Today, I learned:
On the island of Java there is a condition in which a man, one moment normal and placid, will fly into a sudden and uncontrollable rage the next. Seizing the nearest weapon - usually a club or machete - the man will attempt to kill anyone he can find until his rampage is ended as it began, by the machete or the cudgel. In the native language this frenzied behavior is called amok, thus the English phrase ‘running amok’.
Certain tribes in West Africa are frequently struck with koro, the belief that a man’s penis has fallen off or receded into his body. This, in turn, can kick off what has been termed a ‘penis panic,’ in which several males of the community, despite all visible evidence to the contrary, believe their members have been stolen by a practitioner of witchcraft. In the most extreme cases, mobs of angry men take to the streets and drag the suspected sorcerer out of his or her home. Once again, machetes and clubs are likely to figure into this scenario.
Amongst the Cree Indians, there are instances of another extraordinary set of delusions, this time wendigo-sickness. Once the wendigo, a malevolent ice-spirit, possesses a person’s body they will be compelled to kill and eat anyone they can trick, trap, or overpower. The only known cure for wendigo- sickness: a medicine man must perform a ritual involving a sacred tea, which, when forced down the throat of the possessed, should melt the demon so it may leave the host’s body as vapors through the mouth. This is bad news for anyone under the influence of the wendigo; medicine men have been replaced by hospitals and psychiatric wards, and no doctor who slaved away in medical school for eight years wants their patients snatched up from under them by some drum-pounding, wand-rattling shaman dancing his way through the clinic doors.
They’re called culture-specific illnesses, and I learned all about them on the internet. Most of my day, at least while I’m at work, is spent on the internet.
One of my bosses – I have four: the office manager, assistant manager, branch manager, and controller – stops at my desk and begins rapping on it with his knuckles in his infuriating way. I’m watching last week’s episode of House like I don’t give a damn. I don’t.
“Listen, I need you to get in those mileage reports by tomorrow. No more procrastinating. You’ve got a review coming up in a few weeks, and I hate being a jerk, but I will be – if I have to.”
Say my name!
“Are we clear here?”
Say it, dammit!
I nod my head and turn back to the wall of my cubicle, hoping to divert his attention to the picture I just put up there. Some topless bimbo is staring lasciviously into the camera, nibbling seductively on the fingers of one hands while resting the fingers of the other tantalizingly close to strip of dental floss she’s passing off as underwear. He takes the bait, sees the picture…and nothing. Not a raised eyebrow or uncomfortable recoil – like it’s some kind of tacky motivational poster, he looks it over without the slightest stirrings of protest. Just what I knew would happen.
“Alright Habib, I’m glad we’re on the same page. My office is always open - you know how I like to be as far as lines of communication staying open.”
I can’t believe it. Of all the names I’ve been called by (Rob, Charlie, Virgil, Jerome etc.) since I started here, this one has to be the most outlandish. I have a pale, flat, rounded face topped with gelled straw-yellow hair, a face my mother always described as “rustic”, which was her delicate way of saying “Midwestern”. My slacks are from a discount casual dress barn, my fourteen-dollar department store shirt is untucked on one side, and my tattered shoes resemble grinning dachshunds. I wiggle my big toe at the coffee and cologne drenched man so it peeks out of the dog’s mouth like a big dirty tongue. How could I ever be mistaken for a Habib?
Of course, I could take him up on his offer, have a sit-down in his office, and he would probably call me two different names over the course of the session. I don’t have anything to worry about. Somehow, he thinks I owe him mileage reports. That’s the accounting department, and I’m in the…what department am I in? It’s been so long since I’ve done any work around here that I can’t remember.
They hired me straight out of college, when this office and its honey-comb rows of cubicles were just supposed to be stepping-stones towards bigger, better things. On my first day I came in, sat, and waited. When no one came for me I began asking around the office. Everywhere I went I got the same response: there’ll be someone at your desk soon. But, no one ever came. Soon, people were dropping off stacks of paperwork in my inbox. I didn’t know what to do with them, so I gathered them up and put them on other people’s desks. This continued for a long time. I was in constant fear that any day my crimes would be discovered and I would get fired. That day never came. I kept collecting my check every two weeks (I have to go down to payroll personally or they will forget to send it, or send it to somebody else) up until this day, five years later. Now, when someone puts some paperwork on my desk, I throw it out.
I keep on searching for this doppelganger of mine who finishes all the work I neglect and takes the rap for every act of theft, vandalism, and insubordination I’ve committed over the years. People retire, get promoted, resign, get laid-off, go on sick-leave and never come back. The faces around me change but I stay the same. My double isn’t out there. I’m alone in this. There could be no other way.
My typical day involves coming into work two hours late, taking two hours for lunch, and leaving two hours early. During the three hours I’m actually sitting at my desk in my cubicle I surf the net. Normally, I look up interesting facts and stories, play video games with some kid two-thousand miles away (rotten little cheater that he is), and search for any smut that still has the power to shock or amuse me. The latter especially is becoming something of a job in itself: name any act, setting, scenario, or common household object and I’ve seen it exploited to the fullest of its erotic potential via the all-encompassing reach of the broadband connection. More and more, the net takes on the proportions of everyday life. I can go shopping, find jobs, buy sex, contract viruses, and get robbed. The only difference is, in there I’m supposed to be anonymous, and out here I’m supposed to be seen, noticed, and held accountable for my actions.
I check the college basketball scores – there’s a March Madness pool at the office, and win or lose I’ll claim the prize anyways. After all, who can say if I really am Jason P. or Ken T. or not?
You may think that I’ve really got it made, but I’ll tell you, it’s not easy. It’s been long enough that I no longer bother questioning just how all of this is possible – sometimes I think I’ve been insane all these years, and recognizing that is the only thing that keeps me from believing it. Maybe somewhere far away I’m squatting in a padded room with a big baby grin on my face dreaming up this whole reality of mine. I keep on expecting my number to come up, but it never does. That’s the worst part – I want to push it so badly, to test the very limits of this phenomenon, but I’m a coward. The second I start to really enjoy it I know it will all come crashing down. People will tolerate my antics as long as I’m every bit as miserable as them. The second I start having fun, watch out. Nobody minds a ghost when it’s sighing up in the attic, but when it starts rattling pots it’s time to call the exorcist.
I’d like to say my life outside the office is any different, but I’m sure you can guess how that one pans out.
Three weeks ago that fat, nurse-maid type from transport paid me a visit. She put her big, meaty paw on my desk and said she was so sorry and if there was anything she could do, I should just ask. I took it as she had me confused with someone who just had a death in the family, or maybe was diagnosed with a deadly disease (note to self: google lupus). I used the opportunity to take a two-week vacation. I returned with a tan and a nasty sand-flea rash to an empty office. Just as I was trying to digest this disturbing break in routine, everyone jumped out and yelled ‘surprise’. There was a banner hanging from the wall that read “Happy Birthday Cliff,” cake, and an extra fifteen minutes for lunch. I played along. Some guy asked me if I was going to take time off for Passover. He thinks I’m Jewish, which doesn’t bother me, though Habib might not like it.
After the party was over, I kicked a hole in the drywall, grabbed a handful of markers and drew swastikas on every surface I could find. I went to my desk and waited for the bombs to start falling. They never did. Someone re-plastered the wall and painted over the swastikas. No one talked about it around the water cooler. There was no mention in the newsletter.
Today, I find myself in the gloomy basement standing in front of the counter marked “payroll”. I’m collecting a second check. I give the clerk my name, tell her I never received my paycheck, and she writes one out on the spot, rips away the carbons, and hands it over. For a moment, I can’t believe it. I putz around for a few minutes in the hallway, re-enter the office, and tell the lady the same exact same story from a few minutes before. Without batting an eyelash she prints out another check, stamps on her signature, and slides it across the countertop into my trembling hands. In five minutes I have just made 2,400 dollars. How many times can I do this? Seven it seems, and only seven - not because the lady caught on, but because my hands were shaking so violently I couldn’t grab the check off the countertop anymore.
So, I’m taking an early lunch, early even for me. I’m going down to the sporting goods megastore, buying a shotgun and a box of shells. I am driving back to the office and walking up the stairs. People are noticing me now, giving me strange looks. I like the attention. Mostly, I like the way the walnut stock feels tucked under my arm and the cold cobalt steel brushing up against the leg of my khakis. I’m walking like an old army colonel on parade, my chest swelling and my legs pacing in long, regal strides.
I see the nurse-maid from transportation walking down the hall and take my first shot. The building is cheaply constructed, and the pellet shot demolishes the drywall into a gaping hole spewing chalky dust. I fire four more shots and smile at the satisfying feeling of inertia and impact. A water-main is broken and a power cable severed, sending the upper floors into darkness.
It isn’t like in the movies, all screaming and panic. People see me and freeze. They’re rooted in place, trying to figure out what’s happening, more inclined to believe it’s all a big joke, a drill, a performance art piece. I level the barrel at their heads and then the moment of pure reptile terror hits them. They dive for cover and I let the shot go, missing by inches. When they tell this story to their friends, they will make themselves out to be action heroes. Only I will know the truth.
Now, I want to explain something: I’m not a bad shot, not with a shotgun, not at this range. I’m no monster either, which is why I’m making sure to miss all my targets. It’s possible that these are real people with real lives, not just phantoms and homunculi here to torment me with obscurity and indifference. I know I’m insane, I just don’t know in what way, so I’m not going to gamble with human life, or least what passes off as it for these people.
I go into a crowded room of workstations. The people are sitting in front of their computers. Some are typing, but most rest their hands on the keyboard, gazing stupidly at the screens as if trying to decipher hieroglyphics. I fire the gun at the ceiling and yell out “Heil Hitler!” A few people look up. I shoot again and shout “sic semper tyrannis!” A few more people look my way. One man raises a finger to his lips and shushes me. I start shooting, this time at their workstations. The people get up and orderly file out of the room.
I storm into an office where a man is sitting at a desk staring into a blank computer screen. I point the shotgun at his face. He turns, looks up, and says:
I can’t help but chuckle at this response and do my best not to break into fits of laughter. I blow the monitor to pieces, he falls out of his chair, and I am running through the halls shouting and firing shots into the air. I take to dismantling a row of cubicles with blasts from the shotgun. I try to orchestrate it so they’ll all collapse at once like a house of cards, but soon I’ve got a mess on my hands. I run out of ammo and leave the building, surveying on my way out all the glorious destruction I’ve wrought, glad I finally brought some life to the place.
The moment I hit the parking lot I see the police cars, half a dozen pulled up at odd angles and at least twice as many closing in fast on the horizon. I affect my stately swagger and walk past the uniformed officers as they storm the building. They don’t notice. One of them brushes my shoulder as he charges past, though he doesn’t react. Another one, younger and clearly frightened, turns and looks at me. He’s squinting his eyes like I’m very far away, like I’m something he can just barely make out. I see his hand hover above his hip holster, trembling with indecision. The hand drops. He turns away, shaking his head as if scolding himself for letting his imagination run away with him.
I have seven paychecks in my wallet so I drive down to the bank. I’m standing in line for a few minutes looking at the pattern in the marble floor when I notice people are giving me funny looks. I realize I still have the shotgun in my hand and that my khakis are stained with charred, oily bands where the muzzle was resting against them. Still, no one says anything. They shift their weight from foot to foot in anticipation of the moment when I whirl towards the crowd, flash a satyr’s grin, and yell “gotchya!” as the hidden camera crew emerges from the potted plants. It’s finally my turn at the counter. I raise the barrel of the shotgun and lazily gesture with it as I make witty remarks to the teller. I had come to make a deposit, but am leaving with a big withdrawal.
I throw the gun in the trash on my way out, knowing I no longer have anything to fear from people. I make my way down the street, colliding with people walking down the sidewalk. They stumble and look behind them for the rock or curb they tripped over. I am still moving, musing absentmindedly about what I should get for lunch. I hear a voice.
“Hey brother, spare fifty cents?”
I look and see a man made of rags. One eye is blood red and the other a fierce yellow. One orange tooth emerges from a set of dry, deeply scored lips.
“Excuse me?” I say, immediately recalling the man at the computer.
“You know, you got black stuff on your pants.” He says.
“Excuse me?” (I really must break the habit of saying that)
“On your pants. What, were you working on a bike or something?”
I nod, reach into the bag I’ve been carrying since the bank, and give him a stack of hundred dollar bills.
“Holy shit!” He looks like the cat that just got its tail caught in the rocking chair. “Is this for real? Hey brother, what’s your name anyways?”
I can’t tell him. I don’t know.
Though I’m glad he asked.