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Fiction by J. Billings

Epiphenomenon

I’m on the way back to my hotel in downtown Philadelphia and I notice him immediately as he turns out of a dirty corner bar on the other side of the tilted alley. His rounded back, a perfect fleshy pillow, and his stretched face, Nosferatu’s Pan-American son. He is a prophet. He tells me: know thyself.

I’m seven beers deep and I can’t stop looking at him. He ignores me and walks into a convenience store. I stay where I am, leaning against a stucco wall, and my toes fumble with the disintegrating cobblestone. I’m unsure if I’m waiting for him or if I’m too drunk to know what I’m doing. I try to spot him through the store’s window and there he is, eating a candy bar, looking directly at me. We fade into each other’s gazes and then I throw up on my dress shoes.

My next meeting is in Phoenix. I toss and turn for the entirety of the flight and finally give up on sleep during the plane’s descent when I hear the pilot murmuring faint and barely decipherable words about a cross-wind. I feel us flutter in the air and drop a few feet. A few passengers behind me groan.

Mint?” asks the man next to me. An ex-marine type, or at least a former Division I football player. A tin full of fish-shaped tablets sits in his hand.

I turn away and watch a fly land on my shoe. I resist the urge to shake it off. It crawls from the tip of my toe over the front of my sole and to my heel and back again. I imagine it vomiting all over me. The stale smell of coffee makes me feel nauseous.

We land in what feels like a sideways position. The pilot welcomes us to Arizona and says the weather is pleasant enough. I look outside and the sky is dark.

The reservation on my phone shows a hotel on the outskirts of the city. I hail a taxi and give the address to the driver, and he pulls away from the curb without a word. From the backseat, I watch the desert unfold like a conveyor belt as we pass over a small gulch onto the highway. The driver spins the radio dial on his dashboard and stops on a vibrant techno-pop song filled with uncreative euphemisms about blowjobs and cocaine. You’ve got me all wrong,” I say. He looks at me in the rearview mirror and then turns back to the road. I crease my suit with my hands and look out the window towards the fading neon signs reflecting on the empty ground.

This cheap fucking company booked me a hotel on the outskirts of the city.

The driver pushes the gas and we continue down the highway unabated, a sole marble barreling along a Rube-Goldberg track. We pass my exit and I shake my head. The locals always have to show off their shortcuts.

We pass the next two exits. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I lean forward between the two front seats. I think you’re off course.”

He ignores me and passes another exit.

What the hell am I supposed to do? I look at my phone out of second nature. The driver’s eyes flash in the mirror as the LED screen lights up. He eases on the gas and veers off at the next exit, completely cutting off a semi-truck careening along in the lane beside us. I keep my phone out and taunt him to make a wrong move. You don’t know who I know, motherfucker. He slows down and takes an immediate right turn into the parking lot of a run-down motel. Without looking at me, he pushes a button on the dashboard and the trunk pops up, as if to say We’re here, get the fuck out.”

The clock says 2:30 a.m.

I get out and grab my bag without shutting any of the car doors.

Through the glass windows of the hotel lobby, I can see a man sitting on a chair just beyond the door, although he’s almost too large to call a man, and a second man sitting behind the counter. I walk in and the mammoth stands up to block me. I hear the desk clerk laugh. At ease, Malick.” Malick sits back down in his chair and looks out the window into the dense night. My taxi is still outside with its lights on.

He’s a recovering bouncer,” says the desk clerk. A security guard in relapse, if you will.”

Listen, can I use your phone?”

Will it be one night or more?”

No, I need to use your phone.”

Tenants and friends only.”

Fine, one night.”

Very well.” He begins typing on his computer. I hear Malick grunt as a door behind the lobby desk swings open. I look up and there he is again, the man from the alley. He smiles at me. I nod my head and look at the desk clerk. He’s smiling at me too. I turn around and break into a brisk trot out the front entrance.

I jump back into my taxi. The driver looks at me and points to the trunk. I get out to close it and refuse to look back to see if the hunchback is watching me.

The driver takes me directly to my hotel without further incident. That night, I continue to sleep restlessly.

In the morning, the shower provides water at an interminable pace and I feel unprofessionally haggard when I walk into breakfast with my customer. The meeting is cordial and uneventful, like so many others. Before he leaves, the customer shakes my hand and tells me he’ll consider everything I talked about. I know that means I’ll hear from him next year, at the same time, not a second sooner. Such is life selling sucking mechanisms.

My flight leaves in one hour.

I spend my time in the air listening to the engine and willing it to drag me to sleep. No luck. My head feels a thousand pounds heavy and my stomach is lurching and squirming with the remnants of my morning coffee.

Travelling for business or pleasure?”

I look at my seat-mate and I feel the urge to watch him be sucked into the vacuum of space. Living and working are the same damn thing,” I say.

He laughs. Okay then, do you live in Phoenix?”

I sigh and pause for a few seconds. I live in Milwaukee. Officially, I work in Chicago, but I’ve got leads in every one of the top fifteen Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the country. I wish I could hole up in Miami. I visit my girlfriend in Virginia Beach from time to time. Sometimes I think of my parents in Albuquerque. I never think of my son in Cleveland. I lost my virginity in Toronto, received my diploma in Ann Arbor, and came within an inch of my life in Kansas City. Made my biggest score in San Antonio. Shot an 81 in Atlanta…”

He puts his hands up and nods his head in surrender.

The stewardess bends down and touches her lips to my ear. I tell her I’d like a Ginger Ale. She comes back with a cup filled to the brim with ice. It tastes like backwoods water.

A woman in first class pukes as the plane taxis towards our gate. It’s going to take an hour to de-board, because everybody is a rubberneck, myself included. No one likes to look at regurgitated food, but we can’t look away.

I emerge from the jetway and sprint towards the bathroom, where I unload myself into the toilet, like only a salesman can. We, without a doubt, take the worst shits imaginable. God’s very own testament to the damage numbers can do to a person. Rot and decay, gastric confusion and the dogmatism of the gut. I picture all of the hundreds of tensed feet in dress shoes I had seen under stall doors during my adult life. On second thought, maybe thousands. Enough to fill so many books even the foot fetish perverts would be overwhelmed. Imagine that.

My virtual calendar says I have two hours until dinner. Where am I? The Mid-Atlantic, possibly one of those fake east coast cities. Baltimore? Harrisburg? Atlantic City, the harbinger itself? The hotel address on my phone appears in vague symbols. Maybe the taxi driver will understand, even if I don’t. All of life, I haven’t understood much, but somehow it hasn’t stopped me from getting where I need to go.

Another titan empties itself from my bowels.

I walk out of the bathroom and look for the baggage claim sign. A massive banner under the airport skylights reads: Welcome to Cumberland. My world floods back to me and I remember everything just as I always have. I am me. My feet begin moving by themselves, to the right, towards a temporary escape, to my hotel, to dinner, to sleep, towards numbness and away from it.

I’m on a moving walkway. Fellow travelers pass by. An older couple. They’ll be dead within five years. A single man, sunglasses and baseball cap. Clearly prowling for a partner. Another couple, much younger, possibly newlyweds, hands stuck in each other’s pockets, incandescent love radiating in violet colors. The husband will fuck the towel girl on the honeymoon and the wife will suck off the lobby boy in retaliation. Or maybe they’ll restrain themselves until he starts travelling for business, the big boy job, and then he’ll feel up the stewardesses and get the waitresses’ numbers and flirt with the hotel desk clerks with bad teeth. His wife will whisper to their children about how Mommy loves them more. Boys, if you must know, Father is a specter, disappearing before your eyes. The kids will grow up and never believe in the myth of marriage and they’ll all die fruitless, wretched, aimless, and content.

Out of the corner of my eye, a bulging man in a raincoat. He slowly levitates past me on the walkway and turns towards me. Our eyes meet and share recognition, a double-ended harpoon scything through our consciences and connecting us despite our multiplying distance. The hunchback mouths a silent scream. I can only imagine he sees me do the same.

My feet shift onto firm ground and I feel an urge to run after him, berate him, humiliate him, destroy him, and then I melt into angst. What are the reasons a man would follow another man? Do they all end in death or fucking? I cannot acquiesce. I will not. But I fear I’ll see him everywhere, instances of quickening succession, or, perhaps even worse, I’ll see him nowhere, but in everything.

The escalator sounds like it will break any second. I smell burning oil. A good thing for an airport to smell like. Like it’s going to fucking explode.

I look at my watch and realize I have no idea if the numbers represent AM or PM. The switch between time-zones slipped me into a blurry stasis, a kind of squamous dream-like state I can’t escape. Yet, I fear I wouldn’t want to escape, even if I could.

My feet step off the chasm of the outside curb and the blue buzz of the overheard fluorescent lights gives me a warm cocoon of familiarity. The taxi pulls up without me raising my hand. I get in and don’t think twice about it.

The driver takes me straight to my hotel and I rush into my room to undress myself. I lean against the wall in the shower and let the water drench me. For some reason, there’s no shower curtain and I’m forced to look at my naked body in the mirror. I can’t look away.

Dress code business casual. White pressed shirt, blue suit jacket and pants, brown shoes and no tie. I feel like somebody.

Our lead requested dinner at a steak house. My local colleague suggested the Dali Lounge. The restaurant is dark and I can’t tell where the minimal light is coming from. I can’t see any lamps. The walls are melting geographical shapes. There’s no music, only echoes.

The three of us shake hands in the doorway and then load our proverbial muskets as we walk to a private booth.

Flight in okay?”

It’s my colleague. I call him Jimmy the Foot in my head. I have no fucking idea what his real name is.

Same. Same as always. All the same,” I say.

They laugh. I throw two Loperamide pills into the back of my throat.

We tell the lead about the suction power of our ceiling pivot vacuum. We throw down the gauntlet of our 4,000-watt guarantee — the best in the industry. We whisper sweet nothings about the competitive prices we could get on a new wall-hanging, flexible-hose, fire-retardant touchpoint system, at least a couple grand less than anywhere else. We ask him if he needs financing, because we can do that too. We talk about waste disposal strategies, debris cleaning mechanisms, automatic shut-off valves, temperature resistant ductwork, and installation services.

Jimmy the Foot seems like he hangs out at youth baseball games on the weekends. He brings out the forbidden fruit and asks if our lead would like to join us for an exclusive after-dinner experience. Yes, in Cumberland.

It’s a school night,” says the lead. He cleans off his glasses and stabs at his steak like it’s still alive. A red-faced peachy grin I know too well. The exact kind a man flashes after drinking lots of alcohol on someone else’s dime and giving nothing in return. Plus, you probably have a flight to catch early in the morning.”

Don’t try me, motherfucker. I look at my watch and close my eyes. Jimmy the Foot starts to talk about his kids and their undiagnosed daddy issues. I think about the hunchback and his children, and I wonder if they all hate him too. They were probably just as startled when he showed up in their lives. I see him sitting in a breakfast nook, across from two kids hiding their faces behind cereal boxes. He sighs and trudges up the stairs to lay down in bed. His breathing is haggard. His kids laugh and he hears them through the floorboards. He falls asleep and dreams of normality, maybe even wishing he was me. He smiles and I see him imagining himself drinking a snifter of whiskey in an expensive hotel lobby. He falls into a deeper sleep and his body is covered in warm petroleum jelly.

Jet lag’s a bitch, huh?”

I open my eyes and lift my head off the table. My fingers are resting in a shallow cup of Au Jus.

Jimmy the Foot laughs nervously.

The lead shakes his head and rolls his eyes, mentally checking out, pitying me. Well, better let you guys get some rest.” He stands up from the table.

Jimmy the Foot laughs again. I want to hit him but I can’t find the energy. It takes all I can muster to thank the lead for his time. Jimmy the Foot extends his hand and tells me to stay at the table. They leave me surrounded by food I will never eat.

I’m going to try and walk back to my hotel. I have no directions. I see a coliseum-themed building with an ambiguous name, either a strip joint or an Italian restaurant. I shouldn’t trust my body.

This hotel lobby looks completely different than the one I had been in a few hours before. There’s a receptionist with bad teeth. She seems to know me. Room 717.”

I’m riding the elevator with eleven kids on a school field trip. They’re talking about the rodeo show they just came from. A rodeo clown was crushed to death by a bull.

So sad.”

Why?”

Because he died.”

Yeah, but he died doing what he loved.”

How do you know he loved it?”

If he didn’t, even better. Then tonight was the happiest night of his life.”

I get off and the kids call me Mister.

My room smells like cigarettes and I can hear the building’s water heater shuddering on and off inside the wall next to my bed. I’m convinced I’ve never been here before.

I spend the night back and forth between the bed and the bathroom. I pop Loperamide in bed and Ambien on the toilet. Neither do a damn thing.

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m six hours early for my flight. The security line reminds me of Sunset Boulevard, or at least the images the news shows me. Ragged, tripped-out, boneless people. Sacks of shit and flesh going through the motions, doing whatever it is they can do to stay alive. I join right in and I hate myself for it.

I feel naked when I take off my shoes and belt. I think they’re going to probe me up the ass. Maybe there, in the caverns of my colon, they’ll find the hunchback weaseling his way inside me, a worm in my rotten body. I stand inside the X-ray machine with my hands above my head, exposed to the world’s ghastly liminal space. I feel the need to be studied. I hope they open me up and dissect me. Find what makes me tick. Tell me how to turn myself off. There are things I could learn from torture. The security agent tells me to keep moving. I feel safe and devastated.

I order a small cup of coffee. The caffeine gives me a jolt in the loins and I feel a disgusting desire to read my emails. There’s a quiet corner by my gate. I open up my laptop and breathe deeply. An unending list of blinking rows meets my eyes. I scan.

Daily Sales Tips. Delete.

Invitation to the Industrial Vacuum Manufacturers Conference in sunny Charleston, West Virginia. Delete.

Customers asking for help.

Friends asking for money.

Leads asking for booze and horse racing.

Customers cussing out me and my ancestors.

Customers assuming unspeakable things about my balls.

Co-workers panicking in the middle of the night.

Customers berating my intelligence.

Customers pledging undying allegiance.

Attorneys licking up the blood spilled by legal signatures and notary publics.

I’m typing without thinking and the responses leak out of me like stomach bile. Natural, toxic, long-lasting. I give everyone what they want and I don’t budge an inch. It’s an artform, one I’ve perfected through years of bullshitting practice and communication classes and peer-to-peer dick-measuring. To half of them, it’s a game with a set outcome. A back and forth full of words engraved in stone. The question is not of who will win but of who will succumb to formality. To others, they have no idea what they’re doing. They’re stuck in Pennsyltucky Fuckland and barely know how to write an email, let alone traverse the hieroglyphic mysteries of corporate language. They still have some hope left in this world, and I’m jealous of them.

I stand in line to board my flight to Minneapolis and realize the coffee is draining through my stomach. I’m a sieve. I do the mental math and there’s no way I can make it to the bathroom and then back to the plane before it leaves. I have to wait until we’re in the air. I tell myself it’s better to shit at 3,000 feet. Just as the Wright Brothers intended. I’m a modern marvel. The Modern Man. I pass gas and almost let it all drain into my suit pants.

I can barely waddle down the aisle. When I reach my row, I see my window seat is taken by a better-looking man with a better haircut in a better fitting suit. He looks comfortable and in control. I don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. As soon as my ass hits the empty aisle seat, the flight attendant asks to see my ticket. She looks at the seat number and at the man by the window and walks away.

By the time we get in the air, I’m sweating. The captain announces we’re able to maneuver about the cabin and the man sitting next to me steps over my legs and walks towards the bathroom. He moves upright and dignified.

I realize I can’t feel my shit anymore. It’s been sucked back into my void. I fear I’ll lose it forever and it will become a permanent mass on the walls of my insides. This is how cancer starts.

Sleeps evades me again. I stay awake for the entirety of the flight but I don’t remember anything, as if I was asleep.

I walk by a row of airport mini-marts and knock-off restaurants. I’ve forgotten what I ate for breakfast. Dinner too, as a matter of fact. Maybe I’ve forgotten to eat entirely. When dining in business becomes a normal part of life, starving oneself starts to feel like a vacation.

This time, I rent a car. The attendant shows me to a luxury vehicle, as he calls it. It’s gray. I get in and the first thing I do is sniff. It smells like me.

I am alone on the road. I am alone on the road. I am alone on the road.

I’m here to see another lead. The taste of new business used to turn me on. Now, I feel disconnected from my body, incapable of feeling emotions. I ask myself if ambivalence is an emotion, or if it’s simply a lack of emotion. My conclusion: I don’t care.

The lead’s office is surrounded by a swamp. A plot of worthless land. His business is fertilizer. Manufactured bullshit. We are the same.

The President of the company hides behind a desk stacked with loose papers. He’s telling me about an ongoing update of their vacuum system’s computer module. He believes the government hacked them in an act of sabotage. I tell him it could have been prevented if he bought our Anti-Fraud Vacuum Software ™.

How much?” he says.

Enough,” I say.

What’s enough?” he asks.

How much would you pay?”

Enough.”

What’s enough?”

The right price.”

Which is?”

Depends on how good it is.”

Damn good.”

Really?”

I don’t have a fucking clue.

His eyes catch something behind me in the doorway and his mustache twitches. He waves his hand and beckons someone inside the cramped office.

I wish I could leave to eat something, but I’m not hungry. What does hunger feel like? If I have to wonder, does that mean I don’t know? I blink a few times to make sure I’m not falling asleep again.

I’d like you to meet our new Business Operations Manager, Mr. Dogwood.”

I turn around and see the hunchback in the doorway. He’s dressed in a custom-fitted navy suit. There’s a pen resting on top of his ear. He smiles, but I can see something else behind his eyes. It’s the color purple and I think it means anger.

Silence,” he says as he extends his hand. Silence Dogwood.”

I can feel his callouses. I refuse to make eye contact as we shake.

This is the man you need to talk to,” says the President.

I nod my head and Silence Dogwood takes a step into the room. I can feel the entirety of myself receding into the void.

I’ve got a lunch scheduled with the marketing team now, unfortunately,” says Silence Dogwood. Let’s set something up.”

Let’s set something up,” I say.

He leaves and I exhale. If I scheduled a meeting every time I said I would, then I’d be so busy I’d have to install a desk in the bathroom stall and little laptop stand on top of the urinal.

The President leans back in his seat, his gaze turned towards a picture of brown fertilizer pellets on the wall.

Well, whaddaya say we take a lap around the place?” he asks.

Would it kill me?” I ask.

The President laughs.

He walks me down a row of gray cubicles. Scattershot typing reverberates like gunshots. I look into a few corner offices and my eyes are met by men in collared shirts with pit stains. We turn away from each other, ashamed. There is a printer. Here is a refrigerator. There is a fire extinguisher. Here is a picture of the local sports team looking miserable. Another refrigerator. A bank of phones, long obsolete and out of use.

Here we are,” says the President. We stand in a dingy lobby with a dusty tile floor.

That’s it?” I ask. I can’t see the factory?”

He laughs. You mean where the precious pellets are made?”

The secretary laughs. A man in an office around the corner grunts and coughs and laughs.

I don’t know where that happens,” says the President. He opens the door and shakes my hand as I leave.

I stand outside and wonder what season it is. It’s Minnesota, I should be able to fucking tell.

My gray luxury vehicle is parked at the end of the parking lot. It’s not a very far walk because this company is shit and their facilities are shit. I look at my watch and look away before I see the numbers.

I open the passenger door and sit down to change from my dress shoes into my sneakers. It’s the little things in life, I tell myself. I want to punch myself in the face. I close the door and place my head between my legs to scream.

I’m studying the potato chip crumbs embedded in the car’s floormat when I hear the driver-side door open. I look up and see Silence Dogwood sitting in the car.

Oh my god.” He fumbles his keys onto the floor. The mystery behind his eyes wriggles onto his face and I understand it now. You again,” he says.

You’re following me,” I whisper.

Why are you here?” he asks.

I don’t know.” I wonder if I’m here to hurt this person. If I should be scared of myself. If I will see my hands reach across the car. Why are you here?”

This is where I’m supposed to be,” he says.

I close my eyes and try to believe him.

This is my car,” he says.

I open my eyes and he’s staring at me as if I’m an old friend, as if I’m his grandpa with Alzheimer’s, as if I’m a root vegetable stuck in his garbage disposal.

I thought this was my rental,” I say. I sound like a fucking moron, and I know it.

It’s not,” he says. D-O-G. Go check the plate for yourself.”

I turn away but stop before I touch the door handle. What do we do if we see each other again?”

Absolutely nothing,” he says. Act like we don’t exist.”

A chime rings out from the dashboard as I open the door.

I hear Silence Dogwood breathe in sharply. A gurgling. A livestock grunt. I look at him and see his eyes grow wide. His hands move up towards his throat. He’s gasping for air. His body jerks against the steering wheel. Help,” he says. His hands hang in the air, in surrender.

I touch my knuckles to the ceiling, as far away from Silence Dogwood as I can get. Both to show him I’m not touching him and to reassure myself I’m still in control of my faculties.

The hue of his face deepens. He throws his arm against the door and his body falls out of the car onto the pavement of the parking lot. Please,” he says. The top button under his collar de-threads and spins down his stomach.

I’m frozen in place.

His throat is making a terrible sucking noise. His breath siphoning specks out of the air and emptying them in his lung-shaped receptacle bags. His color darkens again. He looks at me and shakes his head. I can vaguely hear his voice mixed in with his gasps. I think he’s asking me to stop hurting him. There are unidentified body fluids pooling on his face. His back arches off of the ground and slams down with a thud. Bubbles trickle out of the sides of his mouth.

I watch his muscles untense for a few moments. I exit the car and stand above him. I’m not going to check the license plate. I step over his torso and sit down in the driver’s seat. I start the car and inch back and forth, trying to steer around his body. I look in my rearview mirror as I pull onto the highway. Silence Dogwood does not move.

I pull off at a rest-stop approximately thirty minutes into my five-hour drive home. After I spend three minutes in the bathroom — a quick and tidy process — I put my feet up on the dashboard and fall asleep.

I wake up around 9 p.m. I’m the only one in the parking lot. Back in the bathroom, I see shit streaked along the wall.

I drive through the night, as fast as I want.

My apartment feels more foreign than any of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in over the past week. I make myself a cup of coffee and sit by the window and watch the city in the dead of night. It’s peaceful. I fall asleep again without realizing.

I wake up to sunlight. A pair of kayakers float on the river. A bus driver walks away from an empty bus. A street sweeper hums along the curb and spins trash into itself. A gaggle of office workers and shoppers intertwine on the sidewalk. They are dreamers and wanderers. I imagine myself walking to work.

Up the block, around the corner, a man emerges. He’s holding hands with two young children. They’re looking at each other and laughing.

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