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Monday, December 18, 2000
By Paul Ford
The protagonist in denial.
On Sunday, the second day of strong winds and cold rain, thunderstorms flooded the streets. He stayed inside with his books, sick with a raw throat, misunderstood and abandoned by his friends. (Over the last weeks, his friends might clarify, he did not return their phone calls or invitations to holiday parties.)
For reprieve from dripping gloom, he pulled a foot-thick history of Western art from the top of a bookshelf, blew the dust off the cover, and absently opened it to the heavy strokes of the Impressionists. After five seconds of MonÃ©t, he paged back, to the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and ran his index finger across the graceful tempera nose of an Italian Duke's mistress.
Perhaps she found the painter amusing; perhaps the painter was an amateur actor who had played her favorite comedies. As he painted, light coming in through bubbled glass, he flawlessly acted scenes, one where a farmer accidentally asked a lady of birth for her hand in marriage, or another where a drunken tailor is made to believe he's slain the king of England. She giggled, shifting in her seat, and he mocked her for moving, faking anger: “I have painted better-behaved monkeys.”
“But not so lovely as this monkey?”
“And how can I stay still if you insist being a fool? Wait, I must piss.” The portraitist shrugged his shoulders as she rose; a servant opened the door, then followed her down to the latrine.
On the next page was the agony of Christ, bleeding red spear-wounds and bloody head. Facing this, poor farmers pushed wooden barrows down brown streets, between low-slung stone buildings. He sent them out of the frame, from village to village. They pushed through dark forests, eyes wide, watching for wolves, waiting for ghosts to swoop from the trees.
For an hour, he lost himself in the old pictures, then thought: “there are rules for enjoying that work of art; there are texts, subtexts, silenced voices. You are too ignorant to understand what it means.”
He put the art book away, ashamed, and pulled another, smaller volume off the shelf, a collection of stories that contained The Nose by Gogol, one of his favorites; he hoped reading it again would drive away the rain.
Well into the story, when the nose becomes a surly civil servant, he lost his focus by thinking of his job as a Strategist and Project Leader for a consultancy firm. For five years, during the boom, conventional wisdom insisted that both the supply of money and the amount of money to be made were infinite. People wanted him to work fast and sloppy, so that they might take their “product” - often just a loose, untested idea made into a Web site - to market before any competitors. Now, with this era of greed and inflated PE-ratios ended, corporations were afraid to spend money, worried that they might not have enough left over. The number of graphs and charts he needed to create before a client signed off, satisfied his work was complete, had tripled. He didn't want to go to work tomorrow.
He shut the cardboard cover of the book; it made a “plf” sound. Elizabeth's apartment in Rahway, NJ came to his mind; yesterday he had taken the train to visit her. She sat on a couch and told him again how her fiancÃ© moved out to live with another woman in a cheap two-room in Jersey City. She said, “I don't want to sit here and watch TV and read books. I don't want any more introspection. I did that for 10 years.” She began to cry.
He didn't move for a few moments. Then he put his hand on her knee, and said nothing.
She wore jeans and a tight sweater. She had on make-up, which he'd never seen on her before, red lipstick and rouge. It ran in red lines as she wept.
She said, “I must look fantastic right now.”
He said, “Shh.”
Trying to avoid pre-Monday depression, he sat with the closed book of stories in his hand and the vision of Elizabeth aflicker in his eyes, her face pale and round, belly soft. Would she have? Maybe, yes, but better it didn't. He doesn't want to think about her or work; he should have scheduled a dinner for tonight, gone out with a friend, another single and childless intellectual overachiever with the emotional range of a 9-year-old - no, that wasn't strictly true, they weren't so bad. But he could have used company, someone to whine at.
“Stop moaning,” he said, out loud. There would be dozens of people in the office tomorrow to joke with. He chose tonight's isolation; it was better to cruise one's inner highways, read books, cultivate your...and here he stopped, because he didn't know what he was cultivating, and the more he thought about it the more concerned he became. He had wanted to be a writer, a musician, a computer programmer, or to go back and get a law degree. In business school he'd planned to write textbooks on business practice, to codify, sort, and present knowledge into cognitive machines, ready for download into student brains. Now, he had no great goal, no imaginary bookshelf with his name on the spines or image of ornate diplomas hung on his wall.
Over the last year, he had read shelves of books with no bearing on his career, narratives with no possible utility. Why? At work, he had to build a rigid, traversable model of the emotional and physical chaos around him, strip it of desire and turn it into bullet points, showing how an investment in process A could lead to high returns by month B, given market conditions C-Q. All of the extraneous information, on history, art, science, was valueless to the bankers and manufacturers, and yet many of them could converse on the same subjects; they sat on museum boards and went to gallery openings. It would make sense if he could tie it to his work, but he couldn't excite himself over biotech, even though it was the next big thing - yet he read a great deal of anthropology. Instead of Fast Company he read New Scientist. He went down this mental path, and then he asked himself: “how in Christ's name will anyone stand me? What is left of me to give to someone else? What could they want, once I'm done with my job and done with my reading?”
He knew, from many similar raining Sundays, that if he tried to answer any of those questions, he would find himself undressed, stretched freezing on the hardwood floor, watching the silent red LED clock count off the minutes until morning, thinking of suicide, unable to weep. Quickly, he fished a bottle of beer from the fridge and turned on the television, flipping channels rhythmically, until he felt full of pictures and words, safe enough to set the alarm and go to bed.