Excerpted from the novel by Joe Meno, Recommended by Akashic Books
EDITOR’S NOTE by Johnny Temple
Joe Meno first came to Akashic in 2004 with Hairstyles of the Damned, his third novel and the debut title from our Punk Planet Books imprint. Punk Planet was a Chicago-based, turn-of-the-century underground magazine covering the punk subculture ethos. Joe, a Chicago-based, turn-of-the-century author, brought that ethos to life through the eyes of his gentle if cynical teen misfits struggling to find meaning in Clinton’s carefree 1990s. Hairstyles of the Damned was an instant hit — a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program selection, our best-selling novel to date, and the first of many collaborations we’ve entered into with the wonderful Mr. Meno.
Since the release of Hairstyles of the Damned, we have reissued his first two novels, How the Hula Girl Sings and Tender as Hellfire, and went on to publish his best-selling novel The Boy Detective Fails and the Story Prize finalist Demons in the Spring. With every book, Joe has brought some of the do-it-yourself punk mindset to promoting his work, hitting the road for nationwide book tours and engaging audiences with spirited, soulful readings of his work. This, in addition to his phenomenal literary talents, makes him a perfect fit for Akashic Books.
Working with Joe is a lot like reading one of his books. He treats everyone — bookstore owners, media, readers, editors, and publishers — with the same generosity with which he draws his characters. There’s always a focus on the gift of the moment, an effort to make a human connection amidst the chaos or tedium of modern life. Office Girl captures that notion expertly. Joe sets the work in 1999 to give the narrative a natural end before it even begins. It follows the lives of two twenty-somethings (to our eye, the young adult versions of Hairstyles’ high school teens) over the brief span of two months as they meet, develop a relationship, and part.
This approach forces all of their interactions into the present, and the novel as a whole is an attempt to capture a brief glimpse of life at its fullest. The main characters, Jack and Odile, have a little bit of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey in them. The moments that linger are small moments — brief, ordinary, fleeting, and utterly beautiful.
At Akashic, we always strive to forge new relationships with authors and discover new voices, in part through our adventurous imprints like Open Lens, Chris Abani’s Black Goat Poetry series, and Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery series. The clock may have turned on Punk Planet a few years after it turned on the century, but its impact on our catalogue was scarcely fleeting. It introduced us to Joe Meno.
No small moment, that.
Founding Editor, Akashic Books
THE GIRL IN THE CUBICLE beside his has the curious habit of peeking at him from beneath the jagged arrangement of her dark brown bangs. Because the phones are quiet now. It is twelve-twenty a.m. on a Monday night in February. Only forty minutes are left in this shift. The rest of the gray office of Muzak Situations has gone still. In addition to the girl in the cubicle beside his, there are two other operators on duty this evening, one of them reading a lurid paperback, the other picking at her equinelike teeth. There is the sense that each of them, all four of these phone operators, are silently occupying the territory of the other operators’ dreams. In part, it’s due to the subtle sounds of soft keyboards and digital drums playing overhead: it’s instrumental music, the kind a person might hear in a dentist’s office, which is what they are selling. Beyond the looping keyboards, there’s also the air of something temporary about the office, with several cubicles still waiting to be assembled, stacks of merchandise in unpacked brown boxes, the windows blinds themselves not yet hung, as if the office has just been opened or is just about to go out of business. There is the phone and the computer before him, both of which have to be from the year 1988. And then, in the cubicle beside his, the girl keeps staring at him as if he is a bad piece of art not meant to be figured out.
“Have you ever done anything interesting?” she finally asks, blue eyes flashing green.
“Have you ever done anything interesting?”
“I dunno. Like dropping a water balloon on someone. Or stealing a bus. Or performing an emergency tracheotomy.”
“Nope. I can honestly say I’ve never done any of those things.”
“Too bad. Me either,” she says, looking away now. She is chewing some sort of pink gum. There is a tattoo on her wrist which kind of looks like a beehive. Is that it? A beehive? Or is it just an oblong scar? She blows a large pink bubble, pops it with her finger, and then disappears behind the turf of the gray cubicle wall. He smiles to himself, adjusting his glasses against his face, and then sees her poke her head back over again.
“Those glasses make you look retarded.”
He touches them and smiles sadly. “Oh.”
“But they’re also kind of awesome. I mean in a fucked-up sort of way. I mean they definitely fit your face.”
“Gee, thanks.” He touches the black frames again and looks down at his desk.
“I’m Odile by the way,” she says, extending a small white hand.
“Jack,” he says, and gives it a careful shake.
“Wow. You have really sweaty hands,” she says.
“I know. It’s why I’m not a big handshaker. I could never be a successful businessman. Or politician. Or surgeon.”
“No, probably not.” Odile nods a little and then stares at him again. “So I’m starting my own movement and I was wondering if you’d like to join it,” she says.
“What’s your movement about?”
“It isn’t about anything.”
“Basically, we just sniff Liquid Paper and try and think of interesting things.”
“That sounds okay.”
“Do you want to join it?”
“The only rule we have is that you have to say yes to everything.”
“Really,” he says.
“Okay. Sounds good to me.”
“Okay. Here,” she says, handing him the small black-and-white bottle of Liquid Paper. “Take a whiff. Then you’ll be one of us.”
He holds the open bottle of Liquid Paper beneath his nose, its chemical pungency making his nasal passageways itch.
“Who else is in your movement?”
“No one else right now. It’s just the two of us,” she says.
He nods and takes another sniff and then hands it back to her. It feels like his brain is full of pink and blue circles, each of these circles overlapping. A phone rings and Odile pokes her head back behind the cubicle. As the Liquid Paper’s fumes quell his brain activity, Jack finds himself staring at her again and what he thinks is this: Wow.
Question: Where do Jack’s eyes go when he looks at Odile?
Answer: The freckles on her nose. Her small breasts. Her long neck.
Question: Where is Odile looking?
Answer: At her own fingernails. She is chewing on them while talking on the telephone.
Question: Does she sit still in her chair or does she swivel?
Answer: She swivels. Back and forth, and the motion of it reminds Jack of a clock ticking off the remaining moments of his life or a heart pumping full of bright red blood.
Question: Are her bangs cut by herself?
Answer: It appears so.
Question: What does he imagine her breasts feel like?
Answer: Small oranges. From Jupiter or Neptune.
Question: Is Jack still in love with his estranged wife?
Answer: Yes, he is. Of course he is. But Berlin is so far. And here. Here is this girl.
BUT IT JUST SO HAPPENS THAT
TEN MINUTES LATER.
Jack goes to get a can of soda from the break room and there is Odile, kneeling on the gray carpet before the snack machine. Her entire arm is stuck up inside the small rectangular opening of the candy machine.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I’m trying to break into this machine,” she says. “This one always steals your quarters. I’m pretty sure it does it on purpose. Do you mind watching to make sure no one comes in?” and Jack nods, turning to keep lookout over the empty hall. After a moment or two of contorting her face, Odile pulls her hand out, holding several packages of bubblegum. “Here,” she says. “For being my accomplice.”
“I really don’t like gum,” he says. “Anyway, I have a bad tooth.”
“What’s wrong with your tooth?”
“I got in a bike accident. Someone hit me and I ended up hurting my tooth.”
“Is it infected?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can I look at it?”
“What?” Jack asks, more than a little surprised at the question.
“Can I look at it?”
“Sure, why not?”
And Odile nods and Jack shrugs and leans his head back, opening his mouth.
“Wow, you got a lot of silver in there.”
“I know. My stepdad is a dentist. One of my stepdads anyway. The second one.”
“You have two stepdads?”
“Three, actually. It’s a long story.”
“Wow. So you don’t want any gum?”
And here she leans against the plastic window of the vending machine and says, “I was pretty serious about what I said. I really am thinking about starting my own art movement. I know it sounds kinda goofy. But I’m really thinking of doing it.”
“What are you going to call it?”
“I don’t know. The Anti-Abstractionists. The Anti-Rationalists. The Anti-Intelligents. The Anti-Reasonists. Something like that. Basically, I’m against everything popular. Anything that makes art into a commodity. Or people into commodities. Or anything that’s supposed to be a commodity.”
“Wow,” he says. “That sounds serious.”
“Yeah, but it isn’t. It’s just something to think about when I’m working here.”
“It’s a pretty boring job.”
“It is,” she says.
“I’ve been tracing my hand over and over again.”
“I know. I’ve seen you do it.”
She nods. “So are you in or not?” she asks, and then without thinking, he says, “Sure. Why not?”
“So what do we do now?”
And she says, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far yet,” and then the night manager, Gomez, appears from his office with his typically sweaty forehead, holding a half-eaten bologna sandwich in his left hand, and he gives the two of them a dirty look, and so together they hurry back to work.
AND THE NIGHT AFTER THAT.
On Tuesday night, around five p.m., the two of them — Odile and Jack — are in the break room just before their shift starts. And they are staring at each other suspiciously, Odile peering from behind a diet soda pop can, eating a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off. And Jack begins to talk first, asking, “So, are you working tonight?”
“Duh,” she says, smiling, with a mouth full of bread.
“I guess so,” he says.
“We all know what’s going on here. You don’t have to be weird about it.”
“What’s going on here?” he asks, smiling.
“I am not going to even dignify that with a response,” she says, smiling again.
“Wait. What do you think’s going on here?” he asks again.
But she doesn’t say a word, only keeps eating her sandwich, smiling.
He is encouraged by her nonanswer for some reason. Maybe she’s interested in me. Perhaps, well, no, but, maybe. And so Jack says: “Are you going to order something to eat tonight? On your break?”
“Well, let me know. I’ll order something too.”
“Fine,” she says, still glancing over the top of her soda pop can. “But I’m paying for my own. We’re not going steady or anything.”
“Okay,” he replies, a little disappointed at what she has said, but not disappointed enough to stop being interested. Because, immediately, he catches himself staring at her again. He catches himself trying to memorize the shape of her eyes and wide face. He watches her get up and leave the break room and then he asks the cloud of air where she has just been sitting why it’s so freaking lovely.
And then he punches in on the time-card machine and walks over to his cubicle and Odile is already answering the phone, and he looks downs and sees she’s taken her off shoes. Which is sort of weird. And when she finishes her call, she leans back in her chair and looks at him, not saying anything at first. She runs her fingers through her hair, arranging her bangs, and then announces: “We are not going to have sex. I want to tell you that right now. I don’t have sex with people I don’t know. It makes it too weird too soon.”
“I wasn’t even thinking that,” he says. “Why would you even say that?” he asks, blushing, feeling the heat of his face reaching his neck.
“I know that look you have. I think I know what you are thinking.”
“We’re adults,” he says quickly. “I’m only here to work. I won’t bother you or anything.”
“Fine,” she says. “Great.”
“Great,” he repeats.
“We’re too good of work friends anyways.”
“I mean, we’re probably too much alike,” she says.
“Yeah, it would be too weird. If things didn’t work out.”
“These things never work out,” she says.
“Exactly,” he says.
“Right,” he adds. “Exactly.”
“And who needs all the weirdness?”
Both of their noses twitch as they peer at each other. She tugs on the corner of her gray cardigan sweater and looks as disappointed as he does and then disappears back behind the gray cubicle wall.
But then at one a.m., in the elevator, on the way down to the lobby, Jack zipping up his coat, Odile fitting her white hat over her head and then buttoning up her green parka, she turns to Jack and asks, “Do you want to get some coffee somewhere?” and Jack says yes faster than he ever has said any single word before. And they find their two bicycles parked opposite each other, and both of them unlock their bikes, and they ride side by side through the bleary downtown snow.
AND AT 1:17 A.M. THAT SAME NIGHT.
They get two cups of coffee at a small diner on Chicago Avenue and begin to plan their violent art movement together. It will be called the Art Terrorists. Or the Art Brutes. Or maybe just the Anti-Rationalists. And they discuss these names, straight-faced, as Odile pours two creams and three sugars into her coffee. And then she looks up at Jack pensively and says: “You know, those are some really weird-looking glasses.” She points to her own face and makes a ghastly expression, as if she has been forced to wear them. “What did you do to them?”
Jack touches the fingers of his left hand to the frames of the black glasses and shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve broken them a few times, I guess. I was wearing them when I had my last bike accident.”
“Oh. Well, I think they’re pretty awesome. In a fucked-up sort of way.”
Jack nods, unsure what that compliment actually means. His glasses have never felt so awkward on his face. He pushes them up against the bridge of his nose. And then he does not know what to say after that. He looks down into his coffee, and then checks his watch, and then looks down at his coffee again.
“So,” he says.
“So,” he repeats.
“I’m kinda seeing someone. I think I ought to let you know.”
“Okay,” he says, feeling his face crash and twinge in an expression of disappointment he knows he is unable to hide.
“We’re not really talking at the moment. But still.”
“In case you had any ideas.”
“I don’t have any ideas,” he says, the falseness of the words hanging in the air with their dismal tone.
“What about you? Are you seeing anyone?” she asks.
And he thinks and looks down at his empty left hand, his empty ring finger, and says, “No.”
“So, do you want to go to my place and hang out? We can watch a movie. I have almost all of Truffaut’s work on video. Have you ever seen The 400 Blows?”
“You want to go to your place?” he says, the shock of the question nearly knocking the slumpy glasses from his face.
“Sure. Why not?”
And so they do, Jack riding his blue ten-speed behind Odile, watching the way the ends of her dark hair flit out from under her winter cap like wings. And they are riding past the small hillocks of snow and ice and everywhere there is music, the softening key of pink and silver lights.
AT HER APARTMENT.
Jack helps Odile carry her bicycle up the snow-fjorded stairs, each of them taking a wheel. And then he runs down and gets his blue ten-speed. It is almost two a.m. now. And he can see a series of white footprints trailing past the moldy carpeting of the third-floor landing where Odile is searching her parka for her keys. “Just a sec,” she says, and leans up against the door. “We have to be quiet. My roommate works mornings,” and in they go, the apartment sparsely decorated, Jack taking in the garage-sale furnishings — the antique though very modern-looking lamps, the poster of Serge Gainsbourg — and then he parks his bicycle beside hers across from a brass-colored radiator. And the way Odile stands there, watching him take off his wet shoes, it is like they have done this together a million times before, her leaning there, smiling, her face ruddy, cheeks pink from the cold, arms folded across her chest, waiting, not impatient, but waiting, as if the two of them already know each other, and have already spent countless nights together. And he walks across the apartment in his damp gray socks and bumps into the couch and Odile laughs and whispers, “Shhhh,” and it’s like they’re kids, like this is only a game, just some practical joke.
BUT THEN SITTING ON THIS GIRL’S BED.
Instead of beginning to kiss each other savagely, instead of undressing themselves with that random sense of urgency, they sit beside each other quietly, Odile with her legs folded beneath her, Jack with his two feet on the messy floor, articles of clothing and books and vinyl record albums strewn about in a performance piece of absolute messiness, and what Odile does then is take out photo album after photo album, turning the plastic-coated pages, pointing at people Jack does not know.
“This is my dad,” she says. “Before he shaved his beard. Now he looks like a newscaster. He used to be a pretty famous artist. My mom’s an artist too. They do these amazing woodland scenes in oil. Hotels have their stuff all over the country.”
Jack nods, sees the rugged face, the conservative smile.
“This is my mom. This must be back in the ’70s. Or maybe the ’80s. I can’t tell. Look at those earrings.”
And here Jack can see the same neck, the narrow litheness, and he nods.
“Here’s my grandma. She’s probably my favorite person in the world.”
And her grandmother is sitting on top of an older man’s lap, the two of them wearing paper party hats. “That’s one of her boyfriends, Hank. She has three of them. Boyfriends, I mean. And two of them are named Hank.”
“She looks like she knows how to have fun.”
“She does. I spent all of my summers with her, growing up. I have five brothers, so in the summer my parents let me go live there with her. She lives just outside Minneapolis. That’s where I’m from. Minneapolis, I mean.”
“You’re from Minneapolis?”
Jack looks at her and smiles, surprised for some reason. “You don’t look like it,” he says.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I really don’t know,” he quietly admits. He looks down at the photo album and asks, “Who’s that?” He points to a teenage boy with a long dark mullet.
“That’s my oldest brother. He’s in jail now.”
“Yeah. We don’t hear from him much.”
“Who’s that guy?” Jack asks, pointing to another young man with a mullet, this one with a long scar running down the side of his face.
“That’s Randy. He’s my brother too. He’s the second oldest. He was in a motorcycle accident when he was sixteen and hasn’t been the same since.”
“You have five brothers? And you’re the only girl?”
“Yep. Four older, and one younger. The older ones are all a mess. My younger brother, Ike, he’s still in high school. He’s having a hard time of it right now but I think he’s going to be okay. My parents, they kind of didn’t believe in rules. They’re creative-types, you know, hippies, so… my family is all a little nuts.”
“Do you miss Minneapolis?”
“Who me? No way. I mean, I do. Not the people. But the place. When I was in high school, we used to get drunk and roam around the Skyway. That’s in St. Paul.”
“The Skyway. It’s like this thing. This thing that connects all the buildings downtown because it’s so cold. You can get around without going outside. The Replacements have a song about it.”
“I don’t think I ever heard it.”
“Oh. Well. That’s basically the only thing I miss. The Skyway. That and my parents. And my grandma.”
And she nods, looking down at the red polyvinyl photo album again.
“Hold on a second,” he says, and digs into the pockets of his gray parka. He finds the silver tape recorder in the left pocket, checks to be sure there’s a tape in it, and then points it at her.
Odile looks down at the silver recorder and frowns. “What’s that?”
“It’s for this project I’m working on. Do you mind me asking you a few questions? Imagine you’re a television star and I’m a television reporter.”
“Just this thing. All you have to do is be yourself and just answer the questions.”
“Okay,” she says, rolling her eyes a little.
“Okay, the girl from the office,” he announces directly into the recorder. “Okay. First name and age.”
“Um, your name, and then your age.”
“Okay,” she says, leaning forward. “Odile, twenty-three.”
“Okay. Shoe size?”
“Seven and a half.”
“What famous person would you be and why?”
“I really don’t like famous people.”
“Okay. Superman’s girlfriend.”
“Okay,” he says. “Do you have any distinguishing features?”
“I have an overbite. And my shoulders are kind of narrow.”
“Okay. What crime have you committed recently?”
She pauses and then says, “I slept with a married man.”
And Jack looks down at the tape recorder, making a surprised expression, eyebrows tilting up. “Really?”
“Really,” she says. “I’m not proud of it. But it just keeps happening.”
“Okay,” he says, feeling his heart sink a little. “Okay. Well. Here’s a tough one: Do you think I have a big forehead?” he asks. “Or is it perfectly proportioned?”
“My forehead. Is it too big? Or is it just large enough to be called handsome?”
“No. It’s okay.”
“It wouldn’t prevent you from going out with me?”
“Duh,” she says.
“Okay. So what do you think of telephone sales?”
“I’ve done it before. For a couple years. I don’t mind it. But I’ve actually been thinking about moving to Greenpoint, in Brooklyn. I have a friend out there and she said I could stay for a while, until I get my own place. Our lease is up at the end of the month and my roommate is a little nuts and so I’m thinking about going to New York. I just don’t know. It’s so big and I don’t want to get swallowed up.”
“Oh,” he says, feeling his heart sink again. He switches off the tape recorder and stares down at it, then shoves it back into his coat. “Well, I’ve never been to New York, but I hear it’s for assholes.”
“Well, that’s what I heard. Cool people don’t live there anymore. They all live here. In Chicago.”
“Yeah, right,” she says, smiling larger than he has seen her smiling before, a dimple peeking out along her left cheek.
And here he smiles, seeing her smile, and pushes his glasses up against the bridge of his nose and says, “I was thinking. Do you mind me asking how you spell your name? Because I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.”
“Odile. O-d-i-l-e. It’s my grandmother’s name. Which is maybe why I like her so much. We’re kind of like twins.”
“It’s a really great name.”
“Really? I don’t know. My brothers, all of them have these really boring names. And for some reason, because I was the only girl, my mom decided to get creative. So… I dunno. I used to hate it. I used to get teased about it all the time in grade school.”
“I tried to get my parents to change it. They told me I could if I wanted. So I started signing my name on my papers at school as Jennifer. And sometimes Kelly.”
“So they let you change it?”
“Yeah, I dunno, they were really weird like that. They once took us all to the Empire State Building because one of my brothers was doing a history project about it.”
“That’s really nice.”
“I like them okay.”
“So did you change it back? Your name?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. I guess I realized at some point it didn’t matter what my name was. People still thought I was the same person. And anyways, like I said, I really love my grandma, so I got used to it.”
“I never knew any of my grandparents. They were all dead before I was born.”
“That’s too bad. My grandma, she used to give me a little glass animal every year for my birthday. You know, those little pink glass animals? I still have them. Most of them are broken but I still have about five or six of them.”
“Which is your favorite?”
Odile pauses here, thinking. She stands up and then crosses over to a small desk and lifts up a tiny pink animal, made entirely of glass. She hands it to him.
Jack stares at it, at the odd angles of its joints and limbs, and asks, “What is it supposed to be?”
“A unicorn? Where’s its horn?”
“It’s broken off. It broke when I moved here.”
Jack looks down and sees, on the animal’s head, a small rough circle where the horn was once attached.
“So why’s this one your favorite?”
“I don’t know. I like it better now that it’s broken. It’s kind of down on its luck. It seems more realistic for some reason.”
Jack nods and hands it back to her. Odile sets it down on her desk and then returns to the bed. The two of them sit beside each other on the bed for a long moment, the sound of the radiator in the other room ticking off the seconds of their stilted breaths. Odile hums a little something to herself and then sighs.
“So,” she says.
“So are you really seeing someone right now? Or did you just say that so I wouldn’t try anything?”
Odile nods and then shrugs her shoulders. “I mean, he’s not my boyfriend or anything. We’re just seeing each other. We never talk unless I call. It’s kind of over, I guess.”
“It is. So what about you? You’re not seeing anyone?” she asks.
“No, I’m… I’m kind of going through a divorce right now.”
“I’m definitely going through a divorce right now.”
“Wow. How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. Almost twenty-six.”
“And you’re already divorced?”
“Yep. That’s one life goal already crossed off my list. And I feel pretty good about it. Not really. Actually, I feel pretty bad about it.”
“So,” she says, “what happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it some other time. It’s kind of complicated.”
“Okay,” she says. “So do you want to see something amazing?”
“Sure,” he answers, smiling at her giddiness.
She leans over and reaches beneath the bed and pulls out an old-looking comic book, Abstract Adventures in Weirdo World, and hands it to him. Jack smiles and begins to slowly turn the pulpy pages, taking in the weird geometric shapes, the absurd juxtapositions of body parts and animals.
“What is this?” he asks.
“It’s a comic book I found. I got it at a garage sale a couple months ago. It’s by this guy Frank Porter who I never heard of.”
“It’s pretty psychedelic.”
“Yeah, I think this one is from 1974 or so. I went and looked him up in the library. Apparently, he made all these comics just to amuse himself. Because he couldn’t be around people. You can see he was totally into R. Crumb’s style. It’s so trippy and globular-looking. I think this was like a year or so before he stopped making comics. He was only like twenty-four, twenty-five. And then he just gave it up and became a janitor.”
“But he drew hundreds of these comics before he stopped making them, and then, after he died, his sister found all of them. I think he ended up hanging himself. I’m pretty sure this is actually kind of valuable now.”
“Hmmm,” Jack says, inspecting a panel of a triangle with arms, lighting what appears to be a joint.
“It’s funny. I think about him a lot. Like how old people are when they give up, you know? Like before you just accept that your life is going to be the same as everybody else’s. Before you do anything great.”
“I don’t know,” Jack says. “I think about that a lot too.” He flips to another page, seeing a pyramid of silver lines, which upon closer inspection reveal a nude female shape. “These are really weird.”
“I know. And nobody knows about him. He’s kind of my biggest influence. As an artist, I mean. Him and my dad.”
“Yeah, because he works all the time. At first I thought making hotel paintings wasn’t cool. But now I think it’s pretty great. It’s all he does all day. And people actually see what he makes. Even if they are kind of bland. I mean, the other thing is that when I was a kid, my dad had all these art books and everything, lying around, and he would explain them to me. Like Magritte. And Gauguin. I know the reason I want to be an artist is because of my mom and him.”
“That’s pretty cool. My father’s a shrink. We didn’t have any art books lying around when I was a kid. The only cool thing we had growing up was the DSM, which lists all the things that can go wrong with your head. That and The Joy of Sex. But I don’t think either one of my parents ever opened it. They got divorced when I was like five or so. And then she got remarried. To another shrink, this guy David. He’s pretty great actually. I kind think of him as my actual father. He’s the person I call if, you know, I’m ever in trouble.”
“That’s nice you get along with him.”
“Yeah. But then my mom divorced him too, when I was like eight or nine. And then she married some dentist. But we still talk. My first stepdad, David, and me.”
“My parents are so weird. They’re still like teenagers around each other. They still like holding hands. They still smoke a lot of dope, though.”
“Yeah.” And then they both look down at their feet for a few seconds before Odile asks, “So, do you want to see this thing I’ve been working on?”
Odile stands up suddenly and snatches a small green pad from her bureau and then hands it to him. “It’s this notebook I’ve been putting all my ideas in. They’re more concepts of projects than actual projects. Kind of like Yoko Ono.”
Jack nods and flips through it. There are small pencil sketches, quick drawings, and lists. On one of the lined pages it says, Dress like a ghost on the bus. Beneath that it says, Buy some parakeets and turn them loose in front of a playground, or, Act out a scene from a famous movie on the subway, or, Create a banner for some nonexistent event, or, Put on a puppet show in a hospital emergency waiting room.
“These are really great,” Jack says, smiling.
“Yeah, I dunno. One day I’m going to do them all. Right now I’m just coming up with different ideas. I feel like… people in this city… nothing surprises them anymore. When you live here, there’s just too much going on around you, so you don’t see any of it. It’s hard to get people’s attention. Unless it’s something bad, like a murder or natural disaster or something. Because nobody in this city is surprised by anything.”
Jack nods and looks away for a moment.
It’s late, it’s begun to finally feel late. The streetlamps outside the window have started to shine in a way that suggests that the sun is only an hour or so away from coming up. Odile yawns, covering her mouth with the back of her hand in a polite fashion that Jack thinks is really pretty adorable.
“I guess I should get going.”
“You can stay. If you like. I mean, not to fool around. Just to sleep. Like I said, I don’t sleep with people unless I know them pretty well.”
Jack thinks about how cold it is outside, of his bicycle, and the snow, and then sees this girl and her narrow but warm bed, and says, “Okay. If you don’t mind.”
Odile nods and then pulls off her gray sweater, and she has a soft white T-shirt underneath, which traces the angular shape of her thin frame, and she is unbuttoning her pants but without standing up, which Jack finds pretty fascinating, and then this girl, this person he barely even knows, is in her white underwear, which Jack cannot help but stare at, and she is diving under the blankets, and Jack does not know what to do with himself, and so he unbuttons his shirt and decides to leave his pants on, and he begins to climb under the blankets, and she looks at him and says, “You can take off your pants,” and he nods, and turns around, and wonders what kind of underwear he has on, and he is secretly glad they are boxers, and relatively clean, and he feels an erection beginning to come on, and so he hurries beneath the comforter and sheets, and she turns away from him then, facing the wall, and there is her shoulder, and the shiny strap of her nude-colored bra, and freckle after freckle along her long neck, and he does not know if he should say something or do something else, and so ceases to think, only lies there, and in the absence of thought he listens to the girl breathing, and she turns her head toward him a little and says, “Goodnight,” and they sleep like that together for the first time without really touching each other, but the feeling is enough, at least for now, the inexplicable thrill of someone being beside you in a strange bed, and all that it might mean.
AND AT EIGHT A.M.
He wakes up with a crick in his neck and the girl, Odile, is still sleeping pretty soundly and so he climbs out of the bed and finds a black magic marker on her bureau and writes his phone number on the lower part of her narrow back. Her nose twitches a little as he does it but otherwise she doesn’t even seem to notice. Now she can call me or not call me, Jack reasons, dragging his bicycle out into the snow. This way it isn’t up to me at all.
And there, outside her apartment, is a yellow sparrow barking in a gray tree limb, and he records five seconds of that.
AND AS HE RIDES.
He decides the next time he’s alone with her he will put his tongue in her ear. Or something.
Maybe. Because he’s got to try. Because she is too interesting, too beautiful not to even do anything.
And he doesn’t want to go home and go to sleep. Because he knows he won’t, he knows he can’t. So he rides around, taking out his tape recorder, capturing the noise of different kinds of light.
A NEON SIGN.
Each of them different.
And then he gets some coffee and rides to the Lincoln Park Zoo and runs around recording the sounds of different animals, the lemurs, the gibbons, the birds. And what he really wants is the sound of a tiger. But it’s just lying there on top of some fake rocks, sniffing at the snow. And so he waits. He leans against the metal railing for about a half hour or so and finally, when the zookeeper opens the gate and throws in a dripping red hunk of meat, the tiger lets out a loud roar, the kind of roar from a jungle movie. It’s perfect. And Jack gets it on tape. It’s probably only three or four seconds long but that’s okay. And then he is unlocking his bicycle and riding home and then it’s starting to snow again. And wow. It’s really coming down again, like a cartoon, like it’s the idea of snow, like it’s not even the real thing. Everything is white and soft and dazzling. And Jack, in front of his apartment building, can’t help but stop and record as much of it as he can. Because it’s a marvel, an explosion, a cyclone of white and silver flakes.
NEITHER ODILE NOR JACK KNOW WHERE TO LOOK THAT NIGHT.
Anonymous-seeming stares which wander past the water cooler to the soft hazy spot at the back of the office girl’s neck as she stops to sip a paper cup of water, and then crushes the paper cup in her hand, and then his glance moves down to her bare knees, then to the hem of her soft, fluttering gray skirt as she walks back and everyone — meaning Gomez and the other two operators and maybe even the nighttime cleaning ladies — has to notice him staring. It’s weird for everybody that Wednesday night. Because Jack and Odile don’t know where to look when they pass each other coming out of the break room or when, leaning back in their office chairs, they happen to have a moment of eye contact. Because ideas have begun to make themselves known. Ideas concerning inappropriate, unprofessional, and imagined actions between members of the telephone sales department who were previously thought to be only work-related acquaintances, and near strangers at that.
Until finally, standing before the vending machine, in the quiet disarrangement of the break room, Odile leans over and whispers in Jack’s ear, “Do you know where I can get a bunch of cheap balloons?”
“It’s for this thing I’m working on.”
“I guess. There’s this one place on Chicago Avenue. It’s a party store. You can probably get a bunch there for cheap. Why, what’s it for?”
“It’s for this project I’m thinking of doing.”
“I could help. When are you going to do it?”
“I’m not doing anything tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she says, smiling, though not looking at him. He sees her soft reflection in the plastic window of the vending machine and then looks away quick.
Before she turns to head back to her desk, Jack pipes up: “I wrote my phone number on your back.”
“I wrote my phone number on your back.”
“You did? Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. I thought it’d be funny.”
“I didn’t see it. And then I took a shower.”
“I kinda thought you might not. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Yep, but it really wasn’t,” he says, looking down at his feet.
“If you wanted to give me your number, why didn’t you just give it to me?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
“I don’t know. I just thought… I don’t know. I wanted you to have it. I mean, I like hanging out with you. But I didn’t want you to think I was a weirdo or something.”
Finally, Odile turns and faces him and says, “Too late for that,” and then winks at him and heads back to her desk. And he stands there and thinks he can still smell her powder deodorant, the oddly attractive oil of her hair, lingering there like some phantom castle.
AN ACT OF ART TERRORISM.
At nine-thirty a.m. that Thursday morning they meet up outside the party store on Chicago Avenue and Odile buys fifty silver mylar balloons for only ten bucks and Jack asks, “So what’s the big idea?” and Odile asks, “Are you in?” and he says, “Sure, why not?” and Odile holds the silver balloons as they ride downtown to a small office building with large rectangular windows, and then they lock their bicycles up out front.
“Where are we going?” Jack asks, and Odile just winks and they walk in through the revolving glass door, and the balloons get stuck at first, and then they make it past, and Odile flashes a small ID card of some kind and the overweight guard looks up at her suspiciously, and she says, “They’re for someone’s birthday,” and he nods, his jowls shaking, going back to his mangled newspaper, and Jack follows closely behind, and Odile whispers, “I used to work here, doing telephone surveys. I really hated it,” and Jack shrugs and they stand before a bank of elevators and Odile presses the up button, and together they silently wait, and when one of the elevators arrives, and the mechanical doors stagger apart, the two of them step inside, forcing the balloons to fit.
“Okay,” Odile says, and from her bag she removes two cloth ski masks: a black one and a red one.
Jack stares at them and shrugs.
“Which one do you want?” she asks.
“What are they for?”
“To be anonymous.”
“I’ll take the red one, I guess,” and he reaches out for it, removing his glasses, putting the ski mask over his face. It is a little too tight and he can feel it digging into the back of his head. Also, it’s hard to see or breathe through the narrow holes. And so he puts his eyeglasses back on over the mask and imagines how ridiculous he must look.
“Now what?” Jack asks, and Odile smiles a coy smile and then fits the black mask over her face. She actually does look like some kind of art guerilla. She takes out a silver paint pen from her parka and, on the smooth wood-paneled wall of the elevator, she writes: ALPHONSE F. WAS HERE.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s our slogan.”
“Oh.” And then: “Who the heck’s Alphonse F.?”
“He was a boy I went to elementary school with. He was this short, kinda dirty-looking kid. He used to get in trouble all the time in art class for drawing naked ladies. But he’d always put his name in the corner of the drawing, just like that. Alphonse F. And then he’d try to sell them to other boys in school. I’ve been thinking we should name our movement after him. Because he was the first great artist I ever met.”
And Jack looks at the silver writing on the wall and sees the bustling silver balloons and sees the black ski mask over Odile’s face and decides there’s little to do but agree.
Without them pressing any buttons, the elevator begins to ascend and eventually stops at the sixth floor. A matronly woman in a beige dress climbs aboard. She looks at two young people in ski masks, sees all the silver balloons, and then looks down. No one says a word. She climbs out of the elevator on the fourth floor, looking over her shoulder once more, to be sure of what she has seen, and then the mechanical doors close behind her. The two young masked people both begin to laugh. The elevator makes it to the lobby without any other stops. Once in the lobby again, they take their masks off, Odile tugging Jack by the sleeve, the two of them pacing themselves, trying to walk out as unobtrusively as possible.
Back in the cold air, the wintry snow flying before them, Jack squints over at Odile and asks, “So what was that all about?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like what was the point of that whole thing? With the balloons and masks and everything?”
“There’s no point. It’s just something to make people think.”
“But what are they supposed to think?”
“It’s just something, like a puzzle, for people to think about. It doesn’t have some grand meaning or anything. It’s just like a moment to be surprised by something. Kind of like a daydream. But something… real.”
And Jack nods and suddenly thinks she is a lot smarter and more interesting than he had thought before. Odile finishes unlocking her bicycle and is pulling her pink mittens back on and she can see him staring at her, wanting to say something else, maybe wanting to kiss her, and so she puts him out of his misery and asks, “So. Do you want to get some pancakes?”
Because, now, what else is he going to say?
ABOUT THESE PANCAKES.
These pancakes are served at a corner diner on Damen and Chicago, a few blocks away from her apartment. Jack gets blueberry. Odile gets chocolate chip. The pancakes are huge and perfectly circular and come with tiny butter squares. They are eaten in near silence until Jack is caught staring at Odile’s pancakes in a weird way and then she finally asks, “What? What is it?”
“You don’t like chocolate chip pancakes?”
“Have you ever tried them?”
“Well, I love them.”
“Yeah. They give me a bad feeling.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s weird.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a little too personal for pancakes.”
“What’s that mean?”
He sighs and says, “My first stepdad, David, he always used to take me and my older sister to dinner. Once a week. It was like our night out with him, and he’d try to get us to go to these fancy places, but all we ever wanted to go to was to the International House of Pancakes. And so he’d take us. But he wouldn’t ever let us order chocolate chip pancakes.”
“I don’t know. Some hang-up of his. He’s a shrink, and Jewish, so who knows? Maybe they were too unhealthy. Anyways. This one time he takes us out and asks where we want to go, and we say, International House of Pancakes, and he takes us and we’re sitting there and we ask if we can order chocolate chip pancakes and this time he looks at us and says yes and so we go crazy. And then they come, and they’re like covered in whipped cream and there are cherries and it was all made to look like a smiley face. You know, like there were these two smiley faces sitting there and so we started eating them. And then my stepdad looks at us and coughs or something and says, Your mother and I. We’ve decided to get a divorce, and I could feel the chocolate chips get stuck in my throat, and I look over at my sister and she looks over at me, and then we look down at the pancakes and they have those stupid chocolate smiles, and neither of us wants to finish, because we feel so bad, but I kind of feel like this is my only chance, and so we keep shoveling these stupid pancakes into our mouths, but we don’t even enjoy them. That’s like my one childhood memory. Even then I guess I couldn’t finish anything.”
Odile glances down at her pancakes and frowns. “Why did you tell me that?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
Odile sets down her fork and knife. Jack shrugs and finishes his.
“What were you like when you were a kid?” he asks.
“I guess I was weird,” she says. “I used to try to break my arm all the time.”
“I don’t know. It’s probably because I have five brothers. Almost all of them are older. So the only way anyone ever got any attention was to break an arm or a leg or something. And I guess my brother Dave broke his leg one summer and he got to sit in this lawn chair and ask for things and my mother would bring them to him, and so the rest of that summer I tried to break my arm on things. I would like fall out of trees or like slam it in a door or something.”
Jack smiles. “That’s so weird. It’s perfect.”
“That’s what you remember from being a kid?”
“No. I mean there’s other things,” she says. “It seemed like it had something to do with your story but I guess it really doesn’t.”
“It’s funny though. It’s like part of the problem I still have. Even when I was a kid, I wanted everyone to notice me. To like me. People really don’t change all that much, do they?”
“Maybe only every so often. Or if something really big happens. I still think I’m pretty much the same I was when I was ten years old. I still like the same stuff. Books and music and movies. It’s weird to think about.”
And she nods. “I’m totally that kid still trying to break her arm.”
And then the bill comes, and each of them pays exactly half.
And then they are walking down Damen Avenue, Jack pushing his bicycle, Odile tromping ahead with her own bike, following a narrow path through the ankle-deep snow which has been stamped down by other people, and Odile is about a foot ahead of him and he just then notices she has her funny white hat on, with a small ball at the end, and it looks like it might be something she crocheted herself, and then she is leaping over a murky gray puddle, and pausing before a poster announcing some new brand of jeans. And Odile already has her silver paint marker out and is writing, ALPHONSE F. IS NOT INTERESTED, and then she has capped the pen and is walking on again. Jack glances at what she has written and then follows her, feeling the cold attack his hands, and so he curls them up into his pockets. Is he following her back home? He doesn’t really know. She isn’t talking and they are walking in the cold and Jack can see his own breath and finally he says, “So are you heading back home now?”
And Odile turns, and her wide cheeks are pinkish, and she gives him an annoyed look and says, “I thought you were coming with,” but when she says this, he notices she is not looking at him, and his heart is choking him all of a sudden, and she is skipping over another puddle and then she asks, “Is that cool?” And then he says yes. Most definitely.
BACK AT HER APARTMENT.
Before they get their bicycles in the door, Jack is already thinking of how he can try to put his tongue in her ear. The apartment is quiet but full of light and it appears that her roommate has gone to work but has left a half-eaten bowl of cereal sitting there on the sofa, and Odile looks at it and shakes her head and says, “You can see why I’m moving out,” putting the dish in the sink which, hearing her mention moving again, makes Jack feel slightly bad. Odile unzips her coat and kicks off her boots and Jack doffs his winter hat and the two of them sit beside each other on the couch. And then Odile leaps up and puts a record on and it’s a band he’s never heard of, King Missile, and he asks who it is, and she tells him, and he nods like he knows, and they sit beside each other again, Jack staring at his wet socks and then hers, and she is singing along and Jack thinks that if he doesn’t try to kiss her something in him might explode, but instead he reaches into his coat and takes out his silver tape recorder and hits play and record and holds it before their mouths and asks, “Question Number One: what is your favorite song of all time?”
And she says, “I don’t know. I don’t think I have one. I like a lot of different types of music. It kinda depends on my mood. What about you?”
And he holds the microphone under his chin and says, “I guess I would have to say ‘The Umbrella Man’ by Dizzy Gillespie.”
“I don’t know that song.”
“Do you know who Dizzy Gillespie is?”
“Yeah, I know who he is. I just don’t know that song.”
“My stepdad, David, he loves music. He’s like an amateur record collector. He’d always play a different record during dinner: jazz, Motown, folk. We used to do this crazy dance together to that song ‘Umbrella Man.’ And then at night, he’d play a record for us as we were going to sleep, my older sister and me. Sometimes it would be a doo-wop record or maybe some jazz. But I used to love it, it made me feel safe, you know? It’s funny. Everything I know about music I learned from my stepdad.”
“Well, what about you?” he asks. “Did you come up with a song yet?”
She squints and says, “How about ‘After Hours’? By the Velvet Underground.”
“Very nice. You must have gone to art school.”
“I did. For a while anyway.”
“What did you go to school for?”
“I was in painting. And then a video major. And then painting again. I couldn’t make up my mind. I wanted to try everything. But I wasn’t really good at any of it.”
“I was the same way. I still haven’t figured out what I want to do.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not working in an office,” she says. “I don’t think I could live with myself, doing the same thing every day. It’s okay for now. But I really think I need to move at the end of the month and try something new. I feel like if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
“I don’t know,” Jack says. “I kind of like it. Working in the office, I mean.”
“I really do. It’s the first time I don’t have to think at work, you know. It’s really simple. You just answer the phone and put in people’s orders. It’s pretty laid back. You don’t like it?”
“No. I feel like it’s killing my brain.”
“Maybe that’s why I like it. I don’t mind not having to think.”
“Really,” he says, looking down at the tape recorder. “So. Okay. Question Number Two: if someone you loved was disfigured in a car accident, would you still love them?”
“Yes, but I would hope they would leave me.”
“I think it would be too hard on the other person, the normal person. If I was in love with someone who got disfigured, I’d hope they’d leave me.”
“Wow. All right,” he says. “Okay. Question Number Three: what’s the worst thing you ever did?”
“What?” she asks, grinning at him.
“What’s the worst thing you ever did?”
“I don’t know if I want to answer that,” she says.
“It’s part of the interview. Don’t be a chicken.”
“I don’t think I really want to talk about it,” Odile says again.
“You go first,” she says. “Then maybe I will.”
“Okay. I was maybe eight years old. I pushed this boy into a pool and he couldn’t swim. I mean, I didn’t know he couldn’t swim. I was there with my sister and my stepfather at this club. It was just before my mother divorced him. And my stepdad was excited that we’d be allowed to join the club, because he’s part Jewish, and there weren’t any Jewish people in the club. He’s only half Jewish but he considers himself Jewish because his mom was. I dunno. Anyway, we were at the pool. And this boy I didn’t know was pushing my older sister, and then he pushed me and so I pushed him back and he fell in. But he couldn’t swim because he was retarded. I didn’t know he was, I just thought he was big and mean. And I didn’t figure out what happened until after it was over. The lifeguard got him out but he was really screaming. I’ll never forget the sound of him screaming. It sounded like a baby crying. Then we were asked to leave the club. My stepdad was mad at me for the rest of the summer. And then they got divorced. I know it didn’t, but I always felt like that had something to do with that.”
“That’s pretty bad.”
“Yeah, I know. It is pretty awful.” Jack scratches his nose. “What about you?”
“What is the worst thing I ever did? I don’t know. I cheated on this really nice guy a few years ago. When I was a freshman. And then, a few months ago, I gave a handjob to this guy I worked with and he went and told everyone in the office, and so I had to quit. I don’t know. I keep doing weird stuff like that. It’s gross. I don’t really know what’s wrong with me.”
“I don’t even know why I do it. I mean, I didn’t even really like the one guy. I just do dumb things sometimes so people like me.”
“Don’t get excited or whatever. I’m not gonna give you a handjob or anything.”
“What? No. I didn’t think that.”
“Yeah right.” Odile blushes a little and then looks back at him with a slight frown.
“Okay,” he says, tilting the tape recorder toward her. “Question Number Four: do you ever get depressed?”
Odile smiles. “I don’t know. I guess so. I think it’s natural. I think you’d have to be an idiot not to. I mean, it’s pretty weird out there. I’m pretty sure the world is going to end in a year and everything.”
“It is,” he says in full agreement. “It really is.”
“And even if it doesn’t,” she says. “It’s only a matter of time anyway.”
“That’s how I feel. I get depressed sometimes.”
“I get depressed because I haven’t made anything I’m really proud of in a long time. So that gets me upset. Other things too. I don’t know.”
“I know what you mean,” he says.
“Everything I’ve ever made seems so useless. Or small. Or insignificant. But I go to these gallery shows and make fun of other people’s stuff anyway. I think I’m pretty mean-spirited when it comes down to it. That’s why I stopped going to art school. I just felt so mean all the time. It was frustrating. I didn’t like what anybody else was doing and they didn’t like what I did. I made this painting for my class one time and I worked my ass off on it and everyone kind of ignored it. If they hated it, that would be one thing. But the professor, well, he just ignored it, like it wasn’t even worth discussing. So it stopped being fun. And then I didn’t want to go to class. I only have like two or three classes left to take. That’s it. I could still graduate but I don’t think I will. It just seems, I don’t know… Everything people made just seemed so mediocre. Like it was supposed to be shocking or something but it wasn’t. I mean, like there’s all these movies and TV shows and books now and it all seems so dumb, you know? Like don’t you think it’s weird that everything has to be a movie now? Like that’s all people can understand. Like that’s the greatest thing in the world, a big loud movie. But it isn’t. Because most movies are pretty dumb, like they mostly make them for dumb people now. Because people are too ignorant to read or go to a museum or something. And it’s exactly like what’s wrong with the radio. It’s like… anything that tries to appeal to everybody always ends up sounding so cheap. Like pop music or blockbuster movies. And I don’t know. I get discouraged. Because I don’t make things that could be turned into pop songs or blockbuster movies. I like to make things that are weird or small. I like things that don’t make a whole lot of sense to anyone but me. At the same time, I get depressed if everyone doesn’t like what I make. It’s weird.”
Jack nods, switching off the tape recorder.
Odile stands, brushing her bangs with the fingers of her left hand, and walks over to the window. “It’s still snowing. It’s been snowing for practically two days straight. I think I’m going to have to take the bus to work tonight.”
Jack rises to his feet and stands beside her, parting the shades with his hand. “Wow,” he says, seeing the parked cars on the street slowly losing their shapes. Below there is only a field of soft white.
“It’s like being on the moon,” Odile says.
And they stand there like that, watching the snow for a few moments, not moving. And then he can feel Odile looking at him, staring at the left side of his face.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” he finally asks.
“Did you know your one ear is smaller than the other?”
He nods and smiles, touching his left ear. “Yeah. It’s weird. I had an infection in my left ear when I was younger and it stopped growing. That’s the same size as it was when I was four.”
“It’s one of the best things I have ever seen.”
“I always thought it was kind of funny-looking.”
“No. It’s perfect.”
And then she leans in beside his left ear and whispers, “Shhhhhhh.”
And he blinks. And smiles wetly.
“Can you hear that?” she asks.
And then she leans close again and says, “We are the only two people left in the world. Did you hear that?”
“We are the only two people left.”
And Jack does not know where to look or what to do and it feels like they are about to kiss, but nothing is happening, and then she looks away and says, “I should probably get some sleep before work tonight,” and he says yeah, me too, and she says okay, see you later, and he says you bet, but what they are saying has nothing to do with what either of them is thinking and they smile at each other and he walks his bicycle into the snow, staring at the world as if the sky, the trees themselves, have just met.
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of five novels and two short story collections including Hairstyles of the Damned, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Demons in the Spring. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney’s, Swink, LIT, TriQuarterly, Other Voices, Gulf Coast, and broadcast on NPR. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Chicago Magazine.He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.