INT. RESTAURANT — DAY
Restaurant patrons devour their food, indifferent to their surroundings. DOUG (42) looks out the window. We cannot see his face but he wears a leather jacket over suit and tie. Outside, the sky is gray. Doug drinks his wine, refills the glass, absentmindedly watching a plastic bag flutter down a desolate street. An army convoy ROARS by, an occasional shot is heard, along with wailing sirens. Nobody pays any attention to what is going on outside, except for Doug. He lights a cigarette. By the way he inhales, it’s clear that it’s an oh-fuck-it! one, his first after a long time.
The kitchen door swings open and a waiter, evidently zombified, stumbles out, his white jacket stained with blood and brains. The waiter heads toward Doug, who gets up, toppling over the wine bottle, and retreats in horror.
No! No! God! No!
He flicks the cigarette at the waiter. The waiter corners him, then bites into his face. Blood spurts out of the hole where Doug’s nose used to be. All the other patrons are petrified, only to lurch out of their seats and rush out the door. BOY (9) screams:
The waiter feeds on Doug’s brain. An explosion destroys the restaurant, blowing the plastic bag away.
Joshua hated sleeping, but waking up was worse. Nightmares were not the problem: he never really had any. Nobody ever bothered to chase him in his dreams; he never plunged from a tall building to wake up just before exploding like a pomegranate, nor did he ever experience even the vaguest presence of death. There was little violence, only occasional vanilla sex, his dreams damp rather than wet, his subconscious a Wilmette where he was forever sleepily immortal. Still, he would wake up sweating, his heart thumping. What caused his torment was that the dreams were inconclusive; they did not so much end abruptly as they whimpered their lame way into his wakeful state; the absence of notable transition was the troubling thing. Baruch thought that whatever is, is either in itself or in the other. Well, Joshua’s dreams were neither one nor the other.
Some weeks before, he’d found himself enmeshed in a dream conundrum of laundry separation: he couldn’t decide whether his long johns were to be put on the underwear pile or the pants pile. When he’d woken up, furious and still undecided, he’d stuffed all his long johns in a garbage bag with the intention of getting rid of them. Just as he’d been about to drop the bag into the gaping mouth of a malodorous black bin, a flurry had descended from the gray heights to linger before his nose, reminding him that Chicago winters were ruthless and long.
The terrible inconclusiveness seriously impeded his will to rise. As soon as the dream residues dissolved into full oblivion, a terrible doubt would start forming, weighing on his intestines, concentrating in globs in his muscles, so that he kept tossing in search of a position comfortable enough for snoozing. The painful doubt would swell like a balloon, steadily squeezing out of his head all that he’d seemed to have accomplished or thought up theretofore.
This morning, all of the love for Kimmy, painstakingly accrued, all of their earned closeness, was transformed into a sense of entrapment, enhanced by her sleeping quietly, romantically next to him, a warm pile of a stranger’s flesh. He pretended to sleep until Kimmy left for work, leaving an indentation on the pillow and a single long, whorled hair. Therein was a trace of the woman he was supposed to love; he had all the reasons to love her; he’d bragged about her to others: his Zen mistress, brash, self-sufficient, and prone to kinkiness (yet to be fully exploited). But he now found comfort in her absence; he liked the idea of her, but her presence—sometimes, presently—made him want to be alone. A desire that arises from joy is stronger, other things being equal, than one that arises from sadness.
Then there was the Stagger incident, the fact that he’d had to escape from his apartment, hadn’t dared to call the police, and had entirely failed to be sufficiently aggressive and angry. A better man would kick Stagger’s ass, hurt him terribly. Revenge is a dish best served with carpet bombing. But what Joshua wanted was for all of it to simply resolve itself, as it undoubtedly would, without his having to do anything radical. Somehow, someday, it must be resolved.
And then there was the continuous fiasco of his writing. Once upon a time, Joshua had read Portnoy’s Complaint and figured he too could write novels—it hadn’t seemed overly taxing, all one had to do was be unsparingly honest. Then he’d read Goodbye, Columbus and thought he could write short stories instead. He would write only one, about a seventeen-year-old so urgently intent on deflowerment that he saved money and hired an escort, who then refused to sleep with him because she didn’t believe he was old enough. He’d entitled it “The Age of Consent” and it’d kept being awful, no rewrite improving it one bit, because he repeatedly changed his mind about what happened: in one version, the escort blew the hero; in the other, she blew his brains out; in the terminal revision, they embarked upon furniture- crashing sex just as Joshua dropped his pen. But he’d thought the dialogue was bearable, and he’d been trying to write scripts since. The problem, however, was that he could never figure out how to establish the necessary determinism of the plot: characters would do this or that, while neither his will nor his talent was ever strong enough to compel them to follow their goddamn trajectory. When the mind imagines its own lack of power, it is saddened by it.
In the ten years he’d been doing it, none of the handful of scripts he’d finished had ever got close to being read, let alone optioned, by any film people; none had gone far in any of the screenwriting contests he’d entered, while the unfinished scripts were almost certain to remain unfinished. He had files upon files of script ideas in his computer, but none of them developed or stood any chance of development: most of them died within the first draft of the first scene, unable to take off and come anywhere near a self-sustaining plot. He took screenwriting workshops, which were exactly like going to the gym: he never got stronger, never felt any better, just more tired; but if he didn’t work out, he’d turn frighteningly obese and die from a stroke.
He got up, the doubt now a shadow hovering at his shoulder while he brushed his teeth, muttering nasty things into his ear, deriding the weakness in his face, the limpness in his muscles, the someone else’s Fire shirt he was wearing. Then it followed him to the kitchen, where it maliciously moved the cup as he was pouring coffee into it, so he was forced to spend an eternity wiping the counter, everything in him sagging into a sludge of despair. The coffee Kimmy had made wasn’t strong enough, yet there was no other coffee to be drunk. Perhaps anything at all could be the accidental cause of hope, but this morning there wasn’t much of anything.
And there was nowhere to go. He took up a position on the sofa to work on his screenwriting, nothing else left to do. Bushy curled up at his feet and turned up his purring rotor, uninterested in Joshua’s struggles. The doubt was radiating unhealthy light from the laptop screen as he decided to give Zombie Wars another try. He opened the fi le, wrote the slug line: INT. WRIGLEY FIELD—NIGHT. Now what?
Before Joshua could immerse himself in correlating the Cubs and the apocalypse, the distracting memory of Ana presented itself to him, detail by detail: the curve of her neck as she leaned to grace the margin of Let’s Go, America! 5 with her phone number; the momentary pursing of her lips and the double dimple; her smell: jasmine and sweet sweat; her short, boyish hair, likely hennaed; her legs crossed, dangling her shoe on her big toe. Soon the infinitely rewarding universe of Internet porn was beckoning him—but the DSL cord was far beyond the horizon of his will and, even if he could get off the sofa, self-abuse would relieve neither his doubt nor his longing. There was no remedy for the unsettling fact that Ana, along with all the other women of the world, was elsewhere, and he was here. Right here, conceiving a zombie pitcher repeatedly dropping the ball, sprawled on the sofa in the living room of his newish life: the yoga mat in the umbrella spittoon; the polished pseudotropical plants in the corners; the inedible multicolor pasta in the tall jars; the pictures of Kimmy’s numerous family scattered on the bookshelves; the books about amazing animal friendships and Japanese-American internment camps on the coffee table; and upstairs, in the corner of a deep drawer reeking of lavender, a treasure chest of titillating sex toys.
Bushy transitioned to the windowsill to look out at Magnolia, where leafless tree crowns scrambled the morning light, where bicycles with training wheels lingered on the porches, Andersonville dreaming itself up. A large mailman pushed a bundle through the front door mail slot, waving and smiling through the window at Joshua, who waved back at him. Joshua couldn’t hear anything, but he had plenty of reasons to believe that all the birds out there were atwitter.
The phone rang from atop the stack of coffee-table books and he picked it up unthinkingly, as if he were at home.
“Hey, Jonjo man!” Stagger said. “What’s brewing?”
“Stagger? Are you out of your fucking mind?” It was self-evidently a rhetorical question. “How did you get this number?”
“You left your cell phone here, buddy. It looks like the only people you ever call other than Mom Wilmette and Bernie Dad are Kimiko Cell and Kimiko M. Home. What does M. stand for?”
“It stands for motherfucker, you crazy motherfucker!” Joshua slammed the phone down on the coffee table and stood up as if it had just bitten him. When it rang again he stared at it with blinding hatred, until the answering machine in the kitchen turned on.
“Jonjo, Jonjo . . . A friend less loyal than me wouldn’t put up with such language.” Stagger’s nasal tone was of someone affecting indifference.
“Fuck you!” said Joshua to the answering machine.
“But you might care to know that an Ana called to ask about—” Joshua rushed to the kitchen to pick up the phone, slipping on the floor in his tube socks.
“Your student Ana. The good Lord knows I am no expert on ladies’ feelings, but it seems pretty clear to me she’d be more than happy to lick your balls.”
Fumblingly, Joshua pressed all the buttons on the answering machine to stop it from recording. Bushy leapt on the counter to bear witness to this suspicious behavior.
“It seems she’d really like you to come to her party. She invited me too by the way. I’m gonna have to consult my calendar.”
A flutter wing touched Joshua’s heart: he envisioned Ana at the party, and himself leaning into the curve of her neck to speak over the noise. The dimples, the warmth of her skin, the jasmine smell.
“Are you going, Jonjo? She really needs to know. You should call her.”
Finally, the machine beeped and stopped recording.
“You have my cell phone, you maniac!”
“Maniac though I may be, you can have your phone anytime you want. In fact, you can shove it up your ass like a freaking gerbil!” Stagger screamed and the line went dead. Down on his knees, Joshua banged his head against the kitchen cabinet where Kimmy kept her select Tupperware. Doubt banged back from the inside. Script Idea #48: A man with terminal cancer decides to exact revenge on all those who wronged him, including his landlord and the doctor who diagnosed him late. Title: Road to Gehinnam.
The phone rang again. Joshua stood up and shooed Bushy away.
“I beg your pardon,” Stagger said. “That was not professional.”
“I need my phone back. And my keys.”
“The door of your home is always open to you.”
“I don’t think I’m comfortable after what happened the other night.”
“What happened the other night?”
“Come on, Stagger! It’s really hard for me not to think that you’re a lunatic.”
“If this here lunatic wanted to hurt you, he would just walk up Magnolia and hurt you,” Stagger said. “I know where Kimiko Motherfucker Home lives. I walk my dog past her house every day.”
“What dog? You don’t have a dog!”
Desperate, Joshua opened the fridge door and looked inside: there was a six- pack of beer tucked in the back.
“I tell you what,” Stagger said. “I’m about to go to a game, so I’ll leave the phone and the keys on Kimiko Motherfucker’s porch. I won’t even get in. You don’t have to invite me in or even offer me beer. How’s that for generosity and kindness?”
Kimmy never drank beer. Joshua never drank beer. He didn’t even know if Kimmy knew that.
“I’m really uncomfortable with that. I’d much prefer if you just went and fucked yourself.”
“All right then, Jonjo boy. I’ll drop your stuff off and then I’m gonna go and fuck myself,” Stagger said and hung up.
Joshua stood frozen in disbelief; when he moved to return to the sofa a sharp pain in his back stopped him in his tracks. The thought of Stagger at Kimmy’s door was terrifying. He would have to do something about it: call the police, stab him in the eyes, protect his domain and his woman. Or he could just get himself temporarily situated elsewhere, on the off chance that Stagger might get his insanity under control.
The phone rang again. Furiously, Joshua picked it up and growled into it:
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“That is not a way to show proper respect to your big sister, Jackie,” Janet said. Many years ago, she’d carefully picked a name that would inflict the most torment upon him and had started calling him “Jackie” in front of his friends and girlfriends. Everybody had names for him; it drove him crazy, and Janet was perfectly aware of it.
“What can I do for you, Jan?”
“First of all, are you okay?”
“I called your cell number and your landlord picked up. He seems like a very nice man.”
“He’s a gentleman and a scholar, all right. You have no idea.”
“Have you moved in with Ms. Cio-Cio San?”
“It’s none of your business, Janet.”
“She is not good for you, Jackie, because she’s too good for you.”
“None of your business, Janet.”
“If you have no other place to live, you can live with me. I have plenty of space. You’ll have to live like an adult, though. Respect, responsibilities, things like that.”
“I’d rather live in a dog crate. What can I do for you?”
“Lunch with maman et moi.”
“I’m really busy.”
“With being really busy.”
“We’re meeting at Marcel’s.”
“My treat. Unlimited wine intake too, to help you along with being really busy.”
“God, I can always count on you being a slut, Jackie.”
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Making of Zombie Wars, The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles, and The Book of My Lives. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award, and a 2012 USA Fellowship, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives and plays in Chicago.
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