What happens to us when we are young is, we are afraid of having no purpose in the world, alone as we are, without money or career or family, and we grasp about for employment with the eagerness of a drowning person. And we begin what becomes the repetition of our days. And we gain a foothold. And we feel more solid. And maybe a family comes. And maybe children. And maybe we start a business. We feel more solid now. We feel that we have some value. My value is judged by kitchen equipment that runs the way it was designed to run. We get good at whatever it is we do. And more money comes. And we learn the ins and outs of things. And more money comes. And our children grow. And we feel less afraid. And we dream of making a choice that would change our lives. So we can feel that fear once again. So that we might be alone without a flotation device upon that great sea. The great gray sea. Alone. And what might it be that we will do? Who might we be? The books and movies we consume so eagerly make dreamers of us. And the music. We can’t forget the music. It makes dreamers of us. It reminds us that we have passion. Why did we stop listening to music? Where did our passion go? When did we lose the ability to want something so badly, we’d give up everything for it? When will we be heroes?
It’s no fun working on commercial fryers. Every part of them is coated with congealed vegetable oil. If you’re unlucky, you get roaches trapped in the amber goo. Roaches or no, you need to scrape the goo off before you can do whatever work it is you need to do. To replace the gas valve on the fryer at Quentin’s, a restaurant in Coralville, Iowa, I needed to completely disassemble the machine. I removed the door and front panel, removed the burners and disconnected the gas line. Then, like Beowulf jumping into the swamp, I reached into the gooiness, just me and my bare tools, and removed the valve. Then I reversed my steps to reassemble the fryer. Lit the pilot. Lit the main flame.
The whole thing took me about an hour and a half. Enough time to listen to the cook’s bootlegged recording of a Chili Pepper’s concert. My hands were coated with rancid oil, which the pink hand soap in the dispenser wouldn’t touch. I told the cook he was good to go. He said thanks. I told him to have a nice day. He told me the same. I tossed the old gas valve in the trash. Toted my tool pouch and wrenches out to the truck. Put them away. Jumped into the cab. Started her up. Dan Patrick was on the radio, he and his four flunkies whom he calls the Danettes. Dan was discussing the Baseball Hall of Fame. Whether or not the induction of Mike Piazza would open the door to other steroid users such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, the two dominant players of my generation. This is the scope of my workday. Each workday. This is all my workdays in microcosm. After five or eight calls, I will return home, covered in oil and grease. I will eat something like soup or salad. I will shower or take a bath. I might read a book. Deb and I might watch a movie on Amazon Prime. It might be a movie where the protagonist has an epiphany about what his life is all about. He might realize he needs to change. He needs to open his eyes and live a different life. The life that he thought was hidden from him. The life he knew he was meant to lead and, at the same time, the life he didn’t know he was meant to lead. Who among us can claim, as Michael Clayton does, to be Shiva, the god of creation and destruction without at least a tickle of self-doubt? Who can claim to be The Chosen One? Who can claim to have importance in this world? Who, even, can claim to have stood up at any point and made a choice, free from the restraint of repercussion? Judgement. Imprisonment. Abandonment. Homelessness. Death. Who among us can be a hero even within the confines of our own lives?
The Hy Vee liquor store has a foyer with two automatic doors so as to eliminate a draft when the door opens on a winter night such as tonight. It’s warm for January. But it’s not really all that warm when you’re wet to begin with from the rain, which is turning to sleet. I’m sure a revenant would be comfortable spending the night sleeping out in the open, but I wouldn’t. There’s a figure loitering in the foyer. I notice her when the first door slides open. I don’t look at her because she’s none of my business. I don’t respond to the loud conversation she’s holding with herself. I’m moving on through the second door before she notices me and stops speaking. She was in the middle of a prayer, I think. “Please cleanse all of this…” I want to move on, but I also want the woman to continue so I can hear what it is she’s praying for. And I sort of want to let her know that I pray too. And that she should be bold. Even though I’m not bold at all. And that she shouldn’t be cowed into silence by someone like me. Or someone like anyone else either. I turn and glance at her. She’s looking down. Silent now. She is not young. Her blonde hair is streaked with gray. She has bad teeth. And wire-rimmed glasses with one nose piece missing. Two large bags filled with her necessaries on the floor beside her. A Pepsi and bag of Doritos in her hands. And then I move on. The liquor store again. Expensive wines near the entrance. Cheaper wine further in. Jug and box wine on the aisle. I go for the cheap stuff. The Rex Goliath Pinot Noir. Rex as in Tyrannosaurus Rex. Goliath as in Davy and Goliath. And a rooster on the label. Ten bucks per jug. Lucky for me, my palate isn’t very developed. And at this rate probably never will be. Then I head for the Red Box and pick out the most violent film I can, Sicario (which , in Spanish, means hired killer), about a pissed off Josh Brolin and an aggrieved Benicio Del Toro who go HAM on a Mexican drug cartel. And I have all the makings of a drunken, violent evening at home.
The woman’s still there when I leave. She’s looking at the floor. I have this urge to help her in some way. I make a point of saying hello. She hesitates before she raises her eyes from the floor and says, sheepishly, “Yeah. I was prayin’.” “That’s cool,” I say. “I been praying all day.” And I have been. Not out loud or anything. Not even with much intention. It’s just I been thinking about how bankrupt I am. Spiritually. How there is no depth to me. How I sometimes feel like I have not importance to myself or anyone else. What I feel like is a microorganism. And my job is to ingest, say, solid waste, and to break it down into topsoil. Which may be a very practical and useful job. But not so special. And we all want to be special. Just like our mothers told us we were.
“I notice you said something about cleansing all this,” I say. “What were you asking God to cleanse?”
“My food,” she says, wiggling her Pepsi and Doritos. “I never used to have to,” she said, “but now-a-days…”
I chuckle like I know exactly what she’s talking about. Like she’s said something along the lines of, “I used to change my plugs and oil and clean my carburetor, and she’d run smooth, but now-a-days…”
“See,” she continues, made comfortable by our understanding of one another, “there’s all kinds of folks around here who worship Satan. And they want to poison your food. And I never used to have to worry about it, but the more you get…I don’t know how to say it…the deeper you get in faith, the more you need to…”
She lets that hang long enough so I feel compelled to finish it for her,
“…give up the things of this world,” I say. And I wait for her to agree with me, but she doesn’t. Rather, she starts talking about the church she used to go to before whatever it was that pushed her away from it. And every time she moves her arm to explain something about God or Satan, the sliding door opens again. And I’m losing the feeling that the bills folded in the palm of my hand will be at all helpful to her.
Later that night: a movie, a glass of wine, and I fade off to sleep at ten-thirty, the hour when my eyes get sandy and I no longer am able to ask any more questions of myself. And I visit that other land, pregnant with the idea that there is more. More than I am willing to acknowledge in my waking life. That divinity might surround me. And the beauty of the world might shine so brightly, it would blind me if only I’d pay attention. If only I’d look harder. If only I’d believe in it.
The next day: a new jobsite. Another broken piece of equipment. My little conquest. My little crusade. My little victory. The fruit of my energies. Thirty-four years in the trade. A trade I fell into when I was nineteen years old. The choice I made by failing to make any other choices. Awaiting my opportunity.
There is a film about a guy who gets shot and stabbed and strangled and mauled by a bear but who refuses to die. What keeps him alive is his desire to avenge the murder of his son. And that’s also what keeps us watching the film. Because we want to see it. We want all that yearning to come to some violent resolution. We will have nothing else. The theater is sold out except for the empty seat directly to my right. Shortly after the film starts, a young Asian woman slides beneath the rail and settles into it. As she is doing so, her foot catches on the step and she spills the entire contents of her popcorn on the floor. I have a large. And between Deb and me, there’s no way we’ll be finishing all that popcorn. And I want to offer to fill the young woman’s small container with the popcorn from my large container. It might be a heroic gesture. But she’s a young, pretty woman and she might think it’s too personal. Besides, who wants someone else’s popcorn? It’s a stupid idea. I figure, you can’t press heroism. You need to let it come to you. The film begins and I forget about the woman. Until, fifteen minutes in, she begins checking her email. She holds her phone so the light is partially eclipsed by her empty popcorn container, but it’s still quite glaring. My wife, who is a maniac about stuff like this, reaches over me and touches the woman’s arm. “Excuse me,” she says, “could you please stop using your phone?” The beautiful young woman holds out her hand, as in talk to the hand. And she keeps reading her email. I know that getting angry is never a good way to go. Heroes don’t get angry. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but I also feel compelled to do something what with my wife being such a maniac about phones in movie theaters. So I do what any calm, logical hero would do. I get up and fetch the theater manager. When we return, the young woman is sitting peacefully, hands on her lap, sans phone. The manager, a kid of maybe twenty years old, looks at me apprehensively. “That’s her,” I say. The young Asian woman holds her hands up like she’s being robbed. “No phone,” she says. The manager says something to her I can’t hear. She says, “Yes.” And then, having done the uncomfortable thing, I take my seat. The Revenant is in a boat moving downstream. He has escaped the Indians for the time being. “That was rude!” says the young woman. I sigh. “Fuck you,” I say.