The Place to Be
A Mnemosyne story
Start at the beginning of the Mnemosyne series
Occasionally life will thrust upon you a set of circumstances you are ill equipped to understand. Things that give your body a physical shock when they arrive, sudden and unexpected changes that come out of nowhere - pregnancies, deaths, marriage proposals. I love you's. These things are the penny on the train tracks that jolt us off of our predictable path and derail our entire forward progress in life, at least temporarily. When we crash and burn on the side of the highway we call our life, there is nothing else to do but to call for help or start to hitchhike, and to pick up the pieces and continue on.
Other things are so strange that we simply cannot make sense of them at all. The suicide of a friend, or winning the lottery, these changes are so alien to our expectations that they add a surreal quality to our lives. Suddenly the train upon which we are riding has become a banana, and we are quickly sliding down a school bus into a lake of cardboard. Up is not even down, it had become sideways, and cats are not sleeping with dogs, but instead with parakeets.
I have a time honored tradition for how to respond to changes in circumstances for which I am not prepared. I ignore them.
I have found that life is full of these psyche shocking surprises, one after another. If you pay attention to them, it is like subjecting yourself to being choked by a gorilla as your weekday job. You lose your breath, time slows down, your heart beats so hard that it hurts your chest, and afterwards you feel like all of your energy and personality drain out through your feet. The brilliant thing about time, however, is that it keeps moving no matter how you react to these clutch situations. The sun is going to rise tomorrow regardless of what your reaction may be, be it freaking out or pretending that the circumstance never occurred. So, rather than wrapping some simian's hands around my neck, I simply count down the seconds until the world returns to its normal speed, and then proceed about my life and deal with the changes in some semblance of normality.
The key to this strategy, though, is the first second that you realize a change is occurring. In that instant, one needs to make the conscious decision that the events conspiring around you have no ultimate importance in one's life, and should be put aside for the time being and allowed to happen without care or concern. Otherwise, even if you choose to reject the system shock from your reality, it will fester in the back of your mind and slowly drive you mad, poisoning your every thought with its ichor of pressing false drama. Despite any attempts to proceed through your life as normal, around every corner this sense of change will wait for you and twist your world into a mockery of hyperventilation and panic.
That most important second came and went for me while I was looking at the Banyan Tree, and I missed it. No bells rang, and no angels cried out from the Heavens, but the second passed me by cleanly, and despite my grab for it a moment later, it was gone.
During the walk back though Whiskey Stream Park I stiffened my resolve to not let whatever seemed to be going on affect my life, even going so far as to physically flex the muscles in my back and stand up straighter as I walked. I opened a dark room in the back of my mind and pushed all of the anxiety and confusion that I was feeling into it, and then shut and locked the door. No matter how much I tried to forget about it, however, I could still feel the emotions digging away at the brain, trying to escape my mental Alcatraz.
I filled the next two days of my life with planning for my party. When it comes to social engagements, I am more than a little bit of a perfectionist. This was the first time I would be mixing any friends from my personal life with my co-workers, and I was set on the event going flawlessly. The shopping for drinks and food took me several hours, as in my personal life I tended to gravitate toward the wine and cheese crowd, whereas I was sure my co-workers would be more comfortable drinking Hawaiian Punch and eating Funyuns. I finally settled on restocking my modest bar with an assortment of spirits and mixers, and picking up a mix of fruit platters and several gourmet salsas. When all else fails, you can always depend on Mexican food to bring people together. I always feel a little like a traitor to my father when I say that, but I'm positive that the great quilt of America was stitched together with tacos and black beans.
Music was also a critical decision. Nothing is worse than trying to have a conversation about "Citizen Kane" as it affected the publishing industry and William Randolph Hearst while Aerosmith's collaboration with RUN DMC on "Walk This Way" is pounding through the speakers around you. The music sets the mood for a party, and is the initial make or break factor that influences guests when they arrive. The event was supposed to be one of positive celebration, but not "Living La Vida Loca" exciting. It was, after all, just an office promotion, not a cure for cancer, which in my opinion is the only proper time to play that particular song. After staying awake until nearly two in the morning browsing my CD collection, I decided on a selection of artists from the brief New Swing fad from the 90s. The sound had a generic appeal without being deep enough to distract people from casual conversation, and would be familiar enough to put guests immediately at ease.
With the refreshments and music out of the way, I spent the remaining time cleaning my apartment. The party was going to be at the lounge in my father's building, but I still felt the need to make every surface in my place shine. I have an obsessive need to be prepared and to present a good face, and even the remote possibility that someone might come back to my place after the party was enough to drive me into a fury of cleaning. When I finished that, there was nothing to do but wait.
I had timed things well, so thankfully there was no agony of endless hours to watch slowly dripping through my clock. Instead I was actually pressed for time as I hurried to dress and get over to my father's building in order to set up. The lounge space provided an exquisite atmosphere. It was flanked by only two penthouse apartments, one on each side of the square room. A single elevator reached the top floor of the building, and had a double set of sliding doors, one on the outside to cover the ugly metal of the elevator. The room itself was patterned in a black marbled stone, and there was a small fountain in the center of the room, filling the quiet space with the peaceful sound of babbling water. There was no statue on the fountain, only a large sphere of the same black stone in which the rest of the room was sheathed. White lights in the ceiling focused down on the fountain, adding a sparkle to the water as it emerged from the top of the sphere and slid down the black stone in a sheet.
Papa had left out some folding tables for me, which I set up along the sides of the space with tablecloths. I am not much of a sound technician, so I placed the speakers I had brought in the corners of the room and hoped for the best. Stringing the wire along the edges of the walls and taping it down took slightly longer than I expected, so when the elevator doors opened I was still wrangling the small table I had brought for my laptop to sit on and stream music.
Janice was the first person to arrive, which I expected. I was her new boss, after all, and I'm sure she wanted to make a good impression. She had no need to worry, since she was a solid employee and caused little to no trouble for the company. Still, I understood the nervousness that comes from having a co-worker promoted to a position where they sign your paychecks, and I had wanted her to feel comfortable. When I invited her, I asked her to share the responsibility of playing music with myself, making her a bit of a co-conspirator at the party, rather than a simple guest. I waved her over as she stepped out of the elevator and looked around.
"Hey." Her monotone greeting was calculated to let me know she wasn't impressed by the building. Of course, that meant she probably was impressed. People are easy to predict that way. She had put on a skirt for the occasion, black, of course, with pockets. She still wore her combat boots, however.
I responded with some warmth and gratitude. "I'm glad you're here first. Could you give me some help getting the rest of the wire taped down?" The fastest way to get a tech person to feel comfortable at an event is to put them in charge of something related to setup. I'm not sure why that works, but I've never seen it fail. They seem to feel enfranchised and knowledgeable about the goings on after that, and relax into the social ebb and flow far easier.
Janice seemed quite pleased to help, and within a few minutes we had finished with the wiring and gotten my laptop set up and music playing over the speakers. A few other work acquaintances had arrived while we worked, which was unsurprising. Most of my friends from my personal life had never been on time to anything in their lives. A party thrown by a co-worker, however, had several unspoken rules of decorum, one of which is arriving on time and leaving early. I expected that many of the people I had invited from SitSurvey didn't want to be there, but worried about missing something "epic" if they didnít show up. I admit to being slightly impressed that no one wore a "No Fat Chicks" t-shirt. It's not that I thought poorly of my co-workers, but given the general state and attitude of people who work at a phone survey company, I did not have the highest of expectations. It was nice to see several of them dressed in shirts with buttons and collars, or dresses and make-up.
After a party begins, when the guests are arriving, but setup is finished, and people are starting to mingle, a host is left to his own devices. A good party begins to swirl and move a bit, but it usually leaves the host alone in the eye of the building storm as the guests skim past exchanging brief greetings. Alone in the early stages of the crowd, it was all I could do not to think about the Banyan Tree and Kevin.
Convincing your mind of its own ignorance is easy when you have a task in front of you upon which to focus. As soon as you are at loose ends, however, that pressing need to think about the trouble brewing in the back of your consciousness comes boiling to the fore. There is a strange meta level of thought that one enters into in this stage of a calculated forgetting of a concept. Your mind focuses on the existence of a circumstance the thought that must be fought and never progresses to the thoughts that are usually related to and stem from the circumstance.
For example, when you are driving and see a stop sign, this triggers the thought that you should stop your car. If you were fighting your acknowledgement of stop signs, you would never progress to the thoughts of stopping your car as an extension of the stop sign. You would simply attempt to blot the sight of the red octagon out of your mind entirely, struggling to forget the number of sides and color of the thing entirely. Thus, while I fought the idea of the strangeness at the Banyan Tree, and with Papa Poppa, I didn't speculate on any meaning for what had happened.
The only way to truly put it out of your mind is to relax and let your mind move on. I struggled to find this sort of zen mental space for almost thirty minutes while I slowly circled the groups of partygoers and made polite small talk. It was only noticing that many of my non-work friends had arrived during my reverie that shook me out of my internal thought loop.
As I had suspected would happen, the SitSurvey crowd and my other friends mixed like oil and water. My co-workers stood in clusters near the refreshment tables and talked quietly, probably about work. My other friends had barely moved beyond the elevator, standing in a flock in front of it, laughing and almost yelling in their naturally jubilant state. They were dressed in sharp contrast to the muted colors and styles of my co-workers, instead bearing bright clothes and vibrant hairstyles. A mile of floor as wide as the gym at a high school dance yawned in between the groups. Much like at any high school dance that I remember, there was only one real solution to bridging that gap: booze.
I went to the small table I'd designated as the bar, which had been largely untouched thus far, and put together a tray of shots featuring various drinks, both mixed and straight. Then I strolled around the party passing them out, proposing a toast. Even if people don't really want to drink at a party, if someone proposes a toast, they'll get a glass in hand. Once everyone was armed with their liquor of choice, I took a shot of vodka for myself and stood in the center of the room and said, "Thank you all for coming. It means quite a lot to me to see so many of you here tonight." That was true. Your success in life can be measured by the number of people that attend your parties, either out of true friendship or a feeling of obligation. "So, here's to friends, here's to success, and here's to having a great excuse to get shit-faced!" And then I downed my shot.
One shot isn't going to knock down even the lightest of drinkers, but it will grease the wheels. A toast also lets people know that there is a bar readily available, which provides the initial melting pot as people stand in line and help each other get drinks. I was rewarded following the toast by the sight of nearly half the people present making a beeline for the bottles and cups. A pleasant murmur sprang up from the intermixing crowd and slowly began to drown out the background noise of the fountain. A smile finally broke across my face as the party came to life and began to move under its own power. I picked up a drink and joined a group to talk. I remember feeling very pleased with myself in that moment.
The drinks flowed freely as the night wore on, and soon I existed in a tangle of blurry faces and drunken dance while the horns played on in the background. After wearing my legs out on the dance floor, I retreated to a quieter corner where the Shark, Pauline, and Deb were leaning against the wall and talking. They all raised their glasses to me as I strolled up and I took a florid bow.
"Nice party champ." The Shark had a condescending tone of voice even when he was drunk. He wasn't a bad looking man, tall and lean with well kept dirty blond hair. He even dresses decently, wearing tight fitting tailored shirts and designer slacks. The years have been kind to him, but he's starting to feel them around the eyes. This has made him look a bit desperate, which a certain type of person tends to pick up on. I'm positive that he only plays for single sex teams, but that doesn't stop every woman over forty from sizing him up as being from the endangered species of well-off single men who can dress himself in the morning. Women like Deb, for instance.
Deb aspires to be a rock and roll singer. She is about fifty years old, I think, and has grandkids, but every Friday and Saturday night she's hosting karaoke in a bar or rocking out on some coffee house stage. I've been to a few of her "shows", and while she's not bad, she's also not good. Still, I'm never one to unnecessarily spoil people's dreams, so I smile and nod when she says "This job's just to tide me over until my music takes off." Sometimes I give her an "I hear ya!"
The night of the party she was dressed to play in a leather skirt slit up the side and a pair of cowboy boots with matching hat. That might have been fetching on her twenty years ago, if I was interested in that sort of thing, but now it just made her look trashy. Still, it's impolite to insult your guests on their horrible fashion sense, so I just raised my cup and clanked it against hers in a silent toast. She was busy fawning over the Shark, so she probably didn't notice the unintentional sneer on my lips.
Pauline certainly did. She was one of the cattiest drag queens I'd ever met and could never resist shooting me a knowing smirk and "Oh. My. God." face when the opportunity presented itself. I asked her "How's Alicia?"
She made a wry face back at me. "The same as always. That girl gotta get over that lump of a thing she calls her man." I laughed as Pauline did the sassy headshake. She overacts for humor, which is off putting to people who don't know her well. A Masters in English Lit apparently entitles you to speak like Rosie Perez when you want to, at least according to Pauline. "He ain't never gonna be good to her." I didn't know much about Alicia's boyfriend beyond Pauline's constant bitching. If one took everything Pauline said to be the sterling truth, this guy was on the same level as Charles Manson. I just shrugged.
"How 'bout choo? Joo got a good thing goin' at work, papi?" Sometimes she takes it overboard. The Shark looked at Pauline like she was out of her mind, which she possibly was. She was definitely drunk at the very least.
"Things are going well for me at SitSurvey." I nodded at the Shark. "It's about a thousand times better than my last job."
The Shark smacked Deb's hand away from his crotch and asked, "Where did you used to work?"
I shuddered a bit as dim recollections of my past job leaped out of my drunken mind. "Merrit's. That place was terrible. Avoid retail at all costs, even unto death." My time at the hardware chain during high school had been particularly terrible. "My boss was a homophobic racist who would regularly force me to clean chewing gum off of the underside of shelves with my fingers. You wouldn't believe how many people chewing gum in a store decide it's a good idea to squish it into somewhere hidden." I wanted a car in high school, so my papa made me work for it. He even knew about my boss but encouraged me to keep working there. He said it was important for me to learn how to deal with intolerant people. "When I graduated the first thing I did was walk in and tell him to play hide and go fuck himself. Then I put it out of my mind as best I could. I actually haven't thought about that place in years."
The Shark's brow furrowed in confusion. "What the hell is Merrit's?" I laughed, amazed that he didn't know about the store. I expected Pauline or Deb to chip in, but Deb will still trying to grope the Shark, and Pauline was just looking at me and waiting for me to respond.
"Merrit's. You know, the hardware store? Merrit's is the place for me? Come on, it's a national chain, they're all over the place." They were still looking at me with blank looks on their faces.
The Shark slowly shook his head. "No, no, I've never heard of Merrit's. You sure you don't mean Ace?" Pauline started shaking her head a bit too.
Worry began to worm its way through my hazy stupor. While not quite as strange as someone who'd never heard of McDonald's, not having heard of Merrit's was shocking from even one person, much less two. I could remember the commercials for the store all the way back into my childhood. It was a classic American branding. It was probably right under Home Depot in terms of name recognition for hardware stores. I'd never heard of Ace myself.
"No, not Ace, whatever that is. I mean Merrit's. It's a huge chain, how can you not have heard of it?" My voice sounded a bit desperate and slurred, even to me.
The Shark slapped at Deb's hand again, and then pushed himself away from the wall. Deb shot me a dirty look as he stepped away from her. "Ace is the place for me. That's Ace's slogan champ. It's a franchised place though; maybe Merrit's was just the name of your location?"
I shook my head fervently, snapping my jaw closed a bit too hard. "No, no. It was definitely the name of the chain. Come on, look, I'll prove it to you." Though it looks elegant and tasteful when you are sober, trying to walk across a dimly lit room coated in black reflective stone while you are drunk is a difficult proposition at best. It took me about two minutes to lead my small group over to the laptop and bring up a web browser. I stopped the music once accidentally and got several catcalls until I was able to get it playing again.
I searched for every permutation of the phrase "Merrit's Hardware" that I could and got no real results. There was, in fact, a Merrit's Ace Hardware in Modesto California, but there was no reference on the internet to a chain called Merrit's. A sick feeling began building in my gut and I hunched over the laptop, folding my hands across my belly as discretely as possible.
The Shark clapped me on the shoulder and said, "Sorry champ. It must have been the location name of some other store. Still, sounds like a pretty terrible job. But you're with us now, and we'll take care of you." He patted my shoulder a few times, and then rubbed it. It would have been a little awkward, but I wasn't really paying attention.
I muttered "Yeah, must have been." Then I turned and rushed past Pauline, nearly knocking Deb over in my haste. I made it to the bathroom just before I lost control and vomited into the sink. The thoughts I had been repressing were unleashed onto my body and I trembled in response. My muscles quivered, my stomach clutched and churned, and my vision seemed to black in and out. I threw up again and choked, then turned the water on and splashed myself in the face.
I knew that it hadn't been just the name of a franchise. Merrit's had been a nationwide chain, and now it was gone, completely. Just like the scar, just like Kevin, just like the Banyan Tree. My world was unraveling, literally it seemed, and I was lost. What could I do?
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2010