Philosophical Lines in the Sand
“It makes the French the wisest people on the planet, you realize that?” Fred said, observing the immanent bottom of his portion of elixir.
“What about the Hottentots or Pygmies, or whoever, in Africa?”
“Very well, true, I stand corrected.” He stood, bowed to Ike who was slouched in the other lawn chair, then resumed his seat.
“I shall qualify my remarks. In the West. The French simply have their têtes screwed on straight. I’m not talking here of an isolated contemporary Situationist yammering into the ether, I mean your ordinary Monsieur and Madame Dupont.”
Soon the respective jars were empty except for some dregs stretched up the sides.
They refilled from the Coleman jug at their feet and settled back, legs propped comfortable on a beat-up coffee table, gazing into the grate of the cheerfully warm, potbelly stove. It was shiny and new, installed at the end of August. Here it was, the last days of September, and already it had gotten so cold in the house that it seemed an excellent idea to test-drive the new wood burner. A stack of split hardwood was piled behind them against the basement’s cinderblock walls; in fact, the woodpile out back predated the arrival of the stove. A bushel basket beside the wood pile was filled with rolled newspapers, the cheap gossip-rag edition of the Trib that was thrown on the porch every evening along with any day-old papers scavenged from work, the very contributor to sustenance that was presently under discussion.
“But isn’t the new president trying to change all that?”
“Politicians!” Fred said with contempt. “It’s disgusting—to imagine the French admiring the stress-ridden, bloated typical American lifestyle. I cannot believe it will work. Wage-slavery is for the foolish, and regrettably, I number among them. Thirty-five more years ratcheting from one imbecilic job to the next with little prospect of joyous, meaningful work. Today, for example, I began to catalogue and analyze the contents of Box 28 of 115. Toil. Meaningless toil, without cease. You realize, the average American now works 50 to 60 hours per week—“
Ike’s cheeks were especially flushed at the moment. “But you don’t—I often do, but you don’t.”
“True, true, though I do work a miserable forty, compared to the French, who, I reiterate, are the wisest people on the planet. “
Ike lip-synched the familiar quote.
“Vive la difference! The lucky bastardes work only thirty-five hours a week—“
“All of them?” Ike’s eyes found the poster that Fred had hung in the shadows behind the boiler; a painting of a pipe hanging in the air above an easel painting of a pipe which bore the legend ceci n’est pas une pipe. His French had never been very good.
“On average, if I may be allowed the approximation. That would be like leaving work every Friday at noon.”
Ike perked up a bit at that idea.
“They retire in their forties and they have more than a month of vacation each year. Can you imagine that? I get no vacation at all. Ever.”
Beneath the pipe conundrum, was a framed Brassai print of night time Paris, a place to which Ike had traveled, though Fred had not.
“It’s no better in salary land,” Ike mused. “Probably worse. It’s a miracle I’m not in there busting my hump on some asinine deadline right now. If you divide my hours into my salary, I probably make less than you.”
“Is that not recompensed by a year-end bonus? That jackpot notwithstanding, I would not wish myself in your shoes for $31,995.02.”
“The price of my indenture.” Ike continued to stare at him without comprehension. “The current balance on the mortgage.”
“Ah.” Ike drew upon his portion of elixir. “You know, there’s no guarantee with bonuses. Who knows if I’ll even get one this Christmas? Believe me, I’d rather be chilling down here any day rather than that racket. I just started paying back those god forsaken student loans, my truck’s been totaled, and I’m beginning to wonder why I ever spent five years studying to end up a fucking CAD jockey in a sweat shop.”
“It’s why we drink,” quoth Fred, hoisting his jar.
Ike drank the toast. In the carnage that was his life at the moment, at least he did not regret moving in to Casa Hector. Rent was miniscule and utilities were less. He bought his own food, and while he frequently ordered in Chinese and pizza, Fred was always whipping up gargantuan batches of beans and rice, stews and roasts, prepared as always to spread his generosity to the community at large, which, much to Fred’s regret, was only ever Ike. With the size of his loans and the prospect of buying a new truck, Ike had to economize somewhere. A penny saved is a penny earned, right? The location was good, too; near several bus lines and within walking distance of two groceries, movie theaters, a library and post office, all of which became paramount as he faced life without a personal vehicle.
Naturally, when he returned to civilization, he’d gotten a rental car, but the insurance people ran out of patience with his car search before he found something affordable that he liked. The truth was, his heart hadn’t really been in it. He’d looked for a while, and then sort of stopped. What he never stopped thinking about was Francie.
To make matters worse, he still hadn’t seen her since June and the last time they talked was the day his truck was destroyed. Not that it would have been much better to have driven four hours to nowhere Potter County to get dumped, but to hear it over the phone in a stranger’s filthy trailer was just depressing. Francie had finally gotten the offer she wanted, and was moving to New York for a really prestigious job, and while he didn’t blame her for snapping it up, she said it was just as well because they needed “a break.”
A break? Why? He’d asked over and over, in as many ways as he could think of. She sounded bored, said “it wasn’t working.” It wasn’t? He should have proposed; it was obvious now. He’d discussed this with Duane, the trailer’s owner, over many a Bud Light that afternoon before Fred showed up.
“Women…” Duane had said with morose exasperation.
Duane nodded toward a framed photo on top of the TV.
Ike lifted it carefully with his right hand, his left reclining on a bag of frozen peas, and leaned in to study the slim teenage figure and the pouty Lolita face of the brunette undulating her curves against Duane’s body.
“Yep,” he said, handing the picture to Duane.
Duane cradled the picture in calloused hands, whispering the name ‘Heather.’
Figured. “It’s why we drink,” Ike said, lifting his diminished beer.
“Amen,” said Duane, placing the photo upside-down on the table between them.
As before, Ike texted, emailed, called, and as before, there was no answer from Francie. Zip.
Wasn’t distance enough? Had she really meant to say “it’s over”? The guys at work told him that “a break” was code for she’d found someone new, but intended to string him along in case things didn’t work out with the new guy. Ike tried to ignore this advice, even as it gnawed a hole under his ribcage. He was flat out not prepared to lose Francie.
He wrote her a six-page letter.
She did not answer that, either.
His old life was dropping away faster than he could handle. Between obsessing about Francie and trying to fit in at FKRS, he had enough to deal with, thank you very much. FKRS was alienating when it presented itself on a daily basis as a labyrinth of cliques, unspoken rules and mind-numbing work rather than glossy books, websites with high-flung mission statements or the miraculous buildings themselves. Duckworth Construction, his dad’s company, was about as large as the Pittsburgh office of FKRS, but as the heir apparent at DC, there had been no question of fitting in. He’d started working there summers when he was thirteen and had long since proven himself. He set off for college confident that grinding through years of demanding studios and crits, the heavy hours, he’d earn the grades and recommendations he wanted. On schedule, as expected, he’d landed the plum job he dreamed of, though it meant starting all over at the bottom again. Not that this was a surprise. So Ike worked double hard, did all the overtime asked without a word, watched and waited, paying attention for opportunity at the edge of every conversation.
It had been a slow afternoon a few weeks before, white late August haze outside the windows, silence on the 12th floor as the Gym project team pulled against a Friday preliminary design submission and toward the freedom of the long Labor Day weekend. In spite of the air conditioning, Ike had lifted the window behind him, intent on enjoying the periodic bursts of hot breeze and the steady litany of traffic and construction noise, especially without Ray around to shut it.
Peripherally, Ike saw someone thump down into Ray’s empty chair.
“Busy there, Duckworth?” Phil said. He’d been aimlessly wandering that end of the office while waiting for his drawings to finish in the plotter.
Ike didn’t look up, continued clicking away at the dimensions of the Level One Locker Room. “Yeah, Klein, we’re on deadline.”
“You’re always on deadline.” Phil picked up the nail file beside Ray’s keyboard, put it down again. “Was that an earlier suicide attempt?” he asked too loudly, pointing at the long ridge of scar that stretched along Ike’s left arm at the elbow. “Bad aim, man, gotta be a little further south. Though by the looks of things, you’re getting the hang of it now.”
Ike’s left wrist was in an elastic brace; what could be seen of the rest of his arm was livid with cuts and scrapes. There was general laughter behind him.
“It’s a war wound,” Ike retorted, leaning back in his chair.
“Oh, yeah? Who you fighting? The misery of your mediocrity?”
A few more chuckles, from Wills behind the cube wall. A couple guys moved into earshot to see how the kid would handle Phil.
“Try two weeks without rest, and Clemson, two on in the bottom of the eighth.”
The bespectacled face of Gordon, Ray’s right-hand man, lifted over the cubicle wall. “You pitched for the Hokies?”
“Scholarship my first two years, until–” and here he lifted his elbow “–this.”
“You had a baseball scholarship to architecture school?” Phil scoffed. “That’s a contradiction in terms.”
“Not if he got in, big shot,” Gordon shot back. “So what was the score?”
“At that point, it was Hokies 7-5.”
“Shit.” This from Lewis, a big man a few years older than Ike, who had joined the spectators and was demolishing a fistful of licorice whips.
“That’s why they kept you in,” Gordon said softly, absorbed in a vision of the two purple runners on base and Ike in white on the pitcher’s mound.
Ike hesitated. “Yeah, though one of those runners was a bad pitch on my part; I didn’t have the control I should have had.” He shrugged. “And I wanted to stay in. Thought I could fix it.”
“So what happened?”
“Got off a screwball, clean in the zone, and he swung for it. Called strike. On my second pitch, the arm went pop.” He mimed a wave traveling the length of that left arm.
“Shit, man.” Lewis raked his hand up through his hair.
“Want to know my first thought? I mean the first thing that popped into my head—u Enter.”
There were appreciative chuckles and something unintelligible from Wills behind the wall.
Ike shrugged. “You can’t undo it. Anyway, studio was becoming all-consuming, so I couldn’t have stayed with the team much longer.”
“Did you lose?” Phil asked.
“Yeah, by a run. Still, there was a silver lining: Without baseball, I had time for the hottest woman in studio.”
“That would be the one ‘taking a break,’ would it?” Phil cackled, but Gordon was smirking and a large hand landed on Ike’s shoulder—comfort from Lewis-the-happily-married.
Turned out Gordon had played in Teen Leagues through high school; it was the beginning of swapped stories and regular invites to lunch with the guys. Ike was officially in.
While the endless door schedule with its waffling changes and last-minute code adjustments, spiked at regular intervals by acres of toilet partitions, was still enough to cause Ike’s brain to flat-line, having friends at the office made doing his time bearable. They even took him out for his birthday, though there was no word from Francie. He settled into steady work, still watching and waiting for his chance.
But there hadn’t been one. Yet. So here he was on a Sunday night, munching on the result of another one of Fred’s failed attempts at baking bread. When this one came out of the oven and immediately crumbled, Fred threw a fistful of coarse salt on the steaming chunks and dubbed them “breadtzels.” Now that they had dried out, they were really rather good.
“So how come you work at an ‘elitist exploiter’ like FKRS if you hate capitalism so much?” Ike said, coming back to Fred’s discourse on the failed worker’s revolution. He found it all much easier to follow when he was a jar of elixir into the evening, either that or Fred never made any sense and drinking allowed Ike a more blithe acceptance of the fact.
“You misquote. I do not hate capitalism as a system per se—that’s another conversation entirely—“ a conversation which Ike felt sure they would have one day soon “—merely the media-dominated, post-industrial consumer culture that has been promiscuously co-opting our society since at least the 1980s, here in the US, and which now has taken over the world. The Situationists were cognizant in the 60s, though it was not as universal then as it has come to be. They would be appalled.”
Fred looked keenly at his comrade. “However, I digress. To answer your question, the reason is twofold: I have a mortgage to pay off; and second, I have before me an unprecedented opportunity for merry pranks. I am still working out my strategy. So, onward.”
Ike grew thoughtful. “Any chance you up for Gooski’s Friday night? A bunch of us have talked about going.”
“A good band?”
“Probably. I don’t know, but it won’t be opera. All I know is I want an excuse to get wasted.“
Fred thought a bit, consulting his mental calendar, then inhaled with deep satisfaction.
“Gooski’s. Yes, I shall indeed attend. With the city bus at our beck and call, we may become as spiflicated as our hearts’ desire.”
“And our livers’ dismay.”
The jars clinked and the weekend plans were solemnly sealed.
The next chapter is here.