You did not sleep last night.
At least that you can recall. At about one or two in the afternoon, you wake and go to your old Corona to feed it its lunch of ribbon and paper. You think of it as a child—always hungry, always dark, and with a mouth of white teeth. You think of it as an extension of you. It is your heir.
It seems to laugh at you because you have that amniotic fluid of sleeplessness wrapped about your head, your arms, and your legs, and your gestures are slow and awkward because of it.
You try to focus through it, through the brain freeze of insomnia, but the light is too bright even through the curtains that have been drawn closed for a week now. You grab your glasses and the left Coke bottle lens falls out. It has fallen under the writing desk but you don’t reach for it because it will take too much mental and physical effort to find it. Instead you try to narrow in on the blank page you have just curled into the mouth of the typewriter. But the page is too blank, too white, too large an expanse to fill, so you close your eyes and wonder how you will get through another day without sleep. Without sunlight. Without the babel of voices in your head to tell you what to write. You imagine what one of your characters would do, but most of them are ineffectual, and remain lying in the bed of your unpublished manuscripts. After a full three minutes, all you see are the varicolored lights and shapes conjured up by a near R.E.M. experience, and you tear yourself awake again.
You stare down at the typewriter—this black and humorless child of yours—and wonder if it may be missing some essential element in its D.N.A. for which only you are to blame. You try focusing on the page again. You notice a black bug crawling across the white, untutored page. It is short and has many legs. You reach down to find the missing lens. It lies next to an empty vodka bottle by the outlet. By rote, you fit it into the frame of your eyeglasses, and strain to see the page again, but are struck to find that the thing is not a bug at all, but rather a curt, decisive sentence. It reads, “The End” and you wonder what it is the end of. You carefully draw the page up from the mouth of the little black beast to have a closer look.
You did not write this.
You have not written anything but unsent letters to your ex-wife in months, so you are beside yourself when you realize that on the writing desk, next to the empty cereal bowls and graveyard-like ashtrays, sits a manuscript. On the title page a name that resembles yours appears. Dewey Landsotter. The name has all the same letters and syllables but, for some strange reason, does not have that ridiculous ring to it anymore, the one that used to embarrass you in high school. Gooey Manspotter they used to call you. But no, this name is engaging, intellectual—almost cool. You decide to place “The End” page at the back of the manuscript next to the ashtray; then you settle back in your chair, remove your glasses, and wipe your eyes red.
You think it’s the sleep deprivation, the antidepressants, or that you have finally fallen asleep and might actually be dreaming, so you go to check the date on the old Times you stole from your neighbor. You turn to the Arts and Review section as you used to when you could afford the subscription, or rather your wife could. And there, on what seems to take up more of the page than needed, is an article on the writer Dewey Landsotter. It is you. You have just published your first novel loosely based on your life, you read, and it is a bestseller. You’re being compared to Sal—Sal— you realize that you have smudged the page with your oily fingers trying to hold the paper while placing the thick, prescription lens, which has fallen out again, back into the broken frame of your glasses. When you do, you see the picture next to the article and are flummoxed.
You think this may be some kind of joke.
Your manuscript, “The Beginning of Happy Endings,” has been rejected by agents — 47 times. You have not had a life beyond therapy appointments, pills, and daylong masturbation sessions with secondhand porn to write about, in which case the book would certainly fall under the “loosely based” genre. Nonetheless, you grab the remote control and point it at the television, which has remained on for what seems over a month now if not for the light of it, for the comfort of noise it brings. You flip through channels and realize that you have made a career of watching television. But the thought does not concern you as much as the hope that you might come across some news story that will let you in on the joke the world is having at your expense.
Channel after channel of commercials and old black and white movies light up the screen until you come across an interview with a man in a haughty blue suit with slicked hair and purposefully white teeth. The man looks and sounds like the Movie-of-the-Week version of you. He has this confidence that seems airbrushed for the camera, and his voice is eloquent and high with all manner of wit and anecdotal humor rolling off his tongue. Then you realize that it is you.
It is you, sitting at the roundtable across from the long-faced, talk show host, recounting the summer you spent in the most impoverished parts of Mexico while writing your novel. “Mexico?” you wonder.
“Yes, Mexico,” you say to the interviewer who leans in with genuine interest, “…where I encountered the likes of drug lords and corrupt officials on a continuum,” you say, with a kind of forgivable bravado.
You go on to explain that you went there because you think America’s become too safe, too obese with banality and this eat-everything-on-your-plate mentality, and you wanted to see the savagery of real poverty to know what true longing looked like.
You claim you did it for your writing. What strikes you most about your story is that, aside from a trip to Niagara Falls you and Mercy took just before the divorce, you have not left the city in years. And now she, Mercy—your ex-wife, cannot help but be an accomplice to your paranoia, and you wonder if she might be behind all of this.
You pull your gristle-stained khakis on, and storm the driveway while buttoning up your yellowing, long-sleeved shirt. You haven’t inhaled fresh air in days, and the sun feels punishing against your skin, but you continue because, somewhere in the slosh of your heavily caffeinated, overly pickled head, you think, The world will have an answer.
You dive through one of the two doors of your 1965 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The stale breath of hot leather hits your face, and you remember the day you lost your virginity to Mercy. “The perks of having wheels,” you remember saying to your stoner friends, and you decide that your sophomore year in college was the highlight of your pre-marriage days.
There is less than a quarter tank of gas, you notice, as you steer yourself out of the driveway without a glance in the rearview mirror. And as you pass all the Candyland houses on the block, you realize that there are actually ordinary people in them. “Normal people,” you say. People who seem to have made all the right choices, have good jobs with stable incomes that provide certain levels of security, which have led to that entangling but protective cobweb the middle classed, middle aged called “stability.” Then, as you drive pass women tending to their gardens, children at play, and all the things associated with contented, neighborhood life, you realize that that’s the reason she left. That’s the reason she divorced you. Mercy wanted something that made her feel safe. Protected. Normal.
No, it can’t be she who’s playing this joke, you decide. Mercy has someone in her life now, someone she got serious with not long after the divorce. His name is Norm, and though you’ve never thought of yourself as big on irony, you realize that the normalcy she sought is baked in. He’s a teacher, like her. A man who can provide her with all the movie nights you had to flake out of because you’d been boarded up in your room with a brilliant idea for a manuscript that, aside from the one, never seemed to complete itself.
“Someone named Norm would never do that,” you say. Someone named Norm would hold her arm as he accompanied her to all those holiday parties she invited you to but that you always declined being too ashamed to face her coworkers without that veneer of confidence you’ve always believed a paying job gives you. No, it couldn’t be her that was up to all this manuscript-newspaper-television business, she’s happy, and happy people don’t have time for deceitfulness.
As you reach the city’s main thoroughfare, you become aware of how fast you have been driving, and come to a slow. You take in all the bright vulgar signs and carbon copy buildings with the marvel of a wildebeest escaped from the zoo. Then, as you come to the end of the boulevard, your eyes catch a sight of that man from the television and the newspaper. He rises up on a billboard directly ahead of you with the height of your one-story house, and then some. He is trim and erect, and a sand-colored blazer and dark blue tie fit over his upper portions like a doctor’s glove. He looks out at you and onto the little people below with that cocksure air from the interview. It is as though he’s lassoed some great knowledge about life and wrapped it up in that image of his book that’s positioned from the bottom to the crest of the billboard next to his clearly defined frame.
You push your oily glasses up to the eaves of your brow, but keep your eyes on the traffic so as to cross over onto the safer side of the boulevard where the cars whiz to and fro. You only half-notice oncoming vehicles as you hang a left and parallel park just under the sign. You remove yourself from the car and, stepping onto the warm tarry street, you realize that you are still in your house slippers.
How did you forget your shoes but remember your car keys?
You stare up into the face of the man on the billboard and try to place a resemblance. Your hair hasn’t been cut since the divorce, and even when you were married, you used to have Mercy cut it to save money and the indignation of paying for something you could do yourself. Only when you tried to do it, Mercy would come into the bathroom and laugh that wonderfully benign laugh you always thought could slay cherubs saying, “Here, honey, why don’t you let me get what your blind spot missed?” And then you’d give up the scissors in a huff even though you knew she thought you were helpless in that child-in-the-pancake-mix kind of way.
You find yourself smiling at the thought of it, but the image of the pristinely dressed, closely shaved doppelganger on the billboard staring down at the you standing on the street behind the car door reminds you that much of what you thought familiar has become estranged to you. You remain there like a rat caught in the jaws of a trap suddenly aware that you stink of two weeks without a bath. And that’s all you need is to have one of Mercy’s friends or coworkers come by and say hello as though you had all your marbles, only to go back to tell her what a state of mental and emotional disrepair you have fallen into since the divorce.
You make a shield of your hand to shadow your eyes, and narrow your failing eyesight on the wall-sized face in the advertisement. He, whoever he is, has a face kissed by a foreign sun and a kind of macrobiotic/monthly colonic glow about him. Even his smile seems godlike, you notice with a kind of envy, as you scrutinize the slight pearly overhang under his top lip. The chip in your tooth from that one August six years into the marriage is gone. That one you think of as a kind of Purple Heart because it reminds you of the night you and Mercy got so drunk it ended in bloodshed and a visit to the emergency room.
She had just completed her dissertation, and you wanted to take her out to celebrate. Only your meager income from the spell checking jobs your former professors threw your way would not cut it. So the two of you stayed home and downed a couple of bottles of bad, homemade wine her mother had left behind. The wine tasted like a mixture of squashed grapes and cereal milk. In a fit of laughter, the two of you found yourselves out of doors and down the street at the neighborhood playground. The night was thick, but at the height of your stupor, you only saw her. You hardly remember the freshly cut lawn, the monkey bars and sand box, only how you felt alive, as though anything were possible. And Mercy, still tipsy and rosy cheeked, looked as though she had fallen out of a chink in the moon. She climbed on the merry-go-round and begged you to spin it. You laughed and spun the thing until she cried out at the air and the fireflies and the night.
“If I let go, will you catch me?!” she screamed.
“Yes,” you urged, “let go!”
And then, with the spinning merry-go-round bringing her to where you stood all arms and stupid smile, she jumped. And in a kind of unlikely, rehearsed way the both of you fell backwards onto the cool grass with a weightless grace. You kept hold of her because she was still dizzy. You held her against your chest because she thought the world was still spinning. You thought this was funny and laughed so hard that you didn’t notice the blood and the tooth until about half a minute later. Despite the injury, you’ve always counted that as being one of the best evenings of your marriage—that and your wedding night, of course.
In the E.R. waiting room, Mercy suggested you might have dipsomania. You were still drunk. You kept hold of your bleeding mouth and laughed it off. But as soon as you got home, you looked up the word, and realized that you do.
Mercy decided to quit drinking after that. You never could.
But all that’s the past, you remind yourself, mere moments that have spun off the axis of your life. And now all you have are your “wheels,” your house, and this overwhelming need to get something down—make something—you—permanent.
This makes you melancholic.
And the weight of remorse that you’ve been carrying on the blades of your shoulders, and in the nape of your neck spreads out over the rest of your body, and you find it easiest to just slump down into the seat of the car, and stare out at traffic through the filmy windshield before you.
You wonder where Mercy is at this very moment, and what angelic hue she might be wearing. You think about the house that sits about two miles away and you dread going back. You think about that little black typewriter that has failed you these last few years and of Norm, and his normal job and his normal name. Suddenly a hot swell of blood fills your chest and you are hardly conscious when you close the door at your side and rev up the old Cutlass like a chainsaw. You pull it into reverse, shift forward then reverse it again, twisting the wheel around until the car’s rear end sticks out into traffic and the front end crawls over the sidewalk. In some vague room in the back of your head, you hear the honking horns on the street and the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Some of them watch in amazement while others shout obscenities as you stare ahead at the great sign before you, then step on the gas, peeling into the front two legs of the sign. The framework, made of warped wooden beams and positioned between two abandoned buildings, is ancient but the car barely makes a dent. You reverse over the sidewalk again, rear-ending a parked car, then charge the car forward with a meaner squeal than before. The wooden posts buckle, and this prompts you to floor the petal, to steer the car back and forth in little convulsions until the two front supports holding up the giant billboard give. The face in the image continues to smile. This angers you more. It continues to grin over the world even as a crack ascends from its lower half up into the chin and over the nose and forehead. Even as you continue to plummet into the wooden legs of the sign until, as though with a great sigh, your one-dimensional face folds inward and crumbles into two pieces like a great, dying colossus.
You turn the car off, but steam and the engine’s cough continue to rise from under the demolished hood. You leave the keys in the ignition and force open the side door to remove yourself from the car. It sits over the sidewalk black as that word “The End” on the white page from your manuscript. But you take no notice of this. Instead you rip into the puzzle-like fragments of the billboard with the fury of someone who has seen a loved one crushed under the weight of rubble.
You resolve to make that phony cutout parading around as you, you. You decide you’ll be whatever it is the powers that be want you to be. You picture yourself walking into every crowded room with the gusto of Sal—Sal—whoever it was they were comparing you to in the Times.
“Yes,” you say, “anything is possible!”
You see yourself driving onto the front yard of Norm’s newly built house. You watch as you walk over the lawn ornaments as if they were landmines up to the front porch. You don’t even knock. You stroll through the front door saying, “I’m sorry for barging in like this, but there’s something I have to do.” You watch yourself take the stack of fifth grader homework Mercy’s grading at the dinner table and toss it aside. You admire how you pull her up by the hand and lead her out to the car. And when she asks you, “Why?” you say it’s because she’s the closest thing to humanity you will ever know. And when you say it, she believes you because it’s with the appeal of some silver screen movie idol in his last scene.
You say you’re no longer the guy she knew, no longer the guy who couldn’t cut his own hair, couldn’t take her to a fancy restaurant, and couldn’t give her the child she always wanted. No, that was the other you. You’re different now. You’re the guy who goes into border-towns, writes with a gun at his side, and plays with fire because the real world is never good enough to write about.
Yes, that will be me, you think, the man who catches his wife when she falls off the edge of the world.
Then, with the cleft in the hood still hissing behind you and the white chalk of billboard wreckage smearing into your bleeding face, your torn shirt, and your tenderized hands, you turn over a vast piece of the sign to see that ruined face of yours ever smiling, ever famous, ever commercial, but realize that it is gone. The author hawking his latest book is nothing but a dull, overwrought ad for face cream or something or other.
At once the light of day goes gray.
And you turn to see the crowd looking down at you as though you are lying in your coffin. You realize you are kneeling. Your knees hurt. You rise up onto your seemingly wooden legs, and push through the crowd to steal into the car. You lock the doors and turn the visor out, but nothing shields you from the flashbulbs and smeared, peering faces outside the windows. You switch on the radio, but nothing drowns out the scream of ascending sirens. You wait there for what seems a matter of minutes listening to the voice of the pop idol ooze out of the car speaker. You raise the volume so as to blot out the blare of police megaphones threatening to shoot if you do not surrender. You slink down to your side, curling your legs up onto the hot leather seat. You take in that leathery smell you will always attribute to virginity, to ecstasy, and to Mercy. Mercy, you think, and at once the stack of folded up letters feels tight in your pants pocket. You do not recall putting them there. It is as though it was not you who had put them there. As though it was not you who had written them. You remove them. “To Mercy” one says. No, in fact, they all start that way, you notice, but the Coke bottle lens has long since fallen out of your glasses, and for some reason this reminds you that the front door of your house is still unlocked. Then, with a sort of hero’s resolve, you look toward the gas gauge below the dusty dashboard window and decide that the small amount of gas in the tank should be enough to get you home.