Derek Derek lifted the large plastic tub, which he had just filled with ice, level with the counter, dumped the ice into the stainless steel container, and sighed. He looked at his watch: 10:25, it said; almost mid-morning, and five eternal minutes left until his fifteen minute coffee break. Fuck it, he thought, I’ll take it now. He bent down low with a much-practiced ‘bowling’ motion and sent the plastic tub whizzing down the tiled corridor into the dish room where it hit the surly dishwasher on the ankles. “‘Bowling For Busboys’!” he yelled (out of habit, mostly, since it had been a while since he had found the consequences of that action really amusing), and paced off to the staff room.
“I’ll bowl ya!” he heard the irate dishwasher yell, but the dishwasher always yelled that, and Derek had long since ceased to notice: he was already reaching for his cigarette pack. With quick, practiced movements he withdrew one of the long tubes from the cardboard package. With one hand he placed it in a precise position in his lips while the other hand was occupied with first replacing the package to his shirt pocket, then digging out a half used pack of matches from his too tight jeans. He was extremely conscious of the fluidity of his movements; lighting the cigarette with the match was the hard part, and he wanted to look as cool as possible, smooth and flowing, for all the eyes he perceived to be on him. He managed to execute the task to his satisfaction as he entered the staff room above the restaurant, but only Karen was there, finishing a butt of her own. He didn’t give a shit about Karen and there was no one else around. He felt a frustration welling up inside that seemed incomprehensible.
He thrust himself into one of the tattered chairs which his employers had so graciously donated to facilitate his comfort, and blew out a long stream of smoke from his lips, like a visible sigh. Karen eyed him with wary curiousity, but Derek was busy inspecting the floor. He could hear the clank and clatter of dishes from the dishroom, and the slamming of doors and calling of orders as the waiters and waitresses bounced off of and around each other like atoms in a solution. He realized he had to go back out there and face that frantic pace again in only fifteen minutes. Unconsciously he looked at his watch and saw that five of those minutes had already passed.
“Fuck,” he said, without thinking about it. “Whatsa matter?” asked Karen as she cracked her gum. She could stand the silence no longer; it made her uncomfortable. “Nuthin’,” Derek lied, but it wasn’t anything he could have spoken to her about. It was a subject which seemed to be most on his mind but least on his lips, and when he tried to articulate these things he simply stopped talking: there were too many things he wanted to say, all of them at once, and he couldn’t decide where to start. That seemed important: deciding where to start.
He feared that if he started in the wrong place his listener might get the wrong idea, or make the wrong conclusions about himself. It seemed like everything he wanted to say needed to be qualified. So he said nothing, or very little. “I dunno, just restless, I quess. Don’t really want to be here either.” He chuckled, but there was no humor in it.
“Yeah, I know what ya mean. There’s a good movie on T.V. I’m missing,” said Karen, cracking her gum again, and chewing enthusiastically. That’s not what I meant, bitch, he thought. Derek hated the tube.
To him the T.V. was an insidious invention: it was far too powerful a tool in the wrong hands, and too easy an excuse for not doing anything yourself. Derek thought that “The Glass Teat” was a perfect name for it. Still, there was a good side to it: it helped tie together the world in a network of communication, which was valuable, provided the communicators were trustworthy. But Derek felt that most of them weren’t. Most of T.V.
was blatant propaganda, and people like Karen just lapped it all up, like kittens to milk, or junkies to junk. But he didn’t feel like explaining all that to Karen just now. Most of those thoughts were coded as symbols in his brain, and drumming up sentences to clothe those symbols with meaningful dress was too much like work. So he said, “No, I mean I’d rather be somewhere else entirely, like another country, or something. I’m tired of this..” he waved his hand around in an “all- encompassing” gesture.
“Yeah, I like to travel, too. We went to California once, saw Disneyland. ‘Course, I was just twelve. But I’d go back tomorrow, if I could. I remember..” Derek tuned out Karen’s voice as she droned on and on about all the things she saw at Disneyland, how her brother was such a pest and got chocolate ice cream all over his new white shirt with a picture of Goofy on the front, and how the Matterhorn was such a scary ride, why, she almost fainted, and on and on, and Derek felt that Karen didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
He didn’t see how anyone could consider going to Disneyland “travelling”, or the United States as a different country. It still had a familiar atmosphere: the language was the same, the religion was the same, the cars were the same. Even the T.V. was the same. The goals were the same, the same ethics, the same books, same records, same, same, same. Derek felt that Karen would be horrified by the thought of going anywhere unfamiliar, like Mexico, or the island of Celebes.
“I don’t know about the States,” said Derek carefully, for he believed in being diplomatic unless he held a person in complete contempt and there were others around who felt the same to back him up. “I was thinking of, like, maybe, Mexico.” He said Mexico as if it was some improbable place that he had just dreamt up out of his head. “Oouu!” her face crinkled up, “I hear it’s dirty, and there’s all these beggars, and they’ll rob you blind.” “How do you know that?” “Well, that’s what I heard,” she said, indignant that he would question her. “I don’t know. But they always look dirty on TV.” Derek leaned back in the ratty chair and folded his arms over his chest, the dim clatter of dishes downstairs echoing the random and hazy pattern of his thoughts.
Abruptly he looked at his watch and his shoulders slumped in disappointment: he was five minutes overdue for his return to work. He muttered an obscenity and, without so much as a look at Karen he went back downstairs. II Derek walked out ten minutes early into the fine, warm and breezy afternoon day. He felt bad leaving all his co-workers behind in the hot and stuffy restaurant, but not bad enough. Outside he finally felt like he had enough room.
He took a deep breath and smiled as he exhaled. The rush hour was swiftly approaching, but as yet there was only a faint cloying smell of exhaust fumes so he took in another lungful and savored it. In a little while he would be on the bus, and by habit his breathing would become shallow and rapid; he hated some smells, especially chemicals. Other people’s rancid sweat also topped the list, along with musty attics, restaurant kitchens, paint, powerful perfumes, stale beer, and old, full ashtrays. But machine exhaust was the worst, and had been ever since his Dad had caught him, long ago in his childhood, squatting behind the car while it was running, sniffing the wondrous sweet vapors. “Hey!” Dad had yelled.
“What the hell are you doing!? You want to get brain damage?!” Derek hadn’t been old enough to know precisely what brain damage was, but he understood that it was BAD; it wasn’t often that his Dad yelled like that. From then on he tried to make sure that whenever he smelled car exhaust he held his breath, even if it meant having no breath to hold. A truck went by, and Derek breathed cautiously, but the breezes washed the fumes away. He continued to his bus stop, smiling. I could walk home and enjoy this fully, he realized. He knew of a couple of long-cuts that would take him through some nice residential streets, past a well kept park by the river with lush grass and tall, fat trees.
If he stopped in the park for a sprawl in the grass it might take about an hour to get home to his apartment. Besides, he needed the exercise: his shape was gaining even more than his usual paunchiness. Even though he despised the food he worked with, he could not seem to help nibbling throughout the day. But he felt tired. He’d been on his feet all day, and maybe that was enough exercise.
No need to abuse oneself, is there? He got to his bus stop next to the oversized department store, perched himself on the steel tube railing which divided the parking lot from the sidewalk, lit a cigarette, and waited for his bus. III Derek got off the bus two stops early and walked the rest of the way home down the busy street which ran past his house. He did it as a sort of penance for not walking all the way home, and ended up not enjoying it a bit. The street was a major artery for traffic bound for home across the river, and was bottlenecked by the small width of the old steel bridge. It was jammed, as usual, with a variety of traffic: executives on their way home in their air conditioned self-contained personal transport units, isolated from the very world they controlled, and looking as though their thoughts were unfathomable; toughs in hotrods playing the latest Heavy Metal bands, or classic Led Zeppelin; prim librarians with nouveau-hornrimmed glasses (faint strands of Bach and Mozart), followed by a nondescript fellow in a battered Datsun from which Mahler’s Symphony #2 blared forth.
Some old red-faced guy driving a matching old red pickup fitted with racks for carrying plate glass tried to go around a stalled car before he looked, and the successful saleswoman in the expensive Oldsmobile would have had to slam on her brakes, but she hit the gas instead and her heavy iron beast (roaring) leapt into the side of the old red glass-truck. Shattered glass misted the air, rainbow colors which swiftly fell to the pavement and became dangerous garbage. The toughs in the hotrod jeered, “AwwwRIGHT!! Didjew see that, man?! Haha!” The old guy in the old red pickup hit the horn getting out of the cab and it stuck on, braying like an injured mule. Been meanin’ to git that fixed, thought the old guy. He went around his truck to where the big powder blue Olds tiger had taken a bite out of his rusty red mule to survey the damage. This wasn’t his first accident, no sense in getting too worked up.
He knew it was his fault, too. The saleswoman’s shriek surprized him. She couldn’t get her door open, and she was trying hard to roll down the window. As a result, her first few words were muffled: “..dam son-of-a-bitch, waddaya tryin’ ta do, huh?! Y’wanna get everybody killed?! I’ll sue you you bastard!..” Derek tuned out the rest as best he could and wished fervently that he had walked all the way home. I will, he thought fiercely. I promise I will walk home everyday, he swore, as if standing up to himself and putting his foot down. Unless it is bad weather, his brain quickly added. Derek cursed.
It seemed that everytime he made a vow to himself a host of imps, and even some more powerful devils, crowded into his headspace trying to make exceptions and prove him wrong. There were even times when, in disbelief, his conscious mind sat back and watched while the imps, like perverse puppeteers, twisted his tongue into saying things he had no right to say (such as criticizing others and judging the depths of their spiritual depravity), or forced his feet towards the drugstore where he could buy another pack of smokes, even though he kept telling himself that he really wanted to quit. His conscience could implore and beg, but it was only a quiet, still voice, easily ignored. Derek clenched his fists in frustration; he ground his teeth in desperation. He longed for an answer: how do you make yourself do the things you really want to do? or make yourself be the way you really want to be? Is there an answer? Derek didn’t know. It seemed like everytime he thought about stuff like that it made his head whirl.
He didn’t even feel like he could talk properly, communicate at all. There were so many words crowding his brain, and words needed to be let out one at a time, in a certain order. He didn’t even notice that he had already automatically turned across the front lawn (he never used the cracked and heaving sidewalk) and was making his way up the creaking stairs at the side of the old leaning house where he was renting an apartment on the third floor. He reached into his pocket to pull out his key ring and froze: it wasn’t there. His eyes widened.
Shit, he thought. He patted himself absently and dug his fingers into other pockets while he mentally retraced his steps home. Then he remembered leaving them on the table in the staff room as he had gotten changed to leave. He’d been in a hurry: skipping out early wasn’t something you did when your fellow employees were around. He’d almost made it unobserved, but Andrea had come bursting in the back way, almost taking his head off with the door. Andrea was a waitress he got along with quite well, but today he had been curt with her: “Hey Derek! How’r ya? Looks like you’re leaving a little early,” she said, far too loudly.
He rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, so?” “‘Yeah, so’ nothing,” she shot back, refusing to be daunted. “See you later.” It was a statement of fact. That’s what he’d always liked about Andrea: she was straight-forward and honest, and full of energy. She was one of those persons who exuded energy and managed to animate everyone else around her. She was one of those neat independent girls who somehow latch onto and keep interesting, handsome and artistic guys, while being the object of every other guy’s not- necessarily-sexual desire. She wasn’t someone who you had to groan about while they went around with some goofball who managed (by what means, no one knows) to impress her with his car. You couldn’t help liking Scott, Andrea’s boyfriend.
Thinking about talking to Andrea made it that much easier for Derek to get up his resolve to head back to work. Suddenly he chuckled, thinking that Fate was going to make him walk, no matter how hard his natural apathy tried to assert itself. He clambered back down the stairs and headed for the back lane, instead of going up the busy front street. It was much more peaceful; the delapidated houses and the accumulated garbage even looked like Art. He suddenly felt good, so good that he decided to reward himself.
He promptly lit a cigarette. IV It took more than an hour to get back to work, longer than Derek had anticipated, and he was tired by the time he arrived. Man, I am out of shape, he thought, and he felt vaguely guilty about it, but pushed the thoughts aside with the conviction that he was doing something about it–he was actively pursuing a goal. Action was very important. Action could change your very mind; like washing a car, with action, force and energy you could remove all the dirt and corrosive salt to reveal the gleaming, solid entity beneath.
Sometimes Derek felt that his mind–maybe consciousness was a better word–was somehow smothered, and, had there been some sort of “other-word” entity there to assess it, would have appeared indistinct and amorphous. He spent most of his conscious thought-time wondering where to start cleaning. But at times like this he felt much better, like as if he had been aimlessly scrubbing, and suddenly saw, beneath the crust and ooze, a wonderful stray gleam. He dared not question. With a smile on his face he jerked the door of the restaurant open and swung inside. It was always dark in the restaurant, but the kitchen was well lit, and he nodded greetings to the two busy night-shift cooks.
The head cook, with the unlikely name of Ipzwaldt, was a tall, lanky guy with a pleasantly twisted face. “Hey Derek!” he yelled, “since you abandoned ship too soon before, why doncha bail us out for a bit?” “Sure thing, Captain Waldo,” said Derek with a grin. He was in too good a mood to feel bad about his earlier actions. “That’s ‘aye aye’ to you, sailor.” “‘Arrr, like bloody ‘ell,” snarled Derek, reaching to butter some bread. “Watch yerself, mate.
That’s close to mutiny. Hey Bob!” said Waldo, calling to the other cook. “Hold this bugger down while I pour our Special Sauce down his pants.” Bob, who was new, got into the spirit of the banter. “I’ll not do it, Cap’n. Not ’til I get a bloomin’ raise,” he said in a parody of Irish.
“What?! Insurrection on my ship? Fine, I’ll do it meself. But you’d best look to your own britches later.” They carried on for a while, until the waiters and waitresses stopped plying them with orders. Andrea noticed Derek working. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Bailing,” he said, and flashed her a smile of “I’m OK, you’re OK too”. “You’re weird,” she said, and wondered how he could be so moody. Derek just chuckled.
V Derek liked working with Waldo. Waldo rarely lost his cool, and was almost always in a good mood, but the thing Derek liked most was that Waldo and he never bumped into each other. That might seem like a small thing, but in a crowded kitchen full of objects both sharp and hot it became important. Somehow he and Waldo knew where each other were going, which way the other would move, even whether or not the other guy was coming around a blind corner. Derek could remember many times when he had avoided a collision by slowing down for no other reason than he felt he had to.
And he knew that Waldo had done the same. It was sort of like dancing (once the restaurant got going you did get into a rhythm), and he and Waldo were great partners. Of course, Derek didn’t know why this was so, but he knew it was true. When he worked with other guys, half the time he was running into them, saying things like “‘scuse me” and “oops! Sorry” all night. It got frustrating, and usually destroyed Derek’s good mood. Derek had a passion for harmony and flow; it got right to his gut when he was working with some klutz who couldn’t seem to understand what dancing was all about. So Derek, enjoying himself, stayed in the kitchen and worked for a couple of extra hours for free until the manager, a short, squat, young guy named C.D.
(the cooks all called him Compact Dip–behind his back of course) told Derek that he had better leave the kitchen since he didn’t have on his uniform. Derek remembered his keys, and then remembered that he had wanted to talk to Andrea. “Sure thing, C.D.,” he said, agreeably. “We’ll see you mates later,” he left Waldo and Bob in the now calm kitchen. Waldo threw a chunk of pineapple his way, but Derek dodged around the corner and was gone.
Having gathered his keys, he headed towards the staff table which was set into an unobtrusive corner of the restaurant, and sat down on the bench seat next to Tracy who was chattering animatedly (as she always was) with Andrea. Andrea nodded a greeting; Tracy said “hi”, absently, because she was engrossed in her story (as she always was). Derek tried to pick up the flow of the conversation while he surreptitiously checked Andrea’s pack of cigarettes. She had only one, so he left it there. She caught him as he put the pack back down and slapped his hand, giving him an exaggerated dirty look. Tracy, feeling interrupted, hit Derek too, and said, “Leave her stuff alone”, then continued with her story as if nothing had happened.
Derek envied her that. If someone interrupted him in the middle of a sentence he usually forgot what he was talking about. And sometimes he even managed to interrupt himself, new thoughts intruding upon the current ones. That was embarrasing. Derek was wondering how she did it when he realized that she was talking to him, trying to get out of the bench seat.
“Will you move? Or do I have to cause some pain?” she wielded a burning cigarette threateningly. He grabbed a knife from the table and took an “en guarde” position. They fenced for a bit, laughing, then he got up to let her out of the bench seat. “You look preoccupied,” said Andrea as Derek sat back down. “Ah so, so very perceptive, missy.
Derek Chan seek profound wisdom from you’self. He is at great loss.” “Yeah, what did you lose?” Derek got serious. “My sanity,” he said. She laughed. “So you finally realized.
Well, join the club, sonny. If you think you’re the only one just take a..” “No!” he said with some heat. “I know I’m not the only one, but I want to do something about it.” He looked around, but no one else was near. “Look, I’m starting to realize some things and it isn’t pleasant. I’m not going anywhere, I’m just drifting. I’m just floating along in this not-so-pleasant world.
I want to go somewhere else, do something different! I’m tired of this crapping lifestyle..” he trailed off, groping for words. “So do something, then.” Derek’s whole body slumped. “I guess I just don’t know how to start.” He fiddled with a book of matches, sighed, and tossed them on the table. Derek felt disappointed. It was as if, having seen the first stray gleam from the body of his mind he had left it, partially satisfied, and when he had come back the shiny patch was gone. “Why don’t you go travelling?” “What?” Derek broke out of his musings.
“Go travelling. You know, hop on a bus and head south with the birds. Hey! Then you could avoid the winter. You go far enough south and you just find a nice beach and stay there. Smell new smells, taste new tastes, hell, see new seas.
Ha!” Andrea was getting excited, “I know a place in Mexico where you could have a hut on the Pacific for about ten bucks a month. And you meet all these great people!” Her enthusiasm infected him. He had heard a lot of Andrea’s stories before, and he had listened with a kind of wistfulness, as if he knew that those things would never happen to him, though he would like them to. But this time he didn’t feel like listening to any more stories. He interrupted her again. “So how much would it cost me to get there and back by the cheapest way?” She blinked. “Really? You wanna go?” He nodded.
“I have managed to put some money away. It was going to be for a car, but who needs a car?” “Well that’s great! But maybe we shouldn’t talk about it here. Why don’t you come over, let me see,” she counted on her fingers, “how about Friday night? That way you can think up some good questions, and Scott and I can figure some stuff out.” He beamed at her, and privately decided to bring a bottle of scotch. CHAPTER TWO I The great rythmic beat swelled up around him, massaged his body, pushing it gently to and fro. His eyes were closed, but he had just rubbed them and the brilliant waves of magenta and blue made his heart pound with a familiar but enigmatic ecstacy.