Running Off

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A young man, defiant of the world, is unhappy with his surrounding and takes a rather exaggerated attempt to break free. 

He paced up and down the aisles bearing a mien of disapproval and annoyance, a dash of irritation surging up in him because you couldn’t find anything in this shithole, this mall, with its one thousand shops and cafés and restaurants where everything was so boastingly vast and garish it stabbed your eyes and made you feel as if you were shipwrecked, floating helplessly in the ocean of decadence. It was the third time he drifted along the canned food shelves, endless rows and columns of ravioli and soup and pork splaying out before him like a whore’s legs, Take me and indulge in me, but only if you can afford it. Which you probably could at ninety-nine cents a can, and never mind the aluminium ore coming from Bosnia or South Africa, shipped to the far end of the USA where they manufactured the cans only to sent them all the way back to the factory after,after they met with Italian tomatoes or whatever else agricultural luxuries were needed in order to provide your fat lazy ass with all those exotic dainties you couldn’t do without anymore. His hands rotated can after can in a way so quickly he could have been a professional can turner, scouring them for their individual nutritional value and expiry date. He wound up with beef ravioli in tomato sauce, classic chicken noodle soup and tuna, a whole pallet each. And it wasn’t easy for him. Nothing was anymore. But he had to make compromises now, even though he felt weak and sanctimonious and most of all dependent with the cans in the cart, thinking that the production of each can used up fifty times the energy it gave back to you if you took everything into account. Like the fuckton of oil that was needed alone for the cultivating of the food for the cattle that ended up in the cans. Once you saw the big picture, once you acknowledged the monstrous elephant in the room that everyone else was so desperately trying to overlook, you couldn’t enjoy anything anymore. Or nothing man-made, anyway. He was thinking about transport then, because the cans were pretty damn cumbersome and would almost entirely use up his rucksack space, which he didn’t give a shit about because he’d need to come two or three more times anyway, when two unheeding teenage girls almost bumped into him because they were too occupied discussing lipsticks to see if there were other people shopping as well. There was a brief moment of mutual loathing when the girls looked first at his wild-bearded, acne-scarred face and then at the worn-out ragged things on his body which they wouldn’t consider wearing if you stripped them naked and abandoned them in the tundra, and then he was heading for the drinks apartment to fetch a six pack of bottled water, just in case. He wouldn’t dare become one of those arrogant, half-dead lethargics that were overtaxed and intimidated by the necessity of having to drive their polluters to the market once a week in order to replenish their supplies of bric-a-brac which they considered indispensable to keep their petty bourgeois wheels spinning and thus relied on the almighty Internet to furnish them; but, admittedly, he saw the appeal of it in moments like this. All you needed was an ignorant, opulent, sybaritic lifestyle mixed with a spark of social anxiety (or misanthropy, for that matter) and you were ready to consent to the employment of an army of slaves. The slaves, kept unconscious and bovine, would happily scurry the aisles for you, grab the rolls of TP, pack your hemorrhoid ointment and anti-wrinkling cream, box it all up and climb their trucks to haul the entirety of horseshit right in front of your two bathroom cage.

It was really incredible. He’d read that Amazon was now about to introduce their freshest idiocy to the world, Dash Buttons they called them, leading humankind onward on the road to extirpation. They were little plastic things with all the necessary equipment onboard to operate autonomously, able to communicate with the company even if you had no internet connection yourself. Tiny computers, that was what they were, whose sole purpose it was to mitigate the tribulations of having to schlepp your ass to the laptop and do three clicks to order a product. Each button was bound to a specific item, so you could stick one to your washing machine and if your terrified eyes saw the stock of washing soda running low, all you had to do was punch the button and zoom! there was a vassal knocking on your door to hand you a new box. Given that you washed your damn clothes by yourself instead of having your undies steamed, starched and ironed at a cleaning service ten miles away, that is. And the techies, the unworldly nerds and conceited careerists actually praised the idea, as if that was feasible, as if we were doing fine and could afford even more delocalization and just go on and haul everything to and fro anywhere with our big trucks and ships and airplanes gorging on oil, instead of asking ourselves how we are going to solve the very real and imminent problems of finite resources and unsustainability. He tsk-tsked noisily and shook his head, maybe even talking to himself a little because the topic was really thrilling him how, and if there were people gaping or staring at him as if he was a lunatic he didn’t give a shit. He had to get out of here, double time, before he would actually go insane, and so he made for the checkout line. The cashier — gum-chewing, techno-listening and buried under about six and a half tons of makeup — either couldn’t or didn’t want to hear him stating that he didn’t need nor want a receipt, so he snatched the damn thing, stowing it away in his pocket to use as a note later, and if you thought about just how many trees were felled each day so you could be provided with a printed proof of purchase for your seventy-five cents salami snack, you wanted to hang someone.

 

He was on the road then, treading heavily on his old fixed-gear bike, the heavy-duty army backpack brimmed with tin cans, the bottles strapped to it in an exacerbating semicircle and the whole thing tearing at him, but he held out. When he’d left his apartment some two hours before there were two of his nameless doddering neighbours chattering away in the hallway about the weather, a bilateral dross-talking contest over who was more beguiled by this particularly mild February, as if a snowless, spring-like, half-assed winter was a great thing to experience and not at all a portent. But now there was a refreshing drizzle coming down, the sun shrouded behind a leaden sky and the temperature lowering. He felt the invigoration of his body’s defenses.

 

When he was back home and shut the door close with a nonchalant kick of his heel he cast an eye on the only available clock in the apartment —an unbreakable old-fashioned travel alarm he’d inherited from his grandfather — and saw that there were only twenty minutes left till the guy that wanted to buy the TV cabinet would arrive. He see-sawed for a minute or two and then found the half-smoked joint of today’s morning in his hand in spite of himself. And why not, the guy would be gone in no time and he didn’t intend to discuss any sophisticated topic anyway, did he? Just take the cabinet and hand me my fifty dollars — or forty, if you’re a bargain hunter — and goodbye, have a nice life. But the roach was hardly squashed when the hash hit his brain like a blender pureeing fruit and the nervousness set in, the kind of unsteadiness he lately felt when he smoked a bad strain, or hash instead of weed, or when he wasn’t exactly relaxed and smoked out of habit rather than gusto. He perambulated across the room, biting his nails, trying to detangle the muddle of his thoughts and feeling not all like himself, but like a moderate junkie, a bum who was slowly losing control. He felt bad. The tang of tobacco in his throat tasted like retribution. And why didn’t — couldn’t — he quit even though he felt the cancer trying to get hold of his lungs and his mind conjured up images of himself dying way before his time just because he couldn’t desist from smoking? Because he was still weak. Simple as that. But he was making moves now, outfoxing himself because that was the only way to break free. You didn’t stand a chance if all you had were resolutions, not with all the crap pervading everything, cigarettes available at every corner, junk food leering at you 24/7; no, you were wading waist deep in shit and the only solution was to heave yourself out and run off. And that was what he was doing.

The harsh jarring ring of the doorbell cut him loose from his thoughts. He steeled himself for the worst, a talkative bodybuilder with the IQ of an overripe tomato or a middle-aged henpecked office worker who was looking for an opportunity to demonstrate his manliness, trying to persuade him that the cabinet was basically trash, beating him down from fifty bucks to ten. His fear was unfounded, though. There was an old man coming up the stairs in a sluggish languid climb and he didn’t exactly convey the expression of being apt to prattle about bullshit. In fact, he looked rather sullen as he scaled the summit of the final flight of stairs. He was all eyebrows, white in color and so long and rumpled and tousled it gave him an instantaneous mad professor look. His skin was drooping, old and dead, and he had deep dark caves for his eyes that were young and vibrant.

“Delavan’s the name,” the man said when he’d straightened up, sticking out the fragile twig of his ancient arm in salutation. “Pleased to meet you.”

He took the old man’s hand and shook it, introduced himself, “Hi. ‘I’m Mike,” and then he ushered him in briskly, past the vacancy of the hallway and by the reverberating emptiness of the kitchen where the defect combi microwave sat on the ground like the unwanted sorry residue of a home burglary.

“Moving?” Mr. Delavan enquired with a grating voice when he cast a glance around the living room that was also void of any furniture except the camping stool and table with the camping dishes on it and the TV cabinet in the middle of the room.

“Sort of,” he said, and then, after he glanced around himself, he added: “Yup. I guess you could say so.”

There was a filthy rectangular area where the sofa used to be before that girl yesterday came and purged him of it. She paid a hundred bucks for the old thing, the full prize, not even a half-assed attempt to bargain, and he dashed to the hardware store at once, bought tools and paraphernalia and brought them out to the spot directly after, and when he came home it was late and he didn’t give a fuck about the dirt on the floor. But now, for some reason, with the old man around he was embarrassed for it. He maneuvered himself between the old chap’s line of sight and the gap the sofa left behind as the man circumnavigated the TV cabin like a biologist contemplating a carcass. He felt nervous all of a sudden, and ridiculous, bewildered by the uneasiness the geriatric’s presence evoked in him. He lay the blame on the dope; it was trying to convince him that he was a slacker, a slob. He shook it off and focused.

Mr. Delavan stopped his orbit around the cabinet and looked up at Mike. His eyes assessed him intently, never moving away from his face.

“When I was young,” he commenced out of the blue, “I moved damn often. I was one peripatetic soul, I tell you. Whencesoever I came and no matter to what place, it was always only a matter of time until I found myself either bored or outraged by my surroundings. By my bosses, that is. It seemed to me that there was not one single man in the world running a company without being an asshole. Sometimes, when the bosses didn’t immediately prove to be assholes, I made friends. Then I abandoned them when I moved on.” The man knelt down swiftly despite his age. His knees and other indeterminate joints and bones cracked and crunched dreadfully. He tried the cabinet’s big lower drawer a few times and went on. “Somewhere along the line, I realized I’d become older. I still found jobs and my bosses were still assholes, but I stopped making friends. I was getting tired, you know? Tired and, I suppose, lonely. Another couple of years passed by and then I was not older but the utter, downright oldfuck I am to this day. Ultimately, I stopped moving.”

There was a pause as Mr. Delavan got slowly up, his brittle bones moaning all over again. His legs trembled ever so faintly. “The thing is, looking back I can’t help but feel like if I missed something. As if somewhere on the road there was a stop sign which I failed to notice.”

“You can’t walk up and down your cage and call it a flight,” Mike said after a while. “You have to actually walk out.”

The old man shot a look at him. “When I was a child,” he said, “the fence in our back yard appeared to me as a colossal wall. I hated that yard because I felt so confined in it. Much later, when I hadn’t been to the place in years, I saw that it wasn’t even three feet tall and so fragile you could just stomp it down and march over.”

He was fumbling for a counterblast then, but the old man forestalled him.

“That cabinet. It’s fine. What do you say it costs?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“I’ll give you forty-five and you help me carry it down and load it into my car because, as I said before, I’m an oldfuck and you’re young and want to move anyway so you can use some training.”

“Whatever,” Mike said.

 

He disassembled the cabinet and carried down the pieces, one by one, while the old man fetched the box of screws and tucked the smallest drawer under his arm. He was doing all the work, dashing up and down the stairs three times till he got everything but whatever, as long as the crap was gone after. Mr. Delavan produced a fifty dollar note from his wallet when he’d climbed into the car and rejected the fiver he wanted to hand him back, and then the car was rumbling off, already at the farther end of the road and the last of his burdens gone with it. He had expected to feel free and exalted when he imagined the moment in the days and weeks before. But now, as the car turned the corner, there was no unordinary happiness, no jolt of exuberance or even a whiff of excitement. All he felt was a little dizzy, and not just because of the remnant of dope that still loitered in his head but also because he could use something to eat for a change.

He fixed himself a tuna sandwich, sacrificing one of the precious cans because everything else was already gone and then he entered the bedroom where he had built a circle of cobblestone. Where he had placed the past weeks’ threats, duns and summons along with the odd advertisement. Originally, he had planned to perform some kind of ritual, something memorizable he could live off later. But now that the time had come he didn’t feel like sentimentalizing. It suddenly came to him that this would have been just another way of paying undue heed to their bullshit. So instead of playing the last remaining record — Ten by Pearl Jam — and lighting up another spliff, instead of arranging all the crap in a way so it would burn long and visibly, the ID on top of it all, he just ripped open a window and tossed his wallet on the heap of letters after he had fished out the final three hundred and something dollars, and then he sloshed on a nice long dash of lighter fluid and gave it hell. He didn’t even watch for more than a minute or so and before the embers smoldered out he was already engrossed in Thoreau.

He made two more visits to the mall that day to get some things he’d regrettably need in the beginning, more food beyond what was already stowed away at the spot, some candles and matches, a first aid kit. When he came back to the apartment for the third time that day the sun was already lowering and he was pretty shattered. But this was not the time to rest. So what he did was load the backpack another time, really giving some thought to it now that he wasn’t rushed by the franticness of the mall, so he was able to get a good deal of cans inside and still had room left for the recently acquired paraphernalia. He tied the water back as well and now the thing was pretty damn heavy, but this was still better than having to do three tours instead of two. Then he grabbed the flashlight and lurched down the staircase, leaped on the bike and headed off.

The sun had completely withdrawn in its quick, wintery way when he started and it grew colder by the minute. He pedaled. He felt alive. Soft puffs of breath emerged from his mouth and nose like the clouds of smoke coming from a struggling steam locomotive. It wasn’t long before he was out of town, not even half as far as the mall, the loom of the forest fringe already taking shape before him. He hid the bike behind a bush and braced himself for what came next, a two-hour foot trip that would more likely take two and a half hours in the gloom that was the world now, even though all he had to do was follow the riverbed for some ninety minutes to get more or less deep into the woods to the place where the rock towered on top of a pine-strewn slope. Once he got there things grew a little more grim, what with all the climbing and crawling, but the good thing was that although it was a rough path, it was also unmissable.

He had marched for roughly an hour when, after a good deal of preliminary simmering, a fit of rage exploded in him like a bomb. He fucking froze. His hands were dead lumps of ice and so unpliable he could have snapped off his fingers like dry twigs. His legs protested. He hated himself for his weakness. He hated himself for not having bought gloves. For failing to plan. For having to plan. But march on he did.

If he originally didn’t have the intention to stay overnight — another thing he had some sort of ritual envisioned for — he did when he arrived. Finally, there was the tiny clearing he had worked out over days and weeks with nothing but a handsaw, stopping every few minutes for the fear of passers-by that — naturally — never came. Beyond, the humble cabin. His masterpiece and who would have thought that a guy like him could actually build a house? Well, there it was, a proof that you could get shit done if only you wanted to. He unbuckled the rucksack half way to the shack and nearly collapsed during the final steps. He shivered tremendously while noxious currents of sweat poured down the square of his tormented back. For he didn’t know how long there was no chance of moving, he just lay on the glacial ground, his head propped up on the backpack, breathing and repulsing the pain. His calves pulsated. At some point he got up and something snapped in his back, eliciting a muffled cry from him. He fumbled open the cabin hook and heaved himself in, dragging the luggage. All he cared for was warmth, a little relief from the crippling cold, and there was the makeshift stove he had fashioned from some waste and sheet metal following an internet tutorial. Beside the stove was the piled up firewood, finally a reward for all the planning and thank goodness he’d been smart enough to pre-fill the thing with crumpled-up paper and tinder. He lit a match, the pungent smell of sulfur adding up to the moldy, rich aroma of the place and soon there was a fire going and its soothing crackle was the last thing he heard before he fell into a deep, unswerving sleep on the foldable mattress in the corner of the room, wrapped up in two woolen blankets.

 

He woke to some indefinite sound of nature and immediately began to shiver. A delicate film of frost clung to the logs that were the wall. Bringing a bottle of water to his desiccated throat, he forced himself up and rekindled the stove as fast as he could. There were no windows — he hadn’t yet figured out how to bring the glass, let alone how to install them — but he had left a gap in the cabin’s ceiling to allow for the smoke to escape, through which the light sloshed in like a gush of liquid gold. He glanced around, groggy still and numb with sleep. There was the desk he’d built from the surplus of timber, shaky and ugly but the work of his own hands, standing beneath the makeshift shelves accommodating his books. He turned his head to what he liked to call the kitchen corner, nothing more than another fireplace, a charcoal grill made from piled up stones and an old gridiron, but what else did you need? He had even managed to build a narrow countertop beside the fireplace, room for the four bottles of whiskey he brought. Above, hooks for the ladles and knives. In the far corner, the pantry, with provisions for four months, at least, and next to it the small cubby where he kept his seeds and tools and the small box with the reliquiae of his life: a handful of photos, a harmonica, some childhood bric-a-brac.

All this was the work of the past year. And so what if people would call it ridicolous? So what if they would have called him a deluded dreamer if he had told anyone about it? This was the first real work of his life, the first thing that mattered in a world where you got deluged with a neverending flood of artificial tasks people kept inventing on the desperate run for more growth, more money, more shit to buy and distract yourself from the fact that we were utterly and completely doomed.

He warmed a can of soup and ate and after that he stepped out into the brisk morning, the woods suffused with light, a fine mist of dew rising from the rich soil. He had felt rushed the evening before, the idea of getting done propelled him. But now the haste was gone and the only urgency was to cast an eye on the patch of ground beyond the cabin where he would plant the seeds in just a few weeks when the last killing frost was over. Soon he would dine on self-grown potatoes and hand baked bread made from rye flour. He had prepared a separate vegetable garden where he wanted to grow tomatoes and cucumbers and whatever else would be willing to grow, and if he had to walk down to the creek twenty times a day to get all the water he’d need, then he was going to do exactly that and with a big independent grin on his lips. In the first place, he had intended to get over and done with the last remaining tour before noon — or what he considered being noon, he didn’t check the watch. No watch checking anymore, anytime — but as the day unfurled itself he found himself sometimes sitting at the desk, reading, sometimes stowing away the stuff he’d brought the night before or rearranging the tools in the kitchen. The sun had crawled past its summit and was on the way to ensconce itself beneath the horizon once more when he again thought of doing the trip, but his rumbling stomach intervened. By the time he had eaten, the light was already failing. He had no intentions of walking through the cold that day, not after the previous nights’ horrors, not with his back still aching. Too compelling were the hearth’s amenities and the prospect of a glass of whiskey along with the comfort of the blankets and the bliss of his books.

 

It rained that night. There was a delicate drizzle pushing its way through the imperfect compound of logs, dripping lightly on his head, waking him to find his blankets and mattress soaked. In the drowsiness of the night, it occurred to him that he had certain improvements to do, that he was far from being done. It was a calming thought, though, and when he got up to move his sleeping-place in front of the stove which he lit up again, he felt a kind of peacefulness that permeated everything. Soon he was asleep again, warmed by the fire, lulled by the stillness of the world around him.

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