Strange Happenings In East Bravada
by Dennis Fridd
You wake up in a room you are not familiar with in a house you cannot place in a town that could be anywhere. It takes a second for things to settle into place. Your vision grows clearer, objects begin to assert themselves. A blue splotch near your arm becomes a coffee mug. A shimmering grey void is sunlight reflecting off a television screen. This is your living room, inside your house. It is certainly your house, though you cannot escape the feeling that the house could just as easily belong to someone else
You are not sure what day it is exactly. The days all seem to run together now. You are unemployed.
Only now do you notice a noise coming from the end table, so faint it is barely audible. A video of a woman making strange sounds plays on your laptop. Sometimes she whispers, other times she crinkles bubble wrap or slowly eats a chocolate covered strawberry. The video is designed to make you fall asleep easier. It plays on a loop for a full twenty-four hours; ten hours remain in the video.
You don’t know why but for some reason the performers in the videos are always young, attractive women. They are just making noises to help people fall asleep—they need not be attractive, and yet they are. Perhaps it doubles as a fetish video for some desperate corner of the internet.
You remember this video. It begins with her opening and closing a stack of makeup containers, then she gargles seltzer with her mouth closed so she sounds like a hot tub. You let it play while you walk around the room.
Bare feet on a wooden floor. An upside down tumbler cutting a ring into the coffee table. The drooping waistband of a pair of flannel pants. Pajama pants are the uniform of unemployment you think to yourself and chuckle. Who said that?
Dust particles noodling in a lick of sunlight. A sink full of dishes festering in brown water. A half-eaten can of peas.
You remember this is a ranch house.
The mumbling of an air conditioner.
A ranch house in a town built in defiance of nature in the desert. When the temperature changes the wind blows orange sand like a mist through East Bravada. It gets in your skin and people who live here too long look like a baseball glove after a while, wrinkled and tan and dirty.
Without warning you are seized by the sudden urge to measure the depth of the ridges in your fingers. You suspect that over the course of several weeks—or has it been months?—the ridges have slowly eroded. Everything you touch feels smoother, as though a fine layer of chalk perpetually coats your fingers. In the dust that encroaches further each day into the center of every room in the house, your fingers leave only the shallowest of prints. At this rate, in a few days they will leave no prints at all.
Is this a sign? Is the universe telling you that you will not need fingerprints any longer?
You’re awake again. On the couch again. In the wee hours of the morning, when you finally think of going to sleep, the bedroom always seems impossibly far away. The couch is slowly becoming a perfect mold of your body, like those sex toys that are exact replicas of a specific pornstar’s genitals.
A video plays on your computer of a girl cutting her fingernails right next to a microphone. Before you fell asleep last night you could have sworn she was talking about the way certain bank vaults are designed. When they talk it is usually about pleasing, simple things. A trip to the grocery store. A visit with the barber. You turn the video off.
You sit up, think the better of it, lay back down on the couch again. Not yet.
You think about when it all started. They notified you on your electric workstation. Not just you—everyone. Training documents and emails from the supervisors always referred to them as electronic workstations but in real life people just called them computers.
So a message shows up on every computer all at once and when you open it the message tells you to start looking for another job. This happens right when you get to work. 8:00 on the dot. You don’t even notice that your desk has been cleaned out.
The message lets you know that you can collect your stuff outside. You go out and all the stuff in your desk has been placed in a little white box that is sitting on the ground. The boxes don’t have names on them, just employee id numbers, and when you look close you see the numbers are embossed into the lids of the boxes.
They’re not in order, even though they are laid out in a perfectly spaced grid. There are dozens and dozens of these things, in no discernable sequence, so you have to shuffle up and down the columns and rows with all the other losers, bending at the waist as you walk so you can get low enough to see the numbers.
No one is saying much. Some people are crying. You do not cry. You are not sure when the last time you cried was, actually.
Every few minutes a little wind kicks up, blowing sand across the boxes. If people don’t find their boxes soon, eventually they won’t even be able to read the numbers. After enough time, you suppose, the boxes will be buried under the sand completely, though only if the wind keeps blowing in the same direction.
You wonder if this ever happens to people in the middle east. Or Las Vegas.
A woman stands with her arms crossed, surveying the boxes. Her lips hang child’s shoelace loose. “They can’t do this. They can’t do this!” Her screams get louder and louder.
After you found your box that day you left without talking to anyone, maintaining your silence even as you handed the clerk at the liquor store your ID. The box had three pieces of gum and a picture of your mother inside it.
Is that really how it happened? You don’t know. Maybe.
You go onto the job website that your brother-in-law told you about. Every day you send out five to ten applications for work that looks promising. No one ever gets back to you. As the weeks drag on, you find yourself applying to increasingly undesirable options, companies that offer meagre pay, scant benefits, or would require you to commute halfway across the state.
The problem is you have no skills. You graduated from college with a degree in business. That is not what your sister’s husband would refer to as a “skill degree.” He went to technical school for electrical engineering. Their house sits at the end of a long stretch of concrete as smooth and bulging as a freshly waxed Aston Martin.
At your old job you—what was it that you did again? You recall filing reports in great number, the mandate of a necktie, the taste of overly acidic coffee in the breakroom. You recall the walls of the offices did not reach the ceiling, and there were no doors to them either. They were not offices so much as a series of partitions, like the first layer of a house of cards before you put the roof on it. Sometimes people would poke their head out above the partition, meerkat-like, to talk to somebody on the other side of the office.
You remember cake on employee birthdays, great white lawns of cake, so much there was always some leftover at the end of the day. You received a cake on your birthday and brought the remains home but you were unable to finish them. The cake sat in the fridge for months. It had too much sugar in it to spoil so it got harder and denser until it looked tough enough to bash a man’s head in. Eventually you threw it in the trash.
For the past few days you have been thinking that since you are unemployed, it would take longer for anyone to notice your absence than before. If you disappeared, if a sinkhole swallowed you or you crashed your car into a tar pit. Miss a few days of work and they would call if only to fire you. Now it would take the landlord to notice your missing rent, potentially a whole month after your evaporation. Maybe someone would text and get concerned when you didn’t reply but probably they would think you were just blowing them off. Your sister or mother might call and go through the same sequence. Truth is you’re not always good about returning messages.
If you owned your own home it would take all the way until the taxes were due at the end of the year but your family would probably drive over to check on you first.
You think maybe you should join a basketball league or something while you have all this free time, if only to get some exercise or meet new people, but lately you find yourself less interested in leaving the house.
As you fill out another application for data entry work your fingers feel slick on the keyboard. You examine. The ridges are unmistakably receding, your fingertips nearly baby-skin smooth.
Once, in your garden, a strange plant rose up from the grass. You did not plant it, but it grew until it reached around a foot or so. Then it grew no more. Its petals did not open. After a time it withered and slowly fell back into the earth. The stem broke and there was the bud, just sitting on the ground. Then one day it was gone. Perhaps the fingerprints are like this.
At times you wonder if the job postings are even real, or if they are part of some elaborate plot, though you don’t know for what. It would be nice to have an interview, though. It would get you out of the house.
Hours later you put on another video to fall asleep. The woman wears cherry red lipstick and her eyelashes are shag carpet. As your eyelids get heavy you hear her talking about the average response times of police officers in different parts of the country. Within minutes you are out.
For the past few days you have heard a group of boys playing in the yard outside your window. When you wake up you are greeted with silence. Perhaps they have gone back to school. When does that happen?
Your desire to remain inside the house leads you to drastic measures in the kitchen. You eat everything in the fridge, then the freezer, meat coated with cotton balls of freezer burn. By week’s end you are scraping the floor of the cupboard to get enough flour to make little cakes which you top with the all the ketchup you have left. You steal a trick from your mother and make an okay pudding by boiling down expired a quart of expired milk. Not a good pudding, but an okay one.
When you check your email there is a response from a real-life employer inquiring about your availability for a job interview. You are off the couch in an instant, into the bathroom. After removing your pajama bottoms you step into the warm embrace of the shower head. The soap pushes layers of grime off of you, enough to turn the water in the bottom of the tub brown. A razor touches your face for the first time in weeks. You even apply aftershave, like an aristocrat. As you knead the lotion into your face you feel your fingertips welling back to normal.
When you return to the living room another email is waiting for you. The recruiter has made a mistake and actually wants to interview another candidate. He has nothing for you at this time, but apologizes for the inconvenience. You collapse onto the sofa.
Hours later a message illuminates your phone. It is your ex-girlfriend reaching out to you through a void of time and space that could be limitless. You do not know when you last heard from her. In the message she asks about your job search and says she just wants to know if you are okay.
You cannot recall how the relationship ended. There was something about a lack of direction. She described you as a compass but the needle keeps spinning and spinning. After you broke up the lack of her presence in your bed kept you awake for hours until you started warming up a blanket in the dryer before bed to simulate it.
Across the room you see one of the movies that you used to watch together. The floor is covered in DVDs of your favorite movies. You had been watching them to cheer yourself up but you eventually ran out of titles. Everything has limitations.
You run for the liquor cabinet, but it is empty. In the bathroom you find a bottle of cough syrup and greedily gulp it down.
Last night you don’t know if you ever slept at all. For hours you dreamt of alarm systems and dye packs and security guards. Your stomach pumps a splatter of vomit into the toilet bowl as you try to hold the seat with the smooth ovals of your fingertips. The deepening of yesterday was an illusion.
You put on the same clothes you might wear to the grocery store—jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers. At the bottom of a trunk of stuff leftover from the last place you lived you find an old ski mask and slip it on. The last piece is your father’s gun, an inheritance which sits idly in a shoebox on the top shelf of your closet.
When you have slowly slid each bullet into its slot and spun the cylinder back into place you stand in front of the mirror. You know this is not what anyone expects of themselves.
You stop at the front door. A thin line of light creeps between the door and its frame. It seems impossibly bright. After a moment of hesitation you turn the handle and open the door to the outside world. You are engulfed in white.
Dennis is a microbiologist and Rochester native. He likes cats.