a novel by Scott T. Barsotti
The large cockroach skittering, scuttling across my desk doesn’t faze anyone. Except me. No one else even looks at it, I just catch it out of the corner of my eye. People got used to this far too quickly. It wasn’t too long ago that a cockroach, any cockroach let alone one this big running across a desk, would have resulted in screams, shouts, and directives to KILL. Not anymore. Cypermethrin and other similar poisons no longer have an effect on them, and that was always my preferred method. Even if you could still spray something on a roach and kill it—which you can’t—it would seem strange to most people to go out of your way to kill a cockroach. What’s the point? As in, why this one and not one of the quadrillions of others? What’d that one ever do to you?
My client and her parents sit across from me, listening to everything I have to say. Read this book. Get this unpaid internship. Sure, go to college. Why not? No one cares about the roach. Oop, there’s another one. My client’s mother looks at the second roach and tilts her head. She says “Mm,” then brushes it aside with a flick of her wrist. The cockroach ends up on its back, and can’t right itself. My client’s mother watches it as it kicks its legs skyward in vain, and for just a moment, almost imperceptibly, she smiles.
I’ve never done drugs, and over time that has a cumulative effect. To remain as you are while the world goes mad isn’t exactly sanity. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to do acid, meth, heroin, always been curious about the altered state, but never followed through on any of that. Came across plenty of drugs in my life but always found some reason, some excuse, not to try them. I had class in the morning. I was anticipating a job interview. I was driving home. I’d just read an article about three teenagers in Tennessee who took a bad hit of something and died within hours, slow painful drawn out cramps and seizures blood vomit no thanks.
Drunk, sleep-deprived, and in terrible pain are the only altered states I’m aware of. So when things start to get a little iffy, I have very little to compare it to, even though I feel like this is something I should be able to do. Like when you have trouble describing the flavor of something that isn’t really quite like anything else, but still you feel like you can describe it, surely you have the words, and it should be easy only you can’t, and you don’t, and it isn’t.
This morning, I wake up to a cramp in my left calf. Not as bad as others I’ve had, but still, it’s enough to wake me up. I bolt straight up in bed and instinctively start rubbing my leg, my eyes pressed closed, teeth grinding through the pain. The muscle feels for a few seconds like it is going to tear itself to shreds and never be the same again, gorily burst out of my pajama pant leg (I picture a werewolf). At last the pain begins to subside. It calms down, I calm down. It wears me out, and I half-laugh at the immensity of the relief. I swing my legs over the side of the bed and try to put weight on my left leg, but it crumples. No strength at all. When this happens, it’s usually an hour before I can walk without a limp. Sometimes I can’t walk at all, like now. I pick up my phone and text my boss.
“late today had cramp again sorry”
I change ‘sorry’ to ‘c’est la vie’ at the last second, thinking that French is better than an apology.
I take off my sleepmask and wipe the sweat from my lips and chin. A gross way to wake up, but better than the alternative. There was a time when you didn’t have to wear a mask to sleep, when people didn’t die by cockroach-crawling-in-mouth, choking them in the middle of the night. A simpler time.
I stream a news podcast. They’re talking about drone strikes. In Pakistan, I assume, considering recent events, though it’s entirely possible these drone strikes are elsewhere.
Once I can walk confidently, I get out of bed and go to the kitchen. My cat, Larry, needs to be fed so I fill his bowl. He’s not one of those cats that rations, not one of those you can leave alone for a weekend with a supply of food. He eats every bowl you put in front of him immediately like he’s never seen food before in his life and fuck is he starving and he may never see food again. Larry was an alley cat, so at one time in his life this was true. He didn’t know. Find food, eat it. I once just kept putting food in front of him to see how much he would eat. I thought it was hilarious when he scarfed the second bowl. I thought it was crazy when he tore through the third. When he got halfway through the fourth I felt sad and had to end the experiment. When I took the bowl away he looked up at me with huge pupils, heartbroken, and mewed in despair. He may never see food again.
A cockroach flits by Larry as he eats. He looks up from his bowl for just a moment, acknowledges the roach, goes back to eating. When Larry was younger, he would have attacked the roach, impaled it with an expert claw, but now he’s like me where those things are concerned: at a certain point you just have to ignore them. I still hate them, just as I always have. Phobias die hard. But if I tried to kill every roach I saw I literally wouldn’t be living my life. It would just be kill kill kill. Kill. Again, kill.
And besides, they’re strong and it takes too much energy to kill just one, let alone all of them.
There’s another one on my coffee mug. I choke back the desire to cry. I hate them.
On the podcast they’re talking about drones again. Or still. I’m only half-listening, and I’ve heard them say “-istan” a few times. It could be Pak, but it could also be Turkmen, or Uzbek. Afghan always a possibility. I swear these people are all mumbling. Warfwarfistan.
In separate tabs I pull up the Weather Channel and the Chicago Tribune. Sunny today. Murders last night. Several headlines catch my eye: one about a local veteran coming home and meeting his baby daughter for the first time (the daughter’s name was “Trouble,” because people name their kids things like that), another about the rise in violence in the West Loop, another about some sort of huge coyote or panther or wild boar or dog that was on the loose in Rogers Park. One headline reads “PLEASE STAY HOME SHOOTINGS” in my periphery but when I look at it straight, it really says “Bears survive insane shootout.” The Bears won their Monday Night game by a score of 44-42 on a last-second field goal from 51 yards out. The lead changed six times in the fourth quarter and there were nine turnovers total in the game. They call that “insane.” Because language doesn’t matter.
I don’t have any client meetings today and so there isn’t any real reason for me to look nice, and for that reason alone I dress nicely. No tie, but the rest is there. When I get to the office my colleagues will say “you look nice.” I’ll smile, say thanks, even though I don’t really like being complimented. Larry waits by the front door and stretches, yawns. There’s a siren in the neighborhood.
Podcast. I hear one more story before I walk out the door. Mexican police had a shootout with drug cartels. Like an actual shootout, like what that word really means, with guns and aiming and blood. Not with footballs and limits and rules. Eleven federales and eight civilians were killed. No mention of word: ‘insane.’
I step outside and pause in the middle of my building’s front walk. A plane flies overhead on its way to O’Hare, actually much lower than they usually are this far east. I walk to the train and spot a few dead rodents on the way. I think they’re all squirrels, but some of them it’s hard to tell. They’re crawling with roaches that scatter when I walk past. I’ve been seeing more of these lately, so the neighborhood must have a prodigious mouser. Or maybe more kids with guns.
I walk halfway down the platform before leaning out to see if the train is coming. It is. As it approaches, I back away from the edge. There’s no one on the platform with me but still, there have been stories recently about people being pushed in front of oncoming trains, or falling, and I can’t get that shit out of my head. There was a guy in the news who slipped in a puddle of coffee and fell in front of the train (he had done everything right up until then.) Or there was the video of the Chinese woman whose baby stroller was blown onto the tracks by a strong wind, right as a train pulled in. According to the story the baby lived, but you really can’t trust anything you read online, and the incident certainly scarred the mother and the train operator permanently, so who really “lived” through that? I turn my shoulders perpendicular to the tracks, so if I slip suddenly or lose consciousness I won’t fall onto the tracks. I don’t want to end up on the news.
There are only a few people in the train car. A mother is talking to her young daughter. Taking her to school. There are two men who stare silently. I am a third man, staring silently. Nineteen roaches on the car, that I can spot. The mother and daughter get off the train two stops later. I didn’t think there was a school near that stop, but that’s also not necessarily the kind of thing I’d notice. The train fills up as we approach Belmont station, where several lines connect. At Belmont, two police officers get on. One of them, a stout white woman with a long braid, makes eye contact with me, and I nod. She nods back. Her partner, a broad-necked Latino man with graying hair despite his young age, turns and looks at me. One of his eyes is completely red, full of blood. He looks right at me. I nod. He coughs and winces.
Even though I don’t trust the police, I do like it in a way when there are cops on the train. People behave themselves. And in any case, the police make me way less anxious than C.U.R.E. sentries do (last week I was on the train and this man came through “selling knives” but really he was “brandishing knives.” Six sentries showed up on the car and he put all of his knives away and sat down like a punished child. Who called them? How did they converge so quickly? They were just waiting at the station, the timing was impeccable, even improbable. When the knife guy got off the train, the sentries followed him, which filled me with this unease, like I knew this was not going to end well for him, or maybe he would just disappear. But then again, he was pointing knives in peoples’ faces, my face, so I’m not all that concerned.) Many people change trains at Fullerton, but the cops don’t. And I don’t. I decide to take the Brown Line all the way down. A man on the other side of the train keeps eyeing the cops. He’s got that look, like he really wants to be ranting and swearing and screaming, he wants to be the person on the train who does that today, but can’t with them here. The police are oblivious to his glances. But I notice. I see his need.
A homeless man sleeps across from me. He has roaches on his hands and hat.
I get off the train at the Grand station and stroll in the direction of my office. I stop into a 7-11 for a cup of tea. When I ask if they have any honey, the cashier looks at me with a twisted face and says, “Honey? In tea??”
He shakes his head.
“No honey. Sugar and stevia.” He adds, pointing vaguely to somewhere in the store, “You can buy a bottle of honey,” followed by an exaggerated BLECH, sticking his tongue out, squinting. He brushes a cockroach off the counter and laughs to himself. Half of his right hand is cybernetic. When he brushes the roach away, it is with a heavy metallic scrape.
When I get to work, my colleagues are not busy. They’re watching a video online. They look up at me and smile, but don’t say anything, just keep watching the video. My boss gestures for me to come watch too. The video is of a group of boys in Guatemala pushing a giant tractor tire over a hill and watching it roll. It gathers speed going down the steep incline until it finally hits a bump toward the bottom of the hill and flies up into the air, getting some very impressive hang time, and then splashing down in a lake below. The boys all cheer when it hits the water, and the video ends. In its simplicity, the video is remarkably joyous. My boss says to me, “We’re trying to figure out if it’s real.”
My colleague, Sheila, always quick with compliments, says, “You look really nice today.
“Oh, thank you.” I’m transfixed by the video.
It really does look real.
But it probably isn’t.
My job isn’t all that exciting, so I’m not really going to get into it, but basically I’m an educational advisor...sort of. In a manner of speaking I’m a consultant...kinda. A life coach...maybe. People come to me, come to us, when they’re trying to decide what they should do. Their new direction in life. College, grad school, trade school, vocational, culinary, seminary, or of course, nothing. Lots of measurements: personality surveys, interest surveys, skill assessments, ability tests, values and goals inventories. Why do you want to be a lawyer? What classes did you like in school? Do you know what PhD stands for? Is this your decision or your parents’? Would you rather be rich or fulfilled? What are your passions? Do you comprehend the level of debt you’ll be taking on? Why do you want to be an anesthesiologist?
In short: My job is to tell people where they can learn what they want to learn, where they can get the degree or distinction they wish to possess, which programs are the best, and how they should prepare. What people want from me, however, is something else. What people want is for me to make choices for them. Plan the next decade of their lives. Solve their relationship problems. Or their financial problems. Tell them school doesn’t cost money. Tell them that they can probably do what they want to do without a degree. Tell them that their child really does, in fact, love them. ADHD is to blame. Everything happens for a reason.
Today the schedule is empty. Just me and my four colleagues, but no clients and, strangely, no phone calls. I jokingly ask if someone unplugged the phone, and no one responds, which makes me wonder if they even heard me, if perhaps my voice never reached their ears. If the vibrations were weak. Or if I only spoke in my head.
Business here is not good. Actually, business here is bad. As a firm that gives career advice, our services lose much of their value when there are no careers to be had. Millions and millions of jobs become automated every year, technology disrupts entire industries, 3D printers handle all manufacturing and driverless cars are the norm, negating the need for human labor and skill. And yet, still, everyone is expected to have a job. People who don’t have jobs are called lazy, meanwhile they can’t give their time away. Many of our clients come in for theoreticals, best-of-all-possible-worlds, affirmations. Even if someone loves what they do, there’s a thrill in the confirmation that you would have been really bad at something else. So, you may not have made the right choice, but you didn’t make the worst choice.
It’s the last day of the month, and so a bank deposit must be made, and it’s my turn. We often have no deposit at all, virtually all of our clients pay by credit card or transfer, never cash. But this week, we have a paper check, which is like seeing a praying mantis. I walk down Hubbard Street toward the bank. Right outside the door to our office is a bird in a losing battle against a swarm of roaches. The bird has an injured wing and can’t fly. The roaches crawl all over it, tasting the oil off its feathers with their feet. The bird chirps in a panic, shaking its head and its good wing. The most I can do to help is step on a couple of the roaches who are away from the mess.
Crack. That’s the best I can do.
I don’t have the heart to kill the bird, just end this. If I try to pick it up and move it, the roaches will get on me, and roaches have a way of following the pack. If one moves, two move, if two move, eight move, if eight move, ninety move, and so on. It’s best to avoid them when there are so many, or else you’ll be finding them in your pockets for days. In your hair.
I walk past a group of businessmen, all white, about the same height and weight, all with holstered guns. They stand outside their building (someone’s building) and smoke vaporizers, laughing as the bitter do. One of them is telling a story about a home invader he shot dead. As he tells the story, he unholsters his gun and waves it around.
“And I say to him, ‘see anything you like?’ and he looks at me—
“Yeah, fuckin’ ASIAN, like Korean maybe, and I say ‘see anything you like’ and he gets this look on his face—
“Do it, show them the face!”
They all laugh, a revolting sound, but then they abruptly quiet down. None of them fail to assess me as I skirt past. A couple of them snicker, maybe because my hair is longer than they think it should be. Maybe because I’m unarmed and by myself and smaller than they are. Maybe because I’m here. Any number of reasons. There’s a big laugh from behind me, but before I can worry too much about it, our ears are all pierced by a shrill tone: the unmistakable cry that precedes a police warning.
“PUT YOUR FIREARM IN ITS HOLSTER”
A deep pause. I don’t have a firearm, so he can’t be talking to me. And the police only issue this warning when a firearm is being pointed at someone.
“PUT YOUR FIREARM IN ITS HOLSTER”
“Ok ok!” says one of the businessmen and they all mutter to themselves, pocketing their vapes and heading back into their building. I glance over my shoulder. I see one of them has two shotguns strapped to his back, like swords. As I notice this, I take a few steps further down Hubbard without watching where I’m going, and run right into a homeless woman. For a person who’s hungry and alone, she’s quite sturdy. Running into her is like running into a tree and I almost fall. She talks and talks and talks, seemingly to herself. She could have a Bluetooth.
Just inside the doors to the bank is a security checkpoint, with two large men bearing new-wave assault rifles. “Arm cannons” people call them. They both wear sunglasses, but I can feel their eyes on me. I toss my wallet and phone into a tray. I remove my belt and shoes. I step through the detectors. On the other side is a gigantic man wearing body armor, all of him is weapons, and on his hands blue sanitary gloves. He holds up one blue hand indicating that I should wait. An orange light comes on, announcing that I am unarmed. The guard gestures for me to come with him. We step behind a screen, and I’m instructed to remove my outer shirt and pants. There’s great suspicion toward unarmed people, which I’m aware of; I’m far more likely to be searched when I go anywhere, security forces always figure I must be hiding something, I must have some sort of polymer weapon, something plastic made on a 3D printer, some powder, some explosive, some secret. The sentries of C.U.R.E. are particularly edgy about the unarmed, but luckily this bank is one of the few left that doesn’t contract C.U.R.E. for security. The guard takes only a cursory glance at my underarms, my butt, and he’s satisfied.
“All good. Personal banking, up the escalator to the left, business to the right.”
I get my clothes back on and go up. At the top I see rows of tellers and bankers standing around talking to each other, or to clients, or on their phones. All of them are armed. I’m always amazed when I come in here by the utter lack of roaches. Some businesses are better than others at managing roaches but Allies Bank is better than most. I only see a few crawling in the corners, underneath some ledges around the branch. (They’re always there, you just have to know how to see them. Or hear them.) I do a quick scan of the business tellers, and I notice that one of the tellers, a young white woman, probably 24 or 25, has only a single gun. A small revolver. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything but I choose to believe that it means she’s only wearing a gun because her employer requires it, and that she chose the least boastful model available. I wonder if it’s even loaded—who am I kidding, it is—as I step up and say hello. She smiles warmly. She’s cute, very nice, friendly eyes and her smile is sincere. She smells nice, too, like a thunderstorm. I hand her my check and deposit slip, she marvels at the paper check and reminds me that we should really deposit remotely. She takes a step back to retrieve a needed form, and when she does, I can see she has a second small handgun strapped to her ankle.