It is well known that writing is not a lucrative path. Just ask all those people you've never heard of. (Ten cents per what? I'm insulted. Thank you very much, sir. May I have another?) Heck, even ask most of those people you have heard of -- dollars to doughnuts the lion's share have the same trouble paying the hydroelectric bill as you or me.
Typographic mega ultra superstars aside (your Kings, your Rowlings, your Suesses), writing is basically something you give away. Even when there is money involved it's usually a loss when the dust settles. The work is a donation.
(The local magazine I write for wants all the contributors to get together for lunch, but it's hard to agree on which soup kitchen is most convenient for everyone so the actual date remains a perpetually uncollapsed waveform.)
So this is why I have a day job.
I brown bag it into the Big Smoke in a two-man commuter-pod carpool, eighty kilometers each way. Each morning under a pink sky we watch country turn to city, tree to pole, hill to stair, sky to smog. We take turns plugging our playlists into the dash, and also with who steers.
The office is across the street from the airport, nestled in a barracks-style row of similar offices separated by parking lots and rows of withered, skeletal trees. Windows rattle as a commercial airliner accelerates overhead, its giant cruciform shadow squirting over rows of salt-stained cars parked cheek-by-jowl.
"F," I say. "The guy from nextdoor parked too close, I can't get out."
"S," says my carpooling colleague. "Hang on, I'll repark."
It's winter and everything's sloppy. We trudge up metal steps which bounce because they're missing a support. I hold the door while he meeps the thing. My desk is beside a drafty loading dock door. I complained about the draft so they cut holes into the door and installed windows, apparently working under the premise that seeing natural light would induce a psychosomatic response and make me feel warmer. I guess it kind of works.
(My assistant sits closer to the door than I do. That's how you can tell I'm the boss a' him.)
We work in the field of event management. That is, people have big events (like award shows or corporate summits or profit-paloozas or mass firings) and our company takes care of all the details (flights, hotels, food, staging, speeches, A/V and PowerPoint, lighting and effects, skills enhancement workshops, strategic team-building game-like activities, special guest star speakers/coaches/consultants or performers/comedians/hosts). Also, at dinner, we festoon the tables with elaborately folded napkins -- and that's where I come in.
Napkin topology is the sort of thing a lot of people take for granted -- crown, crane, diamond, whatever. But if one of the folds I'm responsible for fails to conform to spec, it could mean an executive or lauded achiever having to face taking the stage wearing a blotch of shrimp sauce. My professional reputation and potency as a breadwinner rides on those very important shirts being clean.
(To be completely candid I should say that my day job may not specifically involve the folding of any actual dinner napkins, but that the reality is so negligibly different in substance that it scarcely matters. Other details have been changed or obfuscated for the sake of my ongoing employability.)
I am exceedingly fast at what I do. That is my "thing." We all need something to sell. That's mine. I do what other people in my field do as a matter of course, but I do it more quickly. If someone were designing an eye-catching brochure about Cheeseburger Brown's day job skills, it would no doubt feature a colourful call-out singling out the rapidity of response.
My ability to juggle especially challenging topologies in complex luncheon-dinner combination programmes functions in inverse proportion to the number of other things I'm expected to mind. This means that when the going gets very thick in my day job I lose the ability to pay attention to...well, anything else.
At this time last year I was folding for three simultaneous shows and it just about killed me; this year I was folding for five.
...So, that's why the story stream's been so dry.
"Brown -- your folding simulation failed on the edit workstation!"
"The catering company called and said the double-stitch serviette service they quoted you can't be hypoallergenic if it's deployed in Texas!"
"I'm a chicken with my head cut off, running around! Wharrgarbl!"
We enter the office to a scene of chaos. Telephones ring or chirp or buzz, skittering across table tops propelled by their vibration engines. The Technical Director is swearing a blue streak at someone via speakerphone, the Vice President of Getting Shit Done looks like a zombie on the verge of tears, and the Production Assistant has quit.
Bollywood Producer nods wearily at me. "Are we winning?" she asks.
"I don't know," I shrug. "I'm numb to the world."
I go to sit at my desk but am confronted by the face of our resident ITiot at my crotch. I leap up. "Morning," says the long face under my desk; "I was just recharging the Bussard collectors with an additional fifty thousand kilojoules of warp plasma in case we go critical on the impulse manifold, thereby insulating the shared printers against damage in the event of a cascade failure in the isolinear compumatrix."
"Um, okay. Is that why email is down?"
He blinks. "Email is down?"
We play pool in a carpeted field between wastes of empty cubicle farms. (There used to be a lot of people working here, but they've all been let go (an expression that over-exerts itself to produce a vague but entirely dishonest aura of "set free").) While Technical lines up his next shot he grumbles to me in a way as French as profane about his difficulties with such-and-such supplier being a fornicator of such-and-such unconventional orifice, and so on. "Tabernac!"
I nod sympathetically. The pool balls crack loudly against one another in the empty space. I sit on a disused printer, a bottle of beer balanced in the paper feed. "That sucks, Tech. What'll you do?"
He squints over the balls. "With utmost the professionality," he says Frenchly, "I will go at his office to show him both goddamn bills side by each, okay, and to take him through the line item one by one for highlighting some discrepancy."
"And, after that, I will very calmly pull down my pant and make a shit right on his keyboard."
Sure. Accountant plays winner. I wander off through the semi-lit corridors of empty offices. Desks with clean spots where computers used to be, walls with unfaded rectangles where art hung, carpets with pressed down bits showing where they used to hold lamps and end-tables and shit. There are one or two dead plants. In one office is a broken picture frame. In the junior boardroom at the end of the hall is a sea of high-backed executive chairs, because my kids piled them all in there last weekend when they wanted to play chair hockey or chair olympics or chair planet or something.
(So this is what an Unprecedented Economic Downtown looks like.)
My pocket rumbles. Email's back up. Things start cooking again. I return to the napkin studio to review the incoming client notes with the in-house staff and freelancers. Everybody's age-age pocket-telephones are chiming and beeping as the client emails pour in. "Did somebody go ahead and use English spelling on the Managing Director's remarks?" asks Bollywood Producer pointedly. "Remember: they're Americans. They want everything spelled the other way."
A freelance hipster furrows his brow. "There's another way to spell centre?"
Perky Producer loses her perk as she scans her Blackberry's wee display. "They want a bear. An actual bear. On stage. Oh my God. Will the show's insurance even let us do that? What if it mauls an executive?"
"Well, there'd be one less PowerPoint deck to format," says my carpooling colleague philosophically.
"The Rutles' manager is demanding SUV limousines, brunette escorts and blow for the Tuesday rehearsal, but only regular limos and just blow for the Wednesday show itself. Is there room in your budget for that?"
"Just do it. I threw the budget out a week ago. It has nothing to do with reality. The show costs what it costs."
"Also, they're asking for a brunch in the ballroom -- full business session over eggs, with rear projection and toasted bagels."
"F me. Okay, Cheeseburger: can you fold me something for that?"
"Hell. I guess so." I lean over to my assistant. "Call the hotel and find out when the laundry cycle ends. If we're lucky we fold pre-fold dinner for brunch before we crash." He nods and kicks off against the mandatorium table, his chair coasting him away toward the drafty loading dock.
"Client X is on the line!"
"Which Client X?"
"US or Canada?"
"Shit! I don't know!"
"If it's US I'll take it, but if it's Canada tell me them we're unavailable. We're totally, retardedly F'ed on Canada. Stall 'em. We have to figure out our angle on this whole bear thing."
Perky Producer: "I'll Google bears."
Technical: "Tabernac, you bimbo, that's not going to help."
President of the United States of Signed Paycheques: "I really feel that the napkins should reflect the overall decor theme of the experience in a dynamic, unique way. You know?"
Cheeseburger Brown: "I canna fold the laws of physics!"
One client wants their pharmaceutical education programme to look "more like Avatar" and another client wants to know if the comedian they've hired will read alternative versions of all his jokes, just in case the CEO can't make up his mind about what's funny until the eleventh hour. The receptionist apologetically tells me my shipment of serviette rings won't be here until next week.
The worst part? It's Sunday.
But this is when burgers such as myself really shine. This is when the air is dirty with grit and horror and I remain poised at my post, calmly moving the effort forward to assure complete victory over the next awards banquet on the horizon. This is when, amid all the flashes and explosions and screams, my employer often stops, cocks his head, and says, "Well now those really are some finely folded napkins!"
Except this time he didn't. He said, "I'm really disappointed in the team. Why is X and Y so F'ed up? Why is everybody grouchy and tired? Why aren't rays of sunshine spontaneously bursting forth from my bum? We need to debrief on balancing our workloads better."
And I, like an idiot, told him why X and Y were so F'ed up, and why everyone was grouchy and tired, and why his rectum was not a locus of atomic fusion. I mean, because he asked.
So then the President of the United States of Signed Paycheques freaked out and yelped, "I won't be challenged in this way!" and, in a fit of inspirational leadership, fled the office.
"H'mm," I said. "Am I fired?"
Bollywood Producer shrugged. "Maybe."
The President avoided me for a day -- disappearing behind filing cabinets, turning around in doorways, and so on -- and then wrote me a short and cryptic email about having given me a micro-raise. People are weird.
The copywriter for an opening session wrote a terrible script so I wrote a new one and he got paid for it. People are dicks.
Whenever I forget about my assistant for too long at a stretch he reverts to losing himself in instant messaging conversations. People are lazy.
When I fail to check, cross-check and double-check every last thing a freelancer, contractor or junior has done, errors of the stupidest kind make it to the show. People are mistaken.
When I try to gently show people how they are mistaken, more often than not they get in a huff. People are fragile.
Over lunch I listen to iTunes U podcasts about the ancient world and work on my child-appropriate version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. My world may be a tornado but there's one font of narrative that isn't allowed to run dry -- my kids are expecting to hear about Gilgamesh and Enkidu's battle with the cedar guardian Humbaba before they go to sleep. (The school must go on!)
On the way home I rehearse tonight's episode in my head. It's a blizzard and it looks like we're driving through hyperspace. The blurry nebulae of the city glimpsed through fogged windows falls behind us, a golden smear in the rearview. Up ahead, nothing but inky darkness and twisting streams of snowflakes...
It's 11 degrees C in the washroom. (I can see my breath. Bloody pioneers. Would it have killed them to invent and install a furnace?) The last steaming kettle is poured into the giant iron tub. The kids climb in and I follow them. "So Humbaba looks like a lion?" asks Miss Six.
"Well, he's got a man's body and the face of a lion, but it's a lion's face made out of an ever-changing spaghetti of snakes and intestines."
"And he breathes fire."
My wife sings. We can hear it while we stew in the bath. The schoolhouse is small and the interior walls are largely composed of wishful thinking plus some wood. The telephone rings, and we hear her sigh and grumble as she breaks focus to tend to it. It's not easy getting five minutes when you're Mom. "Everyone is driving me crazy!" she shouts at nobody in particular. A minute later she starts singing again.
"I got soap in my eye," objects Mr. Three. "No, not that eye -- my dudder eye!"
I pause in the middle of my sword thrust to dab at his face with a towel, then resume the re-enactment with a swirl of Enkidu's mighty axe. Water splashes everywhere. We flail our arms as we call for the help of the sun god Shamash. This degenerates into hysterical giggling and more splashing. This escalates until my wife stands at the door.
"Uh-oh," says Miss Six. She points at me. "Papa did it."
"Come closer," I call to my wife. "I've enrolled you in a wet T-shirt contest."
"Looks pretty sopping over there. Think I'll stay here."
I sigh. "You'll probably still win."
The children are tucked in, left to the glow of their Solar System mobile, listening to Johann Sebastian Bach and asking what to dream. All I can think of are napkins, so my wife fills the gap: unicorns, flying cars, pixies, secret caves, magic powers. "My magic powers mean I can even fly?" asks Mr. Three. He is assured that the interpretation is indeed sound. "In your dreams, you can do anything. Just remind yourself that you're dreaming and you'll be free."
Miss Six smiles. "I could even ride a pegacorn. I'll just pinch myself in my dream to tell me that I'm not awake. That's a very usual thing to do."
"And I'll just pinch myself too," adds Mr. Three.
When we get back downstairs my space-age pocket-telephone is doing a jig across the counter. It's now the turn of people in more westerly time zones to take their stabs at being weird, lazy, mistaken and fragile. My wife doesn't like the look on my face. "I thought I was going to get a chance to write tonight," I explain.
"Soon," she says.
"All momentum is lost," I complain.
"You'll get it back again."
We curl up on the sofa and are soon accompanied by my wife's retinue of woodland creatures -- rabbits, cats, dogs, rats, what have you -- and the fireplace flickers and there's frost on the tall schoolhouse windows. She reads, I reply to emails. Things purr. I fade.
Parked in the back of my mind my next starship lies in wait to fly.