I wrote two essays. The first one concerns roadkill and sewage treatment. The second one concerns the cosmic ramifications of animal thoughtlessness. These topics are relevant to the two novels I am writing now. I have titled one of these novels “a conspiracy of miracles”. I will not reveal the title of the other one of these novels.
The first of these essays we can call “miles beneath these tires a muffin monster”. The second of these essays will not have a title.
We call this one,
(or, “horror is geometry”)
by tim rogers
When you’re young, you might try to stay awake to prove something. My college friend and I used to make jokes about sleep as an addiction and insomnia as healthy. We were being idiots. I’d grow up (maybe he would, too). I’d learn the value of keeping decent hours. I’d grow through wanting to be different, grow past wanting to be the same, and grow into being different some of the time and the same some of the time. Some of the time I don’t sleep. It’s not defiance: it’s drive. Sometimes I tell myself I have to finish something. A late night comes to resemble, in superficiality, an early morning. A mid-afternoon comes to resemble, in brain-feeling, a later night. Then it’s dark and you’re awake: it doesn’t matter what the clock says. Now you need some groceries. Now you have a friend who needs some groceries. This is how I’m in my car.
Look: it’s my conscience. I can’t take it off: I’m afraid I will make someone die. I’m afraid of and in disgust with the prospect of my own discomfort. I’m driving my car late at night. The headlights are dark. I see four friends on bicycles. They’re tipping and wobbling left and right. They’re in the middle of the left-hand lane of the road I’m driving on. They’re in the lane for cars. The lane for bikes is to their right. They’re not using it. I know they’re friends: they’re having a conversation. I’m listening to loud music in my car. I can see their mouths moving. They’re laughing and having a good time. It’s early in the night in the middle of the week. One of them takes a photograph of the other three. They’re not wearing helmets. This is Oakland, California on an early weeknight. This place can be a middle-schooler’s “Mad Max” fanfiction. I figure These People are who are putting the “DRIVING” stickers beneath the word “STOP” on all the stop signs.
Then I’m driving down Market. The lights are orange. The pavement is brown in the dark. It’s Halloween every night. I’m sliding between stop signs. Drifters cross the street in the dark. They don’t wait for traffic to slow down. They’re not wearing reflective clothing. Look: this is my conscience. I can’t put it away: I’m going to kill one of these people someday, if I ever stop for just one moment thinking about everyone in the world all of the time. One man pushes a shopping cart full of cans. He raises his hand. He shows me a can he’s holding. The can says, “I’ll be out of your way in a second”. Half a block down, another man crosses the street in the opposite direction. He’s pulling two shopping carts. He’s wrapped fingers of each hand around the front of them. I can tell he took those shopping carts from the Pak ’n’ Save on 40th and San Pablo before they remodeled. They remodeled nine months ago. They got some new shopping carts after that. He’s tied two black garbage bags (tall, forty-gallon, kitchen variety) to each cart. He’s tied one garbage bag to the side of each cart. He’s pulling two carts with two bags on each cart. The garbage bags are full with cylindrical objects. They bounce as the carts jostle. He looks me in the eye through my tinted windshield. I can feel him understanding me. He has curly hair. His eyeball-whites are white in my high beams. He gives me a nod. He hurries. His shoe falls off.
My eyes sink into the shoe. He hurries to the side of the road. I slow to let him pass. When he’s on the side of the road, he looks over his shoulder at me. I apply pressure to the gas. My eyes fall left to his shoe. My car accelerates. My eyes hunt for another shoe. My eyes fall farther left and deeper ahead, into another shoe. My eyes stick to the shoe. My car accelerates. My eyes fall all the way into the second shoe. My car draws nearer to it. My headlights paint it. It’s a dead opossum with tiny eyes and tiny teeth. Its face-hair is white; it’s back-hair is black. A wedge has ripped its body in half. My high beams paint its blood a shocking red and its intestines a chewing-gum pink. I see all this at once, until it is gone.
I look up. The image is out of the front of my mind. It’s still in the back of my mind. I drive five silent seconds. I see a green traffic signal ahead. I slide toward it.
A long-haired bearded man wearing a San Francisco Giants baseball cap and little red earbuds slaps the hood of my car with his left hand. He was trying to cross the street in front of my car, at a crosswalk, where the light was red. He makes a bombastic shrug. I see a glowing Samsung Galaxy Note III phone in his left hand. I think: the white levels sure are bluish on those phones. His mouth shapes some words. His top teeth touch his bottom lip. That’s an “F”. His lips make a little circle. That’s an “oo”. This is for sure the person who has been slapping the “DRIVING” stickers under the word “STOP” on all the local stop signs. I turn my headlights off for a moment. I make eye contact with him. I’m not sure if he sees me. The feeling of potential eye contact, at least, is certain. He continues on his way.
I take a deep breath. I look at my conscience again: I still have it.
I continue the drive. I think about Brent Porter in Topeka, Kansas. He’s working on a project with me. He’s programming every day from sun-down to sun-up. Neither he nor I are rich.
His car broke down last week. He told me he went into his shed to get his bicycle so he could drive across town on an errand.
“It smelled like something had died in there.”
He went to move his bike.
“A big old dead raccoon was wrapped around the back tire.”
He said if he called his dad and asked how to get rid of it, his dad would tell him, “Get a shovel, dummy.”
“I guess I didn’t know those guys could get as big as that guy was. He must have been pretty old.”
I told him, “The thing about a dead raccoon of that size and age is, if it smells like something, you don’t really know how much of it is a solid mass until you try picking it up with that shovel you hypothesize your dad is going to tell you to get.”
Maybe an hour later, I approached Brent Porter again. I said he should call animal control.
“That’s thinking,” Brent Porter said.
“I figured, there’s a local governmental organization for dealing with this. You could maybe call them.”
I thought about the opossum. I knew it would be gone later. I considered the mechanical particulars of how much later.
My drive finished. I picked up my friend Hali at her house. We went to Target. I bought frozen spinach, dry lentils, a carton of eighteen eggs, and some vitamin C. I told her about how I’m afraid I’m going to kill someone on accident. I told her it bothers me even when I’m not in my car.
I told her: “I almost ran over a guy who was longboarding with his big dumb Android phone in his hand while I was driving to your house.”
I told her: “Last night two guys were skateboarding in the car lane on 40th Street, passing a little flask of liquor back and forth. I didn’t know if I should honk or not honk.”
We finished our grocery shopping. I took her home. I took myself home. I sat in the dark. I ate nutritious substance. I iced the back of my neck. It was sore from the weight of an iron bar earlier that afternoon. I’d been doing squats. I considered the darkness and silence I wanted forever. I thought about roadkill. I thought about telling someone something important about roadkill. I can’t tell someone something important about roadkill. I have a good life. I have a lot of opportunities. I have a set of valuable skills. I have a conscience.
Let’s feel terrible (together (again)) about our tiny little peace.
One week later, Wells Fargo Bank lost my money. The teller pressed the wrong button more than two times.
It was like this: I brought them a check. I signed the check. I went to a teller window. I swiped my debit card. The teller asked which account I wanted to put the money into. I said I wanted the money in the A/R Checking account. He wrote my account number on a deposit slip. Wells Fargo haven’t updated their teller computer system interface in over twenty years. He had to then open a separate process and type the deposit number from the slip into the computer system to finalize the deposit. He either wrote the number wrong or he typed it wrong. The money never went into my account. It went into someone else’s account. I didn’t leave my house for eight days; I didn’t spend any money for eight days; for eight days, I didn’t know that a human error had erased all of my money. When I called the bank, they asked, “Why didn’t you call us sooner?” They told me to tell the writer of the check to call them and ask to have the funds retracted. They said he’d need to give his own account number, as well as the account number he was trying to put money into. I had a long conversation with the client who’d written the check. He said he’d call the bank at his earliest convenience. He sent me a scan of the check. He sent me a screenshot of his Wells Fargo online bank statement. It showed that the last four digits of the bank account number that had received the money were the same as the last four digits of my account number, only in a different order. To me, the human error was obvious. The Wells Fargo representative on the phone did not have the authority to see it that way. They said they’d need to open a “research claim”. It turned out they needed to clear me of any possible accusation of fraud.
I spent three hours in the bank the next day. I thought, say what you will of Franz Kafka’s mechanical capacity as a writer: without him, I wouldn’t be able to call that particular experience “Kafkaesque”. My stomach sponged in four pounds of watery bank lobby coffee. They called someone from a larger branch. They talked to me for an hour about nothing. The teller who’d committed the error apologized for inconveniencing me. He didn’t admit to an error.
It was a bright noontime when I left the bank. The clouds were thick and white. The air smelled of the part of the ocean that touches the continent. Beneath the rear left tire of an Infiniti sedan parked next to my Mazda was a Trader Joe’s pecan pie, in its cardboard box with a cellophane window, a fistful missing from its core. My eyes raced forward along the parking lot asphalt toward the highway, scavenging for The Other Shoe. Under the sun somewhere I saw a perfrctly real taped-up dirty diaper. I thought about the opossum and the raccoon and the muffin monster.
The muffin monster had been on the tip of my mind when the longboarder slapped the hood of my car the other night. Now it was in the front. Days earlier, Action Button Entertainment programmer Michael Kerwin had told me he couldn’t stand spinach — one of my staple foods — because it reminded him of the part of the muffin monster video where the muffin monster eats a US Army blanket. We called up the video on YouTube. We watched it on my TV. We laughed. We joked about the amazing music in the video. It’s bright, synthesized excitement. I deduce that the composer and arranger had wanted to make something that sounded like big band music, something you could play before a high school basketball team pep rally, and discovered a magical sound that amused them to no end. This is a song you can loop for hours — Michael Kerwin and myself certainly have.
I wondered if I could find the music on the internet. I wanted a version of it that was free of the messy slurping sounds of the muffin monster tearing through cans of paint and military blankets. The easiest clue comes at the beginning of the video: this machine is a product of JWC Environmental, or JWCE. I looked them up. I found their website. They’re an industrial waste disposal machinery manufacturer.
I fell into a deep wonder: who watched this video in the 1980s? The answer wasn’t far outside my grasp. It’s some peoples’ jobs to make decisions which result in the standard of living in a city rising or falling. Someone views product pitches for waste-eating devices, and decides which ones are worth their city’s money.
I thought I would email JWCE’s help address, asking as affably as I could if they could let me pay them a dollar for that old music track, if they have it lying around. Instead, I on accident fell into their website. I read their product pages. I found the “Muffin Monster”. Now I finally knew what the announcer was saying behind the garble at the beginning of that video we’d watched so many dozens of times. We’d always joked it as “Muppet Monster”.
I read about the “Muffin Monster”. It’s for digesting sewage. It microscopicks the big bits floating down the channel. You install it in a bottleneck in the sewer flow, and let it obliterate, particlize, or disintegrate anything big enough to choke an animal or otherwise look like garbage.
We’d previously viewed the part of the video where the Muffin Monster digests a box full of tampons, and laughed it off as ridiculous. Of course: they’re showing that the Muffin Monster can destroy tampons, because so many people must flush them down so many toilets every day.
The YouTube video’s title is “This Machine Destroys EVERYTHING”. In my mind, for a moment, thinking about a sewer administrator’s job, I considered such a person’s opinion with different capitalization: “This machine destroys everything”. It chilled me. I daydreamt of hundreds of these things beneath the pavement, one every — how many feet? — couple hundred or thousand feet, eating what we throw away.
I considered raccoon hide and fur and bones stomping through it into an ashy future. In another video, the Macho Monster (that’s a huge Muffin Monster) eats a refrigerator. The refrigerator bounces once and then sinks into the shrieking cold steel vortex. You watch this refrigerator collapse for only a moment before you remember your own bones, sinew, skull, eyes, teeth, clothes, shoes, and every injury or pain or intestinal distress or nausea you have ever experienced. You remember your solid parts and your moving parts.
In my car and in the dark, afraid of accidents, I thought of the Muffin Monster in the video, turning and devouring to that cute music.
I saw a stopped escalator in my head. You walk toward that escalator, and it’s not moving: it goes to a place someone doesn’t want you to go anymore.
I thought of the tallest escalators in the world. They’re in a theater in Ikebukuro West Gate Park in Tokyo. I was never sure if they were actually The Tallest Escalators In The World. The first person to ever take me there told me they were the tallest. I never looked it up. I didn’t want to know if taller escalators existed. The escalators were so tall that they required multiple moving sections which were synchronized so that the escalators felt like single uninterrupted escalators (one up; one down). The escalators were tall and glass and narrow. Cafe tables sat stories beneath in their shadow. To the left and right sides were nothing.
Years after I first rode it, I saw a video on YouTube of what happened when the down escalator malfunctioned. One of the sections suddenly stopped. Chaos happened. People were pushing and running to get to the bottom. Security had been trained for the occasion. They were waving white-gloved hands, urging people to be calm and also to hurry. The peoples’ faces were ghosts. I felt real horror looking at these people in my web browser. This was true fear: this tall machine whose sort they’d taken for granted all their lives had changed against them. If the center section stopped, that meant people had to run to avoid a collision from passengers behind. A show had just ended at the theater upstairs. Hundreds of people had piled into the escalator. It was a traffic jam. The escalator was so long that riders at the top didn’t notice the traffic jam until they were inside it. A silent chaos exploded. I saw people whose faces reflected an unfakeable about-to-be-hit-by-a-bus-ness for a sustained period of a minute or more. I saw a hundred of them stream silently to the safe ground. Their mouths were all closed. I saw a hundred reactions to true fear in a matter of seconds. No one was asking any questions. No one was screaming. In silence, a world considered ending. Here it is again in my head, and again.
Paint cans fall into the Muffin Monster. They burst. The Muffin Monster pulls them in. They are gone.
The Muffin Monster is a series of motors, hard iron, and strategic geometry. Its circular gear plates have small teeth-fingers. These teeth-fingers are not parallel to one another. With the bare minimum mathematical distance, by revolving at an uncompromising speed, the Muffin Monster achieves grip on, pulls in, and destroys objects larger than itself.
We turn this machine on and forget about it.
I know another of these machines: the garbage disposal. When I left America and saw the world, everyone asked me about the garbage disposal. Why do we have them in America? Later, I lived in Japan, in a beautiful apartment with a beautiful stainless steel kitchen, with a big wide sink with a big fancy spray nozzle like in a restaurant kitchen. In the drain was a plastic bucket. I bought mesh diapers to wrap over the bucket. I dumped the diaper in the trash once a week. Someone in America had sold an institution of affluence on a solution to this weekly smelly inconvenience. “Why, install this machine, and it’ll destroy anything you throw at it.” What happened was, you had marketing in the right place and the right time: here were people who had just finished a war. They were alive. They knew true fear. Every second counted. Luxury sneaks in.
The Green-Haired Girl told me about her father. This conversation is one which will stay in my mind for probably the rest of my life. I had known her for many years. She had never told me about her father. We were in Hawaii. Within six months, we’d be able to say to others that “we never talked to each other ever again after—” . . . after something. She was telling me about her father. She’d just been to her uncle’s funeral. He had been older than her father. He had been over a hundred years old. Her father was near a hundred. No one in the family knew how old he was. He had over twenty children. He was alive. He worked every day.
“I’m going to tell you what I know about my father.”
We were in the Like-Like Drive-Inn diner in Honolulu on a beautiful evening. It was dark, black, and purple outside. It was all cold wood and air-conditioning inside. Our elderly waitress was wearing a muumuu. She brought me a hot kona coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie.
“He is an inventor. He is a very successful inventor.”
“Did he invent anything I’d know about?”
“You know hokkairo disposable hand warmers?”
“He invented those?” I said, with audible surprise.
“No. He invented all of the machines that manufacture them.”
He built machines. He built machines that built parts for assembly line machines. He built machines that mass-manufactured products. He revised his machines so that they could build more products more quickly. He revised his revised machines so that they required fewer humans to operate. He owns an airplane hanger in the south of Japan. He builds his machines in the airplane hanger. He spends large amounts of money in building the machines. He sells the machines for somewhat larger amounts of money. He builds the machines with a few assistants. None of the assistants is an apprentice. They do as they’re told. They don’t ask questions.
“Time is money for the factories,” The Green-Haired Girl said. “Time is money for my father, too. He can’t take an apprentice. He can’t tell anyone how to do what he does. He doesn’t have the time.”
I thought this over while I drank my kona coffee and ate my lemon meringue pie.
I’ve been drinking that kona coffee and eating that lemon meringue pie for four years (this is a figure of speech).
“Someday, someone else will understand his machines. They’ll build new ones.”
The Green-Haired Girl shook her head. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
The Green-Haired Girl shook her head.
Nearly four years later, I want to say that I know something new about my own grasp of literature: that metaphors are not literary devices in their souls. Before we find them, or they find us, metaphors are real. Human philosophies meet nature and make metaphors.
Look: I have a conscience. We have been here (“here”) longer than any single one of us can remember. We have built a machine we cannot explain, turn off, or duplicate. We have constructed a problem we cannot solve.
Let’s feel terrible (together (again)) about our tiny little luxury.
This next essay does not have a title.
I visited my family in Indiana for the Christmas of 2009. I hadn’t been back to Indiana in eight years. I brought The Green-Haired Girl with me. It snowed. She loved the snow. She hated Indiana. She loved the thrift stores of Eastern Illinois and northern Ohio. We had a road-trip.
I was back again for Christmas 2010. The Green-Haired Girl was gone forever at this point. My parents asked me on Christmas Eve if I wanted to go to Midnight Mass with them. In the years I’d been away, their Catholicism had grown in devotion: they now attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. When I was a child, they’d discussed Midnight Mass as an idea. My father told me that his father had taken him to Midnight Mass at a cathedral in Delaware when he was very young.
“It was solemn,” my dad said. “It was silent. It was candle-lit. The priest spoke Latin.”
My father taught me that Latin was an interesting language.
“I know you don’t go in for the religious stuff, son,” my father said, in 2010. “Come to Midnight Mass with us, anyway. It’s neat.”
I told him I’d go.
I went to Midnight Mass with them for Christmas 2010.
When we got back to my parents’ house, it was still snowing. It was one-thirty in the morning. I talked online with a friend in California. She was alone in her room with only a candle lighting her face. I told her I’d been to church. She asked me if I’d liked it. I told her it had been alright. I said it had been solemn. I said it had been neat. I asked her how she was. She said she was okay. My dad came by on his way to bed. He said hello to my friend in California. I liked this girl in California. She liked me. Unfortunately, it’d later turn out we didn’t like each other liking each other.
Past two in the morning that Christmas Eve in my parents’ live room, my friend told me that her mom and her dad were having trouble with each other. She didn’t go into any detail. I didn’t ask her to go into any detail. She talked for many quiet minutes about how it all made her feel.
“Hey,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Do you think I’ll be okay?”
“What’s this question all of a sudden?”
“Do you think I’ll be okay?”
“Of course you will,” I said.
It turned out she was okay. I think she’s okay now.
“How about you? Will you be okay?”
She really wanted to know. I really wanted to tell her the truth. I did.
“No,” I said. I was thinking about Hawaii. “I will never be okay.”
She didn’t argue with me. It was such a relief that she didn’t argue with me. She was beautiful.
In the space between her asking “Do you think I’ll be okay?” the first and the second times, I had remembered Midnight Mass.
My parents’ church is a ten-minute drive from their house. They wanted to be at the church at ten-thirty. They wanted to be there before everyone else. They wanted to park near the exit of the parking lot, so that they could be among the first cars to leave. They wanted to park and then hurry across the cold lot to take their favorite seats in the back of the church.
A White Christmas was upon Indianapolis, Indiana of 2010. The snow was falling with violence. It had begun around sundown. It fell until Christmas Morning. By the time ten o’clock on Christmas Eve night had rolled around, the roads were a hard swamp of white.
I say “white”, even as I see the brown and orange of a scorched-earth Halloween. The streetlights were old and loud with orange glow. The roads were dirty. Cars of late-night holiday travelers tore brown gashes in the new snow.
The snow was only white because I knew what color it would be under the sun. My mind called it white.
Multiple inches of snow covered the church parking lot.
We were not the first car there. We were the third. One car had parked close to the main entrance of the church. One car had parked in the middle of the lot.
“Look at this,” my dad said. “Look at all this snow. Look at this.”
“This is awful,” my mother said.
“You can’t see the lines on the parking lot.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Hey, you should park over there, next to that car.”
“Why would I do that, son?”
“Well, if you park by that car, then you set an example. You don’t need lines on the parking lot. You just need organization.”
“You’re talking like a man with a paper butthole,” my dad said. He’d used this expression throughout my childhood. He said his dad had been fond of it. I remember him using it as far back as 1982.
I remember one time my mom came in from the grocery store with plastic bags, and my dad was aghast at the rustling noise the plastic bags made. This was in 1984.
“What are those?” he asked.
My mom defended the bags: “They ask you now if you want paper or plastic. The plastic ones got these handles.”
“They make that noise,” my dad said. “They sound like . . . they sound like . . .”
I distinctly remember thinking he was going to say they sounded like a “paper butthole”. Then I recalled the proximity of the word “paper” in the conversation before this. I obtained real curiosity at what variation in vocabulary my father was going to explore.
“They sound like a rat’s butthole!” my dad said.
“Honey,” my mom said. “Your boy is right over there listening.”
I was always right over there listening, to all the paper buttholes and rats’ buttholes and squirrels’ buttholes and horses’ buttholes: all the buttholes of noise-complaint conversation were my childish listening material.
My dad parked the family sports utility vehicle by the church parking lot exit. We hurried into the church. The church lobby was full of poinsettias under candlelight. The mood was somber. The songs were quiet. They sang “Joy to the World” at the end. They sang the last verse in Latin. When the priest had left, my parents stood up. We exited the church. The parking lot was a gummy yarn-knot of cars and snow and ice. Two hundred SUVs formed crayon asterisks with one another. Fenders touched doors. Front and rear bumpers made not-right angles with one another. Nothing moved for a long time until some unheard monster miles beneath us chewed up and digested the invisibility of the problem.
I thought about religion while we waited. I remembered The Green-Haired Girl talking about her father in Hawaii a few months before. I thought about garbage disposals. I hadn’t seen one for eight years before Christmas 2009 at my parents’ house, and then I hadn’t seen one for one year before Christmas 2010 at my parents’ house. I can see that jumble of cars today. I can tell myself that snow was white. I can see that the snow was orange. I can feel the problem we will never solve. I can sense the machine we can never turn off. In that parking lot, I remembered that I had owned love for a long time, and that love was cold and that humans are cold, and that we cannot abandon our monsters.
We are an invisible Cthulhu between two Godzillas: here lies love, right where we forgot it.
So I want to talk to culture:
A person of no person lives inside (behind) my eyes with no face and no love, with no body, made of everyone. Do you feel why I hate you? Good People don’t look like you or feel like you. They don’t look like me, either, and they don’t look like themselves. We finish talking about that. It’s quiet now. Let’s feel terrible (together (again)) about our tiny little luxury.