- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Verdict Like an axiom on one of Matthew’s esoteric coffee cups, this debut novel by the host of The Moth podcast starts out cute and then gets ugly. Highly recommended, especially for fans of other sharp, iconoclastic authors like Jay McInerney, Douglas Coupland, and Eric Bogosian. [New Harvest is a joint venture between Amazon Publishing and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.—Ed.]—Jeanne Bogino, New Lebanon Lib., NY
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
If You Lived Here You’d Be
Alone by Now
Ten years ago when someone asked Matthew the question, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” he remained silent and tried to look like he had an answer and was only considering how to phrase it. Inside the head, however, the only answer he could hear was, Those days will eat me alive, and Matthew knew that probably wasn’t what you were supposed to say. It’s ten years later and if he can swing this storm of time that’s standing still in front of him, fortune will smile like it never has. But it is hard to find a hint of promise in a calendar found suddenly blank; Monday through Friday wiped clean against one’s own wishes or plans, a wide open grid of Valium-and-Heineken-kissed dead end days with a horizon way past the weeks on the page. Maybe thirty-five now, maybe forty, close enough anyway — in America these days, one’s forties seem to start at twenty-five.
So this morning, west of the house and on the wrong side of thirty, Matthew Harris is sizing himself up to see how things are going; looking at his reflection in the mirror, in a men’s room, in a gas station, on Post Road, a mile or two into Norwalk. The mirror is right next to a wall-mounted vending machine offering up condoms and small packets of knock-off designer cologne, which speaks volumes, really, about how things are going. If you were a camera tracking left to right in here, things would look like this as you drifted along making sense of it: empty paper towel dispenser with just a tiny torn tag of why-bother hanging from the stoic slit of its chipped metal grin; then the scratched-up, dented, bereft vending machine offering up second-rate items for the neck and penis; then the mirror offering up the reflection — long, lanky, slightly underweight now, hung-over, semi-moneyed, tall, and medium slim, with no evident interest in shaving. A man with only semi-decent winnings in life’s genetic lottery, but with enough patrician features in the face to have landed somewhere better than a Norwalk service station men’s room, one would have imagined.
Living in Westport, Connecticut seemed like a good idea at the time; lately most of Matthew’s life falls into the category of having seemed like a good idea at the time. Letting a decade and change slip by working at New Time Media in Manhattan seemed like a good idea at one point as well. But let’s commend him for at least having avoided the sartorial trap most men in Westport fall into, the one where it looks like they dress only in clothes from the in-flight catalogs one browses up in business or first; clothes that look paid for with membership rewards points from the platinum American Express, which is how Matthew shopped and dressed until recently — until that last day, the day all of this shit started basically, a day heretofore only referred to as the Incident. That was the day Matthew made his way into the closet at work and switched things up a bit. The closet was actually a room on the twenty-eighth floor at New Time, an office without a desk, and instead stacked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with clothing in stacks, sacks, boxes, and racks. The closet is where thin people made politely droll by fame were routinely allowed to rummage through and take away free designer clothing that they could’ve never afforded when they were broke anonymous people, and had no reason to be taking for free now that they were wealthy. From the so-called closet, Matthew took what he thought he might look good in. Or more specifically, what he thought he might look strong and able in, fashionably casual armor to weather the days in front of him, days that would bury the sensibly dressed, steadily employed, soft, agreeable man he had been before this day came.
It was the moment in any epic myth when the warrior chooses the armor that will allow him to undertake the journey in front of him, or in less noble terms, it was the moment when the doctor’s bad news, and the subsequent beer and Vicodin, urge one to finally take from life what has not been given. Take it, and then slouch off in a golden haze, defeated by bosses who don’t understand what it’s like getting the X-ray that leaves one no choice but to start living like today is the first day of the rest of one’s life. Defeated, sure, arguably, but at least he was making the exit like a champion, in a long slow-motion walk that felt like the whole thing was being shot through a soft amber pill-and-lager lens — a foggy but determined, low-spirited stroll with arms bear-hugging the big stack of clothing not intended for him, holding it close to the chest and clutched up under the chin. In the blurry background, the colleagues that noticed were just shaking their heads in the same slow motion that Matthew was walking with.
The digression of bad news and bad habits and bad attitudes aside, hats off to our hero! His new look seems to borrow a page from nineteen sixties European motorcycle racing fashion, albeit a type geared toward hung over, fatigued, lonely, careless, lazy motorcycle racers with a couple of days of stubble; if only on the outside, he’s doing great. Matthew leaves the restroom like a major league pitcher mustering what it takes to go out there and give life 110 percent for just one more inning, even though the game has already been decided and fans are trickling out of the seats to get to the parking lot before it’s a madhouse scene, heading into traffic jams on the surface streets in order to get home a little early and make a wife happy.
He musters what it takes to leave the gas station restroom and buy his coffee inside the little market attached to the gas station by the expressway like he always has on weekday mornings like this one. And a gas station market a mile or two outside of Westport, Connecticut, is as close to honest as Westport is going to get. Evidence of the human condition thriving here no matter how hard these people try to deny it; a little concrete hut that seems to be saying, While I am just an ugly little bunker of a store, and while I may sit just outside your well-scrubbed, exfoliated, moisturized, leafy, conspicuously status-laced suburb, my profitable inventory lays bare the secret of what you people crave beneath your stainless veneer: pornography, cigarettes, tabloid magazines, diet pills, and beer. Matthew walks up to the cash register and pays for his cup of coffee, trying to affect the usual bored, dull, lithe stroll meant to telegraph a dependable stream of fat and steady checks that has not dried up suddenly; which is to say, he approximates the gait he had before last Friday happened.
On the rack is one of New Time Media’s magazines, and on the cover is an actor wearing the same outfit that Matthew is wearing, the same narrow, lazy gray designer tee shirt, the same gray canvas pants with articulated knees, the black boots, the reissued nineteen seventies Italian watch. The head does the production calendar math and, oh, wait, right: Actually, those are in fact, the exact same clothes that were on the second stack on the right when he walked in to the closet at work to steal clothing that fateful day, the clothes that were shot back in March for the May cover of the magazine here on the magazine rack. Matthew nods the same silent hello-and-good-bye to the same clerk that he’s nodded to weekday mornings for years. As far as the clerk can tell, Matthew will drive into the city like he always has, and go to work like he always does — because as far as anyone can tell, nothing has changed, except, fine, yes, the way he dresses, and maybe the way he isn’t shaving as much, and maybe the rest of the shit that’s going down the drain weekdays between the hours of nine and seven.
The key goes in the ignition like it always has. The upholstery is trying hard to act like summer; to do that thing where it stays cool in the morning even though the weather is already getting warm outside; but it’s only the end of spring, so it hasn’t really got the swing of it. The key is turned like it always is, the dash beeps the fast little beeps, the tiny orange lights on the console wake and wink, and the Bavarian Motor Works are started.
While the car idles, Matthew looks in the rearview mirror, reluctantly presses a bit on his cheeks and under his chin in a forfeited negotiation with time that always ends with the half-assed determination to soldier on: Fuck it, I’m not old. Unless you’re, like, nineteen, and sober, and looking right at me from a few inches away in natural light. It’s clearly evident that this is exactly what Matthew is thinking, mostly because he picks up his phone/email/everything device and starts typing the very phrase on the tiny keyboard. He emails this little maxim to himself. Lately, he prefers doing this late at night, fairly or full tilt into a decent buzz after killing another ten-hour workday in his parked car; this way he can be pleasantly surprised on mornings like this one by email containing his moments of insight and words of encouragement. As if one morning, the little life maxim he receives from himself will jump-start things, as if somewhere out there in the ether is the perfect slogan waiting to get his life back on track again. The coffee is in the beverage holder like it’s always been. Yesterday’s half-spent nest of free community newspapers is on the passenger floorboard, and triplets of Heineken empties have left the nest; rolled under the passenger seat to find their own place in the back and make a go of it on their own in this world, as we all must at one point.
Therapy has not been officially canceled, but now with no paycheck coming in, let’s be honest: How long can it last, really? It’s a cruel irony that when one has a job, a life, a paycheck, and is relatively on track, there is money for therapy and even sometimes insurance to cover it. Another fine practical joke from the universe, because the days ahead, to put it mildly, are the ones that will probably require a little navigational assistance. But to be clear, the man that we’re referring to as a therapist is really, basically, a licensed social worker, and one who has taken up amateur stand-up comedy at age sixty-five, which can be a little awkward in sessions. This is an important clarification — the credential, not the comedy — since the practice of a psychotherapist brings to mind visions of the fortunate lying on a couch and complaining about luxury problems to someone getting paid to nod and not act on their instinct to physically strike the complainer. Milton Mills, C.S.W., is a sixty-five-year-old Southern gentleman, lanky and long, almost always in a well-worn and frayed suit from about September to late spring, and those are the only few things you really need to know about Milton. Lately Matthew suspects that Milton is teaching him how to release himself from the mandible of the serially unfaithful land mammal he snared and married as if there was a bounty on Connecticut game so unwieldy.
Here in the car, the coffee hits blood, the blood races its commute through veins, the veins lead it to the brain, the brain realizes it’s awake and decides to join the race. Fits and starts, first spitting a few images; tripped and triggered memories of largely anonymous sexual encounters that Kristin — the briefly aforementioned, unfaithful, unwieldy, retired fashion model wife (wholesale winter-coat catalogs, but she’s been very clear with Matthew that this qualifies as fashion and modeling and, by definition then, fashion modeling) — would certainly not approve of. Little score-settling trysts in the car that never manage to provide distraction from remembering the fact that Kristin always had the house to herself during the day to undertake her relatively normal scenario of minor adulterous moral bankruptcy. Managing one’s score-settling trysts in a leased car you can instantly no longer afford, in parking lots, carries a certain stigma if you’re looking at it from a high horse, or even a normal-sized horse, really.
Matthew prefers to stick to the outlying sections of the animal-themed lot at Stan Leland’s Grocery Emporium, each section’s designated letter decorated with a corresponding animal to form a convenient mnemonic to jog a shopper’s memory as to where they parked — W for Whale; Y for Yak; Z for Zebra, for Zealot, for Zero, for Zoloft. The brain kicking in, and reminding, even insisting this: For the record, any colleague (former) or neighbor (the faceless strangers to the left and right of your home) would tell you that you are sane; that you are a normal man and an upstanding member of this community.
Matthew grabs a piece of it, runs with it: I am normal, normal I am, I am la norm, moral man. The brain aborts this little anagram seizure; sends a synaptic signal that says to hit the numbers and the accelerator. Eleven hundred. Fifteen hundred. Two. Three. Forty.
Eleven hundred. This is the number of people in the company that by now, Monday at 9:00 am, have certainly received an official piece of corporate email notifying them that Matthew was fired from the job he held for eleven years up until last Friday. They maybe even know the circumstances by now — which is essentially more than Matthew knows, since he fainted as far as he can figure.
Fifteen hundred. Probably the number of dollars that it costs monthly, all told, to drive a leased BMW 745 around Connecticut trying to find something to do until 7:30 pm so that the seasonal-outerwear-model wife, as well as the neighbors, as well as the guy at the gas station minimarket, will still be under the impression that there has been no loss of a job, no loss of a check, no loss of leafy suburban status, no hint of foreboding doom. It’s probably fifteen hundred, but it could be more, or less, because Matthew never sees a bill. All of it — the lease, the gas, the insurance — hits the American Express and the platinum program lets you carry a balance, and the balance swells; it should come with a gun, this program.
Two. Number of years married. Matthew chose poorly. In fairness, they both did. Matthew has only ever chosen women who would be certain to start off very sweet then sneak up on him slowly and cause great pain, like those amateur hour drinks that taste like candy and leave you in a grave; the kind that have an energy drink and a few different kinds of booze in them. They wait in the glass to drag one’s ass to the floor, the heart toward stroke, the face and neck halfway to permanent nerve damage. Drinks with names like the Mind Eraser, Dead Bull, Cherry Bomb, the Kristin Edwards-Harris. And Kristin has made the same wrong choice, obviously, believing she could find a man who is both stable and not without an edge; who is somehow at once content, staid, predictable, driven, contentious, and restless. She was trying to find the best of both worlds, or five or six, and she’s tried to find this combination in a man too many times. And so if she’s a lethal drink, he’s essentially a candy bar designed to appeal to everyone, and of course, one that lands in the benign middle, ultimately appealing to no one. He is something that’s supposed to be light but dark, mild but strong, rich but not, a nut and, at the same time, never one. A candy bar like this never works out. A candy bar like this may as well be called a We Tried Our Best Bar, or a Mutual Disappointment
Three. This is the number of what could be described as mostly minor parking lot hand-job (more or less) situations. Matthew drinks himself into the idea of it. And anyway, he is convinced he’s quit. The score-settling trysts, that is, not the drinking, he needs the drinking these days, thank you very much.
Forty. This the age he used to be nowhere near. Matthew was nineteen about a month ago, just like you, just like everyone else in America.