JJ in the 21st Century (1989): The Michelin Man Goes Flat


JJ was wasted and on his way to cover a forum about sexual equality. He laughed and said aloud, “Why yes, ma’am, I do believe everyone should have an equal amount of sex. Keeps people happy. Reduces jealousy.” He was writing a story for the college paper. The forum was called, “Has the Glass Ceiling Cracked?” sponsored by the Northeast Colleges Coalition for Gender Equity (NoCoCoforGenE). He carried a press packet that he had meant to read before he was overtaken by liquid lunch and darts at the bar with Dominic. It was Tuesday afternoon.

JJ was happy, detached, insulated by beer and shots. He felt like the Michelin Man, insulated, the world bouncing off him as he beamed with good will. There was a nagging worry about how he might smell at close quarters. But, hey, just keep smiling that Michelin Man smile. Great traction in all weather. Steel belts. Good to go.

The transition from the expansive and sunny outdoors to the auditorium lobby was alarming. No good for the Michelin Man in here. Instantly, he felt crowded and corralled, too bulky. NoCoCoforGenE sparked a lot of interest, seemingly. There were many people, mostly women, and the vibe was earnest and eager. A famous Author was on the panel and that was the “She” to which many of the women milling in the lobby referred. He slunk to the periphery, allowing the crowd to move him aside, rejecting him as a virus in this host body. He ended up on the side of the roped area where the Author was signing books, pushed almost behind the table by the crush in front. A banner with her book title, The Goddess in the Workplace, fluttered against his back.   He tried to lean on it and almost fell, nothing solid behind. This was much too serious. Time to bail.

Then he saw Lila at the front of the line, talking to the Author. Actually, he heard her first. Some vague memory about Lila’s plans crept in. An event. With other women. Did he want to come? No. But here he was, on official business, with a press pass. Somewhere, under the churning gray sea in his head, beneath the white noise of the surf, a sober voice, the voice of reason, told him to turn away and leave before…

“Hey there,” JJ said, approaching the Author from behind. “I’m Jason from the Daily Campus.” The Author turned and there was a little panic in her eyes. But JJ was looking at Lila, smiling. He put his hand on the Author’s shoulder. “How you doin’? Can you answer a question?”

A person with a walkie-talkie and yellow “Event Staff” vest stepped over. “Sir, you’ll have to move into the line.”

“I’m not here to get my book signed. She is though.” JJ pointed to Lila. “Sign her book but answer my question. I need a quote for the paper, otherwise I’m fucked.”

“OK, that’s enough,” the guard said. Into his walkie-talkie he said, “Help needed at the book signing. There’s an intoxicated male.” The Author stood and managed to back away. “Hey” and “Who’s that guy” and “Attacking her” distinct from the rising noise of concern from the crowd of women.

“Just one question,” JJ shouted. “Do you hate men?”

The crowd quieted a bit. This was really the only question to ask after all and JJ beamed triumphantly. This was balls-out journalism!

“No,” the Author said. “But I strongly dislike drunken buffoonery.”

Everyone laughed and the momentary tension blew away. The smell! The smell of liquor had given him away! He looked toward Lila but she had turned away, fleeing without the signature, and now he stood deflated and floppy. “I don’t think I’ll be using that quote,” he muttered. Hands grasped both his arms and he allowed himself to be led to the exit.

Vs. the 21st Century Guy

JJ tried to go to AA but the thought of those determined desperate happy people turned him away before he could get out of the car.  He sat in the lot watching the smokers talking and laughing.  “Fuck that,” he said and went to get a cup of coffee.  “Better than the liquor store,” he said.  “I gotta stop talking to myself,” he said.

White-knuckling it in a coffee shop turned out to be a bad idea.

There was this guy in the cafe, a typical 21st century guy, not really a man, but not physically a child.  But, he did have toys like a child.  iphone5s on display (for communicating), MacBook Pro with Retina display (for stylish and smug computing), and Bose headphones (QuietComfort™, $300).  This guy stared at the screen of his MacBook Pro with Retina Display with great intensity, talking to someone about Haiti.

“The weather?  Not what you’d think.  Not as hot.  The whole place…what’s that?”  He listened.  “It’s not like you’d think.  The earthquake was…what’s that, I can’t hear you…”

The guy-child got louder and louder, headphones on, talking to the screen, and nobody seemed to mind.  This was typical 21st century behavior and everyone nearby was also self-consumed and oblivious, bored eager faces stuffed in their laptops or phones.  Except for righteous JJ, with his twitchy booze-withdrawal too-tight skin. He was ready to stab this shithead on first impressions alone, before he even started speaking.

“They’re poor but it’s not like the shanties you see…What?  Yes, shanties.  Like plywood huts.  Sometimes cardboard.  Yes, it’s terrible, but not…”

JJ pulled one padded Bose disc away from the guy’s ear.  “Excuse me, but you gotta shut the fuck up,” he said.  A shift in the room.  Maybe they were listening after all.

“Excuse me?  It’s a free country.”  Guy-child turned back to the screen.  “No, Sage, not you.  There’s a person here, being rude.”

“Actually, it’s not a free country.  It’s an expensive country.”  JJ grabbed the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, ignored the guy’s squeal and feeble wrist grab as the Bose plug popped out, and took the computer to the door where he frisbeed it across the sidewalk, right into the gutter.  There it lay, Apple logo still glowing, in a puddle of gray slush.

The 21st century guy-child, all red in the face, pushed past and ran to the curb, kneeled in the slush, and, moaning, took the laptop into his arms.  The Apple light went dark.

JJ felt the swamp of dread rising inside.  But physically, on the outside, he felt much better.  Might as well finish this.  He took out a wad of $100s, more of his dreadful lottery winnings, and tossed it into the slush.  “Buy yourself something nice,” he yelled and stalked away to the liquor store.

It is Hereby Resolved…

Four weeks in and the pledges, oaths, and now the Resolutions are pouring forth almost as quick as the whiskey flows down JJ’s gullet.  Four weeks and stuck already in a self-loathing, glimmer-of-hope, “fuck-this!” vortex of drinking, passing out, thinking about drinking, then drinking again.  “What a life,” he mutters, much put-upon by this descent into compulsion and debauchery.  The days slip away and repeat with occasional brief walks on the farm or shameful missions into town for MORE.

He ventured out yesterday from his farm that isn’t a farm to restock, the shopping list like a pre-apocalyptic wishlist:  3 bottles whiskey (Wild Turkey, 101 proof), carton of cigarettes (Marlboros, yes, back on those too), cans of soup (tomato and chicken noodle, Campbells only), popcorn kernels (microwave popcorn is for pussies.  Plus, he has no microwave), peanut butter (Jif), saltines (Premium), and vanilla ice cream (Friendly’s).  Oh yeah, Alka-Seltzer too (bicarbonate of soda).

Good to go for New Year’s Eve. Happy twothousandfourteen!  “Two fuckin thousand,” he says.  “Still haven’t got used to that.  Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s nineteenninetynine.”  He tries to stop talking to himself in the empty house.  It’s horrifying in some croaky way but he needs to try it now and again to make sure this is all real.

It’s real and he’s fucked and he knows it.

Happy New Year!

Lump Sum Payment

“Lump sum payment.”

“Limp sum payment.”

Giggle and groan.  The realization of alcoholic relapse, a terrible medical term insufficient for the deep soul pain JJ feels as he comes to, then becomes aware.  Failure on an epic scale.  Yet…  (And here’s the rabbit hole of doom).  Yet, what’s the big deal?  He’s here, alive, in a house he owns.  He’s got a shitload of lottery money in the bank.  And the sun is up.  And people are doing whatever people do.  He just happens to be lying here with what feels like a railroad spike lodged in his skull, driven in at the base with point protruding from forehead.  Cold hard throbbing iron.  But predominantly, most painful of all, is the amorphous creature of shame emerged from some gaping unreachable wound behind heart and abdomen.  No organ, this creature, just a pulsating squid of pain, tentacles twisting and twining into heart and limb.  A real fuckin soul ache.

“I’m only hurting myself,” he mutters and tries to get up but sinks back as the squid plops down and splats onto the deck of its cavern and the nausea comes.  Oh man, the nausea.  JJ’s down again, hugging self and giggle-groaning, amazed by this cosmic punishment, this run-of-the-mill hangover.  Gallows humor still intact, that’s good.  Or bad.  He should be devoid of humor, just a fuckin beast, like we all are.  Then the phone is ringing and the old-fashioned answering machine picks up and transmits a beautiful voice through the cold hollow house.

“It’s me,” Lila says.  “I need your help.  It’s…it’s kind of important.  Please call.”

Now the squid of shame, heavy, bloated and gelatinous, shifts position and radiates paralyzing waves of self-disgust.  Because he knows he won’t return the call.  He can’t answer the bell. “You’re up, JJ.”  Can’t do it, coach.  I got this creature inside, this squid.

But, he gets up somehow.  Later he casts this moment in heroic light, like the final push up Everest.  Or the unlikely victory of a doomed army.  The French at the Marne, finally turning to fight the Hun.  “It’s always about you,” Lila would say.  But what she says when he calls back is, “I need you.  My mom died.”

And JJ, fighting back the squid, gets dressed. Or rather, changes clothes.  He then smells himself, takes clothes off again, and gets in the shower.  Much groaning and blasting of hot water to melt the railroad spike, then the brushing and gargling.  Now dressed and stumble-walking out the door, the warrior emerges to save his beloved, raising his arm to fend off the merciless Sun.  He only slips once, landing on his side in a pile of snow along the walkway.  But he rights himself, dusts off the clinging snow, and forges on, unstoppable.

Headed for a Scotch Hibernation

Pots scrubbed, food away, and a bottle of Scotch, two thirds full, found on the floor next to a chair.  Maybe half-hidden by a family member to spare the feelings of the nondrinking JJ?  Then left behind, which baffled JJ, who never forgot a bottle of liquor with any moisture inside.  Thanksgiving over and everyone gone, a heavy silence after a day of eating and noise.  A pregnant silence in an old farmhouse, JJ all alone up on this hill with a bottle of Scotch someone left behind.  He should be giving thanks, reflecting on his friends and family, on a big game of touch football with nephews and siblings.  And the turkey, roasted real nice with all the trimmings.  And the teamwork in the cooking and the cleaning up.  It was a perfect day, a true housewarming for his farm that wasn’t a farm.  This day, this Thanksgiving, was an undeserved gift from the great spirit that can line things up for you then tear them apart.  “We tear them apart,” JJ thought.  “I tear them apart.”

An old memory of sitting next to train tracks at night drinking Dewars from the bottle.  Rocker was there.  They were on acid and screamed and danced when the freight train rumbled by.  JJ had to tackle ol’ Rocker from jumping onto the train and they both collapsed, laughing like loons in the gravel next to the tracks.  They killed that bottle of Dewars and JJ remembered the next day, Rocker on the couch vacant and pale, groaning, “Scotch…..Scotch….” over and over, hugging himself and gently rocking.  Rocker rocking.  JJ couldn’t remember his real name, if he had one.  Maybe Rocker was his real name.

JJ remembered another couple bottles of Scotch, packed into the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, near Steamboat Springs.  Carried that dead weight for 9 miles to a beautiful valley at the head of which Mt. Zirkel presided, craggy and inviting. He camped alone and looked at the mountain.  It was calling, needing to be climbed, not that hard, good approaches he could plainly see, just a bit over 12,000 feet.  But JJ sat there for two days, drinking Scotch, smoking pot, and reading a Cormac McCarthy novel, the grim one with the Judge and the Indian scalps.  Not a bad way to spend time in the mountains, but not very vigorous.  Or social either.  But the simplicity and the solitude.  And the huge silence and all that wonderful space.  And the Scotch going down with mountain water.

There was some term for this thinking. Euphoric recall?  Yup, that sounded about right.  He knew, with the little part of his mind that was still his own, that he was leaving out quite a bit.  Like the aftermath and such.  The compulsion to keep going, an all-body compulsion to keep drinking at all costs, an indescribable thirst.  And all the consequences of simply checking out.  The losing of things.  Friends, family, stuff, self-respect, hygiene.  He knew he was leaving all that part out.  But you know what?  “Fuck it,” JJ muttered.  “At least I’ll use a glass.”  Then a dark chuckle.  “You’ve come a long way, baby,” he said to an empty house.  And so winter began.