy hour, which dictated that you be up for anything the gang suggests, even if it was just Karen Winthrop calling the shots.

 

The three of you went inside a place the hotel shuttle driver recommended, where you sat and had coffee and tried to get in touch with an island driver who would take just the three of you to Dunn’s River Falls, mostly for the cost of whatever tips he could charm out of you.

 

“Oh, yeah mon, we’s got you a good driver, his name’s Dennis.”

 

My name’s Dennis!” cried Dennis.

 

“Excellent, mon. He’ll be along shortly. You can wait here, or go out and do some shopping.”

 

“I’m gonna do some shopping!” cried Dennis, and promptly left to find someone to sell him weed.

 

“I’m just going to step out and look around,” you said, already tiring of Karen Winthrop, though she’d hardly opened her mouth yet that morning.

 

“Hey mon!” cried the first man who greeted you when you stepped out of the cafe. “Do you want to find your friend?”

 

“Sure, where did he go?”

 

“Over there, mon! Would you be interested in buying some handcarved bowls? How about some find tooled leather goods? Mon, let me interest you in some jewelry for the lady friend.”

 

“Uh, maybe,” you said, smiling politely, “I would like to just see where my friend went.”

 

“Right this way, mon.”

 

With a flourish, he summoned a young boy who brought him a cheap, beaded necklace. “What do you think, mon?”

 

“Uh, it’s nice, how much is it?”

 

“2000 Jamaican dollars.”

 

You see that Karen is now walking up behind you with a tall man in a polo and khakis. “Uh, Karen, what’s the conversion rate here, do you know?”

 

She turns to the man, who must be your driver. “He says $45 Jamaican for every American dollar.”

 

You try to do the math in your head, which really isn’t prepared to do math. “So, that’s what—$50 US for this necklace? Forget it.”

 

“Handmade, mon.”

 

“Too much.”

 

“1800 Jamaican dollars.”

 

While he’s talking, you suddenly realize you have no Jamaican money, so you excuse yourself and go inside a private ATM, withdrawing 8000 Jamaican dollars.

 

The man is still standing there when you get out.

 

“Kevin, have you seen Dennis?”

 

“This guy was going to show me. Where’s my friend?”

 

“Over there, mon.” he points to an alley of merchant tents off of the main street, and sneaks up behind you, putting the necklace around your neck and clasping it. “1500 Jamaican dollars, mon.”

 

You feel extremely violated. You were just about to purchase it at $1800 Jamaican, and then he had to go and put it around your neck, presuming you would just give in.

 

“Take it off,” you say through clenched teeth.

 

“Hey guys, what’s up?” cries Dennis.

 

“I want this necklace off of me,” you say, fumbling with the clasp behind your neck, completely unfamiliar with jewelry.

 

“Are you our driver, Dennis?”

 

“Yeah, mon. You must be Dennis. I’ll be Dennis #2.”

 

“No, you be Dennis, #1. I’ll be Dennis #2.”

 

“Take this off of me, NOW!” you cry, practically in tears.

 

“Fine, mon, you don’t have to cry about it. See, there’s your friend.”

 

You sulk off with your traveling companions, and the driver Dennis.

 

“Kevin, what did that guy want?” asks Dennis #2, your traveling companion and Ahmis colleague.

 

“He was showing you how they do business down here, Sweetie,” says Karen.

 

“Is there a problem, mon?” asks Dennis #1, your driver.

 

“No, no problem. Are we going to Dunn’s River Falls, or what?”

 

“Well, mon, Karen and I have worked out a deal, but she wanted me to make sure you guys were okay with it, too.”

 

The “deal” would cost you about a third of your money, but you decided it would be worth it one day to do something away from the resort, and then you could totally take advantage of the all-inclusive package tomorrow.

 

“Sure, let’s do it.”

 

The three of you get into a standard mini-van that has been outfitted like any airport shuttle you’d see in the U.S. You feel a bit more at ease once the four of you are on the road, and you can view Jamaica from the vantage point of what appears to be a reasonably safe spot.

 

It’s not as if you didn’t know that being an American in a third-world country would cause moments like the one back there—it’s just that you’d somehow figured the main area for all of the people spilling off the shopping shuttle would be more Disneyfied, and you could get your bearings a bit before being made to feel like a rich American asshole.

 

“I need a beer,” you say.

 

“It’s a bit early, mon,” says Dennis, “but I know some good places along the way we can stop.”

 

“We’re on vacation,” says Karen, “we can drink as much as we want.”

 

You just wanted a little booze to calm your rattled nerves, but Karen has taken your request like her clarion call for the day, and so every three miles she insists that Dennis #1 stop so you guys can buy beer at whatever shanty with an ice chest or ramshackle general store happens to be selling it.

 

So, by the time you reach Dunn’s River Falls, which is a good three hours from the hotel, the three of you have had seven or eight beers apiece, and Karen has completely given herself over to flirting with Dennis #1.

 

“Kevin!” cries Dennis #1 occasionally, “You’re being so quiet, mon! Say something!”

 

Dennis #2, who’s said very little himself the whole time, laughs along with Karen at everything Dennis #1 says. You feel more and more miserable, and more desirous of crawling into a hole, every time this happens.

 

First of all, you still haven’t properly physically rested and recovered from the zero sleep night in Houston and ensuing dehydration or allergic reaction you got upon arriving in Jamaica. Second, you are still feeling a bit bruised for having let the necklace salesman get the better of you. Third, you are beginning to wonder about this driver, wonder about Jamaica in general—what if this guy’s just some thug who preys upon tourists, and he’s going to take you all for everything, then dump you out in the ocean somewhere when he’s done? At the very least, how much more of Karen’s flirty, drunken behavior, and Dennis #1’s overbearing attitude can you possibly take?

 

“We are here at Dunn’s River Falls.”

 

You remember this place from the movie Cocktail, where Tom Cruise’s character takes his girlfriend and they make love in a private, romantic setting—just the two of them getting a waterfall shower while their flesh entwines. The place is mobbed with busloads of tourists. Only the hardiest of exhibitionists would try to make love in this mess of people. Everyone is moved along quite swiftly by the forceful tour guides.

 

Dennis #1 waits in the parking lot by his van, talking to people he knows, while you, Dennis #2, and Karen all go up the falls. You’ve brought a cheap little disposable camera that the guide grabs from you and uses to take everyone’s picture.

 

It is Karen Winthrop at her sexiest, in a red, two piece swimsuit before she will get all menopausy and fat. She stares into the camera seductively, entreating any viewer of the picture to come in and get to know her better. For months after you get these photos developed, you will get so hot for them sexually, covering the spot where Dennis #2 is in the picture with your sweaty finger, only to remember how badly Karen behaved on this trip, and become inflamed with rage. Finally, you do the right thing and rip up most of the photos, giving Dennis #2 a few of them.

 

At this moment in time, though, you could hardly care whether or not the cheap, disposable camera even makes it back home with you intact. You are seriously dried out on the inside from having too much beer and not enough water, and turning into a prune by standing in water all around you, and feeling like you have completely lost control of yourself and your life.

 

“Moses!” cry dozens of enterprising men wanting you to buy trinkets and baubles from them as you exit the falls area and walk back to the parking lot.

 

Scrawny white guys who sported beards were all called Moses by Jamaicans everywhere you went, and ones without beards were called Slim Shady.

 

You are kinda wishing you had shaved.

 

“How was it, did you have the most fun in your life, mon?” asks Dennis #1.

 

“Oh, yeah, sure,” you say, hardly bothering to sound convincing.

 

“Are you all ready to head back, or would you like to stop and see Ocho Rios?”

 

“I am pretty pooped,” you begin to say.

 

“What’s in Ocho Rios?” asks Dennis #2.

 

“Oh, places to shop, mon, and good food. Good people.”

 

“Do they have Cuban cigars?” you ask.

 

“Of course, mon.”

 

You’d been meaning to try a Cuban at least once down here, so everyone soon agrees that Ocho Rios is a must-see.

 

“I am going to proceed to try to suck this entire Cuban down in less than thirty minutes, inhaling deeply!” you cry.

 

“This is powerful stuff,” says Dennis #2, taking a drag.

 

“Uh, I feel very sick,” you say after several deep drags of the Cuban.

 

“Let’s look at some handmade, wood-carved stuff we have no interest in purchasing,” says Karen.

 

In the market where you three are the only Americans browsing the merchandise, everyone calls insistently to you, begging you to try their goods. You are afraid that if you were to buy one thing from one seller, the entire market would descend upon you demanding that you buy something from each and every one of them.

 

You are getting much too nauseous to stand up, now, as the Cuban has it’s way with your insides.

 

“I’m going to step out and sit down,” you say.

 

“Hey, mon, want to buy a walking stick?” cries an older fellow.

 

“No thanks, pal, I’m getting sick.”

 

Dennis #2 accompanies you to make sure you’re all right.

 

“It’s fine mahogany wood, carved by a master woodcarver.”

 

“It’s very beautiful, but I can barely think straight, much less talk right now. Thanks, but no thanks.”

 

“What’s your problem, mon?” he cries. “Do you not like black people?”

 

“No sir, it’s not that, I’m just sick, very sick.”

 

Dennis #2 concurs.

 

“So, you and your friend are gay, huh, is that it? Is that why you won’t buy my stick?”

 

“Beat it pal,” cries Dennis #2, “Can’t you see he’s very sick. Why don’t you leave us alone?”

 

“Mon, you are assholes.”

 

He skulks off, and after an eternity, Karen and Dennis #1 come out of the marketplace.

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Karen asks.

 

“He smoked too much of his Cuban.”

 

“Oh, well…”

 

“Are we ready to head back to our all-inclusive resort?” you ask.

 

“Well, kind of,” says Karen. “First, Dennis #1 is going to drive us to a secluded spot by a dimly lit bay, and I am going to dismiss you boys so he and I can…do stuff together in private. Then, we are going to finish that, and I’ll go out into the bay with him holding me closely, asking you to join us like you’re my seven-year-old son, and then, things will be totally weird all the way back as I start to sober up. But, first, I must get nasty with our driver.”

 

Oh, Lord, you groan, this is not the way we should end this evening, and Dennis #2 concurs. The two of you find this situation to be rather awkward and distasteful. What’s strange, is that one of the nicest people on the entire trip will stop by to talk to you while Karen is getting busy in the mini-van—the only non-resort Jamaican that doesn’t try to sell you something.

 

A nice old gent comes up up and converses about his days as a bus driver, the simple beauty of his home, and the terrible tragedy of 9-11. He doesn’t ask you for money, he isn’t rude, and he seems genuinely interested in talking to you as a fellow human being, rather than as some rich, white guy that’s an easy target for the poor Jamaican mon.

 

For a moment, you wonder if this is what a true Jamaican is like, and you just aren’t exploring the island deeply enough, but you are too braindead to care.

 

After Karen has had her fill of her own Jamaican fantasy, you think, good, now it’s time for us to get back to the resort so I can have mine. Tomorrow, nothing but sweet boozy bliss on a beach full of women almost completely naked with my Panama hat pulled over my eyes, and no worries in the world.

 

Karen stumbles up to bed, and misses a great fire-eating show put on at the “club med” resort. The show is probably not as entertaining as the end of her day in Ocho Rios was, but is the most entertaining thing you see all day.

 

You throw back as many free mixed drinks as you can to try to get your all-inclusive package money’s worth. You look forward to doing more of the same tomorrow.

 

Saturday, 9 AM

“Kevin, hurry up and eat your giant, free breakfast so we can get on the road and spend more money away from this all-inclusive resort, where everything is already paid for.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Yeah, Kevin,” says Dennis. “We’ve decided that one day with Dennis #1 was just not enough fun, and Karen would like to have more fun.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Kevin, forget about having mixed drinks all day at the swim-up bar and hanging out with the ladies at the topless beach over there. We have some serious driving to do around this island.”

 

“B-b-but, I’ve spent almost all my money already. I have just enough to cover the basic cost of the driver for a day, and nothing to tip him or buy beer with.”

 

“Kevin, Sweetie, if you need money, I can loan you some. Being your boss at Ahmis, I naturally make a bit more than you and Dennis do.”

 

“It’s not just the money. Remember? I’d said how much I wanted to just hang out on the beach for one of the days on this trip.”

 

“Kevin, we’re flying back to Texas tomorrow. Do you really just want to have memories of this club med resort?”

 

“They had a nice fire-eating show last night. You missed it.”

 

“Come on! Dennis #1 is here, and he is ready to drive us all over Jamaica.”

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“Mon, you like snorkeling?”

 

Vera had asked you to try snorkeling. You’d considered maybe doing it just so you had something to report back to folks in Austin other than getting drunk on rumrunners and Mai Tais.

 

“I’ve never snorkeled.”

 

“Mon, it’s an absolute must-do, if you are in Jamaica. Let me take you all to Negril, so Kevin can snorkel.”

 

Karen Winthrop seems a bit more subdued and less eager to drink beer every five miles, and she is also jerking back when Dennis #1 tries to touch her.

 

“So, you have a wife, Dennis?” she asks, when he starts to get especially frisky.

 

“Yes, I do, and a daughter.” His face falls, remembering them, and how, as a married man, he shouldn’t be trying to have Karen Winthrop.

 

“Let’s talk about her for the next two hours.”

 

Dennis #1 stops once along the way so you all can see large stalks of dried marijuana being proffered off side of the road by Rastafas for hundreds of dollars, American.

 

One fellow shoves a stalk into the open window of the van, right in front of Dennis #2’s face.

 

“Wow,” he says.

 

“You gonna buy some?” you ask Dennis #2.

 

“Sweetie,” says Karen, “We are leaving on the plane tomorrow, and there’s no way I’m gonna end up in a Kingston prison, because you and Dennis tried to sneak some pot back to Texas.”

 

Jesus, you think. I wasn’t even being half serious.

 

At Negril, a band of musicians is walking about with their instruments singing the Banana Boat Song over and over again. They spy your little gang, and come over and start playing as you have drinks at an outdoor Negril hotel bar. Of course, they all want to be tipped handsomely, and stare at you with puppy dog eyes that turn sinister the longer you sit and refuse to produce tipping cash.

 

Even Karen, who’s been tipping every living thing on the island, is rather unimpressed by them, but gives them a few dollars, and they skulk off looking quite disappointed.

 

“Kevin, mon, do you still want to go snorkeling?”

 

“Sure,” you say, mostly to get away from the strange atmosphere that has settled over the four of you as Karen appears completely reluctant to give in to any more of Dennis #1’s advances.

 

“So, you are Kevin?” asks a sun-leathered, ancient man. “That’s our snorkeling boat over there,” he says, pointing to a ratty old fishing boat that looks like it could capsize at any minute. “My boy and me will take you and this other white guy out into the bay so you can see the sea life. Do you have an underwater camera?”

 

“No.”

 

“Too bad, mon. Lots of pretty fish and other sea life out there. Ah, well, come on and get in my boat.”

 

The other white guy turns out to be a Canadian. His name is Scott. Nobody appears to be harassing Scott constantly for money.

 

“Scott?” you ask, “What do you do down here that prevents Jamaican natives from begging you for money?”

 

“Well,” Scott says, “I’ve been here several weeks on business. They’ve had plenty of time to see that I’m not going to hand over a few dollars just because they happen to be making noises within a few yards of me. Also, I’m a man, and you’re a man manqué. They can see that.”

 

“That’s nice, Scott. I’m afraid that the hour I’m about to spend out here in the water is the only peaceful waking moment I’m going to have on this entire vacation.”

 

“Enjoy.”

 

After you’ve snorkeled for an hour, you make it back to land safely without capsizing, and tip the old man’s boy heavily since he kept going on and on the entire way back about how you needed to tip him heavily.

 

As you reach into your sunglasses case where you keep your money, you see a small bag of weed.

 

Dennis #1, your driver, sees you getting your money to tip the boy, and starts looking at you funny, and says, “Kevin, I do something real nice for you, too.”

 

For about thirty minutes, until Dennis #2, your traveling companion, confirms that the pot is his, your crazy, sun-soaked mind thinks that your Jamaican driver has gone and procured marijuana for you, based on your reaction to the Rastafas with the big stalks, and expects you to pay him discreetly later.

 

It takes a while for it to set in that Dennis #1 simply saw you tipping the snorkeling boat boy handsomely, and expects you to do the same, later, for all his driving. You look at your cash supply again, and realize you have just enough to pay your share of the driver’s time today, and nothing left for his tip.

 

You really start wishing you were back at the resort, but your driver has already convinced Karen and Dennis that you all need to see Rick’s Cafe.

 

“You’re going to jump off the cliff, Kevin, yes?”

 

“I’ll think about it, I’m kinda tired from all the snorkeling I did.”

 

“Aw, come on,” says Karen, “Be a man and jump off that cliff. How high is it, Dennis?”

 

“Oh, probably about as high as a telephone pole, mon, not so bad.” Dennis #1 has been full of shit the whole time, so you hardly believe him. He assured you all that Jamaica never gets hit by hurricanes. He guaranteed you a rewarding experience and good food in Ocho Rios. He failed to mention that wife of his before convincing Karen to join him in private in his mini-van last night.

 

Two hours later, as the sun is setting, Karen Winthrop hands you the summer dress she’s been wearing over her two-piece bikini and goes and jumps off the cliff. You feel like a complete little bitch, even though the top of the cliff is about five stories from the ocean, and your palms grow sweaty just thinking about falling from that height.

 

Dennis #1 continues to hit on Karen, and she turns to you at one point when he gets up to go to the bathroom.

 

“Kevin, why aren’t you protecting me?”

 

“What?”

 

“You should have been protecting me from him.”

 

“I’m going to go get in line for those test tube shots they’re pouring down people’s throats. I have no idea what to say to that, since I really didn’t travel to Jamaica with a woman twenty years my senior to babysit her.”

 

You suddenly realize you have to take a crap, and go into the bathroom at Rick’s Cafe. As you’re sitting in the stall you hear Dennis #2 walk in, then someone else.

 

“I’m gonna get me some of them Jamaican bitches,” says a voice more guttural and evil sounding than anything from a horror movie.

 

“Get out of here!” you hear Dennis #2 cry, employing a figure of speech meant for you.

 

“What did you say?”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry,” cries Dennis, your traveling companion. “I thought you were someone else.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

You shiver at the sound of the voice from your stall. You feel very tiny and vulnerable, and are certain the world has been completely turned upside down. You wonder if you will ever make it off of this island. You are hearing the Pixies’ song Where is My Mind in your head, mixed in with a song called Dreadlock Holiday by a band called 10cc.

 

The four of you get in the mini-van and prepare for a three-hour drive back to the resort.

 

“I am going to take you back through the scenic route,” says Dennis #1. “Even though it’s pitch black out here, you can attempt to see what it’s like in the Jamaican mountains.”

 

You all stop once at a tiny mountain general store so Karen can pee, and see the most wizened Rastafa ever. This prompts Dennis #2 to remember his stash.

 

“I’m going to light up a joint!” cries Dennis #2.

 

“Whatever, mon,” says Dennis #1 looking disgusted that one of his customers has decided to get high in his van.

 

“We should have dinner with your family,” says Karen, “I’d really like to meet them.”

 

Jesus, you think. It’s going to be almost nine o’clock when we get back.

 

It’s well past nine pm when you get back. Twice, you all have come upon road construction in the middle of the towns you pass through—construction that seems so strangely late in the evening and causes your driver to have to double back and find different routes.

 

Dennis #1, your driver, glares at you as you hand over your share of the driving expenses. You have nothing at all to tip him, and he looks at you like you’ve completely screwed him over.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Sweetie,” says Karen. “I’ll take care of it. Now, let’s go eat dinner back in town with Dennis’ family. I’m dying to meet them.”

 

Good Lord, you think. When is this nightmare going to be over? I’ve gotten maybe 30% of what I’ve put into this all-inclusive in the way of food and drinks, and we’re going out again to spend even more money I don’t have on food.

 

“Gosh, Karen, I’m pretty tired. It’s been a long day.”

 

“Sweetie, I was the one who jumped off the cliff. Besides, you boys didn’t protect me from our driver. Now, we are going to eat dinner with Dennis’ family.”

 

It’s one of the saddest little dinner occasions you’ve ever been a part of. Everyone in the restaurant is staring your group, and Dennis’ wife appears to be only obliging him. Dennis has an extremely guilty look on his face, and Karen continues to needle the two of them and their daughter with questions about how they live in Jamaica. Dennis #2, your traveling companion, is full of breezy, pot-induced humor that isn’t sticking with anyone. You feel like you are at one of Aunt and Uncle’s dinners, mustering all of your will just to keep your manners neat.

 

Finally, after downing a paltry selection of jerk chicken and peas, Karen has gotten whatever she wanted to get out of meeting Dennis’ family, and Dennis drives you back to the resort.

 

A Jamaican Elvis impersonator is the entertainment for tonight. Suddenly, you’ve found a little extra well of energy inside of you to stay up while Karen goes to crash.

 

“Let’s hit all the bars on this resort as hard as we can, Dennis!”

 

“Good call.”

 

They have a disco full of young and hip people that you don’t seem to quite fit in with, even though most of them are your age. You are dressed more like the midlife crisis, Alan Alda-looking crowd over at the British bar, but those guys snub you as they are busy hitting on the wives of their friends who are all run down and flabby from making babies.

 

The Tiki bar is serving plenty of Mai tais and rummrunners, and that’s where the Elvis Impersonator is at. So, you drink until you are about to pass out in your seat, and stumble up to your room.

 

Sunday, 9 AM

Dennis could have smuggled ten of those pot stalks through Jamaican airport security and Houston customs, as the Jamaican airport just opens each bag and grabs whatever is on the surface. Karen is dumb enough to put her lighter on top, so they confiscate it, but other than that, neither airport even gives you guys a glance.

 

Once on the plane, Dennis, who is sitting in the middle of the three of you, confides to Karen that some people in your group of three may not have had as much fun in Jamaica as others.

 

“Didn’t have that much fun?” cries Karen, “How could you not have thought that what we did was a complete blast, except for that moment when you boys didn’t protect me?”

 

You have nothing to say to her. You are completely disgusted by this woman, who at forty-five years of age, behaved like a spoiled little seventeen year old girl on her first trip abroad—this woman who very explicitly stated that you and Dennis, your traveling companion, could take yourselves someplace else while she did whatever she needed to do with Dennis, your driver. But since you know that reasoning with Karen Winthrop is a futile exercise, you keep your mouth shut all the way to the Houston airport; keep it shut inside the hotel shuttle that takes you back to the hotel where your car is parked and you wasted a night’s money; and keep your mouth shut all the way back to Karen Winthrop’s driveway in Austin.

 

It feels good to be the driver again as you pour all of your focus onto the road between Houston and Austin. It is a feeling that will only grow on you the rest of the time you are in Austin. You’ve discovered that if, as an adult, you want to be the passenger, then you had better be prepared to let the drivers in your life take you wherever they will—and, be prepared, in spite of your insistence on being the passenger, to get accused of not being decisive enough for yourself and others.

 

October 23, 2001

Aunt and Uncle have kindly prepared an opportunity for you to feel like you are periodically going on vacation. You will have access to their modestly luxurious, Northwest Austin home while they travel to Europe, Mexico, South America, West Texas, and other exotic locations far beyond anywhere you will get to go for the next two years, as you have blown out your credit cards and can barely afford to grab Anastasia on the weekends to drive out to Bastrop to visit your folks.

 

You will have access to their bag-in-the-box wine and beer—which is well-stocked in its own refrigerator—their cable television, high-speed internet, latest and greatest Mac, hot tub, and rat terrier dog whose poop you pick up in exchange for these amenities.

 

It turns out that a lot of the credit card usage that took place while in Jamaica involved you drawing well beyond the balance of your account. On each of your three cards, you discover that $500 or more is overdrawn. You also discover that in order to pay your share of the driving around the island, you’d also overdrawn on your checking account, and can’t even afford to pay your utility bills and rent this month.

 

Somehow, you manage through loans from your parents (who know only vague details of your dilemma), and advances from Ahmis, not to get evicted or have your electricity shut off. You also are still able to afford a trip once a day to the 7-11 that lies between your apartment and Ahmis for a meal of: bag o’ Doritos, gas station sandwich, and energy drink.

 

You also appear to be able to scrounge up $30 for…

 

“Wing Night!” cries Perry. “Guys, it’s been like a month since you got back from Jamaica and even longer since we had our obligatory ritual of eating the bad part of the bird basted in unnaturally hot spices while drinking tall glasses of cheap beer and stroking our egos over how much useless trivia we know. And, you know that I’m going to insist that around 10:30 when the championship trivia round is over, that we continue the debauchery by taking our drunken selves down to some bar like Emo’s or Ego’s or The Saxon Pub—or the Common Interest if Kevin wants to karaoke.”

 

“You’re going to Wing Night?” asks Vera. “I thought you were house-sitting for your Aunt and Uncle. You can’t stumble home from downtown Austin to their house, you know.”

 

“I know, but, you know how Perry and the gang are.”

 

“Yeah, which is why I don’t ever go out with you guys. Besides, how have you found money to spend on Wing Night when you were telling me last weekend you couldn’t afford to take me out to dinner?”

 

“It’s a miracle. Don’t worry, I’ll have a little money from house-sitting, too. And, we can go have something romantic at Romeo’s like we did last August.”

 

“Mmm. And, will you buy me flowers and cheap jewelry as well?”

 

“Of course, but you’ll have to be very specific about what you like, as I have no idea what looks good on a girl. Do you like what Deidre wears?”

 

“Ugh, no. That’s big girl jewelry.”

 

But, you’re a big girl, you think to yourself. “Ah. Well, I’ll sure miss you at Wing Night, Vera. Maybe you can come over to Aunt and Uncle’s this weekend and get in the hot tub with me and we can fool around. I can pretend you’re Olivia, since I never got to fool around in Aunt and Uncle’s hot tub with her, or maybe I’ll pretend you’re Karen Winthrop, and I’m in Dunn’s River Falls, and it’s just the two of us.”

 

“We’ll see. Go enjoy your wings, and be safe driving back to your Aunt and Uncle’s.”

 

At 2 AM, you are barely holding your head up, because you’ve had three shots of bourbon and countless beers. You’re sitting at Aunt and Uncle’s Mac composing an email to Olivia. You were prompted to do this by a fleeting memory of Jamaica that you’d forgotten until now, as you haven’t been this drunk since then.

 

You were lying on your hotel bed. Dennis wasn’t in the room. The Wheezer song, “Island in the Sun” was playing in your head, and you were remembering a time in the duplex you rented with Olivia where the two of you 69’d, and you were on top. For some reason, you were overcome with the desire to have Olivia with you on that trip at that moment, instead of Karen and Dennis.

 

Just the two of you, at your all-inclusive resort, not taking any hotel shuttles outside the resort except to go back to the airport, not letting any crazy drivers take you this way and that all over the island. Just you and Olivia, enjoying your view of the Caribbean, keeping a mellow booze buzz that was just enough to make both of you horny and frequently race back up to the room to do it.

 

You remembered this memory of a fantasy you had in Jamaica while stopping by Aunt and Uncle’s booze fridge after stumbling in from Wing Night. You decide then and there to try to share with Olivia, who you broke up with almost an entire year ago, just how much she means to you, while you sip on an oversize glass full of sweet, white bag-in-the-box wine.

 

“Dear Olivia,

I recently went to Jamaica. I wish I’d gone with you, instead of the people I went with. We would have had so much fun together there, you and I. In fact, the whole time I was in Jamaica, I thought about you, especially when I saw young lovers on their honeymoons. You know, I really did want to marry you. I was going to ask, honest. When those terrorists crashed those planes into the WTC and killed all those people—that’s nothing compared to what you did when you crashed into my heart. Knowing that you are getting busy with Doug Johnson in the house we bought together tears me apart. I was thinking about joining a band, too, you know.

 

Love,

Kevin”

 

You push send, emailing it to her work email address.

 

The next day, you call in to work sick.

 

“Karen, I think I caught a stomach bug from Wing Night. I don’t think they cooked the wings very thoroughly.”

 

You feel pretty awful physically, and you are also not feeling so good about the email you just sent. What if Olivia loses her cool, and refuses to let you see Anastasia, then has Ms. Stasie put to sleep? What if she tells people at Ahmis about this email, or tells your parents?

 

“Oh, Sweetie, that’s terrible. You get some rest and feel better soon, okay?”

 

Olivia writes you back almost immediately. You find her email response difficult to bear, and save it for years for those moments when you get drunk and want to participate in self-flagellation over past crimes committed.

 

“Dear Kevin,

This is a real shitty thing to do. Guess what? Gilberto wanted to marry me, too, and then you came along and stole me away from him. You are always playing the victim, you know that? Then, you go and get drunk and take over-the-counter medicines excessively on multiple occasions, requiring me to repeatedly rethink my decision to come down here with you, and you often lose your temper for no good reason. I tried really hard to help you get through the loss of your brother, but you obviously needed more help than I can give. You know what else? My new lover, Doug Johnson—he never tried anything with me at all before you and I broke up, because he’s just that kind of guy—a special, sensitive man who makes beautiful music. You—you’re just a man manqué who destroys everything that’s good around you. Go get help for your issues.

 

Olivia.”

 

You are enraged. She never once let you know that any of your drinking bothered her while you were living together. And to say that Doug Johnson hadn’t tried anything with her—that’s absurd! You saw the way they looked into each other’s eyes that night you went to see his band. And beautiful music? That’s a bit of a stretch. Besides, if she really felt so bad about her decision to be with you, why did she fall for you in the first place? You’d told her you were a lush in college, for Christ’s sake!

 

You start to prepare an email that breaks up every one of her points, line-by-line, refuting every single one of them with delicious turns of wit that expose her for the nasty, hypocritical bitch she is—and, then you pause. That wasn’t exactly the original intent you’d carried when you performed your drunken emailing last night. You wanted to convey to her how much she still means to you in your heart, but the same feelings are obviously dead in her heart. In spite of that, it makes no sense to bitterly denounce her words if you secretly still love her.

 

And, the reason you would inject so much bitterness into your response to her email would be because her words are true, even if she never shared them with you while there was still an opportunity to repair the relationship.

 

You write Olivia back thus: “Thanks for enlightening me. Sorry for bothering you. I’m going to skip coming by to get Anastasia this weekend. I’ll be back for her the following weekend.”

 

You don’t see Olivia for several months after this, as she makes an extra effort to be scarce when you stop in for your weekend custody visit of Anastasia.

 

You write Vera: “Hi Honey, how is your day going? I’m feeling a little under the weather today, so that’s why I’m not at work. Looking forward to spending the weekend up here with you.”

 

Vera writes you back: “I’m mad at you, and upset because I heard how much you drank last night. You could have spent the evening with me, or alone up there getting your shit together and meditating like you keep saying you’re going to do. I know you’re just playing hooky today because you’re hungover.”

 

She’ll have forgiven you by the end of the day, though, and insist on spending an hour sweet-talking to you on the phone tonight.

 

Olivia writes you back: “No problem. Get some help.”

 

November 16, 2001

No problem. You are going to get some help from your friends, when you have a few extra dollars left at the end of the week from not paying your credit cards.

 

Perry cries, “Kevin and the gang, we have allowed another month to lapse without going out and drinking.”

 

“Everyone is broke,” says Dennis, “I’ve completely stopped paying my credit cards, and am going to let them lapse, destroying my credit for the next seven years.”

 

“And I’m paying mine intermittently,” you say, “so that the delinquent marks on my credit report will only hobble me for about three years.”

 

“Credit cards, bah! You all are living on cash now, baby, and it’s a whole different world. Let’s go do something with Jennifer and her sister Ruth, who live near campus. We haven’t had that drinking experience, yet.”

 

The gang starts out at Posse East, having sandwiches and cold beer. Ruth’s boyfriend starts to talk about Anton Wilson.

 

“I love Anton Wilson,” says Perry, “His treatises on e-Prime are sublime. I stopped trying to be a writer after I read them. Why should I bother?”

 

“I rather enjoyed the Illuminatus! Trilogy,” you say, chiming in, “It was a confirmation in college of all the whacked out shit I’d been discovering on the internet.”

 

“Anton Wilson is cool!” cries Dennis. “Let’s drink to him.”

 

You feel like you’ve finally found those special friends you’ve been looking for ever since college, knowing now that Perry and the gang like Anton Wilson. God must have provided this moment for you.

 

“So, Kevin, do you have any siblings?” asks Jennifer, one of the occasional members of the Ahmis happy hour gang.

 

“I have one living brother in Pennsylvania. The oldest died of AIDS and the youngest died in a car wreck.”

 

“That’s really sad,” says Perry.

 

Gosh, Perry might become the tragedy buddy that Gavi never was, you think. He seems ready to lend a sympathetic ear to your private party of grieving.

 

The gang leaves Posse East and walks over to Ruth and Jennifer’s place on campus. The two of them are weird sisters, almost like women from a hundred years ago in their mannerisms and dress, except they talk about having all the same drinking and sexual experiences as any college contemporary would. Things start to feel weirder to you, as Perry lights up a pipe and everyone starts talking about bands you’ve never heard of and Russian literature.

 

“Let’s walk to the Hole in the Wall,” cries Perry, “Kevin, tell me more about the tragedy of your little brother’s death.”

 

“Well,” you say, “It was so weird the way it happened. He ran this stop sign even as he was supposed to turn right…”

 

Perry has stopped paying attention to you and is now whispering flirty things into Jennifer’s ear. She is cackling like a witch. Your gang seems to have taken on strange alter-egos now that you all are high. You’ve encountered this before with people, so you just shut up and walk on ahead of the others to Guadalupe St.

 

Perry runs into a convenience store and buys beer, breaking up the six pack so each of you can stuff a couple in your jackets. “They charge an arm and a leg for beer at the Hole in the Wall, plus they may be closing the bar soon, since it’s almost 2 AM.”

 

You stand in line, the last of your gang waiting to get in. The doorman lets everyone through except for you. He doesn’t have enough change to break your twenty. “I need to go get change.” He’s got some type of small or old man’s inferiority complex you don’t quite understand because you are high. The doorman proceeds to push you forcefully to the far back of the line, behind another gang of strangers who are all friends with each other.

 

One of them comments about the doorman being a funny man.

 

“Yeah,” you say, thinking in your stoned state that they are on the same wavelength as you, “that was sure weird that he pushed me back here because he couldn’t break my twenty.”

 

These people look at you as if you’ve just landed in a spaceship.

 

“If you’re gonna bitch about it,” snarls the tallest and ugliest of them, “why don’t you just go on in. Otherwise, shut the fuck up!”

 

This catches you off guard, as you weren’t expecting such a virulent voice and unsympathetic ears. You’d still had a bit of that “everyone in Austin is cool because I met someone who’s read Anton Wilson, and I’m like a character from that movie Slacker” vibe going, and this comes as a shock. At first, you want to just try to walk home the ten to fifteen blocks to your apartment, but it is very cold outside.

 

Then, you are rather pissed at this asshole for taking sides with a nasty old doorman.

 

Then, you just barge like a lineman past this gang of strangers, clutching the beers in your inner jacket pocket tight, and go find your friends.

 

At this point, you can see that Perry and your gang are totally operating on some other wavelength as well. They seem amused that you got stuck outside, and amused at the funny little doorman, and are busy discussing wild things they did sexually in college. Jennifer’s voice is high-pitched, cackly and witchy sounding, and she seems to be looking down her nose at you for some reason, and both she and Perry are treating you like a buffoon.

 

Somehow, you manage to avoid most of what they are saying, and the show is soon over, anyway. After being harassed by the people working the bar to leave five or six times, you and your gang walk back to Jennifer’s house, and Perry gives you a ride home in his car.

 

You tell this story the next day to Vera, and she seems to take sides with the doorman and the asshole who stood outside the Hole in the Wall. Everyone you tell this story to takes sides with the doorman and the asshole who stood outside the Hole in the Wall. You are telling this story here, in this novel about the man manqué in Austin, because it underscores the vast gap between your sense of how to navigate the social minefield of adulthood, and everyone else’s sense of how to navigate it.

 

This night, along with the next one that appears in this novel, also underscore just how and why you were coming to the realization that the summer of the endless happy hour was totally dead, and could not be resurrected, no matter how many new bars and clubs you tried while stoned with Deidre, Dennis, Perry Webber, Karen Winthrop and other friends.

 

December 18, 2001

But, you thought you’d try one more time to resurrect it.

 

Perry cries, “Kevin and the gang, we have allowed another month to lapse without going out and drinking. What’s more, we’ve only had one single, lonely little wing night since Kevin, Dennis and Karen Winthrop got back from Jamaica.”

 

“I guess I could do a wing night,” you say.

 

“You’re doing wing night?” cries Vera, very unhappy at the news. “It’s a week before Christmas, Kevin, and we’ve both agreed that we aren’t ready to introduce each other to our families yet, so that means that we have to celebrate our couple’s Christmas tonight or tomorrow.”

 

“Yeah, I know, but, Perry and the gang…”

 

“Perry and the gang, Perry and the gang. Or, Karen Winthrop needs me to…Kevin, what about my needs? Don’t you even like me?”

 

“Of course, I do, Vera, and I’ve gotten you some very expensive gifts that I really shouldn’t have, seeing as how I’m not supposed to have any money at this point, but I discovered a credit card whose balance I hadn’t overdrawn, and went to the mall and overdrew its balance so you could have a very expensive gift.”

 

“A very expensive gift? For me? Oh, Kevin, I can’t wait. Well, go do your wing night with your buddies.”

 

“You know, you’re always welcome to join us.”

 

“No, thanks. I’m going to my women’s-only gym where I work out five times a week.”

 

“You realize, Vera, that I simply can’t join you in one of your main activities, due to the fact that you go to an all-women’s gym. However, stuff like wing night, and me walking my dog Anastasia on the weekends around Town Lake are activities that are perfectly open to you, yet you always have excuses not to participate.”

 

“I hate seeing you get sloppy drunk, and really don’t like to be at those things if Karen Winthrop is there, and I have flat feet and hate walking in the outdoors.”

 

“Right. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow here at work, where you insist throughout the day on seeing me at least eight times in person, having me email you just as many times, and call you three times, so I imagine at some point we can discuss when we want to have our Christmas together.”

 

“That sounds like a wonderful plan, Kevin.”

 

“Hey, Kevin,” says Karen Winthrop, “I heard you guys are having your infamous Wing Night. Can I come along?”

 

“Uh, sure, Karen.”

 

Perry arrives at the wing and trivia bar with an ex-girlfriend in tow. She is kind of pretty for an older lady, and you are kind of excited to have Deidre, Karen, and this other lady all participating in Wing Night with you, Perry and Dennis.

 

Karen tells everyone at wing night repeatedly the same thing about Jamaica she’s told everyone in the Ahmis office: “Jamaica was fun, but my boys didn’t protect me while we were down there.”

 

You and Dennis just look at each other and roll your eyes.

 

“We should go see a really cool band,” says Perry like he always does when the championship round of trivia ends at 10:30. “They’re playing over at Ego’s bar.”

 

“There really aren’t any cool bands left in Austin,” says Perry’s ex-girlfriend, “in fact, everything that was cool in Austin stopped being cool in April of 1999. It was so weird. SXSW was cool that year, and lots of cool bars were still happening down on 6th St. Then, one morning, like maybe in the middle of the month, I opened the local hipster rag and read about how Antoine’s was moving and Maggie Mae’s was shutting down.”

 

“Yeah,” says Perry, “and Liberty Lunch closed that year, too.”

 

“But, Austin’s still pretty cool,” says Dennis, “even if her very soul seems to have been lost the moment she allowed Kevin Smiley to take up residence here.”

 

Oh Jesus, you think, every few months you have to sit through one of these goddamn conversations with people who lived in Austin before you did who basically attest to the fact that Austin stopped being cool the day you arrived to live here. How Barton Springs was pristine and drinkable, how beer flowed like Barton Springs freely from every bar in town, how the coolest, hippest bands played in every single bar every single night for free, how you could walk into any of those bars, Whole Foods or Book People and strike up conversations with Ethan Hawke, the Wilson brothers, Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, Robert Rodriguez, Sandra Bullock or Matthew McConaughey, and they would be cool and laid back about it—but not now, because Kevin Smiley was the one extra yuppie that broke the cool Austin camel’s back, forcing all of these people to leave and take up residence in California or Bastrop for fear of being tainted by such uncoolness that had descended upon their town.

 

You are riding with Karen Winthrop, and see a potential recipe for disaster on the way. When this night of drinking is over, if you are not careful, you could very well find yourself riding over to Karen Winthrop’s bed instead of yours.

 

However, you really want to attempt to have an experience you never had in middle school, high school or college, which has contributed to making you the man manqué you are today.

 

“Will you dance with me, Perry’s ex-girlfriend?”

 

She smiles, amused at this awkward manboy standing in front of her inside a bar that is mostly empty, asking her to dance while the adults sit and chat about wild and crazy things they did when they were kids.

 

“No thanks, you can dance by yourself, if you like.”

 

“Karen Winthrop?”

 

“No, Sweetie, I don’t feel up to such a thing.”

 

“Deidre?”

 

“Dude, sit down.”

 

You are very drunk at this point, having taken several shots of bourbon with the gang at the wing bar and now at Ego’s. You ask two other women sitting off by themselves in the bar.

 

“No, thanks, we are girlfriends of the band members, and they will kick your ass if we dance with you. Besides you’re not that attractive, being sloppy drunk and all—plus, you’re making the last cool band in town seem kind of uncool tonight, and now the joint is quite empty.”

 

Suddenly, you feel like the world’s hugest ass. You go back to Perry’s ex-girlfriend, and beg her to dance one more time. She is adamant about not obliging you.

 

“I can’t even get these sloppy, heavyset, aging broads to dance with me, and they are supposed to be friends,” you think, “I must be the world’s biggest loser. Gosh, Austin really sucks, the entire summer of the endless happy hour has been a bust. I think I will walk home tonight.”

 

And, so you do.

 

You walk from three blocks south of the river at Congress, to the corner of Lamar and 6th, which is six blocks north of the river and nine blocks west of Congress.

 

You are two blocks away from your apartment, standing at the corner near Whole Foods. There was nobody out along the route you walked, taking much of Town Lake trail before realizing just how dark it was.

 

“I’m going to just cash out, and leave for California tonight. I’ve sobered up enough, I think. If Austin doesn’t want me, maybe California does,” you say to yourself.

 

Then, you decide that maybe this isn’t such a good idea, but you aren’t ready to just go to bed like a good boy. “Maybe, I’ll go catch a midnight showing at the Alamo Drafthouse.”

 

So, you walk all the way back to the heart of downtown Austin, where nothing is open except Katz’s Deli. That’s when you realize it must be much later than midnight. So, you walk home, and pass out inside your studio apartment.

 

“Sweetie, we were worried sick about you. We drove all over Austin trying to find you,” says Karen Winthrop on the phone.

 

“Yeah,” says Dennis when you finally show up at work around 2 PM, “We stopped by your place and pounded on the door but you didn’t answer. You didn’t pick up your phone, either.”

 

“Sorry, I guess I got a little confused and wandered off, then wandered home and passed out.”

 

Vera is furious when you finally talk to her. “You could have gotten arrested for public intoxication, you realize that? So, I guess you’re too hungover to have our Christmas celebration tonight, huh?”

 

You would like at this point to start the Austin experience over in its entirety. You’re hanging by a thread over the shameful sea of bankruptcy. You hesitate to just stop paying your cards like Dennis did, because one of the cards is still also in your father’s name, from when you were in college. You are afraid that you will take your father with you into that sea if you go down. You hesitate to quit Ahmis and try temp agencies again, because you fear that Karen Winthrop would not provide a good reference for you, and you will need to use her as a reference if you hope to get any sort of decent gainful employment. You hesitate to dump Vera because she works at Ahmis, and you don’t want to have to deal with the backlash and awkwardness of having a co-worker who is an ex.

 

It is almost the darkest day of the year, and the darkest day of your entire Austin experience, probably the second-darkest day of your life—at least when Roy died, you had Olivia by your side to comfort you. You wonder if maybe, following your hernia surgery three years ago, it was you that died on the operating table, and you are slowly descending into a darker and darker hell, and your little brother didn’t die in the car wreck that same day. Such delusions are relatively easy to dismiss…most of the time.

 

January 15, 2002

“It’s the three year anniversary of his passing,” you say to Vera, “I think I just want to be alone tonight.”

 

“Okay, honey.” She is still being sweet to you because you bought her an expensive object from the mall that she can put on her wall. You’ve also spent a lot more time with her, as you are finding it to be the less costly and ultimately less painful alternative to a night on the town with the gang.

 

“Kevin Smiley?” asks a voice on the phone.

 

“How did you get this number? This is my workplace.”

 

“You were asked to provide an alternative phone number when you signed up for the card. I’m calling because you are two months’ past due on your Citibank card, and five hundred dollars over the balance.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

“So, let’s go ahead and get this taken care of. Adding up the two past payments due, plus the overdrawn balance, the total you owe us is $1096.37. Can you pay the full amount today?”

 

“Ha!”

 

“Come again?”

 

“If I could pay that much, you wouldn’t be talking to me, duh!”

 

“Sir, do you think this is funny?”

 

“I think you’re funny.”

 

“Sir, do you realize what is going to happen if you are unable to pay your cards? Your account is going to go delinquent, and then it will be shut down. This will go on your record for three years. If you are unable to pay the remaining balance on the account…”

 

“I have no money. Bye.”

 

“Who was that?” asks Karen Winthrop.

 

“Nobody. Just some salesman.”

 

“I hate telemarketers. Well, Sweetie, I think we are making a lot of progress in planning the third redesign of the Ahmis website, and I just know that Wanda is going to like our suggestions. How about we continue discussing this over a beer?”

 

“Ah, Karen, you know…I’m kinda tired.”

 

“Come on, let’s just walk over to the Saloon and each have a pint of Guinness. We always get so creative when we discuss the website away from work! And, now that Brock has moved off to San Jose with Mike, I need a new best male friend to fill a void in my life.”

 

“Didn’t your daughter Beulah move in to Brock’s old room with her boyfriend Dwight?”

 

“Yes, but it’s not the same. It’s so delicious having a close male friend I can confide lots of secrets about my love life to, knowing he won’t try anything with me. Tell me how sex is with you and Vera—I want you to dish all the details.”

 

Five Guinness later, after you’ve both had dozens of brilliant ideas about the Ahmis website—having forgotten most of them but recording a few on soggy napkins–you’ve managed to dodge Karen asking you about your love life three times and you are ready to walk home.

 

“Sweetie, I’m in no shape to drive, can you drive me home? I can take you back home in the morning.”

 

“B-b-but.”

 

It is the third and final time you wake up next to Karen in her bed, not having had sex with her or even fooled around with her, and feeling very weird. Karen’s daughter is now living with her again, along with Karen’s daughter’s boyfriend Dwight. Dwight is the first person you see when you walk out into the kitchen so Karen can get dressed for work in private.

 

“Hi Dwight,” you say to a man who is about the same age as you. “I’ve  just shared a bed with your future mother-in-law. Do you feel weird and awkward encountering me at this moment, the way I feel weird and awkward?”

 

“Kevin,” he says, “I’m all man inside. Such feelings are foreign to me. I rarely feel anything at all, other than lust and and tiredness.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Sweetie,” says Karen as she drives you back to your place, “Why do you suppose I have so much horrible luck with men? I keep bringing home a bunch of losers to my bed.”

 

“Karen, have you ever stopped to think that perhaps the problem is you?”

 

“Oh, goodness, no. I could never do that. It would be too painful to examine myself to yield any accountability for problems in my personal life.”

 

March 15, 2002

Wanda, the General Manager of Ahmis, has a surprise announcement to make.

 

“Hello, everyone. I have a surprise announcement to make. You all may know how Karen Winthrop has pretty much been sick, MIA, or working at home all of the past two months.”

 

Most of the self-absorbed lot of your colleagues stand around and shake their heads.

 

Then someone mutters “I didn’t realize it was just these past two months,” and a few people giggle.

 

Wanda is unflappable.

 

“And, a lot of you might remember the Motorola project: how when it came in initially as a Request for Quote, Karen was out sick that day, and nobody in the Production department wanted to step up to the plate and review Motorola’s previous clients’ communications training materials, except for Kevin.”

 

“Yes, I remember,” says Priscilla Shae, the project manager who was supposed to route the project to a Technical Writer first for review, but liked to give sloppy projects directly to Karen and the Production team to handle. “I specifically instructed Production to have a Technical Writer review it before we gave the quote.”

 

Karen speaks up, “I’m sure you did, Sweetie. And, of course, Production always does have a Technical Writer review these projects, right Production?”

 

“Sure,” mutters the collective lot of all of your department, except you, who knows damn well Karen never once asked a Technical Writer to review any of these crappy, low-paying jobs before giving a quote to Priscilla, who never instructs Production to do anything except hurry things up.

 

Wanda speaks again, “And, silly old Kevin, who’s been so wrapped up in the website, naturally holds all of the blame, since he was the one who stepped up to the plate when everyone else in the building was passing this RFQ around, and since he was the only one who took any responsibility for anything on the project during our post-mortem, blame-throwing discussion—silly old Kevin got a proper tongue lashing and a mark in his files for his next review. But, that’s all old news, and not why I’ve gathered you all for the surprise announcement.”

 

“Then let’s hear it!” cries an Editor a little too loud.

 

Wanda giggles nervously. “Okay, so meanwhile, with Karen out sick all the time, and Production pretty much running itself except when Kevin drops the ball—we decided after Karen’s review to PROMOTE HER! Since she has worked so hard on the Ahmis website, I figured it was time for Ahmis to have a real Marketing Director, who would actually create print ads and tradeshow materials that will be more up-to-date than the ones from 1976 we still use.”

 

“Is she going to design the print ads and tradeshow materials in the vein of our website’s Afghan rug aesthetic?” someone mutters.

 

Wanda and Karen pretend not to hear this.

 

“And, in honor of Karen having been here five years, starting out as a contract employee who could barely type, and weaseling her way into the role of Production Manager, and now absenting and blame-throwing her way into the role of Marketing Director—in honor of these wonderful achievements, and because her lips are so firmly planted on my ass at this moment, we are all going to let you eat cake!”

 

“Yay!”

 

“Oh, one other teensy little surprise announcement. Karen Winthrop is going to be the last person we give a raise or bonus to FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR, in honor of the economy being in the toilet.”

 

“What!?” someone cries, “That’s not fair.”

 

Deborah, the operations manager who also has her lips firmly planted on one of Wanda’s ass cheeks (and has just received her own annual review and raise), speaks: “You all should be grateful you even have jobs, now eat this appreciation cake!”

 

“Vera,” you say to your girlfriend as she grabs a healthy portion of the cake, “I am really mad right now. I think I’m going to use you as an excuse to stay away from these people as much as possible, and in spite of the fact that I can’t stand being smothered by your bedcovers you keep tightly tucked under the mattress, and hate spooning with you for more than a few minutes after sex, I’m going to spend the next year buried in your bosoms when I’m not running off all this anger inside of me.”

 

“That sounds really nice, Kevin. I thought it was about time we started having a real relationship. When are your Aunt and Uncle going to be away again, so we can fire up the hot tub?”

 

“Soon, very soon, Vera.”

 

You take your cake back upstairs, and Karen sits down at her desk next to you. “You know, Kevin, any good Marketing Director worth her weight has to have a good Marketing Assistant. And, I was thinking how perfect you would be for the role of my assistant. Then, we could brainstorm creatively every single waking minute, and get drunk at bars for a damn good reason this summer, instead of getting drunk just to get drunk.”

 

“Yeah, Karen, about that, you see, I am one delinquent credit card away from bankruptcy right now, and apparently, for an entire extra year I’m going to be making less than I was making at the state job I left a year and a half ago. I don’t think I can really afford any more bar fun right now.”

 

“But, Kevin, what you don’t understand is that if I can convince Wanda that I need a Marketing Assistant, then Wanda MIGHT, just might make an exception to the wage freeze she’s put in place and have one more surprise announcement for Ahmis! There might even be another cake for everyone.”

 

“More cake? Where?” cries a proofreader strolling past her office.

 

“I’ll think about it, Karen.”

 

“Well, don’t think too long—why put off the decision when you know you want this, you need this.”

 

A somewhat familiar voice comes on the phone.

 

“Kevin, how is the script for our movie coming along?”

 

“Oh, hi Gavi. It’s coming along okay. I mean, we’ve met three or four times now and agreed that you don’t like any of Gore’s ideas, even though he was the one who went to Rwanda and shot all of the footage and did all the interviews. And, since you don’t want to apply a heavy narrative explaining what’s going on, it’s kind of slow progress trying to piece together a story out of hours and hours of raw footage that were copied to several dozen VHS tapes.”

 

“But, you’re starting to put together a storyboard or something?”

 

“Yeah, sure, Gavi.”

 

You’d actually completely forgotten about this project, since it was going nowhere, and you were totally sick of going to Gavi’s bar to smoke a joint up in the VIP lounge while Gavi tried to make bands think he was cool.

 

“Well, I’ve hired one of my bartenders to do the editing using a brand new Mac and Final Cut Pro video editing software.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, but you’re still the writer, or the director, or something. But, my bartender needs to know what footage to cut up. That’s where you come in.”

 

“Gosh, that’s really hard to do with raw footage unless I’m behind the wheel. Can’t I get a shot at learning the software? I’ve used some video editing software before, and it makes it a lot easier to grab what I want if I’m right there, instead of fast-forwarding and rewinding a crappy old VCR.”

 

“Maybe, Kevin. What I really want to do, is have you come and meet my bartender, who hasn’t been part of the project at all, who is going to act like he’s too cool for us before walking out of our meeting to flirt with chicks—but I still think he’s more loyal to me than you are since he smokes more than his share of weed, and therefore gets this role. What do you think about that, Kevin?”

 

“That sounds kind of nice, Gavi. But, deep inside, it really pisses me off. However, since you put something in my head that first time we got high together, I get vaguely anxious when I’m around you, and so instead of being a man and telling you where you can take your stupid movie project, I’m going to just stop taking your calls or replying to your emails, until after a year has passed and you’ve given up on trying to get in touch with me for good.”

 

“You can do that, Kevin, but you know that I know where you work and live, since I used to work at Ahmis, and I live a block away from you.”

 

“I’m going to be at my girlfriend Vera’s almost every night for the rest of the year, because I not only want to avoid confronting you, I’d also like to keep away from Karen Winthrop as much as possible.”

 

“Is your girlfriend Vera pretty? You never did bring her by my bar.”

 

“Why do you always ask me that? What the hell do you care if she’s pretty or not?”

 

“That’s just what guys ask guys, Kevin. You’d know that if you were a real man. But, since you aren’t, and you’re going to weasel your way out of my life, I’m still going to appear to you in dreams for years to come. Remember, I have access to the spirit world.”

 

And, so it begins, the summer of the endless, anger-fueled run.

 

You don’t completely stop smoking cigarettes, as you have one or two or three or four every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night on Vera’s back porch.

 

You don’t completely stop drinking, as you share two bottles of wine with her twice a week, and stop at Whole Foods or 7-11 to buy whatever is on sale two more nights out of the week.

 

But, you don’t stop running, either. You run harder than you’ve ever run, running 10 miles every single weekday morning in the Austin summer heat, and running 15 miles once a week on a Saturday or Sunday.

 

Year 4

 

The Summer of 2002

Looking back from the vantage point of where you are sitting here at the end of 2008, your wake-up time that summer seems incredibly late. In fact, now that you are a common, “8-5 with lunch break” sort of office schmuck, you only get up at 7 AM the mornings you really feel the need to sleep in late. Otherwise, it’s 5:30, weekdays or not. Telling some hard ass out there that you were getting up at 7 AM every day that summer would make that hard ass laugh and say, “so you were really still out late partying that summer, huh?”

 

But, for you, after the Endless Happy Hour Summer of the year before, 7 AM was righteously hard ass, defiantly hardcore. You kept your old work schedule of 10 AM – 6 PM, with no lunch break, and spent your first three hours of the morning stepping out of the door of your tiny, studio apt on West 11th St., going out the back way, down the alley that runs between 10th and 11th, and hearing U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” in your head—the song you’ve played throughout your life when you are getting cleaned up again, and you can feel the winds of change blowing you in the right direction.

 

The sun would have just risen, and you might have bothered to stretch a few of your leg muscles in the alleyway, taking your time walking through the Clarksville neighborhood, before reaching 6th St., and breaking into a run to make it across the street just in time to hit both lights correctly, so you don’t have to stop at the light on 5th St. There are no condos over here by the railroad tracks in the year 2002, just some beat old buildings that were marked for demolition and development before the economy went south last year. You don’t care about how the economy has stalled, or how Karen Winthrop got promoted while you got a wage freeze handed to you…no, wait, you definitely care.

 

This makes you very MAD to think about this huge injustice that’s been heaped upon your head after you worked so damn hard all those days last year out in the break area, chainsmoking cigarettes and poring over source code, trying to figure out how the heck to build a website. You’re mad because Gavi Ashkenazi and Karen Winthrop are calling you almost every day to go do something with them—come work on the movie, Kevin, come have a beer and discuss our web design company that’s gone nowhere since I’m too lazy to hold up my end of the deal and get us a DBA and business bank account.

 

Or, Perry Webber might be sneaking up on you at any moment to try to talk you into a night of wings and rock bands. Or, that silly girlfriend of yours Vera could be emailing you right now letting you know how much she enjoyed or did not enjoy the boilerplate evening with you: menthol cigarettes, wine, appetizers, dinner, wine, sex, cigarettes, television, bed.

 

If Vera is emailing you right now, it means that it’s one of the three mornings you still go over to her place to spend the night, as she flatly refuses to set foot inside your studio, having not been there since the first night a year ago she drank you under the table and crashed at your place. If it’s one of these mornings, then you are not home yet to start running, but making your way up Lamar from her apartment that backs up to the Barton Greenbelt—a natural place the two of you never explored together because of her flat feet and aversion to anything in the outdoors.

 

She’s gotten used to you needing to be up and out of her place at 7 AM, and in fact, she kind of likes the fact the two of you no longer languidly spoon and cuddle up until the last possible minute before she needs to get ready for work. Since Vera is a compulsive neat freak, she will need two hours to rearrange the strange, expensive objects hanging on her walls and sitting on her tables, dust them, then sort her inexpensive jewelry, try some of it on, then put it back in its box.

 

You will be racing home as fast as you can in your tiny little four cylinder Mirage up Lamar before rush hour traffic hits, so you can dash into your apt and throw on your jogging attire—grabbing a drink of water if it’s after the day you peed blood because you were so dehydrated—and dashing through Clarksville, dodging cars on 6th and 5th, passing dilapidated old buildings near the railroad tracks so you can catch up with the you that is already down on the trail because he didn’t spend the night with his girlfriend Vera.

 

You both merge somewhere on the trail to become the general Composite You of the Summer of 2002, and then you run the seven-mile loop of I-35 and Mopac, still afraid to venture east of I-35 much (as this won’t happen for another few years when another girlfriend demands that you stop being a man manqué and start being a man, but you are getting ahead of yourself), covering a three-mile round-trip to get down to Town Lake, making your total = ten miles of pure, anger-fueled running.

 

Any time you start to slow down along the way, or stop to think about the world around you, or consider stopping and cutting the run short, and walking back home, you just have some little thought of Karen Winthrop lounging at home, collecting her big fat paycheck as Marketing Director, while you slave away in the Ahmis sweatshop, or catch a vision of Olivia’s new man waking up next to her in her home, pausing to kick your dog before stumbling off to band rehearsal or wherever he takes his scruffy, smoke-covered self after he’s thoroughly enjoyed Olivia, or sneak a thought of Gavi stopping by the Ahmis building and belittling you in front of Vera and everyone for what a miserable Grasshopper you are, or find yourself cringing at the thought of Perry Webber convincing you that it’s in your best interest to be drunk and full of chicken wings while watching bands this evening, or…

 

Millions of other little scenarios of people you’ve allowed to get the better of you calling you, sneaking up behind you, screwing you over, breaking your heart, telling you how much you suck and will always be a loser needing beer and cigarettes and pot—your venture into health is being fueled by a ton of anger, be it healthy for you or not. But, for the time being, you are channeling it all into these morning runs, and when someone does say to you, “hey Kevin, we need to go out and have fun tonight,” you simply say, “thanks but Vera and I are going to be very busy doing the exact same thing we do almost every night.” And, as you become more adept at telling people no, you discover you actually can lie pretty well, telling everyone but Vera that you’re spending time with Vera, and telling Vera on more than a few nights that you are spending time with other people—and, oh, this is when you get to rediscover authentically delicious solitude.

 

After over a year of needing to be somewhere for someone else every single waking second, you stumble upon a night to yourself in your studio apartment that was earned from lying to every single person in your life. And, it’s the best night you’ve had in a long time. Your thoughtful mother has purchased you a small, 13″ color TV “so you can see when the weather’s going to be inclement,” and you find yourself thrilling to a non-stop Tejano video channel—Mas Musica TeVe, as well as all of your favorite infomercials and bad Sci-Fi dramas.

 

There’s nothing quite like having no money at the end of a pay period, and walking down to 7-11 with two dollars and some change, and buying two giant cans of Busch beer, looking like a complete bum in your flannel shirt, and having the clerk ask you if you want your cans in two little paper bags. Moments like that make you spend more and more nights 100% sober.

 

When August rolls around, and it’s time for the Willie Nelson 10K, you’ve ran almost every single morning in the Central Texas summer heat, preparing your body for an August morning where temperatures are already in the upper 90s by the end of the race.

 

You will run your best 10K ever, beating even Vern Trotter, the resident Ahmis marathon runner and womanizing freakshow. Vern has to stop repeatedly to walk, and you simply plow on through them hills, passing hundreds of Texans on the verge of heatstroke.

 

What a wonderfully rewarding feeling!

 

Congratulations.

 

You of 2008, who has been floating overhead, cheering on your angry 2002 self, has some unfortunate news for that self—the worst is far from over, and you are not even close to being cleaned up and respectable. But, the you of 2002 knows this, because Karen still gets under your skin, you still wish you could break up with Vera but don’t have the heart to tell her since she crashed her Mazda into a guy’s Corvette and cried a lot, and since she moved out of her apartment she was renting with her lovely, skinny blond best girlfriend (who always popped in to lounge around in her pajamas) and is now all on her own, and since she left Ahmis…

 

wait, Vera left Ahmis?

 

That’s right. Vera is leaving Ahmis by the end of this year, and now you no longer have to worry about what people at work will say behind your back if you break up with her and she cries to them and complains what an asshole you are.

 

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves again, aren’t we?

 

You still stop in at your house in Oak Hill every weekend to grab your dog, but Olivia has made it clear she can’t stand this. Her roommate has complained about the fact you have a key and can come and go when you like, and so at first you just had to call ahead, but now, you are on the verge of losing your key. Anyway, Doug Johnson needs a key to your house, as he’s moving in to live in your house permanently.

 

You grow sad one Saturday afternoon standing out on your back porch, looking at your koi pond and the nice view you have of telephone wires, trees and other Oak Hill houses, and think how wonderful it would have been if you could have gotten the really kickass webmaster job, and the economy didn’t tank, and you drove up one day in a brand new Isuzu Trooper for Olivia followed by the jacuzzi installation guy—you, the conquering hero, pushing Doug Johnson out into the streets and reclaiming your castle.

 

But, alas, you are stuck in a wage freeze at Ahmis, and Doug is touring internationally with his band, finding scores of fans in Helsinki and Amsterdam, Japan and Sydney—all wearing mod hair cuts and folding their arms contemplatively while they nod hypnotically to his grungy, prog rock sounds.

 

That’s okay, because you still have your loving Mom and Dad, who are waiting for you and Anastasia out in Bastrop, who will let you spend the night so you don’t have to drive all the way back to Oak Hill the same day with your dog, which would also require an excuse to Vera for why you want to spend a Saturday night alone. Your parents will be out there tending a garden, playing with their growing family of feral and house cats, and talking about the ways they’re occupying their retired lives.

 

Your mom, after several stops and starts, is still pursuing her nursing education, and your dad is puttering around in his backyard and workshop. You wish you had some grandkids to offer them, but you just aren’t ready or able to take that next step with Vera, and settle for a fat, happy wife, becoming fat and happy yourself, leading a joyful suburban life with church Christmas pageants and backyard barbecues.

 

And, like every single summer for many years to come, when it starts getting too dark to run at night or in the morning, and too cold to light a hotter fire of anger to fuel your runs, you start stopping more and more at Whole Foods for their discounted Murphy’s Stout four-packs, and spending more time listening to Alex Jones’ radio show and masturbating to porn on the internet (but not at the same time), waking up just in time to stumble down the hill to the doors of Ahmis. By November, your resolve has weakened to the point where you are the one who is planning the revival of a once-cherished tradition.

 

November 12, 2002

“I’m making home made wings and Dennis is bringing a pack of cards and some other games,” you say proudly to Perry Webber, whose eyes light up with beatific joy. “I am resurrecting Wing Night, homestyle.”

 

“Are you buying any beer or do you want me to?”

 

“I’m getting a couple of six-packs of Lone Star tallboys, but you all should bring what you want as well.”

 

“How about I bring some magic mushrooms?” asks Dennis.

 

“That sounds fabulous. I remember doing magic mushrooms in college with my friend Jerry. We had such powerful, positive experiences creating artwork and making music together. What I don’t remember, is how I had the luxury of being able to skip class the entire next day if I took shrooms on a weekday. So, even though Karen Winthrop has arranged tomorrow to have a web/teleconference with Priscilla and an important, prospective Ahmis strategic partner to discuss how Ahmis can begin providing more web-based corporate communications services, I’m going to agree to eat those shrooms with you and Perry Webber.”

 

“Wing night?” cries Kathryn. “Did I hear there is going to be a wing night? I’m bringing my effeminate boyfriend.”

 

“And, I’m bringing two of my dearest friends,” says Deidre.

 

“And, I might stop by as well,” says Jennifer.

 

“I will never participate in any of your most cherished activities with you, Kevin,” says your girlfriend Vera.

 

Your tiny studio apartment will soon have as many or more people crammed into it than there were at your housewarming party two years ago when folks had an entire month to save the date.

 

They will be loud, obnoxious, sloppy and crazy. You’ll be trying to have a conversation with Deidre, but feel incredibly weird with your head full of shrooms. It will be the exact opposite of an atmosphere conducive to creativity. Perry will pull out your guitar and keyboard and destroy them, then heavily hit on Deidre.

 

You’ll suddenly find yourself alone with Perry and Deidre, and Deidre is walking out your door to go home.

 

“Where is everyone?” you ask,  “are you going to drive Perry home? He’s in no shape to drive.”

 

At this point, Perry is drooling and falling over himself, and muttering sloppy confessions of love to Deidre.

 

“I’m not driving him home—he doesn’t live in my direction, and he’s been putting his hands and stinky mouth all over me tonight. Forget it. Call Dennis. Didn’t he say he was coming back?”

 

“Dennis, where are you?” you cry into the phone, “I thought you were going to take Perry home.”

 

“Dude, it’s almost 4 AM, I’m in bed and blissfully coming down from my little shroom trip. The last thing I want to do is drive back over to your place and get Perry.”

 

“I’ll just drive home!” cries Perry, stumbling into a chair.

 

“No, way,” you say. “Here’s an old sleeping bag and a blanket. I guess you’ll crash here and I’ll try to get you home before my meeting in eight hours.”

 

***

 

A stale blanket of smoke hung dead in the air of your studio apartment by the time you finally cared to peel back your gummy eyelids. It must only be eight in the morning, you thought, performing a quick check on your level of alertness. Still need at least another three hours of sleep. The clock said 12 pm. Shit.

 

You almost stepped on Perry, flinging yourself out of bed to reach the ringing phone.  Perry seemed perfectly content to be three hours late to work.

 

Hello?”

 

So, are you coming in or what?” Karen asked coldly, and you could tell she was pissed about something. Oh, shit, the Brandenburg people were talking to us via webcam today. You had blissfully forgotten about the meeting the moment the shrooms finally lost their hold on you. It will take three days for her to completely forgive you for skipping this meeting.

 

Uh, yeah, I just was so sick, and…”

 

Dennis told me you would probably be in late today. Get here as fast as you can.”

 

The sky was like a fat pregnant rat, sickly gray, and grossly pressing its cloudy weight down on the noonday traffic. Men and women in safe, respectable clothing were piloting oversize American-made conveyances to and from cholesterol lunches, and you were now supposed to be one of them. Sort of.

 

In spite of the midday darkness cast by thick clouds, the outside light was still too unbearable for your bloodshot eyes. Perry rolled over, and muttered in his sleep, and you decided to let him continue to wallow in his hangover haze while you attempted to discover if there was any life left in you.

 

You popped two multivitamins, and washed them down with a quart of OJ that was a day away from going bad. Coffee. You needed some coffee. You had half a pot sitting in the Mr. Coffee from three days past. With a little milk and sugar, and a good solid two-minute nuke to kill off any bacteria, it was almost as good as any pot you could produce from the Ahmis coffee maker.

 

Standing in the shower you lost complete track of time. The sound of the phone ringing, and Perry attempting to pick up the receiver snapped you out of your reverie. You realized you were still very drunk. And probably stoned. And maybe a little bit tripping.

 

Suddenly, the very thought of going back to Ahmis and the website and Karen Winthrop—all of this overwhelmed you with the deepest dread you’d ever felt in your life. All of the promises you’d made to people that you could never keep. All of the people (okay, just one—Olivia) you’d hurt in your attempt to be free again.

 

Driving Perry to his apartment in your tiny car felt like a ride out on hell’s Autobahn. All of the chemicals in your body shifted, and time slowed into unspeakable stillness. It felt like Perry and you were doomed to spend eternity in your crappy vehicle going endlessly up MoPac freeway, staring out the window, and letting the wind whip up into your terse faces. That’s what hell must be, you thought, you are forever heading toward a destination with some hungover dude—left only with memories of the Olivias you’d known.

 

The air outside was muggy, and the sun was now breaking up the clouds—your pregnant rat of a sky had gotten an abortion. That’s what your life felt like at this moment, an abortion. A series of promising tasty fruits withering away on the mothervine.

 

Karen Winthrop dutifully ignored you. She was yukking it up in the office with the new IT guy, discussing her cats and boyfriends. She knew you were waiting for her to get you up to speed on what happened with the Brandenburg people. You checked your email ten times, but the only person who ever really sent you anything to your Ahmis email address was Karen herself, and she’d opted not to. You read Yahoo! news, and checked up on Ebay for a guitar you were bidding on.

 

Getting up to empty your bladder of the orange juice and coffee, Karen stopped you in mid-stride.

 

They really liked your real-time, web training services idea,” she said, “but their software isn’t equipped to deliver something like that, yet. They do seem to have a pretty robust content management system.”

 

Oh,” you smiled, and she smiled. Karen began the process of forgiving and forgetting by simply not saying another word about the infraction you committed. (If she was the one who screwed up, she had a way of going through a routine of putting the blame on straw men, playing the victim then milking any ensuing guilt she succeed in putting over on you for being upset with her.)

 

You made a motion toward the door. Karen never took any cues from body language and verbal modulation to shut up.

 

Yeah, and I also had this idea while I was meeting with them about making our logo pop some more, make it more 3D, what do you think?”

 

Great.” You did a small shift with your feet to indicate a full bladder.

 

You think so? I also wanted to really explore further how we could add some features to our website, you know, make it more interactive…”

 

Right, you’d mentioned that. It sounds wonderful.”

 

Karen proceeded to go into a litany of every single train of thought she’d had in the last twelve hours. Thirty minutes later, you found myself chuckling with her over the same cat story you’d first heard upon arriving that day, and at that point, decided to attempt to tell her bluntly that you needed to use the bathroom. This brought her into wind-down mode, and fifteen minutes later, you found yourself gasping with that shocking, tear-swelled pleasure of emptying a bladder.

 

Downstairs in the admin pool, your girlfriend Vera wouldn’t even speak to you. You were starting to feel the hangover lift, and your mood was further lightened by the fact that you would be able to go back to bed and sleep in thirty minutes.

 

I kept trying to call you and e-mail you, and you never called or wrote me back. I walked by and saw you busy yukking it up with her.” Vera turned a cold shoulder to you after hissing from her open cubicle. She worked with a bunch of middle-aged ladies who all winked at you and quizzed you about your relationship. Dating a coworker had taken on this feeling of shitting where you ate, for want of a better term.

 

I’m sorry.”

 

Whatever.”

 

Why are you so mad? Can’t I have a little fun anymore?”

 

You go out with those people, and you have absolutely no self control. I thought you were trying to change.”

 

I am. I just decided to have a little fun last night. You knew I was going to. What’s the big deal?”

 

I think it’s a really big deal when you get so shitfaced, you can’t even pick up the phone before noon.” She abruptly turned back to her work, and you shrugged your shoulders. God, you wanted to dump her so badly. What the hell was wrong with you? Oh, right, you were a man manqué who couldn’t follow through with anything you needed to.

 

So, do you still want to hang out tonight, or what?”

 

Maybe, maybe not.”

 

This meant that you would proceed to send thirty e-mails back and forth the rest of the day, and have a lengthy phone conversation, in which she would continue to make you feel like shit, and you would gradually apologize more and more. You would ask her if she wanted you to come over, and she would ask if you really wanted to, and you would say, yes, but only if she really wanted you to.

The wing night of November 12, 2002 was your last wing night, ever.

 

December 14, 2002

Well, you thought, there I was, ready to dump Vera once the holidays were over, and we both could feel like we were getting on with our new lives. Vera had taken a job at a pharma company shortly after the last wing night, and seemed to be adjusting to her new job quite well. She still hung out regularly with her old roommate, and found new friends at her women’s only gym.

 

You didn’t have the heart to dump her right before the holidays, but some time in January would be perfect. Then, you could really focus on getting disciplined about living clean, and living right, and discover the beautiful skinny, blond girlfriend you deserved.

 

Except, one of your parents’ cats has gotten knocked up again, before they had a chance to fix her, and they have given away all of the kittens but one.

 

“I want a Christmas kitten!” cries Vera. “Now that I live all alone, and you’re spending the night here less frequently, I need someone around on those lonely, cold Austin nights to make me feel safe. A little kitten that I can declaw because I’m too lazy to train it not to scratch the furniture will be the perfect addition to my collection of wall ornaments and jewelry.”

 

“Vera, I don’t know about this,” you say as the two of you drive out to Bastrop, “On one hand, I really would like to see my parents relieved of having so many of these little surrogate grandchildren running around their place. Because, there is the offhand chance that with the kittens gone, the dog will be allowed to run free again on the property like she used to. However, if you get a kitten, and we break up, won’t you want to destroy it?”

 

“Why on earth would I do that?”

 

“Well, you know how girls are. They destroy everything that reminds them of their exes. And, some kitten you get with my parents isn’t any different, is it? Every time you see her, she’ll remind you of me, and so you’ll want to put her down or get rid of her. So, I’ll feel kind of guilty then about leaving you like I intend to do this January, because you’ll have this little life in your hands that came from my parents.”

 

“Kevin, I hate to say it, but if you’re wanting to leave me, just leave me. There’s always going to be some little drama in my life that gets me all bent out of shape and makes me cry like I’m ten years old, and makes you feel like you’d be wrecking me completely if you left at that moment. The best time to get out of a relationship is both now and never.”

 

“I see, so what you’re saying is that I’m still too much of a man manqué to just cut you loose, and I keep finding this or that excuse not to.”

 

“Exactly. But, I’ll pretend we never had this conversation, so you can think really long and hard about whether you want to shit or get off the pot, and by shit, I mean, marry me, of course.”

 

You’ve told her about your grandma’s nice expensive ring that you’re supposed to inherit when you get married. In spite of Vera’s love of cheap jewelry, she seems more than willing to have an expensive ring placed on her finger at any moment.

 

“Hi Mom and Dad, you’ve met Vera once last spring when we had lunch for my birthday.”

 

“Hi Vera,” says your mom, “You are a very sweet woman, and if you are what Kevin decides is best for him, then I can live with it, although, I’ve always kind of expected him to do better in the looks department.”

 

“Yes, Vera,” says your dad, “While many of the Smiley women are big-boned Texan women like yourself, the Smiley men tend to go for more petite wives, being men who are highly athletic, smart and successful at whatever they do. Kevin here is kind of a slow-starter, but, that’s okay. I was, too. I met and married my beautiful, petite wife at the age of 28, but I was also a fully-developed man by then. I’m not exactly sure what Kevin is up to with this man manqué business of his.”

 

“Those are all kind words, you know,” says Vera, “And, I am so honored that you all are making me feel like I would be quite welcome as a future daughter-in-law, but I really just want to focus on looking at your remaining kitten to see if she would make a nice accessory to my random collection of things I use to decorate my apartment; and picture her tiny self declawed, sedated, and perched on my bed.”

 

“Dad,” you say, when Vera goes off to look at the kitten with your mom, “how did you know that mom was the right one for you?”

 

“Well, son, your mother was very pretty and six years younger than me. I don’t think I could have done much better. I realized that, in spite of the millions of differences we would have throughout our marriage and all the times I wish I had someone more compatible with my outlook on life, a very pretty wife was the only kind of wife for me.”

 

“So, you’re saying that being comfortable and happy just isn’t enough if the wife’s not pretty?”

 

“Well, that’s how I feel about it—for me, son. You have to decide what it is you can and can’t live with.”

 

“Kevin,” cries Vera running up to you, “Look at our—my little baby.”

 

She beams with childlike pleasure as the kitten jumps around on her arms and shoulders.

 

“Kevin, let’s hurry up this lunch with your parents, so we can get my little kitty back to my apartment and pretend we’re its mom and dad.”

 

“That sounds fantastic. Merry Christmas, Vera.”

 

“Oh, Kevin, silly, you still need to buy me lots of cheap jewelry, in addition to this small kitten.”

Year 5

 

April 11, 2003

“Kevin, I think our relationship is going quite well. Having this little kitten Iris in our lives has made a huge difference in how we communicate with each other. It’s made you a sweeter lover, and you’ve slowed down a bit so I can feel some pleasure of my own when we make love.”

 

“Yeah, the kitty does bring out a certain amount of tenderness in me. And, seeing how much you dote on her, it causes my heart to have a fair degree of fondness for you.”

 

“I think this road trip we are taking to Ft. Worth may very well put us completely on the path to marriage.”

 

“Well now, Vera, I let’s not jump too far ahead of ourselves. I am excited to be leaving the Austin/Bastrop area for the first time since September 2001 when I went to Jamaica, and I am happy that I am taking this trip with you, but I do have plans to continue my path of self improvement, and I am not sure yet where that will lead me.”

 

“But, we will always be the best of friends, no matter what happens, right?”

 

“That’s correct. However, I’ve started to notice that since I’ve been running again—picking up where I left off last November, and lifting weights, I am starting to be—on a hotness scale of 1 to 10—more of a 7 than a 6. And, I’m afraid that no matter how hard you work at it and go to the gym, and act sweetly around me and little Iris, you are always going to be at best a 6. Heck, I might even make it all the way to an 8 before this summer’s over.”

 

“I highly doubt that, Kevin. Your face always breaks out when we stop having sex for several weeks, and you are losing so much hair now.”

 

What she says is true. Some time after Jamaica and the most intensely stressful moments with Karen Winthrop at Ahmis, the shower and sink started to collect more than a little of your hair. This doesn’t appear to be letting up, either. You heard tales that your maternal grandfather was completely bald by the age of 27, and you are now 27. However, you are still not totally convinced that it isn’t possible for a man to be an 8, and bald. You’ve overheard some of Vera’s friends saying how sexy they think Vin Diesel is.

 

The two of you get briefly lost in Round Rock. When they still lived in Missouri, you visited your parents by going up MoPac to I-35, but now the entire area has been built up with condos, chain restaurants and outlet stores.

 

“So, Vera, tell me something.”

 

“Sure, Kevin.”

 

“Do you ever start to feel like maybe some ideal American Dream like having a house in the suburbs and being fat and happy with children, and working at unimportant office jobs is really an illusive, empty sort of existence, and that people who go through life eating at places like The Olive Garden and The Sirloin Stockade and shopping at Circuit City every weekend are like a bunch of feudal lords in a global system where the rest of the world are our serfs?”

 

“Um, no Kevin. I am quite happy with knowing that one day I will be leading that kind of existence and dying in a small home in the suburbs surrounded by grandchildren and Christmas cards and my last kitty Iris VIII and lots of weird knick-knacks. I would hope that any man who wants to be my husband would be looking forward to something similar. Besides, you sound kind of like Alex Jones when you talk like this.”

 

“Well, Alex Jones makes a lot of valid points. I mean think about it—recently, a commentator on NPR made an observation that echoed my own sentiments. He briefly touched on the mystery of how video and audio tapes have come to represent the sole burden of proof as to who was the mastermind behind the WTC bombing of ’93 and September 11, as well as the ‘smoking gun’ linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein. Magically, these tapes seem to surface right when our government would seem to need them the most.”

 

“That’s great, Kevin, but it’s just a theory, I mean—”

 

“One doesn’t need a lot of secret documents or press releases outside of the mainstream press to ask the tough question: ‘Is the Bush administration or another conspiracy of elites responsible for September 11?’ Try this train of thought on, and see how it fits you: If the Al Qaeda were 100% backed (both financially and strategically) by Islamic fundamentalists, and if there are several hotspots on the globe right now where well-moneyed terrorists plot the destruction of the United States, then why was September 11 followed by some paltry, anthrax-sprinkled letters, one goofy-looking guy with a shoe bomb, and a father-son sniper team who all proven to be mere sympathizers of the causes of groups like Al Qaeda? I mean, where are all the other well-planned, well-funded terrorists attacks we’d expect from an organization that could pull off 9-11?”

 

“Kevin, you make some nice points, but I’d like to focus on our little three-day weekend getaway.”

 

“Vera, I know that you are able to think outside of what the mainstream media sells you. That’s one of the things that first attracted me to you.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You had the guts to wear a Ralph Nader t-shirt long after the Florida recounts were over, and Bush was made King.”

 

“Kevin, I was heavily into smoking pot at the time, and thought that Nader would legalize marijuana. I was kind of naive.”

 

“Well, consider this—if the evils of terrorism are so great as to necessitate shredding the constitution with the Patriot Act, sending young men and women all over the globe to wait to die, and groping old women in airports-if all of these actions are truly necessary to fight a monster-why hasn’t the monster shown its face in more places?”

 

“Kevin, I think you made your point well enough already.”

 

“You have to ask yourself that if there are evil desperate men out there who acted 100% independently of anybody in our government on September 11 to create such a well-planned large-scale attack, would they not have struck us repeatedly? Our borders are pretty large, and it would be impossible to prevent several more swarthy, sinister men backed by folks like bin Laden from crossing over from Canada with suitcases full of bad stuff.”

 

“Kevin, really…”

 

“If you choose to respond to this by saying that September 11 was the ultimate blowout for terrorists worldwide, that the reason nothing even close to it in scale has been attempted is because 9-11 was the magnum opus of the terrorists, then why are we getting more serious about destroying the constitution and sending young people off to die and being more earnest in our searches of old ladies in airports-all for the sake of freedom and security?

 

“If you choose to respond to this by saying that all of these efforts to fight terrorism have worked since 9-11, and this is why the past two Super Bowls and New Years celebrations didn’t end with a major bombings or anthrax scares, then why does the White House want to pass through Patriot Act II, thereby snuffing the life out of our civil liberties once and for all?”

 

“Kevin, let’s listen to some music. Would you look in my CD case, and pull out something nice?”

 

“How about some System of a Down? Those are some great, socially conscious rockers.”

 

“Yeah, I went to their concert about a year ago, remember?”

 

“Yep, and you didn’t even ask me if I wanted to go before you bought tickets and went with your hot, ex-roommate and all of your old, pothead friends.”

 

“I didn’t think you liked heavy music.”

 

“Well, I do, and you know how you’re always complaining about us not doing more stuff as a couple—but, you went and got tickets without asking me if I wanted to come along.”

 

“You were totally broke at the time, having just bought a very expensive Christmas gift for me at the mall. Now—let’s just focus on the here and now, and enjoy our vacation.”

 

You pick up your train of thought again: “Of course, there are all the other suspicious questions you can find at any self-respecting conspiracy site-why did Mr. Bush remain in that class of children for thirty minutes unperturbed after being informed of the attacks? Why couldn’t the second plane have been stopped, at the very least? Isn’t it kind of odd that bin Laden and the Bush family have deep connections, and bin Laden was trained by the CIA? Why has there been no major independent investigation (hell, they wanted Henry fucking Kissinger of all people to head up one) of the events of September 11?”

 

“Kevin, 9-11 is old news and everyone has moved on. We’ve now started fighting an illegitimate war. Why don’t you think about some constructive ways Americans can strive for peace and to end this war, instead of complaining about events you had no control over?”

 

“It is beautiful to see so many of my fellow countrymen interested in peace. Seeing people get active and vocal about how Iraq is for nothing more than oil is a wonderful thing. But why weren’t these people asking hard questions and blowing painful whistles after September 11? We were all too scared to say a word, that’s why—frightened into thinking that affixing a small plastic American flag to our antennas would make things right, would make us right. Very few of us called upon history to note the similarity between the burning of the Reichstag and Hitler’s subsequent behavior to September 11 and Mr. Bush’s subsequent behavior.”

 

“Kevin, you do a great Alex Jones impersonation, but it’s not setting the right tone for our getaway.”

 

“Is Osama bin Laden a patsy, a Lee Harvey Oswald? Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that there are a lot of people out there who hate Americans, and cheered when they saw the World Trade Center collapse. I would, if properly convinced, even be willing to arrange my point of view to be one that believes Mr. Bush has done everything possible to make sure I can rest easy tonight—all because I am an American citizen and he truly cares about me. But Mr. Bush has every reason to be up to no good, to be interested in securing even more power for the world Elites, and destroying even more of my freedom.”

 

“Kevin, would you shut up and look at the map and tell me how much longer until we get to Waco?”

 

“Waco—now there’s a whole other can of worms we could open up, but, anyway—it just blows my mind that those of Republican bent, and even those of other political affiliations, can go to sleep at night thinking that some rich powerful man who treated his home state as a clearinghouse for corporate interests, ran roughshod over the Presidential election to make sure he won, and was and is deep in the pockets of large evil corrupt corporations-this same individual is hard at work protecting my interests because he cares about me, some average white middle class American male.

 

“The problem, ultimately—and this will probably come up in my trains of thought time and time again—is that we the people are lazy, interested in bread and circuses, and through our apathy and interests in sports and movies and TV shows, are happily letting Mr. Bush run the country how he pleases through our implied consent. A few of us are so stupid as to think he is hard at work looking out for our interests. A few less are angry at him, but would never stop to ask what role he might have played in orchestrating September 11. And the rest of us are branded conspiracy nuts the second we open our traps, or accused of hating America, or being unpatriotic, or aiding and abiding terrorists, or any other defamation some ignorant individual can think of to help reinforce his/her sense of being on the right side of history.

 

“History is a fickle mistress, though, sometimes seeming at best forgetful and at worst unforgiving. But those who seek the light of Truth are rewarded, and those who accept Truth from known Liars are deceived all the days of their lives.”

 

“Whatever, you are just getting more worked up about all this conspiracy stuff, because you don’t want to do it with me anymore—like in that Woody Allen movie you love so much where he talks about JFK conspiracy theories when he doesn’t want to do it.”

 

“That’s not true!”

 

“Sure it is. Now, look. The hotel you’ve booked for us is going to be too rundown and smelly for my tastes, and so I’m going to ask that we get a soulless sort of motel that’s just been built, has smaller rooms, and smells like industrial-strength wallpaper glue, and have us spend more money on that. I have a moderately sexy black negligee waiting in one of my suitcases that I can throw over me. And, after a few beers and in the warm glow of a hotel nightstand light, I’ll actually look adorable to you again.”

 

“Maybe so.”

 

“And then, you can stop thinking so much about the problems of the world, and being such a man manqué, and focus on becoming a simple, oversexed man growing fat and happy with his fat and happy wife.”

 

“Maybe for a few months, anyway.”

 

May 16, 2003

So then, you and Vera prepare an awesome seafood and alfredo pizza, and consume it with wine. You are enjoying each other’s company, drinking wine and discussing things. The two of you step outside on her second-story back porch to enjoy the outdoors, and her young de-clawed cat Iris follows you outside. After fearfully retrieving her young cat from the edge of the porch, Vera plops the feline back indoors and pulls the sliding glass door shut. The force of the door closing shut causes the security bar to fall down. This is a great way to find out where your relationship stands. How long can you tolerate a weepy woman on a second-story back porch where security has consumed your freedom?

 

You did remarkably poorly. After her third time bursting into tears, with your own burst of violent rage you shut up the hippies several houses away who were playing guitar and singing. Astonishingly, the usual Saturday night Tejano party behind you wasn’t happening. The dude below that the two of you nicknamed California for his overall dudish/surfer look was gone, the scrawny intellectual next door was gone, and nobody else seemed home in Vera’s entire apartment complex.

 

If it were a fire or an axe murderer, you would have gladly risked breaking your leg on the fifteen foot drop below, however, you found it rather unappealing to incur a potential hospital bill when someone was going to come home eventually.  And, being a man manqué and all, you were intimidated by the thought of making such a jump and the potential ensuing pain, and got angrier at a flashing memory of Karen Winthrop and your Jamaican driver taunting you to jump off a cliff near Rick’s Cafe.

 

One of the Tejano neighbors finally showed up, and you started yelling, rather angrily, because you were rather angry by then. This prompted the scrawny intellectual, who’d just arrived home, to step out on his back porch next door. The Tejano muttered “your neighbor has arrived,” and retreated to his porch, and then the guy next door called the apartment manager who called maintenance who performed a neat break to Vera’s window via a ladder route (because Vera had locked the top lock on her front door).

 

This entire experience prompted a lot of philosophical thought about the brotherhood of man, and how in spite of the fact that your particular problem sounded more like a violent domestic dispute than a stupid embarrassing situation, nobody bothered to do a damn thing about it. And then, there is of course the whole issue of how beefed up security completely trumped all freedom and sense of freedom.

 

The kind scrawny intellectual next door passed you some hotel mini-bar-sized bottles of wine so you weren’t completely without comfort in you forty-five minute nightmare.

 

You tried, standing in Vera’s kitchen, to make some kind of analogy about the securities and freedoms of the U.S. citizens and how they are being twisted in unexpected ways because the security bars on the sliding glass doors don’t seem to be stopping the burglars, but rather locking the citizens out in favor of giving them temporary impressions of freedom like small bottles of cheap wine, but you decided not to bother her with that, and instead, the two of you just went to bed and slept at opposite ends, not making love or even touching.

 

You now know for certain you will never ask her to marry you, because you know that any marriage is going to have far worse drama thrown at it—and if the two of you can only react to SNAFUs by crying and yelling, it is going to be a rocky marriage. A woman who loses her cool over something like that (and causes you to lose your cool), had better be a gloriously delicate little flower, beautiful and mostly way out of your league. A five-nine, 165+ lb woman with average looks crying like a little girl about getting locked out on her second story porch would not make for a good wife when the  world starts to go to complete shit as Alex Jones says it will.

 

So, instead of breaking up with her right then and there (because you reason with yourself that you don’t want her to feel bad and believe that this moment caused the breakup), you arrange for the two of you to stop having sex completely for two months.

 

During this period, you’re able to refrain from masturbating as well, one of the longest periods you’ve ever gone without it since you first learned how to do it. You also abstain from drinking any sort of alcohol, and start to have another summer of a solid workout regime—except, there’s not nearly the same amount of anger to fuel your runs, and you’re getting worried about your lease on your little studio apartment expiring and you needing to find a place where you can keep Anastasia, as you’d promised her you’d do by July of 2003.

 

July 12, 2003

“Vera, we are totally going to have to celebrate. I’ve had my year review at Ahmis, and with the wage freeze lifted, I’m now making as much as I was three years ago at the State job I left to return to Ahmis to learn web design in hopes of then using my newfound skills to obtain a six figure salary. And, now, I have a small, one-bedroom apartment instead of the tiny little sardine can I moved into after moving out of the house I own.”

 

“Your place is nicer than mine,” harrumphs Vera. “You have vaulted ceilings and crown molding.”

 

“And, it’s a gated community, where you put credit cards instead of quarters into the laundry machines.”

 

“My apartment complex is gated as well, and how are you going to use your credit cards to do your laundry if they are all maxed out?”

 

“Well, I was just sharing with you some of the other useless features about this place, while we were on the subject. I am renting the place because it has a garage attached to the apartment, so that the dog’s destruction is minimal when I leave. The lady who signed the lease said something like, ‘now that you’re not in college, doing your laundry at Maudie’s with lots of quarters, you need to do your laundry like a grown-up, using credit cards.'”

 

“But, you have no credit cards you can use.”

 

“Well, I’ve been kind of lying about that so I don’t use them. I actually have some available balances now.”

 

“What? You have available balances on your credit cards and you haven’t been buying me inexpensive jewelry and flowers every week?”

 

“Let’s have a look in the bathroom.”

 

“..and a garden tub! You have a garden tub!”

 

“Maybe we’ll get in that garden tub together,” you say, doubtfully, thinking that it’s probably big enough for you and a petite woman, but definitely not big enough for you and Vera.

 

“Maybe,” she says, equally doubtfully. “it’s got a stain in it, though. When was this place built?”

 

“1997.”

 

“Wow, and it does look brand new, except for the stain in the garden tub. Damn, and I see they let you keep your dog here.”

 

She eyes Anastasia on the couch that was recently brought over from your parents who’ve kindly kept it in Murphy’s Falls for you since college, then moved it down with them to Bastrop.

 

“Anastasia and I are going to have so much fun here together!” you cry. “Right, Baby?” You run up to your dog and put your arms around her. “I love you, Ms. Stasie.”

 

Vera practically snarls. “You never call me Baby, or tell me you love me.”

 

“It’s just a boy-and-his-dog thing, Vera, you know that what I feel for you runs so deep and is so very special.”

 

“Hmmph. Well, are we going to go get our wine and cigarettes and sit out on YOUR porch, then?”

 

“That’s what I was thinking.”

 

“I guess I could spend the night here. Except, your futon bed hurts my back.”

 

“Well, Vera, I never really mentioned this, but your stiff mattress, covered with severely-tucked-in bedding absolutely destroys my spine.”

 

It’s going to be like every other night you’ve spent with her, for the most part. Except, instead of cable television and obligatory sex, the television consists of four channels on your tiny, 13″ color TV, and the sex is non-existent.

 

Vera finally walks over to pet your dog, and touches Anastasia absentmindedly.

 

“You don’t like dogs, do you, Vera? You’re pretty much a cat person?”

 

“I told you I had a little dog when I was growing up. I was very sad when he died. Maybe even sadder than when my grandpa died.”

 

“Right, I forgot. So, you’ll surely learn to like Anastasia, right?”

 

“I’m sure, I will, Kevin. It’s just that everything seems to be changing—you’re in a new place, and I’m not hanging out at all with my old pothead friends—and, we’re not having sex anymore.”

 

“It’s actually been kind of nice, Vera. I’ve managed to spend the past two months and a half without touching any vice imaginable.”

 

“Well, I’d like us to give things one more shot. I’m gonna wreck this nice state of mind you’re in by talking you into taking me into that cute little Mexican restaurant near my gym, and then getting you kinda drunk on margaritas, and then convincing you how good it will feel to christen your new apartment with a quickie.”

 

“We could do it tonight, if you really want to. I mean, I’m not opposed to doing it. It does make me feel really good down there.”

 

“And, I feel like you’re kind of connected with me again, even though I derive no real physical pleasure from the act. But, I just don’t feel like it right now. It’s weird having your dog here.”

 

“But, we’ve done it a million times with little Iris the cat hopping all over the bed.”

 

“That’s different, she’s a cat.”

 

“Oh, I get it. You don’t care for Anastasia all that much because I got her when I was with Olivia.”

 

A look crosses her face that totally confirms your suspicions. “That’s not true! Kevin, that’s absurd. She’s just a dog. She’s your dog, obviously. The fact that you’ve gone over to the house you still own with your ex to pick Anastasia up and walk her every single weekend we’ve dated doesn’t bother me at all.”

 

“You are always welcome to come with us on our walks.”

 

“I have flat feet.”

 

“But, you do spinning, and you participated in the Capital 10K and some other foot races.”

 

“That was different. I had special shoes for that, and I don’t want to wear them out on some walk with you and your dog.”

 

“But, we could have grown closer over the past year—wouldn’t that have made the experience important enough for you to wear your special shoes?”

 

“I hate the outdoors, Kevin. I’m going to bitch and complain about the heat and bugs and grass the entire time we walk your dog Anastasia fifty yards to your new apartment’s mailboxes and back—what makes me think I’d ever want to venture down to a primitive trail like Town Lake Trail?”

 

“And you know what, Vera? I am starting to love the outdoors more than anything else about my existence here in Austin. I love the outdoors more than live music, more than booze, more than Ahmis, more than almost anything but my family and my dog.”

 

“More than me? You love the outdoors, and you love Anastasia, but you don’t love me, do you?”

 

“That’s not true, Vera. What I feel for you is very special, indeed.”

 

“Hmmph.”

 

“You know, I met a nice neighbor already. She has a dog, and lives in a building near the mailboxes. Maybe we’ll run into her.”

 

“Is she prettier than me?”

 

“Um…”

 

October 28, 2003

“So, what I was thinking we could do for Halloween, Kevin, is go to my ex-roommate Sally’s party at her place, and we could dress up. You could dress up as Alex Jones, since you love him so much, and I’ve finally gotten you fattened up enough you could actually pull it off.”

 

“Yeah, Vera, about that. You know, as much as I love going to your friends’ parties, where I am made to feel like some kind of asshole for not smoking copious amounts of weed with them, I think I’m going to have to pass this year.”

 

“Well, maybe we could just watch scary movies this Halloween weekend, and drink wine, and…”

 

“…and, have lots of neat, efficient sex that brings me quick and easy pleasure and no real joy for you.”

 

“But, I get to feel closer to you for fifteen to thirty minutes.”

 

“Vera, I think I have something I want to tell you. Maybe we could just meet at a coffee shop tonight.”

 

“Kevin, we’ve never met at a coffee shop, for any reason whatsoever. If you have something to tell me, why don’t you just tell it to me right now?”

 

“Yeah, I just kind of wanted to tell you in person, what I have to say.”

 

“Kevin, why don’t you just tell me now?”

 

“Um, okay. Yeah, this is kind of hard. You see, Vera. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about us, well, me, mostly. And, see, I’m at a point in my life where I am growing in a different direction, one that says to me I either need to get married and do life the fat and happy way, or just be alone, and grow more as a person.”

 

“So, you want to break up?”

 

“Vera, you’re my best friend. And, I would hate to lose that, but I really think I gotta be on my own now, to work through everything else I gotta work through.”

 

“Kevin, if we take a break in this relationship, I’m going to go pursue other men immediately. There’s this guy at my work who visits my cube every single day, and appears to appreciate me, something you have never done very convincingly.”

 

“Well, I guess I am going to have to take that risk. I mean, Vera, don’t get me wrong, I’ve thought about this long and hard for many months now, but it’s the right thing for me to do for where I’m at in terms of my own personal growth.”

 

“Well, Kevin, in the spirit of being frank and honest, let me tell you what’s going to happen. We’re going to pretend we can still be friends, but I’m going to come up with lots of excuses for why I don’t have time for you. I’ll lead you on long enough so that you go ahead and purchase Christmas gifts for me—some type of cheap, meaningless crap from Target you can give your mom or aunt after I stop returning your calls. But, in the end, you will never see my face again. Ever.”

 

“Vera, right now, the thought of it seems like a sublimely and precisely mixed combo of heaven and hell. I’ve obtained the liberation I’ve been wanting for almost two years, and yet, after two and a half years of being your boyfriend, my heart does ache and will ache. In fact, while you will be highly capable of landing a new man within minutes of hanging up the phone, my experience will consist of a lot of strange, lonely-man moments involving abortive attempts at the personals service and trying to resurrect something between Deidre and me.”

 

“Goodbye and good luck with that, Kevin, but right now, I could honestly care less.”

 

January 1, 2004

It has been exactly five years since you began dating Olivia, and exactly three since you broke up with her. You know that it is time to do something you’ve been flirting with doing since the day you stumbled upon the little online corner of the local hipster weekly where the tragically hip brag about themselves in hopes of attracting mates. You have properly grieved the end of the relationship with Vera, even though you know she’s been dating someone almost ever since you broke up.

 

It looks so incredibly easy: just go to a market of faces and distilled identities, pick the one that you want, tell her you like her profile, and ask her to do something with you. Sort of like one of those high school dances you never went to, except you can cut through all the “get to know you” crap, since you already know everything you need to know about her from her profile—and, you don’t have to dance with her if you don’t want to! You take her on three dates, and she falls madly in love with you, and voila! You have: instant new relationship—a resource for hands-free masturbation, and a smothering sort of someone to make you wish you were free and single again. Why have you waited so long to do this?

 

It’s time to create your first ad for an online personals service. Think carefully about who you want to be. How many times a week do you drink? Four or five. So, you’re a regular drinker. How often do you smoke? Only once a week. So, you’re a social smoker. What is your diet like? Lots of burgers, pizza, and sandwiches from 7-11 and Whole Foods (because it’s near work, not because it’s healthy). You eat crap, mostly. What kind of a mate are you looking for?

 

You know. The cute lady in your apartment complex that lives near the mailboxes, with the dog named Tanner, who is always out walking her dog in the mornings at the same time you are. She has told you she is a vegetarian, social drinker, non-smoker, who loves yoga and doing stuff in the outdoors.

 

Uh-oh. You better change your profile. You look like a Neanderthal slob from the Midwest—which is really what you are, but the women on this site don’t need to know that. Call yourself a social drinker, non-smoker, healthy eater, who loves dogs and walking in the outdoors. Some of that is true.

 

Now, go find a woman who most closely matches your cute neighbor (who you were too afraid to ask out in person) in personality and looks. Oh, look. Here’s a woman that has all the same qualities as your neighbor, but is older. Now, how sexy is that? Dating an older woman! You’re 27, she’s 33. And, even though she’s pretty cute, she seems to be kinda desperate-looking in that picture, maybe even a little bit on the easy side. Score!

 

Now, write your introductory letter.

 

“Dear tragicallyhip1970,

I have spent the better part of this afternoon combing these personals ads for the most perfect match possible. I have given a lot of thought into whom I would contact first, and guess what? You’re it! Don’t you feel lucky? You must feel lucky, to have a guy who’s six years younger than you contacting you. Well, your picture would lead me to believe that there will be lots of chemistry between us. And, guess what? I have a dog, and like doing stuff in the outdoors, too! Feel free to check out my profile, in which you will find a grainy, unflattering photo of me, and in my description I ramble a bit about all the things I’m NOT looking for in a woman, based on the two women I’ve dated, and a few that I work with. Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Take care,

manmanqué1976″

 

January 5, 2004

“Dear tragicallyhip1970,

I realize that sometimes technology fails to do its job the first time, and these messages get lost in the ether. I’m resending:

 

I have spent the better part of this afternoon combing these personals ads for the most perfect match possible….”

 

January 8, 2004

“What are you doing?” asks Deidre, who now sits next to you at Ahmis. The two of you are good friends, and there is little or no sexual tension between you.

 

“Using a personals service. It’s great. Have you ever tried it?”

 

“No, I just hook up with random dudes I meet at parties. That seems to work best for me.”

 

“But, I thought you were looking for more of a long-term, committed relationship?”

 

“Not really. But, maybe I am. But, maybe I’m not. Wow, she’s cute.”

 

“Yeah, this is tragicallyhip1970. She hasn’t written me back yet, but I was thinking something is wrong with her inbox, or maybe she doesn’t know how to log in and check it.”

 

“Wow, an older woman—Kevin, you dog! Let me know how it goes.”

 

“Oh, I will. I’ll be sure to bring her up and introduce her to the Ahmis crew soon.”

 

“Dear tragicallyhip1970,

I realize that you aren’t exactly looking for a man as young as I am. But, let me tell you. I’m a very mature young man. I’ve already bought a house, and I’ve had lots of stuff happen to me so far in my twenties that doesn’t happen to a lot of middle-class white guys who work in offices. I’m just letting you know that I am getting lots of attention right now from ladies at this site, and the offer I’m extending to you won’t be around much longer. Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Take care,

manmanqué1976″

 

January 28, 2004

“Dear tragicallyhip1970,

I reviewed the past messages I sent you, and realized that I wasn’t being romantic enough, and that’s why you’re not replying. So, I’ve written you a love poem:

 

Within the Universe there are but a few souls,

Who will e’er be matched so perfectly and properly.

For each of them a mystical, magical bell tolls.

Two of them are manmanqué1976 and tragicallyhip1970.

So soon we approach a moment most divine,

When I will ask you to be my Valentine.

 

Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Completely Yours,

manmanqué1976″

 

For some strange, inexplicable reason, the Universe disagrees with your assessment that a mystical, magical bell is tolling to match you and tragicallyhip1970 so perfectly and properly.

 

March 19, 2004

“Dear vwbuslover1972,

I have spent the better part of this afternoon combing these personals ads for the most perfect match possible. I have given a lot of thought into whom I would contact first, and guess what? You’re it! Don’t you feel lucky? You must feel lucky, to have a guy who’s six years younger than you contacting you. Well, your picture would lead me to believe that there will be lots of chemistry between us. And, guess what? I have a dog, and like doing stuff in the outdoors, too! Feel free to check out my profile, in which I ramble a bit about all the things I’m NOT looking for in a woman, based two women I’ve dated, and a few that I work with. Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Take care,

manmanqué1976″

 

You yelp with electricity, charged up like you haven’t been since you don’t remember when. Your backup to tragicallyhip1970, vwbuslover1972, has responded to you.

 

“Dear manmanqué1976,

I am actually four years older than you, but after all the lsd, shrooms and pot I took on my VW Bus during my years of following the Dead, I am not so good at math most of the time, either. While I highly doubt that I’m the first woman you’ve contacted here, I am somewhat flattered that a younger man is interested in me. Let’s meet under the MoPac bridge tomorrow at 7 PM, and walk our pups.”

 

April 8, 2004

“Dear artsyfungirl1976,

Guess what? We are the same age, and both have a dog. We must be perfect for each other. You know what I’m sick of? People who misrepresent themselves with their personals ads. If you’re a fun-loving hippie type, then you will surely love me. I went on this date with this lady I met off of here, and she was totally uptight, and went on and on about how much she loves to travel to Europe, as if she thought I would foot the bill for her next vacation.

 

Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Take care,

manmanqué1976″

 

“Dear manmanqué1976,

I know what you mean about people misrepresenting themselves. Some guys I’ve met put pictures of themselves up from when they were in high school, and lie about their height. What I’ve done, is create a profile in which I use a cute, close-up picture of my face that is kind of digitally manipulated to make you think I am a hip, alternative, skinny chick. I’ve said how much I like alternative rock bands from the nineties, going to dive bars, and walking dogs in the outdoors. However, when you meet me for our date, you’ll find me fifty pounds overweight and living in a $1200 a month, one-bedroom apartment while my condo on the lake gets renovated, and hear me talk on and on about all of the fun I had as a sorority girl, and how much I love being a sales manager at Nordstrom’s, and how my mother is going to foot me a $200K loan so I can start my own business, and how I really just lock my dog in a closet all day and never pay any attention to him. I am going to take one look at your polo and khaki outfit purchased at a thrift store in 1997, then pay for your coffee, and oblige you to an evening of uncomfortable conversation, then never, ever speak to you again.”

 

You go to a party for Daisy DeAngelo, an Ahmis coworker, and give Deidre a foot massage after you start to get drunk. Deidre seems to be enjoying it, but then leaves abruptly. Daisy and you start dirty dancing and then the two of you make out for a long time. You’re ready to put it in her, but she says something about condoms and catching stuff, and so you sober up quickly and realize what a big, messy thing a relationship with Daisy would be.

 

Year 6

 

May 12, 2004

“Dear Kevin,

How have things been with you and Anastasia? I’m sorry I’ve been unable to uphold my end of the bargain, and come and get her. I’ve been very busy! I’m training for a special marathon where I get my own personal trainer and they fly me up to Alaska to run 26 miles on the longest day of the year. Only, I have to beg all of my friends and family for lots of money to pay for it. And, some of it will end up going to charity, I think—like a cancer charity, or something. Anyway, if you have any money to spare, please send it my way. Also, I’m having a garage sale to help raise money, so if you have anything you want to give me, that would be great. Oh, one other thing—Doug Johnson and I are getting married. Say hi to your mom for me!

 

Best,

Olivia.”

 

And, even though it’s been over three years since the two of you broke up, you break down and cry, leaving the office to go walk in the nearby park and regain your composure. You are a bit taken aback by your reaction to the news of her marriage, as it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. That’s when you realize you repressed an enormous amount of grief over losing Olivia when you moved out, and kept it shoved down deep inside with lots of booze and boozy friends.

 

With Vera gone, and your prospects of success with the personals service looking grimmer and grimmer, you feel about as hopeless as you’ve ever felt.

 

“Dear Olivia,

Please come on over today after work. I have lots of books and some musical instruments that are only gently destroyed which you can sell at your garage sale. You can also say hi to Anastasia. She misses you.”

 

Olivia appears with her roommate about an hour later than when she said she’d drop by—not that you would have expected Olivia to be on time.

 

“Where’s your stuff you’re going to give me?” she demands.

 

“Uh, this pile over here. Need some help?”

 

“Yeah. Come on, Roommate, help Kevin and I grab this stuff and load your car up with it.”

 

“There’s Anastasia, Olivia. Your dog and mine. She wants you to say hi to her.”

 

“Oh, hi dog.” Olivia tosses a nod in the general direction of the dog.

 

“Olivia, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Do you have a minute?”

 

“Uh, sure, Kevin. What is it?”

 

“Well, I’ve been doing some thinking and reading up on this sort of thing. And, I guess this is kind of like Step 8.”

 

“Step 8?”

 

“You know, in AA, where they go around and say they’re sorry to all the people they hurt from boozing it up too much. Only, I’m not in AA, and I still need to hurt a few more people with my excessive drinking before I grow up—however, I did want to apologize for all the bad stuff I did and said to you when we still lived together.”

 

“Kevin, you know you really hurt my feelings, and you should also know that I never did or said anything hurtful myself. I pretty much hold you to blame entirely for wrecking our relationship.”

 

“I know, and for that I’m truly and deeply sorry. And, I’m not asking for forgiveness, I just wanted to tell you this, and you can respond to it however you like.”

 

“And, I’m not going to give you any forgiveness. Even though I’m a somewhat serious Catholic, and say the Lord’s Prayer all the time—it’s impossible for me to forgive you right now. But, Kevin…”

 

“Yes, Olivia?”

 

“Thanks for the stuff. I’m sure I will be able to sell a lot of this at my garage sale. Now, I’ve got a marathon to run, and a wedding to attend.”

 

July 20, 2004

So, you did what any self-respecting man manqué would have done at that point. You shaved your head, stopped all drinking, smoking and masturbating, and adopted a vegan diet and an intense workout regime that consisted of running twice a day and doing hundreds of bicep curls until you were completely lifting the barbells with your back, until your back spasmed in pain to knock you to the floor each morning when you crawled out of bed.

 

Without any booze or sex in your diet, and with your hands constantly touching and exploring your newly shaved head, your entire head, neck, face, back and shoulders all broke out in the most severe acne you’d ever experienced—even worse than those miserable years of adolescence. You were constantly scratching open zits and pouring rubbing alcohol on them, but this didn’t seem to help.

 

And, no matter how much you ran and lifted weights, there still seemed to be this exorbitant amount of pent-up anger. It wasn’t a good, clean focused sort of anger like you held in your heart two years ago. That anger was very specific—you knew who and what you were mad at and why. This anger was something different.

 

You were simply mad at the Universe for dropping you off, letting you down, leaving you behind, allowing you to schlep through life with no signs or new friends or promises of romance. Karen Winthrop was really no longer a force to be reckoned with. She worked at home all the time, and hardly bothered you for anything except very specific, marketing-related requests.

 

Deidre was becoming your constant work buddy, and the two of you made up silly songs and said outrageous things about religion and politics in front of the two conservative ladies that worked in your department. But, no day ever passed where you even remotely thought it would make sense to try to go to bed with Deidre again.

 

You were mad because you were stuck, boxed in, bored, saddled with too much debt to travel anywhere, and a general fear of the unknown that had developed from bad memories of Jamaica. It was a major triumph for you to leave the area of South Central Austin, and go explore a new natural area like Bull Creek in Northwest Austin.

 

You could see that you were just a few payments away from owning your Mirage, but you hated your car now. It wasn’t a cool, little white egg anymore, but the kind of car that office losers everywhere drive when they can’t afford anything better.

 

The quality of work that was coming across your desk at Ahmis was starting to get on your nerves, too. The so-called brilliant PhD technical writers at Ahmis were sending sloppily written corporate communications content to Ahmis editors who carelessly edited them, passing them on to Ahmis proofers who lazily proofed them. One day, while you were looking over a sea of poor grammar, typos, and misspelled words, you lost it.

 

“I can’t take this shit anymore,” you screamed at the top of your lungs, “This company fucking sucks!”

 

“Calm down,” muttered Deidre.

 

Wanda, the Ahmis General Manager, appeared in the doorway of the Production room shortly thereafter.

 

“Kevin, come have a talk with me.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“Kevin, at any other organization on the planet, such an outburst is grounds for immediate dismissal. However, since you are still in the middle of a seven-year curse for having chosen to return to Ahmis after landing your sweet gig at the State, I can’t fire you. But, if I could, I would, and what you said makes me very mad, you understand?”

 

You want to tell Wanda that you happen to have standards that are much higher than the crappy crap that’s coming across your desk during the hours when there’s no marketing work coming to you from Karen Winthrop, but you realize that Wanda is fully aware of the crappy crap, and that the crappy crap is how Ahmis stays in business—its competitors get all the choice projects.

 

You leave the building for a time to go buy a pack of cigarettes from 7-11. You smoke a couple, then realize this is stupid, and crumple them up and toss them in a trash bin inside the nearby park. You decide it’s probably just time to go back to eating meat, drinking beer, and masturbating.

 

And, it’s time to make some new stupid decision that will effect you for years to come—all in the name of deceiving yourself into thinking you have some control over your existence.

 

July 24, 2004

The salesman was harmless. He opened the hood, and said, “just the same standard V6 they’ve been making for years, with very little modifications. What I’m not going to tell you, since you obviously should have done your research before arriving on this lot, is that the ’04s are our 40-year commemorative editions, and in ’05, we are going to completely redesign the body to make it look more like a real, street-fighting muscle car—like American autos were designed to be back in the 60s before American car companies lost all the business sense they ever had. So, what you’re looking at is a humdrum ’03 that nobody in his right mind would buy right now.”

 

“Oh, I did my research online. I looked at the various colors available, and knew right away I wanted this green one. Since I can barely afford to pay my rent and still might have some marks on my credit, I’m going to be utterly surprised if you can even finance me.”

 

The finance guy was more than happy to take on the role of asshole you’d expected the salesman to play.

 

“What do you mean you don’t want the extra warranty—it’s just an extra ten bucks a month.”

 

“The monthly payments are kind of steep, I’m just going over the numbers in my head to see if I can even make them. Plus, I only owe like four more payments on the Mirage, and then I own it.”

 

“Of course you can make these payments. We’re already detailing your Mirage to resell it on another lot where poorer office schmoes look for shittier cars—you don’t want to own it. You need to go ahead and sign here so you can pretend to own a cheap, American-made V6 with no frills that you don’t mind abusing freely, and end up paying about twice as much as the Blue Book value for it by the time you’ve paid it off.”

 

“What about gas mileage?” you ask the wind, as you maneuver it carefully to a gas station, seeing that the dealership had kept the tank on empty. “Maybe I should have asked that question before I bought it.”

 

The very first thing you realized was that it was too much car for you. It completely filled a parking stall at work. It completely filled your apartment garage. You had a history of banging up and scraping the Mirage trying to park it, and now you had a car that was 1.35 times its size.

 

When prompted, the Mustang rose to whatever speed you needed as quickly as you could stomp on the gas and empty the clutch. It frightened the heck out of your little man manqué self. You pulled the seat up as close as you could without impaling yourself on the steering wheel, and raised the seat as high as you could without putting a kink in your neck. You kept the heavily tinted windows rolled up so that nobody could see the frightened man manqué shaking inside. Going from Mirage to Mustang felt like going from Vespa to Chopper must feel, or so you thought.

 

Gradually, you started to survey what you’d gotten yourself into, and slowly eased the seat back farther and farther, and lowered it more and more. Your hand stopped shaking every time you reached for the shifter, and your foot stopped riding the clutch with fear. You realized that you had to suck it up, and be a man about this, or trading the car back in would bankrupt you and shame your family. And so, you began to understand that the Mustang was ready to do your bidding. Yes, she rather insisted on more acceleration than less. Sure, she wasn’t going to get any smaller when you needed to parallel park. But, ultimately, she was yours, at your command, prepared to accept whatever you told her to do, wherever you told her to go.

 

And, once you started driving the Mustang around town, you noticed them everywhere. What’s more, you noticed that more than half of them appeared to be driven by women. You felt like such a tool for being so afraid of your new car.

 

But, you were still frightened by the prospect of paying off such an expensive car, with your low salary and all the money you owed—what if something happened to the car that the warranty didn’t cover? You started spending more than a few days and nights alone, in your car, in your garage, praying to God to save you from yourself.

 

“Dear Jesus,

I know I made a terribly stupid decision by buying a Mustang I can’t possibly afford when I was four payments away from having my Mirage paid off. I know I’ve been a very bad sinner, and lived a meaningless, drunken sort of existence. But, I promise you—if you work with me, I’ll work with you. I also realize that if I’m going to allow you to work in my life, then going online and trying to find someone using the personals service is nothing more than me implying I want to be the driver in that sphere of my existence instead of you. So, what I’m going to do is write three more letters to three different women, and then I promise, I’ll go to church or something to let you send my soulmate to me.

 

Faithfully yours,

Kevin”

 

July 28, 2004

“Dear tragicallyhip1970,

I realize that it has been several months since I wrote, and now that I’m a little less naïve about how this sort of thing works, I know that you won’t respond to my inquiries because you have lots of other, more attractive and interesting men writing to you. I also understand that I have the social skills of a twelve-year-old, and you will never be able to know the real me via a personals service and a few dates, anyway. Heck, I don’t even know the real me, yet.

 

But, I just wanted to let you know that I now own a Mustang. Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can fall madly in love, and I can get caught up in another smothering relationship I will wish I could leave.

 

Best,

manmanqué1976″

 

“Dear Olivia,

I bought a Mustang. What do you think about that?

 

Kevin”

 

“Dear Kevin,

Mustangs are so white trash. I never thought you’d buy something like that. I always pictured you upgrading to a Volvo, Subaru or VW.

 

Oh, I’m finally getting around to removing your name from all ownership records on the house. I’m going to pay you back the exact amount your dad loaned us four years ago for the down payment, without any sort of interest whatsoever, and expect you to just sign some papers and walk away, while I make a tidy profit on the sale and buy a nicer home in Central Austin.

 

Olivia.”

 

“Dear womanmanqué1976,

I drive a Mustang.

 

I found your profile to be very interesting. You hadn’t appeared before in my searches, because I’ve finally given up on searching for skinny women. However, I see that you simply forgot to check what your body type is, and looking at photos of you all covered in bulky clothing, you likely have body issues, but you are still relatively thin, and might be a fun little mess to pal around with for a few months. Since you list going for a walk around Town Lake as an excellent first date, and since that is all I really do in my spare time because I’m too afraid (and can’t really afford) to try anything new, I thought there might be some chemistry between us. You are the last woman I plan on ever contacting via this personals service. After this, I will allow God to decide for me, even allow him to show me that a monkish or priestly kind of existence is more my kind of thing.

 

Let me know what day/time/place you’d like to meet to go walk dogs together, so we can use each other to work through our issues.

 

Best,

manmanqué1976″

 

“Dear manmanqué1976,

I hate Mustangs and generally despise the redneck tools that drive them, but I love walking dogs. I’ve been looking for an ‘issues buddy’ for some time. I’m actually still dating someone, but he said we can date other people, so you and I can walk our dogs together every Saturday for the next three months, sharing all of our issues together.

 

Best,

Lucy

(womanmanqué1976)”

 

“Dear Lucy,

Let’s meet up at the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue to begin this. I have a large, Husky mix dog, and generally wear clothing that was never in style, but never out of style, either—cotton fatboy shorts, and warmup hoodies—as well as bland polo shirts and Wal-mart brand khaki shorts and velcro-fastening sandals.

 

Take care,

Kevin

(manmanqué1976)”

 

“Dear Kevin,

That sounds wonderful. I have a large, red dog, and also wear basic, unsexy, unisex clothing. I am blond and skinny, though, so lots of guys want to go to bed with me—at first, anyway. See you in a couple weeks.

 

Lucy”

 

August 14, 2004

“Hello there.”

 

“Oh, hello!” she says to you in a flirty voice. She sounds a little bit too much like one of the phony-baloney, bimbo contestants on the reality TV show ‘The Bachelor’ for your taste, but it’s the first date you’ve had in a while.

 

You let your dog off the leash to get in the water with her big red dog.

 

“I’m Kevin.”

 

“I’m Tara.”

 

“You’re not Lucy?”

 

“Nope, are you meeting a Lucy?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Your dog is very pretty.”

 

“Yeah, she’s a Husky mix, but her hind legs have gotten a little arthritis, and so I have to give her glucosamine and chondroitin tablets every day. But otherwise, she’s still a great dog for long walks.”

 

Tara’s eyes glaze over, and she kind of scowls like you’ve just arrived from another galaxy. She quickly moves along.

 

You look at your watch, and see that Lucy is now fifteen minutes late, so you decide that she must have stood you up, and start to walk back to your car. Then, you spy a scrawny, boyish figure with a big red dog.

 

Lucy has the kindest eyes, and sweetest smile. She looks like one of those asexual, unmarried women who do tours in science museums and zoos, and live alone with cats and bug collections. You immediately feel comfortable with her. She seems totally harmless.

 

“Hi, are you Lucy?”

 

“Yep. You must be Kevin.”

 

“Yep. So, tell me about yourself and your family.”

 

“Oh, I will. I have lots of issues with my family. They all live in New Jersey, where I was born and raised. I visit them twice a year because I love my niece and one of my sisters, but hate the sister who gave birth to my niece.”

 

“Have you had a relatively normal adult life, aside from not being married yet?”

 

“Sure, I dated the same guy for six years, living with him most of the time. We broke up last year, and I moved down here with someone else, who’s more of a friend than anything, now.”

 

You do the math. If she’s only been with one guy through most of her twenties, then she must be a pretty faithful sort of girl who seeks out deeply committed, monogamous relationships.

 

“What about you, Kevin? What have you been doing with your life?”

 

“Oh, I write a lot, and love to jog and hike around Town Lake with my dog. I’m really a very simple man. I love clean, healthy living, and spending lots of time in nature appreciating life.”

 

“Do you drink much?”

 

“Not really. Just an occasional beer with a meal.”

 

“I like beer.”

 

“You do?”

 

“Yep. I mean, just the occasional beer, with a meal.”

 

“Yeah, me, too. I really love trying all kinds of new beer from the beer cooler at Central Market. I mean, I go and get a different six pack and spend at least a week finishing it.”

 

“Me, too. This is really pleasant. Are you ready to repeat this exact same walk each week for the next three months, occasionally trying a new location?”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“You understand that I am looking more for a friend right now, to confide all of my issues to, correct?”

 

“Of course. And, I am just desperate for anyone to talk to besides my parents, dog, blog and Ahmis coworkers. I have no outlet to complain about all of the crap I take daily at Ahmis, at least not an outlet that talks back to me.”

 

“You know, it’s really hard to find someone with whom I can go for a walk with dogs and have simple conversations.”

 

“You’re telling me. Most women seem to be utterly bored by the prospect of spending three hours doing nothing but walking and talking, but you don’t seem to mind.”

 

“I don’t mind at all, Kevin.”

 

“Good, then let’s continue to do this, digging deeper into each other’s lives, until we’ve thoroughly convinced each other that we know everything there is to know about the other one. And, I will fall in love with you the day we go walking out at McKinney Falls, and I pick you up at your apartment, and you are standing there looking positively adorable in your red jacket, and I want to hug you.”

 

“And, I’ll fall in love with you that same day, a little later, after your fatboy sweats become covered in prickly pear cactus when you go off to take a leak, and we sit with knees touching while I pull the needles out.”

 

November 19, 2004

“Dear Kevin,

I am writing you this letter, because I have grown quite fond of you, and am too shy to tell you in person. We’ve been on three months’ worth of these walks now, and I am ready to take this friendship to a new level. I hope you feel the same way. It’s hard to tell. You don’t act quite like any of the other men I’ve dated—who all want to put it in me on the first or second dates. It’s kind of refreshing, but at the same time a little unnerving, not knowing where we stand.

 

Please let me know how you feel,

Lucy”

 

“Dear Lucy,

I feel quite the same way about you. Remember that day we hiked out at McKinney falls and I got the cactus all over me? You looked so huggable that morning in your red jacket. Anyway, I am so excited that you are coming to work at Ahmis with me. As you know, my lease is expiring at the end of this year. Wouldn’t it be so cool for us to work together, live together, and play together? That way, each of us could have absolutely no private time or space to ourselves whatsoever.

 

All Yours,

Kevin”

 

She greets you at your door that evening after work, and the two of you don’t stop kissing for 24 hours. Her big red dog Leaky, and your husky dog Anastasia sleep close together on the floor, while you and Lucy practically set the date for your wedding.

 

“So, it’s agreed, we’re going to live together?” you ask her.

 

“One little thing, first, Kevin,” she says.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“I’m gonna need to do it, before we move in, to make sure that there isn’t anything weird in that department, either with your psyche or your plumbing.”

 

For the next 24 hours, until Sunday evening, the two of you do it almost non stop. You are pleased to finally make the acquaintance of her ass beneath her boy’s jeans that cause her to look all scrawny and figure-less. There turns out to be a fair amount of padding back there to grab onto, which you are used to having available.

 

Finally, you grow so exhausted, that she can’t get your member to do anything.

 

“What’s wrong?” she asks, as you pull away.

 

“Nothing, nothing at all. I’m just a little exhausted.”

 

A strange chill settles in the room for a bit, like a warning you need to heed, but hell—the two of you are obviously soul mates, so the best thing to do is live together for six months, get married, and begin having children.

 

December 19, 2004

“I love you so much.”

“I love you more.”

“No, I love you more.”

“Let’s face it, we love each other more than any other two people possibly ever could.”

“You are so right. I can’t wait until I move into your tiny, one bedroom apartment with you, Lucy, and send my dog off to my parents until we can afford a place of our own with both dogs.”

 

December 20, 2004

“What’s wrong, Lucy?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just looking at some old photos here, as I make room for all of your stuff in my closet.”

“We are going to have so much fun, living together.”

“Hmmm.”

 

December 21, 2004

“So, I’m going back to work at the Olive Garden, Kevin.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, they said I could come back and work part-time during the week, and on the weekends. I’m going to keep working at Ahmis as well. This will just be until I get some money saved.”

“But, we won’t have any time at all to spend together. I’ll only see you at Ahmis, and when you are dead exhausted.”

“I know.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t know, I guess I just realized I needed the extra money when I couldn’t fly home to see my niece.”

 

December 25, 2004

“Come on, we’re running kind of late. I can’t wait for you to meet my parents. They are going to be thrilled that I’m bringing a lady who has such high potential to be the mother of my children to meet them .”

 

“Hmmm. You can stop singing along to every song that comes on the radio.”

 

December 26, 2004

“You hardly said a word to my mom. Do you not like her?”

 

“Not really.”

 

“What?”

 

“Kevin, I don’t really feel like talking. Can we just go to bed?”

 

December 27, 2004

“Kevin, I’ve decided that we should just be friends. I’ll give you a couple weeks to find a place of your own, but this isn’t going to work.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“I think I rushed into this too fast. I don’t like it. I need my space.”

 

“But, we are so in love.”

 

“No, we aren’t. I was just pretending.”

 

“Fine. You go on to work, so I can finish off a six pack.”

 

“Wait, you told me that you weren’t a heavy drinker.”

 

“Wait, you told me that you loved me deeply. I was just pretending to be a responsible, social drinker.”

 

“Hmmmph.”

 

December 28, 2004

“You won’t even say hi to me when I walk into the office, Lucy?”

 

December 31, 2004

“I’m going to my parents’ house this New Year’s Eve. I have had the shittiest week of my life since I went to Jamaica. You aren’t even cordial enough to say hello to me when you see me. You have nothing but disparaging remarks to make about everything I say and suggest we do, and you want to go for jogs through the worst parts of East Austin by yourself well after midnight. I am going crazy trying to figure out what happened, and I can plainly see you were already crazy from the get-go.”

 

“Good. I’m sick of seeing your ugly face. And, nothing happened. We fooled around, then fooled each other into thinking we were people we aren’t.”

 

Your sweet mother and father see what a terribly heartbroken boy you’ve become. It feels like the moments of being hungover or sick off of the Cuban cigar while in Jamaica, only it’s all in your heart instead of your stomach.

 

“Son, can we get you anything, any candy or ice cream?”

 

“Thanks, Mom, but I am just as good as I was when you asked me thirty minutes ago.”

 

“Okay, well, you let us know if you need anything at all.”

 

“Son, I’m watching the Three Stooges to make me happy. I read a story about a terminal cancer patient who laughed himself to health by watching these guys.”

 

“Enjoy, Dad. I think I’m just going to sit and read my Borges Selections and Portable Pablo Neruda, and sulk.”

 

“Okay, Son. If you need anything, just holler.”

 

Your dog, who has been staying out at your parents since you moved in with Lucy two weeks ago, is starting to look really worn down. She smiles and whines a little bit when she sees you, and gives your face a single lick, but she seems so tired. About a year ago, she’d started having the seizures, and you didn’t have the money to do a brain scan. Her eyes are getting cloudy, and her spirit sags. You try to cheer yourself up by giving her lots of love. It helps a little bit, but your heart is demolished.

 

You return to Lucy’s later on New Year’s Day to discover all of your stuff has been packed up, and your bar of soap is in a ziploc bag. The message couldn’t be any clearer. She wants you out, NOW.

 

“Hi Aunt and Uncle, would it be terribly burdensome for me to stay in your guest bedroom for a few days until a place opens up in my old apartment complex downtown?”

 

“Good to hear from you, Kevin. You should come and visit us more often instead of dropping in only when you want a free meal or lodging. Have you sold your house yet? You know, you can’t let that Olivia take more than her share of the sale, yes.”

 

You have all of your stuff out of Lucy’s in two trips. She doesn’t appear before you leave.

 

You decide to send her one last heartfelt, plain email, thinking maybe she’ll illuminate you as to just why she turned into a psychotic horror show.

 

“Dear Lucy,

I am sorry things didn’t work out. I hope the two of us will be able to get on with our lives, and work together as grown up coworkers at Ahmis.

Kevin.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

At least she doesn’t mince words.

 

January 15, 2005

“Oh, Kevin, I’m so sorry. I’ve missed you so much.” she stands in your doorway. You hug her, she cries.

 

“That’s all?”

 

“That’s all.”

 

January 18, 2005

“Kevin, are you going to Deidre’s birthday party?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Me, too. Want to carpool?”

 

“Uh, sure.”

 

“Later, we can do it after I propose we have a nice little Friends With Benefits system. How does that sound?”

 

“You are looking smoking hot, Lucy, and your perfume smells like sex itself. I want to do you right now. I think it’s the best thing I’ve heard in over a month.”

 

January 29, 2005

“Dear Kevin,

Sorry, it’s not going to work. As you can see, once again, I’m communicating with you less and less, and you are trying to communicate with me more and more. I really enjoyed the marathon of bed-sharing we’ve participated in over the past week, and skipping work to stay in bed naked, going at it non-stop until we were merely husks of our former selves, covered in dried sweat and other bodily fluids.

 

But, instead of just saying: Let’s be friends, and leave it at that, I suggest I become really cold and mean to you at Ahmis for the next few months. How does that sound?”

 

“Dear Lucy,

Seeing as how I was starting to fall in love with you again just a little bit, it only breaks my heart a little bit. I am also starting to read Tony Robbins, and am considering becoming a successful salesman at Ahmis. So, soon you’ll be wanting me again very badly when I get my confidence back and start jogging and traveling to exotic places like San Francisco. But first, I think I’m going to celebrate a for a month or so the fact that I’m not caught up in a mess like you by making a mess out of myself with whiskey and cigarettes.”

 

February 17, 2005

But first, you would like to enjoy pretending for a little while that you are back at the end of 2001, having hit rock bottom. After all, you are now living in a studio apartment next door to the studio apartment you moved out of a year and a half ago. Yeah, it feels pretty close to rock bottom with the lady below getting screamed at every night by her redneck lover, and the smell of the gas leak keeping you out on the walkway that runs around the apartments—out there drinking lots of E WilLs whiskey and Lone Star tallboys, and smoking pack after pack of Marlboro menthol lights that high school kids passing by want to bum off of you.

 

It’s quite tempting to track down Perry Webber, and call him up, and arrange for the gang to do a Wing Night, but you call up your best friend from college, Jerry Kramer, instead.

 

“Hi Jerry.”

 

“Hello, Kevin. How come you don’t call me more?”

 

“Well, I’ve been very busy, you know. I went through some shit with this chick Lucy, and I’ve just been trying to get my bearings. But, now that you and I are friends on MySpace, we can message each other there.”

 

“Whatever, dude. I would prefer that you call me so I can hear the sound of your voice.”

 

“Well, you could be hearing a lot more of it soon. How does a visit from yours truly sound, now that you have divorced your strange goth wife who lost 400 lbs due to bariatric surgery and did all those men, and you are back in Columbia trying to get it on with Roger’s wife?”

 

“That would be fantastic. I’ll track down the entire gang from the dorm, and you can act like the drunken fool you were back in school.”

 

“I’ve been drinking heavily, actually, and reading Tony Robbins and other motivational books. I plan on making this trip to Missouri be my last self-abusive blowout before I totally clean up my act like I promise to do at the start of every spring right before my birthday. So, I’ll pretend to be that same fool for everyone, handily meeting y’all’s expectations, while inside I’ll be secretly thinking how I’m so above and beyond such juvenile behavior.”

 

“We are going to have so much fun. You’d hardly recognize Columbia.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Well, not really. Except, they’ve widened a few roads and added a few buildings and parking garages to the campus.”

 

“Cool. Well, I will be up there in a few weeks.”

 

March 12, 2005

Friday

Leaving on a long road trip in the middle of the night feels like embarking upon the writing of a novel. As the wear and stresses of the road (or finishing the novel) build on you, you will be driving into sunlight (or, illumination if you will) to keep you going. However, those first few miles driving out of Austin are the worst, because Texas at night is so black and empty. You are racing against time, against the maw of an eternal void, to avoid being snatched up by forces that don’t want you to succeed in your endeavor. Somewhere deep in Oklahoma the world suddenly seems manageable again—long past any big city like Dallas or Houston or Ft. Worth, where the monstrosities jutting up from the plains are less like welcoming beacons, refuges from the maw, and more like the maw’s frantic teeth.

 

You are certain that you just might get snatched up in the maw, as you haven’t left the state of Texas since you went to Jamaica, and you’re utterly convinced that you have a seven-year curse on your head keeping you at Ahmis.

 

You look for bookends in things, those little moments in life that seem to act symmetrically as codas to the first verses that were sung. Driving out of Austin at 1:30 in the morning during the middle of March 2005, you saw something akin to the first time you drove down here with Olivia in March of 1999. It was the end of a party, the annual celebration that brings people from all over the world to this town. People who don’t live here always ask you what you go and see at this celebration of music and movies. You say, “Well, not much.” These band and film people were a little too cool and too fast for you the first year you came down near the end of it all, and they’ve remained elusively so ever since.

 

The difference being of course being that in that March of 1999 the downtown nightlife of Austin at the end of SXSW was pregnant with promise—oh, all of the cool bands and filmmakers and hipsters you and Olivia would be hanging out with once you moved down here. Just wait until SXSW 2000, you cried to the groggy festival goers ending their ritual of drink and worship of indie pop idols. Driving past them in 2005, you felt like a very uncool old man observing kids behaving rather foolishly, and wondering if you would ever really feel compelled to plunk down the hundreds of dollars to participate properly.

 

Olivia, of course, took the proper route, and ditched you for a bona fide, modded out, hipster guitar player who toured in Europe, and knew lots of important SXSW people. Olivia would talk indifferently to you on the phone about going backstage at the Modest Mouse/Lou Reed show, and how it was…meh, kinda cool.

 

If you can’t join ‘em, rise above ‘em in your contempt of their adolescent ways. You weren’t cool like them driving by that night, but you were coolly indifferent, thinking about the coming trip that you had decided to begin by waking up a little early for at 2 AM. You put in your “wake up and turn my life around” CD, the same one you used to play on tape when you were leaving home in Murphy’s Falls back to Columbia with a new attitude at the start of any given semester. The album was U2’s Joshua tree, of course.

 

The drums kicked in at a stop sign in downtown Austin, a little too soon to be properly effective for long, road trip motivation, so you started the CD over when you merged into the I-35 tractor trailer traffic. Sometime deep into the album, the first nagging feelings of regret came over you: should you really have embarked upon such a lonely, long journey? You’d been the only driver on an eighteen-hour trip from Austin to Orlando, but back then Olivia had been by your side to keep you company. All you had were cds, cigarettes, and Mountain Dew. You wanted to reenact so many of the classic road trips you’d taken between Missouri and Austin with Olivia, skipping only the mini-thins for full effect.

 

At this point, you began wishing you had your Gram Parsons CD within easy reach of you, because you wanted to sing his most popular song while driving through the night with just your two headlights and all the trucks surrounding you, some trucks going incredibly slower than you, some speeding past. You settled for your mishmash of Britrock you’d fallen in love with over the past year—artists that you knew Jerry liked as well, and began thinking about what was to come.

 

Somewhere around the Oklahoma border the nascent sun attempted to pull you out of the maw, but instead a great fog greeted you for the next hundred miles. You passed Conocos that could only be identified as gas stations by the sign on top and the pumps in front; the rest being shacks made of found materials with ominously steaming Dooley pickup trucks growling in wait for their masters’ return. You felt as if you would surely be greeted by a hundred men all resembling the human incarnation of evil in the movie Raising Arizona if you dared get gas at any one of these places. You’d chosen for your great retroritualisticroadtrip to not go up I-35 into Kansas City, but to try one of the shortcut routes you and Olivia had once experimented with, leaving off I-35 in Dallas to get on highways that would jut up into backwoods Oklahoma for hundreds of miles before hitting I-44. Once the fog lifted, and you found gas at someplace that didn’t look like the convenience mart of Spawn, you began to realize exactly what this retroritualisticroadtrip was really supposed to be about.

 

Oh sure, you’d promised Jerry a visit, a reunion. Hell, all of the old gang from the dorm would be there, or as many as Jerry could scrounge up by digging around online and in phonebooks. You hadn’t all been together as a gang since ten years before, so it was surely a proper Waterhouse Hall reunion if there was ever to be one. You had talked yourself into great excitement about the road trip you were embarking upon—you needed the comfort of some old Missouri faces after all of the crap you’d been through recently with Lucy. After over two months in your tiny studio apartment that reeked of gas, you were properly stir crazy and ready for a little insensible fun.

 

But then, there is that turn you have to make upon an Oklahoma toll road, the familiar collection of truck stops that embrace what is a T if you are coming from the opposite direction—down from Missouri, and suddenly, you can tell that this trip is nothing about a reunion with your old college chums—the renunion’s just a side excursion, a small obligation to fill. This is a trip to reconcile all of the things that you left hanging from the end of college in 1998 to the last sad trip down from Missouri in the old family Taurus in 2001.

 

This trip is to reconcile once and for all the bitterness and rancor you’ve felt toward all things Missouri, especially the hometown of Murphy’s Falls, after Roy died. This is to reconcile the wistful nostalgia impinging upon outright jealousy you’d had for Olivia and her college experiences, which ran parallel in time to yours the whole time you were there in Columbia, but only a couple of times did your paths cross like ships in the night. Olivia experienced all of the wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking friendships and relationships a kid is supposed to have during his or her four-five years in college, while you had mostly just been a drunk who dorked around on your guitar, watching movies with Jerry, occasionally delving into mystical literature and pretending you were a novelist.

 

You also have to reconcile the last little bit of love you still hold for Olivia, remembering how your bonding had taken place along the hundreds of miles between Missouri and Austin during the two short years you were together and family and friends were so far away.

 

You are stunned to realize the real purpose of this trip as you get on the toll road, and your original half-hearted detour to Murphy’s Lake and Roy’s grave suddenly becomes your point of fixation. Why not? It is still late in the morning, you are making good time, and hell, if you’re driving 1400 miles total on this trip, then a detour of fifty or so surely isn’t much of anything.

 

In Joplin you realize just how sloppy you are starting to get in the head, when you make the exact same damn mistake you’d made coming this way toward KC with Olivia five years before. You panic, and take the highway 71 business exit, instead of the highway 71 exit, and find yourself treading slowly through lunchtime traffic in downtown Joplin, frustrated and angry to be losing the good time you were making. You think about stopping at a Steak n Shake to make the ritual somewhat even more proper, as you’d always insisted on stopping there with Olivia, but you’re incensed at your mistake and want to keep moving, imagining in your slipping mental state that perhaps everyone around you is spotting your license plates and hates Texans, and is going to start trying to run you off the road.

 

Finally on the highway again, you realize just how strangely small everything up here seems. Perhaps the heavy Missouri hills and trees brought the sky in closer to the road or the buildings and houses are more densely packed together—you don’t know. It isn’t long before traffic is frantic and nervy, more like Texas traffic, as you merge on to I-435, pointing the car north through miles of unrecognizable suburban construction that is rampant everywhere around Kansas City.

 

Murphy’s Falls is almost unrecognizable as the highway through town has widened, but what’s more, it just seems so pathetically dinky. The once omnipotent nearby lake is nothing but a brown pond surrounded by gray grass being frantically whipped up around it in the heavy Missouri March winds. Everything is brown and gray at the end of winter in Missouri—no green anywhere to be seen—and this is something you’ve completely forgotten about.

 

You must take a side trip to the old home, the one you’d left behind with Mom and Dad so sadly in 2001. It was always a pathetic home, eaten by termites, sagging in the middle, constructed cheaply and poorly, the inside covered in dust and the ceiling’s popcorn sparkling in bizarre glitter in the places that that your dad never covered up. As much as the home was a messy disaster, it was still a home for over sixteen years of your life, and a psychic repository of a million memories that have manifested themselves in almost nightly haunts since leaving.

 

For some reason, your love of the old home had made you want to root for its survival, and hope that it wasn’t demolished by the developer who’d bought it from your father, but want to see that they’ve patched it up and sold it anew to some young family just starting out with ever-hopeful dreams like your family had in 1983. Sure enough, a woman’s hand had been decorating the front of it with flags and lawn ornaments, and the new family had put up a kid’s playhouse in place of the rusty old swingset your dad once dragged from a neighbor’s yard.  

 

Bruno’s pen and doghouse were torn down and replaced by a cute, homemade doghouse brightly painted with kindergarten colors that makes your heart sing with joy. The home isn’t demolished or inhabited by the local riffraff you’d known in high school, but by a young family full of hope with a truck and an Explorer and a boat and kid’s stuff and a mom’s decorative touch. You think of pulling out your video camera you’ve brought along, but no, that would probably seem too weird, a strange frazzled man with red eyes and wild hair in a pea coat reeking of cigarette smoke caught videotaping homes from his muddy green Mustang with Texas plates. The home says to you that it has found peace after so many years of sorrow, and that you needn’t worry about it any more in dreams to come.

 

You drive on to Nirvana, Missouri, the little unincorporated collection of homes and general store just north of Murphy’s Falls where Roy is buried and your great grandmother Nama is buried. The sun is doing its best to burn as brightly as it can upon Missouri in the middle of march, but of course, the winds are wild and unrepentant. You feel like a character in a book you had to read in high school, returning to the site of where some horrible thing happened one summer’s day with a kid named Phineas. You arrive at the intersection where the freak accident took place, and you recall that it’s just past where that family the Naples lived, and where you have to turn right to go on to Nirvana.

 

You sometimes hate the fact that you now have perfected time travel, and you can go back in time to 2005 or 1999 so easily. Just the other day, here in 2008, your first girlfriend Cammie Naples found you on Facebook, and started talking to you like you were an old dear friend, and none of the stuff on the school bus with her and her family ever happened. In 2005, there was no time travel, and all you had were memories roused by spatial associations, which required a trip like this one to Missouri. Today, at the end of 2008, inside time machines like this novel and Facebook, where times and distances are compressed to the point of meaning next to nothing at all, you needn’t actually get up out of your seat to be there.

 

At their graves, you cry a little bit, and speak to both of them, feeling the urge to go back to the Nirvana General Store and buy flowers—just a little something to let nobody at all know you were there. You stop at the lake’s nearby sailboat ramp, just to have a smoke and remember that girl Moira you made out with for a couple of nights way back then, and of course the night you and the two Jimmys smoked pot—your first time. You see an old Chevy Malibu parked near the back of the lot where summer picnickers go, and can easily know without another glance what some old car driven by redneck kids on a school day are up to. With resolve, you plop your weary road-worn, smoke-choked frame back into the Mustang to go all the way back to town, as the Nirvana General Store is closed for repairs.

 

The strangest thing happens then, as if on cue. Having been nutty for Britrock over the past year, you’d started to really dig this band Interpol, and had downloaded a few of their songs. Austin, of course, wasn’t playing them yet on the radio, even though they were supposed to be downtown that year for SXSW, and kids on the street were talking about how wonderful they were—Austin’s so-called, new rock music station is generally about ten years behind.

 

When you turn on the car, the opening bass line to Rosemary starts as if on cue. It sounds almost as if someone has waited for you to turn the ignition. No radio DJ jabber, no ending of another song, just a silence and the start of the song—perhaps if it were twenty years ago you would hear the scratch of the needle hitting the record.

 

The song totally creeps you out the way his voice comes on and begins singing about heaven restoring someone in life.

 

You decide that the thought is the most important thing about choosing the flowers, so you grab the leftover green St. Patrick’s Day ones that are on sale. They are real flowers, anyway. You place them carefully between the two graves, and you feel a great peace at that moment.

 

Nothing terribly out of this world, nothing that screams at you as if someone or something is communicating from beyond. Just a peace, knowing that yes, you may still be sad now and then about Roy being gone, but you no longer had to feel any sort of guilt over it, or worry about him. The guilt was, of course, due to you, the messy wayward son getting to live, and the neat, responsible son having to die. The guilt was, of course, due to the fact that Roy was driving the truck that was once yours, but you had forfeited it after your DWI in college—you let him have the much cooler black S10 for his first high school truck, and had taken the old family Tempo to drive.

 

The S10 was really nothing more than an aluminum frame on wheels with an engine, and the old family Tempo had a driver’s side airbag. You realize that yes, of course you could have done things differently, but you needn’t go around in excessive, irrational states of guilt for something that was clearly an accident.

 

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but it feels like peace.

 

At this point in the trip, or maybe a few hours before, you had started considering skipping out on seeing Jerry. The whole concept of a wild, partying reunion with college chums doing stupid drunken college stuff on a trip like the one you are having seems like it would be a painful jab in the side of your face. You think about getting a hotel, calling Jerry, saying your car has broken down, and you’re turning around and heading home once it’s fixed. But then, leaving Roy’s grave, say to yourself “you know, I can make this trip be both sorrowfully full of melancholic memories as well as excitedly popping with the kind of jubilation Jerry wants.”

 

You’d told Jerry you would be meeting him around 9 pm that evening in Columbia, but since you’d left Austin at two in the morning instead of your originally planned 4 am, you can see you will be getting there early, but what the hell. It is now 4 pm in the afternoon, and if you wait any later, you will be in the middle of rush hour traffic all the way out onto I-70. So, seeing as how you had driven 1300 miles, and only had about 130 left to go, you got back on the highway, and you were suddenly remembering not so much all the millions of trips between Murphy’s Falls and Columbia that had always seemed so lengthy and momentous until you moved to Texas (130 miles is nothing when you live in the heart of Texas), but the few trips that you took with Olivia back to Columbia, and then on to her family in St. Louis when you first met her. It feels like you are heading away from the Kansas City area not circa 1994-1998 for the next college semester, but circa 1999 with Olivia by your side.

 

Only, all of Missouri is awash in this gray you forgot covers it at the end of winter. Since arriving in Missouri, passing through Murphy’s Falls, and now on to Columbia, the colorless landscape and smallness of it all makes you feel like you’ve traveled here in one of your dreams—where almost everything looks the way you remembered it, except it’s been drained of any of its soul. With nobody living that you truly care about left behind, Missouri seems almost like an old friend in an open casket at his funeral.

 

Columbia is in the middle of rush hour traffic and you are zonked by the time you find the address Jerry has given you. It is now around 6 pm, and even though the town looks surprisingly small to you the same way Murphy’s Falls did, it seems a little meaner, faster, and full of anxious, angry people and a lot more traffic. Kids are just returning from spring break, and probably are sulkily getting back into the routine of classwork and gloomily greeting the last of the Missouri winter. Outside of the Jerry’s apartment complex, you can see that nobody is home, but you figure he will be getting off work at any time. You don’t have your own cell phone yet, even though it’s 2005. You walk over to the nearby grocery store, grabbing a couple of memories of walking the beer section with Jerry, starting with the expensive stuff and working your way down to the cheap twelve pack of Beast that was the staple of the Jerry years. Memories of having our older hippie friend Kelly buy you booze: beer and wine and vodka and whiskey and gin, but mostly beer or vodka.

 

But, no pay phones. Not a single pay phone in the store.

 

You get back in your car and put in the Interpol CD that you’d bought for the trip—their first album—and the song opens lazily and dreamily, like you are feeling. But, you can’t sleep. Your father has loaned you his cell phone for emergencies—an ancient Motorola creation with limited battery time and minutes. You decide to use it to track down Jerry. He is with Roger and Callie down at the famous Columbia pizza place Shakespeare’s, along with a friend Ruben who was integrated somewhat into the gang after you all left the dorms, and Roger’s brother and some of Callie’s friends. Oh, my god, you think. The last thing you really feel like doing right now is seeing anybody. Here you are, expecting Jerry to come home with his son, then you can walk over to the grocery store, buy a six pack like old times and just sit and chat.

 

And now, after having driven about 800 miles and faced about 800 of your demons, you are going to have to go be sociable with people you haven’t seen in almost ten years. You just hope that hippie Kelly won’t be there.

 

But, Shakespeare’s turns out be all right. You even find a parking spot. You don’t get too drunk off of beer while there, and Callie doesn’t demand that you all go back to her place to smoke a bunch of weed. That will come later, of course. Shakespeare’s is still the best pizza place in the world, and nothing in Austin comes close.

 

So, you are starting to feel a little bit better about things, and your thoughts of getting a motel back off of I-70 and just turning around and going home the next day, have all but vanished. “You better get some sleep,” says Jerry looking at you as you drift off that night on his sofa, “because tomorrow night we are going to rock it.” Oh hell, you think, “am I really ready to go through all the old motions of being the party animal and wild man that I really don’t think I am anymore?”

 

The next day finds you wandering around your alma mater and its accompanying downtown area. The brutal winds of the day before in the KC area are not to be found for the most part. It feels again like you are revisiting Columbia in a dream. The places that the imagination creates to make up for where memory is lacking are erected instead as actual progress of new buildings. Waterhouse Hall is still standing, but they have removed the tennis courts and parking lots and flag football field and the tree Jerry and you climbed while on LSD.

 

In their place, there are more buildings, more dorms, more places to learn and live. Mizzou proper feels almost more like the UT campus you have become more familiar with seeing—almost. Downtown Columbia hasn’t really changed that much, though, and it looks so small and unimpressive—to think you’d once described this to yourself as the big city away from the hometown.

 

You find yourself still nervy and edgy and a little paranoid and wild from your day of driving. You are worried about parking in a place where you might get towed. You look at the sky that ominously darkens, and have memories of how these late winter black clouds became snow. You are worried about having to drive in a blizzard, and worried about seeing someone who will remember you, and worried about seeing nobody who will remember you, and looking so out of place on campus that people stare at you.

 

You find yourself wandering about, and thinking a little about your college experience, one that was mostly of a supershy kid who possibly suffered from social anxiety disorder, afraid to speak up in most classes and barely surviving each semester mentally. Your college experience consisted of attending a few classes, walking alone a lot, wandering through the library a lot, and going to the gym and swimming pool a lot.

 

Outside of your college experience is where you mostly drank and jammed with Jerry and friends and lived the loser’s partying life. There was the semester and a half after the DWI where you briefly socialized with fellow McDonald’s employees, most of them misfit college kids like yourself, too weird or indifferent to find work elsewhere around town. One of them was Sadie, a pretty brunette you had a crush on. One night you were invited to go swimming or skinny dipping with her and her friend and some of the other McDonald’s crew out at a waterfall. Her friend you never met that night because you were too afraid to go turned out later to be Olivia. You only visited that waterfall once with Olivia and some of her friends after you had graduated and went back to Columbia together.

 

Olivia would take you back to Columbia and show you all kinds of cool outdoor places in the area she had explored with her friends. Her college experience was one of being integrated with the college itself, yours was one of being an outsider, looking in at all of your fellow classmates having fun and being unsure of how to join them. Because, after the first year of school, almost every member of the Waterhouse Hall gang had moved out of the dorms and/or dropped out of school. Your gang was simply too cool for school, and since you were there on your Daddy’s money, you were the exception when it came to actually finishing school in four years. Your gang was too cool to hang out in places like the Catholic center, where Olivia made many of her friends.

 

You walk around Columbia and remember Olivia’s friends, Olivia’s stories of college fun, and the few times you stopped with Olivia to visit Columbia together. You walk around and wonder why the hell all of it and everyone had seemed so big and impenetrable at the time, instead of being easily accessible. Hell, Austin seemed so much harder of a nut to crack, living and working as a professional, or so you told yourself. In college, people went out of their way to introduce themselves to you, to welcome you to their group, and you spurned most of that because you were adamantly the outsider, the loner artist who with Jerry would one day make it big in New York City and return to Columbia as a rock star, joining Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as the third member of its megacelebrity triumvirate. You walk around and think deeply about had gone wrong with you then, and how much had gone wrong with you since you’d spurned all the good things in your life in favor of greener pastures.

 

You sit in the chilly air on the campus quad, sipping your tall cup of McDonald’s coffee purchased nearby from the place you worked for eight months to pay for your DWI (and secretly hoped one of the McDonald’s crew would still be working there so you could reunite with someone besides the old drinking gang), and you overhear a high school son and his parents talking.

 

“There’s not really anything special about this school,” the father says to his wife and kid. “Looks like every other state university you could go to.”

 

At that moment, you want to jump up and run over to the man and shake him, then set his kid straight.

 

“No school, absolutely no school in the world you can go to, is going to be more special than another if you don’t make some kind of effort your own damn self to have it be special. No city you live in, no woman you date, no place you work, no version of yourself that you wake up and stare at in the mirror—none of them will ever be more special than any other of their kind, UNLESS YOU MAKE THEM SO.”

 

But, you are too much of a man manqué to work up the courage to go tell them this, and frankly, you still have years to come where you forget this special insight, and return to your state of walking through life with the expectation that you don’t have to do anything special yourself to get something special in return.

 

Since you’d locked Jerry’s front door behind you this morning, you stop by Roger and Callie’s house and grab a set of Jerry’s keys, wanting to take a nap, and secretly thinking that you will grab your stuff from within his locked apartment, throw it in your car, and head back to Austin. That is how low you feel at that moment, how little you feel like partying. But, when you wake up in the dark late winter Missouri evening alone inside Jerry’s apt, you decide you have to go through with all of it, not just some of it. You just hope that Kelly didn’t stop by, for some reason she just seems like too much of an affirmation of the old you that you don’t want to dredge up—or maybe, you just remember her being a little too much like Karen Winthrop.

 

You smoke pot, you drink beer, you play guitar badly. You bleed all over one of the guitars from a small nick in the quick of your finger, and Callie thinks it’s cool and takes a picture. Gus, the mild-mannered fellow who looked kind of like the lead singer of Motley Crue, who’d left veterinary school to go back home and work at his friend’s lawncare business, shows up and is very much the same person. Roger is probably the most different. He seems a lot more preppy and indifferent to partying, at first anyway. Dennis, the wild guy who actually looked preppy and got laid in college but sometimes stooped to hang out with your gang—he arrives and looks the same and acts crazy as if on command for the occasion, has a couple of beers, converses with you briefly as if the two of you are meeting in a more sober, saner place, then he gets in some kind of argument with Jerry that you are having trouble processing with all of the pot in your system.

 

You are starting to feel exceptionally paranoid for the first time in years. It is getting incredibly cold outside, and you want to be away from all of them, and just hang out with the cats and the dogs, but you go out there and imagine yourself freezing to death if you fall asleep. So, you go back inside, and sit in a chair, trying not to doze, while you hear Callie saying all kinds of things about how pot gave her exceptional witchy and satanic powers, and now you just want to curl up in a little ball and go away, and Callie sees what was happening, and pulls the futon bed out for you.

 

The next day, you feel like complete ass, and it is just Callie there when you wake up. You’ve heard all these stories from Jerry about how much she wants to cheat on Roger, since she’d married him when she was sixteen and he was twenty and had been with nobody else. You imagine her trying to do something with you, but it seems like for the time being you are suddenly the same shy quiet kid again with little to say, and she mostly kind of ignores you and shows you the porno/stripper music she’s been making on her Mac, and you just coolly observe how much you wish that you could have come back to Columbia and be hanging out with Olivia’s old friends and not yours, because they are really just Jerry’s friends, and then you feel bad for thinking it because it isn’t like they are bad people at all, they just aren’t people you want to know anymore.

 

Olivia’s friends were all people she’d met from the Catholic youth center, and at the time you’d first been introduced to them, you’d privately mocked several of them for seeming to be just dorky preppy tools, while all the friends you’d made in college had kept it real. Funny how time and wistful nostalgia changes that attitude. Now and for the past several years, you would give anything to have the sort of positive experience of church and community and fellowship that Olivia had experienced in college, but alas, your friends at Ahmis are much more like the drunk party people, the godless people you knew in college.

 

Finally, Jerry arrives, and you and he and Callie get in his car and you go downtown to hang out for awhile. For some reason all of the new shops in Columbia that Jerry thinks are so cool to go into and experience seem like small and unexceptional places that you’ve so “been there done that” in Austin. Jerry has spent most of his life after you both left Missouri in a midwestern suburb in Indiana that was probably just as unremarkable to the connoisseur of cool. You go to a Japanese restaurant, but just have a beer. You head over to a new restaurant that used to be the home of your favorite two pound burritos. A cute chick is the hostess, and Jerry has the hots for her. You are feeling rather sexless and indifferent to it all, like you’ve been dropped into a time capsule where you are the same loser who knew no girl was ever going to be interested in him. The Waterhouse gang from last night is all there to dine, except for Dennis, who has decided that he doesn’t want anything ever to do with you again. Gus is there with his fiance, as are Roger and Callie, and you and Jerry. You decide to go to the same dance club where in college you never danced or tried to pick up women, except once, when you stood out there drunk asking the hot chicks leaving for cigarettes, and to come back to your dorm room.

 

The club is the only dance club open that night, and you learn that spring break is actually not quite over yet. The hostess chick from the restaurant shows up, and Jerry dances with her for most of the evening. He gets her number, and later when you ask him about it, he says he will never call her. An exceptionally fine, tall thin brunette seems interested in you—sort of—but you feel stupid because you’ve actually never done this before. How close should you get to her while you dance? You don’t know.

 

You don’t know if she really wants you or not. You feel like you are the same awkward sexless college loser again, and pridefully hide this shame behind a piece of you that tells yourself you are not over Lucy yet. Feeling kind of okay, mostly because none of the others are dancing, you go back and talk to them and drink a lot of bourbon. Some time in the early hours of the morning they kick everyone out of the club, and you don’t feel too bad, but you know you’re drunk and you know Jerry is probably drunk, but he drives you home anyway, and you sit around at his place the rest of the night talking to Ruben about this and that band and drinking beer.

 

Jerry tells Ruben how much he despises the band Interpol and thinks they are nothing important, just Joy Division all over again. He doesn’t know how much you were digging them, and your weird experience outside of Nirvana with Interpol, and really has no idea about your current opinions of pop music. Ruben asks you if you went to SXSW. You go out to smoke cigarette after cigarette, feeling your lungs get thicker than they ever have since when you got addicted again right after Roy’s death.

 

You are really just wanting the mental space away from them for a few minutes, to think about everything that has happened so far on the retroritualisticroadtrip. Then, Roger and Callie show up, and Callie is acting a little crazy, and a little randy, and Roger is acting the sloppy drunk. Callie gets on your lap for a few seconds playfully, and you think, wow, she is pretty light for someone who has gotten so fat since your last saw her.

 

You have to be at work in 24 hours, when you wake up still feeling drunk, and decide you need to get on the road, after a few hours of trying to sober up and watch the latest additions to Jerry’s collection of gay videos. Jerry has a great fascination for the gay lifestyle, but has decided he isn’t homosexual, just likes to shock people, like when he was into Satanism and Nietzsche.

 

It is approaching late morning that Sunday, and you want to get back to Austin before nightfall. You aren’t going to make it, now, but you could arrive with some light in the sky if you leave soon. You can tell you are still too drunk to drive as you say goodbye to Jerry, “nope, I have to get going, it’s been fun, it’s been real, will give you a call when I get back.”

 

You leave Columbia taking the same route you’d taken so many times to come home from college. It feels like a trip back home during one of those forlorn winters of depression where college was hell and it was never going to end. What a crazy fool you were to think that college was such a life challenge, and that what followed it could only be better. You were unable to realize that the choices you were making were most certainly going to land you an average office job at a company that felt like hell. How little did you understand how things can be that much worse, and when Mommy and Daddy aren’t there to pick up the tab, how dark the hours after the party can get.

 

Missouri is an even more washed out shade of gray than the day before, as you point the car toward KC feeling kind of dizzy and buzzed. Your plan is to drink a lot of coffee and never go more than five miles an hour above the speed limit, carefully passing all the state troopers who dot I-70, feeling somewhat silly to be so worried about making it back to Austin by an appointed time, but dead set now with determination in your mission. You decide to take the brainless route all the way home: I-70 to I-35. And, you are too far gone to fight all of the random sadness welling up within you, thinking about what might have been in college, and what might have been with Olivia, even though it’s been over four years since the two of you broke up. Kansas is also gray and desolate, and you feel the vibrations of the wheels across the rolling plains, and the endless blandness of it all start to eat away at you, and just past Wichita you begin to wonder if perhaps this is hell, just an endless gray interstate promise to return home that is never fulfilled.

 

Oklahoma City, which was once the city with the worst interstate construction, has fixed its problems and it is a breeze to fly through. The sun comes out for the end of the afternoon, and patches of green are starting to show themselves everywhere. You were half-thinking about a hotel right before you reached Oklahoma City, but then you got another wind when the sun came out, guessing that aside from a little pain in Dallas, the rest of the trip will be a straight shot down the corridor.

 

Then, right around the Oklahoma/Texas border, where the traffic has always sped up to being crazy Texas fast, everything slows down to a standstill, and the sky gets gray again. You can see that there is little sunlight left in the day for you as you drive into a giant construction mess that consumes the next two hours of your drive. Maybe, just maybe, you think, God is telling me not to come back to Texas—turn around, son, before it’s too late and you’re sucked into the Austin/Ahmis/Karen Winthrop vortex again.

 

In the dark of early evening, you start to see tracers and mildly hallucinate. At a gas station just inside Texas, as you purchase some brightly colored can of energy drink, the lady looks at you like you are a serial-killing, devil-worshiping, commie pedophile terrorist from hell itself—or maybe the west coast. You know that if you hit Dallas feeling like you look, and looking like you feel, you will be in all kinds of trouble in the twisty-turvy mess of lane changing that is I-35 in Dallas. You decide to spend the night in Denton, and you buy a 24 oz can of beer, just to help you sleep. You ask the old, wild-eyed lady manning the night desk for a three o’clock morning wake up call, and she asks you to repeat yourself twice in disbelief that you want to be up that early. Being five hours away from Austin, you can get up at 3 AM and still make it to work on time.

 

You move like an anonymous spirit through Dallas in the hour that falls between the nightlife and early morning deliveries, feeling much the same way you drove through it a few days before, unloved and alone, racing to keep from being impaled on one of its teeth jutting up on the plains of the endless Texas maw.

 

A lone Ford Explorer appears out of nowhere in front of you and brakes and swerves hard onto the shoulder, and you do the same. A car around the bend unseen at first is parked across two lanes, shattered by some drunken mistake or gangland hit. There is an open door and a body slumped askew across the wheel, with blood leaking out. The lone Explorer disappears as rapidly as it appeared, and you are all alone again, briefly wondering whether you should stop and call somebody, then you hear and see sirens flashing behind you, so you move on through the night, with the remaining Dallas I-35 twists and turns not being nearly as bad as you remembered them to be.

 

Somewhere outside of Dallas it begins to rain hard, and you groan, but knew this trip would not be complete without a zero visibility thunderstorm. You have had sleep, and what’s more, coffee, and for the first time since you left Columbia, your brain isn’t drugged or drunk or full of any sort of madness of memories, just a resolve to get through the downpour back to Austin. It abates somewhere around Waco, and you hit the morning Georgetown/Roundrock/Cedar Park/Leander rush hour traffic.

 

But, it isn’t quite 8 AM yet as you catch whiffs of your adopted hometown and snatches of its alternative rock radio station playing an Interpol song because Austin has finally discovered Interpol. Everything is so green and lush and verdant, and you stay on I-35 all the way to one of the downtown exits, not minding the traffic a bit. You pull into the workplace parking lot briefly, and look at your clock, and see it isn’t even eight-thirty yet, so you drive on over to your studio apartment three blocks away, and freshen up.

 

You trudge up the stairs of the company you are still chained to, due to a seven-year curse; and it is still a little early for you. Lucy is there, and you nonchalantly mention that you’d just gotten back from Missouri, and had to stop in Denton because of unexpected traffic in Oklahoma.

 

Lucy snorts and mutters “okay, like, so what?” and nobody in the building seems to care that you have made the special effort to return to work on time this Monday morning.

Year 7

 

April 15, 2005

“So, Deborah, I’m so glad that you took some time out of your busy day of preparing the monthly internal Ahmis newsletter, and refereeing all the catfights in the admin pool, in order to meet with me.”

 

“What can I do for you Kevin?”

 

“Ah, now, Deborah, you always ask me that when I come to visit you, as if I’d only want to come down here to talk to you when I want something from you. Don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, I might actually care about what’s been happening in the daily life of Ahmis’ best Operations Manager ever?”

 

“So, what do you need from me, Kevin?”

 

“Well, you know, Deborah, how Karen and I have really helped Ahmis start marketing itself more as a potential leader in offering web-based corporate communications training?”

 

“Certainly, Kevin. Wanda seems to be on board with that—and when our salesladies aren’t busy pursuing business that Ahmis actually can win, we’ve asked them to try to pick up a few web-based projects.”

 

“Right. And, you know that I am the web guy here?”

 

“Of course, Kevin. I’m your manager now, since you don’t want to be under Karen, and nobody else can handle your bitchy, diva self. I know what it is you do all day.”

 

“Well, Deborah, what you don’t know is that I’ve been reading all of the trade journals for our business that I used to not give a shit about, because frankly, corporate communications training is boring as hell—but, anyway, I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on, know who our competitors will be when we start selling more web-based training, and more importantly, I’ve been reading ‘Unlimited Power’ by Tony Robbins.”

 

“I’ve heard of him. I have him somewhere on my reading list of motivational must-reads—you know what a sucker I am for any business book that makes you feel like the work you’re doing is more important than it really is if you just change your attitude and wear nicer clothes.”

 

“And, I’m becoming a sucker for those kind of books, too. And, guess what? While I was reading up on our industry and getting drunk every night over the past three months on my queen-sized, blow-up air mattress inside my tiny little studio apartment full of a natural gas leak, I discovered this…”

 

“What is this?”

 

“It’s the 7th Annual Symposium on Web-based Corporate Communications Training, also known by the heavy hitters in our industry as WebCorpComm 2005.”

 

“Hmmm. Looks as if, in spite of the fact we’ve barely gotten our feet wet on the web, and still manually cut and paste some figures into our instruction manuals for some of our clients, some folks have been offering web-based communications training software for years.”

 

“Yes, but none of these companies has been around for as long as Ahmis. We were one of the first companies to ever offer corporate communications training software, and I think that could have some cachet.”

 

“Maybe you’re right. I’ll talk to Wanda, and see if she is interested in attending, or maybe send Tracy or Trina out there—oh, it’s in San Francisco, how lovely.”

 

“Yeah, about that. While Tracy and Trina are both very competent and lovely blond salesladies, they often come to me with questions when we get a Request for Proposal on a web-based project. So, even though we actually haven’t won any of the bids on those projects, this web guy here has gotten pretty knowledgeable about best practices, and would likely be more conversant with this audience than either of them.”

 

“So, what are you saying, Kevin?”

 

“I’m saying that this conference is all about the web, and I’m the web guy.”

 

“Kevin, if you are ever going to learn how to get what you want out of life, you are going to have to be more direct about asking for it.”

 

“Deborah, I’d like you to talk to Wanda, and maybe see if I couldn’t be allowed to fly out to this conference on Ahmis’ dime.”

 

“I don’t need to talk to Wanda, Kevin. I actually think it’s a great idea. You can go, and I’ll book your flight and hotel for you right away.”

 

“And, besides, even if I was unable to make any good contacts for Ahmis, it could still be a learning experience for me, and I can bring back information Ahmis can use as well.”

 

“Kevin, I said you can go.”

 

“I think having the web guy taking notes at one of these things, and talking to other web guys makes more sense than having Tracy or Trina there.”

 

“Kevin, it’s done. I’ve booked your flight and hotel. You are flying to San Francisco in three weeks. Research all of the attendees listed on their site, so you can be knowledgeable about what their companies’ needs are. I’ll get some business cards printed up for you. It’s very important that you bring business cards, and exchange them with as many people as possible.”

 

“So, I can go? Oh my god, I am actually getting to go someplace exotic, and I don’t have to pay for it, and Karen Winthrop won’t be going with me. I can’t wait to see San Francisco!”

 

“You’ll love San Francisco, Kevin. I’ve been there a dozen times with my hubby.”

 

You run back upstairs to your office and do a little dance. You run home, stopping at Whole Foods to grab a six pack of beer and celebrate. Why not? One more round of getting toasted before you clean up your act for good, and live your life the way Tony Robbins and Ahmis’ Operations Manager Deborah want you to.

 

“Hi, Kevin, it’s Lucy.”

 

“Uh, hi Lucy. I hope you are enjoying your new job making lots more money at a similar company that isn’t Ahmis.”

 

“I am, and I was just wondering if you’d like to go for a walk together. I enjoyed seeing you at my going-away party.”

 

“Really? You seemed kind of cold and distant.”

 

“That’s because I was unsure of how you felt about us.”

 

“Well, come on over, and we can go for a walk together. I have a lot to tell you.”

 

Lucy shows up at the door of your tiny, gas-filled studio apartment with her dog Leaky. Your dog Anastasia unfortunately had to be shipped off to Mommy and Daddy’s house in Bastrop, because you couldn’t keep a big Husky dog in a tiny studio apartment.

 

“Wow, Lucy, you look very pure and innocent right now. Maybe it’s because it’s springtime, or perhaps I’m just feeling all kinds of new beginnings inside and out, but it’s almost like I’m meeting you for the first time.”

 

“Thanks, Kevin. Now that you’ve grown your hair out a bit from your ‘angry bald dude with goatee’ phase, dried your acne-covered self up from the inside out with Acutane, and wear contact lenses—as well as clothes made in this century—you’re not so hard on the eyes yourself.”

 

“Gosh, Lucy, you know what would feel really good?”

 

“What’s that Kevin?”

 

“After we get done walking around Town Lake and lying to each other about what we’ve been up to the past few months, you’ll continue to stare at me ever-so-sweetly, and I’ll get an erection and kiss you, and you’ll acquiesce until you’re wearing nothing but a jogging bra, and I’m only wearing this white t-shirt I found at Goodwill, and we can become reacquainted carnally.”

 

“That sounds like sweet springtime bliss, Kevin.”

 

After the two of you lie on your recent upgrade of an overpriced, pillow-top bed that fills half the room, inhaling the gas fumes and letting the sweat cool on your bodies, you turn your head and stare into her eyes for about ten minutes, unblinking.

 

“What are you thinking?” you ask her.

 

“I’m thinking I’m going to really miss you when you go to San Francisco.”

 

“Wow, no female other than my mom has ever missed me when I went away before. I feel all special and grown up. Come with me to the Sears by your apartment, and let’s look at discounted matching tie and shirt sets so I can really impress this crowd out in San Francisco.”

 

May 5, 2005

You arrive at the SFO International Airport knowing only the name of the hotel Deborah has booked for you. You are nervous and shaky, remembering the time in college that you went to New York with your friend Jerry, and discovered that the subway didn’t go all the way to the airport, so the two of you paid $120 for a cab to drive you for two hours to your hotel. You don’t want to make such a dumb, rookie traveler’s mistake again, but you also haven’t really been anywhere by yourself, so you are fearful that you’ll end up in some type of rogue transportation powered by gang bangers looking for easy tourist marks to take back with them to Oakland.

 

You wish very strongly for the second time this year that you owned a cell phone, feeling almost moronic to be sitting here at the pay phone booths where all of the other travelers are taking advantage of the sound-proofed areas to make calls on their cell phones or conduct business on their laptops.

 

You mutter “darn cell phone battery dying on me again” loudly enough in case anyone is actually paying attention to you calling the 1-800 number on the pay phone to use your credit card to call your hotel and find out when the next hotel shuttle arrives.

 

“Sorry sir, we don’t offer an airport shuttle service from this hotel.”

 

“How far away are you?”

 

“About seven miles, sir.”

 

“What should I do?”

 

“You can take the BART, sir, and get off at Union Square, or you can arrange for a Blue Shuttle to bring you here.”

 

The BART sounds like it has potential for dropping you off someplace like Oakland, right in the heart of gang banger territory, so you opt for making an ass out of yourself trying to figure out how to find one of these Blue Shuttles.

 

“Are you the Blue Shuttle service that takes me to my hotel?” you ask a red-faced man preoccupied with luggage and making change for tips.

 

“What’s your hotel, sir?” he asks.

 

“Crowne Plaza.”

 

“Yeah, I guess I can fit you in. Come on. Is this your luggage?”

 

The hotel kindly checks you in early, and you find yourself in downtown San Francisco. Uh-oh, you forgot your business cards.

 

“Damnit,” you cry to Lucy from your hotel phone (where a minimum charge of $64 per long distance call will be applied), “I swear I set the cards aside specifically so I wouldn’t forget to pack them. Can you snag one from my desk and fax it to me? I’ll make copies of it at a Kinko’s here.”

 

“How many cards do you plan on handing out? Wouldn’t the dozen or so sitting here on your desk probably be enough? Why don’t I just send them all to you overnight, and you can have them by tomorrow?”

 

“I might end up meeting hundreds of people. What if I meet someone in the hotel tonight, and she asks me for my business card? No, I need to get these done up right. Fax a copy of the card over to the hotel, and I’ll see if Kinko’s can work their magic.”

 

The design of the Ahmis business card hasn’t been updated in sync with the website and the other print Marketing materials that you, Karen Winthrop, and Deidre have created over the past two years. The Ahmis business card template was designed some time around the invention of the printing press. It does have colors on it—the nasty clashing Ahmis fuchsia and gold color palette you’ve had to work with—in tandem with Karen Winthrop’s Afghan rug design aesthetic.

 

Kinko’s will skeptically take your reasonably good facsimile of the Ahmis business card, and make black and white copies of it onto card stock, then pay some pierced and tattooed minimum wage flunky to cut the cards using a dull paper cutter.

 

“Lovely,” you say to yourself six hours later thumbing the stack of oddly-shaped, rough-hewn cards, after spending most of your day in Kinko’s or wandering timidly within a four-five block radius of your hotel. “These business cards look like they were made by Ye Olde Print Shoppe, circa 1803, and I’m supposed to be hanging with a crowd of bleeding-edge developers of website corporate communications software.”

 

You decide that San Francisco is pretty neat, though, in spite of having seen next to none of it, and want to tell Lucy about it, and let her know how much you already miss her. You know that she said she’d call at eight Pacific time, and it’s only six, but you want to hear the sound of her voice. You also want to get in at least one obligatory call to her before going to drink and dine on Ahmis’ dime. In case you happen to meet a bunch of very important Ahmis prospects while dining, who invite you to go see San Francisco’s nightlife, you’d better make sure you call Lucy now.

 

“I’m missing you, and want to hear the sound of your voice,” you say to her.

 

“I thought I was going to call you at eight?”

 

“Well, I started missing you, Pumpkin, and wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”

 

“Um, well, I’ve been missing you, too, Kevin. I’m making my dinner right now, and need to walk Leaky. Can I call you back?”

 

“Well, I was going to go grab a bite myself at the hotel restaurant, and in case I happen to meet a bunch of very important Ahmis prospects while dining, who invite me to go see San Francisco’s nightlife, I’d better say goodnight now.”

 

“Well, goodnight.”

 

“Goodnight, Pumpkin.”

 

Now, because you want to feel really deliciously grown up, you grab a bottle of complimentary hand lotion, and turn the television on. Visions of Deborah discovering hotel porn itemized on the room receipt appear in your head, so you settle for a Pilates commercial.

 

It also feels really good to be dining and drinking on the Ahmis room tab. You opt for the bistro instead of the restaurant, as the restaurant looks kind of fancy and some man entered it wearing a tie, and you are not wearing a tie.

 

A guy with a laptop is sitting in the bistro with a coffee, and he looks over at you puzzled after you stare at him long enough, but you are reluctant to ask him if he’s going to the big WebCorpComm 2005 conference tomorrow. Instead, you opt to look every bit the jaded business traveler who’s seen it all, and pretend to stare right through him as you inhale your two slices of pizza, washing them down with three bottles of imported beer before heading over to the hotel bar.

 

It also feels very grown-up to be ordering drinks at a hotel bar on Ahmis’ tab. You spy a rather attractive older lady in business attire who starts to scowl at you before smiling at you pityingly as if you are a dimwit charity case. You order two bourbons on the rocks so that if the drinks get itemized, you can tell Deborah that you met a prospect and purchased a drink for her. However, you are too shy to say a word to the older lady, and then two, sleazeball salesmen come in and grab her and start telling their war stories to her. So, you take your second bourbon up to your room, still feeling pretty grown-up.

 

The hotel room clock says that it is a little after 8 PM, Pacific time, so you think maybe you should tell Lucy good night at the time you’d originally said you would tell her good night.

 

You are also feeling mildly guilty for imagining yourself taking that older lady up to your room.

 

“Hello?” murmurs a sleepy voice at the other end.

 

“Hello, Pumpkin, it’s me.”

 

“Kevin? Is everything okay?”

 

“Oh, everything’s fine. I just wanted to call and say good-night to you.”

 

“But, you already did that.”

 

“Well, that was just in case I didn’t get back up here before 10 o’clock your time.”

 

“It’s 10:15.”

 

“Well, good night.”

 

“Good night, Kevin.”

 

You decide you have enough energy left in you to have another go with the complimentary hand lotion, so you surf the free cable offerings and discover an ab roller infomercial that’s just getting started. Full of hotel bistro pizza, beer and hotel bar bourbon, and having masturbated to hotel television, you pass into an early slumber at 8:35 PM, feeling very grown-up and important. Tomorrow, you will begin the process of conquering the market of web-based corporate communications software, one business card at a time.

 

May 6, 2005

At 2:45 AM, you are wide awake. Too much booze does this to you, and three beers and two bourbons is too much booze for you these days. You are, after all, 29 years of age now, and drinking like you did in college, or like you did four years ago during the endless summer happy hour, is really hard on your system.

 

You know that for the next three hours, no matter how hard you try to fall back asleep, your thoughts will race.

 

They would be racing chaotically even if you were back home, but now you are also imagining all of the things that could go wrong when you show up for the opening presentation in six hours. What if you go business casual, and every male is wearing a tie? What if you put on a tie, and every guy is wearing jeans? Wanda and Deborah and the salesladies were not much help with this, as they only know what women are supposed to wear at a business conference.

 

What if they all laugh at your crappy business cards? What if you are required to talk about your company in front of a crowd of hundreds of people—you know, as they sometimes make you go around the room introducing yourselves? What if you sleep in late, and you have to enter through closed doors, making a lot of noise, and having people turn and stare at you as you excuse yourself to find a seat?

 

What if you show up too early, and the people that organize the conference are still setting things up, and they look at you funny and laugh at you for being there so early?

 

You hear the hotel alarm clock going off just as you start to drift off, or so it seems. You’d set it for 6:30 AM, which gives you two hours to get ready and have breakfast. And, you need the full two hours to tie and untie your tie ten times, put on and remove the sport jacket Uncle bought you six years ago that was ten years out of style at the time. The guy who went into the hotel restaurant last night was wearing a suit and tie, but the fellow with the laptop out in the bistro was not—he was business casual, dressed in polo and khakis.

 

You think back to the mantra “dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” and realize that you probably need to wear the tie AND the jacket in order to impress some of the C-level speakers who will be presenting today.

 

It is now 7:45 AM, and you know there is a continental breakfast at 8 AM, but you definitely do not want to arrive for the continental breakfast right when it’s getting started, otherwise, if you’re the first person to rush up and start grabbing muffins and fruit and juice, you’ll look like some kind of country bumpkin who has been looking forward to the continental breakfast since his plane arrived.

 

You grab the USA Today paper that’s outside your door, and thumb through it on the hotel room bed, catching in print everything you’ve already seen on the CNN news channel ticker. Finally, it’s now 8:10, and so you feel safe enough to go down, arriving at the continental breakfast not too early and not too late.

 

On the elevator, you see some ladies who are wearing business attire, and you smile at them and say hello. They kind of giggle.

 

“Are you going to WebCorpComm 2005?” you ask.

 

“Yes, are you?”

 

“Yes, take these business cards. Do you all have business cards?”

 

“Actually, we left ours in our room for networking later, but we’ll oblige you and scowl heavily while you fumble through your sport jacket pocket for your rubber-band-wrapped collection of rough-cut, second-generation-copied cards.”

 

Down at the continental breakfast, you discover that it has been mostly picked clean, and groups have already formed with rip-roaring conversations about the WebCorpComm game. Everyone knows each other, as you will discover your industry is rather incestuous, and the same vendors and clients come back to these things year after year after year.

 

“Hi,” you say to a lady who has wandered away from the pack for a coffee refill, “Are you enjoying the conference?”

 

“Well, my flight just got in this morning, and I don’t think the conference has really started yet, has it?”

 

“Well, you know…”

 

She gives you a puzzled look.

 

You look down at your sport jacket which is getting covered in crumbs, wiping your right hand across it. “My name’s Kevin, Kevin Smiley, of Ahmis Communications. We’re kind of old school, so they make me wear a tie and stuff.”

 

“I see.” She hurriedly dumps cream and sugar into her coffee and runs back to her group.

 

“Is this seat taken?” you ask a stern-faced Asian lady sitting in the second row from the front.

 

“I don’t speak good English.”

 

“This seat? Anyone from your country, er, company coming to sit here?”

 

“No, no. I’m here by myself.” She throws up a wall, and starts hammering away on her laptop.

 

You spot a face you recognize from the conference website. It’s Kim Park, the organizer of the conference. He runs a company that provides consulting and research to both the vendors and clients of your industry. Deborah had mentioned it would be a good idea to establish a relationship with Kim, since he has the confidence of a lot of people at companies Ahmis would like to do business with.

 

You almost knock your coffee over with your jacket sleeve, so you remove the jacket—looking around you can see you are one of two men wearing a tie—the other is a crusty old Belgian professor who will offer a snooze of a presentation on Unicode.

 

“Kim, Kim Park!” you run up to him. He looks at you and smiles a big grin.

 

“Tony Marcone, with Communicross. How have you been?” he says.

 

You turn around and see a gang of men and women approaching him.

 

“Just fine!” cries a tall, tanned, athletic young man about your age who is carelessly wearing jeans and a t-shirt. “Business is just astounding this year. Kim, you are looking good. Things must be going well for you!”

 

Kim and this group talk for fifteen minutes, and you stand there smiling and nodding because it would be too embarrassing to extricate yourself now that you’re sandwiched in between them. You approach Kim again, who has turned his back to you and is fooling with the laptop projector.

 

“Uh, hi, Kim, my name is Kevin, Kevin Smiley.”

 

He smiles. “Hi Kevin, you’re with…” he squints at your nametag.

 

“Ahmis. Ahmis Communications.”

 

“Ah, yes, Ahmis, the old workhorse of Corporate Communications Training software. I’ve heard of you guys. You’re based out of…”

 

“Austin, Texas.”

 

“And, where else do you have offices?”

 

“Uh, just Austin right now, but we’re looking to expand globally with satellite offices in key regions real soon.”

 

“Right. Well, my consulting firm could help you guys with that. We provide lots of overpriced market research that you could just as easily find yourself online, packaged in PDFs that take forever to download because of all the slick eye candy we add to them. You should think about becoming a subscriber. We offer slim discounts to new subscribers.”

 

“Yeah, Deborah, our operations manager was thinking about purchasing your useless, overpriced market research since you make the title of every white paper sound like it will be the silver bullet that can make Ahmis a 21st century player in this industry.”

 

“We have some pretty tantalizing titles and abstracts, don’t we? I bet you’d like to get your hands on the rest of the fluff we cook up in the full versions of the articles! Why don’t we trade business cards?”

 

You are elated to be asked to trade business cards.

 

“Hmmm,” he says, eyeing the facsimilied/photocopied/rough cut card.

 

“Yeah, we’re still kind of old school with the business cards. We’ve been so heavily focused on growing our web-based business, you know.”

 

“Right! Of course. Well, you are welcome to come to the networking dinner we have the second night of WebCorpComm. It’s a tradition.”

 

“Oh boy, oh boy!” you think to yourself. “I’m getting to go to a networking dinner with some of the heavy hitters who will be speaking today. Some of them work for big name companies in Austin, too! It will be such a coup to return to Ahmis on Monday with a handful of hot leads. Maybe Wanda will even let me work these leads when she sees how far I’ve gotten—all this from merely reading some of our trade journals and books by Tony Robbins.”

 

“Okay, let’s get started,” says the speaker of the opening presentation. “My name is Wally, and I work with Kim, and we host WebCorpComm every year. In years past, we haven’t done this because the crowd has been a little too large, and time constraints have prevented it, but for some reason, a lot of the cool kids have stayed away this year, so I thought that we could go around the room and introduce ourselves and tell everyone a little bit about the company we work for. Let’s start over there on that side of the room, and work our way around clockwise, until we end up back at the weirdo with the tie and the stern Asian lady. Go.”

 

The stern Asian lady has an incoming phone call while folks are introducing themselves, and gets up and leaves, so it is now quite evident you will be the last person to introduce yourself in front of about one hundred and twenty-five people. Everyone else has opted to sit several rows back, and aside from Wally and Kim, you are the only person sitting at the front of the room.

 

Lots of laughter and enthusiastic faces greet most of the introductions, as almost everyone has been here before. People also nod and smile patiently at the newcomers who talk about the business problems they hope to solve by being here. You are getting clammier and more frozen with paralysis as the introduction rolls closer and closer to your turn.

 

Suddenly, you know it’s your turn, and you just sit there, painfully trying to smile through your intense phobia of speaking to a group of any size. Wally smiles and nods expectantly, while many people in the room look impatiently back at you.

 

You know that this is your moment to make an excellent first impression, both as an individual and as a representative of Ahmis. You also know that you are one of about five vendors in the audience competing for the business of the rest of the crowd, who look to companies like yours as solution providers. You must provide the right blend of wit and personal charm to make the crowd see that when it comes to corporate communications, Ahmis is a master.

 

“Uh, my name is, uh, Kevin, uh, Smiley, and I, uh, work for Ahmis, uh, Communications. We, uh, have been in business for, uh, almost forty, uh, years. We were one of the, uh, first corporate, uh, communications, uh, training, companies—back then, there was, uh, no Internet. But, uh…”

 

“Thank you, Kevin,” says Wally, catching your face at beet red before it turns beet purple. “I’ve heard of Ahmis. A real workhorse when it comes to corporate communications. Now, let’s get down to business, and open with this year’s theme—globalizing your web-based corporate communications training software. As some of you may know, people outside of the US don’t always prefer to do business in English, especially when it comes to what internal corporate training software they use.”

 

You sit, and slowly cool as you feel your entire backside is drenched in sweat.

 

You and the rest of the audience snooze through the Belgian professor’s presentation on Unicode, in which he very slowly and deliberately reads the exact words he’s put up on his slides.

 

Oh, look! It’s one of the speakers whose background you’ve thoroughly researched. He’s Greg Barnsworth, the VP of Global Corporate Communications at PJ&H. Somehow, you thought he’d be much taller, but his delivery is quite forceful, his manner dynamic, and he exudes the kind of charisma that the audience needs in order to wake itself up from the Unicode lecture.

 

“And that concludes how we took something like a Wiki, which everybody is using now, and turned it into a really powerful, collaborative environment in which our partnership with our vendor became a true partnership in every sense of the word, using Ruby on Rails—a brand new development framework, as I said, which you absolutely must take a look at.”

 

You make a note to learn what this Ruby on Rails stuff is, and how Ahmis needs to start using a Wiki, as soon as you figure out what the heck someone at a company would need a Wiki for, aside from looking up misinformation on Wikipedia when he gets in an argument with a coworker.

 

“So, your entire global internal network is able to train worldwide in all the languages your organization speaks?” asks Kim Park.

 

“That’s right, Kim. Thanks to working closely with Kim’s consulting business, we were able to globalize our internal corporate communications training materials.”

 

You are still full of enough of the energy you arrived with—and you still care enough to impress people and make them see what a great thing it would be to switch to Ahmis—so you are busy mustering up the courage to ask Greg if his team uses any Java-based corporate communications software on their intranet, which is all the Ahmis team would be capable of implementing if you were to land his account.

 

Someone asks the question for you.

 

“Hi, I’m Jennifer Biggs. I work at a small GIS software company, and all of our web-based corporate communications software still runs on Java.”

 

Several people in the audience groan, and Greg chuckles, giving a knowing smile.

 

“I feel your pain. We’ve been there.”

 

“How do you get buy-in from management to let them know they’re still using a bloated, outmoded platform? I mean, I’m lucky on a good day to bring the conversation around to getting us to use XML-based Flash templates, which would…”

 

“Uh-uh, no. Don’t even think it. That was tempting two years ago to us as well—pay some Flash developer to make training templates, and get some workhorse old school communications company to plug in the content, but I’m telling you—use a vendor that knows Ruby on Rails, and is ready to fully collaborate with your team when it comes to authoring the content. The days of paying some team of dinosaurs to author the perfectly crafted word, and have it sit on well-aged, dated software platforms that see a new release every six years—those days are over.”

 

The audience roars with laughter and cheers with approval, and you shrink back into your seat. Greg has basically described Ahmis in a nutshell, and you thought as Ahmis’ web guy you were going to bring something…anything to the table—and here you are, the web guy, listening to new web technologies you know nothing about.

 

“But how do I get buy-in?” reiterates Jennifer, giggling and pleading in an adorable way that makes the entire audience laugh sympathetically.

 

“Talk to this guy right over here—can I plug a vendor in my presentation?”

 

“You just plugged me,” cries Kim Park, and everyone laughs again.

 

Your face starts to turn red, as you think at first Greg’s pointing at you, and maybe he knows who you are and who you’re with, and he’s getting ready to lay into a totally sarcastic send-up of Ahmis Communications and how pathetic a company it is, but then, you turn slightly to see he’s looking past you at Tony Marcone of Communicross.

 

“Tony Marcone of Communicross. You all know him. Guy’s a genius, and so’s his company. They’ve taken our productivity and corporate training to a whole new level. I think I’m out of time, but feel free to come up and ask me questions. I’ll stick around for a bit before we break for lunch.”

 

Half the room runs to talk to Tony, who is all tan and teeth, and busy passing out business cards that gleam and scream 21st Century Solutions Provider. You hope to at least get a card off to Greg, but a large line has already been formed by the other half of the room waiting to talk to him.

 

So, you go up to your hotel room, and examine all of the zits that have broken out on your face from stress and unconsciously touching your face, and note how red your eyes are from not getting a proper amount of sleep. You look at the rest of the presentations for the day: “Sigma Six to unify your corporate communications presence”, “Ditch your overpriced vendor, outsource to India”, and “A dozen mistakes made by a web-based training newbie”. You think that you probably should at least attend the last one, so you can have some ammunition when you talk to Wanda about why Ahmis should look past its Java team in the Ukraine for other options, but you are feeling pretty defeated at this point, and want to just wander around San Francisco the rest of the day.

 

You grab the hand lotion and turn the TV on, eagerly stopping the remote on any daytime soap sex scene you can find. Thirty minutes later, you realize you are hungry, have a free lunch waiting downstairs for you, and you left the sport jacket Uncle bought you down in the main conference room.

 

Much to your delight, Greg Barnsworth is alone now inside the conference room, gathering up his laptop and notes, and walking toward you. You put on your best sales smile, flex your fingers for that proper, firm handshake that Uncle told you to give the interviewer, plan your introduction carefully and think of how to stall him while you run to your jacket for a business card.

 

You stride toward him as one captain of industry approaching another.

 

He looks at you, scowls, and mutters “Excuse me,” and heads off to lunch.

 

At lunch, a table of animated folks is roaring with laughter. Tony Marcone, Kim Park and Wally are at the table, and they shout excitedly in your direction. You see they are waving at Greg, who has just entered the banquét hall ahead of you, to come and sit down at the seat they’ve saved for him.

 

You find yourself at a much quieter, emptier table next to the stodgy Belgian professor of Unicode, and a big, blond woman in boots who is not unattractive. They are already finished with their salads and are starting on the main course.

 

“My name’s Kevin, Kevin Smiley,” you say, trying to address both of them at the same time.

 

The big lady looks at you, smiles politely, then returns to the conversation they were having.

 

“But our team in Japan still insists on having us provide everything using the Shift-JIS character set—how do we tell them Unicode is the way to go?”

 

“It’s fully supported by all browsers, now,” says the Belgian. “They have no reason to use any other character set, and neither do you.”

 

“I work for a solutions vendor, Ahmis Communications. Our developers only use Unicode,” you say proudly.

 

“Really?” says the lady, “And, do you have some example sites you could show me of the work your company’s done?”

 

“Well, right now, it’s still mostly standalone training software, but we did do a quick little demo for a proposal I’d be happy to show you.”

 

“Hmmm. Sure, let me see it. Oh, you don’t have your laptop with you.”

 

You gulp, wishing for the tenth time you’d brought a laptop along with a cellphone. “Um, the battery’s died. Maybe later. I can certainly email you a link. Can I have your business card?”

 

“Sure.”

 

Score! Sweet! You now have two business cards.

 

“Hey, how are you all doing?”

 

The lady’s face lights up. Tony Marcone is standing behind you.

 

“My name’s Tony Marcone. I just wanted to get to know everyone.”

 

“I’m Lydia Schwartz, of Piedmont Electronics.”

A round of introductions makes its way clockwise back to the Belgian professor, and now…you.

 

“Name’s Kevin, Kevin Smiley, of Ahmis Communications.”

 

“Huh? Who?”

 

“I’m Kevin, with Ahmis Communciations,” you say, now flustered and a little pissed that Tony doesn’t know who you are with. You tear a business card from the little stack in your pocket and hand it to him.

 

“Hmmm. Ahmis, you say? Never heard of you guys. I guess we’re kind of competitors, huh?” he asks, eyeing your business card.

 

“Yeah, but Ahmis has been around for almost forty years.”

 

“Wow. That’s impressive. You guys must be old hands at this stuff.”

 

“Well…sort of, you see—”

 

“Isn’t our industry and the work we do the best stuff ever? See, my clients are mostly on the West Coast, so that’s probably why we haven’t met. Plus, I’ve been so busy lately. I bet business is booming at Ahmis as well, huh?”

 

“Oh, yeah, yeah. Most definitely. Can barely keep up.” You barely suppress an “asshole” under your breath at the sight of this jerk.

 

You wolf down the rest of your food, not sticking around for desert, and dash back to your hotel room, rip your tie off, and decide to take a nap.

 

You wake up, completely red-eyed and out of sorts around 4 PM, just in time to catch the last half of the day’s final presentation.

 

A few heads turn and stare at you as you enter the conference room, but most of the crowd has thinned.

 

“So, after we completely scrapped our entire library of training materials, and decided to build everything from the ground up, I called Tony Marcone at Communicross, along with Kim Park Consulting, and all of our problems were solved,” says a perky little brunette that has the crowd cheering and applauding.

 

You scowl. Your frame is slumped over, needing more coffee to be injected into it. You have removed the jacket and tie from your ensemble, and are carrying around six cards in your wallet. You don’t even feel like bothering to make the effort to go up and introduce yourself to the perky brunette, or anyone else for that matter, but then you think to yourself that you do need to get at least one more card for the day, or Wanda and Deborah will wonder what the hell it is you did on this trip.

 

“Hi, I’m Kevin Smiley, with Ahmis Communications. That was a wonderful presentation.”

 

“Oh, thank you, Kevin. I’m Tara, with Federated Components.”

 

“Oh, FC. You guys are right here in Austin. I mean, back in Austin. I mean, I am based out of Austin, too.”

 

“Oh, really?”

 

You quickly hand her a business card.

 

“Ahmis…nope, never heard of you. And you say you offer the same products and services as Tony’s company?”

 

“Yep, only we’ve been in business for almost forty years.”

 

“Wow.” She sounds more amazed that a total unknown like Ahmis has survived, rather than impressed at its ability to anticipate new technology markets, and change with the times. You’ll get that a lot, doing sales at Ahmis.

 

“So, maybe we can do lunch sometime when we’re both back in Austin. You know, just to talk about different training strategies and see if any mutually beneficial partnerships might make sense.”

 

Her face darkens as if you just invited her up to your room. “Thanks. Maybe.”

 

Now feeling completely sick of people, you bolt for the entrance to the hotel, and begin exploring San Francisco. You immediately fall in love with the city, and wonder why, after six years, you’ve never felt the same way about Austin. Everything about San Francisco is magical to you. Every piece of architecture from the dirtiest random shop in Chinatown to the tallest pointy skyscraper, and every quirky little house and building in between fills your heart with romance. You come over a hill, and see Coit Tower for the first time, only you are filled with de ja vu, like you’ve been here before in a past life. The feeling haunts you for days until you realize you are remembering some Hitchcock movie.

 

Back at the hotel, it’s now 7:30 PM, and you are starving. Lydia, the not unattractive, big blond lady in boots is sitting in the bistro, munching on a salad.

 

“Hi, care if I join you?” you ask.

 

“Oh, I was just getting ready to leave—so, you’re not going out for drinks with the others?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Yeah, they all just met up at the door and left a few minutes ago.”

 

“I thought that was tomorrow night.”

 

“Oh, that’s Kim’s networking dinner in Chinatown. The gang usually just gets together more informally at the end of the first day, and we all go out for drinks around town. There’s a good martini bar over by Golden Gate Park we haven’t tried—that’s probably where they’re headed.”

 

“You’re going to meet them there?”

 

“Oh, no. I have too much work to do. I just got hit with a big project right before I left, so I’ll be actually working on this trip. You should meet up with them. You have a cell phone number I can pass on to Tara or Wally or someone? I can have them call you and let you know where they’re at.”

 

“Yeah, you see, I’d like to go, too, but I have a lot of work to do, too.”

 

She leaves and you do exactly what you did the night before, except you timidly venture out into the dark for about an hour after saying goodnight to Lucy, and find only empty streets and people scurrying to other places far beyond the hotel and the surrounding few blocks.

 

This time, you have an extra beer at the bar before grabbing your two bourbons. You did have a conversation with a woman this evening who could potentially become a client of Ahmis, so you feel justified in putting the booze on the room tab again.

 

May 7, 2005

On the conference schedule today:

“Globalizing your corporate communications training system using Ruby on Rails, a case study that is similar to one you’ve already heard, but from a different company.”

 

“DIY/Croudsourcing your Corporate Communications Training Authoring with Wikis—let your employees train themselves—a case study that is similar to ones you’ve already heard, but from a different company.”

 

“How a company based in Europe handles corporate communications training—very similar to the case studies you’ve already heard, but from a European perspective.”

 

“ROI—that nasty little metric your boss will bug you about when you suggest implementing all of these similar strategies—Tony Marcone will deliver a keynote presentation on how to cook up some numbers to impress your boss, and naturally convince her to choose Communicross/Park Consultants as the perfect vendor combo to get the optimal ROI.”

 

“Lessons in Choosing the Best Vendor—what to look for in a good vendor, keynote panel discussion with Tony Marcone, Kim Park and Wally.”

 

You don’t need to guess what the natural solution provided to every single case study’s business problem is going to turn out to be, whether it is mentioned ahead of time or not. As soon as Wally announces that the entire conference attendee list will be emailed to you, and that every presentation is on the CD that was included in your tote bag (that is branded by and full of five pounds of marketing collateral from Communicross), you bolt.

 

Your plan is to be back at the hotel to snag the free lunch, then back in the lobby for Kim Park’s networking dinner, which sounds like its also going to be free.

 

It is time for you to fall in love with San Francisco for good, walking through Chinatown to the Wharf, then back over to Coit Tower, then down to the Financial District, then down to Market Square before heading back up to Union Square and your hotel. After lunch with Lydia (who appears to flirt with you ever-so-slightly while dropping a mention of her boyfriend into every sentence) and the Belgian, you leave the hotel, and retrace your entire route, pause at the City Lights Bookstore (where you briefly fancy you were Jack Kerouac in a past life), and check out some of the piers.

 

Then, at 6:37 PM, you find yourself walking with Kim Park and the gang to his networking dinner in Chinatown.

 

“Oh goodness, no,” says Kim Park, “You will pay for your share of the check yourself. Here’s how these networking meals work: a few of the loudmouths like Tony and Greg will order and drink some of the most expensive items and wine from the menu, and then we will split up the check evenly.”

 

You are very glad now that you’ve been saving the per diem cash Deborah gave you, while putting all your food and beverages on the room tab.

 

Greg has most of the crowd captivated with war stories of his early days, coming up through middle-management at PJ&H on his way to upper middle-management.

 

“Yeah,” a tall, goofy fellow is saying to Kim, “my company really needs a corporate communications training company with a strong history in the sciences. I like the sound of Tony’s company and all, but…” He looks to be more of a country bumpkin than you.

 

“How much does your company gross in revenue a year?” asks Tony, interrupting his own conversation with Tara at the sound of new business.

 

“Um, about $15 million, I think.”

 

Tony snorts and picks up his conversation with Tara. Kim looks at you. You are being thrown the biggest softball opportunity you will get on this trip (and probably in your entire sales career).

 

“Um, dude, what did you say your name was?” you ask.

 

“Lyle. Lyle Upshaw, with Yeoman RF and EMC Testing.”

 

“Lyle, my company, Ahmis Communications, has been providing corporate communications training materials for almost forty years, and we retain many science writers.”

 

“Really? I’ve just started to research who’s out there, and Ahmis didn’t come up. Who are some of your clients?”

 

“Oh, Motorola, Dell, Microsoft, AMD…”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Yeah, well…certain divisions, departments, sub-contractors and one-off projects at those companies, but we still consider them to be our clients.”

 

“Wow, do you have a business card?”

 

“You know, funny thing. I got them out and ready on the hotel night stand for this networking dinner, but didn’t have time to go back up to my room before y’all were leaving, and…”

 

“That’s cool, I can catch you later for one. Aw, look, I guess I forgot mine, too.”

 

You continue to talk with the guy, who is from Ohio, and every bit as much of the small-town dork in the big city as you are. Of course, you promptly forgot his name as soon as you panicked over forgetting your business cards, and so you have to refer to him as “dude” the rest of the evening. Lyle “Dude” Upshaw and you are the only ones who ask for forks instead of chopsticks, and then at the last minute, Lyle opts for the chopsticks when he sees he’s in Chinatown.

 

At dinner, Kim sits on one side of you, and Lydia on the other, and everyone pretty much lets Tony Marcone of Communicross and Greg Barnsworth of PJ&H steal the show.

 

“I have a boy who’s sixteen and wants to play football,” says Lydia.

 

“Oh, he’s gotta play football,” says Greg Barnsworth, who stands all of five-seven, probably weighing one-thirty soaking wet, “It’s what will make him into a man. If he doesn’t have that experience, and opts out of joining the military, then he will go through life as a man manqué, shrinking from opportunities, and hiding behind his girlfriends as if they were his mama.”

 

“I totally agree,” says Tony, “Yes, you may have to pay a few hospital bills, so you want to have good insurance on your kid, but the upside is that he’ll go on to become a great fraternity brother and a true captain of industry.”

 

“To real men,” says Greg, raising his glass, with a twinkle of irony in his eyes to prevent anyone at the table who’s especially PC and feminist from raising her eyebrows.

 

You’ve finished all of your Tsingtao, so you sit this toast out, as everyone at the table within earshot raises their glasses to real men, either in jest or not. Needless to say, you did not play football in high school, or join the military thereafter. Obviously, this novel wouldn’t be about a man manqué if you had, now would it?

 

“I gotta head back,” says Lyle, “Kevin, I got an early flight out tomorrow—you wanna meet me down in the lobby at 7 AM, and we can exchange cards then, yes?”

 

“Sounds good, dude,” you say, jumping up to shake his hand.

 

You follow the WebCorpComm gang down to an Irish pub, and discover that Tony and Lydia have also left early from the group because they actually have business to attend to.  

 

When she says she’s going to have a smoke, you follow the lovely Tara from FC outside the pub, and ask her if you can bum one.

 

“Sure,” she says, now kind of drunk and flirty.

 

“So, how long have you lived in Austin?” you ask. And, for some reason, she doesn’t seem to mind your rather banal and generic conversation gambit, and she seems interested in you until…

 

“Well, gang!” cries Wally, “We are heading back for the night.” The group has paid the tab, and decided to call it a night. Tara loses herself in an animated discussion with someone else as you all walk back in the cool San Francisco night air.

 

May 8, 2005

You arrive in Austin on a late flight in, with one hot lead, four business cards from doing some power networking, a list of everyone who attended the conference, and a CD-ROM containing all of the presentations. You’ve spent the better part of the day sightseeing the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf with Lyle Upshaw, as it turned out his flight didn’t leave until later.

 

You almost don’t recognize her. It’s like seeing her again for the first time. She is so lovely, so beautiful, and your heart is filled with love and longing soon to be satisfied.

 

“Hi Lucy,” you say, “I’ve really missed you.”

 

“I’ve missed you too, Kevin.”

 

You feel like a conquering hero, returned from battling it out in the CorpComm crusades, back with spoils to lay at the feet of your lovely maiden lady, and your CorpComm king Lord Ahmis, for whom you have the deepest loyalty.

 

She holds your hand all the way to the baggage claim, and then all the way to her car.

 

“Let’s go straight to my place, and get caught up, shall we?” she says.

 

After two hours of making love, you and Lucy and her dog Leaky go walking through her neighborhood.

 

“Yeah,” you say. “I really have missed you ever since January, Lucy. I mean I was still missing you so much when I went to Missouri. There was one opportunity there I could have taken with a tall, skinny brunette who eyed me with interest on a Midwestern dance floor, but I haven’t been with anyone at all since we last stopped seeing each other. I just couldn’t, you know?”

 

“I have.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“Remember when I briefly went back to the Olive Garden for a second paycheck?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Remember how I kind of stopped talking to you through most of February and March?”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Well, there was this married guy, separated from his wife, and…”

 

“And, what?”

 

“I don’t know. We went out for drinks a couple times, and one thing led to another, and the next thing you know…”

 

You feel like you are going to be sick.

 

“So, you had sex with him?”

 

“I was thinking of you the whole time while he put it in me, if that helps.”

 

For some reason, it really doesn’t help at all. You kind of want to just turn around, and start walking the other way, all the way back to your apartment, and never speak to Lucy again. However, you haven’t started trusting your instincts yet, and your brain and heart are all soft and mushy from having missed her for three days, then having sex with her for two hours.

 

Plus, the Killers’ song ‘Somebody Told Me’ is playing on the radio right now, and you somehow think it must have been written for you, which is kind of cool.

 

“That’s okay, Pumpkin, don’t worry about it. It’s all in the past, and it’s just you and me now.”

 

“You sure?”

 

You aren’t sure, and thoughts of her getting banged by the married guy from the Olive Garden while you sat alone, miserable and drunk on your queen-sized blow-up air mattress in your gas-filled apartment—these thoughts will snake their way into your skull throughout the year to come.

 

“I’m totally sure, Lucy. In fact, I’m so sure, that I think we ought to find a new place where we can both live together again with both of our dogs—because, you know, it worked out so well the first time, that I’m sure the second attempt at living with you will be utter bliss.”

 

July 11, 2005

So, you’ve convinced Wanda you can do sales–and since Tracy and Trina suddenly left Ahmis at the same time for some inexplicable reason–you and Wanda are the only two salespeople.

 

You’ve read your Tony Robbins and several other sales books Wanda has recommended to you (because, while she is your boss now, she doesn’t really want to bother with trying to educate you on what you’re supposed to be doing).

 

You’ve convinced Wanda and Ahmis to give you a 25% raise, and now you can no longer bitch about how unfairly you are compensated while Karen Winthrop gets paid so much more than you to do so much less.

 

You’ve found that special place with Lucy where both you and she and your two dogs can live together in unwedded, cohabitating bliss.

 

You’ve also convinced Wanda that you should be working at home for days at a time, making cold calls to lists you generate from sales databases.

 

You’ve written up your calling script, and rehearsed it, and recorded the sound of your own voice on your outgoing message a dozen times to remove the nasally, whiny tone from your delivery as much as possible.

 

You’ve followed up with your leads from the conference in May already: getting a “hello, I hope you’re doing well, but we don’t need your services” from Lydia, a “we’ll be needing your services soon, so stay in touch” from Lyle, no response whatsoever from Tara, and a “hope you will subscribe to our services soon so you can have full access to all of our whitepapers” from Kim Park.

 

It is now time to begin your first day of making cold calls.

 

“Wish me lots of luck,” you say to Lucy, kissing her goodbye.

 

“Lots of luck.”

 

You sit down, and decide to carefully review the spreadsheet you’ve just generated from the sales lead database service Ahmis subscribes to. You’ve decided to focus on smaller technology companies like Lyle’s and Tara’s, since you had at least a fleeting glimpse of getting somewhere with those two.

 

Here’s a contact in New York: Joey Palmer, VP of Global Communications, Knitworks. You sit down and carefully read about his company for an hour, looking over its website, checking out its competitors, and Googling for any news items that mention Joey Palmer.

 

It’s time to make that first cold call. But, you need to call someone else first.

 

“Lucy, I’m scared. I mean, I’ve done all the research, written my script, and am ready to make the call, but I get all nervous and shaky, and can’t seem to dial this guy’s number. What if he yells at me?”

 

“It’s natural to be scared the first time you’re trying something new, Kevin. But, what’s the worst that can happen?”

 

“What if I suddenly get angry ’cause he’s angry, and he sues me and Ahmis for harassment?”

 

“Why don’t you go for a quick jog or walk, eat a bite for lunch, maybe take a shower, get relaxed, take a few deep breaths, rehearse the call exactly like you’re going to make it when you call this guy—then, you’ll feel ready to call him.”

 

“That’s a good idea, Lucy.”

 

You go for a run, walk the dogs, run back down to the corner store, buy a six pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes, take a shower, eat lunch, drink three of the beers, put on your sport jacket and tie (so you can pretend like you’re having a power lunch with the guy, face-to-face), stare at yourself in the mirror, rehearse the call ten times, drink two more beers, and now, you’re ready.

 

Only…

 

“Lucy, I’m still very frightened. I get all shaky and nervy, and my throat chokes up—in spite of the fact that I’ve had five beers.”

 

“You what?”

 

“I was just trying to calm my nerves down. Believe me, they haven’t had any effect on me. I also smoked a few cigarettes. I think I feel more sick now than anything.”

 

“I don’t know what to tell you, Kevin. I know that I would never be good at doing sales, that’s why I work in a little cube, staring at a computer screen and cutting and pasting text from one office application to another all day.”

 

Finally, with deep resolve (and realizing you are about to pass out), you pick up the phone and dial Joey Palmer’s number, deciding to stick completely to the generic script you wrote up (aside from the nervous tics).

 

“Hi, you’ve reached Joey Palmer’s voicemail. The chances that you will ever reach me in person at this number are so slim, you’d better go buy a lottery ticket if you do. Leave a message if you care to. One of the peons that occasionally monitors this voicemail box might actually get it to me. BEEP.”

 

“Uh, hello there, uh, Mr. Palmer, this is, uh, Kevin uh Smiley, with uh Ahmis uh Communications, and uh, I’m uh calling to offer you uh unique and productive solution to your uh corporate communications training uh needs. My company has been in business for almost uh forty years, so we uh are like leaders in the world of corporate communications training. I uh, would like to especially, uh, talk to you about, uh, our web-based corporate communications training uh solutions, you can reach me at uh 512-555-1234. That’s uh, Kevin uh Smiley with Ahmis uh Communications, at uh 512…BEEP,” and his voicemail cuts your carefully-delivered elevator pitch off at two minutes.

 

Well, there, now that wasn’t so bad. You proceed to leave the same voicemail with twelve other individuals, frantically hanging up on two numbers when they actually turn out to have a live person at the other end.

 

After that, you pass into a boozy slumber, congratulating yourself for having a productive first day in the world of sales cold calling.

 

September 2, 2005

“Kevin, isn’t it a bit early to be saying goodnight?”

 

“I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice and let you know how this conference is going.”

 

“Well, how is it going?”

 

“It’s very boring. Every single presentation is as bad as or worse than the one the Belgian Unicode professor gave in San Francisco.”

 

“Well, it is a Unicode conference.”

 

“Yeah, but the brochure said that there would be a Web Training Software track here, and so I thought Ahmis could potentially pick up a lot of new clients.”

 

“Is that one ‘tan and teeth’ guy there?”

 

“Tony Marcone? No, but his company’s branding is all over everything. Someone else from his company is representing them here. Hey, I wanted to tell you something.”

 

“What’s that, Kevin?”

 

“There was this Korean American girl who I caught looking at me a few times in the hotel bar while I was eating a giant seafood pizza and drinking a pitcher of beer all by myself, and listening to Jimmy Buffet’s entire discography blasted over the sound system. Turns out, she’s attending the conference—one of the few people here besides me who are under 40. We started having a really intense discussion at the Communicross-sponsored Networking Happy Hour tonight, but I told her I have a girlfriend, and after that she lost interest and walked away.”

 

“That’s nice, Kevin. Why are you telling me this? Are you drunk?”

 

“No! Not really. Not so much now. I wanted you to know that I had an opportunity to cheat on you while I’m out of town on business, but I didn’t take it. Aren’t you so glad I’m your boyfriend?”

 

“Uh, Kevin, it’s getting late, can we just say good night?”

 

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Goodnight, Pumpkin. I love you.”

 

“Good night, Kevin.”

 

September 10, 2005

“Lucy, I just don’t understand why you are so mad at me. What did I do?”

 

“I want to know what you were thinking when we were trying to make love this morning.”

 

“I don’t know. I guess I was just tired, and didn’t feel like doing it.”

 

“So, why didn’t you say that?”

 

“Geez, Lucy, I’m a guy. I’m supposed to want sex all the time.”

 

“You looked at me like you wished you were with someone else. You were thinking of that Korean girl, weren’t you? Or maybe, you were thinking of Deidre.”

 

“Lucy, I’ve told you a million times. Nothing ever happened between Deidre and me. Besides, you’re way prettier than both Deidre and the Korean girl put together.” (That’s actually a very scary image.)

 

“Well, guess what? I have a crush on someone I work with, too. His name’s Charles.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“That’s right. I think Charles is so cute, and he and I are going running together this Saturday.”

 

“Does he know you have a boyfriend?”

 

“I’ve never told anyone at my work I have a boyfriend. And as of right now, you and I are just roommates.”

 

“What? Didn’t you promise me that we would have a discussion about this sort of thing before you just went and shut yourself off from me again?”

 

“I lied.”

 

“Did you tell people you worked with you have a boyfriend when you lived with Eric for five years?”

 

“Sometimes. Except when I was sleeping around on him.”

 

“You slept around on Eric?”

 

“Lots of times.”

 

“How many times?”

 

“Look, that’s all in the past. I don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“How many different times?”

 

“About fifteen.”

 

“Jesus. Fifteen different guys?”

 

“Oh, Jesus Kevin, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t think you really want to, either. Do you really want to know?”

 

“Yes. How many guys did you cheat on Eric with?”

 

“Fifteen.”

 

“And, how many guys were you with before you started dating Eric?”

 

“I don’t know—the number’s under fifty.”

 

“Was most of this unprotected sex?”

 

“Yes. Well, no. No, yeah—it was.”

 

“Damnit, Lucy, why didn’t you ever tell me about this?”

 

“You didn’t ever ask me.”

 

“Have you been tested, you know, for…”

 

“All the time. Maybe you should come with me to donate blood for Katrina victims.”

 

Part of you feels incredibly sick at having slept with a woman with this kind of past, and part of you feels incredibly turned on by what she’s telling you. In fact, you are so divided about this, you don’t know what to feel.

 

Congratulations!

 

You’ve taken another step toward becoming less of a man manqué, and more of a man. A real man doesn’t need to constantly be guided by what he’s feeling. He knows what he wants, and from that, bases his decisions.

 

December 9, 2005

“So, what are you doing?” she asks, as you grab your fourth bottle of Franziskaner, and step out on the back porch to light your eighth cigarette of the day.

 

“I’m grabbing beer number four, having a smoke, and then I’ll be stepping back inside to determine which reality TV show displeases me the least this evening, and watch it until I’m bored or drunk, whichever comes first.”

 

“I thought you were going to stop drinking after that little week long vacation you had three weeks ago.”

 

“And, I thought you were going to stop obsessing over Charles, and tell him and everyone else at your work that you have a boyfriend, but you haven’t.”

 

“I am not going to keep coming home to a guy who has a beer in one hand, the remote in the other, and his dick hanging out of his boxer shorts. You really need to get some help.”

 

“I don’t have a drinking problem. I just need a little extra time to readjust to my mundane work/home existence after the nice vacation I had drinking, smoking, and catching up on all of my liberal political rags.”

 

“Don’t you have a blog to write or something?”

 

“I’m going to get around to that soon. It’s just that every time I open The Nation or The New Republic, I read some guy who’s saying exactly how I’ve been thinking all these years.”

 

“I thought you liked Alex Jones. He’s not a liberal, is he?”

 

“Alex Jones is a tool. He’s never wrong, because anything he says that doesn’t come true—he just chooses not to ever air it again. Besides, it’s unrealistic to believe in his little tinfoil hat world, anyway. If someone he supported ever got in power, he’d either have to refute everything he’s said about the New World Order, or confess that he’s actually one of them.”

 

“Whatever, I am going to get you some help for your drinking problem.”

 

You grab her arm, and pull her to you like you mean business. “You will NOT talk to ANYONE outside this apartment about my drinking, you understand?”

 

“Too late, I already have. I’ve told my shrink Clara about it, and she says you need help.”

 

“Your shrink Clara has got you dosed up on so many SSRI/psychotic/tranquilizer cocktails now, and you expect me to listen to HER about what chemicals I should or shouldn’t put in my body?”

 

“That’s right. At least her approach is accepted by modern medicine, and it’s getting me well. What you’re doing to yourself is keeping you sick.”

 

“Well, Jesus, Lucy, I’m glad you’re such an authority on what is or isn’t good for me. Need I remind you that I got my college degree in four years’ time, and have held a steady, full-time professional occupation ever since, AND got a 25% raise this year?”

 

“Yeah, ’cause your Daddy paid for your college. My Daddy just…”

 

“Oh, good Lord. Here we go again. Let’s blame all of your problems on Daddy, huh, and take no personal responsibility whatsoever for anything you’ve done since!”

 

“Let’s see how well you would function if your father did to you what mine…”

 

“You can go do to yourself what your father did to you…”

 

“Oh, like I haven’t heard that one before. That’s it, I’m moving out of this apartment. I can’t stand the sight of your ugly face, anymore! At least when you were sober and willing to wear pants and a shirt, your ugly face was all I had to contend with. Now I have to look at a thoroughly ugly man manqué inside and out!”

 

“That never seemed to stop you from enjoying having sex with me!”

 

“Yeah, about that—I totally lied about how enjoyable it was. When we do it, I just totally blank out, and force my mind to go someplace else. I’m completely  through with you.”

 

January 22, 2006

“Kevin, I was so wrong about Charles. Turns out, he just wanted to get some on the side while he dates this other girl. Let’s get back together.”

 

Lucy couldn’t afford the cost of breaking her part of the lease, and so she has made an arrangement with your apartment complex management to live in a one bedroom unit two buildings over. The two of you have been walking dogs together almost every morning, and sharing mental issues again.

 

“The Korean girl has never returned any of my emails or phone calls. I’ve been missing you so much, Pumpkin. We really should get back together.”

 

February 26, 2006

“I hate you Kevin, and I don’t ever want to speak to you again. You can keep your half of the deposit. I’ve removed everything of mine from your apartment, now, and I am adopting two cats to take your place. I’m tired of you acting like you’re either eight or eighty. Why don’t you try being a thirty-year-old man for once?”

 

March 15, 2006

Anastasia lies on your floor, vomiting. About two months ago, she was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer that hits large dogs. The specialist vet who showed you the x-rays said there was nothing you could do.

 

Ms. Stasie has had vomiting spells like this one every five days or so since then. Afterward, she seems to regain strength, and recover to being able to walk around the block with you and Lucy (yes, you’re back together again this week) and Leaky.

 

You hold her close, as her body jerks and kicks on the floor, you plead with her to just cough it up, and get better. She sends you one last look of doggie love, and then expels everything that’s in her from both ends. You have never watched a living thing this big die directly in front of your eyes before.

 

Yes, you were the first person to see the family dog Gretchen splattered across the highway when your family first moved to Missouri, and you were six. Yes, you’ve seen Grandmas and neighbors in open caskets, and you stood in front of your just-breathing little brother after the so-called jaws of life and life flight failed to provide much in the way of life for him.

 

But, you’ve never seen anything bigger than a frog or bird or squirrel expire right in front of you, and certainly not anyone you’ve loved as much as Anastasia.

 

“Lucy, I think she’s dead, can you come back to my place and verify this for me?”

 

“Hold on, I’m on my bike and almost at work, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

 

There’s someone else you probably ought to call, or so you think. After all, Anastasia was her dog, too, for a number of years.

 

“Olivia, it’s Kevin.”

 

Olivia is bawling at the other end of the phone. Is she psychic or something? Or, maybe—and it sounds like this is the case—something even worse has just happened to her. Olivia didn’t cry once the whole time the two of you were together, not even as she drove your family home from that North Kansas City hospital after the doctors told you all there was nothing more you could do but plan Roy’s funeral.

 

“Olivia, what’s wrong? It’s me, Kevin.”

 

“I just found out Doug and I didn’t get the house we’d bid on.”

 

“Uh…well, gosh, I hate to have more bad news for you—perhaps not quite as much of a crusher for you, but—Anastasia just died.”

 

Olivia starts bawling again. Oh, good, you think. At least she’s reached the second grade of emotional maturity.

 

“When did she die?”

 

“Just now. At least, I think she’s dead. Yeah, she’s pretty dead now. Did you want to see her before I drive her out to Bastrop to bury her?”

 

“No, I think I just want to remember her as that happy, lively dog I kept locked in the garage while I worked ten hours a day and partied and slept the other fourteen.”

 

“Okay, well, bye.”

 

“Call me if you need anything, Kevin.”

 

“Uh, yeah, sure, Olivia.”

 

“Yep, she’s definitely dead,” says Lucy, arriving to help you verify what is now quite obvious as the rigor mortis sets in. “Do you need me to go with you to Bastrop?”

 

“No, I’ll be fine. Just help me get her into my trunk, and I’ll get my dad to help me bury her when I get out there.”

 

March 18, 2006

You find it kind of odd to be completely alone now for the first time in years. Lucy has decided to stop talking to you again, and you’ve pretty much cut yourself off from all the old Ahmis gang.

 

It was back in college, the last time you lived completely alone and had no girlfriend or dog. At that time, you at least had your best friend Jerry coming around most every night to get drunk and play guitar.

 

The feeling is a sterile one—something beyond just being empty, and certainly not a positive one, like being purged or cleansed or empty in the enlightened, Buddhist sense of the word.

 

Your apartment is quiet, and it’s hard to concentrate to make cold calls and do other work at home, hearing your own thoughts bounce around in your head so much with no outlet for them except your blog nobody reads.

 

In spite of how alien it feels to be living with no dog in the house, you swear you will not get another dog for many years to come. The heartache you feel over losing Ms. Stasie is mostly too terrible to bear, and you can’t imagine going through it again anytime soon.

 

“Now that I’ve got nobody to come home to, I should spend my free time doing something positive, like swimming in Barton Springs. I haven’t done that in months.” You get on your bike after a long, boring week of work that doesn’t hold your interest, and decide you must definitely stop at the swimming hole on the way home.

 

As you bend down to lock your bike on the rack, something warm and wet brushes your face.

 

“Oh, he really likes you,” says a woman standing nearby.

 

“He” is a little brindle female puppy, about three months old. She has no collar or ID on her whatsoever, and appears to be running around the picnic tables unsupervised.

 

“Is this your dog, sir?” you ask a man sitting at one of the tables.

 

“Nope, that little thing has been running around here for hours. We think someone dumped her.”

 

You ask the swimming pool attendants.

 

“A dog? Yes, there’s a little puppy running around here. Is it yours?”

 

You aren’t ready to admit it just yet, but Buffy is yours and you are Little Buffy’s.

 

“Hey Lucy, I know that you’re still not speaking to me, but I figured you might want to come over and check this out.”

 

Year 8

 

May 26, 2006

You are getting religion, and nobody except Lucy knows this. Not your poor, sweet mother who’s always begging you to go to church, not your boss Wanda who rocks out to Christian rock in her Suburban, and certainly not your atheist friends and coworkers from Ahmis.

 

You are getting religion because of Bill Clinton. All of these political rags you are reading are making you wish you’d paid more attention to the world around you while Bill Clinton was President. In the nineties, America was a veritable Utopia of opportunities for everyone, and it was deeply loved by the rest of the peaceful world.

 

While you were getting drunk every night in college with your friend Jerry, all other Americans your age were busy having relationships like the ones the characters on the TV show Friends were having, and being alternative and liberal and cool. None of you needed to wake up, because all was right with the world while Bill Clinton was President.

 

You didn’t really start to wake up until after 9-11, first realizing what a mess you were in, then realizing what a mess the country was getting into. You are pulling away from Alex Jones, and moving more toward Al Franken, but one thing is for certain (and both men seem to agree on this): the mess is entirely George W. Bush’s fault.

 

You feel strongly that improving yourself and America improving itself are completely tied together, at times one and the same, often writing lengthy blog entries that use what is happening to you as a metaphor for what is going down with America, and vice versa.

 

Naturally, the country needs a leader who is in almost every way another Bill Clinton: one who started from humble beginnings, but had big dreams, and never gave up. My Life, Clinton’s autobiography, is inspiring you to go back to school some day soon, so you can get a Master’s degree in International Affairs.

 

It is inspiring you to start thinking about volunteering—something you hadn’t done since your Freshman year in college when the dorm gang conned you into filling in for the floor representative for a month, and you had to volunteer to collect food and clothes for Ronald McDonald House.

 

Finally, My Life is inspiring you to get religion again, because Bill Clinton made being both a Christian and a Democrat seem like the only right way to live, if you hope to be a power player in Washington D.C. who retains some semblance of a social consciousness.

 

A little voice inside your head has also told you that you’d be much happier directly helping people, doing something action-oriented, maybe health-related, and staying out of politics. But, you ignore that voice, because it seems much cooler to become Bill Clinton, Jr. Besides, why would you want to go back to school for some health-services certification only the dumb kids in high school would have gotten, when you already have a BA in English?

 

Before volunteering or going to church, you needed to read a lot of blogs about people who volunteered and went to church. You had to fully brief yourself on the type of crowd you were getting into.

 

“I had another coffee date with Church Girl today,” you say to Lucy. You and Lucy are just friends this week.

 

“Oh yeah, how was that?”

 

“Well, she’s still acting like she’s just trying to get me interested in going to church more, but I think we might be able to hit it off. I agree with everything she says on her blog, and I like her writing style.”

 

“But, do you actually like going to church?”

 

“Eh—it’s okay. I don’t get to see much of Church Girl when I’m there, because she’s an assistant pastor, and most of the people in the Bible study are college kids who’ve never wrestled with demons or seen the blackness of the Void.”

 

“At least you’re doing something out in the world, instead of just reading about it all on the internet.”

 

“True, but in many ways, I think church people are more interesting when they are writing about God, and talking to each other on their blogs. In person, they are actually pretty boring.”

 

“Most people are.”

 

Back in your apartment, you see two messages are waiting for you.

 

“Kevin,” it’s your father, “call me back soon. It’s very important. If you get this message after 5:30, here is the number at the hospital you can call me.”

 

Your father’s voice sounds very grave. Your mother has gone into the hospital for gallstone removal, but you remember how she’s had the cancer flare up twice since it last abated in 1998.

 

“Dad, it’s Kevin. What’s going on?”

 

“Kevin, it’s very serious. Can you get out here to the hospital right away? The doctor found something when she was operating on your mom.”

 

You race through rush hour traffic as fast as you can to get on Highway 71 and out to Smithville.

 

Your mother is sort of awake, but very drugged.

 

“I need to run back to the house,” says your father. “Can you wait here with her?”

 

“Sure. What’s going on with Mom?”

 

“I’ll tell you more about it later.”

 

Aside from being quite drugged, your mother looks to be okay. She keeps forgetting what you tell her due to the pain medication, but doesn’t seem to be in a coma or in anything approaching critical condition.

 

“Kevin?”

 

“Yes mom?”

 

“Can you get my bible, and open it to Psalm 23?”

 

“Sure.” You begin to read. “…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…does that make you feel better, Mom?”

 

“I wasn’t asking you to read it for me. I was having you read it for yourself.”

 

Her words sound ominous, like she has seen something—seen a future for you that is so dark it makes whatever she is going through right now seem unimportant.

 

In a few days, your mom will be almost completely back to what’s normal for her, and other than mention of a few tests they’ll need to run on her at the cancer center in Houston, your parents don’t seem to be that upset by it. After all, she’s licked the cancer three times, and this doesn’t seem that serious. So, you go back to your man manqué’s life in Austin. You say a quick prayer to God promising him you’ll stop masturbating if he heals your mom, then think better of it, and ask God to let you slide on that one. Church and Church Girl are quickly forgotten as Lucy and you decide to get back together again.

 

July 1, 2006

“So, what you’re saying is, this is a dry county?”

 

“Yes,” says the lady behind the counter at the general store.

 

“No beer, not even some club I can join at a bar somewhere in order to drink beer?”

 

“Nope. Totally dry.”

 

“And, where is the nearest town that sells beer?”

 

“That would be Weatherton, thirty miles to your east on 65.”

 

“Damn. Lucy, I know it’s going to end up being a little more than an hour round-trip, but I so wanted to have beer on this camping outing. God, I need beer.”

 

“I don’t mind driving to get it.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Sure.”

 

She doesn’t seem upset, or like she’s doing it just to appease you. Lucy and you are currently just friends, as you had a nasty breakup after the last time you got back together last month, and she didn’t talk to you for almost two weeks. Then, she decided she wanted to go camping over Fourth of July weekend, and you had nothing better to do.

 

You’d requested three different Democratic campaigns get back with you about volunteering for them, and none of them have responded yet. Somehow, you’d imagined they’d be leaping at the chance to get a volunteer for a statewide Texas Democratic campaign, but then again, you do live in Austin, and there is probably a glut of Democratic volunteers.

 

You’ve got it all planned out—you will volunteer for a political campaign the rest of the summer, go to Community College to pick up those economics courses you never took, get a perfect GRE score, and write the most brilliant grad school entrance essay ever written, enabling you to be accpeted into the same school of International Affairs that Bill Clinton did. After that, it’s only a matter of time before you are running for a State then National office.

 

But first, you need to have one last “hash out our issues bash” with Lucy, camping with her for three days, drinking lots of cheap beer, and reading from your giant stack of political magazines you’ve fallen behind on reading.

 

“You see Lucy, this article is brilliant. It explains exactly why Republicans fuck up the government every time they get control of it. They have such a top-down system of party organization, and such a contempt of government, that when one of them gets into office, he’s totally confused by the apparent chaos of American governmental organizations, and thrashes about like a bull in a china shop!”

 

“Sounds lovely, Kevin. I’m going to go try to fish.”

 

Lucy is looking especially fetching in her two-piece hoochie mama bikini she picked up at Walmart, but you have sworn you will not try anything with her.

 

The two of you do quite well together in situations that are highly stressful and taxing to most couples, like getting stuck out in the rain, moving all your stuff from two apartments to one, and setting up a campsite and roughing it. (You certainly compare and contrast this with situations like the security bar falling on Vera’s sliding glass door that locked the two of you outside on her second story porch. If it had been you and Lucy in that situation, the two of you probably would have just made love and slept out on the porch together, waiting for a neighbor to arrive before calling for help.)

 

It’s in that ennui of day-to-day living where you both end up at each other’s throats.

 

But, frankly, you could care less about your future with Lucy. After this camping trip, you’ll be so busy with volunteering and going back to school that you’ll probably hardly ever see her. By the time you are in Washington D.C., she’ll be nothing but an occasional phone conversation.

 

Still, the two of you seem so right together in the here and now. You throw down your magazine and go jump in the lake’s 90 degree water, which is heated by a local power plant and grows thick reeds and moss everywhere.

 

Following this, you strip down inside the campground showers which alternate between a laser-thin stream of hot water, and a gentle gurgle of near-freezing water, then hop inside the hot, mosquito-filled tent where you remove from its carrying bag the sleeping bag you bought Roy for his Christmas gift in 1998.

 

The sleeping bag you were going to ask him if he’d tried yet on that evening in January at the dinner table, following your hernia repair operation and the previous night of losing your virginity inside Olivia Gruene. The sleeping bag may have been removed from its sleeve maybe once, but it has never been slept in. It was retrieved from the pickup truck that killed Roy, the one you forfeited after getting your DWI the year before.

 

The sleeping bag remained with the rest of Roy’s belongings in all the crap your parents hauled down from Missouri, and your dad had pulled it out when you told him you were going camping.

 

You are now crawling into it, a sleeping bag designed for subzero temperatures—and it’s still about eighty degrees outside. This is when you realize that the bag is about five inches too small for you, and that you are sleeping on a root bulging up through the bottom of the tent.

 

Also, you and Lucy have pitched the tent on an incline, so you find yourself drooling through the night into a pillow, splayed in your briefs against the far end of your side of the tent, surrounded by Leaky and Buffy.

 

And yet, such camping hardships like these, along with the sunburn and the Coors Light that never gets you even mildly buzzed, don’t really seem to bother you much, and you will look back fondly on this camping trip for many months to come—somehow wishing you could recreate camping with Lucy when you live with her. Because, guess what? You’re going to get to live with Lucy, AGAIN!!

 

July 7, 2006

“Kevin, this is Simon Stillwater, with the Bancroft Campaign. We received your online request to get involved with volunteering for our campaign, and wanted to know if you were still interested in helping out.”

 

“I submitted the request to volunteer like three months ago.”

 

“Yes, we’ve had some restructuring here at the Bancroft Campaign, and the website form wasn’t monitored as well as it probably should have been. Are you still interested in helping us out?”

 

“Yes, absolutely. What would you like me to do? I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

 

“Um, we’re actually so far behind with our phonebanking and canvassing needs, that it’s more a matter of whatever you want to do.”

 

“Well, I like to blog and bitch about how much Bush sucks. Maybe I could do the same thing, but bitch about how much Bancroft’s opponent Kavler sucks.”

 

“That sounds wonderful, Kevin. Netroots is what it’s all about these days. We are always looking for more people to get on the blogosphere and bitch about the sad state of affairs of Texas due to the fact that only Republicans hold statewide office, and we could also use someone to show up at meetings and bitch about why the Democrats and members of our own campaign aren’t doing enough to change things.”

 

“Cool, Simon! And, maybe some time you and I can get together and discuss Bill Clinton’s ‘My Life.’ You’ve read it, haven’t you?”

 

“I haven’t had the time, Kevin.”

 

You are a bit taken aback by this. Here was a man who was holding one of the top unpaid positions in a major Democratic campaign, and he hadn’t read “My Life.” No wonder the Democrats were doing so poorly in Texas!

 

Maybe you can teach these people a thing or two.

 

July 21, 2006

“Kevin, this is Dan Seymore, with the Bancroft campaign. I’m the campaign manager.”

 

“Oh… oh! Hello, Dan!”

 

“Listen, I have some news for you. Simon Stillwater has left us to take a paid position on a campaign that has raised a lot more money than us. We need someone to fill his role. He told me what a great job you’ve been doing with your bitching about our opponent out in the blogosphere. How would you like to become, like, third or fourth in command?”

 

You pause for a moment. You’ve read “My Life” over halfway through, and know that if you say “yes,” you’ll be volunteering for thirty or more hours a week, on top of your full-time job at Ahmis, which you kind of tend to as needed. However, this might very well be your fast track to becoming exactly like Bill Clinton. You need a fast track, seeing as how he was already Governor of Arkansas at your age, and you are still…Man Manqué of Austin.

 

“Yes, Dan! I’ll take the position! What would you like me to do? I’ll do anything you ask!”

 

“Well, Kevin. What we really need to do right now is have someone call our supporters in cities all over the state and let them know that our candidate will never be returning to see them again because all the real money’s in Houston; however, we can send a surrogate speaker to speak on the candidate’s behalf. These supporters throw these rinky-dink fundraisers and expect our candidate to show up. Usually the only possible choice for surrogate speaker in our database will turn out to be the exact same person who made the request, but sometimes you can get lucky and find someone within a hundred miles of the requester who can come tell them what a great man Bancroft is.”

 

“That sounds pretty easy. I have unlimited long distance calling because I pretend to make sales calls throughout the day while pausing each hour to masturbate to porn.”

 

“Good. Also, a lot of these people will be asking for bumper stickers, t-shirts and yard signs. Tell them they can download printable pdfs off of our website and take the pdfs to their local printers—union shops only, mind you—where they can pay themselves to have their yard signs and bumper stickers printed. Good news is, we do have boxes and boxes of these little oddly-sized flyers we spent tens of thousands of dollars on and we’re still trying to unload on folks a year later, so send them a box or two.”

 

“Sounds like fun, Dan. Hey, how far have you gotten in ‘My Life?'”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“You know, ‘My Life’ by Bill Clinton. How far have you read in it? Because when Bill Clinton was campaigning for Governor in Arkansas, he said the key to winning in a region was…”

 

“Sorry, Kevin, gotta go. Bancroft’s on the other line…”

 

“Hey Lucy, guess what?”

 

“What’s that, Kevin?”

 

“I’ve just been made like, third or fourth in command of a major Texas Democratic campaign. What do you think about that?”

 

“That’s nice. Guess what, Kevin?”

 

“What’s that, Lucy?”

 

“Because I got these two cats now, I can’t afford to pay rent on my place anymore. I was thinking I would move back in with you.”

 

You recall immediately how wonderful camping with Lucy was. Maybe the two of you can get along after all, and soon, the two of you will get back together. Surely, she’ll see just how awesome you are after she catches you making cold calls for Ahmis all day then calling folks from all over Texas into the night.

 

“Sure, Lucy, why don’t you move back in? Third time should no doubt be quite the charm.”

 

July 29, 2006

“So Kevin, what are you doing tonight?”

 

“Well, Lucy, I’ve been calling folks all day to mobilize an army of bloggers to get out into the blogosphere and bitch about Hubert Kavler, and praise my candidate Randy Bancroft. It’s going quite well. I love having this position, because that way I don’t really have to get into any little snits with Kavler’s supporters online—or Bancroft’s, for that matter. I occasionally post a nice puffy, piece praising Bancroft on the Burnt Orange Report, and let everyone know what he’s up to next, then get back to calling people from all over Texas. So, having put in a rewarding day of volunteering, I think I’ll sit here and get drunk and perhaps try to con you into getting back together with me so we can sleep together tonight.”

 

“That sounds lovely, Kevin. I think I’ll sit here and drink beer with you and chat for awhile, sounding totally interested in every boring detail of your political campaign, commiserating with you over all the Bancroft supporters who won’t listen to your requests to get them to hand out the oddly-sized flyers, then get up and leave after you’ve started on your fourth beer.”

 

“Why would you do that, Lucy?”

 

“Because drinking with you is fun, but being drunk with you is disgustingly sloppy. Anyway, that Neanderthal at the gym I was telling you about has asked me to hang out with him tonight. And, since I’ve conned you into letting me move back in with you so I can be late on the rent every month and totally mooch off of you, I think I’m ready to start sleeping with other men for good.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“Yes, tonight I am going to go have sex with the Neanderthal for the first time. See, in your private little universe, you thought all of this was leading to us getting back together, but it’s really just about me needing access to cash resources while I go have fun with other men.”

 

“But, all that aside—the Neanderthal? He’s ten years older than you, has less hair on his head than me, and sports a giant beer gut.”

 

“I know, isn’t that the kicker? See, if I went downtown and fucked around with hotties at clubs (men or women), you’d just be bent out of shape because you’d be fantasizing about the hotness of it all. This way, you are wracked with misery and have your ego taken down a notch or two seeing me prefer men who are inferior to you in every way—you will be constantly wondering what the Neanderthal has that you don’t.”

 

“Maybe so. But, I am so wrapped up in this political campaign, that any free time I have, like tonight, I can just drink away all of the personal issues I have around what you are doing and worry about it blowing up in both of our faces at a much later date.”

 

She is already gone, though, and so you are talking to a computer screen where you’ve pretty much taken to mindlessly scrolling through every blog entry on random political and religious blogs, while finishing off the rest of Lucy’s beer and the final sixth beer.

 

At some point, now pretty intoxicated, you decide you are totally pissed at the way Lucy has deceived you into thinking the two of you were going to get back together—at least that’s how your drunken mind sees it, anyway.

 

“Hello?” it’s the Neanderthal.

 

“Is Lucy there?”

 

Some muttering and the shuffling noises of two people rustling bedcovers.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Lucy, it’s Kevin.”

 

“Yes, Kevin? Is everything all right?” She sounds somewhat alarmed, as if there might be something wrong with her dog Leaky or one of her two cats, whom you will become quite used to babysitting while Lucy spends nights at the Neanderthal’s place.

 

“I just wanted to let you know that I think what you did tonight is really shitty. I mean, I thought we were having fun. And then, you just get up in the middle of our fucking conversation, and…”

 

“Kevin, like I said, drinking with you is fun—watching you get drunk—isn’t.”

 

October 27, 2006

The Ahmis gang is having an employee appreciation night down at Habana’s. You get introduced to the owner of your company, Ramsey Ahmis, for what seems like the fifteenth time in your career, and pause to check out the Ukrainian receptionist Ekaterina’s hot mom, who is almost as hot as Ekaterina. Since you are third or fourth in command on a major political campaign, AND you now report to Wanda, the General Manager of Ahmis, you feel like a pretty Big Man on Campus tonight. There are no Man Manqués at this end of the table!

 

Who’s coming over to sit and join everyone slurping down their free Mojitos?

 

Why, it’s Carver Bronson, the resident Cranky Old Man who makes passes at women half his age when he’s had a few too many drinks. Carver once held your admiration and respect, like a lot of folks at Ahmis did when you first started working there, because he seemed like such a cool, laid-back Austin sort of guy.

 

For some reason, when you’re in your early twenties, the Perpetual Austin Teenager—the man or woman who is pushing fifty and still living like he or she is just out of high school or college—seems really cool. But, now that you’re thirty, and quite important, and reaping the fruits of time spent with Tony Robbins and Bill Clinton, the Carver Bronsons of the world seem like pathetic, sad little men who embody everything you are no longer.

 

“Haven’t seen you at too many of these things, Kevin,” says Carver good-naturedly.

 

“I’ve been rubbing shoulders with the power players of the Texas Democratic Party.”

 

“Who the heck are they? I didn’t know there still was such a thing. Does your candidate even have a prayer against Kavler—who’s your candidate, anyway?”

 

“Bancroft.”

 

“Bancroft, that’s right. How come I never hear anything about him?”

 

“Total media shutout. Not even the mostly liberal rags like the local Austin one like to talk about Bancroft. So, no media, no going up in the polls. No going up in the polls, no money. No money, no media. But to answer your first question—think about it. Even in the darkest of Republican-controlled years, you have about 40% of Texas voting Democrat. Now, where are all our new voters coming from? California, Boston, the Midwest, second generation Hispanics. How do you think they’re gonna vote? You’ll see Texas is a blue state by 2012, and if we work hard enough, we can make it happen this year.”

 

“I just don’t see it happening.”

 

“Just wait, Carver. Just you wait and see.” You also think to yourself, “and if all you so-called liberals around here actually got up off your asses to help out, we could get there a lot faster.”

 

Deidre is having a conversation about Ludmilla, the other Ukrainian of Ahmis, and her husband Matt.

 

“Yeah, Matt’s getting kind of bored with being a car salesman, and he’s trying to decide what to do next.”

 

“Real estate,” you say, “now is a great time to get into the market.” You’ve looked at several condos recently, thinking an Austin condo would be the perfect next step for a man who’s moving up in the world.

 

“Naw, he doesn’t want to get caught up in real estate. That bubble is about to burst,” says Carver.

 

“There might be some areas that will see values plateau, but the Central Texas economy is going to remain strong for some time to come—you certainly aren’t going to see your investment depreciate.”

 

“Yes you will.”

 

“Do you remember back in 2001 after the dot com bubble burst? Everyone was saying it was a bad time to get into real estate, and look how wealthy someone would be now if they’d invested back then.”

 

“No, they wouldn’t be. Real Estate is a terribly artificial market. Don’t put your money into it. Buy some nice, S&P 500 stocks, a few government t-notes, and retire smart in forty years.”

 

You are starting to get a little hot under the collar. Doesn’t he realize that you are a man of the world now, and probably know a little more about this kind of thing than he ever will?

 

Really—what has he done with his life? He’s a sad little old technical writer at a pathetically small communications company who lives in a tiny little apartment all alone, and saves up each year to take vacations to Europe. What does he know about making deals with power players? You’re a salesman of 21st Century Business Solutions who’s been to three conferences now outside of Texas (you’re still working on closing your very first sale to Lyle “Dude” Upshaw), and you are like third or fourth in command on a major political campaign.

 

“There are plenty of people making a lot of money right now in real estate, Carver, and plenty who will continue to. I mean, unless the economy completely tanks, we are going to see property values continue to rise in Austin indefinitely.”

 

“No we won’t. I was here in the eighties when everything went to shit. It’s not going to happen. Real estate is a foolish way to invest your money.”

 

Now, you are hopping mad. You start to think of every single arrogant, crabby old man thing Carver has ever said or done, and suddenly he is the object of your intense anger—how dare this nowhere sort of man not come around to agreeing with a great man like Kevin Smiley, who is playing the game of life to win?

 

“Carver,  what have you done done with your life? You’re a sad little old technical writer at a pathetically small communications company who lives in a tiny little apartment all alone, and saves up each year to take vacations to Europe. What do you know about making deals with power players?”

 

“Oooh, it’s getting personal now,” he taunts you evenly.

 

“I hate you, Carver Bronson!” you scream, having let the rage of all the unfair things of life and the stress of the past two months get to you. You storm out of Habana’s, and into the warm Austin autumn air.

 

You’re ready for a fight. Bring it on, Austin. Look at all these fraternity brothers, hipsters and slackers. All of them are overgrown boys, not men—not even men manqués. Here you are, a real man, stuck in a sad little town, while you should really be in Washington D.C. rubbing shoulders with the big boys and girls. So, you start purposefully bumping shoulders with every guy you pass walking down the street.

 

“Hey, buddy, watch it!”

 

“Hey, dude, what the fuck!?”

 

Luckily for you, nobody is especially enraged by the angry man manqué bumping into them. You could have easily picked the wrong dude to mess with, and you realize this as you start to sober up enough to come to the conclusion you are too drunk to drive home—and suddenly too afraid of the world around you now to even call a cab.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Lucy, can you come and pick me up? I’m at Fifth and Brazos.”

 

“Are you drunk?”

 

“Very much so. I’m sorry. I love you so much, Lucy.”

 

“You realize Kevin that it’s 1:30 AM, and I am dating someone else. You and I are just roommates. They have cabs down there.”

 

“But Lucy, I’m in a bad way. I’m all drunk and can’t think straight, and I yelled at one of my coworkers and started pushing people on sixth street.”

 

“Stay there, I’ll come and pick you up.”

 

You spill your guts to Lucy, literally and figuratively—vomiting down the outside of her car door, and blubbering about how much you love her and wish the two of you could get back together again.

 

“I am never doing this again, Kevin.”

 

“I know. And, I’m never getting this drunk again, either.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

 

 

 

October 30, 2006

You read an article recently in one of the magazines you bought from that airport rack of publications nobody ever reads unless they are traveling. The article was about young, highly active CEOs who opted for triathlons over golf for their outdoor power schmoozing venues. This was quite the inspirational article for you, and made you realize you needed to be more like a tri-geek CEO.

 

Yes, you bicycled to work almost every day, but the schedule of trying to volunteer full-time for a political campaign and do whatever it is you did for Ahmis generally prevented you from doing much else.

 

This morning, you got in a nice, solid power-jog up and down the greenbelt, blasting out 2.5 miles over the rocky terrain. As you don your wife-beater and fatboy shorts, and hop on your bicycle, you know you have to pound it out a little harder on the pedals today to get things up to CEO/Iron Man levels.

 

The sky is clear, the sun is already up pretty high because you are running a tad late from the jog, but no worries. This is the Monday of the last full week before Election Day—the downhill run of downhill runs.

 

All the time spent making phone calls for volunteers and money, dealing with fellow Democrats who hated you stepping on their turf, having college Democrats stare at you in dumb scorn as you became paralyzed with speaking phobia, getting thorns in your feet putting up road signs, watching nobody but your ragtag team of fellow Austin volunteers show up for your Bancroft Benefit Show (the Rolling Stones were in town that night)—all of this was coming to a head as you hit the downhill run.

 

No bitching on blogs this week—just 100% Get Out The Vote calls to any fence-sitters out there or clueless Austin liberals who don’t realize that there is a solid contender for Kavler’s throne.

 

All of the fury and indignation from dozens of rebuffs that hit you these past two months has wound you up, and made you ready to go head to head with the morning traffic like a pugilist. As you go racing down the hill past the IHOP toward Zilker, you see that someone in a mini-van is trying to “beat the bike” by racing toward her stop sign as she prepares to cross in front of you. You decide today that she will have to wait at that stop sign for the bike to pass, and pump your legs harder. In a split-second’s time, you realize that she was not trying to “beat the bike”—she simply wasn’t coming to a complete stop, and doesn’t even see that you exist.

 

At this point, you have three choices. You can try to swerve the bike behind her minivan, hoping the bike doesn’t wipe out from under you and skid into her rear wheels, or even worse, slide into any traffic that is running down the hill parallel to you. You can hit her minivan broadside, possibly smashing your face on a window, or getting a leg caught in a wheel and mangled while she unknowingly drags you for a mile or more.

 

Or, you can hit the front of her minivan, go flying over the hood, where you will suddenly find yourself landing on your head, braking your tumble with your wrist then your elbow then the side of your ribcage, and coming to a rest at the west entrance of Zilker Park.

 

“Are you okay?” asks another motorist who has generously stopped to offer this question before hurrying on to his own important Austin man’s life.

 

You are, in fact, in a great deal of pain. Several places on your body are calling for your attention, mainly, your head which you can’t turn to the left at all.

 

“What would you like me to do?” asks the motorist who you hit because she failed to stop at a stop sign and didn’t see you, and because you were arrogant enough to assume that life was actually still going in your favor.

 

You are quite distraught at the thought you might have broken something or damaged your spine to the point you will never walk again. Images of a paralyzed Christopher Reeve flash before your eyes—wasn’t he similarly thrown from a horse with this exact same headfirst landing?

 

The bicycle helmet is mashed in where it saved your life, and the bicycle is totaled. You recall seeing an emergency sign on nearby Bee Caves road, and tell her to take you there. The idea of waiting for an ambulance that will take forty-five minutes to arrive seems unacceptable.

 

As you lie on your back on a hospital emergency room table with your head in a neck brace, you cry out to God in your mind to please let them not find anything wrong with you in the X-rays.

 

Fortunately for you, they don’t. Unfortunately for you, you are out of the campaign game the rest of the week, and since you’ve used all of your paid time off this year at Ahmis to work on the campaign, you will have to take several days unpaid and use credit cards to pay for things. The motorist’s settlement won’t come for another year, so you can kiss your mostly mended credit goodbye as you run up debt and the medical bills pile up for what your insurance doesn’t cover (which is naturally almost all of your physical therapy).

 

Fortunately for you, they’ve prescribed two weeks’ worth of pain pills and muscle relaxers. Wait, this is actually unfortunate as well, because…

 

November 7, 2006

You are feeling good enough to make some election day “Get Out The Vote” calls for your candidate. Most everyone has either already voted or the numbers you dial are no longer working numbers. You watch the returns online throughout the evening as your candidate’s numbers fail to even approach 40% in most reporting counties.

 

You go to the corner store and by a six-pack of Lonestar tallboys. You are drinking each one with a couple of muscle relaxers and pain pills.

 

You continue to make “Get Out The Vote” calls, dialing random numbers and saying whatever pops into your drug and drink-addled mind.

 

Realizing your candidate isn’t having even strong enough of a showing for Democrats to want him back for another shot in 2008, you finish off the last beer, using it to wash the rest of a week’s worth of pain medicine and muscle relaxers down your gullet.

 

Thirty minutes later, you are inside Lucy’s bedroom on the floor, out of your mind, vomiting everywhere. This technique, which handily scared off your one college roommate, made Olivia permanently frozen to your touch, and scared the shit out of your friend Jerry on more than one occasion, proves to be only a major annoyance to Lucy.

 

“What if you’d died on me? Then, I would have had to explain to your parents what happened, and they would have hated me and thought it was somehow my fault. I mean, I was ready to call an ambulance.”

 

“Well, I’m never going to mix pain pills, muscle relaxers and booze again.”

 

“Do you even remember what you were saying to those people you called?”

 

“Oh shit! Did I call Bancroft or Dan? Maybe I called Michael Glasgow, the fool who created the phonebanking tool—it kept giving me numbers of people who’d already been called.”

 

“I don’t know. I just know that you were making phone calls long after you’d lost any sense of what was going on around you. Then, I noticed both pill bottles were empty, and shortly after that you came in and sat on my floor and tried to get me to watch the election coverage with you before you threw up and passed out completely.”

 

At this point, you realize that you’ve strayed quite a bit from having your story align with Bill Clinton’s in “My Life,” and probably made enemies among all of the Texas Democrats—all ten or so of them.

 

Lucy is strangely not that upset about the whole thing—you’ve managed to finally trump some of her most psychotic and antisocial episodes with enough of your own sloppy, drunken behavior.

 

“Well, no worries, then,” you say, “At least I have Boston to look forward to.”

 

“What’s Boston?”

 

“In a couple weeks, I’ll be getting on a plane to Boston where Kim Park and Wally have decided to have WebCorpComm 2006—East Coast, and I’ve talked them into letting me be one of the panelists to present how Ahmis is getting into the Web 2.0 mix.”

 

“I didn’t think Ahmis has moved past Java development platforms that occasionally spit out HTML. And, I honestly don’t know how you’ve had time to put together a presentation for a crowd of people paying thousands of dollars to learn your industry’s best practices, when you’ve been so busy making phone calls for your campaign and getting stupid off of all those pills.”

 

“Oh, I bullshitted a lot of people to get on this panel, including Wanda at work and Kim Park and Wally. Plus, I think Ahmis bought the premium subscription to Kim Park’s data and research this year—not that I would bother to read any of that crap. Anyway, it’s going to be a lot of vaporware talk with a partner vendor, and use of a Powerpoint presentation I’ll have to come up with on the fly once I meet the vendor in Boston, but don’t you see—I’ve finally reached the level of being one of the titans of my industry, joining the ranks of guys like Tony Marcone from Communicross in the WebCorpComm winner’s circle. I may even get to eat at their table when we break for the free lunches.”

 

“And, I’ll be moving out of your apartment at the end of the year.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Yes, I am buying a condo.”

 

“Wait—you can’t afford to pay your half of the rent on time each month, and you’re buying a condo?”

 

“Anything to get away from you, Kevin.”

 

“But you spend most of your nights with the Neanderthal, anyway.”

 

“We’re breaking up. I’m tired of feeling his large gut on me when we’re doing it, and not feeling his small penis.”

 

“That’s a little more than I’d ever care to know. That said, I still don’t get what you see in the guy. It’s like there’s not one single thing he’s got going for him that’s better than me.”

 

“He doesn’t get drunk and vomit on my floor. And most importantly, he’s just not you.”

 

November 18, 2006

You are standing before a continental breakfast spread inside a hotel ballroom in Boston. It is the opening morning session of WebCorpComm 2006, East Coast. Think about how far you’ve come.

 

When you first attended one of these CorpComm conferences, you arrived in your ancient sport jacket with its boxy shoulders, and wore a tie, carrying a stack of badly-made business cards bound by a rubber band.

 

Now, you are much smoother than that.

 

You’ve experimented with wearing the polo and khakis, then the t-shirt/jean combo ala Tony Marcone, then polo and jeans, finally settling for a button-down shirt and dress slacks in the tradition of great men like Greg Barnsworth of PJ&H, Kim Park and Wally.

 

You keep a few high-gloss business cards in your wallet that you asked Deidre to design especially for you. They have your face on them, and are emblazoned with the 3D version of the Ahmis logo you and Karen Winthrop crafted four years ago. You’ve asked Deidre to add the address to the company blog and your LinkedIn page to the card, as well as a link to where folks can download an Outlook vcard of your info.

 

You carry the spare Ahmis Thinkpad (which is at least six years old and unfortunately doesn’t have a WiFi card in it, but nobody has to know about that.)

 

Nobody is going to accuse you of not being a man who knows his killer Web 2.0 apps at this conference!

 

You are certain that Tony Marcone of Communicross won’t be here, because his accounts are strictly West Coast. You are almost certain that (with the help of the third party vendor you are meeting today) you are going to be the Big Salesman on Campus this time around.

 

You grab a muffin and quickly swallow it in two giant bites so you don’t have to worry about being seen with crumbs all over yourself.

 

Look! It’s the man himself—Kim Park, of Kim Park Consulting. You smile with confidence, ready to go speak as one Captain of the Corporate Communications Software Industry to another. Your neck, still not completely mended from the bicycle accident, occasionally spasms with pain when you get a little stressed—but you smile through that. What you wouldn’t give right now to run into Greg Barnsworth, VP of Global Corporate Communications—so he could see you are a man who has sustained an injury every bit as damaging as any inflicted upon a high school football player!

 

“Kim Park, so good to see you!” you cry.

 

He turns, grins, and looks right at you. “Hello, there…you…Lyle Upshaw, of Ahmis, right?”

 

You suppress a great upswelling of violent rage over the fact that he doesn’t remember your name. “Kevin Smiley.” You grit your teeth, and force another grin.

 

“Right, hello there, Kevin. We are so glad that Ahmis has purchased premium access to our overpriced research reports and industry data. I’m sure it’s gotten you all some new business, huh?”

 

Truthfully, you haven’t quite closed a sale—yet. You almost convinced someone at a local Austin law firm—a fellow you bumped into infrequently during the Bancroft campaign—to stop by Ahmis for an initial meeting. But, other than that, you are still making the occasional cold call to some VP’s voicemail, and quickly hanging up if he or she actually picks up the phone.

 

“Oh, very much so, Kim. Business is extraordinary right now. I can barely keep up. A whole new era for Ahmis.”

 

He looks slightly unconvinced, then smiles again. “What do you think about our latest report on the Financial Industry—some pretty enlightening data, huh?”

 

“Very enlightening. I was totally enlightened by it. I don’t think I’d ever experienced enlightenment before reading it.”

 

His face lights up in a way that seems a bit excessive to you, but you grin a huge grin back.

 

“Excuse me,” he mutters, scowling back at you, then pushes you aside. “Joey Fontini! Communicross’s East Coast golden boy! How you been?”

 

A slightly less tanned and polished version of Tony Marcone has appeared in the hotel ballroom. He’s wearing a white, button-down shirt that splays out carelessly untucked over a pair of baggy, boot-cut blue jeans. Joey Fontini also differs from Tony in that he sports a three-day scruff, and wears his hair in the popular “just rolled out of bed” look. Unfortunately, you don’t have enough hair left to pull off such a style.

 

What the hell? You were going to own East Coast 2006, and now this punk, who looks more like a mod-rocking hipster (in the vein of Doug Johnson of the Brimstone Broadcasters) than a Corporate Communications Software Salesman, is standing around with his lower lip hanging out in a sneer of contempt.

 

“Ay, Kimmy. Thought I’d just poke my head in and see what kind of fun everyone’s up to. So wicked cool you are bringing WebCorpComm to the East Coast.”

 

“Joey!” comes the cry from almost every man and woman’s lips. One woman who made eye contact with you during the inhalation of your muffin, and seemed like she might just walk over to you to say hi, is now racing up to Joey breathlessly and smoothing out her skirt.

 

You approach Greg Barnsworth’s colleague, Denny Chavez, from JP&H. He is a quiet, effeminate man who sometimes acts like he’s interested in what you have to say.

 

“Hey, Denny.”

 

“Oh, hi, uh…” he at least appears to recognize your face.

 

“Kevin, Kevin Smiley of Ahmis Communications.”

 

“Oh, yeah. How’ve you been?”

 

“Rocking and rolling, man. Business is so solid, so nice. How’s Greg?”

 

“Who? Oh, he got canned. Guy went way over budget on the last project using one of these high-priced consulting firms.”

 

You look over at Kim.

 

“Yep.”

 

“So, what brings you here to this year’s conference?”

 

“Oh, I get to attend the entire conference for free because I’m giving a presentation on AJAX and the JQuery library. I see you’re on a panel.”

 

“Oh…yeah. You mean, the conference is free if you present?”

 

“Yeah, you didn’t know that? Why else would you come to one of these? I mean, as a vendor, you are always going to be outgunned by Communicross unless you feel like snagging some Mom and Pop electronics company that doesn’t know any better.”

 

“Uh, I guess I come because I’m so deep in debt from years of drinking that this is the only way I really can afford to travel anywhere. Plus, I have this endless need to prove to myself and my sometime girlfriend that I’m man enough not to remain stuck in the ten mile radius around downtown Austin, Texas.”

 

“Wow, it must be tough being a man manqué. I mean, being gay is no picnic, but I don’t envy you guys.”

 

“Yeah, it’s a strange sort of twilight reality that I operate in. If I successfully pull off a stunning PowerPoint presentation on this panel, though, I think I might actually become a real man.”

 

“Well, best of luck with that.”

 

“Hello, are you Kevin Smiley?” asks a voice from behind you.

 

“Why, yes I am!” finally, someone who approaches you instead of the Communicross boys, based solely on your reputation.

 

“Bryan Leaky. Of Leakproof Software.”

 

“Oh, Bryan. Of course. Hey, I wanted to tell you, my sometime girlfriend’s dog is named Leaky, also.” It’s the third party vendor you’ve emailed back and forth and convinced to co-present with you on this panel. Leakproof and Ahmis share a client—Shorecraft Inland Technologies—and Bryan has wormed his way into Wanda’s consciousness over the years as a possible alternative to the Ukrainian team for building a web-based corporate training solution.

 

Currently, Ahmis and Leakproof haven’t built anything together yet, but you’ve heard Wanda rave about Bryan’s dog and pony show, and think he’ll be the way to win the crowd on the panel tomorrow with a vaporware presentation.

 

“Heh. So, what are we going to talk about tomorrow, Kevin?”

 

“Web 2.0. You guys are doing some stuff with Web 2.0, right? Some AJAX, maybe, or some Wiki-based solutions?”

 

“Hmmm. Not exactly. We’re really an out-dated content management system provider that charges outrageous sums of money for stuff that is inferior to what you can now download and install free of charge as open source software, but we get away with it, because we tell groups like non-profits and schools that our software is built especially for them.”

 

“But, you use XML, right?”

 

“Yes, but it’s technically not AJAX, or even well-formed XML—it’s simply an alternative to a database-driven solution because we’re too lazy to learn how to work with SQL and properly architect a database.”

 

“But, we have to talk about Web 2.0 as a Web-based Corporate Training Solution on this panel.”

 

“Oh, oh, oh. I know. We could talk about the new Leakproof Software blog—and—you guys have a blog, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah, but how does that solve a client’s business problem?”

 

“Dude, blogging is cool, and everyone should do it.”

 

“Okay, fine. Why don’t we talk briefly about that, and then put on a dog and pony show, like you’re supposed to be so good at doing, and throw up some vaporware that is chock-full of Web 2.0-related terms, like AJAX, Wikis, and Social Networking?”

 

“Sounds good to me. You put together the Powerpoint, and I’ll grab some screenshots of our blog entries.”

 

For some reason, you are suddenly quite uncertain of the outcome of tomorrow’s panel presentation. It would seem that Bryan Leaky really doesn’t want to bullshit the crowd the way he’s bullshitted Wanda and Shorecraft, and is leaving much of the substance of this presentation up to you.

 

November 19, 2006

Joey Fontini has grabbed the attention of the entire audience with a sneak-peak preview of the latest from Communicross’s development team. The panel was originally supposed to just be Kim Park, Wally, and you + Bryan Leaky.

 

Kim Park and Wally would give a quick and general overview of the Web 2.0 landscape as it stood in November 2006, then turn it over to you and Bryan for fifteen minutes of jawdropping PowerPoint, before taking questions from the breathless audience who would already be in the process of emailing you new Requests For Proposals—or bypassing the proposals and quotes stage in favor of signing all their account contracts over to you and Ahmis + Bryan Leaky.

 

Instead, at the last minute, Kim had nonchalantly whispered in your ear as you sat trying to erase the copyright watermarks from the stock photos and clip art you stole off of a royalty-free image site. (Of course, you will pay for the images later, but Wanda and Deborah have yet to see the need to issue you an Ahmis company card.)

 

“Uh, it’s Kevin, right?”

 

“Oh, hi, Kim. Just doing some touchup work here. Want to really wow and impress this bunch.”

 

“Of course. Listen. I just spoke to Joey, and he’s got some great new stuff they’re doing with AJAX and video with speech recognition and mobile devices. It’s going to knock the pants off of the crowd, and will only take a few minutes off of your panel presentation. So, we’re going to let him squeeze in, okay?”

 

“Uh…” the last thing you want to do is sound perturbed about this, as Joey appears to be friends with everyone. “Sure.”

 

Joey has managed to spread himself and his mobile device across the panel table in such a way that you are practically sitting on Bryan Leaky’s lap.

 

“You all have your Blackberries, and that’s cool. You can walk through this with me then, if you want. Oh, what’s this in my hand? It’s an iPhone!”

 

The audience gasps. Rumors of Apple’s new smartphone have been on everyone’s lips for months.

 

“Not to be officially introduced for another two months, but Joey knows people.”

 

The audience laughs and hoots, then cheers and applauds.

 

“What you all are going to do, is make the next Communicross training app. I’ll walk you through it. Find a partner who has a smartphone, and go to communicross.com/mobilefire.”

 

Thirty minutes later, the audience is face-deep in interacting with itself via its smartphones—making collaborative training videos that go live on a Wiki-based site, and synchronously posting their work to their blogs. Bryan Leaky has partnered with a pretty young lady on the front row, and Kim Park and Wally are busy “training” each other. You appear to be one of one person in the audience who doesn’t have a Blackberry, so you try to feign animated interest by looking over Bryan’s shoulder.

 

“You guys rock, thank you very much,” says Joey, as Kim motions him to wind down the presentation. The audience groans at being made to stop the fun.

 

“Sorry folks,” says Kim, “But the panel is about different Web 2.0 solutions, and we wanted to try a new perspective at this conference. Let’s welcome Kevin Smiley of Ahmis Communications.”

 

A smattering of applause.

 

“Um, hello.” You force yourself to remain focused on a point just above the audience’s heads, so you don’t get asphyxiated while thinking about all of their eyes upon you. “First, let me introduce a partner vendor of Ahmis—Bryan Leaky. He’ll be sharing the stage to discuss what Ahmis and Leakproof have been up to.”

 

There is dead silence in the room. You let your eyes drop to the level of the crowd, and see that most of their eyes are scowling at you with a surprising intensity.

 

After what seems like two minutes, you turn to Bryan. “Bryan?”

 

“Oh, am I up? Hi, gang. Wasn’t that just the coolest? Man, Communicross has got something special going on, don’t they? I will definitely be talking with Joey about a potential partnership after this.” Nods of approval and laughter. “Okay, well…Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is really just an extension of what we’ve already been doing on the web for years. So, let’s look at a blog that’s powered by Leakproof Software’s Content Management System, namely, my blog.”

 

You hear a mutter of disapproval.

 

“And that’s really all there is to it. Just type in your text, and push publish. Pretty cool, huh? I’ll hand it over to Kevin now, with the latest and greatest.”

 

This crowd, who has been blogging with tools like Blogger and WordPress for two years or more, just kind of groans.

 

You pause to gasp for air several times as you labor through a Powerpoint full of images of babies learning to crawl then walk as a metaphor for the evolution of web-based technology at Ahmis, and then propose a theoretical Wiki where Ahmis and Leakproof may potentially collaborate some day on fictional projects for imaginary clients.

 

“Actually, Kevin,” says Bryan, “We don’t use Wikis. We find them to be restrictive to our workflow model, and prefer to use good old-fashioned IM chat tools, created by Leakproof, of course.”

 

“And, that’s all I have,” you say, breathing an audible sigh of relief that you can now dash out of the room to get on a train into downtown Boston to look at modern art, and forget this ever happened. You begin unhooking the Ahmis laptop from the projector and powering it down.

 

“Whoah, Kevin, not so fast, do you all have any questions?” asks Kim.

 

“I have a question,” says Denny Chavez.

 

You smile expectantly at Denny, who has at least been nice enough to stop and chat with you a few times. “Yeah, Denny?”

 

“The question is for Joey, actually. Man, how do you guys rock so much?”

 

The audience laughs and cheers, and rushes Joey with questions, begging him for a chance to beta test his new mobile app, and get their hands on the iPhone.

 

You quietly power down the Ahmis Thinkpad, zip it up in its case and slink off to your hotel room where you chug two Heinekens from the minibar fridge, then masturbate to some syndicated show about witches in San Francisco that is always on in every hotel you’ve ever stayed at.

 

You change into a pair of jeans and go try to find Boston’s modern art museum. Somehow, you know your sales career has ended, you’ve let Tony Robbins down, and the man manqué’s life will be waiting for you when you return to Austin.

 

December 21, 2006

During the course of the downhill run of your sales career, Wanda had found it more and more distasteful to be bothered by any of your questions about how to handle negotiating a sale and providing proper price points for you to be competitive in the web services arena of your industry (though she would often follow this with the criticism of “Kevin, you need to come and ask me more questions”).

 

She hired a testosterone-filled, angry old woman to be “Business Development Manager,” and made this woman your boss. Courtney Rogers became your fifth boss at Ahmis.

 

Dear Courtney,

I appreciate your assistance with the problem I was having this morning.

 

When leaving our discussion this morning, I was angry and frustrated with your general response to and handling of my problem. This was not the response I would have expected from someone who has taken the mantle of manager, and described herself to me as a resource available to help me succeed as a salesperson.

 

I said that you were obviously not ready to meet, and then you remarked as I walked away, “Kevin, YOU are not ready.”

 

To clarify (because such a childish comeback deserves a further response in kind):

 

YOU called a BRIEF one-on-one meeting this morning, with NO topic of discussion. I proposed two.

YOU postponed the meeting at 10 AM until 10:30, and then you were unprepared when I arrived to have the meeting.

YOU said no to my first topic, and told me to find a solution for the second. Since you had NO topic of your own to discuss, and requested brevity, I gladly obliged you.

 

You are my manager.

Wanda and you have made this decision, that you will manage and lead the sales team.

I welcome your management.

 

In my brief moments of catching glimpses of corporate environments outside of Ahmis, I’ve on occasion had this crazy notion that managers are supposed to lead, guide and direct a team, providing them with courses of action that will better enable the team to accomplish its goals.

 

Here at Ahmis, most of my past managers only seem to act like managers when it serves their interests, or their boss is asking them to. The rest of the time, I experience: pushback, punting, passing of the buck, generally being told to work the problem out myself. Self-guidance certainly isn’t a problem for me—it just seems to be a problem for the same managers during frenzied bouts of micromanagery and controlfreakism which are likely due to the fact that these past managers all feel especially threatened by a much younger, more intelligent MAN working among them.

 

I hoped the next manager will be different, and you are now it. I welcome your management, but if that isn’t something you see as part of your general role here at this company and see yourself as more of a manager manque, I will gladly self-manage, to whatever betterment/detriment of this company and the salesteam. Please note for future reference our conversation this morning when you characterize me in reviews as being “out of control,” “lacking team spirit,” and “failing to consult you first.”

 

Your humble, faithful, servant,

Kevin

 

You prepare to push send, then realize you’ve drank three and a half beers already. Maybe a more sober head should decide whether such an email needs to fly.

 

January 1, 2007

“I think that’s everything, you can follow me back to drop the rental truck off, and I’ll pick my car up.”

 

Since Lucy has officially ended her relationship with the Neanderthal, she naturally turned to you for help moving all of her stuff out of your apartment and into her new condo.

 

You now stand facing her at her car in the parking lot of a North Austin moving truck rental service.

 

“So, this is it, huh?”

 

“Oh, we’ll still see each other, Kevin. I’ve just borrowed $200 from you to pay my shrink.”

 

“Yes, of course. I’ll want to keep in touch. But, you’re moved out for good now, and got your own place.”

 

“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it?”

 

“It’s liberation itself. Bye, Lucy, give me a call if you want to walk the dogs.”

 

“Bye, Kevin.”

 

Not one to believe that two years’ worth of bad luck could possibly happen in a row, you’ve decided to use up all two weeks of your vacation at the start of the year, to paint and meditate, and heal. Lucy has moved out, leaving behind only random bits of kitchen utensils and hair ties.

 

The apartment is empty, and so is the place inside you that held most of the big dreams when you moved in a year and a half ago. Your candidate, Bancroft, has invited you down to his house in Houston to meet one of the longshot 2008 Presidential candidates, and someone from the Troy Lackman Fund called to see if you were interested in being an online cancer advocacy coordinator. Of course, you’re interested! Your sweet mother is fighting the good fight right now, taking trips to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and the thought of getting passionate professionally about an issue that’s important to you has got you excited and full of hope again.

 

You feel an overwhelming loneliness coming on, knowing that she is out like she’s never been out before. The longest you’ve gone without seeing her since you first met was maybe three weeks, but probably not even that.

 

There is nobody to replace her.

 

The valley hasn’t been this low for some time. You think, “I am too old to be this far down. I am reaching the end of what I can take from my workplace. I think I’ve worked myself into as about as far of a corner as I possibly can.”

 

Your debt problems have now departed to that all-too-familiar territory of psychopaths calling you all hours of the day.

 

You have to invent something new to be in a matter of two weeks, and you don’t think a painter is really it, no matter how much you tell yourself what you just splattered on the canvas looks like the work of Matisse. God hasn’t answered yet. Your faith is pretty low, hanging by a lousy little nanometer of a thread.

 

The campaign has left you feeling pretty jaded about people. You believe that God wants you to help people in some fashion or another, and yet most days, it takes a lot of nerves and biting of the tongue to put up with human beings.

 

You are so lonely because you are thinking about how vast and unpredictable the future is, and thinking about how gone Lucy really is—when you walked down the path back to your door you expected to see her cat running up to meet you, and you wrote her a note asking if you could bring the pup over to visit some time this week. She hasn’t written back yet, of course.

 

You’ve got to leave the booze alone now. Nothing good ever came of that.

 

January 16, 2007

Wanda,

I appreciate and respect your need to grow business and increase company revenue, and I totally understand your misgivings about my ability to perform in the capacity of outward-bound sales. I also realize that we have attempted to grow the portion of our business that is web-based for years, with very little to show for it. However, what has completely taken me by surprise is the manner in which the decision to revise my position was made.

 

Although I suspected something was amiss over the past two months regarding my position on the sales team, I wrote it off to ungrounded suspicion on my part, because I truly felt that my employer and its President, whom I have given a loyal seven and a half years to, would give me the opportunity to operate under some type of probationary period before such a decision was made. Since the day of my review, I have been incredibly numb with shock at your decision to spring this upon me suddenly, without fair warning, with no opportunity to prepare an adequate argument for my case as a true member of the sales team, and no chance to redeem what by all accounts appears to be a flagging effort.

 

Further, what I find especially galling about your decision is your complete about-face in confidence of my abilities between my last review and this one. After repeated requests to have some formulation of target revenue goals to inspire my sales efforts (that were regularly monitored and updated), fewer job duties that were unrelated to sales, and more feedback from our sales manager Courtney, your decision smarts and chafes me like no others you have ever made during my time of employment at Ahmis.

 

In short, my inability to be more successful at landing new business is at most 60% fault of a man manqué, and 40% the fault of a President who is too busy raising her children and handling personal accounts, the fault of a sales manager who refuses to manage and inspire a winning attitude in the sale steam, and a production team that is negligent, forgetful, ignorant, incompetent and even downright uncooperative when a project from one of my accounts is being handled.

 

Finally, your decision to make me a co-manager of an entirely irrelEt project (with Karen Winthrop, of all people) that was disbanded two years ago, while hiring a VP of IT processes, is a definitive slap in the face and clear vote of no confidence in my abilities. You have essentially fired me without firing me, setting my career and personal growth as it relates to my time at Ahmis back two years, and basically asked me to stop providing input in the future of Ahmis and to work with zero incentive to perform above mediocrity.

 

Your humble, faithful, servant,

Kevin

 

You prepare to push send, then realize you’ve drank three and a half beers already. Why bother sending it? You are on to better and brighter things! Bancroft has invited you to his house in Houston on Friday for a fundraising luncheon where you will meet a longshot 2008 Presidential Candidate and some heavy hitters in the Texas Democratic party to plot and strategize making Texas a blue state in 08.

 

If that doesn’t pan out (and why wouldn’t it, since you must still be living Bill Clinton’s “My Life” dream with an invitation like this), the Troy Lackman Fund has a third interview with you a week from today—and their organization is full of hot, young, idealistic chicks just out of college who wear business skirts and help Troy and the world fight cancer.

 

January 19, 2007

You are standing in a gas station bathroom, just inside Houston off of one of the first exits from the freeway. The idea was that you’d tie your tie in the car somewhere along the way, and this was a bad idea. Like every other interview and business conference before, the process of tying the tie involves:

 

  1. Getting it about a half inch in length from being perfect, and deciding to try for perfection.
  2. Totally botching it, making the fat end a good 80% longer than the skinny end.
  3. Totally botching it, making the skinny end a good 25% longer than the fat end.
  4. Screaming and cursing, and swearing that if you ever meet the man who invented the tie, you will choke him with one (and wondering if the tie makes a single positive impression on anyone you meet).
  5. Getting it about a half inch in length from being perfect, and settling for “good enough for government and geeks.”

 

You then piss out all of the coffee you’d consumed to make you mentally alert, and are ready to appear to these political powerhouses as a real go-getter, a Bill Clinton, Jr. nigh ready to be hatched from his man manqué egg. You pause to buy some strange sort of breath-freshening tools made out of a plastic-y substance that dissolve in your mouth. You eat several of them.

 

“Kevin!” cries Randy Bancroft. “So glad you could make it. Come on in! Our candidate is on a tarmac in Minnesota, waiting for his plane to de-ice. Meet some Texas Democratic heavy-hitters—all ten of us—and eat some crab cakes.”

 

“Hi Mr. Bancroft. Thank you so much for inviting me to meet a longshot Presidential candidate. Gosh, if it weren’t for six other rock stars getting tons of media attention right now, he just might have a chance. I like what he has to say on biofuel.”

 

Bancroft politely tosses you a smile to let you know he heard at least a third of what you just said, and is off to schmooze with the people at his fundraiser who have money.

 

For an hour and a half you ingest a dozen crab cakes and several glasses of iced tea; and chat with middle-age cat ladies and bright young law school students (who apparently worked here in Houston on the Bancroft campaign, and were also ranked third or fourth in command). Finally, Victor Torrance blows in with his entourage. They all look like they are still dusting snow off of themselves, and behave as if they are the most important people on the face of the earth. Everyone stands up and circles around Bancroft’s living and dining areas.

 

Victor goes from person to person shaking hands.

 

“Hi, my name is Kevin Smiley. I’m honored to meet you Mr. Torrance. I think your platform on biofuel is…”

 

His hand is practically already reaching to shake someone else’s as he moves too quickly to make eye contact with you even once, opting to read your nametag as he motions his way through the process.

 

“Hello, Kevin.”

 

For a man as large as your old high school vice principal Mr. Summers, his handshake is remarkably flaccid. However, this is likely due to his hurried passing through the crowd rather than any inadequacies as a man. Victor Torrance is about as engaging with his speech as your high school vice principal was, delivering a well-scripted, monotone elevator pitch for why a boring Midwestern governor will make a better President than all the rock stars who are grabbing the spotlight and cash.

 

And then, he’s gone, and you are left to decide once and for all if your life is really going to align with Bill Clinton’s or not.

 

You suddenly find yourself alone with Bancroft in his kitchen as he pours himself a glass of chardonnay.

 

“Isn’t he an amazing candidate?” Bancroft asks you.

 

“Oh yes, Mr. Bancroft. He’s definitely got a real plan mapped out, where the other guys and gal are just using rhetoric. Mr. Bancroft, did you get a chance to read that email I sent you about what I think the Texas Democratic Party needs? It’s largely based on ‘My Life.'”

 

A wealthy Houston lawyer has stepped into the kitchen, and she’s suddenly got complete command of Bancroft’s attention. You decide that wine probably isn’t the best choice for you right now, with your nerves being what they are—you’d likely not stop with just a glass or two. As you stand there sipping your sixth glass of sweet tea, and munching on your eighteenth crab cake, you observe the bright young law students who worked on the Bancroft campaign congregating and excitedly talking about their next moves to become Washington D.C. power players.

 

You now realize you are going to be in fierce competition with this bunch for internships and low-paid positions on campaigns for years before you get that offer to come join the victors and their spoils in Washington. The difference between you and them, of course, is that you are six to eight years older than most of them.

 

“Kevin, you can call me Randy. Why don’t you join us?” Bancroft returns to you, and he waves his arm at the small army of middle age cat ladies and bright young law students who’ve gathered in his rec room on the other side of the kitchen, “as we talk about our triumphs of ’06, and map out strategies for ’08.”

 

“You mean you’re going to give it another shot?”

 

“Well, maybe not that same office. Maybe a mayoral or city council position here. Maybe we’ll go into fundraising mode full time for various progressive initiatives. I’m sure the Texas Democratic Party could really use the vast network of Bancroft supporters we’ve built up. What do you say?”

 

All the news articles and books you’ve read (and you’re still only about halfway through “My Life”), all the liberal magazines you subscribed to, and all the little blog rants you’ve posted bitching about how bad Bush is, all those years of listening to the Alex Jones show—and even going back to the two years in college you were a PoliSci Major—all of your fanciful flirtation and indulgences in the world of politics have come to this point.

 

You must either say “yes, I will become but one of many cheerful, bright young faces who think they have all the answers to solving the world’s problems and think they have Randy Bancroft’s ear to tell him what he should do next” or say “no, I have gotten my fill of politics but for good, and I will have to find some other way to change the world.”

 

“Randy, I really do appreciate the offer, and I’d love to stay, but I’ve got a ton of work waiting for me on my desk back in Austin. Thank you again, for letting me meet the most boring Presidential candidate ever and giving me the privilege of having him touch my hand and read my name back to me from my nametag. It will be a moment I will always cherish.”

 

“Okay, Kevin. I certainly understand. Stay in touch.”

 

“I most definitely will, Randy.”

 

You can’t help but wonder if you’ve made the right decision, or if you were just too scared to walk through that door into Randy Bancroft’s rec room and participate in the American Political System as a man. But, your car is pointed back toward Austin, Texas because you are:

  1. Still inside of a seven-year curse for having left a cushy state job to return to Ahmis Communications.
  2. Still inside a novel called “Ten Years of the Man Manqué in Austin, Texas.”

 

January 29, 2007

You tied your tie right the first time for both of the first two interviews with the Troy Lackman Fund. You met six extremely gorgeous women who are college interns or just out of college, all dressed in sexy business attire and obviously very athletic (nobody who works at the Troy Lackman Fund is going to be overweight or smoke cigarettes, of course). You’ve met three, easy-going fellows who are definitely men, but were agreeable sorts and seemed to sense what a great addition you’d be to the Lackman Team.

 

You are becoming Troy Lackman’s biggest fan, having cheered him on through his world-famous sporting triumphs, and letting your heart swell with pride knowing that you live in Austin and have ridden your bike on the same roads he’s trained on.

 

And, you are becoming The Fund’s biggest advocate. As your mom battles cancer for the fourth time, you read the Lackman Fund website over and watch their videos and you get so pumped thinking that God has got you on the right course now—just wait until they unleash Cancer’s Number One Foe out on their website to help mobilize the Lackman Army. (If folks thought you were pretty amazing with all your bitching on blogs about Bush and Kavler, wait till they catch you bashing cancer!)

 

It is your third interview, and today, you get to meet the IT guy, Wilbur.

 

In your position at Ahmis (whatever the hell that might be on any day of the week), you have generally found yourself handed tasks that are too techie for the sales and marketing ladies, and too girlie/artsy fartsy for the IT guy. An Ahmis IT guy once bluntly said of a project, “I build the thing, and Kevin pretties it up for you.”

 

Being the man manqué naturally precludes you to such a role, and you are pretty sure the position you are interviewing for at the Troy Lackman Fund is perfect for the man manqué who stands between the angry, obtuse IT guy and the lovely sales and marketing ladies.

 

Wilbur walks in the room, and all it takes is for your eyes to meet and you know for certain the two of you hate each others’ guts. It really is that simple. You see it happen with dogs at the dog park all the time, so why do people always expect two geeks to get along?

 

Wilbur may be a man manqué himself, or a closet gay—it is hard to tell. His ears are pierced and he talks with a lisp, but he scowls and throws himself about with a violence and forcefulness of someone who demands satisfaction. Like a lot of men who idolize Troy Lackman, he probably spends way too much time in spandex on a road bike, and carries all the pent-up rage such men do from being almost killed by motorists too many times to count, and keeping their testicles tightly constricted by the spandex and the bicycle seat.

 

“So, what exactly are you going to do for the Troy Lackman Fund?” he sneers at you. “You see, I help these ladies get the information they need, and keep their software apps running smoothly…” He proceeds to brag about his IT prowess, and throws “these ladies” into every sentence, as if his sole reason for existing is to help these poor, helpless dames in their mission to look hot and fight cancer.

 

“Well, I’m sure that you all have a lot of good ideas that you are going to want to implement,” you begin, looking at “these ladies” when you refer to say “you all.”

 

“I think it’s so easy for folks to get caught up in endless ideation,” sneers Wilbur back at you.

 

At this point, you want to stand up and walk over and punch him in the face and scream, “I’m not talking about more ideation, you fucking prick, I’m talking about being the bridge, the communicator who can talk to both the IT guy AND the lovely ladies with the ideas!”

 

Except, you can see that you will never be able to communicate with this guy, because he has obviously decided that he has been appointed trustee of the hen house, and any other male who would threaten this vital role must be quashed. That, and you hate his fucking guts.

 

So, you mutter something in the general direction of this group about how your roles at Ahmis and on the Bancroft campaign could make existing ideas that much better while Wilbur and his ladies stare at you blankly.

 

And, of course, you know that walking out of the offices of the Troy Lackman Fund, you are still stuck at Ahmis, recently kicked out of sales, and back to managing content and cooking up untenable marketing ideas with Karen Winthrop. The Troy Lackman Fund never calls you back, opting to send you a card in the mail after you repeatedly request them to let you know the status of your hiring review. They will time the card to arrive in the mail a week before your mom dies of cancer.

 

February 2, 2007

The Ahmis happy hour gang has become a much more subdued crew of guys and gals who grab a table at Opal Divine’s where they proceed to bitch about the minutiae of office politics in departments that don’t affect you. One of the fringe benefits of being joined at the hip to Karen Winthrop is that you are mostly removed from all of the infighting and backbiting of the production team.

 

Dennis and Deidre are still card-carrying members, as are several other men and women lost in the horse latitudes of  Ahmis, and it gives you some comfort to join them occasionally for a happy hour where you can happily float above all of their petty drama.

 

“So, my housemate has decided to kick me out,” says Dennis.

 

“Oh man, that really sucks, dude,” says everyone.

 

“Yeah, he doesn’t seem to care for the fact that I constantly belch the most obnoxious, high decibel belches ever, even if he’s eating his dinner or trying to have a conversation with me. He can’t stand how I crank up the speakers on my computer while I’m playing WOW, and never thoughtfully close my door or ask how loud it is. He doesn’t like my general laziness about doing my share of the cleaning or my mooching off of him, nor is he all that pleased with how I nosily barge in on whatever he’s doing and ask him what he’s doing, even when it’s utterly obvious, or how I smoke weed all the time then try to engage him in pointless conversations.”

 

“Man, what a tool. Guy doesn’t sound the least bit laid back,” says everyone.

 

“Yeah, I think he’s into Buddhist meditation or some shit.”

 

“Yeah, people like that, who are all spiritual and need their space and quiet—they suck. Godless drunks rule!”

 

“To godless drunks!” Everyone raises a toast which you pretend not to notice.

 

“Hey Dennis,” you say, thinking about how hopeless your credit situation is, and what rent is going to be like with Lucy gone.

 

“Yes, Kevin?”

 

“We’ve had a nice quasi-friendship over the years, what with the endless summer happy hour, Jamaica, and constantly mocking everything and everyone, when we happen to run into each other at Ahmis. While I’m really trying to become a much more spiritual person, and need my space and quiet as well, I need money so much more badly. How would you like to move in to my place?”

 

“Sounds like an awesome idea, Kevin.”

 

“It would only be for a little while, of course.”

 

“Of course.”

 

 

 

February 12, 2007

“Kevin,” says Wanda, “I have someone I’d like you to meet. You see, I really don’t think I’ve made your professional life a miserable enough of a hell just yet. Meet Jimbo.”

 

“Um, hello.”

 

Jimbo is a silverback gorilla. Wilbur at the Troy Lackman Fund may have liked to think he was a silverback gorilla, but Jimbo is a genuine one. You recall reading about silverback gorillas in anthropology class—how these matured, ferocious males will move into a territory occupied by another male and several females, and soon lay the weaker, younger male to waste.

 

“Hi, Kevin, I’m a silverback gorilla. Wanda has lured me to Ahmis with an impressive title and salary. I get to do whatever I want, and all of the females here will swoon when I walk into a room. I’ll make the same suggestions you did years ago, and they will implement them. You better watch your back.”

 

“Kevin, Jimbo is now your boss. You two should go have lunch together. I’m sure you’ll become the best of friends. Jimbo, Kevin sort of messes around with some of our web-based stuff, and for awhile, pretended he was some kind of bigshot salesman by leveraging the company dime at hotel bars. Kevin, Jimbo has years of experience at putting on dog and pony shows for different firms under the guise of consulting and thought leadership.”

 

“Gosh, I don’t know what to say. What exactly are you going to be doing, Jimbo?”

 

“I’m going to be doing everything Wanda should be doing, but since she is too busy trying to raise a family while pretending to her social circles she’s supercareerwoman, she will never be able to actually bring Ahmis into the 21st Century. Or, maybe I’ll just pontificate a lot and get to travel to Europe on the company dime. Europe, Kevin, think about that—where has Ahmis sent you lately?”

 

“Boston, Baltimore and San Diego. I’ve also been to Orlando, Houston and San Francisco. And, if you want to count layovers: Colorado, Tennessee and Atlanta.”

 

“See? Maybe if you suck it up and start agreeing with every single thing I have to say, I’ll teach you how you, too, can one day be like me—when you’re fifty or sixty, of course—and then, you can travel to Europe on the company dime, too. You think masturbation to basic American hotel television is hot fun, wait until you travel to Europe. They show boobies over there.”

 

“Gosh, that sounds exactly like where I’d want to take my career next, Jimbo.”

 

“Oh, this is wonderful!” cries Wanda. “I knew you two would just gel with all kinds of synergy!”

 

“It’s like being visited by one of the Two Bobs from Office Space,” you say to Lucy on your first walk together around Town Lake since she moved out. Both of you are rapidly getting close again now that she’s not dating anyone, and not living with you.

 

“What’s so wrong about that? Maybe Ahmis could use an industry veteran.”

 

“But, he’s no industry veteran. Wanda forwarded me his resume because she thought I would find it impressive. I looked up all the companies he says he turned around with his consulting expertise—two of them are mentioned in news articles as having gone belly up shortly after he left, and the rest are not to be found in any Google search. And, absolutely none of them were related to Corporate Communications Training.”

 

“So, the guy’s out-bullshitted you. You have to admit, you’ve had a pretty good run of it—you bullshitted Wanda for two and a half years before she finally pulled the plug on your non-selling efforts.”

 

“I had some great leads the week she kicked me off the sales team, Lucy. Ah hell, it doesn’t matter, except that the guy is disagreeing with everything I have to say, kind of like you do during the weeks we’re not friends or lovers. He even paused to send an email reply to everyone regarding my suggestion we put the coffee in the freezer to keep it fresh, saying that it kills the grounds. How the hell do you kill cheap, HEB-brand coffee grounds? I mean, I’ve been freezing it for years at home, and can clearly tell a difference from the typically shelf-stored stuff at Ahmis. I think he’s just disagreeing with everything I say because he can.”

 

“Well, he is a silverback. They tend to not want other males inside their territory unless those males help the silverback maintain his position as leader of the troop.”

 

“I wish I was a silverback.”

 

“You have a lot of silver hairs, but that’s probably just from too much masturbation.”

 

“It’s genetics, Lucy, and it sucks. Here I am with a bald patch on the back of my head and half my hair is gray, and I’m only 30. I’ve got a lot of great ideas, and could easily create the Ahmis killer, so why can’t I be the silverback?”

 

“What’s the Ahmis killer?”

 

“Crowdsourced Corporate Communications training—like Wikipedia, but with a hybrid of paid technical writers as well as amateurs. The kicker is that there will be a social networking platform like Facebook in the mix, too.”

 

“So, what’s stopping you from building the Ahmis Killer Company?”

 

“Oh, why bother? My purpose in life is to do something that helps others. The sooner I get away from this soulless industry, the better. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity.”

 

“Maybe you could create a similar business model, but educate kids instead.”

 

“Naw, Wikipedia is already doing that.”

 

“So, what you’re really saying is that you’re always going to have some kind of excuse to prevent you from realizing yourself as a true man of this world?”

 

“Pretty much.”

 

March 15, 2007

“But, you let those people go through!” you whine to the security guard, who is letting everyone but you past a gate to run up and see him.

 

“They’re handicapped,” he says.

 

“Fat fuck,” you mutter under your breath, as you and Lucy walk away.

 

“Oh, you really showed him.”

 

“Doesn’t matter, politics is totally stupid, anyway. I mean, he seems like a nice, bright guy, but I didn’t think he was nearly as charismatic as everyone says he is. I heard his voice falter at least five times, and he is after all, just a man.”

 

“My boyfriend is voting for Ron Paul.”

 

“Oh, right, you have a boyfriend.”

 

Someone you knew from the Bancroft campaign sends you an email.

 

“Kevin, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor. We’re going to be part of the core group of his Austin supporters, and he’s actually going to visit Austin again two more times, even though Texas is pretty much irrelEt to him getting elected.”

 

You think back to the rally you were just at. It is the very first time he came to Austin, and ten thousand people showed up. Where were all these people when you were trying to drum up support for Bancroft? Bunch of losers! They just like this guy because they think he can win and he raises lots of money. What the hell do they know?

 

You write her back.

 

“Thanks, but no thanks. While he’s a very strong candidate, and will probably give Ms. Clinton a run for her money, I just can’t get all that excited about this stuff anymore. I mean, y’all act like he’s going to save you from yourselves, and have mopped up the mess Bush has made within a few months after taking office.”

 

March 31, 2007

You’re turning 31, and your mom and dad have come over to take you to eat anywhere you want to go.

 

You think of all the times your parents, especially your mom, embarrassed you—like when the three of you went into Whole Foods all dressed like the country bumpkins you are, and you knew what you wanted and your parents (who’d never been there) ordered the exact same thing, and the guy checking you out smirked at the three of you, then your mom stayed behind to give him a Jesus tract and try to save his soul.

 

Or, when your parents took you to Maudie’s for your birthday, or the Green Mesquite, and you all decided to sit outside, so your mom started feeding the birds that flew up to the table. Or, the lunch at Luby’s where you got embarrassed by your mom choking on something, seeing your dad half-pounding on her back and half clutching her in preparation to perform the Heimlich, even though she was really just having an allergic reaction to the excessive pepper they’d dumped in the coleslaw.

 

You think of the birthday balloons your mom sent you that first awful birthday after leaving Olivia, Anastasia and your house behind—and how miserably depressed you were, not wanting to call attention to yourself, then seeing the Ahmis receptionist coming up the stairs with the balloons.

 

This year, you all are eating at IHOP, and you feel incredibly ashamed of yourself for ever having been so embarrassed of your mom.  

 

“It’s really serious, Kevin,” says your Dad to you, in a tone that suggests you are some kind of dimwit who barely can process the implications of three failed cancer treatments.

 

“Um, yeah, I kind of get that. But, you’re the one who keeps saying we gotta be positive and keep things light.”

 

“I know, I know, but it’s really hard right now.”

 

The fact is, they’ve done a remarkably good job over the years of hiding just how serious things could get with the cancer, and it puzzles you sometimes when your dad can go from expecting you to act like nothing’s wrong, to practically demanding you remain constantly tortured by the gravity of the situation.

 

“You feel up for a walk, mom?”

 

“Sure, Kevin. It’s so nice outside, I think a walk would be lovely. You can show me around your neighborhood.”

 

Your mom walks the near-mile it takes to circumvent your apartment complex, taking on the quarter mile of uphill climb required to get back to your door without once complaining or asking you or your dad to bring a car down to her. You are proud of the fact that you got no other mom but this one.

 

Year 9

June 4, 2007

At the start of January of 1999, you were very close to God. Not necessarily the Christian God, but your faith couldn’t have been stronger in the existence of a bigger reality than the physical one we apprehend with our senses.

 

After four years of college experimentation with mushrooms, lsd, pot, astral projection, meditation, lucid dreaming, piercing your chakras with the Kundalini serpent, automatic writing, seances, nighttime trips to graveyards, and studying Kabbalah, you knew the spirit world and a Supreme Being better than you knew anything about being yourself as a young man among your peers.

 

Then, your little brother Roy died. He died unexpectedly, and while the cause of his death was obvious enough, the reasons for him not stopping at a stop sign (where he was supposed to turn right anyway) remain a mystery to everyone.

 

For a jack-of-all-trades mystic such as yourself, such a death was all the more incomprehensible. Because, up until this point in your life, everything happened for a Higher Reason, and that Supreme Being was a precise Karmic Accountant—giving everyone exactly what they deserved.

 

Roy was a careful, responsible sixteen-year-old kid. He used more of his logical, left brain than his creative right brain. He could beat you at chess and outscore you at Tetris. What’s more, Roy loved Jesus and said his prayers every night. When you were sixteen, you listened to your Pantera and Danzig CDs every night, and thought Satan was kinda cool.

 

By all accounts, according to your twenty-two-year-old brain (which had pretty much mapped out all of the known and unknown Universe), Roy’s death meant one of three things:

  1. God did not really exist, and you’d simply hallucinated all of your oh-so-real experiences with the spirit world.

Roy had done something in a past life for which he was now being punished.

Roy’s death took place because Roy’s work here on earth was done, and God had Bigger Plans for the both of you.

 

Number 1 was unthinkable. If you were to ever actually believe it, then it meant you’d never see Roy again, and his sweet spirit you’d taken so much for granted and bullied so mercilessly was nothing more than an aggregation of chemicals, never to be manifested the same way again. What was the point of even existing if you were going to hurt so badly over losing someone only to learn that neither you nor he would ever exist again following death?

 

Number 2 was also unthinkable. If anyone had done something in a past life (or this life, for that matter) that was worthy of a punishment like getting mangled in a car wreck, it was you.

 

So, you went along with Number 3 because you had to in order to simply not put a gun to your head, and you went along begrudgingly, sometimes full of as much anger as you could possibly muster toward God without reaching that tipping point where He would surely strike you down with furious lightning.

 

And now, after establishing an awkward truce from seeing your life spin out of control too many times to count, you were pretty pissed at God again.

 

“What the fuck, God!?” you screamed inside your parents’ home in Bastrop, while your dad sat beside your mom in a North Austin hospital room.

 

“I mean, really. I pray for you to heal her, and just look at her. She told me herself that you’d promised her many more years of life, and a chance to see those grandkids I’m still trying to figure out how to produce.”

 

You grab one of your shoes and throw it as hard as you can against a wall. Then, you scream some more, finally breaking down and sobbing.

 

“Can’t you just keep my mama alive for a few more years? Can’t you see how messed up I still am, God, and need the rock of her presence in my life? Sorry, I know I sound really selfish, but I am, damnit! Who wants to see their mama die, anyway? Stupid fucking cancer! Goddamn doctors that act so smug but don’t know shit about fixing people. Fuck doctors and their smug-ass attitudes! They can all burn in hell for all I care. No, God, I really didn’t mean that. I don’t want anyone to burn in hell, especially not me.”

 

You start to furiously dust and clean your parents’ house, which has become cluttered from a year where the two inhabitants were solely focused on fighting the cancer. “Damn dust! That’s the problem. She’s probably breathing in all this dust around here, and it’s so unhealthy.”

 

When they brought her into the hospital last month, you got to watch the Kentucky Derby with her and chat for hours. She grew up near Louisville, and loved to watch this one sporting event, but hated gambling and pretended nobody watched the horses to bet on them. At the start of this week, those long conversations had turned to a lot of incoherent stops and starts, and now it seemed she just wanted to sleep, but would wake up to tell you she loved you if you grabbed her hand and told her you loved her.

 

Tonight, when you go in to see her, she’ll just open her eyes, look at you with recognition, and scowl, not even mouthing the words anymore.

 

Being the ultimate self-obsessed mama’s boy that you are, this scares the crap out of you. Has she already had some visits with God while lapsing back into her coma, and is frowning because she knows something about the future of your soul—knows you’re a lost cause not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life?

 

Then, you quash that nonsense, and think she’s probably just horribly frightened and sad that she can’t muster enough energy to keep her eyes open anymore, and feels terrible to be leaving you, her little boy, behind on this earth.

 

Tomorrow, they’ll let your dad know her insides have completely turned to cancer, and move her to the hospice, where she breathes heavily and all you know of the fire of life is the warmth still in her hands.

 

June 6, 2007

“She’s gone, Kevin, when she went, it was like she turned to someone completely different,” says your father over the phone as it rouses you at 3 am from your negligible slumber on the couch out in Bastrop. He’s been at the hospice non-stop by her side, and now it’s over, and he’s coming home.

 

“It’s just the two of us now,” he says, as he shuffles off to get his first uninterrupted sleep in over a year.

 

A little later, you call in to Ahmis to let Jimbo know you need a couple days off from work to tend to things.

 

“Of course, Kevin. Where should we send some flowers?”

 

After eight years of diligently and thoughtfully signing cards passed around the workplace for every possible reason imaginable—every time an Ahmis colleague’s nephew gets the flu, or someone loses a pet, or gets married, or their husband’s aunt’s best friend dies. But, with Jimbo being so new to Ahmis’ culture (or just not giving a shit), you will not receive any sort of sympathy card from this place, just a generic bucket of funeral flowers.

 

However, Deidre and Karen Winthrop have decided they want to attend your mother’s funeral with you!

 

So, for one day this week, the two universes of Kevin’s Austin Mess and Bastrop Oasis come together, and it seems utterly awkward—two women you’ve been to bed with who were by your side throughout the endless summer happy hour, two women who hate God and love drunkenness—these two women will be sitting inside an Assembly of God church, watching a  service similar to the ones your mom had begged you to attend year after year, while you grieve the passing of the most God-fearing person you’ve ever known.

 

Both of them would have loathed your mom, had they ever met her, but both of them seem to still really like you—maybe even love you in some way.

 

You’ve told everyone in Austin that it’s optional whether they want to attend or not. But, Deidre and Karen Winthrop insist on driving out for the funeral. And Lucy, who you’d hoped would show how much she cared about you as a friend–in spite of the fact you said that attendance is optional—Lucy stays away.

 

You aren’t really sure how you feel about any of this, but one remarkable thing does happen—you stop being mad at God, and you never once find your grief over your mother’s death causing you to drink to excess. (You will still find plenty of other excuses to drink to excess over the next couple of years, but this isn’t one of them.)

 

July 12, 2007

It is you and Jimbo, sitting at a rather popular Austin eating institution known as Threadgill’s, where you choose two sides of vegetables from a rather large selection of vegetable dishes. Jimbo drove you to your annual review lunch in a Lexus, of course. At least he took the time to find out from someone that it is an Ahmis tradition for the chief to take the peon to lunch on the day of his review.

 

“It’s my wife’s car, I don’t particularly care for it,” he said, nonchalantly manipulating the dashboard features that looked like the instruments on a billionaire’s spaceship. “I drive a small BMW.”

 

You honestly don’t believe you have ever been inside of a Lexus. You grew up in the Midwest where foreign cars were heresy. Then, you came down here and chose to remain among the drinking classes who drive Mazdas and 15-year-old Hondas.

 

Anyway, the Lexus was roomy, making both the driver and passengers alike feel as if they are riding in a machine driven by someone else. And it’s only slightly smaller than the giant SUV dinosaur fuel monsters you still see roaming the streets of any given Texas town.

 

You’d traded evaluations on Tuesday. This is an Ahmis tradition where the Operations Manager Deborah sends out evaluations to manager and employee that haven’t changed in verbiage for ten years or more. The evaluations ask for a few accomplishments and few things to work on, as well as a couple of questions that only apply to nobody, like handling dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

 

Your self eval was fairly straightforward:

 

“Here is what I said I was going to do six months ago at my six month review: When they decided that because we had just implemented the selling program they’d paid $2000 for us to learn, and because I had just gotten a few clients, it was time to declare me a sales failure, and kick my ass back to being joined at the hip with Karen Winthrop writing marketing copy that nobody reads and assisting the Sales Department in ways that they hardly pay any attention to. Here is what I’ve done since then. Here is what I didn’t do and why. Here is what I want to work on in the next six months, and here is where I could improve to do my job better. Dead simple. Let’s get this over, give me a nominal raise, please don’t fire me, and allow me to digest my two vegetable sides and chicken fried steak in a relatively stress-free way.”

 

Of course, Jimbo is a silverback gorilla and feels that a review must consist of kicking a guy’s ego down a few notches in the name of giving him something to improve upon and work toward. Jimbo’s review of you was about 60% negative, 30% neutral, and 10% positive. You’d thoroughly addressed each and every one of his comments with spite and anger, then sent it to Karen Winthrop, and she suggested ways you could tone it down a bit.

 

“Well, I don’t think a review is just a big self esteem building festival,” Jimbo says, trying to stare you down. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

 

“I totally agree,” You say, staring back at him with as much force as possible without prompting him to jump up on the table and start baring his teeth and shrieking as silverbacks are wont to do, “But, every single negative thing said about me is either completely wrong, or merits a qualification.”

 

He had, of course, solicited the input of one or two people you’d worked with, as he said in all fairness that he didn’t know you well enough yet. Jimbo had been only marginally involved in a recent sales teleconference call with a giant law firm in Chicago, that you’d sat in on with Christy, a lady whose back you’d always had, and worked with you in a no-nonsense fashion throughout her years as a Project Manager.

 

Jimbo’s underpinning example for everything that is wrong with you and requires improvement comes out of this one call where he had stood for only a few minutes, then left the room.

 

You honestly believe that Jimbo has used three minutes of observing you at the end of the call when the other competitors were all asking stupid questions. You know you’d nailed that call. Your voice was unwavering, clear and firm about exactly what the client and their vendor would have to do in order to work with Ahmis’ software.

 

At the time, Christy was pleased with your input, you were elated that you had come off sounding like the real authority and intelligence—if the client was paying any attention at all (which Christy at the time said he probably wasn’t) to which vendors were saying what on that call, he would most certainly pick Ahmis.

 

Or, so you thought.

 

While Christy had sat there doing her usual hemming and hawing and scowling at all of the stupid things the client and the other vendors were saying, she had been apparently noting the same in you, or that’s what she told Jimbo.

 

According to Jimbo, Christy had said that some of your sighs of exasperation and lack of patience with the client were so audible that Christy was certain they had come across on the phone (even though Christy had said at the time that the client wasn’t paying attention to which vendor was which).

 

“I don’t care,” said Jimbo, after hearing your side of the story, “I’m going to find something for you to improve upon, because that’s how I do reviews.”

 

Why had Christy sold you so short like that? According to Jimbo, everyone in sales (meaning he talked to Wanda and she absentmindedly concurred) agrees that this is your character flaw, along with the fact that you don’t voice your misgivings about a potentially flawed marketing or business idea at the time it is being discussed, and only let it come out later in frustration.

 

Your blood boils at the hypocrisy of it all. For how many years have you gotten no immediate feedback from anyone on how you did in a sales call, only to be sucker punched at your review with tons of negative feedback?

 

“Whatever,” you say, “I am just qualifying all of this because I don’t think this is an accurate picture of me, and it does affect my concerns for the kind of raise I will be getting.” Annual reviews at Ahmis are for money.

 

“Oh, that’s completely separate. I am going to suggest, based upon your list of responsibilities, that you get a 4.3% raise and finally become salaried after years of being jerked over as a clock-punching monkey.”

 

You are just glad that he didn’t suggest a pay cut or worse, that you are utterly worthless to the Ahmis team, and should be turned out on the streets with your bull terrier puppy, Little Buffy.

 

“So,” he say, “I am going to revise the draft of your eval based on the input I got from you today, and send it to you for final approval before I give it to Wanda and Deborah for consideration.”

 

“Sounds good,” you say, thinking he would qualify and soften some of the blunt portrayals of you as a complete Neanderthal who probably should have never left your first job cleaning stables, or even the womb.

 

“Now, before we go, let me tell you a little story,” he says as he signs the check, “Something you may or may not be able to take to heart. I didn’t grow up until much later than most people.”

 

“You mean, physically?”

 

“Of course. When I graduated from high school, I was five-five and weighed one-thirty. By the time I got into the army at the age of 23, I stood six-two and weighed two hundred pounds. Me and the boys often horseplayed, you know, as guys in close quarters often do.”

 

“Certainly,” you say, having once lived with three brothers.

 

“One day, me and this one guy were pushing each other around, and I hauled off and clocked him, not in the face or nothing, but I could tell that I really got him but good in the shoulder. Well, the next day, we were roughhousing again, and I went to do the same thing, and he said to me ‘pick on someone your own size’ and walked away sniveling. You see, I still thought of myself as a boy, but somewhere along the way, I had become a man, even though, mentally, I was still a little guy.”

 

So, he’d actually been slow to grow up mentally, as well as physically. Nice story. Okay, you get it. Jimbo thinks you’re acting like a boy around the workplace and need to speak up and be a man.

 

You think back to some of his recent communications with you, and really feel like he could take his own medicine. Here you are, a little Mr. Nobody at Ahmis, and he is SuperVPman, giving you shit as if he somehow feels threatened by you. Then, you realize that Jimbo simply doesn’t understand the nature of men manqués, and such stories like this one are not helpful to you at all.

 

July 27, 2007

According to some random website about Egyptian history, Ramses was the bad Pharaoh from whom Moses was trying to get away, and Ahmis was a good Pharaoh that loved his people and did nothing but bestow a utopia upon them.

 

Your company, Ahmis, is very much the same way. With one hand, they give so much, build you up, move your career forward, make you feel like you have ownership of strategic ideas, etc., and with the other hand they knock you down as far as they can.

 

You have felt like Moses and his people for so many years at Ahmis, afraid to accept the true blessings that God has in store for you, yet hating the sense of enslavement that comes with being stuck at Ahmis. You can’t possibly go into the entire history of trying to leave for the promised land, but, suffice to say, you have drank too much for too many damn years to the point where you have to make a certain salary to pay down the debt.

 

In spite of a thousand resumes launched into the ether, and five interviews of varying degrees of promise, Ahmis remains the only place that seems willing to show any recognition of your talent and skills—when they aren’t trying to make you completely irrelEt.

 

But on this day of days, standing in the middle of downtown Austin waiting for your bank to open, you feel the seven-year curse lift from your head.

 

How does it feel to have a seven-year curse lift from your head?

 

You won’t even remember until later in the day that today marks the seven-year anniversary of when you screamed at your boss at the state job, telling her to shove it, then drove over to Ahmis and the arms of Karen Winthrop—who was ready to nurture you when Olivia decided she wanted nothing to do with you.

 

You just know that, while walking downtown, something has lifted from you—like a storm cell that finally blew over. The aftermath of the storm is still going to litter your life for years to come, but the difference between today and every single day for the last seven years is that this particular storm has moved on to hang heavy over some other man manqué in some other town.

 

A few clouds remain in the sky on this gorgeous Austin summer morning. This has been a rainy, cool summer full of perfect weather following almost daily summer storms. Nobody seems to be up yet downtown, in spite of the fact that it’s almost 8:30 am. A security guard shuffles by you, on his way to sit and nod himself awake ever so often. You give him the hugest grin, and send waves of love his way.

 

“The curse has lifted! The curse has lifted!” your eyes shout to him.

 

His eyes mutter back at you, “Why the fuck should I care. You mean, your curse has lifted. I’m an African American old man who’s felt nothing but oppression his whole life. Don’t tell me about no curses, son.”

 

But, your conversation between eyes doesn’t deter you from feeling immense joy, even as you enter your bank to make this early morning emergency deposit of Dennis’ share of the rent to prevent some creditor from overdrawing on your account.

 

It only took seven years of feeling chained to a bitterly negative work environment and half a dozen souls who kept sucking you into their slimy little vortexes. Your dear sweet mother isn’t alive to help you celebrate this amazing day—in fact, only Lucy (who more often than not seems better left behind in the collection of souls that accompanied the curse) is someone you can share such beautiful experiences with.

 

“Good for you,” she says, “Does this mean that you’re going to stop drinking?”

 

“Almost. I mean, I am still working at Ahmis, and haven’t got a clue who’s going to employ me next—being stuck there pretty much requires me to get obliterated at least once every two weeks. But, I know in my heart of hearts and soul of souls that this terrible curse has lifted.”

 

“That’s wonderful, Kevin. Now, can we get back to overanalyzing some of my issues?”

 

“Sorry, Lucy, I sometimes forget how important that is.”

 

Your cell phone buzzes at you in your pocket. During the past two years, you were a salesman, a political campaign something-or-other, and a good son manqué—making sure you were on call at any time, day or night, that anyone in your life needed you. You were a good son manqué, because, aside from that first call your father made letting you know they found something wrong with your mom, to the last call from him letting you know he was headed home from the hospice, there was really no reason for you to pick up the phone instantly for your parents. But, it made you feel better to know you were ready to jump up at a second’s notice and pretend to be effective with a lot of blustering questions and concern in your voice.

 

Most Americans, as a matter of course in their social evolution, have become animals at the mercy of their cell phones. But, once upon a time you were going to be different.

 

Except, now you’re trained to answer on that first ring, even though no clients, campaign managers, or mother will ever be calling you again.

 

“This is Kevin Smiley.”

 

“Kevin, it’s Wanda. I’ve been calling everyone personally. Ramsey Ahmis had his second stroke, and went into a coma. He died in the same place your mom did.”

 

“Gosh, I’m so sorry Wanda. I know how much he meant to you as a mentor and all. Ahmis just won’t be the same with him gone.”

 

“It all just happened so quickly. There just wasn’t enough time to say goodbye.”

 

“There never is, Wanda, when it’s someone you care about.”

 

“That’s true. Well, I am off to make more calls and seek sympathy from those who will say kinder words than that to me.”

 

“I understand.”

 

“So strange,” you say to Lucy. “The Ahmis curse lifts, and then the owner of Ahmis dies, in the same place my mom did almost two months ago. There must be some kind of meaning in all this.”

 

“Weird. Now, can we talk about the problems I’m having with my new, younger lover?”

 

“Sure.”

 

August 30, 2007

“Kevin Smiley?”

 

“Speaking.”

 

“This is Truman Joffries with the IAH, whose offices are located three blocks from where your mom and Ramsey Ahmis died. You remember me, yes?”

 

“Oh…yeah! Yeah! Of course, Truman! How are you, sir?”

 

“Good! Well, after three interviews in person with us, and one phone interview, we’re ready to offer you the job of Web Guy.”

 

“Wow! Yeah. And, how much did you say it pays?”

 

“20% less than you currently make.”

 

“Wow. And, you said you can’t offer me anything more than that?”

 

“Nope. We’re a non-profit. You told us that you want to do something more meaningful than move content around on a website for a random corporate entity. Here’s your chance.”

 

“Yeah, gosh. I mean, your IT guy is an IT chick, and she’s pretty easy on the eyes. A lot of your young, idealistic women aren’t quite as hot as the ones at the Troy Lackman Fund, but they’re pretty darn smoking compared to the aging plus sizes I’m all-too-familiar with at Ahmis.”

 

“See? And for fringe benefits–since we’re always having some kind of meeting with rich folks to try to get them to give us more money–you’re going to eat a lot of free, unwanted box lunches and pizza. What do you say?”

 

“Can you give me a little bit of time to think about it?”

 

“Sure. But, don’t think about it too long. You might find yourself cursed again for another seven years at Ahmis, if you’re not careful. We wouldn’t want that, would we?”

 

“No, god, no!”

 

You call your dad, who’s become somewhat of a confidant since you’re both still sharing a shitload of grief that nobody else seems to want to share with you.

 

“Dad, guess what?”

 

“What’s that, son?”

 

“Remember how I said I was on my third interview with the IAH?”

 

“Yes, son.”

 

“Well, they’ve made me an offer. It’s certainly one I could refuse—it isn’t perfect.”

 

“Nothing in life is, son.”

 

“Should I take it?”

 

“Are you taking it to get away from Ahmis, or to move toward something better?”

 

“Uh…” you aren’t sure you understand the difference. “Better, I think.”

 

“Then take it.”

 

You call Truman back.

 

“Truman, I’ve decided to take the job. Would it be possible for me to give the folks at Ahmis a little more than a three-week notice, since we’re thick in the middle of letting the gang from Leakproof Software fuck up our website for us, and I’m the only one who knows how to help them fuck it up properly?”

 

“Nope, sorry. Take it or leave it. Start at the IAH with a lot of cute, younger ladies in two weeks, or stay with the place you know and hate so well.”

 

“Fine, I’ll take it.” You are actually getting quite excited about watching the expressions on Jimbo’s and Karen Winthrop’s and Wanda’s faces when you tell them they will have to find someone else to copy and paste content from one software application to another.

 

“Dad, guess what?”

 

“What, son?”

 

“I took the job. I’m going to be working at the IAH, now! I hear they do some type of non-profit work in the community—they help people somehow.”

 

“Son, I didn’t want to tell you this until after you took the job, but I completely despise the IAH. They are totally corrupt, and most of the money they raise goes to pay for the salaries of the people that work there, and you are now one of them.”

 

“Uh…”

 

“But, it sounds like you’re going to be happy with your job, so I’m happy.”

 

You decide you better do some real research on the IAH now that you work there. Out on their website, which you’ve kind of skimmed over to note the various photos of happy children and smiling cancer patients, they seem to do a lot of good in the community, and help many people. Your dad is always such a contrarian to just about everything that everyone else likes, so his words don’t really bother you a whole lot. Just a little.

 

September 17, 2007

The IAH started with the goal of “Improving Austin Humans” back in the fifties—a generic sort of program whose messaging was bland enough to fall under the radar of McCarthy witch hunts for communists. In the eighties, during the Reagan era, they expanded their offices nationwide to “Improving American Humans,” keeping very much the same safe messaging to attract lots of proponents of right-wing, trickle-down economics as donors.

 

You could read Ayn Rand, be a fierce fiscal conservative, and support the IAH. Or, if you were a closet Marxist who wished the U.S. would adopt Socialism wholesale, you could feel just as comfortable working at the IAH, and rubbing shoulders with Republicans and Democrats alike.

 

Finally, toward the end of the 20th Century, the IAH had decided its acronym was “Improving All Humans,” opting for a global reach in its charity work. However, it had run into some bad press shortly thereafter with a few corrupt leaders who stole from the charity, and more than once the IAH was implicated in funding organizations linked to terrorism when a charity reporter had a slow news day.

 

In spite of this kind of bad press, when you told most random strangers that you were working at the IAH, their eyes would light up and they would congratulate you on being a much better person for making the world a much better place, in a vague, feel-good sort of way.

 

After the Bancroft Campaign of ’06, in which you saw the nastiest sort of behavior from both Republicans and Democrats, the messaging of the IAH seemed like the perfect place to play it safe, and please everyone with how you were changing the world—everyone except maybe your dad.

 

“We are so glad you’ve arrived here,” says everyone, smiling at you just genuinely enough to make you think they mean it, but not to the point where (for the most part) you’d believe they were part of some kind of cult.

 

“This fall, we are changing our messaging, changing our direction,” says the President of the IAH, at a meeting to mobilize the troops. “As most of you know, we moved our headquarters to New York City back in the eighties, and our Austin offices became a satellite branch. Since then, it’s become clear that the Austin IAH really needs to get back to its roots. We are going to shift our focus to Improving Austin’s Happiness, and really find out what Austin wants from us in order to be happy.”

 

You think this is a rather ambiguous sort of plan, in spite of how inspiring his words are. Austin, for the most part, already seems pretty happy to you, as long as you don’t go and read the comments under the articles posted at the online version of the main newspaper. However, perhaps you can bring something to this organization, being one of the few people in Austin who is generally unhappy most of the time.

 

“What are we finding Austin wants from the IAH to be happy?” the President asks all of you.

 

“More money?” a smartass asks, to much laughter and approval. At Ahmis, that smartass might have been you, before the arrival of the likes of Courtney and Jimbo to rip you a new one every time you dared open your mouth.

 

“Always more money, Burt,” says the President of the IAH, “But, more important than more money, is a sense of community between all of its neighborhoods. And, it’s not just people over here in East Austin who want more of their voices to be heard by City Hall. There are plenty of people in Westlake Hills whose voices aren’t being heard—or, and I am going out on a limb here, but I will argue it—there are plenty of people in Westlake Hills who feel more alienated from that sense of community spirit than even people here in East Austin.”

 

“Maybe because they all live in gated communities,” you think to yourself, but decide that might be inappropriate to say.

 

“So, what does the IAH have to do with alienated Austinites getting their voices heard?” someone asks. Good question, you think.

 

“The IAH, with its roots deep in this community, is going to bring people together to work collaboratively. We will be a hub of endless ideation and meetings. All of our resources will go toward neighborhood groups that embrace diversity. Dialogue and deliberation, consortiums and symposiums, over and over again.”

 

“So, we’re going to stop funding people dying of cancer and all those Special Olympics kids?”

 

“Our volunteers will decide that, but the answer is likely to be ‘yes’.”

 

And, you decide you don’t care, because you’ve suddenly discovered that seven years of putting everything plus the kitchen sink out on the Ahmis website has given you some mad web skills that are no fluke. After Courtney, Jimbo and Leakproof software had pretty much turned the Ahmis website into a plain vanilla corporate web destination consisting of nothing but a logo and a few whitepapers, you’d almost forgotten how much you knew how to make magic on the web.

 

The IAH, being such a fundraising and marketing-driven organization, is all about throwing everything plus the kitchen sink on its website to attract an audience.

 

You are going from being an eviscerated, hobbled man to a rock star in what seems like a matter of days.

 

September 22, 2007

“I’m not disprespecting your mother’s memory in any way by doing this,” your father says to you, in the second awkward conversation that’s taken place since he informed you that you’d taken a job at a charity where you essentially will be helping them to raise money for yourself.

 

“Uh, yeah, sure Dad, whatever makes you happy.” Only, you aren’t so sure. Is this normal behavior for men who lose their wives after forty years of marriage?

 

“Yeah, there’s this lady out in LaGrange who looks very promising. She has lots of cats and keeps a messy house. Then, you got this lady down in Southwest Austin who owns her own business and lives next door to her ex-husband. Also, over near here in Smithville, I’m having coffee with an artsy kind of lady—a bigger gal.”

 

“Where are you meeting all these women, Dad?”

 

“Yahoo, Craig’s List, Match.com and a few other websites.”

 

You need to talk about this with your issues buddy. Right now, you haven’t gotten to know anyone at your new workplace well enough to talk to them about this kind of thing, and you are feeling a lot like cutting your ties to Ahmis as much as you can.

 

“It sounds exactly like what’s happening with this younger lover I’m dating. His mother blew her brains out right after yours died of cancer. Only his dad smokes pot with him.”

 

“Wow, thanks, Lucy. Glad to know you’ve now dated so many guys since me, that you are dating one with similar issues to give you insight into my issues.”

 

“No problem, Kevin, I’m happy to help. Want to hear some of the details of our sex life?”

 

“Not really, but I’m sure you’ll just start sharing at some point, so go ahead.”

 

Once upon a time, hearing this made you uncomfortable, then it got you kind of turned on, then it just made you rather disgusted at how pathetic it was that Lucy went through the same cycle, relationship after relationship, and you were but one of many—being unique only in that you were among a few she repeated the cycle with more than once.

 

“Now, can we get back to talking about MY dad?”

 

“Sure, Kevin, go ahead.”

 

“The way he talks about meeting some of these women, he must have had his online personals profile live within a month or two after my mom died, and was no doubt thinking about posting it long before that.”

 

“So?”

 

“So…it’s not normal, and he gets all defensive when he tells me about how some of them called him out on it when he mentioned his wife just died.”

 

“What’s normal?”

 

“At least putting up the pretense of going through a socially acceptable grieving process.”

 

“Kevin, you and your family don’t seem to go through a socially acceptable anything.”

 

“True, but geez, it’s just weird. I mean, I realize that he stayed by my mom for over thirteen years through four battles with the cancer—something that would have been too much for most men to handle. He’s been a decent husband and good father, and I guess he’s now just ready to pick up where he left off at twenty-eight, right before he got married.”

 

“So, let him.”

 

“Ah, hell. You don’t get it. We’d really started to bond. I was kind of hoping maybe we’d take a father/son vacation together, or something—or he’d at least come into Austin more often to visit me. But, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”

 

“Father/son relationships are strange. The only bonding I ever had with my father was when we…”

 

“Yes, Lucy, I know, we’ve hashed that issue out a million times.”

 

September 28, 2007

“Hi, my name is Greta,” she says, smiling shyly out you.

 

Oh, you like her.

 

Greta’s a little on the heavy side, but she carries the weight pretty well. Besides, she’s apparently broken her leg for the second time this year, so she has an excuse for her big backyard, which you really dig, anyway.

 

“Hello, Greta, I am immediately infatuated with you, but I’m going to pretend that I’m only casually interested in you.”

 

“You’re Kevin, right? I’ve heard you’re a bit of a rockstar with the IAH website.”

 

“That’s correct. Apparently, the IAH hasn’t had anyone who really knows HTML to update its website in five years, and everyone is impressed that I can make an update to the site in a matter of minutes.”

 

“That’s cool. Guess what? I’m going to smile a lot at you, bat my eyes flirtatiously when we converse, and lead you on into thinking I’m as interested in you as you are in me. Then, one day, some time early next year, after you’ve failed to do anything other than ask me to a movie, I’m going to snap at you when you stop by my desk.”

 

“Wow, I’ve been wanting the opportunity to endlessly get my hopes up that there is someone for me other than my psycho ex-girlfriend Lucy. I mean, so far, you’re the only reasonably attractive lady here who hasn’t turned out to be married or engaged. Plus, you are kind of a plus size. I am totally not ready yet to accept the fact that God has destined me to be celibate and single forever.”

 

“Well, good, I’m glad we’ve been able to work out this little arrangement. I hope you enjoy developing your little crushes on me every time you see me, only to have your hopes dashed when I become cold and indifferent to your advances.”

 

“Oh, I will—at least, until I stop drinking so much to quell the heartache of it all.”

 

October 29, 2007

Your morning is quickly evaporating as they march you into the courtroom, then march you out. There are five things waiting for you to post to the IAH website, and they all seem pretty urgent, based on what Truman and the IAH President have said. Maybe in a few more months you would be able to relax in a situation like this, but you are still trying to make an impression on folks what a Good Boy and Rockstar you are.

 

“I want to let all you folks know before we get started,” says the judge, “that this will be a murder trial.”

 

Oh, nice, you think—the very first time I’ve ever been picked for jury duty, and it’s something juicy like a murder trial—except, I just started at my new job, and need to get back to work. Why couldn’t this have happened during any of the first seven months of this year, when I was dragging myself to my isolated little empty corner of IAH where they’d tucked me away like Milton from Office Space?

 

Oh right, you were still under a curse.

 

Surely they won’t pick you!

 

They need thirteen men and women—twelve plus a spare—to complete the jury, and there are hundreds of you in the room. Except, you are sitting on the very front row, directly in front of the accused and his attorney.

 

“Now, then,” says the judge, “How many of you hate guns?”

 

Lots of people raise their hands. One woman, obviously so full of shit, says, “I think guns are just so terrible. I don’t think I could be a fair and impartial juror on a murder trial where a gun was involved.”

 

You are in the heart of Texas, for chrissakes! You’ve never seen so many Texans in one place that hate guns.

 

“You all can be excused. Now, how many of you think that cops lie more than other people?”

 

Several people raise their hands. “My husband’s a cop,” says a woman who is practically leaping out of her chair to show off her raised hand, “I don’t think I could be a fair and impartial juror on a murder trial where a cop was involved.”

 

Several men and women chime in, “me, too!”

 

“Well, you all can leave. Now, how many of you would not be fair and impartial in a trial where the killer, er, accused killer is black, and the victim was white?”

 

Dozens of people of all shapes, sizes and colors leave the courtroom.

 

“Nice. Well, that narrows us down to about thirty folks. You attorneys can pick your jurors.”

 

The thirteen selected end up being everyone remaining on the first row, who are facing the judge, attorneys and accused.

 

“Now,” says the judge, “Go get some lunch, and be back here to start listening to a sordid tale of crack cocaine, marijuana cigarettes, prostitution, guns, and mind messages. If any of you don’t come back, we’ll send a sheriff’s deputy to hunt you down and throw you in the holding cell with Mr. Clarence, the accused.”

 

You suddenly realize how often you take it for granted that you are a free man. In reality, you are not. When the law decides it needs you, you must allow the law to do with you as it pleases. For some reason, you feel a lot like a prisoner, all of your plans to impress your boss Truman must wait. You give him a call.

 

“Well, Kevin, I guess we’ll manage. We really have a lot of important things we wanted to communicate to the community on our website, but I guess they can sit for a few days while you fulfill your duties to democracy.”

 

You come back from lunch to find yourself in a room with only one really insufferable individual, a woman who keeps spouting quotes that sound rather trite, but she obviously thinks they are very clever—”What is it that John Lennon said? Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. Or—and, I like the old Lutheran joke that riffs on this same concept—how do you make God laugh? Make plans!” she chortles a grating, staccato laugh at her humor, because nobody else feels like laughing.

 

The bailiff comes in ever so often with a fresh pot of coffee that turns out to be decaf.

 

“Let’s get started,” says the judge, as you all enter the jury box and take your seats. “Now, in spite of that old notion about being innocent until proven guilty, that’s not really what we’re going to talk about today. Our man here is obviously guilty, and what you’re going to have to decide is, did he do it in cold blood or hot passion—or, as he’ll interestingly put a twist on things when he gets up on the witness stand—did he do it due to the fact he was receiving mind messages from his pal over there?”

 

“Can we get Mr. Clarence’s pal Lester up on the stand to give us his story, now?” asks the prosecutor.

 

“Hi, I’m Lester. I was hanging out with Mr. Clarence and Kelly, the crack whore, mainly because she got me crack. Can’t get enough of that stuff. Though, sometimes, she let me put my junk in her, when I had extra money. Kelly and Mr. Clarence got in an argument over money, he grabbed his piece, shot her in the back of the head, then she went smack on the bathroom counter, and our pal Large Larry left the room immediately following that, heading for New Mexico and parts beyond. Then, Mr. Clarence turns to me, and says, get in the car motherfucker, you’re driving me to my parents—and, I was so scared, that I did.”

 

While the attorneys argue a technical point you’re not allowed to hear, all thirteen of you are shuffled back in the tiny room that fits maybe four people comfortably. One woman brags, “I love shows like Law and Order and CSI. That’s all I watch. Now, I get to be the member of a jury on a real murder trial just like one of them shows. I love it.”

 

You are bored and mad. You’re not being asked to decide whodunnit, and it’s obvious that the accused Mr. Clarence has got himself a court-appointed attorney who has never won an argument in his life, and just rambles in an absent-minded fashion—so, it’s going to make this trial last twice as long to reach its foregone conclusion.

 

“I hope they have some more testimony than just Lester’s,” you say, “He seemed like kind of a shaky character.”

 

“We’re not supposed to talk about the trial until deliberation!” cries everyone, looking at you accusingly, before promptly falling into an intense discussion of every last detail of the trial, whispering like gossipy little girls amongst each other.

 

“All right, folks,” says the bailiff, “Let’s go hear some more about this juicy murder.”

 

The police detective is called to the witness stand, and makes you all watch a crime scene video the cops shot upon arriving on the scene, entering the abandoned motel room, letting the camera rest on drug paraphernalia before heading over to the bathroom area where it pauses at the blood-spattered sink the prostitute’s head smacked going down. Finally, the camera rests on the dead hooker, whose name is Kelly.

 

You can’t help but glance back at the family of the poor girl (who turns out later to be 36): a gang of beefy, rural Texas people not equally genetically blessed with large breasts and hot, skinny bodies. They seem thinly composed, ready to break down crying at any minute, and you feel very sorry for them. Suddenly, the crack whore is just a lost little girl who got mixed up with some bad boys. Poor thing.

 

The woman who loves CSI and Law and Order is choking back tears, and is visibly appalled at the site of a real murder victim on a TV screen.

 

The police detective mutters, “sorry, we don’t need to linger there,” and proceeds to fumble with the remote, rewinding back a few seconds, allowing the courtroom to watch repeatedly the moment the police videographer comes upon the dead body. Her shirt says, “You keep pushing me, I’m going to snap!” in bubble type, and is captioned in a cartoon explosion callout.

 

“So,” says the prosecutor, “Now that we’ve given you folks the chance to thrill to the juiciest part of the trial, let’s move on to the forensic specialist, who will do a great job of clinically describing in fine detail the nuances of the damage done to her skull.”

 

After what seems like an hour of a droning, Ben Stein character repeating his discovery of powder burns and pieces of skull and brain, you are convinced the killer couldn’t possibly have accidentally pulled the trigger.

 

If Mr. Clarence was white and rich, he would have been on the phone to his well-paid lawyer the minute he committed the act, working with the attorney to cook up a story of how Lester had shot the prostitute, wiped the gun free of his own fingerprints, then placed the gun in Mr. Clarence’s hands.

 

The prosecution can offer no other witnesses at the scene of the crime or powder burns on Mr. Clarence’s hands, and only puts the gun in Mr. Clarence’s hands because their forensics team found Mr. Clarence’s and the prostitute’s DNA on the gun.

 

“But they said it’s not a whodunnit!” cries the members of the jury, looking at you as you try to play devil’s advocate.

 

You look over at Mr. Clarence, then at his mother and stepfather, who’ve entered the courtroom to see their baby boy as he takes the witness stand. You can’t decide who to feel more sorry for, the heartbroken mother of the killer, or the terse, sad-eyed father of the victim.

 

Mr. Clarence himself seems like such a young kid, standing only about five-five, wearing spectacles, and looking more like a studious pre-med student who just happened to get mixed up recently with the wrong crowd.

 

“Mr. Clarence,” says the prosecutor, “is only two years younger than jury member Kevin Smiley,” briefly pointing at you. “He’s no kid. In fact, Mr. Clarence was already a convicted felon who’d done hard time for armed robbery and aggravated assault at the time our crime took place, and he’d purchased the murder weapon illegally while he was in Lousiana. Since his court-appointed attorney has been utterly worthless in convincing you all that he pulled the trigger by accident, Mr. Clarence has decided to get up on the stand and tell his story himself. Mr. Clarence, take it away.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Prosecutor, sir.” He turns to look at all of you, the members of the jury. “Now look, I ain’t never intended to hurt nobody. I kept my piece to protect my prostitute friend, whose name is Kelly, since I run with some pretty mean dudes. You gotta protect your lady, you know. But, yeah, the crack hooker and I were just good friends, you know, good friends. I mean, she’d let me put it in her if I had the money, and sometimes I did, but we were just good friends. Now, listen. All morning long, Lester over there had been sending me mind messages that there were cops surrounding the hotel room. He told me with his thoughts that he was working undercover, and needed me to kill that whore. However, I didn’t want to do it, I never wanted to hurt nobody. But, he kept saying with his mind, ‘you gotta kill her, Mr. Clarence, you gotta kill her,’ and I kept saying ‘no’ back to him with my mind, but you know? He said he was a cop, and they were going to come in and kill me if I didn’t kill her, so I got up with my piece and began walking toward her. Then, he pointed to his watch, as if to say something about the essence of time.”

 

You stifle a giggle. Mr. Clarence obviously meant to say, “time is of the essence,” but the way he said it, it made you picture Mr. Clarence as some type of great philosopher in the tradition of Heidegger or Hegel, ruminating on the essence of time and the meaning of it all. This shows how punchy you’d become at this point, having gotten little sleep or regular coffee, and spent most of the past two days crammed in a tiny room with twelve other people waiting for the judge to call you back out to listen to more testimony.

 

Mr. Clarence bores his eyes into you, and sends you a personal mind message of his own: “and I know, Kevin Smiley, that you are going to do the right thing, and find me innocent of murdering this prostitute, whose name was Kelly.”

 

“So, Lester, kept saying, ‘you gotta kill her’ and pointing at his watch, and then, suddenly, the door flew open, and I jumped, and accidentally pulled the trigger. You all gotta believe me, you gotta do the right thing.”

 

Mr. Clarence’s eyes remained ever-so-cold and calculating, as he began to bawl in loud, barking rasps for his mama.

 

And, aside from a few hiccups in deliberation, the jury was convinced they were ready to do the right thing.

 

You felt awful sitting there, as the judge went around to each of you, and made each juror state that he or she believed Mr. Clarence was guilty of first-degree murder. The lady who loved to watch shows like CSI and Law and Order was choking back tears at having to verbally convict a man of murder.

 

“Great,” says the judge, “and since we’ve already had ourselves a few backroom discussions with the attorneys, and because only a prostitute was murdered and not some high-profile UT student, and this murder trial didn’t get more than a passing mention in the local rag, I’ve decided to impose the lightest sentence imaginable for Mr. Clarence. With good behavior, he’ll be out among us in three to five years.”

 

You gulp. What? All this shit you just went through, and the judge wasn’t even going to give him a decade’s worth of a sentence? What a freakin’ waste of your time. At least you’ll have a great story to tell the folks back at the IAH.

 

December 12, 2007

“I am really excited to announce the new list of non-profits to which the IAH will be passing a slice of its donations. Historically, the IAH has pretty much just given to a grab bag of local non-profits, but has always managed to maintain some degree of popularity in the community, since we look to fund the non-profits that can give us the best heartwrenching stories and photo opportunities in our marketing collateral. However, this year, we thought we’d try something different. Remember what I’ve been saying about wanting to Improve Austin’s Happiness? This year, our charity funding team really took that to heart, and looked for non-profits that were bringing folks together, and ultimately, making Austin happy.” The President hands each of you a list of all the non-profits the IAH will now be giving money to.

 

Hmmm. When you’d looked at your organization’s website around the time of hiring, you’d felt pretty good about who you were coming to work for, because you knew and loved so many of the non-profits the IAH helped. Now, what’s this? A bunch of daycare centers, think tanks and non-profits you’ve never heard of.

 

“I know, the list looks a little different, and the public is going to have some questions. But, I think moving forward, we are doing what’s best for Austin, and the IAH.”

 

For the next week, Austin calls in to let the IAH know its happiness has, in fact, NOT been improved one iota by the news. Joining your father among the list of people who hate the IAH are Aunt and Uncle, Karen Winthrop, Deborah, and pretty much the rest of the community. After working for the black sheep of the Corporate Communications Software industry and the black sheep campaign of the Texas Democratic party, you are now back in all-too-familiar territory.

 

December 25, 2007

“Dad, this will be the first Christmas dinner we eat together without Mom.”

 

“That is correct, son.”

 

“I don’t know how you feel, but I was thinking something kind of low-key.”

 

“Sounds perfect to me, son.”

 

“Since we’ve had Elgin barbecue the past three years at Christmas, why don’t we do something different? Want to drive into Austin and grab some Tex-Mex with me?”

 

“Sure, son, I guess I can make a trip into Austin to visit my son for Christmas dinner, now that I’ve gotten used to driving into town every other weekend to meet a new lady friend.”

 

“Thanks, Dad, it really means a lot to me to share a meal on Christmas Day with you.”

 

“Oh, and son?”

 

“Yes, Dad?”

 

“While I’m in Austin, I promised this new lady friend I just met online that I’d have lunch with her soon. Would you mind if she comes along so I can kill two birds with one stone?”

 

“Uh….sure.”

 

January 7, 2008

Your crush had started to die off, as it became apparent that following the first movie outing, she was finding excuses repeatedly not to go to lunch with you or hang out again outside of work.

 

But, before she’d left for her holiday vacation, Greta had looked at you again with those lovely eyes, letting them linger on you with a little more than just a passing flirtatiousness, as the two of you spoke about random work-related stuff.

 

She is returning today, and you can’t wait to start making things happen.

 

There she is, sitting at her cubicle, not doing much of anything, just surfing the web, and swiveling her chair.

 

“Hi Greta,” you say, trying to hit that right tone of “I missed you a lot, but not in a creepy, stalker-guy sort of way.”

 

She doesn’t appear to hear you.

 

“I said, Hi Greta!”

 

“What!?” she swivels around, and looks at you with furious eyes.

 

“How was your vacation?” you ask, trying to warm things up in the face of her apparent coldness.

 

“It was fine,” she snaps, and returns to staring at the screen.

 

“Was it cold up there?”

 

“Yes, Kevin, it was very cold. It was Pennsylvania.”

 

“Did you do anything fun?”

 

She sighs, and turns to look at you like it is going to take the most Herculean of efforts to patronize you.

 

“I just hung out with my family and saw some old friends I hadn’t seen since college, all right?”

 

“Um, okay. Enjoy your day.”

 

Well, that certainly didn’t go as planned.

 

Today, you are going with some of the folks from the IAH to learn about one of the new non-profits your organization is helping fund. You’ve arrived a little early at the community clinic, and sit thumbing through their pamphlets and brochures.

 

And, in walks a spectacularly gorgeous woman. You wonder how it is you haven’t noticed her before.

 

“Hi, I’m Gwen, Gwen Lilly.”

 

“Hi Gwen. You are smoldering hot, and I believe you have the best-shaped ass I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

 

“That’s because I run marathons.”

 

“Oh, really? I ran a half marathon once. I just don’t know if I’m up for running a full one.”

 

“It’s easy, you just have to stop saying you can’t do this or can’t do that, and start doing what you gotta do.”

 

“Maybe so. But, instead of trying to get you to go out with me today, I’m going to hatch an elaborate, three-month plan to get you to fall in love with me, and see that I am the right man for you.”

 

“Well, then start ignoring me and pretending you aren’t that interested in me.”

 

“Thanks, I believe I will.”

 

March 11, 2008

“Do you see your online social networking profile as an extension of who you are in the meatspace, or do you operate more from a personal brand kind of perspective?”

 

“What’s the difference?” asks the tattooed,  scrawny girl with big, Buddy Holly glasses.

 

She isn’t trying to be funny, she’s dead serious.

 

“Yeah,” says another guy on the panel, “I think the social media revolution has evolved to the point where, if you don’t see the physical you and yourself-as-brand as being one in the same, you’re really missing the boat.”

 

“By the way,” says the moderator, “Feel free to Tweet to our panel members any questions you might have. We won’t be answering questions from people who shout them out or raise their hands.”

 

Because you are but a lowly peon at the IAH, the only conference you will be getting to attend on your organization’s dime is SXSW Interactive, where every high-profile geek in the world descends to gaze at his or her navel in front of thousands of people.

 

“So,” says the moderator, “Do you pick a Twitter handle that incorporates your real name, or do you come up with some type of unique handle name?”

 

“I totally use a unique handle name, the same name as my blog, and now, the same name I use on Facebook. I am actually getting my name legally changed to ‘@anor3xict3xan’. See, it’s tattooed here on my belly, too.”

 

The crowd, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ with approval. Not the high-energy hooting and applause at a CorpComm conference when Communicross unveils a new product offering—but, a “oh, I’ve already thought of that, too, and I’m simply admiring your particular style of execution” kind of audience approval.

 

You are getting sick. All around you, almost everyone is using a Blackberry or iPhone to Tweet with each other—a few, hip and trendy folks have opted for mini-netbooks like Acers, and a few, old-school crusty IT guys are hammering away on their workhorse laptops. You no longer have access to the turn-of-the-century, Ahmis Thinkpad, and so you are sitting there with a notepad and pen.

 

The conference hall is jam-packed for this particular panel discussion, and you honestly can’t figure out why. The panel isn’t sharing market innovation or best practices that could really be applied by anyone except other geeks who are social networking with each other. In other words, there isn’t one iota of business sense here, simply a bunch of people admiring each other virtually. It’s like they’ve come to love the concepts in the movie The Matrix so much, they’ve built and aggressively inserted themselves into their own little Matrix, and anyone not cool enough to get it can leave.

 

So, you step back out into the convention center, and try to track down the keynote address. It looks promising.

 

“Social Networking for Social Change…” finally! A session on how people can do something with all this mindless vanity and chatter to help mankind.

 

“Today, we have with us Professor Herbert Weinberg, from Harvard. He is an authority on pop culture trends. Professor, good to have you with us here, today.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Moderator, glad to be here.”

 

“Let’s talk about Social Networking for Social Change—is it happening, or are all these online communities just endlessly self-referencing, and caught up in brain dead escapism?”

 

“Mr. Moderator, there’s nothing but good work being done out there in forums like the ‘Harry Potter Fan Club’, and ‘Map the TV Show Lost’. These folks are spending all of their time there for a reason, and I think it’s a good one.”

 

“What kind of good work is being done, Professor?”

 

“Well, people are coming together and forming communities in ways we’ve never seen before. They are spawning new systems of thought, new worlds of interaction.”

 

“That’s wonderful. But, how are they helping affect change in the real world?”

 

“For these folks, this is the real world. And, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I would even go so far and argue that when a Harry Potter fanclub fanboy writes a new chapter in the saga of Harry Potter, he’s doing as much good for the world, as say, MLK or Gandhi.”

 

“Wow, those are some pretty bold words.”

 

“Well, think about it. This kid might have a disease or disability that prevents him from interacting properly in the meatverse. And, what he’s sharing with friends like him—that’s the stuff of saints.”

 

The professor proceeds to elaborate on his argument, painting this rosy-colored picture of the obsessed fan, lost in an escapist fantasy world online, and the audience gives him nothing but a warm reception for his ideas.

 

This room is similarly packed—hundreds of people jammed together to hear this soothsayer tell them that what they are doing has some type of substance and meaning beyond the lifespan of the tweets they are passing back and forth to each other.

 

He does make a pretty convincing argument for why all this stuff is so important, but for some reason, you can no longer work up the urge to get so excited you go back to your cubicle and throw years into staying current with what’s hip and cool on the internet. Sure, you can drag yourself to work everyday to help your organization get its Twitter legs up and running, and find a few fans on Facebook, but you know you will still feel extremely removed from the immediate impact of directly helping another individual.

 

Wanting to give the IAH its money’s worth for sending you here, you decide to poke your head into a session that just sounds interesting—even if it doesn’t appear at first glance like it will have anything you can apply.

 

Approximately 12% of this conference hall is filled to hear the session on “An Army Surgeon in Iraq: Vlogging to the folks back home.”

 

The Army Surgeon apologizes for his unfamiliarity with technology, then proceeds to flawlessly cue up each of his videos within his PowerPoint presentation, and describe in detail how he used his video blog to document warzone surgical practices and have conversations with his family back home. He starts to tear up when he gets to his last Christmas in Iraq, describing the Christmas message he shared with his children.

 

You wish every single Twittering, Facebooking, Blogging, Social Networking personality and Pop Culture Professor had been in the room to see this presentation. You want to write a letter to the Army’s recruitment division, letting them know that if you’d seen this session ten years ago, you would have signed right up—all the other slickly, produced commercials with Green Berets in camo face paint in jungles had nothing on the Vlogging Army Surgeon.

 

March 30, 2008

Today is the day you will see the realization of your elaborate plan to win the heart and hand of Gwen Lilly. After months of stopping by her cubicle to chat with her about running footraces, you’ve announced to the entire IAH organization that you are organizing a team to run in this year’s Capitol 10K. Your heart sang when Gwen said she was going to join in the fun, and only stuttered a bit when she mentioned that she had a couple of dude friends she wanted to give IAH t-shirts to so they could be part of Team IAH 2008.

 

So, here you are, standing in a downpour among a ragtag group of the three IAH folks who followed through on their promises to join you at the starting line. Except, Gwen isn’t among them.

 

Gwen Lilly is one of those people who does not respond to e-mails, even when you are sending her something she asked for. Naturally, you are beginning to take it kind of personally—and now look—she hasn’t even shown up to see you in your rockstar sunglases (which are now completely unnecessary as the sky thickens and dumps even more rain on you) and tight, IAH t-shirt that grabs your budding, Vin Dieselesque frame, chafing your manteats.

 

Another extremely cute IAH girl comments on how much she loves your sunglasses, and she appears willing and ready to run by your side and chat with you…about how worried she is over her husband not bicycling with a helmet, and how her husband didn’t want to run today, and other feats of accomplishment her husband has made at his law firm.

 

As the two of you make your way down the last stretch of Enfield hills to the MoPac overpass, slogging your way through the downpour and pausing to say hi to State Senator Wally Kirby who is plodding along with all the other Capitol 10Kers, you break for a drink station on the right as she veers left.

 

As much as you love to hear this cute, young trophy bride go on and on about her husband and life as a wealthy, young Austin socialite, you need some peace and quiet now to focus on salvaging the rest of your run.

 

Turning around after grabbing your drink to make sure you’ve lost her, you spy the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen: it’s Gwen Lilly, and she is alone, completely soaked, and stopping to walk.

 

For the next fifteen minutes, you thrill Gwen Lilly with stories of how you found: your puppy Buffy at Barton Springs pool, your rockstar sunglasses (on sale for $8 at HEB), and your brand new bicycle you’re still too afraid to ride after the bicycle accident (which you describe at length).

 

Yet, she seems rather unimpressed, and keeps looking over her shoulder and all around.

 

“You looking for someone, Gwen?”

 

“Why yes, I am, actually. A couple dudes from my soccer team—remember the ones I had you grab IAH shirts for?”

 

“Oh, yeah.”

 

“One of them was at a party with me last night, and we made a bet that I would finish first, since he was getting so drunk.”

 

“Nice.” You aren’t too worried. Gwen doesn’t seem like the type who would go for some lush who only half-assedly runs 10Ks. She will obviously see that you are the best, most athletic man in the history of men as you continue to hold your head up high in the rain, and puff your chest out with pride.

 

At the finish line, you are met by Gwen’s two dudes, and one of them immediately latches onto her. He’s a foot taller than you, and twice as muscular. Such a man can easily get drunk the night before a 10K and still finish strong.

 

“Kevin, this is dude friend number 1,” she points to the one who is not latched onto her. “He’s really hot, and totally out of my league. And, then this fellow here, who has latched onto me, is dude friend number 2. We actually just recently started a friends-with-benefits program. If I wear something hot to dinner with him next week, he might very well decide to be my boyfriend after we do it for the fourth time.”

 

“Gosh, Gwen, I don’t know what to say. I mean, I thought we had a moment back at that non-profit clinic, sitting side by side, talking about how hot your ass is.”

 

“We did, and that was the day before I met dude friend number 2. If you’d asked me out that day, you might be standing where he is, comfortably latched onto me with the full confidence of knowing that my ass belongs to you.”

 

April 7, 2008

“Kevin, there are some people you need to meet,” says Bertha Sutherland, the HR director.

 

You are in the middle of photoshopping out the copyright watermark the 10K race photographer placed over the complimentary photo of you and Gwen. It is a gorgeous picture. You have turned to say something to her, or laugh at something she said, and have a huge grin on your face. She is striding forward, oblivious to the fact that you are looking at her with the eyes of a man paralyzed by his crush. The fact that both of your are completely drenched by the rain doesn’t matter. Once Gwen sees this picture, she’ll rethink her friends-with-benefits program with dude friend number 2, and get with you. You both just look so right together.

 

“Uh, one second, Bertha. Okay?”

 

“Kevin, this is Paula Laughton.”

 

“Oh, another Paula!”

 

“Yes, Paula Laughton comes to us from Federated Components where she’s done a year of general business management work. Before that, she got a Bachelor’s Degree in Business. She’s only twenty-four years old, and already, she is more of a man than you are.”

 

“Oh, man, that hurts. I mean, I can take it when a man of any age is more of a man than me. And, I can live with an older, menopausy woman being more of a man than me. But, now this?”

 

“It’s going to take some getting used to, Kevin, ” says Paula Laughton, “But, you’ll come to accept that I outman you in every possible way. You’ll start thinking about buying a motorcycle with your bonus, and the exact make and model you wanted to get to impress all the ladies here—you’ll discover that I’ve already owned and ridden it when I was in college. You’ve been thinking about trying to impress the President and my boss with how you have more ideas in your brain than just Web Guy ideas—I’ve already inserted myself in such a way as to get invited to every single Important Meeting between all major stakeholders with the IAH. That’s just the way it’s going to be. Also, your Marketing colleague, Paula Lichtenberg, is going to develop a huge crush on me, and soon, I will pretty much roll right over anything your Marketing Director Truman wants to do, and drive Marketing as well. On top of this, I will still carry with me my feminine grace and continue to look every bit the woman when I wear a skirt, rather than look like some kind of drag queen.”

 

“I look forward to working with you, too, Paula.”

 

“And, Kevin, there are more people for you to meet. It’s not going to stop with just Paula. We are hiring too men to work in our IT department, Enrique and Gavin. They will pretty much take over where you left off with your dismal attempt to organize a Capitol 10K team, trying to woo and win the hearts of women like Greta and Gwen, by starting an IAH softball team. They are going to own the social arena of the IAH, Kevin, and young Paula here will own the professional arena. So, you can just turn right around and bury yourself back in your man manqué cave, doing whatever it is you do with the IAH website.”

 

“Ah, I see.”

 

You walk by Enrique and Gavin’s office on your way to get more coffee, and see that Greta and a couple of other cute ladies you had mini-crushes on are already chatting it up and fawning over the new IAH men.

 

April 14, 2008

But, then, when nobody else will have anything at all to do with you, there’s always Lucy.

 

“So, Kevin, have you noticed that I’ve been hanging out with you more, and talking about my exes less?”

 

“Kind of, yeah. Although, I’ve been pretty preoccupied these past few months with an elaborate plan to win a woman who was busy falling for someone else.”

 

“Want to get drunk with me tonight and have a good old fashioned ‘issues buddy’ party, where you go on about how sad you still are about your mother’s death and getting kicked out of sales at Ahmis, and I go on and on about all of my men problems?”

 

“Well, seeing as how I kind of made it a New Year’s resolution not to get drunk—which I’ve already broken three times in moments of deep depression and sheer boredom—why not?”

 

“Good! Shall we pretend we are each just going to share a glass of wine and maybe one beer, and then get sloppy drunk and start making out?”

 

“That’s generally how it works, Lucy.”

 

She cries a lot, says how sorry she was for missing your mom’s funeral and continually running out of your life and hurting you, and you act like you believe her enough so that she’ll go to bed with you.

 

And, while you are not really buying much of what she says about you being the only one for her, you go along with it, because not only does the sex feel good, so does that loving feeling in your heart, which you always forget how much you missed until you are feeling it again.

 

“So, Kevin?” she asks, turning to you the next morning from where she’s spooned up against you all night.

 

“Yes, Lucy?” you ask, gazing into her eyes almost lovingly, and thinking that if you still feel this much love for her after everything, it must be for real.

 

“Remember how I’d gotten rid of my two cats because I couldn’t afford to keep them anymore, marching both of them crammed into one pet carrier onto a city bus, and taking the city bus all the way up to the Humane Society?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I lied. I actually got rid of them because one morning, after I’d briefly lapsed in taking my meds, I started to choke one of them to death.”

 

“Why, what did she do?”

 

“Nothing. And, it was the sweeter, gentler one of the two kitties. I was just thrilling at the thought of seeing another living thing’s life in my hands—with me in utter control over whether it lived or died. And Kevin?”

 

“Yes, Lucy.” You are starting to be sick.

 

“That cat came so close to dying, and it felt so good.”

 

“Uh…wow.” Okay, so maybe she still has a lot more work to do with her shrink and her meds. You could still get married in about a year, then put off having kids like, forever. But, that’s no good. You really do want kids. Only, how could you possibly allow this person to be the mother of your children, having just said what she said?

 

Year 10

 

May 24, 2008

Where is she? You are wondering why you even bothered to come down here, walking from your apartment through the Greenbelt to the place below Barton Springs. After everything that’s happened this past week, you pretty much want to be alone from her for a few days.

 

The Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, you woke up inside her apartment bedroom, and the world glowed. Lucy glowed, her bedroom glowed, you could feel yourself glowing.

 

“I still want to go on this camping trip by myself,” said Lucy, “I planned it months ago, and it’s something I need to do.”

 

“Okay, lover, but you really shouldn’t drive the crappy old family sedan my dad sold you—the one I drove down to Austin for my parents so many years ago.”

 

“I’m not going to. I’m going to rent an econobox, but I need to go collect some money for contract work I’ve been doing. Can I use your credit card to rent the car?”

 

“Of course you can,” you said with loving eyes, but something in you registers a queasy alert over this.

 

“You’re going to have to rent the car in your name, sir, if we use your card,” said the man behind the counter.

 

“Fine,” you said, signing as many papers to rent the car for Lucy as you did when you purchased a new car, “Anything for my Pumpkin. Let me go grab my card now, I left it in my car.”

 

When you returned, they’d discussed most of what was in the paperwork, and all you had to do is initial and sign. You handed them your card, which is actually a check cashing Visa, knowing there was just enough money in the account to cover the rental cost. But, Lucy had promised she would have cash from contract work later that day, and besides, she seemed to love you so very much.

 

The plan was that Lucy would go see her shrink, and then meet up with you to pay you before going off to the coast to camp. You drove back home, and immediately checked your account to make sure that you the rental car place had taken exactly what they said they would from your bank account. You gulped.

 

They’d removed an extra $500.

 

“Um, excuse me, you said the cost of renting this car was $238, and there’s an extra $500 drawn on my account. What the hell?”

 

“We told you that we take a $500 deposit on check cashing Visas.”

 

“No, you didn’t.”

 

“Yes, we did.”

 

“No, you didn’t. There’s no way in hell I would have authorized this if that were the case.”

 

“Well, okay. We actually told your, uh…girlfriend or whatever…when you went to grab your card out of your car. Didn’t she tell you?”

 

Oh, Jesus, you thought. You hopped in your car, and drove to her shrink’s, parked outside, and paced around like an overly possessive boyfriend.

 

“Lucy, Why didn’t you tell me they were going to take an extra $500 off of my card?”

 

“Um, I didn’t know.”

 

“They said they told you about this.”

 

“Okay, fine. I was hoping you wouldn’t check your account balance before I returned the car on Tuesday, and then the deposit would have gone back into your account.”

 

“I have four utility and credit card bills set to hit my account on Tuesday, Lucy, I mean, what the fuck? If we’re going to have a relationship with each other, then how the hell am I supposed to trust you if I can’t trust you to tell me the truth about $500?”

 

You let her have it for awhile, and then she apologized, cried, and returned the car. Everything was okay again between the two of you until yesterday, when you went to walk your dogs around Town Lake.

 

“So, Lucy?”

 

“Yes, Kevin?”

 

“Will you have any vacation time in July?” You are thinking about taking some time off, and will have a little money saved. Why not travel somewhere with Lucy, like Mexico—maybe get an all inclusive package and do things up right, fixing what had gone so horribly wrong in Jamaica, so many years ago?

 

“Yes, but I’m saving it to go visit a dude in Canada that I met once on a plane. We’ve chatted on Facebook ever since, and he’s going to let me stay at his house, and pay for the plane ticket.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Yeah, you remember—the guy I met once on a plane. He’s single, lives by himself, and is always chatting with me.”

 

“So, now you’re dating me again, said all these wonderful things about how much I’ve meant to you all these years in spite of the fact you were seeing other men, but you’re going to let some guy you hardly know fund a trip to Canada to his house? Don’t you realize that he’s going to expect you to put out for him?”

 

“No, he won’t.”

 

“Uh, Lucy. How can you be so naïve?”

 

“So what if he does? I mean, it’s not like I’m a virgin. I’ve certainly put out for a lot less from guys.”

 

“You’re missing the point. I thought we were getting back together again, this time in a more serious sort of way.”

 

“Oh, Kevin, that was all mostly a bunch of drunken talk between us.”

 

“Fine. But, you do want to date me?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then, cancel your travel plans to see Canada Boy, and go to Mexico with me.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

“Well, why not?”

 

“He’s already wired me the money into a PayPal account, and I’ve spent most of it on Bed Bath and Beyond products for my apartment.”

 

“You what?”

 

You proceeded to lay into her with just about every terrible thing you could think of to say to her—recanting memories of moments beginning with the married guy she slept with the first time you were broken up, to the Neanderthal she ran off to date right after she moved back in with you, to the guy who recently was compared to you every time you wanted to grieve with her over your mother’s death—and every single other guy in between she’d discussed in detail.

 

You basically spent the next thirty minutes of the walk telling her she was unintelligent and promiscuous with as many synonyms as you could conjure up without access to a thesaurus.

 

Now, you are standing around the spillover area of Barton Springs where people go to let their dogs swim, waiting for her to arrive, and she’s running late, and you are thinking about just calling it all off.

 

“Hey,” she says.

 

“Where are you going?” you ask her as she starts to walk away.

 

“Leaky’s over there.” She points across the creek at her dog.

 

“Oh lord.” You take off your shoes, grab your backpack, and walk barefoot through the water to the other side. A fellow with huge muscles stands nearby smoking a cigarette, shirtless.

 

“Oh, who does he think he is?” you ask, pointing to him, and expecting at least a chuckle from Lucy. “Guy’s superhealthy with his workout, then goes and smokes cigarettes.”

 

She pretends to be fixated on him as if she thinks he’s especially hot, fiercely ignoring you.

 

“Kevin, we need to break up. You have anger issues, and you drink too much,” she says.

 

Oh no, you think, she’s not getting off this easy.

 

“But, you’re the one who wanted us to get back together.”

 

“So?”

 

“Why the hell did you want to get back together, if you aren’t at least willing to accept those character traits of mine?”

 

“I was really drunk. And then, that night you stayed over before I tried to rent the car? You kept wanting to do it, and I didn’t really want to.”

 

“You sure acted like you did.”

 

“I wanted to get your head all oozy with sweet lovey mushiness so you’d help me rent that car. But, whatever, we need to end this.”

 

“Fine, if you just want to be friends, then…”

 

“No, I think it’s best if we both go our separate ways, and never see each other again.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Lucy, you realize that if I walk back across this creek, it’s for good…no more knocking on my door and saying, ‘hey, Kevin, I really missed you.'”

 

“I know.”

 

“Well, I guess this is it, then.”

 

“Yep.”

 

And so, what began three years and eight months ago with a pleasant exchange of smiles at the Stevie Ray Vaughn Statue (and lasted way too long for it not to end in marriage), ends here, with you grabbing your dog and your backpack, and returning to the other side of the creek, now bereft of any human you can call your confidant.

 

(Yes, it really did end there. For good. No, Lucy does not reappear anymore in person in this novel of the man manqué.)

 

June 16, 2008

Unlike your elaborate-but-abortive attempt to organize several IAH members to participate in a group activity for the Capital 10K last March, Enrique and Gavin have successfully put together an IAH softball team, and kindly paused at your desk to see if you wanted to get in on the action.

 

“Sorry, fellas, I’ve committed to teach ESL on Monday evenings all this summer.”

 

“But, Kevin,” says Enrique, “You realize that by not participating you are simply distancing yourself even further from the cool kids of the IAH, giving Gavin and me even more opportunities to take Greta and Monica, Rhonda and Corrie to lunch and other extracurricular activities.”

 

“I understand, guys, but part of my whole reason for coming here to work at the IAH was to get involved more with the community.”

 

“Don’t you do that enough already, working here at a non-profit?”

 

“Not really. I mean, I kinda help out at some of our volunteering events, but I spend most of my time reaching out to Google Analytics, not members of the community.”

 

“Fine, suit yourself. Hell, you probably won’t even get invited to Ramon Martinez’s wedding, the IAH social event of the year.”

 

And, you won’t.

 

But, in that irony of ironies, you realize you must break away from everyone you work with in order to do more of what your organization says it does.

 

Actually, it’s not that ironic at all. By staying at Ahmis (the workhorse of Corporate Communications Software), and hanging around its employees, you became less and less adept at communicating with others. The more you worked on a Democratic Party campaign, the less you saw of the Democratic process taking place, and more you saw of cronyism and power players. And, the more you stuck around someone you thought you were in love with, the angrier and more hateful of a person you became.

 

Tonight is your third class, and they are starting to warm up to you. You tried to let the ESL students direct their study, and received a lot of blank looks as to what they should do next. You blasted your way into the class and started writing word problem after problem on the whiteboard, and they seemed to improve a little bit, but now you can tell that they’ve forgotten every single thing they should have learned .

 

“Que es la palabra para ‘palabra’?” Isabella asks her friend, and while nobody is supposed to be allowed to speak anything but English in class (and nobody knows you know Spanish), you permit them to talk amongst themselves to feel more at ease.

 

Damn, you think. I’m supposed to be teaching ESL Level 4 students, and this lady is asking her friend for the English word for “word”?

 

“Hey, everyone, I have an idea! Let’s all go into the computer lab, and start blogging!”

 

How hard can that be? You think. You’ve started and stopped a dozen blogs using Blogger, and it’s a piece of cake to make a new account and just start publishing your thoughts. Won’t these students think it’s so cool when they can see their words published on the internet for everyone to see?

 

And, you will spend the next hour teaching some of them: how to use a mouse for the first time, what the heck Internet Explorer is, how to type in a URL, and then you get to the password creation and captcha word verification boxes, and wonder if you’ve just waded into something way too thick for your students to handle.

 

But, you can’t turn back now! They would be forever hurt if they saw you lose so much confidence in them. So, with all the effort you can muster, you teach six ESL students (many who barely know how to use a computer) how to blog, and it feels damn good.

 

July 3, 2008

So, why on earth would you ever need another woman to replace Lucy? In fact, you think, “if I haven’t met the love of my life by April 17, 2009 (the ten-year anniversary of me being in Austin), then I’ll simply declare myself a virtual eunuch, and lead the celibate’s life.”

 

You are really starting to warm up to this notion of not having a single potential mate on your radar. Not one possibility whatsoever.

 

And, that’s when you get an email from Deidre. It’s the first time anyone has ever told you what she writes:

 

“Hello Kevin,

I hope everything’s going well at your new job. Listen, I need to tell you something. There’s a friend of mine who’s developed this huge crush on you, and she got all drunk one night and told me about it. It’s Maria, my neighbor, you met her at my party—she’s our age, but has two kids. Let me know if you’d like me to pass along her number.”

 

You are flabbergasted. A woman who has a crush on you? How can this be? You vaguely remember Maria. She’s pretty attractive—kind of built like Lucy but with a face like Julia Roberts. Why not? Yeah, she has two kids, and that could be kind of annoying, but what the hell? Maybe a fun little summer fling could be on the way!

 

“Hello…” says a gorgeous beauty who gyrates and moves around spastically like a Muppet left swinging on a clothesline. She goes ninety miles a minute, and so do her thoughts.

 

“So, I was at this party of a friend of my neighbor’s, and these people live out in Southeast Austin, and they were showing me some goats, and aren’t goats so cool? And then, they killed a goat and barbecued it for the party, and yum! And then, I was walking around their place, and there was this one goat that was walking along the edge of an old car frame, isn’t that amazing? And, hell yeah, I’d have a goat if I lived out in the country, and I’m going to gaze lovingly into your blue eyes with my lovely blue eyes and make you think I’m really interested in you, and tell you how much my son needs a positive adult male role model, and how I’m tired of men just wanting sex from me, and…”

 

“And, when I get a word in edgewise, I’m totally going to take everything you say at face value, and try to adjust and modify my speech and behavior to match the kind of man I think you’re looking for, and overlook this crazy train of thought and body movement that has rolled into my life since she’s so hot and immediately doable–that surely she’ll want to sleep with me if she sees what a good proxy father I could be and what a rockstar I am managing my workplace organization’s tiny little website…”

 

“websites are cool, did I tell you about this website that was referred to me by someone on the Alex Jones show, not that I believe in all the crap on his show, but actually I totally do…”

 

“…and, I secretly do, too, but I’ve found it easier to get people in Austin to like me and pay attention to what I have to say if I tell them I believe in everything Obama says, and so I really don’t try to have a mind of my own anymore when it comes to politics, and…”

 

“…and who cares about politics, anyway? They’re all a bunch of frauds, and evil, and scheming to take our money from us, and we just want to go through life raising our kids, and maybe have a goat or two, though maybe I believe in God, maybe I don’t. My mom’s kinda church-y, she goes to a church just like your mom, and I kinda believe in what she believes, but I don’t want to seem too uncool to all my cool Austin nightclub friends by saying I believe in all that Jesus stuff too much…”

 

“Amen! We’re perfect for each other. I see it’s now 3 AM, though, and they are kicking us out of the Starbuck’s we’ve landed at, and I have to pack and get ready for my trip to San Francisco. Too bad I haven’t been able to connect with you past making eye contact to feel comfortable enough to  kiss you, but I’ll give you a light hug like I give all of the women I go on dates with where I know the potential relationship is going to inevitably crash and burn in failure since I’m still a man manqué in Austin.”

 

“You’re going to San Francisco, cool! Call me some time when you get back.”

 

July 7, 2008

All of the great vacations from your childhood took place during this week of the summer. It was the one week of the year your parents had calculated there to be the least number of people traveling to Florida, who could bump those free employee flyers like yourselves off of the plane. Being the first full summer without Mom around, you thought briefly about making it a sad, sweet sentimental vacation to that place on Ft. Myers beach where she’d taken you and Roy after it was just you and Roy living at home, and Grandma was long dead.

 

However, there are no cheap hotel and airfare packages that get you within fifty miles of Ft. Myers beach, and there’s another sort of vacation redux you feel it’s time to take.

 

Reviewing the history of your traveling, you realize that outside of a day trip to Washington D.C. once, you have never traveled by yourself for pleasure. It is time to change that—to take a trip somewhere that doesn’t need the excuse of family, friends or business tacked onto it.

 

What’s more, why shouldn’t you go to one of the many exotic travel hotspots you’d enjoyed while working at Ahmis? This time, you can spend as much time as you like wolfing down overpriced pizzas inside hotel bistros, throwing back hotel bar drinks, and masturbating to hotel cable television—without so much as a thought about any work-related activities to get in your way: no panels to sit on where you talk about Web 2.0, no panels you attend where they talk about how all their business process problems were solved by Kim Park Consultants and Communicross, and no boring ass tradeshows where the hottest booth babe is in her forties.

 

Pure and simple indulgence, that’s what this is going to be all about.

 

For this vacation, you’ve booked a hotel just on the edge of the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. A river of homeless people constantly flows past the hotel doors. But, that’s okay! Because, you’re a little bit more worldly-wise since you flew to SF over three years ago in your blue blazer bought for you by Uncle.

 

The BART drops you off right outside the hotel lobby, and you are thrilled to see you have a Starbuck’s anchored to the hotel. It’s not quite as nice as a bistro serving expensive pizza and beer, but probably better for your bank account, since you are not able to put everything you eat and drink on the Ahmis room tab.

 

Suddenly, you feel an urge to do something else you always did upon arriving at a hotel in a strange city. Under the pretense of trying to find out how interested she really is in you, you decide to give Maria a call. After all, you have no Mommy and no Lucy this time.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Uh, hi Maria, it’s Kevin, Deidre’s friend.”

 

“Oh my God, is something wrong?”

 

“Oh, no, no, not at all! I just wanted to call and say hello, and let you know I made it to my hotel in San Francisco safely.”

 

“Well, good. And, hello back at you.”

 

“So, what are you doing?”

 

“I’m busy working, raising two kids, and not having a nice little vacation to San Francisco. But, if I was, I certainly wouldn’t be calling me.”

 

“Oh. Right. Well, enjoy your week.”

 

“You too, Kevin. Take lots of pictures.”

 

“I didn’t bring a camera with me.”

 

“Well, remember lots of interesting things to talk about later.”

 

“Okay, will do.”

 

“Bye, Kevin.”

 

“Bye, Maria.”

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi, Dad, it’s Kevin.”

 

“Um, hi son, what’s the matter?”

 

“Nothing. Just wanted to let you know I arrived in San Francisco safely, and I’m at the hotel getting settled in.”

 

“Well, good son. Thanks for letting me know. Call me if you need anything.”

 

“Will do, Dad.”

 

You take advantage of the complimentary hotel hand lotion, stopping at a Bootcamp Exercise infomercial, allowing yourself to be turned on by the hotness of all the athletic women moving as one in their sports bras and biker shorts. Even though you don’t have to worry about Deborah discovering porn on your room tab, you are still a little reluctant to dial it up, not knowing if they will hit you with hundreds of dollars in gotcha fees, thereby causing you to be completely without emergency spending money the rest of the vacation.

 

Now, it’s time to step out into the San Francisco evening air, and do some exploring!

 

You pause at the Asian Art Museum, which is fairly near your hotel. It’s closed.

 

You walk up and down Geary St. trying to find the cross-street of the hotel you’d stayed at twice in SF back when Ahmis was paying for it. It’s changed ownership, and looks more hip and modern on the outside, but appears to have the same aging infrastructure and crappy, overpriced service on the inside.

 

You note all the various Asian food places that are unique to San Francisco, and seize upon the one, hidden Mexican restaurant buried amongst them, devouring a two-pound burrito and two Tecates.

 

Still afraid to be caught walking back to your hotel after dark, you hoof it back as the sun is giving off its last rays, and realize it is only eight-thirty pm, but you are dead exhausted and crashing from jet lag and all the coffee you dumped in you throughout the day.

 

One more round with the hand lotion, and it’s bedtime for Kevin. He’s got a big adventure ahead of him, and he needs his sleepy-sleep.

 

July 8, 2008

You are awake at 2:45 am, because you fell asleep six hours ago, and because it’s almost time for you to wake up back in Austin. On almost any other trip, lying in a hotel bed at this hour, you would have been wide awake, all jittery and horny from having had too much hotel bar whiskey and beer—a freakish thing that happens when you drink too much, causing your mind to wake up five or six hours after falling asleep and your body to still be dead exhausted.

 

As you lie there inside your cramped, dingy hotel room that is one step above a youth hostel in quality, you kind of wish you had found a bar someplace in the area, and stayed up just a little bit later. Now, you are going to have to sleep for at least another five hours, meaning you will have wasted several hours of your vacation on sleep.

 

This makes you feel kind of foolish, but there isn’t much you can do about it. Your brand new laptop, purchased recently from the contract job Karen Winthrop gave you, can’t find the free wi-fi promised by the hotel. The hotel television offers nothing in the way of softcore infomercial excitement. So, you simply lay there and listen to the hum of the air conditioners some of the other guests are running—why people use air conditioning in San Francisco at night is a mystery to you.

 

Morning finds you making smalltalk with a Finnish college girl traveling with her parents about the wi-fi, and you fantasize that this hot blond youngster actually has a thing for you, though you are astute enough to realize this isn’t likely. Starbuck’s, which so many hipster Austin folks you’ve known can’t seem to stand, is like your gasoline—Venti Americano, and lots of it, black with a little cream.

 

You strike off early to find the corner of Haight and Ash, which is two blocks from where your father lived during the days of the Hell’s Angels, Mama’s and the Papa’s and the Grateful Dead. He likes to brag that he lived there at this time, but never mentions doing much beside working and dating your mom.

 

During your last two times in San Francisco, you pretty much stayed within a five-ten block radius of your hotel, discovering the Wharf, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Chinatown and the City Lights Bookstore. You looked at enough architecture last time, and really want to see Golden Gate Park and the insides of museums.

 

Sure enough, a dude is walking around looking like he’s trying really hard to be a hippie, and there are these shops everywhere that are ready to give you a “hippie in a kit” experience, offering the black light, lava lamp, tie dye, incense and smoking accessories—all one has to do is locate a dealer (and you’ll soon discover that people on the streets are falling over themselves to offer you their wares) and one is ready to party like it’s 1969.

 

Then, you spy a few aging hippies, who look like they might have lived in this area at the same time as your father, and they look so sad. All those years of abusing their bodies and getting free love have wrought them into nothing more than grimy old blobs of flesh cast in tie-dye feed sacks.

 

Moving on past this area, you approach Golden Gate Park, and begin to feel more at peace. You’ve done your share of mescaline, mushrooms, lsd, weed, coke and various over the counter and prescription drugs. None of those experiences ever brought peace the way discovering a natural resource in the middle of an urban area can.

 

You wander aimlessly through Golden Gate Park for awhile, and suddenly find yourself inside the redwood grove. You didn’t even know that there were any redwoods left this far inside the city of SF, and you are overcome with joy.

 

The redwoods, accompanied by Jurassic era ferns, make you cry. The city has allowed rich people to put their names on plaques screwed into benches inside the grove, surrounding a lectern where you imagine hippie professors bring their students to talk about wicca and shamans. Nobody else is in this part of the park but you. Part of you wants to stay here all day, and commune with these giant beings of love.

 

When you were a child, you once read a story about these strange statues that appeared on earth after an alien ship crashed. Nobody could figure out how the statues were built so quickly, and scientists cut samples from the bases of the statues. After five years had passed, it became apparent that one of the statues was in the process of bending down to tend to its wound, the cut made by the scientists. That’s when everyone realized these were intelligent forms of life that simply moved at a glacial pace compared to humans.

 

This is how you feel around the redwoods. They know infinitely more than you do. They have a capacity to love the earth and its creatures that is far greater than the one you’ll ever have. Maybe once upon a time when they were much younger, like hundreds of years ago, they might have fought with the other redwoods to gain access to sunlight and water in the forest, causing some of their fellow species to die. But, the ones that lived went on to learn to co-exist in peace and harmony, cooperating with each other and all the other beings in their ecosystem.

 

Your relationship to the redwoods makes you think how much even vaster and infinite God’s love and intelligence is in comparison—in other words, it is totally unfathomable, and you will never succeed at conjuring it up, no matter how hard you try.

 

Since you are but a human in a hurry, having only two and a half days to explore the city, you stop crying and go off to explore the rest of the park and the city.

 

You catch an amazing glass exhibit at the deYoung Museum, and walk through centuries of Asian art and ceramics at the Asian history museum. Later in the day, after a long nap, you decide to brave returning to your hotel in the dark, walking past the street people—and you go and find the Tonga Bar your boss Truman told you about, as well as a number of other yuppie and generic San Francisco bars that get you quite drunk, as you stumble into each one to piss and then stay for a drink.

 

But, at the end of the day, and all throughout the rest of the next day, you can’t help but think to yourself that the most amazing thing that you saw and did on this trip is going to be the discovery of the redwood grove in Golden Gate Park. All the art, architecture, booze and music made by Man might in its sum total equal half of the power that the redwoods wrought upon your soul. Oddly enough, the redwoods didn’t cost you a dime to see them, but you spent almost a hundred dollars that day to see and experience everything else.

 

July 9, 2008

You wake up in the middle of the night with the familiar dehydrated, jittery, horny feeling you know so well from so many days and nights of excessive drinking. You don’t regret doing it—it was an experience you needed to have, barhopping a little bit in SF, even if you were too scared to find a real club with real people your age who might expect you to make conversation (or pick a fight) with you.

 

Today consists of a lot of low-key, completely touristy kinds of activities, including stopping at the modern art museum to find it closed, pausing at the entrance of the Pyramid Tower to discover that they won’t let you go up inside it, eating at some Long John Silver’s-y type seafood place because you are too hungry to wait an hour and discover real seafood places further down the wharf, walking through a sub-level aquarium to look at sharks swimming above you, and hopping on a cruise boat to ride out under the Golden Gate Bridge and return.

 

All of which are experiences had by everyone who goes to San Francisco, and you are no different in your need to have at least a few of them to report back to people (who will inevitably ask if you went and saw the two or three things you DIDN’T get a chance to see while there).

 

You wear a shirt with Bruce Lee on the front of it, because it cost you a dollar at a thrift store. You have yet to see a single Bruce Lee movie, and have to nod along at everyone who comments on what big Bruce Lee fans they are because they saw “Return of the Dragon.” You ignore a man who tells you you are as handsome as a movie star, because he’s obviously trying to sell people stuff.

 

On the tourist boat, you attempt to show everyone what a man you are by staying at the front of the boat while it hits higher and higher waves, and drenches you completely, making your tight-ass thriftstore jeans feel even more uncomfortable. Then, you practically poop in them as the captain lets the boat come within spitting distance of a perpendicularly cruising Maersk container vessel that is the size of a small town. This causes you to pause briefly and wonder if God would send you to hell at this point in your life, were you to drown in a horrible SF cruise boat accident.

 

Back ashore, you walk up to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Tourist Trap, to look for gifts for Maria and her kids, forgetting how the airport security now only lets you bring a quart ziploc bag’s worth of liquids and food onto the plane. Why you feel compelled to buy a gift for someone you’ve only really spoken to once, is anybody’s guess. So, you settle for the most generic chocolate sampler ever, one which can be purchased in pretty much any grocery store in the country, deciding it will be the thought that counts.

 

Finally, you finish off the grand tourist’s excursion by eating an entire seafood pizza, then dragging your stuffed self up and down hills from Fisherman’s Wharf all the way back to your hotel on Market St.

 

Tonight, you choose not to get drunk, and opt to just sit in your hotel room drinking Starbuck’s coffee and watching hotel television.

 

July 10, 2008

Morning finds you down at Starbuck’s, smiling at a very cute, transgendered Hispanic young man who is trying so hard to be the girl everyone pays attention to, but nobody is. It brightens up his/her day, and makes you feel so much more of a man, knowing that you are secure enough in your sexuality to appreciate beautiful transgendered men without worrying about whether you are gay or not.

 

You decide that because you loved the Redwood Grove so much, you will spend the last half day in SF before catching your plane home divided up between the Grove and the Modern Art Museum, which are both rather far away from each other—but, you are determined to walk everywhere in SF on this trip.

 

This time, you almost miss Golden Gate Park, walking too far to the west. Upon arriving, you think that you can be smart about things, and look at a map of the Park to find the Redwood Grove. After this, you spend an hour wandering around trying to find it, and only discover it after you’ve given up completely. Your attempt to recreate your peaceful experience is mostly shattered by a power mower, and a lot of your own impatience to hurry through the process of becoming one with the redwoods so you can move on to Modern Art, then catch your plane.

 

Hurrying back toward the museum, you flat out ignore the throngs of drunks, panhandlers and street vendors that approach you on Market St., feeling every bit the tourist asshole that you are at this moment.

 

Needless to say, you arrive at the airport hours ahead of time, after spending more time at the museum bookstore than looking at paintings, still pondering the possibility of a gift for Maria and her kids. Airport security singles you out, because you look like a mad unibomber sort of freak at this point, with wild, five-day beard, sunburn, and frantic, graying and thinning hair.

 

Naturally, the one plane that the booking website wouldn’t let you pick an aisle seat near the front is the one plane where you have but a thirty minute layover, and have to catch a shuttle to change terminals. This is in Las Vegas, where people can be seen swarming off their planes to the slot machines in the airport like flies on shit. If you were just about any other American, you wouldn’t have minded too much having to spend the night in Las Vegas because of a layover, but you stink of dried sweat and body odor from walking everywhere all day, and look every bit the angry man manque you feel yourself to be inside.

 

Somehow, you make it back to Austin on a tiny plane, and point your car to Bastrop where your dad is watching your dog for you. The entire world hasn’t stopped because you left town, but somehow, you manage to go back to thinking that it would if you were gone for longer than a few days.

 

July 11, 2008

“So, the IAH is doing something a little different this year,” says your boss, Truman Joffries, to you. “Since we can’t afford to give anyone a raise, and we’re actually going to need to lay a bunch of people off, we thought we’d start a tradition of annual performance evaluations. These are boilerplate, but are slightly more relEt than the ones Kevin Smiley used to get at Ahmis. And no, Kevin, you don’t get a free lunch with your review.”

 

You really don’t care about the free lunch—nor do you really wish to have the review process take place, either, as you remember what happened a year ago with Jimbo. Truman doesn’t seem like the kind of fellow who would only find faults with everything an employee does, but you never can tell.

 

So, you begin writing your self evaluation:

 

“I am a team player, I work hard. I probably could communicate better with others, but after eight years of working at a corporate communications company, my skills are a little lacking in that department. I am pretty good at doing stuff on the web. Please don’t fire me.”

 

Then, in Truman’s office, you trade evaluations, and read what he wrote about you:

 

“Kevin is a team player, and works hard. He could probably communicate better with others, but we hired him to be Web Guy—NOT one of the myriad of indians here who think they are chiefs, so we’ll let that slide. He is a rockstar on the web, and deserves a huge bonus, and NOT to be fired.”

 

Yay! Take that, Jimbo! You think. I really am a good boy and a rockstar, and you were wrong, dead wrong. You pass Jimbo running around Town Lake trail, and he just gives you a withering look as if to say, “oh Lord, why is he still here in Austin?”

 

September 4, 2008

“I’m just really scared,” whispers the voice on the other end of the phone. It is 2 AM, about halfway into your overnight volunteer shift at the IAH call center, and Ike is pounding the shit out of Houston, whose call center is now being transferred the IAH call center.

 

“I know,” you say, trying to keep your voice sounding strong and authoritative, even though you haven’t a clue what she’s going through. “From the looks of it where I’m sitting ma’am, you just need to sit tight, and it will blow over soon—you’re right in the thick of it.”

 

“But, I don’t want to die. I only have access to the phone and this number.”

 

It gets harder and harder as the night wears on. People are frightened, some of them without the power needed for their medical supplies, and all you can do is tell them to call 911 if they think it’s a real emergency—though you know that no first responder team is going to be out in that mess for another few hours.

 

Really, all you are to them is a human voice, something to grab onto as they sit in the dark with a Category 3 storm beating up on their homes. Some of them are all alone, some with kids, others with older adults.

 

It’s at this moment you get an inkling of what you really should be doing with your life. For some strange reason, you’ve been yearning to help people for years and years, but always found creative ways to avoid helping those who need help the most—your friendship with Jerry started with you urging him not to kill himself the night of his birthday, your friendship with Karen Winthrop began with a mixed goal of wanting to comfort her and go to bed with her, and the same could be said for the way your relationship with Lucy progressed.

 

You kind of felt this last summer when you taught ESL and got into the groove of simply helping someone improve her English so she could have a better life. The purity of helping someone minus any sort of ulterior motive—it is the best feeling in the world, more potent than just about any other feeling you’ve encountered, and yet, once the night has finished, you are ready to go back to your life of running from God’s calling.

 

It’s easier to help those who help others, to give them money and support. It’s easier to step back and live selfishly, shutting yourself off from the world whether you are on the streets of Austin, or on the streets of San Francisco, Jamaica or anywhere else.

 

That little bit about Jesus saying, “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me,” seems all fine and good as long as you don’t actually have to directly interact with the least of these.

 

But, with this night of taking calls from people getting slammed by a hurricane in utter darkness—who had no other human to reach out and touch but you—a chord was struck, the final death knell on your man manque’s selfish kind of existence has begun to ring.

 

November 14, 2008

“Kevin, so glad you could make it!” cries Deidre giving you a giant hug.

 

“Yeah, well, it kind of seemed appropriate for me to be here tonight.”

 

Your roommate Dennis has quit Ahmis, and claims he will still be able to find a way to pay the rent. He’s really your last connection to the company, your last witness to the madness.

 

“Karen Winthrop got fired!” Deidre tells you.

 

“Yeah, she told me about that. Imagine that, if only I’d waited another few months, I might have been able to outlast her at Ahmis—ah, hell, what am I saying? There’s no way I would have been able to stand being there.”

 

“And, mannish Courtney left—she wasn’t selling anything, and decided she hated Austin.”

 

And, look who this is!

 

“Ekaterina, so good to see you,” you say to the hottest woman you’ve ever laid eyes on.

 

“Oh, hello, Kevin. Now that my English is much better, I have a lot more self confidence at not getting sucked into relationships with losers like you, I won’t mind chatting with you about the world of sales and corporate communications software.”

 

“Great! I absolutely love looking into your supermodel eyes and pretending I actually stand a chance with you.”

 

“Oh look!” cries Ekaterina, “My tall, dark, mysterious European date is here.”

 

She stands up, and is wearing some kind of sexy skirt and stockings number, as a fellow who looks like he’s with the KGB motions her to run to his arms. The man doesn’t even bother to look down at the common rifraff she was just associating with.

 

“So, how are things at your new job?” asks Deidre.

 

“Oh, they’re fine. I don’t have to really think all that much, as non-profit people are impressed with you if you have even intermediate computer skills. They decided to lay a bunch of people off, since they lost half their major donors—why they still think they need a web guy is beyond me. Pretty much everyone in the community hates the IAH now. We made some shirts that have our standard acronym superimposed over our President’s new acronym—Increasing Austin’s Happiness, and some jokers in the community have taken to making shirts with a recursive acronym, ‘the IAH: Austin Hates.'”

 

“Cool, but you never talk to us anymore. Do you think you’re too good for the Ahmis gang?”

 

“No, no, of course not! I’m just really busy, you know? I see Lucy isn’t here.”

 

“Lucy got engaged.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“Yeah, she flaked out, alienated herself from everyone in the office, said a bunch of nasty things about you and us on a LiveJournal account, erased the account, then found some dude to ask her to marry him.”

 

“Wow, I was kind of missing that little mess of a gal. Well, good for her. At least it proves that the two of us aren’t soul mates. I was beginning to get a little worried that the Universe had dealt me such a terrible hand.”

 

December 13, 2008

“Hello Maria.”

 

“Oh, hi Kevin.”

 

“I was calling to see if you were still using my bike.”

 

“Not really.”

 

“Can I get it back?”

 

“Of course.”

 

She arrives with your bike, which you’d loaned her after she got a DWI, and you still feel that exact same weird anti-magnetic energy, pushing the two of you apart when you try to get close to her. It’s bizarre—she’s got everything you’d want in a woman, superficially speaking, of course. And, you have convinced yourself on numerous occasions that you could put up with the kids. But, all the two of you have done is kiss.

 

“I’ve really missed you,” you say to her, hoping to finally get out in the open why things aren’t going anywhere with this non-relationship. “You don’t call me much anymore.”

 

“Well, yeah…you see, it’s just…”

 

“What? You can tell me. I’m a big boy.”

 

“You remember when you went to San Francisco and called me the first night you were there?”

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

“Well, I just remember thinking, ohmygod, he’s one of those whiny little mama’s boys who has to keep calling and calling a girl once he’s caught her eye and they’ve started hanging out. I mean, we hadn’t even really started hanging out—we just had one dinner and conversation together.”

 

“Oh. But, I’m not like that. I didn’t behave like that at all these past few months. I only tend to call or come around if you initiate it. Besides, I thought girls liked to have guys call them back.”

 

“Yeah, I know you haven’t been too needy and clingy—and maybe some girls like guys to be like that, but I don’t. I guess what I’m saying is…well, you know how I told Deidre that I kind of had a crush on you?”

 

“Yeah, that’s what got the whole thing rolling.”

 

“I was really just looking for a guy to have some fun with—you know, a little sex here and there. And, Deidre said you’d definitely be up for that.”

 

You’re flabbergasted. After all this chick has told you about wishing her son had a strong, male role model in his life, and complaining about how all guys want to do is sleep with her—only to learn that all she was looking for was a good time?

 

“Uh, yeah. Well, I guess we missed the communications boat on this one. I mean, honestly, I didn’t really care that much at the time one way or the other—since I’d just finally finished off a lengthy, messy, non-relationship. Now that I see that you don’t really care, and I don’t really care, I have to ask, why the hell are we even bothering with each other?”

 

December 8, 2008

“Uh, hello Connie, it’s Kevin from Austin—we were supposed to meet today. I know it’s still early where you are, but I’m leaving this message because our meeting is just not going to happen. I bought the ticket to San Jose, which I can’t refund now, and reserved the rental car. I packed my things, printed extra copies of my resume, trimmed my nose hairs, and shaved these pesky little ear hairs that have started to sprout on my lobes.

 

But, I didn’t sleep last night. I mean, I know I worked up the nerve to make you all think I really wanted this job through the course of two phone interviews and a webcam interview–and in a lot of ways it is what I was looking for—something that is health-related and near San Francisco. Only, you really aren’t that close to San Francisco, and the products you sell are just a little to whacky and New Agey for my liking. I mean, I can live with knowing I’m helping sell something to folks that isn’t completely scientifically proven to work, but then I got to reading about who sits on your board, and y’all’s notions about thinking you can help usher in a new era of peace and human consciousness in 2012—all through the power of a little device less engineered than a generic mp3 player.

 

But, none of that’s the really the reason I totally copped out, and didn’t get on that plane. The truth is, I am still a man manque, hopelessly stuck in Austin, TX, afraid to leave for reasons that go beyond anything I can explain. Maybe I am simply still too attached to my Mama, and think that my poor old Daddy out in Bastrop can act as a proxy Mama—or maybe Austin herself has become like a proxy Mama to me: I want to lash out and rebel and run away from her, but I am scared to leave her arms all the same.

 

At any rate, regardless of how this might have inconvenienced you, I won’t be at the meeting today where I pretty much could have nailed down a better-paying job in gorgeous California. All the best, Connie. Call me if you have any questions.”

 

You hang up the phone, and feel a little bad—but, mostly just feel bad about the non-refundable plane ticket. It’s nothing like the time you quit the State job after two weeks to return to the arms of Karen Winthrop. Okay, maybe it is, a little bit, but you know in your heart of hearts being the web guy for a New Agey company isn’t what God wants from you.

 

December 12, 2008

Thanks to the largess of the President of the IAH, you have scored at least one day off each week in December. Sometimes you wake up and remember that there was an election recently, and Bush is no longer President. For some reason, you aren’t nearly as excited as you thought you’d be when the day arrived. You’ve finally learned that all of your issues with the man running the country were really personal issues with a man still trying to learn how to run his own life.

 

On Facebook, you realize that an IAH happy hour gang has formed over the past several months, and you are not a part of it. Rhonda Jarrell takes photos from every IAH social gathering and posts them to her Facebook page, and from your desk, you observe her continually getting up and going off to do whatever Gabriel and Enrique ask her to do.

 

You also realize you have some catching up to do. At half price books, you purchase every Vin Diesel, Arnold, Stallone, James Bond and Bruce Lee movie you can find.

 

“Sorry, Mama,” you think to yourself, standing in line each weekend at the bookstore, “but I need to watch these man’s man, fight movies full of violence. Your little boy, once a prince of peace, took a turn one morning and discovered a thick layer of hypercritical, highly destructive demons underneath all that unconditional acceptance of his fellow man. Unbeknown to you, your little boy already had these other, more sinister, less common demons running wild in him as well. Perhaps it is with irony that he needs to purchase and rent movies of war and fighting and killing in order for him to learn how to stand on his own two feet with head erect and fight everything within that seeks to hold him back and in the end, destroy him.”

 

You woke up one morning needing to kill a man. You had these urges to walk down to a bar and pick a fight, then smash a man with your bare fists or with a broken bottle until he either begged for his life or lost it. You woke up suddenly understanding why men sent their sons onto the football field at age twelve or younger to learn the proper boundaries and unspoken code of men—a universal law that is imperfect, but runs deep enough to keep men from constantly trying to kill each other. You suddenly understood The Godfather, Parts I and II, and know what Rocky, Rambo, Raging Bull, Mad Max, Scarface and all those tough guys from the 70s and 80s were talking about. There was beauty and deep wisdom in a Kung Fu movie instead of merely bathos.

 

“I used to watch these Bruce Lee movies when I was a kid,” said the man at the bookstore counter. Your gut said he was being lightly condescending. “Is this Enter the Dragon?” he asked looking through the collection you’d brought up to the counter. “Oh, here’s Enter the Dragon,” he said lifting another box up. “That’s the one I saw.” An informal survey of those around you who claimed to adore Bruce Lee and his movies produced much of the same results—everyone had seen Enter the Dragon, and nothing else.

 

You’d mocked these movies by the time you made it to your twenties. Mama wouldn’t let you watch them when you were a boy, and all your college buddies—who journeyed with you once a week to the video stores around the city—had already seen these macho, manly films and were into seeking out obscure comedies, snuff films and hokey horror cult films. So, you mocked macho movies as being irrelEt to a Prince of Peace, a man who appended the word “pacifist” to his identity.

 

You mocked them as movies for the masses who would just as soon see a cockfight if it were available on pay-per-view.

 

But a so-called Prince of Peace cannot be such a thing in this world if he is merely ignoring or repressing the violent urges inside himself. If he is lashing out at motorists and getting as close as he can to fights, then backing away in terror at who he’s becoming (and who might come to kick his ass)—he is no Prince of Peace, but an awkward clown with clown’s makeup masquerading as a man who would love the earth, love his enemies, and turn the other cheek. He is no lamb, but a ravening wolf inside.

 

And, the funny thing is, you thought you could eradicate the evil and the violence and the demons by reading more of the Bible, and more of Zen Buddhism, and more autobiographical writings of Gandhi and MLK. But, each morning, you kept waking up needing to kill a man, until you went to Half Price Books, and the library, and began buying and renting the manly man movies with Arnold and Stallone, Deniro and Pacino—then, after months of weekends of watching fists and gore and explosions, you woke up one morning, walked outside, and you could look any man you wanted to in the eye, evenly and coolly, without any desire whatsoever to do harm to him.

 

December 19, 2008

And so, we have come to an interesting moment in the history of the man manque, his story, his life in Austin, Texas.

 

You began the physical act of writing this novel on this day, though you really started the novel the day you woke up in Austin next to Olivia.

 

Now, at this moment that you hit the keys on your laptop keyboard, it is actually April 11, 2009, six days away from when it all must end. Oh sure, you have a few items that you’ll have to go back and add: life changing, man making events and processes you somehow neglected to mention as you flew through this first draft, traveling back in time too many nights to count over the last four months.

 

And, further, you’ll have to proof and edit, proof and edit, and proof and edit some more before you have anything you want to leave behind for other eyes to read.

 

It started out as a great idea: surely those necessary bookends will appear in the last four months of the ten year saga, and they’ll make it worth somebody’s time, make it a worthy piece to be called a novel.

 

Only, how do you determine what of the last four months of the ten years was truly a life-changing event until you travel into the future and look back five years from then, to clearly see where little blips of color became threads that grew into something called the fabric of your being?

 

Unfortunately for you, your time machine only goes in reverse.

 

For every little thing you chose to throw into this ten-year tale, there were at least a dozen other things you left out–some of them more sensational and interesting to the reader, some not—but, none of them shaped you and molded you the way the ones you mention within these pages did. At least, this stands true for those events that happened years ago.

 

But, what of these last four months? This period that in many ways is still living and breathing, while the events from years ago are dead.

 

You’ve been to Whole Foods and Book People half a dozen times in search of the ghosts of years past. You’ve sneaked around online to see if you could find anything about how Olivia, Vera or Lucy are doing. Karen Winthrop still pings you with an email now and then, and she is blissfully easy to ignore. Funny how so many of the people you wish could have stayed in your life forever have left for good, while so many of the ones you’ve tried hard to forget keep coming back.

 

On this day in December 2008, you drove down to the first place you rented in Austin, where you and Olivia brought home a dog named Anastasia, and pretended you were married with a child until you completely got on each other’s nerves. The neighborhood hasn’t changed a bit—still a strange little peninsula of duplexes jammed in between old and new Austin homes. All the cars along the street are very much the same—young people starting out on their journeys from college, too poor to live anywhere else, but someday soon to be making enough money to live anywhere they want.

 

After this, you drove up through a back way only you knew to WilL Cannon Drive, then on to the Oak Hill place, which you hadn’t seen since Olivia asked you to stop visiting Anastasia.

 

At a traffic light between South Austin and Oak Hill, you start to feel hopeless, wondering if you will ever find the way to the life you’ve incessantly dreamed of having since you kissed it all goodbye. You turn the radio back on, and like that time in Missouri where “Rosemary” eerily kicked on from dead silence following a visit to a cemetery, a different sort of song kicks starts at the start with no precursory DJ chatter, and spooks you just as much:

 

“beautiful world circling infinitely

fragment of sun marbled in blue

turning in time and tuned like a symphony

beautiful stars beautiful view

beautiful world intricate web of design

shadow and light playing out on the land

billions of years come down to a point in time

setting the stage for the folly of man”

(-Eliza Gilkeson)

 

You feel like a character in a movie, not a movie star, but a random and unsympathetic character frozen into a role you cannot escape. Every time someone decides to watch your movie, they will see you doing the same foolish things over and over again, never able to go back and change them for the wiser.

 

You catch a glimpse of your own personal vision of hell again—your spirit flying away from its mortal coil, then the Earth, then the solar system, galaxy, and all of the known Universe, until your spirit is forever sinking deeper and deeper into a black quagmire from which nobody cares to pull it.

 

All of this makes you terribly depressed as you view the old Oak Hill neighborhood, which seems to be much more full of neighborly life than it ever was when you lived there briefly with Olivia. Central Texas is cast in a deep drought, and so the winter landscape looks almost like a Missouri winter: gray and brown and leafless.

 

You pause at the tiny neighborhood park where you used to walk Anastasia alone while Olivia slept through the morning. For just a second, you half expect your old dog to come running up to you as you step out of a stand of trees. But, there are no old ghosts waiting for you here, either.

 

You have no reason to ever come back this way again.

 

December 24, 2008

But still, you look for old ghosts everywhere you can. You go out to Doug Johnson’s band’s website, and see that 2009 is also having a ten-year anniversary (apparently the Brimstone Broadcasters first scorched Austin in April of 1999), but find no pictures of Olivia, perpetually pregnant with Brimstone Broadcaster seed.

 

You Google “Gavi Ashkenazi” and find he’s still a bar owner, and still working on the movie, as he takes the time to comment in random places around the web. Gavi’s arrogant, cult-leader-wannabe personality comes through in even the briefest of comments in a forum. You do not regret for a second having completely cut your ties to him, and do not doubt that you will one day encounter him in the spirit world.

 

Lucy reappeared then disappeared as your friend on Facebook for three days. You decided not to ask her how or why.

 

Vera pops up as being available to chat when you open your Yahoo account—but you know that like you, she probably hasn’t checked her Yahoo account in years, and Yahoo is just behaving bizarrely.

 

You decide to go to a Catholic Mass tonight, remembering how Olivia and Vera were both Catholic, and would generally go to this one Mass if they ever went to any at all.

 

You also go because you’ve had your first true sense of mortality recently while sitting in morning rush hour traffic on Enfield.

 

Yes, you’ve seen your share of dead family members, and yes, you’ve had a few moments where you probably could have or maybe even should have died, including the bicycle accident and a few nights of ingesting way too many pills with booze (quantities that killed folks like Heath Ledger).

 

And, it is likely that you swore you were going to die a couple times when you got really sick from a bug going around. But, a crystallized notion that you could drop dead at any moment, for any number of reasons—and the realization that you will most certainly not live indefinitely, that the chapter ends, and what comes next may very well depend on what you’re doing right now—that didn’t materialize until that morning in rush hour traffic.

 

Then, death started to follow you around everywhere, catching you in the mirror, and finding you while you did any number of trivial things. You began to wonder if simply asking Jesus into your heart was enough to save you from Hell, or if you needed to witness your conversion more to those around you, risking their wrath.

 

Perhaps you lost out on Heaven when you decided to have premarital sex that first time, and not follow through with asking her to marry you. Maybe your last relationship with Lucy was your last chance at getting into a marriage blessed by the church, and now all of your carnal sins are to be left flapping in the violent winds that blow in when Jesus returns.

 

At any rate, such thinking finds you at Christmas Eve mass in Austin, Texas, looking around for a bookend to give this novel a nice symmetry—looking for someone from your past. When she doesn’t appear, you start to remember all the times your mother told you to go to church to meet your future wife. You are seated in the overflow section, and have a row of three folding chairs to yourself.

 

At the very last minute, a lovely lady rushes into the church, and kneels then sits in your row, smiling at you. Wow, maybe God is still guiding you after all. This will be easier than you thought.

 

When mass is over, she turns to you and says, “welcome to our church. Too bad, I can’t get my husband to come here with me.”

 

January 8, 2009

“You realize, Dad, that if you’d scheduled your hernia operation a week later, you’d be having it on the exact same day ten years following mine.”

 

“That thought did cross my mind, son,” says your father.

 

It is time for all the ten-year anniversaries. Ten years ago last week you first kissed Olivia. Ten years ago a week from now, you lost your virginity inside of Olivia, had your hernia operation, and lost your little brother in a car wreck.

 

You aren’t drinking this year. Oh sure, you’ll have to attend that obligatory birthday celebration of Deidre’s that always comes three weeks into January, and helps you wreck your New Year’s resolutions. But, you no longer have those stronger urges to be drunk every time life throws the tiniest of curveballs at you.

 

Instead, you’ve discovered a dozen television shows on Hulu, and you’re watching television programming for the first time since you got rid of your television three years ago. A time travel show is especially appealing to you, as one might expect it to be.

 

One night, you start to say a little prayer that ends in a realization that perhaps you’ve never prayed hard enough to know what you should be doing on this Earth.

 

“Dear God, please let me time travel back in time ten years,” you repeat over and over again.

 

When nothing happens, you begin to change the prayer around and suddenly you are asking, “Dear God, please tell me what I’m supposed to be doing here on this earth.”

 

March 31, 2009

“Hey Dad, it’s Kevin.”

 

“Uh, hi Son. What’s going on?” He’s totally forgotten it’s your birthday. Not even a call to him on a Tuesday for no apparent reason can jog his memory.

 

“Oh, not a whole lot. I met my little brother today.”

 

“That’s nice son. I’ve been on three dates with three different ladies this past week. What do you think about that?”

 

You really don’t think much about it, though you see that it keeps him livelier than when he goes weeks alone out in a house by himself with no one but cats to entertain him.

 

You did meet your little brother today. The IAH has decided that it can improve Austin’s happiness by pairing up professionals with students, and while it’s really not the first volunteering opportunity you would have chosen, you decide to give it a shot.

 

The cute lady from the non-profit that coordinates your match is there, and the middle school, while in one of the worst parts of Austin, isn’t as scary as you remember Middle Schools being. You have an unconscious reflex of thinking you must be in some kind of trouble when you arrive at the principal’s office, but that soon passes.

 

After an interview, background check and training, you now have yourself an eleven-year-old little brother.

 

“Hi, my name’s Cesar.” He’s quiet, but seems respectful and happy to be getting a big brother.

 

“What do you like to do, Cesar?”

 

“Play marbles, basketball, soccer. I’m popular and not nearly the little mess you were when you were getting ready to start puberty.”

 

“So, why do you need a big brother, Cesar?”

 

“Because, unlike you, who still has a father to rely on for support, I have no father to pay for my entire college, and I have no older brothers. I have a bunch of assorted cousins and younger siblings, an overworked mother, and a few uncles. All the things that came to you naturally as a kid, that you took for granted—that made you spoiled—all those things will not come to me. It’s people like you in the community I have to rely on for support, and even with that, my future is sketchy.”

 

“I see. Well, I look forward to setting aside an hour of my week to offer whatever I can in the way of support. However, you should know that I’m still a man manque.”

 

“Yes, but you’ve managed to hold a steady, professional career for ten years, avoid bankruptcy, win a few friends, impress some people, find a couple girlfriends, and you’ve almost finished a novel. Not every man can say he’s done all those things. Some men who are real men do nothing but beat their families and shift about from unemployment check to unemployment check.”

 

“You know, Cesar, you’re right.”

 

And, then it dawns on you. This is the piece of the man puzzle you never could quite put together.

 

Yes, guys like Tony Robbins, and mentoring programs have it correct: in order to become more successful in life, one must continue to wisely choose great role models. Whether it’s Bill Clinton, Alex Jones, Tony Robbins or any number of tough guy actors from the movies, if you model yourself after someone who has made it, chances are, you will begin to modify your behavior to be more like his, and be one step closer to losing your status as a man manque for good. Likewise, if you model your behavior after perpetual Austin teenage slackers who flatly refuse to grow up, you will wake up at 30, 40, or even 70 and discover you are a teenage slacker, too.

 

But, there is one piece in that puzzle that often goes forgotten (or is taken for granted by people who have children)—if you want to truly modify your behavior for the better, you must be a role model for someone else. For then, and only then will you remain motivated to change, knowing that someone else is watching you, and modeling their behavior off of you. Perhaps if Bill Clinton had remembered this after having so much political success, he wouldn’t have lost so much of his cachet as a great man. But, whatever. It’s not like you’re in any position to tell Bill Clinton what he should or shouldn’t have done.

 

You just know now that being there for this little guy will do more for you than repair some of your long maligned karma for mostly abandoning your own little brother Roy during the last years of his life—or, even more self-servingly, act as a great chick pickup tool.

 

Being a big brother to this kid may not alone make you lose the “manque” after the “man”, but it is definitely an important missing piece of the puzzle you’ve been trying to find for years while running around in circles in Austin.

 

April 10, 2009

You say: “I am sick of sitting at a desk all day, staring at computers. I want to do something action-oriented, and interact with people. Heck, that was the best part of getting to do sales. It wasn’t the travel, and it certainly wasn’t the price negotiation. It was the chance to interface with human beings.”

 

God says: “You need to help people.”

 

You say: “I love the idea of being a State Trooper or joining the Coast Guard, but they have these pesky vision requirements that my half-blind eyes will never meet.”

 

God says: “You need to help people in a health-related occupation.”

 

You say: “But, I don’t want to go back to school for the rest of my life to try to be a doctor, and I don’t want to end up spending all day wiping bottoms and changing bedpans. But even more importantly, I don’t want to be stuck in some public health official’s gig where I sit in meetings all day and people deliberate over what they should do next. I see plenty of that going on at the IAH, and want no part of it.”

 

God says: “Well then, I think you know what you need to do. Oh, and Kevin?”

 

“Yes, God?”

 

“Could you try to cut down on the masturbating?”

 

“Uh, sure.”

 

Austin, Texas residents can go to the local community college on the cheap: $40 a credit hour. To get your paramedic’s license you will need 60 hours of education. This will cost you $2400 + fees. Not as cheap as, say, the Texas State Trooper program, which is free for those who get accepted into it, but a lot cheaper than going back to school to become a nurse or doctor.

 

On this little, Easter weekend mini-vacation, you must do a number of things, including paying your taxes, finishing this novel, researching the community college website, and most importantly, finding an illegal stream of the Martin Scorsese film, “Bringing Out the Dead,” so you can decide if it is as fun to watch as it was the first time you saw it when you rented it with Olivia ten years ago. It is. And this time, you don’t get all busted up thinking about Roy dying when you see people mangled and bloody in the ER.

 

Then, it’s done. You know what you’re going to have to do next—what you’re going to have to do with the rest of your life.

 

April 11, 2009

To celebrate, you visit Book People and Whole Foods for the last time you will ever go to these places on a ghost hunt. The spiritual, mystical books that enchanted you so much ten years ago have been culled to a minimum of selections by Aleister Crowley and Kundalini for Dummies. The science selection has been reduced to the entire collected works of Richard Dawkins, with next to nothing about the scientific possibilities of time travel.

 

The incense is gone. And, most importantly, you see no ghosts lurking around—only a lot of whispers of the Dead on the pages of Dead Trees. Such are books, anyway. The living are all someplace else—only the dead, those frozen in time, are left to rot on the pages of books.

 

With this in mind, you realize that upon typing out the last entry in April 2010: where you add an epilogue to match the prologue, you will have created the story of a dead man, some guy named Kevin Smiley, who you will most certainly not be, as you will be living out your new life, your future as a man whose ‘manque’ has been surgically removed.

 

At Whole Foods there are no ghosts either, and it’s a completely different Whole Foods from the one you discovered with Olivia ten years ago. Before grabbing your bottle of wine to celebrate your mostly-finished first draft of a novel, you turn a few corners just to make sure there are no ghosts lurking there.

 

With your car pointed back down Lamar, some flashing lights appear coming toward you from the west on Sixth Street. A siren howls, and an ambulance pulls onto Lamar in front of you, and you know that this is the only sign you’ll get from God tonight.

 

April 12, 2009

“Kevin, take a look at the top of Uncle’s head. He’s using Rogaine. Maybe you should, too,” says Aunt at this Easter lunch you’ve decided to attend with your father. Aunt and Uncle find it an endless source of amusement that you choose to shave your head most of the time, instead of spending hundreds of dollars a year on dyes and tonics to hide the thinning and the graying.

 

“I tried using Rogaine for a year, and nothing happened. It’s only effective in about 55% of the men who use it, anyway.”

 

“85%,” says Uncle.

 

“Um, no. 55%, I’ve researched this pretty thoroughly online before I started using it, reviewing several independent studies of its efficacy. Where did you read 85%?”

 

“On the box, of course.” He says it as if one would be an utter dimwit not to completely trust the box or label provided by the pharmaceutical company.

 

You want to haul off and slug Uncle. For the past few years, he’s gotten quieter and quieter at these gatherings, making them almost tolerable. But, for some reason, he’s his old, vocal, opinionated, insufferable self this Easter.

 

“Kevin, your father has been meeting and dating tons of women online, maybe you should, too.”

 

“Um, Aunt, maybe I’ve tried that already.”

 

“Well, Kevin, what about going to a nice church? We stopped believing in stuff like God and Jesus, but we still love church—so a Universalist Unitarian service makes for the perfect church for us.”

 

“Sounds lovely. I actually still love God and Jesus very much, have trouble with most of his followers, and really don’t care for church.”

 

“What about the dog park? We went to the one on Riverside at I-35, and everyone was so nice to us.”

 

You go there at least once a week, and find yourself scowled at by a bunch of hipsters who all look like members of Doug Johnson’s band.

 

“Aunt, have you ever stopped to consider that I might have more going on in my life than simply a need for female companionship?”

 

But, she’s already turned away from you to blast her empty advice into the ears of the one remaining grandson of hers that hasn’t gotten as far away from Aunt as he possibly can.

 

Of course, there will always be potential mate possibilities popping up on your radar after you’ve sworn you’re completely done with all things relationship-related.

 

Your father, of all people, forwarded you an ad on Craig’s List for a new dog walking buddy, and this girl has turned out to be totally hot and willing to listen to you ramble about your life—but doesn’t seem to have any interest in moving the needle over to that territory of smooching and making promises neither of you can keep.

 

Cute women pop up at the IAH infrequently and act like they are kind of interested in you, before getting sucked into the Gabriel and Enrique vortex. And, you’ve met one especially lovely lady at another non-profit who keeps her status as Single on Facebook, and occasionally takes the time to reply to a message you send her.

 

But, at the end of the day, you are finding yourself caring less and less about the notion of you as a man-with-mate. You’re keeping yourself and your living environment clean, you’re paying all your bills on time, and making huge inroads on your debt, you’re preparing to go back to school, and most importantly, you are retaining your sanity, your equilibrium, your sense of self in this world that seems to increase its levels of chaos by the minute.

 

April 17, 2009

In a year, you will be writing the epilogue to bookend the prologue of this novel. You may be out of debt by then, and you will certainly be finished with drinking. But you won’t be immersed in your life’s calling just yet, having only re-started school a little less than a year ago.

 

And you may still be stealing away to grab the hand lotion when you should be going to churches and bars to quell that part of you that insists on seeking out a mate.

 

This morning, you stood inside the same club you first saw the Brimstone Broadcasters play, where Doug Johnson and his slouchy, modded-out friends showed you who was really cool in Austin.

 

You were grabbing a cup of coffee and a breakfast taco, before videotaping the crowd of college students preparing to volunteer at an IAH function. These were clean, bright-eyed young people who were wrapping up their accounting degrees before diving into the worst economy since the Great Depression. In some ways, you did not envy them for the challenges that lay ahead. But, fortunately for them, they were leaving Austin to become men and women.

 

Nobody comes to Austin, Texas to grow up.

 

You might come here to go to school and have fun, be a politician or politician’s flunky and have fun, be a rock star and have fun, or perhaps just endlessly walk around Town Lake year after year, holding forgettable web guy positions and aging. But, you have to leave Austin, Texas if you want to become a grown up.

 

And, sitting where you are today, you can clearly see that you aren’t going anywhere, yet.

 

Karen Winthrop sent you an email today. Of all the people from the past ten years to contact you at random moments, she’s it. You could encourage it, and maybe with a little conversation, dinner and booze, find yourself back at her house too drunk for your own good.

 

But you’ve nothing left to say to her.

 

In fact, one of the most notable features of the process of erasing “manque” from “man” has been an increasing reluctance to say much of anything to anyone, anymore.