Jay Kantor poured himself a third cup of coffee in the break room, hoping it would ease his pounding headache. He returned to his cubicle and the purchase order from General Hospital he should have finished an hour ago. After a month at Surgical Supplies, he still felt out of place. Co-workers avoided him, probably because he avoided them. “Kantor’s paranoid,” he overheard a co-worker tell someone in the cubicle next to his; “Yeah, lot of ‘em are like that,” was the enigmatic response. Fitzroy continued eyeballing him, probably looking for an excuse to fire him. He swallowed an antidepressant with a swig of coffee and was about to check the inventory for incontinent padding when a voice cried out from inside his head. Where am I? Get me out of here!
What the hell? Was this a reaction to his antidepressants? Or the onset of a psychotic breakdown? That would also explain the necrotic yellow eye he’d spotted in the back of Fitzroy’s head the other day.
Whose head am I trapped in? Talk to me!
Jay covered his ears, as if that could stop the voice.
The phone rang. “Surgical Supplies, Kantor. How may I help you?”
“Jay Kantor, Order Desk. How may I—”
“Uh, Mr. Ubel is no longer with—”
“Okay-okay. Dr. Gans here; Ob-Gyn Partnership. Send us two gross vaginal specula by courier a-sap.”
Listen to me: I was murdered. How can I still be conscious?
What madness was this? After dispatching Gans’s specula, Jay forced himself to concentrate on the General Hospital purchase order: colostomy bags, catheters, rib spreaders, bone saws . . .
All I did was snatch an extra piece of bread and a Gestapo pig pressed his luger against my head and—are you listening to me?
The purchase order turned to gibberish.
Maybe this has to do with cosmic retribution. After all, I spat in God’s counterfeit face!
Before these hallucinations, or whatever they were, Jay had been having difficulty concentrating on his duties. It had been a terrible mistake to have applied for this job. It was a miracle he’d been hired. “You have an admirable understanding of pharmaceuticals,” Fitzroy had told him. And when he was asked about his PR skills, he lied, saying that he loved interacting with people. He’d been living on his last unemployment check.
The voice had unsettled him. He opened his pocket notebook and, as was his habit when reality derailed for him, jotted down lines for a poem . . .
It starts with quarks, ends up in protoplasm
What am I but a mere matter-spasm?
What the hell kind of gibberish is that?
“Go away, will you? This is private.”
How can you spew doggerel about quarks, knowing that Nazi monsters ripped infants from their mothers’ arms and smashed their heads against brick walls?
Suddenly a hand clamped down on Jay’s shoulder. “Jerkin’ off on company time again, huh, Kantor?” said Fitzroy.
“I-I must be fighting some kind of virus, sir,” Jay replied reflexively.
Fitzroy stared at him with gelatinous eyes. His face looked jack-hammered out of cement. “This is what I think, Kantor: I think you’re fucking off on company time.”
Jay met his gaze, determined not to be intimidated. “I take my job seriously.”
“This is a three strikes and your ass is grass kind of place, Kantor.” He raised two fingers. “Comprendo?”
Jay nodded, unable to recall strike one. He turned to his computer, brought up the General Hospital purchase order, checked S.S.’s stock for Bp kits and body bags, and entered the items for dispatch:
119411 1 dz Bp Kits @ 45.00 540.00
700942 2 dz Polyurethane body bags @69.50 139.00
Fitzroy walked away but continued to scrutinize him with that rheumy yellow eye in the back of his head. Jay wished he could plunge a stake through it—Odysseus confronting the Cyclops! “We seized our stake with its fiery tip / and bored it . . . in the giant’s eye / till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft . . . / and the broiling eyeball burst--”
I don’t know how or why I wound up inside your skull, Kantor—but maybe it’s a trick our imposter god is playing on us. What do you think?
“You’re asking me?”
Who else? Maybe I should ask your precious quarks!
“Why would the Almighty trick us?”
‘The Almighty’? Are you mocking me? Let me tell you something, Kantor: We alone are responsible for our destiny. To deny that is to risk eradication.
“Whoever you are, you wound up inside the skull of a nincompoop. I flunked out of college. Why do you think I’m wasting away in this snake pit?”
We must do something!
Do I have to spell it out for you? We’re vanishing! If we become extinct before retribution is exacted, the cosmos itself will have been violated. Can you understand that, Mr. Kantor?
From across the office Fitzroy was keeping his Eye on him. But how was he supposed to concentrate on his work with a tortured soul trapped in his head, crying out for retribution? This bizarre illusion had to be connected somehow to his being imprisoned in corporate America. He waited until Fitzroy disappeared; then he reached for his pocket notebook and scribbled:
Cubicled manikins, row after row,
Why do you stay here? Why don’t you GO?
You click on your keyboards, nine until five,
Then drag yourselves home, more dead than alive.
Jay needed more coffee, and returned to the break room. On one of the tables, amid the tabloids and copies of The Spectator were printouts of Surgical Supply’s in-house newsletter, The Roundup, carrying features on corporate sales coups. The current issue featured Linc Blair, the company’s newly appointed Kick-Ass Salesman of the Week:
Three cheer’s for Linc Blair! Linc showed his amazing sales mussle by writting
up a dozen hospital equipment contract’s totaling over $2.5 MIL! Congrat’s Linc!
The day that Linc had been selected for the award, Jay recalled, he’d handed him a fistful of freshly harvested purchase orders. “Get these here orders processed pronto, buddy-me-boy.”
“No mistakes, Kantor. I got me a twenty-four karat reputation to uphold.”
Linc’s burnished face waxed resplendent. “I depend on you, buddy-me-boy. Oh-h-h, I de-e-e-pend on you-u-u-u-u…”
Jay ignored him.
“You fuck up, Kantor, I’ll slice off yer scalped little pecker and feed it to my Dachshund. Dig-um what I say, paleface?”
Do you see? Do you? The forces that have done us in are still at work. Are you just going to sit there and let the cancer eat away what’s left of us, or what?
“You think that I can do something about it?”
You are all I have to work with! It’s not like I had any say in the matter.
“If it means getting rid of you, I’ll see what I can do.”
For the next few days Jay heard nothing from the ghost inside his head. Small comfort; he was most likely still implanted there, reading his thoughts. All right then: he would at least think about ways of liberating himself from these Surgical Supplies oppressors. On the other hand, he needed his job. Not much liberation in unemployment. Jay turned his attention to a purchase order from Holy Sepulcher Hospital.
He was still working on the order an hour past quitting time. The janitor, Martin Sloupp, appeared, banging his bucket against the walls. Sloupp was a barrel-shaped man with a purplish red face etched with a perpetual smirk. He carried his mop like a jouster’s lance—Don Quixote in the middle of a psychotic episode. Sloupp brought his Rocinante bucket to a clattering halt beside the paper shredder. He glared suspiciously at Jay, who resumed processing the last items for Holy Sepulcher:
720389 2 dz Tracheotomy kits @37.00 74.00
500051 1 dz Spinal Needles, 3” @41.00 41.00
Sloupp rubbed his face with the back of his hand and shot another glance in Jay’s direction. After swabbing the floor there, he sat down on the nearest chair and lit a cigarette.
“Tough job, huh?” Jay said.
Sloupp puffed mock-contemplatively on his cigarette, eyebrows knitting. Smoke curled over his head. “Can’t complain. Puts bread on the table, know what I’m sayin’?”
Jay forced a laugh. “Yeah, I know what you’re saying.”
Sloupp aimed his cigarette at him. “You must feel like a fish outta water, huh?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Been around as long as me,” he said, scrutinizing Jay with narrowed eyes, “you sorta figure out who fits in, who don’t. Know what I’m sayin’?”
One March morning Jay decided to walk the two miles to work. The crisp air with its hint of spring stirred up a primordial longing for freedom.
Freedom is a futile dream in this cesspool of a world.
The disembodied voice had returned. “Why are you so nihilistic?”
After I told you what happened to me, you still can’t understand?
“Nearly seventy-five years have passed since World War Two. Most of the Nazi butchers have been brought to justice—haven’t you heard? Today there’s greater ethnic tolerance, and despite the turmoil in the Middle East, a growing respect for different cultures. In fact—”
How you delude yourself, Kantor. Your optimism would turn my stomach if I still had a stomach.
Jay tried drowning him out by imagining alien monstrosities for his poems: eel-like denizens swarming in Europa’s subsurface ocean; Venusian sulfur slugs. He wondered where else in this galaxy of two hundred billion stars the cruel joke of consciousness had arisen out of the slime.
Good grief—and you accuse me of being nihilistic?
“I’m not nihilistic, just resigned to the absurdity of existence.” The moment he uttered those words, he felt ashamed for having allowed himself to become so resigned.
Supe, the head custodian, performed his duties with unflappable self-confidence. One morning he stopped at Alicia’s, the quality-control manager’s, cubicle. “Surgical Supplies is the Pequod to your Ahab,” she chimed. It was instantly obvious from the look on Supe’s face that he had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.
Only close friends called Supe Supe; to everyone else he was Corporal Joseph Smythe, Jr. During Desert Storm he’d been assigned to covert operations, but got himself court-martialed for sending classified information over a non-secure channel. Supe inspected Surgical Supplies with an inflated chest, his head oscillating like a radar dish as he conducted his inspections of the surveillance, heating / AC, lighting, and plumbing systems. Moreover, Supe by his own admission took pride in what he called the workforce alerting system, something he conceptualized entirely on his own: it consisted of a series of alarms:
- Warning alarm:7:58
- Work-start alarm: 8:00
- Tardy alarm: 8:01
- Coffee break alarm:10:30
- Lunch alarm:12:30
- Punch-out alarm: 4:30
Jay found it impossible to communicate with Supe. The simplest request—“Would you please add more paper towels to the receptacle in the men’s room?” was met with undiluted hostility: “I installed a new supply at zero seven hundred hours last Tuesday. They don’t get used up that fast.”
“Nevertheless, they’re all gone.”
“Then stop wastin’ ‘em. And stop wastin’ my fuckin’ time.”
“I don’t know your name,” Jay said to the Voice one night after waking from a nightmare. It was the first time he made the effort to initiate conversation.
Karl. Thank you for asking. Karl Heim—though I should rename myself Heimlos!
“I hate my life, Karl Heim.”
Be grateful that you have a life.
“Like you said, it’s a cesspool of a world . . .”
Please—you’re depressing me. Later, I’ll explain a few things about the importance of tending to unfinished business. Now go back to sleep.
Jay sat in the evening gloom of his apartment, waiting for his soup to heat up. Two weeks had passed since he heard from the voice. Maybe he migrated to a more promising brain. Maybe he found peace at last.
I’m still here. Are you still wishing you were dead?
“No! I want to live in harmony with the cosmos.”
Do not speak to me of cosmic harmony. Let me hear you talk about cosmic harmony while you’re being eaten alive by lice and so hungry you begin gnawing at your own flesh.
All day, Rudolph “Gum Ball” Klamm, Surgical Supplies’ packager, did nothing but wrap and weigh, wrap and weigh, wrap and weigh. And chew gum. The moon would acquire a breathable atmosphere before Gum Ball’s mouth would be caught gumless. Jay received a cancellation of an order he’d processed hours earlier, so he rushed out to the warehouse to make sure that Gum Ball did not dispatch it.
Gum Ball looked up at Jay suspiciously.
“How’s it going, Gum Ball?”
The chewing paused. “Whatcha want?”
“Make sure this order doesn’t get shipped out? It’s been cancelled.” He showed Gum Ball the document.
Gum Ball turned to his computer monitor. As Jay waited, he glanced around the cubicle: there was a rack for Gum Ball’s hat and coat a table cluttered with packing tape and scissors; a scale, a postage meter, a riot of gum wrappers….and a thick beat-up white paperback lying in shadow, the title of which he could all too easily make out:
“It ain’t gone out.”
“Are you sure?”
Gum Ball glared at him.
Jay clicked his heels together, made an about-face, and left.
The next evening, lonely and depressed, Jay removed the frayed photograph of Ursula and Bentley, his ex-wife and eight-year-old son, from his billfold. “Hi, guys” Jay said.
“You look like shit this morning,” Ursula said.
“Yeah, Daddy,” giggled Bentley.
Jay shrugged. “I miss you guys.”
“That’s how the cookie crumbles,” Ursula said.
“I’m a different person now. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
“Sure, and I got some oceanfront property in Ari-fucking-zona to sell you.”
“We live in a hostile world, Ursula. It gets to me.”
“Everything gets to you, Jay—you with your persecution complex and your paranoia.”
In no mood to argue, Jay tucked away the photograph and poured himself some coffee.
He switched on the TV, wishing he could slip into an alternate universe, one in which he and Ursula were still married—happily—and in which his son still loved him.
After finishing an order for arterial clamps, tongue depressors, and surgical masks, Jay headed for S.S.’s warehouse to do an inventory check, but he no sooner left his desk when Karl Heim screamed, Get out of there, Kantor! Now!
“What’s the matter?”
There’s no time to explain!
Jay stopped in his tracks, confused.
This is your only chance, Jay Kantor. I know who you are. I know now why I wound up inside your brain.
“Why?” Jay demanded.
Can’t you see what is happening? You’re as blind as I was when I was alive. ‘It’s a passing phase, this Jew-hating,’ I used to say. ‘What do you think they’ll do, wave a wand and make us disappear? This is the land of Bach! Better to wait it out; the madness will pass.’ Is that what you’ve been telling yourself, Kantor? Is it??
Jay’s head began to spin. Should he heed this disembodied lunatic’s call? Something told him that he must. He grabbed his coat and rushed out to the lobby. Can liberation be waiting outside, or would he simply be entering a larger, open-air prison?
He tried to open the outer door but it was locked. From inside? It had to be unlocked, he had to be trapped in some self-imposed delusion—but no matter how desperately he pushed, pulled or twisted, the door would not open—or so it seemed.
What’s wrong? Go! Leave!
Somebody squeezed past him and exited. He tried following, but his legs seized up in mid stride; the door swung back and smashed him in the face. He staggered back, holding his nose, a pathetic Oliver Hardy. Just then Supe appeared. Jay once again tried to exit, but vertigo enveloped him and he fell. Now Supe was looming over him. “You think you can leave here so easily, eh, Kantor?”
Jay struggled to his feet, but lost his balance.
“Jeezus Christ almighty,” Supe grumbled. He whipped out his cell phone. Jay tried again to wrench open the door; this time he couldn’t even clasp the brass handle.
Keep trying! You mustn’t stop trying! We cannot give in to them again!
He stepped back. Something demonic began stirring inside of him. All his years of passivity, of hiding inside himself, were concentrating into a laser-beam of life-force that integrated itself with the life-force of those millions of tortured and destroyed lives that still cried out in the eternal universe, waiting for the true god, released from bondage at last, to revive the Covenant and bring about long overdue retribution. Jay lifted up the bronze eagle statuette next to the entrance and heaved it through the glass door; then he bent his head low, cried, I am the bull of destiny, and hurled himself outside over the shattered glass. Supe charged after him, grabbed a leg, but Jay kicked him in the face with the other. Someone else tried to put him in a headlock but he twisted free.
You are liberated, Jay Kantor. Go forth in the name of justice; reclaim the honor and the dignity we have lost. For the first time, the refugee’s voice emanated from outside his head, from high above.
At long last, he was ready to bear witness.