The times always astonished Johnny Werd. Through his second gin and tonic he might cast a gaze up at the parrots in the cage over the bar and say "The cruelty of the 20th Century is too much for a sane mind to fathom, so it's hard to blame people who don't seem to care."
Having said this he might solemnly suck the cocktail onion off the end of the yellow plastic sword, or maybe there would be the sigh of a match and the lighting of another menthol cigarette. He might gesture, sweeping his arm, palm upturned, across the front of the Wall Street Tribune as it lay draped across a barstool, as if its front page said it all. And perhaps for Werd it did.
But the topic of the times would now be closed for the remainder of the evening. Eventually, even the bar would close, but until then Werd would talk only about work. Werd worked developing training programs for corporations. He worked mostly on the production of videos. When working for a client, he would spend weeks on site, so he traveled frequently. This month he was in Midland where he commuted in a daily cycle between a room at the Velour Hotel, the corporate headquarters of Dow, and the bar.
Another, he waves.
The bartender understands that Werd will be ordering a different drink each time. And he understands that this scrawny man with the wiry red hair and the round spectacles will be difficult and attempt to throw him for a loop. This time it will be absinthe or an Income Tax Cocktail. The bartender walks off, unaffected, to search for vermouth and bitters. Werd is struck, now, with an idea for a video he's working on, that instructs Dow Managers on how to fire newly-bought employees.
Werd pulls out a pen and reaches for a cocktail napkin:
Satisfied, Werd drains his income tax cocktail and gestures for a Jaegermeister. He proceeds to tell the bartender a long answer to a question the bartender has not asked.
"What am I doing with my life Johnny? I mean I'm gonna be thirty in a month, I got nothing to show but a lousy job, and a closetful of manuscripts. I got everything I need to buckle down, I mean really buckle down, plan out the next ten years, make lists and execute them ya know. Figure out what I'm doing with ym life. I mean, jeez, this hotel room I gottop floor, no AChotter than hell up there Johnny.
I gotta focus. I can't focus. The heat and this damn numbing job. You ever worked for a transnational Johnny? They fly you places. At first it seems romantic. At first. Helping secure capital and all. Then you look back at who you were but the door's locked. There's bars on the window. You expand your credit, get fat, and then you can't move anymore. You gather moss and investments and assets and you buy things, they get more expensive and less fun, tossing off cash. It's like falling in love too many times, Johnny, you ever fallen in love too many times?
I gotta figure out a way out, Johnny, I gotta get back. But I can't get back.
It's gonna be Y2K soon, everything's gonna change. You ever think abouthuh? Yeah, I'll take another, gimme a, uh..., can you mix me an International Incident Johnny. It's in the book. Yeah. Thanks. Y2K. everything's gonna change. I'm sitting here at this bar in this big highrise, and there's neon on the glass and a cyberjuice espresso bar downstairs, but I might as well be sitting here in a fedora, and this might as well be like, an art-deco joint from Berlin in the 30's. You see? This is going to be old-fashioned. And quaint. And next year I'm going to be an anachronistic 30-year-old moving like an ashen ghost through a transformed world. A world of hyperviolent Woodstock concerts and full-scale military assaults against obscure countries that aren't our enemy. A world of killing and fabulous computers. There's a noose tightening around the populationthe wealth gapit's a razorwire garrote that's going to sever us into two species, and those two species are going to be at war. But not for extermination or submission or acquisition. It will be a war of domination. A few frail giants will walk across the hardened shells of the rest of us, and we'll be crunching like cockroach exoskeletons underfoot. We're going back to slavery, and it's going to have a brand new name.
Ever read Orwell, Johnny? Ever read Marx? It's one of those crazy things. Like a particular form of insanity: sanity. I pick up a bottle like this, see, oh, hey, sorry guy I wasn't trying to take your beer I was just demonstrating, so I pick up, uh, an empty bottle over here and I see clearly the fingerprints. I see the people slaving in the heat of the brewery, their union busted. I see their children's scars. I see migrant workers moving across a field of hops while pesticide rains from above. I see minimum wage and less.
I tell you: you read that shit and it wrecks you. Like a virus of the mind. Like God or truth. I don't have a family Johnny. Because, well, mostly because nobody loves me, but also because I see the family as a fiction. The family is supposed to take care of you and teach you morality so that the state doesn't have to provide for those who can't make it. I get so lonely sometimes Johnny in that hotel room that I'll program three movies in a row. I was watching David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, some Coen brothers. Natural-Born Killers, Silence of the Lambs. Hyperviolent art movies of the nineties. A new theatrical experience freed of good guys, if you get me. A world without redemption or heroes or love, just killers who fascinate and mesmerize us in their unflinching viciousness. What a sick fucking country this is. This is our art, and it doesn't resemble art. Oh sure, it's beautiful and hypnotic but it has no flesh - it has scales, it isn't human. Np motivation toward an improved world, nothing sustainable.
I used to think maybe I was an asshole, or clinically depressed, or maniacally introverted, because I hated parties and would rather stay home. Write novels to put in a drawer. Parties, with their suspended motivation. Like a psychological vacuum, an ether, in which one drifts into the bliss of a moderate amount of alcohol. Like a swimmingpool on a hot day, you go in and are refreshed by the clarity of the cool water, glittering and amniotic, relaxed by the exertion required for slow movement. And you don't think about... books... or computers... while you're in there, Johnny, because that shit ain't waterproof. And you're in the pool with a lot of people, maybe total strangers, and you're all almost naked and wet, and it isn't awkward at all. it's comfortable. Very comfortable.
I like swimming, Johnny, but I like to swim laps, swim underwater, go off the diving board. I like to swim in a direction.
What... Brad. Right. Brad not Johnny. Johnny is my name. Sorry Brad. Man, how embarrassing. Well, I guess you must get a lot of people in here forgetting your name. Oh. Not really, huh. Well.
Well, I read this book the other day and now I know. I don't have a good time at parties. and it's not because I'm an asshole- what?
Well, maybe I am an asshole, that's not my point, my point-
Why you want to go and say a thing like that Brad? Asshole. Fine. Get me another Sino-Soviet Split it's in the book. Jeez. Make yourself useful, seeing as how you aren't going to listen my troubles. Where'd you learn to tend bar anyway? Correspondence course... Asshole...
Why had the bartender called him an asshole?
One hand loosening his bowtie, Werd sat in the darkening room and stared out into the indigo evening, watching lamps come on in the park, on the street, and in the other buildings. He had another cigarette and slid the window open, permitting a cool breeze. The evening had opened up to him. The sky was pure and cloudless. There was a moon.
The phone rang. He let the machine get it. The machine was turned down so he couldn't hear who it was. The machine stopped taking the message and rewound itself.
Time stumbled down the street fifteen floors down taking occasional sips from a brown paper bag.
What was it about Werd that might offer us a clue? In his hotel room, where he now sleeps in the chair, cigarette butt extending in a skeletal finger of ash from between his fingers, there is little that will tell us who he his. There is a briefcase. Inside it is all corporate bullshit that makes no sense to us. And there is no nostalgia there, the briefcase may well have been mass-produced, with the contents in it. Let's move on to the suitcase. A number of identical blue suits, shirts, ties, socks, and the underwear. Paisley boxers. Well that at least is a sign of something. Yes. Aside from that, the only other clues to Werd in this hotel room are that the last channel he watched on TV was Cinemax, and the only part of the Bible he has read is the word "Bible" embossed gold on the green cover.
There is no Werd here.
He is dreaming but even his dreams, like his salary, could have been predicted by someone who knew the time and place of his birth.