Joe lay atop Melissa, spent. He felt her fingertips search out his shoulder blades and press them with tenderness and confusion. Then her palms caressed his flanks.
"Are you okay, love?"
Worry toned her voice, even fear.
And, She sees it, Joe thought.
"Yeah, I'm okay," he breathed distantly, without conviction. His words sounded brittle, empty, dry. They fell from his throat friable, like autumn tinder. Still, they spoke a meaning. They meant: "I can go on, I think. I am okay enough not to collapse, I think." But Joe lie atop Melissa soulless, vacant. An echo of himself, he lie. Little of him remained.
Joe rolled off of Melissa's breasts. Twinned they lie then, Joe and Melissa, shoulder at shoulder, his hand limp in hers, her thoughts searching his. Melissa, unconvinced, said a cheerful thing to Joe, something to cheer him. The hazy sunset burnished them through breezing curtains. Joe did not respond. Joe winced as the nurse drew up syringes. Joe growled at computer errors. Joe deflected clamping fangs. And then Joe dreaded the pizza orders, the pizza orders and the cruelties of the dinner rush at the restaurant tonight. Joe reached for his pubic hairs. He scratched a trail of poison ivy that entered them. He scratched again. Joe answered finally, "Yeah, okay," in that profoundly faraway voice that Melissa did not recognize and which made her feel cold inside and alone. Then Joe rose. Joe rose to daub and medicate the pussing scabs of his ribs, to begin gearing up for his bicycle trek to work.
"I love you," Melissa faltered, hopefully, stretching to embrace his neck.
They kissed goodbye now.
"I love you, too," he said routinely.
But these were just words. Joe did love Melissa. His affection for her, he knew, still abided somewhere within him. But to confess that love just now was to lie. For he did not feel that love just now. All Joe felt just now was his misfortune. He felt: But surely it cannot persist. One month, two months, maybe three months such bad luck might go on, but it must finally cease. If misfortune like this could continue indefinitely, Joe counseled himself, the human race would not exist: Life would never have evolved: The earth would still be stardust.
Joe swept his leg over the bicycle seat and squinted upward as Melissa waved from the balcony. He coasted onto the downward thoroughfare that would speed him to the bus stop. He rubbed his neck blisters against the licking of the wind. He straightened his stomach against the cramps of the rabies shots. He cursed for the tighter brakes of the bicycle stolen last week. And he stoppered the hollow nausea of last night's battle for sleep, of last night's surmounting of the poison ivy, of last night's vodka.
And the deadening.
Joe felt that deadened sensation which all these calamities had drubbed into him, that surrendering feeling, the searing, melting. Fire, he felt, and a weakness, a weakness for which he had found only conflicting words. Quicksand, he named it. Bottomless. Something was breaking in him, Joe sensed, or being lost.
Joe lifted the bicycle onto the rack of the bus, paid his fare, claimed a seat, arranged his helmet on his knees, folded his hands over his helmet, and shut his eyes. He shut his eyes. Joe shut his eyes and felt anew his nausea and his itch and that lonely fear of dying of rabies. He silently moaned. The kitchen would be unworkable tonight. Trent's red face rose before him to insult Danielle. He saw Trent's red face quitting. Joe hoped Danielle had persuaded someone to cover Trent's shift. Unworkable, Joe feared. He shut his eyes and rumbled along with the onward groan of the bus. He tried as usual to meditate through this leg of the commute but caught himself instead dwelling on his knuckles. Joe scratched them. And then again.
And that melting, burning.
And so fruitless these meditations, Joe felt, fruitless now for weeks, never allowing him release. Joe knew what spoiled them. Like now, a fearful thought would rise in his mind, or an angry rejection, and he would mentally resist that thought or rejection and his mind would cloud and obstruct his meditation. He could transcend pleasant feelings to achieve release. But he could never transcend these dark feelings. The darkness oppressed Joe, bound him, barred his passage to release. Fear or frustration or sorrow or regret would swirl in him and Joe would recoil from it and both that initial dark feeling and his subsequent resistance would block escape. Release never came to him anymore. Peace always eluded. For months now Joe had seen nothing but darkness in his world, felt nothing but resistance in his mind, and experienced little more than a parched excommunication in his meditations.
But he shut his eyes anyway.
And then he scratched his knuckles.
Joe lifted his bicycle off the bus rack, hiked his knee over its seat and pedaled to the near crossroads where a traffic light held him. Tightening clouds rumbled. But Joe would arrive before their downpour. It will grant me that much, he sniffed. It. Fate. God. Satan. Who or whatever is conducting this experiment on my fortitude, or enjoying this sport with my anguish, or laying this wager against my break point.
Joe considered the failed computer. Joe considered the used computer he bought to replace the failed computer. Joe considered how the replacement computer then failed, too. Forget them, he told himself. But he recalled the letters to publishers stored inside that failed computer, and foresaw the tortures the restaurant was about to visit upon him, and feared he would never escape the tortures without the letters. And the stomach cramps. And the nausea. And the wishing he could numb the poison ivy with pain killers instead of vodka. With vodka! Why should a man who never drinks alcohol, he demanded, have to drink himself to sleep with vodka? But the itching. The itching. The itching. The itching. Sometimes nothing but the itching. Not humiliation. Not libido. Not famishment. Just the itching. Torrential. A deluge. It strip-mined him. It clear-cut him. It battering-rammed his resilience and strength. Fodder, he fell to it. And five thousand dollars the rabies treatment would cost. But I don't have five hundred! But the doctor said I'm not going to die. I'm not going to die. And Italy? How can I finish the novel without traveling to Italy? Four years of steady progress suddenly stalls, slips into limbo. Maybe I won't finish it now. And my bicycle, for god's sakes. Somebody stole my bicycle, for god's sakes. Joe toed out the kickstand of his old bicycle and knelt and slumped against the restaurant's dumpster. Trembling, Joe sat, resigning himself to his destruction. For in a few dreadful moments he would pitch himself into that maelstrom of a Saturday night dinner rush. He girded himself.
Joe shut his eyes. Joe shut his eyes against the gauzy curtain of carbon sky. Gauzy curtain, Joe reflected. Gauzy fabric, Joe revised. Carbon fabric, Joe reflected. Carbon heaviness, Joe revised. Heaviness, Joe felt, and darkness, and a knot now gathering above his nose. The knot had been rising occasionally in Joe's meditations, coalescing between his eyebrows, sucking into it all his concentration, deigning him fractions of hope when he focused on it long enough.
Joe contemplated the illusion of joy. Joe contemplated the illusion of contentment. Joe pondered how readily one could escape those illusions, could break free of their giddiness and pleasance into release. If one examined their false promise, Joe thought, if one acknowledged their transience, Joe thought, one could accomplish it. But from a position of resistance, Joe felt, of rejection, of defending oneself against trial, against danger, against threat--How impossible to find release! One cannot just suspend self-defense, Joe objected hotly. Self-defense is instinct. Even if you believe intellectually the persona you protect--the ego--is some sort of mirage; even if you yearn in some abstract way to annihilate it; you still end up guarding your face against a fist, you still end up gripping fearfully at the handrail of a footbridge, you still end up preserving your existence. Joe lamented: But this contradicts release! This is a holding instead, a grasping, a keeping! Joe shook his head. One cannot step directly from behind this bulwark of self-defense, he insisted, into that untrammeled range of release. They are antithetical. And Joe's thoughtstream paused. And Joe's thoughtstream resumed. But could such a bulwark be burned away from without? he wondered. And Joe heard the slobber-mouthed snarl of the German Shepard just before its lunge. And he relived the fangs of the dog's muzzle hammering at his knees. And the animal officer's grimness then, Joe saw. And the animal officer's telephone call then, Joe took. Might it be possible? Joe asked. Could...self-defense...be burned away...? The knot between Joe's eyes tightened further. He peered into it fiercely. But to no release. Joe opened his eyes finally and checked his watch. And impotent he had been with Melissa.
Joe pealed off his sweaty t-shirt and pulled over his shoulders a dry work shirt. He flipped on his work cap, slung on his backpack, locked his bicycle to a metal pole, tested the bicycle's lock with a hard tug, and then strode from behind the restaurant, around the side of the restaurant, to the fore of the restaurant. A congestion of idling headlights met him; and a valet sprinting by in panicked grimace; and patrons milling about on the outer sidewalk. Joe knit his brow. Surely not, he thought. Not on a wait this early. But a murmur of despair shivered in him.
Joe excused himself through the pressing crowd at the restaurant's entry. He forded on to the dining room's din, to its carnival-like clatter, to its spectacle of mouths gaping with laughter, gaping for swill, hawing demands. The voracity always stunned Joe. He lowered his swimming eyes to round a yammering booth. Then a long gauntlet of raucous tables he trod. Joe came upon a waitress anxiously tapping a computer screen. A second waitress hastened Joe to clock in. None of them spoke. Joe cornered the server's alley. Dozens swarmed there in neckties and flinting eyes. He swallowed. "Ticket 286." Glass. Fajita-smoke. "Fries, please." Lager. Crisis. Pie. Angular limbs buckled like wildfire. Arms and trays and elbows and hips. They squeaked. They glided. They clinked. Joe slid through. He sought the busboy's eye--but the busboy watched an urgent inner vision. He glimpsed the dishwashers' backs--but the dishwashers were nothing but flex and slosh. So no one noted Joe. No one spoke to him. Joe achieved the coat room somehow still steady of mind. Joe closed then the door of the coat room. He closed the door of the coat room quietly, even gently. And...silence.
Joe exhaled a fragile breath.
Slowly Joe opened a miniature locker.
Joe twisted into that locker his backpack, secured the locker with a padlock, tested the padlock with a hard tug, fit his hands into two large latex gloves, looped over his neck a polyester apron and then stood there. Joe tied the apron strings behind his back and just stood. For a long time Joe stood. He fingernailed the itching across his chest. Nausea, Joe repressed. Could the doctor be mistaken, he worried. Might I still die? Five thousand dollars, Joe weighed. The burnt computer, the missing bicycle, the soccer game. Even the soccer game! A diversion, the game should have been, amelioration. Instead Joe arrived to find a vacant stadium. One more blow! The game cancelled, or rescheduled.
Joe scratched his neck.
The coat room door swung open.
A thundering from the dish area concussed Joe, and wait staff shriek, and dining room row.
"There you are!"
Wayne, the manager, breathlessly puffed.
"We need you on the line, Joe. You clocked in? We're gettin' bitch-slapped."
Distractedly Joe uttered, "...burned away?..."
"Bitch-slapped! What? We're getting our asses kicked!"
Joe turned to follow. An automaton he strode, trailing Wayne into the suffocating clamor. Part of Joe began thrashing against the clamor, as the drowning might against waves. But another part of him just observed its bawling expeditors, observed its shattered salad girl, observed even his own thrashing, his own observation.
Wayne angled for the dining room.
Joe stepped onto the line.
Danielle, he found there, the assistant manager. She stooped toward a dozen hanging pizza tickets. She slopped marinara over pizza crusts with movements tentative, graceless, slow. "Joseph! Joseph!" she gasped in relief, almost supplicant. She left aside her ladle.
Joe glanced at the rack of half-baked pizza crusts. The ticket printer beeped. Joe counted the number of cooks on the line. The ticket printer beeped. Joe scanned the pizza tickets hanging. The ticket printer beeped. He required one hundred and fifty pizza crusts to parry this three-hour stampede. Forty-five pizza crusts he had at hand. The ticket printer beeped and Joe ripped away the four new orders to feel them burning his fingertips as he hung them. No one to make pizza crusts for him. Not enough cooks. Joe's fingertips burned and the sensation crawled through his arms and into his torso as he bent over the mozzarella tub quivering, as he stretched for oregano shaking, as he dusted Romano trembling. The ticket printer beeped and Joe knew it would continue beeping long after he exhausted this supply of pizza crusts. He angered at the impending scramble, at his inevitable panic. And then Joe felt the heat suffuse him completely. And then Joe felt the heat detonate. Joe staggered to combat the racing fire, to shunt his panic, to defend himself, to preserve himself amid the sudden blaze; but just as suddenly he surrendered. Joe surrendered. Joe stopped resisting. He could resist no more. And that was Joe's annihilation.
The heat in Joe grew blinding, expansive. He watched, as if an observer, his hands expertly building pizzas. He felt, as if from afar, his body enlarge and empty and heavy. He gazed, like a rapt traveler, through windows now instead of eyes, through windows now on a train speeding, on a stagecoach lurching. The inner fire scorched Joe, cleansed him, consumed him in an instant. A smoking shell, he stood, a passenger in his own body, detached from it, indifferent to it. Joe did not care. Joe could no longer care. Nothing mattered. Not agony. Not Italy. Not rabies. A boundless indifference had just washed him away, had just possessed his persona. Ultimate release, it was. But no elation came to Joe, no satisfaction. Joe felt only pure existence now, neutrality, and a removed observance.
The ticket printer beeped.
Danielle's palm lie suddenly against Joe's shoulder. Danielle's palm stroked suddenly Joe's shoulder.
"Are you okay, Joseph?" Distantly, her voice echoed, searchingly, just in his ear. "Are you okay? I can help you if you need some help."
Joe sprinkled shreds of mozzarella across the pizza crust he held, across this ninth large cheese he had built since assuming the line. In an gesture made unconscious by thousands of repetitions, he spun the pie plate onto the oven's conveyor belt.
Joe did not look at Danielle.
But from deep within himself, from some point both infinite and solid within himself he heard something speak.
It said to Danielle, "I'm okay."
She leapt away.
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