Back in the 20th century, I was a catalog writer for one of America’s biggest office-supplies companies. The work was easy, the pay adequate, the offices huge and bright. The cafeteria was subsidized, and I spent entire days there drinking coffee and reading literature instead of composing ads at my desk upstairs. In short, everything was great, and I disliked Plume Corp. the way you’d dislike drinking a big cup of warm spit.
There were signs that others felt the same. My boss, who looked exactly like smilin’ Joe Garagiola, sat down one day to tell me a funny story. An elderly neighbor had given him a pair of beautiful spindle-backed chairs, and he’d taken them apart to refinish them. He laughed as he described replacing two back spindles in their holes while six others popped loose. He chuckled when he said he’d had to have a drink to calm down.
His face swelled as he told of returning to the wooden spindles waggling like evil fingers, and of having no control over events in his life: the chairs thwarted him, as did his former business partner, his ex-wife, his kids, his dog, and everyone in the Plume head office. He spoke so long that the earth tilted away from the sun, and winter came. When he finally found his way back to the punch line, he admitted he drank six more double gins and smashed the old woman’s chairs to flinders with a maul.
My acquaintance Chaz worked at Plume then too and invented time monkeys to explain the anguish of the place, how someone could sit down to chat and you’d suffer months of bitterness in a single afternoon. Chaz says the monkeys are smiling and fanged. They wear fezzes. They chatter incessantly and pick at your clothes, creating all sorts of distractions and distortions: good times become brief, and dental work eternal. Essentially, they work against hope. If you think you’re going to “just get through today” and then the rest of the week will be fine, if you’re sure that your $1,000-a-head weekend at Club Med will feel like summers did when you were a schoolchild, rest assured: the monkeys are on their way.
Another fall semester began last month, marking my first anniversary with McSweeney’s. To celebrate, McSweeney’s and I renewed our vows in a quiet ceremony in Malibu, then flew to Saint-Tropez. You know how those forced milestones go. I wanted a salad; McSweeney’s ordered the duck. I said we should drive over to Johnny Depp’s and surprise him; McSweeney’s insisted we find a phone and call first. By the time we flew home, McSweeney’s had started smoking again and was giving me those looks like, You got something you want to say? Because you look like you’re feeling froggy. If you’re feeling froggy, go ahead and jump.
The process of writing about something—even your own life—breaks up and re-forms your sense of it. Rereading my dispatches from the past year disorients me, especially since I’m not a lecturer at a big state university at all; I’m a head in a jar on a shelf in the McSweeney’s headquarters basement. I know rationally that what I perceive as the world is just Tendency editor John Warner showing film strips to all us heads, but when fellow dispatcher Roy Kesey’s head, in the jar next to mine, mutters in its sleep about mad pursuits and wild ecstasies, I long for the imagined life I’ve written this year, like some amniotic Pinocchio.
We all fall victim to time’s monkeyshines, once we’re old enough to have compartmented pasts. The faces in my memory now include those of childhood and home town, other towns and cities, family, Army, various schools, friendships, relationships, and workplaces, including the 1,200 or so students I’ve taught at two universities. I’ll sometimes see people I know across the quad, but reason puts them down, one by one, explaining to me that that person would have graduated years ago; that other person lived in Oxnard, California, and likely would have no reason to be here; I’d better hope that third one isn’t who I think it is, or there’ll be trouble.
“Betty?” I call. I’m walking near the union when I spot her. Betty and I were in Mrs. Scherer’s seventh-grade English class and memorized all the prepositions together. It’s odd she’s in Inner Station and that she looks as she did in the late ‘80s, when I last saw her, but maybe she became a university employee like me, and maybe she does Pilates. "Excuse me. Betty Cooper, is that you? It’s me, Forsythe Jones," I say, using my real name. The time monkeys obscuring her face shriek and scatter. The Kappa Delta glares. “Eww, Veronica,” she says into her cell phone. “Did you hear that? This old guy’s, like, totally hitting on me.”
I seem to be running afoul of time a lot recently. I watched my boys playing one evening and suddenly recalled my old G.I. Joe. My faded youth saddened me, and I wanted my toy back. Then I remembered other stuff. Joe was really just a piebald Ken doll handed down by my sister, and he stank of vinyl. He came with only a bathing suit, so I had to order his war kit from the back of a comic book. The pieces didn’t match his scale, and his helmet sat on the very top of his head like a tiny bowler hat. After a cousin sewed him a shapeless uniform, he looked like a Liberation Front guerrilla in gabardine. The poor bastard’s final indignity, assuming he wasn’t incinerated, is that he’s still out there, smothered in a garbage dump, and won’t decompose for 500 years.
A week before classes began, Mrs. Churm and I boarded a jet for South Florida with two little boys and high hopes for our rejuvenation. Time monkeys sipped champagne in first class and watched us trudge through to coach.
On the beach at Estero, the wrack of culture was washed ashore like chunks of Styrofoam. Here were our collective memories of the sea, all the wisdom of the watery parts of the world, from the Phoenicians onward: Sailors’ knots and pirates without menace and Junkanoo and anchors and talking seagulls, all painted on signs sprouting crazily, everywhere, shilling motels, nail salons, a Hooters, McDonald’s, taverns, mopeds, ice cream, souvenirs, and Christ. Sweaty muscled people slapped volleyballs under a blazing sun, then tucked into Lasagne ai Quattro Formaggi and Oreo Ice Cream Pie Smothered with Hot Fudge, at the Pastabilities & More.
Not to get all Hieronymus Bosch about this, but in the same picture there were anhingas standing crucified in the drainage canals, holding open their big wings to dry. At the goofy golf retention pond, alligators piled up promiscuously to beg for Dog Chow in Dixie cups. A white heron stood its turn with the SUVs in the Wendy’s drive-thru, while sea crows scrabbled around on the vehicles’ hoods and gobbled broken grasshoppers caught in wiper blades.
I felt a little sick at the jumble, and the 108-degree temperatures didn’t help, but the time monkeys warned, Settle in and enjoy the moment, or we’ll strip it away. Despite this, Starbuck refused to stick so much as a toe in the bathtub sea. His little brother, protesting his lack of a pseudonym, abandoned naps and crabbed through meals in expensive restaurants.
The spell was broken, as so often happens, in a dive. On San Carlos Island, shrimp trawlers dock behind the Beach Seafood Market and dump their hauls into the processing warehouse, where there’s also a tiny retail shop, and eight dining tables with views into the Shrimp Grading Room. The restaurant is decorated with cases of Bud Light and wrinkled posters of fish and whales from The Scandinavian Fishing Year Book. Anti-slip mats lie on the concrete floor, which is channeled to drain fish drip: red snapper, grouper, and hogfish lie shiny-eyed in beds of crushed ice, and live blue crabs are stupid with cold to their fate. The smell hovers at the limits of tolerable authenticity, but we gratefully ate fresh fried shrimp, handmade hush puppies, and coleslaw, and drank sweet Southern tea still warm around the ice cubes.
The next morning, the heat had broken, and the wind smelled like damp white sand and the Gulf of Mexico, more Panhandle than ’Glades. Mottled slugs and seaweed lay at the tide line, and schools of pilchards curved and leaped while we waded. Big ancient-looking snook, drawn dangerously close to shore to eat the shiners, may have never even seen the pelicans fold and fall. Up to the minute we had to leave, Starbuck shaped a castle with the fierce determination of a 4-year-old, while his 1-year-old brother gleefully clawed it down—two old gods at the timeless work of the world.
Another semester begins, and there’s no way to predict its true duration. Another job season approaches, and somewhere a literary agent scurries. Mrs. Churm finds and e-mails me listings for nonteaching positions. Many things seem possible, but the future is an unknown country, and there’s no distance so great as time.