Maximum Life 

Long before the van rolled up in Colonius that day, Warren Jorgenson was wasted. Now, in the dressing room of the Mesopotamia, he careened drunkenly as though buffeted by a tremendous wind. He had indulged his taste for Kipper's Ale — was it five bottles or six? — and the telltale wobble of his carriage a full six hours before show time was enough to worry his bandmates.

“Where the fuck is my bandana?!", Warren overheard the club manager scream loudly from the other room while he forlornly uncapped another bottle.

It had been a painful time for Warren — “the worst six months of my life since the last six months”, he liked to say. A song played over the PA, an old Irish song, something about a lovely wench and a jug of punch. He recognized it from a CD he had at home, and liked to play around the holidays. Songs of Drinking and Blackguarding. Often he would put this CD on at home and commence blackguarding, or at least what he thought might be blackguarding. He wasn't sure how to do it, but he knew he wanted to. Hearing that song now, in this setting, made him feel awful. Hadn't he once had a lovely wench? What did he have now? Not even a jug of punch. A fucking bottle of Kipper's. Christ.

He had loved a woman. He had loved her and not long ago that woman had been faithfully by his side. She was a bohemian, a painter, who lived down the alley from his and Richard's apartment. They had met in a bar on one of the very rare occasions when Warren had ever approached a stranger of any sort, let alone a girl. It was decidedly not in his nature, but this one evening something about her t-shirt, which was violet with white writing and read “Minnesota Paints and Papers”, beckoned and enticed. As if by some sorcery, his typical crippling shyness fell blissfully away, and with a quiet confidence, most uncommon in a man so abnormal, he had approached and asked her to explain the tee short and its cryptic meaning. She said it was a paint store in Minnesota. Warren agreed that this made perfect sense. Later they had walked together by the tennis courts and softball fields, and beneath a pale spring moon romance had blossomed. Her name was the same as Warren's mother: Emily.

On their first date, Warren and Emily had gone together to the coin laundromat, where she had assisted him in overcoming his long-standing phobia concerning the “triple loader”. Later, she had employed brilliant inductive logic and reasoning to scientifically disprove his theory about the extreme dangers posed by corduroy pants. Finally, they had gone to a bar just down the street from her apartment, located in a slightly sketchy neighborhood. There Warren was confronted by a roughneck who called him a vaguely foreign-sounding name and falsely accused him of stealing some quarters off the side of the pool table. They had departed hastily after this confrontation, at Warren's urging. Though his comportment under duress was somewhat less than manful, Emily had nevertheless found herself oddly compelled by the extremity of Warren's awkwardness. Dates with more standard-issue “desirable” men had of late left her cold.

On their second date, an attempt was made to exchange a scarf which had been given to Emily for her birthday by a great aunt at the Nordstrom's department store in midtown. As a romantic outing this was in many ways ill-conceived, bringing together as it did a sort of crazy quilt comprising many of Warren's phobias and general severe difficulties with urban dwelling: subways, crowds, stores, salespeople, commercial products, panhandlers and especially revolving doors. In the course of his lifetime Warren had never passed through a revolving door without incident. The unique challenge posed by their manic twirling and whirling struck at the very nerve center of his delicate constitution, and once inside he would often fall, become trapped between compartments by some stray strand of baggage or backpack, or simply lapse into a panicked state and turn around and around for a long, hot minute of fevered mortification. Approaching the dread glass carousal he was consumed with grim thoughts and impulses — perhaps most disturbing of all was the notion to gently nudge over the geriatric man walking directly in front of him and Emily, causing a blockage by the spinning portal's entryway, thus buying valuable time for Warren to slip unnoticed into the roiling throngs and away from his would-be paramour forever. Away from this Emily, she whose company he enjoyed, but who seemed to relish placing him in the most unmanageable situations. The dastardly impulse was quelled, however, and to his great surprise she took him by the hand and ushered him through the twisting Hell's gate and onto the premises without incident.

Once inside Warren felt possessed of a greater sense of self-assurance than was customarily the case during his rare visits to the great corporate killing floors of Manhattan. He looked fleetingly askance at the normal worrisome totems that tended to jangle and grate: the mannequins, panties and shoe horns. The security tags affixed to every swath of clothing, which reminded him of the tracking devices attached to the ears and legs of wild animals by purportedly well-meaning scientists, so that whenever he purchased anything at such an outlet he imagined that the device was never really removed and that he was always being studied and tracked. (In fact this was not so far from the truth: somewhere a great computer was making a voluminous record of all of his purchases, then sending him corresponding solicitations e-mail, the majority of which appeared to question his masculinity at the most barbaric level and caused him to wince with embarrassment.) There was, however, a certain Zen calm and purposefulness to Emily, which, Warren found, dulled the edge of his paranoid scrutiny. She laughed sympathetically at his observations, seemed to enjoy them, but did not appear nonplussed by the heaping helpings of “deep reality” which flowed compulsively from his lips in the midst of such stressful excursions. Instead she moved easily, pleasingly in the crowd, navigating a path to the Returns department, appraising the cashmere scarf at a one hundred dollar value and exchanging it (rather fancifully Warren thought) for two mysterious face creams alleged to open or close pores or enlarge them (this last thing made him think of Gulliver's Travels, of the Brobdingnagians) or something helpful and at least not dangerous.

The third date between Warren and Emily was not really a date at all, but a trip to the doctor. Aged 31, Warren had not been to see a physician of any kind for just over eleven years. In the interim he had suffered through and ignored many dangerous maladies including but not limited to dizziness, rapid changes in body temperature, unexplained pain in a phantom “third arm” and a steady hacking cough — the result of his heavy consumption of tobacco. That he held in disdain his own physical condition was beyond dispute. In fact he behaved as if enraged by his physiology, driven to acts of private, personal sedition against his own well-being by the mere notion of possessing a body. In physicians he put little stock, often citing the fate of Prince Andrew from War And Peace as evidence that they mainly did more harm than good. During a famous, impromptu speech given on a Brooklyn roof top one 4th of July, following the fireworks and nine martinis, he had laid out his full philosophy on the issue:

“No man has ever been healed by a doctor!” he stated, waving a large bag of corn chips threateningly in the direction of the several alarmed attendees, “and no medicine will ever replace a balanced diet of well chosen snacks in the pursuit of a Maximum Life!”

The speech had been an important one for Warren, linking as it did for the first time two of the major tenants that comprised what he liked to call his “mature philosophy”. As inventor (patent pending) of the “Constellation Of Snacks” he had taken the time to write several letters to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control recommending that it be adopted as the natural, ingenious successor to the scientifically outdated “Food Pyramid”. Aggravatingly none of these correspondences, the last of which he had even taken the time to decorate with a galaxy of bright stick-on stars, had so much as generated a form letter response. This failure he attributed to bureaucratic red tape, alarming in an instance of such pressing public interest.

Still more fundamental to Warren Jorgenson's worldview was his concept of Maximum Life. This was best described (in his pamphlet by the same name) as: “Doing what you want to do. Because you have to do it. All the time!” Warren liked to brag that at one point he had achieved a streak of doing not one single thing he didn't feel like doing for an uninterrupted span of fourteen months. This was no exaggeration, but it was also plain to see that the rigors of Maximum Life had begun to take their toll. Blessed by good genes and a curious dignity sometimes evident in the tramps and indigents of a chantey town, Warren had somehow remained strangely handsome while plowing through his own personal Kilimanjaro of cigarettes, Kippers Ale, Dr. Bold soda and levels one through nineteen of the vaunted snack chart. But not without consequences (and no one had ever claimed that Maximum Life came without them). He could rarely finish a sentence without a loud series of painful coughs emitting from his hostage lungs, and the five-floor walk up to Emily's apartment was enough to leave him wheezing and faint. There was, it could no longer be argued, hidden behind an unkempt bushel of hair, a lump growing on his neck. It had started out small, barely noticeable, but now it was the size of a crab apple. Upon inspecting it Emily had become tremendously afraid. Meeting him by the junk shop where he liked to rummage for old records and broken guitars, she had promised to take him for crab cakes and instead brought him to her general practitioner.

“This deception is outrageous!” he had protested in the waiting room. “Emily, you have taken too great advantage of my guileless good nature. You knew I could not resist those cakes. By all rights I should immediately leave here immediately and take several of these magazines with me as compensation for the unprecedented hijacking of my afternoon.” Warren was forever collecting stacks of used and outdated periodicals.

She persuaded him to stay and submit to the examination. The general practitioner recoiled at the site of the lump on Warren's neck, feared the worst, and required every last modicum of restraint he had learned during his two-year residency in a San Jose burn ward not to shout aloud: “What the fuck is that thing?” However, Emily, Warren, and the doctor were all three happily startled to learn that the growth posed no particular health risk at all. It required draining of fluid but no invasive surgery. The draining was scheduled for the following week, and though Warren had absolutely zero intention of keeping this appointment he could not help but feel somewhat touched by Emily's concern for him.

No, he had never especially wanted a girlfriend, since they almost always could be counted on to get in the way of a Maximum Life. But Warren found himself falling rapidly into a fevered state pitched somewhere between adoration and total dependence. He found herself staying at Emily's with greater and greater frequency, even finding it a welcome alternative to the squalid hovel he and Richard called home. After only a couple weeks the asthma-like symptoms he had developed and cultivated seemed largely to dissipate. Soon Warren saw that, rather than his music and his (shorthand) Max/L being inhibited, the opposite could be true: his pleasure was enhanced. He would play Emily his songs on guitar and she would listen with rapt attention, stopping to praise him liberally for the use of certain turns of phrase or metaphors she liked in particular. One song, “The Ransacked Train”, she admired so much she asked Warren to write the words out on paper so she could carry them around everywhere. Yes, things were going well all right, and by the middle of that summer it seemed the winning streak would continue unabated. For Warren Jorgenson the pieces had finally fallen in place.

But something was looming unavoidably.

For a period of months Warren had been avoiding going with Emily to her studio to see her paintings. He had invented many ridiculous excuses, most involving a phantom ankle injury, but the truth was that even he himself was uncertain of the reasons for extreme hesitancy. Somehow he just sensed trouble. Nevertheless, Emily had persisted in pleading that he render an opinion on her work, and given the doting interest she had paid to his writing, the policy of flat refusals seemed ever less tenable. Finally, on a Tuesday in August, he had gone with her to the loft where she made her paintings.

The paintings were, without question, the worst artwork of any kind that Warren had ever seen. Entering the windowless studio and inhaling the turpentine and acrylic fumes, he felt certain he would faint as he cast his gaze about the four walls, each covered with a large rendering more hideous than the last. It was the sort of creativity which inspired deep neuroses about the state of life on Earth, knotty questions about how anything could possibly be so blistering to the eye. A sense-numbing mélange of perverted color patterns and tiny tormented-looking figures lay on each canvas, assaulting every crevice of Warren's taste and constitution. Each work seemed in competition with the others in order to see which could be more utterly displeasing to the soul. There were no losers in this contest, though, and instantly Warren knew the relationship was over. He simply could not keep company with any person responsible for these monstrosities, no matter his feelings, and complaining of a sudden shooting pain in his solar plexus he fled quickly out the door promising a full appraisal of the work shortly. It was the last time they ever spoke: Emily was badly hurt and Warren victim to an acute guilt and longing ever since.

Back in the dressing room, Warren’s hour of bitter remorse and self-remonstration was interdicted suddenly by the presence of an elaborate mural drawn on a far wall. Swooning and distracted in his mood spiral, he had somehow previously failed to take note of it — but now the day-glo monstrosity startled him and captivated his attention. “Holy shit!” Warren exclaimed aloud, “THAT is not good to the eye…” Welling with malice and intrigue, he wobbled in for a closer look. The mural was intricately hand-drawn and gave every appearance of having required tens, if not hundreds of hours of labor. It depicted three evil-looking birds of prey, probably falcons, circling a dewy-eyed kitten with self-evidently devious intent. In the background an orange and apocalyptic-looking sky threatened windstorms and torrents. A molten death’s head of diminishing sun was obscured by cumulous clouds which spilled across the top of the mural spelling out the word “MESOPOTAMIA” in a particularly lurid shade of grey. Warren frowned, appalled at the violence and tackiness of the image. “What would possess someone…?!“ he muttered, and scanned the wall for the artist’s name. Truth be told, Warren wanted a word with him, or perhaps her as the case may be. Depressed or not, such abhorrent deviance was always a matter of special interest to him, germane to his unique stature as a potential leader of men. He was still attempting to locate the name when the shrill call came announcing that it was time for sound-check. Grabbing his guitar case, Warren took one long, last meditative look at the mural and, feeling queasy, resolved to get to the bottom of it before the evening was through.

Timothy Bracy is caught between the doctor and the magistrate.

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