Kings of Infinite Space: A Novelby James Hynes
Paul Trilby is having a bad day. If he were to be honest with himself, Paul Trilby would have to admit that he's having a bad life. His wife left him. Three subsequent girlfriends left him. He's fallen from a top-notch university teaching job, to a textbook publisher, to, eventually, working as a temp writer for the General Services department of the Texas
Paul Trilby is having a bad day. If he were to be honest with himself, Paul Trilby would have to admit that he's having a bad life. His wife left him. Three subsequent girlfriends left him. He's fallen from a top-notch university teaching job, to a textbook publisher, to, eventually, working as a temp writer for the General Services department of the Texas Department of General Services. And even here, in this world of carpeted partitions and cheap lighting fixtures, Paul cannot escape the curse his life has become. For it is not until he begins reach out to the office's foul-mouthed mail girl that he begins to notice things are truly wrong. There are sounds coming from the air conditioning vents, bulges in the ceiling, a disappearing body. There are the strange men lurking about town, wearing thick glasses and pocket protectors.
The Kings of Infinite Space is a hilarious and macabre spoof on our everyday lives, and gives true voice to the old adage, "Work is Hell."
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Kings of Infinite Space
By James Hynes
PicadorCopyright © 2004 James Hynes
All rights reserved.
One brutally hot summer's morning, Paul Trilby — ex-husband, temp typist, cat murderer — slouched sweating in his t-shirt on his way to work, waiting behind the wheel of his car for the longest red light in central Texas. He was steeling himself for a confrontation with his boss, screwing up his nerve to ask for a raise, but his present circumstances were conspiring against him. His fourteen-year-old Dodge Colt rattled in place in the middle of the Travis Street Bridge, hemmed in on all sides by bulbous, purring pickup trucks and gleaming sport utility vehicles with fat, black tires. The electric blues and greens of these enormous automobiles reflected the dazzling morning glare through Paul's cracked and dirty windshield; they radiated shimmering heat through his open window. Waiting for the light, the fingers of his left hand drumming the scalding side of his car, the skin of his forearm baking to leather in the heat, Paul felt less like a man who deserved more out of life than a peasant on a mule cart trapped in the middle of an armored division.
"You're paying me as a typist," Paul said aloud, practicing, "but you're working me as a technical writer."
In the heat, and in the rumble of idling engines, this sounded especially feeble. Paul sighed and peered ahead, where a homeless man was walking through the waves of heat between the lines of hulking trucks and SUVs, turning slowly from side to side as if he were lost in a parking lot looking for his car. Unlike most panhandlers, he didn't carry a hand-lettered sign on a piece of cardboard, telegraphing some tale of woe; even more strange, he wore a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie instead of the usual sun-bleached denims and filthy t-shirt. The bluntness of his large, egg-shaped head was exaggerated by a severe buzz cut and a pair of wire-rim glasses, and his body was egg shaped as well — he looked unusually well fed for a homeless guy. Indeed, in his white shirt and polyester slacks, he looked like a caricature of a middle manager from some draw-this-puppy matchbook school of art, one large oval topped by a smaller one. The shirt and tie are a mistake, Paul thought, he needs a sign — WILL TYPE AND FILE FOR FOOD. But that cut too close to the bone for Paul; he was only a paycheck away from panhandling himself. And anyway, it wasn't his job to offer marketing advice to the homeless. I've got my own problems, he told himself, and he lifted his gaze through the heat shimmering off the trucks ahead and saw, at the far end of the bridge, the time and temperature endlessly chasing each other across the shadow side of the Bank of Texas Building. It was just barely eight o'clock, and already 85 degrees. In the morning glare the bank's brass logo along the sunlit side of the building blazed as if it were burning.
"Bot," said Paul, pronouncing the bank's acronym aloud. "Bee. Oh. Tee." Sweat trickled down his breastbone. Both front windows of his unair-conditioned Colt were rolled down, in the unlikely event of a breeze, and his own dress shirt was tossed on the passenger seat so that he wouldn't sweat through it on the drive to work. A racket like someone violently battering a cookie sheet came from the undercarriage of his unevenly idling car and was reflected back at him by the enormous, neon blue Trooper to his left.
This is not the climate for ambition, Paul thought, and at the edge of his consciousness flickered a retort from his former, more politically engaged persona as a university professor: that this kind of thinking was prejudiced and possibly even racist. Old buzzwords flickered dialectically at the back of his brain like heat lightning along the horizon — colonial/postcolonial; First World/Third World; North/South — but Paul was only barely aware of them. During this moment of distraction, each of the red numerals streaming across the bank at the end of the bridge had grown by one. Now it was 86 degrees and 8:01, and Paul was late for work.
The egg-shaped man had come closer, only a couple of vehicles away. All the other drivers on the bridge sat high up behind their tinted windows, ignoring the man in air-conditioned comfort. Paul had come to think of these more affluent drivers as "the truckoisie," middle-class state employees who faced, at worst, a forty-minute, stop-and-start commute every morning, but who did it in vehicles capable of fording a jungle stream or hauling half a ton of manure. These vehicles had names that bespoke Spartan virtues, a semimilitary asceticism — Explorer and Pathfinder and Samurai — but within, even in the cabs of the pickup trucks, the vehicles were as comfy as suburban living rooms, where the truckoisie drank from huge plastic flagons of specialty coffee, talked on their cell phones, and listened to hyperventilating, drive time DJs on the radio or best-selling self-help books on tape. Paul's own tape player had long since choked to death on a cassette of Jan and Dean's greatest hits, stuck at last on the screeching tires of "Dead Man's Curve," and the FM band on his radio no longer worked, leaving him with only the shrill democracy of AM — jammin' oldies, oompah Tejano accordion music, and Dr. Laura. At this moment he waited with the radio off, his car noisily juddering itself to pieces beneath him, and he sat smelling exhaust, his own sweat, and the nitrous aroma of bat shit rising off the sluggish green river below.
"I'm not a typist," muttered Paul, trying to focus on the matter at hand, "I'm a goddamn tech writer."
Suddenly the egg-shaped man was at the Colt's bumper, swiveling his spectacles in Paul's direction. Paul averted his gaze, trying to avoid eye contact. Too late. The homeless man came up to Paul's window, his eyes huge behind his glasses.
Paul glowered straight ahead, his train of thought derailed. This was a breach of panhandler decorum. The way it was supposed to work was, you waggled your sign, if you had one, and scowled in a guilt-inducing manner; the object of your attentions ignored you; you moved on. Paul sighed ostentatiously and lifted his eyebrows at the traffic light, just barely visible above the tall rear end of the Pathfinder ahead of him. Still red. Over the stink of exhaust and hot metal, he was certain he could already smell the homeless man's riparian scent. But for the heat, Paul would have rolled up his window.
Don't meet his eye, Paul told himself. Pretend he isn't there.
But now Mr. Egg was bent at Paul's window like a highway patrolman. Paul allowed himself only the tiniest roll of his eyeballs to the side and was surprised to note that the man's tie featured some sort of astronomical theme, lines of right ascension and declination and signs of the Zodiac against a background of twilight blue. Still not meeting the man's eye, Paul performed another leftward, double-take bounce of his eyeballs. The tie was faded but tightly knotted and clipped to the man's shirt with a dull, silver tie clip, upon which an eroded engraving read "... OF THE YEAR." Paul risked another eyeball bounce at Herr Egg, then another. The white shirt front was smudged, and the narrow points of the man's collar were frayed, but astonishingly in this heat — Paul himself perspired like an overweight prizefighter — there were no sweat stains on the shirt. Monsieur Egg wore two pens; the lower end of one poked through a hole in the bottom of his breast pocket. Across his other breast, inches from Paul's nose, was a smudgy, creased, blue-and-white paper name tag, the sort with a sticky backing that conference goers wear. It read, in blue sans serif and large, block hand lettering:
Hello! My name is
Paul twisted sideways in his seat and looked the man in his egg-shaped face. "Go away," he demanded.
Señor Egg's face from temple to chin was one long, smooth, hairless curve. His skin — another first for a homeless guy in Texas — was pale as a slug, almost albino. His milky scalp gleamed through his stubbled hair, but even this close to him Paul saw not a drop of sweat. The man — Boy G, why else would he wear a name tag? — had a small mouth and a rounded nose, and his tiny, pale eyes were magnified by the bulbous lenses of his wire rims. He was not looking at Paul, however, but past him, appraising the contents and the state of Paul's automobile. His fishy eyes noted the S-shaped crack in the windshield, the greasy dust on the dashboard, the foamy rents in the upholstery. The driver's side sun visor was long gone, torn off in a rage, and the armrest on the passenger door hung by one screw. Behind the front seat a rising tide of Coke cans, crumpled Taco Bell bags, and empty Big Gulp cups cluttered the foot wells.
Paul stared at the man openmouthed and gripped the steering wheel, his stomach tight with anger. Could this bum be judging him? Was it possible that Paul Trilby, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., almost a Fulbright, did not meet the exacting standards of the homeless? Boy G's small mouth curved down at either end, either the beginnings of a smile or a condescending frown, and Paul braced himself for some hoarse obscenity or just an indecipherable grunt. He frantically sought for something cutting to say to forestall this asshole's street witticism.
But Boy G spoke in a whisper, his breath betraying no trace of alcohol nor of anything else for that matter.
"Are we not men?" he said.
Paul's retort caught in his throat. "What?" was all he managed to say.
"Are we not men?" repeated Boy G, with the same ghostly inflection.
The driver of the Ram Truck behind him honked her horn just then, startling Paul, and he glanced in the rearview mirror, then ahead through the windshield glare at the traffic light. It was green, and all the gleaming trucks ahead of him were in motion; a wide gap had opened up between his front bumper and the receding wall of SUVs and pickups. Paul jerked his foot off the brake and the Colt rattled forward. Then he remembered the homeless guy so close to his car, and he hit the brake again. He turned to the window as Ms. Ram Truck leaned on her horn.
"Watch it!" said Paul to Boy G, but there was no one there.
The Ram Truck roared around him and raced through the yellow light. Paul cursed and hit the gas, then jammed the brake almost immediately as the light turned red. His threadbare tires screeched; his arthritic shocks groaned. He lurched against his seat belt, and from the passenger seat his shirt and his lunch slid to the floor; behind him the midden of cans and crumpled bags rustled. Paul pounded the wheel and twisted in his seat, looking right and left, forward and back, for the egg-shaped man. But all he saw were the six sun-baked lanes and the concrete parapet of the bridge, and another fearsome brigade of Troopers and Scouts coming up from behind. Boy G had vanished.CHAPTER 2
By the time Paul pulled into the parking lot, all the spaces in the shade next to the General Services Division Building had been taken by trucks and SUVs, lined up along the wall like piglets at the teat. Paul's watch said 8:06, and he drove frantically up and down the lanes looking for a spot, the angry rattle under his car reflected back at him by the rows of vehicles. But all the shady spots were taken, and he was forced to park along the river embankment in the sun. Before the car shuddered and gasped to a stop, he had rolled up the windows and bent with a grunt to snatch his shirt and his bag lunch off the floor. He trotted across the lot in the stifling heat, pulling on the shirt as he ran, his bag lunch dangling from between his teeth.
"Tech writer," he snarled through clenched lips, "not typist."
Preston, the security guard, lifted his eyebrows at the sight of Paul tucking in his shirt as he came breathlessly into the dank air-conditioning of the lobby.
"You oughta get a regular badge." Preston had big shoulders, a steel-grey crew cut, and a massive Joseph Stalin moustache. He stood behind the counter at parade rest, one hand clasping the other wrist below his tight little potbelly, and he unclasped his wrist and leaned forward just enough to turn the sign-in sheet towards Paul with his long fingers. "You been here long enough," he continued, in a thick East Texas accent like a mouth full of grits.
"I'm only here temporarily," Paul gasped. Sweat trickled down his collar. He wrote "7:59" on the sheet and dashed out his signature. "It's a temporary situation."
"Prit' near six weeks." Preston slid a visitor's badge across the desk and returned to parade rest. "Save you a few minutes is all."
But Paul was already jogging down the first-floor hall to the refrigerators outside the cafeteria, where he stashed his lunch amid bulging plastic grocery bags and snap-top containers crammed with last night's casserole. He glanced through the door at the cafeteria's morning trade: large white men with belts cinched up under their bellies purchasing breakfast burritos from squat, buxom Hispanic women in hair nets and white aprons. Paul decided against a burrito — it wouldn't do to have salsa on his breath when he talked to Rick — and hurried around the corner to the tiny elevator. The stairs were faster — the GSD Building only had two floors — but riding the elevator gave Paul a moment to catch his breath, to pretend that he hadn't just dashed in out of the heat. As the door slid shut, he loosened the sticky waistband of his shorts, and, through his shirt, pinched his t-shirt front and back, peeling it away from his humid skin, flapping it like a bellows to cool himself. He tipped his head back against the wall of the car and sighed.
Are we not men? he thought. What does that mean?
At the second floor the elevator itself groaned, a long sigh that sounded as if it were giving up. But the door slid open, and Paul stepped out, turned left past the aluminum can recycling box, and slipped through the doorway into cubeland.
The General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services — the GSD of TxDoGS — was housed in a wide, low-ceilinged, underlit room in the shape of a hollow square. In the center of the square was a courtyard where a sun-blasted redwood deck surrounded an old live oak, which was fighting a losing battle with oak wilt. The offices along the outer walls, with views of the parking lot and the river, were taken by senior managers. Middle managers had offices along the inner wall with a view of the dying oak tree, and everybody else occupied the honeycomb of cubicles in between, where nearly every vertical surface was grown over as if by moss with stubbly gray fabric. Some enterprising ergonomist for the state of Texas had calculated to the photon the minimum lighting necessary to meet code, and then had removed enough fluorescent bulbs from the suspended ceiling to make the room look candlelit. Everybody works better, went the theory, in the pool of light from his or her own desk lamp. Helps 'em concentrate. The drywall of the outer offices kept any sunlight from reaching the interior, and the amber tint of the courtyard windows filtered the Texas glare. No matter the time of day or the weather, the room always looked the same. It was like working underground, Paul thought.
Just now, across the room, over the cube horizon, Paul saw his boss, Rick McKellar, lope out of his office with his chin lifted like a rooster's and his impressive eyebrows raised as he started up one of the main thoroughfares of the labyrinth of cubes. Paul instantly ducked his head and hunched his shoulders like a soldier dashing from one trench to another, and he scuttled past the empty conference room, then left into the first side street, then immediately left again into his cube. The woman in the cube opposite, Olivia Haddock, was for once looking the other way, and her slave, the dying tech writer in the cube next to Paul's, luckily never lifted his head. Made it, Paul thought, and then saw the latest draft of the RFP on his chair, already emended in Rick's bold, red felt tip. In the beginning Paul had interpreted Rick's huge, brusque lettering as rage, but eventually he understood it as a sign of restlessness and not directed at him in particular. Rick corresponded with all his employees that way.
WATERMARK???? read the scrawl in bright red across the top of the title page. A long, bold, blunt arrow descended to the bottom of the page, and alongside it Rick had dashed, in even larger letters, GLOBAL!!!!
"A watermark?" Paul muttered. "He wants a watermark?"
"Mornin'!" Paul heard Rick say to someone, still twenty paces away, and Paul snatched the document off his chair and dropped into his seat, which squeaked like a small animal. Without looking, he was conscious of Olivia's gimlet glance from across the aisle, while from the adjacent cube he heard the Darth Vader wheeze of the dying tech writer's breathing tube. With one hand he turned on the fluorescent light under his cabinet and with the other nudged the mouse of his PC so that the screen saver deactivated. He could hear the crepitation of Rick's shoes on the carpet outside his cube, so he picked up the RFP with both hands and leaned back in his squealing chair.
Excerpted from Kings of Infinite Space by James Hynes. Copyright © 2004 James Hynes. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Hynes is the author of the novels The Lecturer's Tale and Wild Colonial Boy, as well as the stories Publish&Perish (all New York Times Notable Books of the Year). He lives in Austin, Texas.
James Hynes is the author of the novels The Lecturer's Tale and Wild Colonial Boy, as well as the stories Publish&Perish (all New York Times Notable Books of the Year). He lives in Austin, Texas.
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I very much enjoyed this book. It is unusual for me to actually not be able to put down a book, but this one I had to keep reading. Despite the fact that the main character is a schmuck, you feel empathetic towards him and actually annoyed by Charlotte, whom actually has every right to continue haunting him. I highly recommend this one! Bravo James!