by Jenno Kane
[The patient] had a vague sense that people around him were “acting” . . . . and had a sense the world was slightly unreal, as if he was the eponymous hero in the film The Truman Show. . . . [He believed] he was the subject of a film and living in a film set (a “fabricated world”). This cluster of symptoms, which we have termed the “Truman syndrome,” is a common presenting complaint in individuals attending the OASIS clinic. . .
– British Journal of Psychiatry, August 2008
First off, people want to know whether I’ve considered other explanations. Like: stress. Or a prank. Or coincidence? They ask if I’ve gotten a neurological workup, “just to rule things out.” They say everyone watches too much TV these days. The tone is sometimes empathetic, sometimes tough-love.
Eventually they all start to offer solutions. These surprisingly often include pets or hobbies but tend to center on “professional help.”
At first, I found this laughable, since professional help is supposedly what I myself provide to an office full of ruminants who can’t open even the simplest of email attachments. Plus it seems to me unlikely that you, the doctor in the thousand-dollar chair strategically set close to the quick-release door, are going to unclog in an hour a week the drain of a life that I’m stuck in every second.
I’m a certified problem-solver. I shave with Occam’s razor. But I understand that even the smallest of probabilities is not zero. So that’s why I’m here, Doctor. On the infinitesimal chance you’ll hit on something I haven’t thought of.
“Look who’s calling,” Heriberto says.
“What choice do I have?” I say. All the phones in our office are video-enabled. The consultants said studies showed that seeing one another enhances teamwork and keeps us employees on task. They stressed that this was particularly important for us in Tech Support because surveys indicated that between twenty-five and seventy percent of people feel that technicians “aren’t really listening.” So now we have the appearance of listening.
“Oh, Andy, hi,” the caller says, with the same singsong urgency as she’s said it three or four times a week since I’ve been here. “It’s Lynn Ann in Admin Ops.”
In the corner of one of my screens is a fitful, pixellated version of Lynn Ann’s dimples, curls, and cat-shaped earrings. She looks her part: sassy-but-good-natured senior administrative assistant at a mid-sized provider of customized storage solutions. Since the strategic revisioning a few years ago, the company emphasizes “solutions.” The idea is that it’s not just offering you a place to stash some crap, but rather framing and then handily solving a problem you may not even have realized you had. The consultants said the company’s tepid growth was due to a failure to “problematize.” I personally thought it was more about competition and real estate costs, plus the fact that the CEO is a blockhead who cannot grasp that the future of storage is digital, and we could probably double revenue if we took even half these warehouses and turned them into server farms. But the consultants spoke, and now we are all about solutions. Or problems, depending how you look at it.
Problems, Lynn Ann has got, today and always.
“It won’t print,” she says.
“What application are you using?” I ask. Heriberto leans over my cubicle wall and starts miming mouth-agape bewilderment.
“Oh, gosh, I don’t know,” Lynn Ann says. Each of her cat earrings dangles by a foreleg, as though they’re clawing at her earlobes. One of many distractions wrought by the video calls when they’re not keeping us on task. Heriberto starts to trill, “ay, Andy! Ayuda mi, mi amor,” etc., in a squeaky falsetto. Lynn Ann can’t see him but might be able to hear, so I wave him off. A mix of compassion and ass covering, since Lynn Ann has the ear of the executive suite, including the pit viper who oversees Tech Support.
“What’s that you’re doing with your arm?” she says.
I reel in the hand I was flinging at Heriberto and wave into the phonecam’s fishy eyeball.
“You crack me up,” she says.
“We aim to please,” I say. “So can you open up the print queue for me?” I suspect she has once again dispatched fifty copies of some retirement-party flier to a benighted printer outside the mailroom, instead of the one in her office. This is the problem at least half the times she calls.
On my screen, I see the panic and hostility lurch into her face. “You’re going to have to walk me through that,” she says.
“Sure. Just go to print like you normally would—”
“Can’t you just come up here and take a look at it?” she says.
It’s critical not to appear frustrated or impatient on the video calls. The pit viper let it be known, via an aggressively cc’d email in the oversized Arial Black that he apparently thinks connotes masculinity, that “There have been complaints” and “Our objective is to grow communication.” So I paste to my face a network news anchor’s expression of blameless neutrality and try to grow some communication. When does it bloom, I wonder. Can you smoke it?
“It’s something we can take care of right here on the phone,” I say, “just like last t—”
“I’d just feel a lot more comfortable if you’d come up here and take a look at it,” Lynn Ann says, ear cats quivering.
Heriberto, looming just outside phonecam range, makes an obscene hand gesture, conjuring a heave of sweat-stains-on-the-conference-table carnality if I go up there. I am not that type of guy, and Lynn Ann would surely smack me like that triple she hit at the company softball game last year, but Heriberto is duly playing his role as the office frat boy. He’d have you believe his life is a merry blur of pizza, porn, and sports bars. In fact, he spends his weekends turning and planing pieces of a crib for his baby daughter, due in fall.
A paradox of Tech Support is that we are supposed to have a responsive, customer-service demeanor but also not waste time. It’s been intimated that one of our unofficial performance goals is to wean frequent callers like Lynn Ann. It’s unclear whether we’ll be rewarded with higher-level work or laid off if we succeed. In the meantime, the twenty minutes I’m about to have to spend hauling up to three to discuss, fix and document Lynn Ann’s one-click problem are a million irreplaceable instants, tiny and provident coordinates of space and time, that will have been squandered. You think of the fourteen billion years it took to get here, the labor of distant stars, all the particles and factors that had to come together just the way they did, and for what? “I’m going to have to open up a ticket,” I tell her.
I have just used the tactical nuclear strike of Tech Support. Our office has a so-called workflow management system that in fact manages neither work nor flow. It calls on us to generate a “ticket” for every task. The system, which the pit viper bought at a conference with open-bar cocktails, won’t tell you how long you can expect to wait for help. Yet it will send you hourly emails on the status of your request (“pending”) and invite you to follow up. The software sends companion emails to the assigned tech, but we have long since spam-filtered them out. Consequently the tickets languish until it’s time for the pit viper’s annual report. Then someone goes in and marks them all resolved, whether or not they were, so the viper can include them in his productivity measures. Anyway, the best thing a tech can do for you is to take care of your problem under the workflow-management radar. It is a gesture of anything from basic collegiality to “Godfather”-like respect. Telling people you’re going to have to open up a ticket can be interpreted as telling them to get lost.
So I should expect Lynn Ann to explode, at this point. But instead she says jauntily, “Oh, well—just put it on my tab.”
Of course, you might say this is in character for a woman whose every desk accessory chirps “Don’t Let The Idiots Get You Down” or “When the Going Gets Tough — the Tough Go Shopping!” The chilling thing is that “in character” is exactly what she is. Do you see what I’m getting at here?
My mother is talking about the side-yard setback rule again. She’s trying to point her webcam at a page of the zoning code to show me, but the focus goes in and out. Mine too. We’re in year four of her fight with her neighbor over his two-story addition.
“I’m zoning out,” I say.
“I’m sorry if this bores you, Andrew,” she says, flicking her head to underline “bores” with her chin. She prefers videochat to the phone and gives me grief if I go audio only. She says it makes her feel like she has company.
“It’s your future, too, you know,” she adds. She envisions me as the potential heir to her American dream: damages and a biopic.
My mother sees her lawsuit against her neighbor in David-vs.-Goliath terms, Goliath in this case being Stryker Peck, a 1970s prog-rock guitarist who’s now more or less a recluse in the bitter little New England town where I grew up. The case is her first-class, all-expenses-paid ticket to the paradise of her imagination, a rolling landscape of financial freedom and renown overlaid on my weathered hometown. The glad handers in the Chamber of Commerce are forever trying to “rediscover the charm” in its broken-down docks and abandoned train station, which as far as I know have never charmed anyone except high schoolers looking for a place to drink. My mother was an Army chaplain’s daughter, she grew up all over the world, and over the years her life folded like a telescope into a town where everything is small: cramped lanes to little cottages with hit-your-head attic rooms, minicourses at the community center, little indulgences on a budget that doesn’t go as far as it used to, small talk about gnat season and the tight parking spaces at the village hall. The local language is the cluck of tiny distinctions: the size and style of your mailbox, where and when you sit on the clammy beach, and on what kind of chair. Underneath the thin surface of saltwater taffy shops and water-view restaurants decorated in Early Crabtrap, the whole town feels like it wants to knee you in the groin.
Against that backdrop, the case of her minorly famous neighbor’s possibly slightly illegal renovation looms large in my mother’s mind. Last fall she bought a lavender pantsuit to wear on Good Morning America, should the need arise. She heard seventy percent of success is preparation, she said, and the pantsuit was on sale. And she didn’t need me to judge her.
“Did you see on ProgDayAfternoon? The Zen Denizens are reissuing ‘Ride the Dark Horse,’” my mother says on the screen. “So of course everyone started in on ‘when will we get Plastic Moment ’77 at the Hammerpacker Amp?’ again. So fingers crossed.”
My mother, who previously couldn’t tell the Rolling Stones from members of the Johnson administration, spends her time these days scouring obscure blogs and forums for news on even distant prog-rock cousins of her neighbor Stryker Peck’s former band, Plastic Moment. She sits in her bird-themed breakfast nook doing things like imputing how some other moldering rocker’s reunion tour affects the value of Peck’s publishing rights in Plastic Moment’s back catalog. I have no idea what she’s talking about, though I think it’s safe to say “everyone” in this instance means about three people. But she doesn’t need me to judge. So I say: “Sounds good.”
But since Dad left, everything I say to her is the wrong thing.
“What do you mean, ‘Sounds good?’” she says.
“I mean it sounds good. I’m not really up on the music business.”
“Well, you could be if you wanted to. If I can Google it, you can.”
Right, since I’m a “computer guy.” I constantly have to explain to people that being a certified network administrator doesn’t mean I get discounts on cable, have secret videos of Area 51, will hack into your ex’s email or know how to fix your dryer (“but it says it has a computerized heat cycle!”). I’m just someone who bothered to find out how something that we all expect to use actually works. It astonishes me that people think they should be able to use a computer with less effort than they put into getting dressed for the office.
“You shouldn’t complain, ” Ondina – my girlfriend – says when I vent. That’s why you have a job.
Of course, Ondina is a classic escape-button-pounding, CPU-slapping, triple-clicking inducer of crashes herself. The hours I have spent manually removing viruses because of her insistence on opening every piece of “open casting call !!!!” or “Free Headshots!!!!!!!” spam that comes her way. If computers are so smart, she’ll say, why can’t they keep it together?
Back on my screen, my mother has the hiccupy look that means she’s about to change the subject.
“Have you talked to them about Storeo?” she asks.
Storeo, unfortunately, is her idea of a business opportunity for the company where I work.
“I’ve run out of responses to this,” I say.
“So why don’t you go ahead and take care of it, then,” my mother deadpans. “Listen. The company picnic is the thirteenth?”
“Who knows,” I say. “Who cares?”
She does. She’s decided my company picnic is where I should casually waylay the CEO and pitch Storeo over a hot dog. “Easy peasy,” she says.
My mother is an online entrepreneur, at least in the rather wide eyes of her local paper. She sells clamshell ashtrays, ships in bottles, ersatz scrimshaw, shop-class captain’s-wheel napkin holders, “I’D RATHER BE FISHING” throw pillows and other souvenir flotsam that everyone in town has a basement full of. Now my mother ships it to people in North Dakota, Arkansas, Japan. Eventually she ran out of space in the house for the inventory she scoops up from yard sales and school fundraisers, so she went looking for what we used to call a storage unit and now call a solution.
One day a few years ago, she dragged me out to her house, insisting she needed my help with a big order. I was dutifully jamming packing peanuts around plaster, life-ring coasters when the guy I now know as Freddie from Sales turned up to discuss customized storage solutions with her.
Freddie started doing his routine at my mother’s kitchen table, trying to sell her on the benefits of the company’s premium damage-insurance policy. In truth, it consists mainly of things the company’s required by law to do, plus access to an annoying website where clients can while away hours logging the contents of their storage units on idiosyncratic drop-down menus that include aquariums but not TVs. Freddie popped open his laptop on one of my mother’s “Be Your Future” placemats to show her the website and ostensibly had trouble loading it, so my mother called me over from my Styrofoam snowdrift to take a look. It was a wireless problem. Easy to straighten out.
“Wish you worked at my office,” Freddie chuckled, his tie clip twitching. “Seriously, they’re always looking for computer guys. You guys got more job security than undertakers.”
At the time, I was still working at my college computer center. I’d graduated but was happy enough recovering strung-out commuter students’ lost term papers and hand-holding medievalists through archiving their email. At least they’d thank you, unlike office jockeys, who usually are fundamentally pissed that you’ve fixed their computer and now they have to get back to work. And I liked being able to sit in on classes on physics and things during my dinner break. But after Freddie’s “sales call,” my mother wouldn’t let it go.
“You’ve got to think of your future,” she told me.
“Relax,” I said. “I’ve got more job security than undertakers.”
“Your generation,” she said. “Since when is ambition a dirty word? All your father and I ever tried to do was make sure you would have opportunities. The entire country tried to make sure you kids would have opportunities. Computers and afterschool programs and somewhere to go to college. Ninja turtles and self-esteem and your own phones. And a gift certificate for dinner for two at the Harborside to donate to the silent auction for some team you weren’t even on to go to a tournament in Miami. I don’t know how many times I saw someone stand up at a school board meeting and say, ‘It’s all for the kids.’ We didn’t want to be like our parents, with the ‘forget about acting and go to secretarial school.’ All we wanted was for you to be whatever you wanted. But you don’t seem to want to be anything, you kids. Did I tell you that Ashley LaRocca is back living at home, waiting tables at The Angler’s Loop? Serving chicken rotini at the Chamber luncheon. She told me she was ‘figuring out’ what she wants to do. Figuring it out? She has a master’s degree, for God’s sake. A master’s degree that Frank and Donna took out a home equity line of credit to pay for, by the way. Andrew, I’m your mother, and I love you, but I have to tell you: life doesn’t just ‘work out.’ You have to make it work.”
I can’t take a your-generation speech any better than the rest of us kids, so here I am, a storage-company tech supporter with a mother who’s not done yet.
Storeo, she’ll tell you, is her plan to solve all our problems. It comes complete with a commonsensical backstory: she was out at her storage unit one day, loading in a nearly complete set of Lovely Lighthouses candlesticks she’d scored at the St. Brenny’s thrift shop, when she thought to herself how handy storage was for her particular business. That got her thinking about other lines of work that could use storage. And that’s when it dawned on her that a storage unit would be a perfect place for her neighbor Stryker Peck to put his goddamned recording studio that encroaches on her property line and keeps her up half the night with what she now realizes that an enduring community of prog-rock fans would not consider noise.
So she wants me to talk my company’s CEO into fixing up some empty units to rent as music studios. The way she sees it, the company gets new business, I get promoted to develop it, and she gets an out-of-the-box solution to her struggle with Stryker Peck.
“Out of the box? Really just putting him into a concrete box with bad acoustics,” I told her during the first of our roughly thirty-five conversations about this so far.
“All right, make fun of me,” she said, “but it’s not the worst idea in the world.”
She’s right. It’s not the worst idea in the world, though calling it Storeo might be. I realize that, on the surface, it looks like a perfectly reasonable proposition that takes a remarkably efficient stab at a slate of salutary goals: expanding a business, enhancing a career, settling a lawsuit, mending fences among neighbors, enabling a mother to help her son. “It’s amazing how things come together sometimes,” my mother says.
That’s exactly my point. It’s all just a little too amazing.
Ondina wants to break up in a public place. She wants to create a scene, she said. She wants to YouTube what she’s billing as a “talk” but obviously means a breakup, and bystanders’ reactions to it, and our reactions to the bystanders. She needs me to do this for her.
“Let me get this straight,” I said when she first told me.
“Shoot,” Ondina said. “We should be YouTubing this part, too.”
“We shouldn’t be YouTubing anything,” I said.
But Ondina wants to be on TV, or at least on-demand. Being a paralegal, she’s gunning for a spot on Cease & Desist, with its real-life stories of civil litigation. “Putting the Dis in Dismiss,” as the tagline says. She said she wants to be a reality star. I told her that I’d like to think we’re all stars in our own reality. “Very funny,” she said, “but at least try to understand?”
“Trust me, I’m trying,” I said.
“Not like I’m trying,” she said.
There’s no arguing that. Ondina’s whole life is trying. I only got where I am by busting my ass, she likes to say, and look where I am!
It’s a joke she tells the mozzarella-stick grubbers at the happy-hour place by her office, but some of them know it’s true. Ondina’s barely got a relative who’s not in jail or shouldn’t be. Her first memory of school is a kindergarten teacher looking at her name in the class roster and humming “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“I should YouTube that line about ‘I only got where I am by busting my ass, and look where I am,’” she mused. “Keesha the receptionist always says I’m funny.”
Ondina will take input from anywhere—Keesha the receptionist, the president of the United States, celebrity magazines, cable news, a horoscope, a guy on the bus, AGuyOnTheBus.com, me. She compiles and compiles. But there’s a last-in-first-out bias. Her approach to everything changes all the time. She’s the kind of person who believes a little bit in magic, like a dreamer in a movie who doesn’t quit while everyone else dismisses wishing as a waste of time.
She says I don’t open myself to what‘s around me. “You filter everything out like spam,” she told me once.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I let you through.”
She’s thinking about having our “talk” at the mall. Or maybe the airport, or the restaurant downtown where the light comes through the windows at sunset. We went there on our first real date, but this doesn’t seem like the time to bring that up.
“I’ve got to do this,” she says. “You know.”
I do. It’s as inevitable as arithmetic.
Ondina is prettier than any woman who logically should go out with me. Back when it started, Heriberto from work took one look at her cheekbones and kiddie-pool eyes and said, “Man, you must have some kinda game.”
Rest assured I’ve got no game whatsoever. What I’ve got is a mother with a lawsuit and a fondness for homespun theatrics. One day, she roped me into accompanying her to her lawyer’s office for the supposedly crucial deposition of the deputy planner or the chairman of the Meaningless Regulation Committee, whatever small-town strongman it was that week.
And there, colliding with me in the doorway in such a way as to scatter the files she had pressed to her un-overlookable rack, was Ondina. There was a whole “sorry”/“no, please, I should’ve—”/“let me get that” routine. Ondina’s heels tipped out of her slightly scuffed black pumps as we knelt to rake up the papers. I dropped an open box of paper clips I was inexplicably carrying. We exchanged goofy smiles.
Like this ever happens in real life.
Ondina grew up with her mom in a town that never quite recovers from the last hurricane or tornado or flood or hailstorm before the next one comes. The mayor gave up fixing the “WELCOME TO MOFFATSTOWN” sign, so now it reads “WE COME TO O F A ST,” to the chuffing glee of the misbegotten spring breakers who wind up there for lack of planning.
I never went anywhere on spring break, but not for lack of planning. I went through college on the minimal-impact plan: commuted the forty-five minutes in a ten-year-old car to a branch campus of State, kept the high school job with the hometown computer-repair guy until I traded up to the campus CompuCenter. Graduated with a job I could keep, no loans and no regrets, while the creative-haircut kids wandered around that last semester in the fugue of people who’ve spent all their time on existential questions and still have no answers.
Ondina’s mom runs Moffatstown’s second-largest taxi service, which consists of her and her Ford Windstar. Her boyfriend, Ray, is a mechanic who charges her for the parts but gives her a discount on the labor. As a businesswoman herself, she understands, she said when Ondina took me to meet her last summer. At any rate, Ray is a better deal than Ondina’s father, who died in a Jet-Ski accident when she was an infant, or her ex-stepfather, who last anyone looked was doing twelve-to-fifteen for what Ray explained as basically being a straight-up sumbitch many times over. “I’m not saying I’m no angel,” Ray added. Ray has a number of tattoos that I didn’t want to know the story behind, but we got along okay. We both fix things for people who, by and large, are beyond repair themselves.
“You can’t just write everybody off like that,” Ondina said when I told her this.
“Watch me,” I said. We were sitting under the ceiling fans in the midday gloom of The Next to Last Resort, the tumbledown bar where Moffatstown’s year-rounders hang out, and were perusing the dog-eared menu.
Ondina poled the ice at the bottom of her tumbler of sweet tea and said: “I mean, everybody has a role to play.”
There was something about the way she said it.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I mean,” she said slowly, “you act like you’re an island unto yourself. You joke and you judge and you hold yourself apart. Like you think you totally see through everything and no one else does. But you don’t.”
I absorbed this for a bit.
“OK,” I said in the spirit of playing along, since Ondina can go off on New Age-y tangents sometimes. “What don’t I understand?”
Ondina swiveled around to face me with an expression I’d not seen on her before. For a moment it was as though her personality had been drained out and replaced with shrewd, crystalline self-control. It was the look of someone trying to protect a secret or give a secret away.
“If you don’t get it, I really can’t tell you,” she said. “But reality is not what you think, believe me.”
“Also, I wouldn’t order the fish sandwich if I were you,” she added.
That was when I realized what’s going on.
I am the unwilling “star” of a reality TV show. I’m the crash test dummy in an entertainment vehicle.
I realize that conclusions like this tend to come with a tinfoil hat.
But look around at my life. There’s the office, with its video calls, its ham-handedly hidden surveillance network—I think most of us have figured out what those torturous “ergonomic chairs” are really all about—and its daily episodes of relatable conflict and coffee-mug humor. There’s my mother, about whom the kindest thing you can say is that she cannot be for real. And there’s Ondina, my improbable girlfriend, who aims to stage our breakup as an online event so she can get a shot at fake reality on TV. What reality could be less real than this?
Are you feeling OK?” Ondina asked as this ran through my mind at the Next to Last. “You seem a little, I dunno, off.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m on all the time,” I said.
I can tell you there’s nothing remotely flattering or exhilarating about discovering that you’re considered worth watching. And the worst part is not the idea of strangers ridiculing you in your underwear, or the implication that the pit viper in charge of Tech Support clearly knows you call him that. The worst part begins when you reassure yourself with the thought that the pit viper presumably isn’t really your boss, anyway—he’s just playing it on TV. As are your co-workers, your neighbors, your . . . finish that sentence, and it irradiates every square inch of your mental world.
Has even one moment of your life been spontaneous? Has anyone ever been honest with you? Your little aptitudes and accomplishments, are they just indulgences allowed to you to advance the plot? Have you ever had an actual choice? A genuine friend? Does your girlfriend actually even like you? Is your mom your mom? Are you, in any real sense, you?
At this juncture, you’ll probably say that everyone sometimes imagines his life as a movie or queasily suspects that people aren’t leveling with him. You may, I’ve learned, tactfully mention certain forms of delusion in which people think TV news anchors are talking to them or their loved ones have been replaced by impostors. Trust me, that is not what I think, and I know I’m not the first person to wonder what’s “real.” I went to college—I’ve seen the word “metaphysical” used in a sentence. But I can tell you that all the dorm-room philosophers who like to jaw about how reality is just an illusion have, in reality, absolutely no idea.
The ceiling fans kept lapping at the late-afternoon damp in The Next to Last Resort. Water pearled off our pebbled plastic tumblers of iced tea and began to pool on the bar. I heard the low, taut thhwwwwaaaaACK of Ondina peeling one of her long, bare legs off the barstool’s gummy varnish and perching like a very sexy grasshopper. A just-off-work guy drinking beer by the Keno machine unabashedly ogled her in a way that I was probably supposed to do something about. The bartender yawned and half-heartedly mopped around the taps with a rag I was glad I couldn’t smell. The whole scene had the carefully constructed, hyperreal languor that precedes bursts of violence accompanied by country songs in certain types of movies. I ordered the fish sandwich.
“It’s your funeral,” Ondina shrugged.
“When?” I barked, thinking: Next episode? Season finale?
“Jeez, Andy, I was only joking,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Neither do I.”
“Are you supposed to?” I asked, on guard.
“Let it go, Andy,” she said, cupping her temples in possibly mock exasperation. “Don’t borrow trouble.”
I conducted some experiments. I stopped watching thrillers and got more sleep. I got a free brain scan by signing up for a study on responses to ring tones. The test showed I was “aggressively normal,” the researchers said.
I “accidentally” knocked over the half-dead potted plant next to my desk at work so I could dig around for a camera. Within ninety seconds, a janitor I’d never seen showed up and told me in an unsteady accent please to let him take care of it. By the next morning, there was a nine-foot-tall palm looming over my desk in a cement planter that wouldn’t budge even when I “absentmindedly” rammed it with an equipment cart. I Googled my name, and the computer crashed—seven times on three different machines. I made note of people abruptly changing TV channels at times when I came by.
One weekend I told everyone I was going hiking in the woods with no cell service, and instead I holed up in a third-string motel by the highway to see what would happen. What happened was that I ran into Freddie from Sales at the ice machine, with a suspiciously detailed story about how his bathroom at home was being regrouted. Freddie is not a guy who sweats things like grout, and if he were, he’d corporate-credit-card his way into at least a Hilton Garden Inn.
The next weekend I actually did go hiking in the woods with no cell service. I was about one hundred feet down the trail when the camera crew appeared. They said they were shooting a nature documentary. “About what?” I asked.
“Newts,” they said.
“What kind of newts you get around here?” I asked.
“Pfigg newts,” one of the putative filmmakers said.
“Come again?” I said.
“Pfigg. After the, um, biologist. P-F-I-G. G.”
“The ‘P’ is silent,” another “filmmaker” added.
“I’ll bet it is,” I said.
That was enough. Maybe more than enough. The next day, after another comic-relief call from Lynn Ann in Admin Ops, I told Heriberto: “It’s like we’re on some sort of tech-support reality show here.”
“Oughtta be,” Heriberto said. “There’s a reality show about everything damn else.”
“Think about it,” I said as flippantly as I could. “We’re already being recorded all the time. With the security cams, the phones, the keystroke loggers probably—”
“Don’t go all Oliver Stone on me,” Heriberto said.
“Seriously,” I said, “you ever think about what they’re doing with all these cameras?”
“No, man,” he said. “If you’re sitting around thinking about stuff like that, you gotta get out more.”
The day after that, my mother materialized at my office and hauled me out to lunch.
“I was talking to Freddie just now,” she said, forking into an unpromising Waldorf salad at the office-park deli. “He said he saw you wandering around at some motel out by the interchange? What on earth were you doing?”
“Getting ice,” I said.
“He said you were acting very peculiar.”
“Me? Freddie was acting like … like he was there to keep tabs on me.”
“Andrew,” my mother said flatly. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s going to sound odd,” I warned.
“It already sounds odd,” she said.
“I’ve started to think I’m—being filmed,” I said. “All the time. For some kind of reality TV show about a guy who doesn’t realize he’s on TV, I guess. Except now I realize it.”
My mother slowly lowered a forkful of salad and laid her plastic fork pensively on her plate. For a moment, I thought she might surprise me.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said. “Your generation. You think everything is always about you.”
After that, I figured I had nothing to lose. I discussed my situation with my old college adviser, who advised me to take up meditation and adopt a cat. A guy I encountered on a bus recommended professional help, as did AGuyOnTheBus.com. My mechanic shrugged and told me to get a dog and a new transmission. A buddy from high school, over paper-bagged beers on the pier in my hometown, suggested I try group therapy. Or paintball.
Before heading home that night I drove around my hometown for a while to try to spot how I was being followed. I’d gotten in the habit of doing it when I had the time. Soon a black Land Rover fell in behind me. My hometown, with its narrow streets and minds, is not a Land Rover kind of town.
After the high-riding headlights stuck in my rearview mirror for a couple of miles. I made a sudden turn into the parking lot of the backstreets bar that everyone in town calls The Toxic Waste. The Land Rover signaled politely, turned in after me and parked in the dark end of the lot. Through the shadows I could make out a tall figure exiting the driver’s seat, lighting a cigarette and leaning against the hood. I headed into The Toxic Waste.
I took a seat next to the wall and kept my head down, since Waste patrons aren’t known for their eagerness to meet new people. A few regulars were scattered around the U of the bar like a gap-toothed grin. Behind me a guy was playing what passes for darts at The Toxic Waste, pitching empty beer cans into a pile.
I heard the chair next to mine move. Into it slouched ex-prog-rocker Stryker Peck.
Stryker Peck is from my hometown, topping the Chamber of Commerce’s meager list of “notable natives.” His unexplained return five years ago touched off town boosters’ visions of getting on or near the map, overtures he rebuffed faster than they could say “benefit concert.” He’s been a spooky presence around town, a sunglasses-wearing, sunken-chested six-foot-five-inch figure occasionally seen loping into the hardware store or buying smokes at the Qwik Snak. It made no sense, or complete sense, that he was joining the Stygian social scene at The Toxic Waste. He was looking around for somewhere to put out the cigarette wedged between two of his calloused fingers.
I handed him my empty can of Old Milwaukee. He dropped the butt in the can with a nod of acknowledgement.
Peck palmed several folded bills onto the bar, weighing them down with a set of Land Rover keys and a Zippo lighter engraved with “This Too Shall Pass.” The bartender poured him a Maker’s Mark with no words exchanged.
I looked up at the muted TV. A promo for a new reality show, a microwave home-cooking contest, flared across the screen.
“Every asshole in America thinks they should be on TV,” Peck said.
“Not me,” I said.
“Bring this guy a beer,” he told the bartender.
“Thanks,” I said.
“You look familiar,” Peck said.
“My mother lives next door to you.”
“The lawsuit lady?” I nodded.
“You know, I put all kinds of soundproofing in there,” he said.
“There’s no soundproofing for the voices in some people’s heads,” I said.
I wasn’t going to win any son-of-the-month awards for that, but then she may not actually be my mom.
“Bring this guy a shot,” Peck said.
It went like that. By the third round, I was telling him my whole story. It seemed to me that a guy who wrote twelve-minute-long songs about cosmic rays and alienation would be as receptive an audience as any. I told him about Ondina and the doorway and the paperclips, the office video calls and the potted plant, my mother and Freddie from Sales, the Pfigg newts, everything.
“Jesus,” Peck said when I finished.
“I know it sounds ridiculous,” I said.
“Many ridiculous things are true,” he said.
“Bring this guy a shot,” I said.
We downed another round.
“So what’s your next move?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
Peck strummed his cliff of a chin.
“You might want to lay off the weed,” he said.
“I’m not smoking any weed,” I said.
“Oh,” he smiled. “Then you might want to start.”
“You have to act surprised,” Ondina says. I’m driving her around my perversely average community so she can scout potential locations for our “talk.”
“Act?” I say. “I thought this was supposed to be ‘reality.’”
“We have to act real,” she says. “Hey, do you think Java Maven would let us video in there?”
“What’s real about faking surprise?”
Ondina torques in her seat to check out Java Maven, and I’m not sure she hears me. But she does.
“Well, what’s happening is real,” she says in a gentle, puzzled way. It’s not necessarily meant to shut me up, but it does. Ondina has a spontaneous-kindness way that still gets me, in spite of everything.
The truth is I don’t want to break up with Ondina, even if it’s all been for show. What I want to do is pull over and stop this. I want to make a go-for-broke gesture, but all the ones I know have already been in movies.
Instead I nearly rear-end a Land Rover with a plate that says “GASLITR.”
“Hell’s bells,“ Ondina says as the seatbelts snap us back. “You want me to drive?”
It occurs to me that nearly plowing into someone while trying to come up with a grand gesture has probably also been in a movie. It’s almost impossible these days to have an unscripted moment. Try it yourself sometime.
“Sorry. It’s OK,” I say. “Everything’s under control.”
It’s a suspiciously perfect day. The sun is out. The sky is paint-chip blue. The grass is so green it looks radioactive. The only sounds are the trill of an unseen bird and the whispered sht-sht-sht of a twisting sprinkler. The little parks-department building with the bathrooms and the closet full of tangled badminton nets and semi-deflated basketballs looks like it’s just been powerwashed. There are no cigarette butts in the dirt moats around the trees where there are, statistically, always cigarette butts. It’s just cool enough in the shade to vanquish the sweat from an average brow during an average breath-catching, beer-grabbing break from an average game of out-of-shape, once-a-year adult volleyball. It feels like the first day of a summer you remember from childhood, if you choose to forget that you spent that day in camp with some real jerks of kids from the rival elementary school. Altogether, it’s a day too good to be true for the company picnic.
I’m sitting in my car in the overflow parking lot. I’ve been here for a couple of hours, watching. First a van pulled up in the access road by the picnic area and disgorged an anthill of white-smocked caterers. Then cars started to trickle and flow into the main parking lot.
I saw Ondina get there early to scope it out, pulling into the first row in the tin can of a convertible I urged her not to buy. She’s talked a couple of people from her continuing-ed film class into coming here to shoot this. She’s expecting at least two angles.
Of course, to preserve the “reality” of it, the potential videographers haven’t been told they’ll be shooting our breakup. Ondina said it would be good television, and I can’t say I disagree. There’s a decent chance I’ll be out of both a relationship and a job before lunch. Would you want to work with a guy who got dumped at the company picnic? But I’ll do my part. I’ve realized a dramatic exit is exactly what I need.
I picture me, after this, walking to my car, wooden and defeated, as the cameras follow me across empty overflow parking spaces. Slumping into the driver’s seat, turning the key, steering out through a gantlet of half-sympathetic stares.
Then rolling down the park road and onto the street, past the library and the churches and the wizened strip center with its bagel shop and pizzeria. Turning onto the four-lane arterial, passing the local government complex and supermarket shopping plazas, until the road goes six-lane and speeds by the medical center and the mall and finally swoops onto the highway out of town. It’s the scene anyone would foresee.
Then my plan is to become unwatchable.
After all this time in tech, I know enough about the digital dark arts to lay down a certain amount of covering fire, but that’s almost beside the point. The point is: I’ll be plotless and experimental. I’ll keep going without getting anyplace particular. I’ll be in gas stations, convenience stores, big-box electronics marts, burger chains, highway rest areas, drive-through ATMs. I’ll crop up at movie multiplexes, sports arenas, and continental breakfasts at airport-road motels. Office parks. Food courts. Chain drugstores. I’ll get out and see a country where it’s still possible to dream of being no one.
My phone rings. Ondina.
“Andy, where are you?” she says in that way she has of being concerned and lighthearted at the same time. “Everyone’s here already. We‘re waiting for you.”
So I get out of my car and start walking toward the picnic area. As I cut through the overflow lot, the crowd starts to come into focus. It’s as though I’m watching a very large photo download and fill with details. I can pick out the pit-viper VP holding court by the condiments for a bunch of ass-kissers from Accounts Receivable while some Maintenance guys take on Property Management in tug-of-war with overtones. I spot Heriberto laughing with Lynn Ann in the burger line. My mother’s talking to the CEO by the catering van, with her hand on his arm. Storeo lives to die another day, I’m betting. It occurs to me that something about these caterers is familiar.
Walking down the center aisle of the main parking lot now, I can see Freddie from Sales pumping a keg for a bearded, bad-jacket guy I recognize as my old college adviser. I’m still processing this when I notice my mother’s lawyer sack racing against my mechanic. Next to them Ondina’s mom is handing off an egg-roll relay to the guy from the bus. The bartender from The Next to Last Resort is tossing a Frisbee to Ashley LaRocca from my high school. The caterers, whom I finally recognize as the Pfigg newts film crew, cluster to open the van’s heavy, windowless back doors as I cross the access road. I almost don’t see Stryker Peck propped on a picnic table off to the side, smoking a cigarette and giving me a nod that could mean or not mean anything. It strikes me that all this is exactly what I should have expected and that it’s less freakish than touching, in a way. Especially because here now is Ondina, arms outstretched and expression all forgiveness and invitation, leading me toward the open van doors—and you, Doctor? Is that you?
Jenno Kane is a writer in New York City. Her fiction has been published in Arcturus.