Before this past week I had never flown before. My preferred method of describing the experience now is that it is like a roller coaster that turns into a bus ride after the first five minutes and then it keeps going for seven and a half hours. Unless, of course, there is a delay due to light snow and the bus ride lasts for eight hours. And then you arrive at Heathrow after midnight and your cab you reserved has left and so you have to spend an arm and a leg on a black cab to take you to your house. Well.
I have arrived safe and sound in foggy (or as it happens snowy) Londontowne. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for missing yet another Friday, as I was out in Kensington all day for completely useless orientations. That may sound petulant on my part but I mean it, they were pretty useless — my college is working in conjunction with an international education organization which provides its own dorms for students. However, each program is also tailored specifically to the wishes of each college, and my college in particular wanted us to stay with English host families rather than in dorms. It was made so.
Most of the orientations, then, turned out to be about how to live in the dorms, deal with neighbors, and so on. There was also a bit on our eventual internships, which start in about seven weeks, and how we will have to travel; we were warned quite solemnly that we could expect a daily commute of up to 45 minutes, which I suppose might be somewhat harrowing for all the students living in the dorms, but the entire group from my school has to take a commute of 45 minutes or more just to get to the damn classrooms, so it wasn’t exactly a productive evening for us.
Don’t misinterpret that as me not liking the host family situation. I’m actually enjoying myself so far — the family is very pleasant, and there are plenty of interesting shops nearby. Of everyone in our school’s group, my roommate and I actually have the shortest commute into Kensington for class (we’re the lucky 45-minute bastards) and while that’s pretty cool, it also means we have to work a little bit to meet up with the other people we know. Our first attempt at this was last night, when we all went out for drinks at a pub, and while the journey in was okay, on the journey back we ended up on the wrong bus line and rode in the completely wrong direction for a while before finally getting turned around and falling into bed at about 1:00 this morning.
Then we woke up at 8 today and, because it was Saturday and the tubes were running slowly due to weekend travel/closings we had to run about four blocks to catch a tour bus we were scheduled for.
The tour itself was neat enough; we briefly stopped by all the famous monuments, took some pictures, and nearly froze to death.
That strikes me as a good transition for talking about my strongest first impression of this city: the snow. There is not normally snow here, which is not a fact I was previously aware of, but which I have been informed ceaselessly since I arrived. An English friend of mine who I’ve known for a few years asked me: “Do you like how we all panic and flap our hands like girls when snow happens?”
Not only does this accurately describe the situation, I do in fact like it, in a weird way. I come from the Midwest, where we have horrific winters pretty regularly. I can remember missing more or less a month of school due to a sort of blizzard, and then a week (or a week and a half) one winter where the powerlines were so weighed down with ice they snapped. We regularly have subzero temperatures in Fahrenheit. So when I showed up with people completely freaking out about how this was the COLDEST WINTER IN 30 YEARS and it was ZERO DEGREES (in Celsius, these chumps!) I thought it was pretty hysterical.
During my first evening in, the snow came, and pretty much all hell broke loose. The tube was off schedule, buses were off schedule, people were having snowball fights in the street (and while walking past the hospital, I saw the paramedics were having a snowball fight in the ambulance dock). On the news that night some field reporter was completely freaking out over how much ice was on the pavement, then proceeded to stomp around on the few pitiful, brittle flakes of ice under her feet.
There is, of course, a downside to this. Since people here are so unused to snow, they’re actually very unprepared for it — meaning, basically, that people don’t know how to shovel their fucking sidewalks, or put salt or sand down. They simply don’t have the capacity for it, they don’t have the materials and the thought never occurs to them. This has ensured that, outside of central London where all the snow is spirited away municipally, the pavements have degenerated into horrible inch-thick sheets of ice and packed snow that are murderously slick.
Today, especially, has been a rather bad day to be out. It’s only about 30 F, which is of course a horrible shock to the Londoners, but the wind chill is ungodly; added to that, it was snowing last time I was out and for all I know it may still be going. What I am getting at, I guess, is that if the weather doesn’t clear up soon then I will be stuck in an unfamiliar city with a couple million people dealing with an unfamiliar weather situation and we will probably all die screaming before the month is out.
That seems to be enough for a first damage report, so I’ll cut myself off here. Classes start Monday; if I have time on Friday, I’ll write up my impressions of that, plus anything I’ve skipped over here. Also I don’t blog frequently enough to link every new thing I find to be awesome, and I know it’s already been all over the internet, but I cannot recommend Two Gentlemen of Lebowski enough.
So far I’ve given a brief overview of Dante’s Divine Comedy with a special emphasis on Inferno and how the Dante-Virgil-Beatrice relationship works. From this we were able to conclude that 1) American Psycho is a rewriting of Inferno, and 2) it is not just any rewriting of Inferno but one from the perspective of the damned, ie the narrator, successful 80s investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman. But this raises plenty of questions, like: why is Bateman damned? What did he (or does he) do wrong? More complicatedly, what do we get by retelling the Inferno from the view of someone who can never escape it when Dante’s story originally is, by nature, about the actual change Hell puts the traveler through, eventually allowing him to evade its punishments?
I’m going to answer these questions, or at least try to. To start, though, we have to step away from Dante and skip over a few hundred years and a couple city-states until we find ourselves in England with William Shakespeare. Why is Shakespeare important? Because, silly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and while Bret Easton Ellis has his own special rewriting of Inferno in American Psycho, it’s a very particular rewriting of the Bard’s Scottish Play.
So if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth here’s the rundown: Macbeth and his pal Banquo are thanes to the Scottish king Duncan. They bump into three witches, who make some prophecies about Macbeth being king and Banquo being the father of kings; Banquo shrugs it off but the prophecy upsets Macbeth, who we begin to suspect is pretty insecure about things. I think — I am probably wrong because I’ve never bothered to count and haven’t even read every play, but it strikes me this way — that old Mickey-B speaks in asides more often than any other Shakespeare character. He’s constantly bopping off to mutter to himself about the witches, their prophecy, whether they were good or evil, who suspects him, who doesn’t, and on and on and on. In modern cinema this would be conveyed by having a character almost constantly being heard in voice over, stressing over whether or not everyone around him thinks he’s cool or a dweeb.
As is so aptly illustrated by the kitties above, eventually Macbeth tells his wife about the prophecy, which turns out to be something of a mistake. She goads him into murdering Duncan by essentially telling him that a Real Man would totally kill the king if it meant he could have the throne. This convinces Macbeth pretty quickly, which only further proves how weirdly neurotic this guy is. But it gets worse, of course, because soon Macbeth goes from “sort of pitiable henpecked regicide” to “completely fucking bonkers (but also still really insecure and a murderer).” The bonkers part is hinted at early on, when Macbeth prepares to enter Duncan’s bedchambers and murder him, pausing to remark to the empty air, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee” (II.ii, my copy of the play ludicrously doesn’t have line numbers so screw you I’m not counting these things for my citations).
Now, it’s completely possible Macbeth has decided to be extra contemplative and poetic in this momentous time prior to coldblooded murder, but the other explanation is that Macbeth is hallucinating. During the murder itself, as he tells his wife, he also thinks he hears phantom voices decrying his misdeed, in response to which she tells him to sack up goddammit. But Macbeth’s mental state only declines further; due to an unfortunate confluence of events, he decides he must also have his old friend Banquo murdered — which happens, with more or less no complication. Things get hairy, though, when the ghost of Banquo appears during a banquet, sending Macbeth into a babbling tizzy and leaving Lady Macbeth scrambling to explain to her guests what’s wrong with her husband. You see, though there are stage directions for the ghost and Macbeth is very strongly responding to it, absolutely no one else can see it, meaning that it’s entirely possible that Macbeth is imagining the whole thing.
For me, this idea that a lot of the crazy stuff happening is all in Macbeth’s head is what makes the play so damn cool, and it’s a big part of how Macbeth ties in with American Psycho. My linking of Inferno to Psycho relied a lot on narrative arc and inter-character relationships; this isn’t true for Macbeth, because the links here are not about the little clues Ellis scattered around the novel. He quotes Dante directly, but unless I missed it, he never quotes Macbeth; if you comb through Psycho looking for an analogue for the witches or Lady Macbeth you’re not going to find them. The connections between the play and the novel are much more subtle, in that there is really only one big link: a character type.
To put it quickly and simply, Pat Bateman is Macbeth. It’s so cleverly updated, I think, that it’s pretty easy to miss: one of Macbeth’s defining early characteristics is his insecurity, so Bateman constantly obsesses over what he is wearing in comparison to what everyone else is wearing, which stereo system is the best or most expensive and can he get one, and in one scene practically has a panic attack when he sees that a colleague has a more stylish business card. And just as Macbeth is prone to seeing things, so is Bateman, who imagines that Satan is speaking to him through Bono at a U2 concert, an anthropomorphic Cheerio is being interviewed on his favorite sensationalist talk show, a park bench is stalking him, and, in a scene launched into the general pop culture by the film version, an ATM wants him to feed it a stray cat.
And even though I said that the main connection is the character type, there is actually a tiny little Macbeth/Banquo parallel for Patrick and another banker at his firm, a guy named Paul Owen. Bateman mostly resents Owen, with the implicit reason being that Owen is marginally more successful — he’s handling a very high-profile account but is being stingy on the details, something that annoys the other Wall Street guys but seems to drive Bateman up the wall. So, of course, Bateman kills him, stages it to look like Owen took off for London without any advance notice, and starts mutilating prostitutes in Owen’s vacant apartment.
A detective shows up for a chapter or so to investigate Owen’s disappearance, and for a moment it seems like Bateman will be caught. But, no, that doesn’t happen — because even though Bateman completely made up the story about Owen going to London, it holds water. Other people claim to have seen him there, to have had lunch with him. This is made entirely questionable because a recurring situation in the novel is Bateman and/or his friends trying to remember the name of someone they’ve seen in a club or, even more frequently, Bateman calling guys he meets by the wrong name only to find out later they are someone else, or Bateman himself being mistaken for another person. There’s a lot of stuff there about how disconnected these guys are from each other and from their own identities, but in more practical terms it means that someone in London from the New York circle could have easily mistaken someone else for Owen.
Except it gets trickier. A dozen or so chapters after Bateman defaces Owen’s apartment, he drops by again — only the entire place is clean, spotless, and a real estate agent is showing a young couple around. Bateman is shocked and tries to figure out what happened to all the viscera he left behind, asking the agent how long the apartment has been for rent and who lived there last, but she seems oddly guarded. Patrick notices the place smells especially clean, as if a lot of disinfectant or deodorizer has been used recently to get rid of a stench. There are then two possibilities for what’s happened: the agent is complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the murders in the apartment, which were never reported, or Bateman has imagined the whole thing, even the excess of deodorizer. The strange looks the agent gives him could either be hints that she knows that he knows she knows — or they could be because some random guy just barged in on her appointment and started asking questions. Is Owen alive or dead? It doesn’t matter, really, because either way, like the ghost of Banquo only Macbeth can see, Owen’s status is something that only Bateman has cause to doubt, and it threatens to overturn his entire life.
And this is where Ellis turns the volume way, way up on my favorite part of Macbeth: not only are the floating daggers and phantom voices and ghosts possible hallucinations, the murders themselves are also of questionable authenticity. We can’t trust a thing Bateman says, and as he comes to realize, he can’t trust himself. Both Macbeth and Bateman suffer from this same self-doubt — they’re both neurotic as hell, after all — and though Macbeth and everyone around him eventually knows and understands what he has done, for Patrick this never happens. No one ever catches him, no one ever even comes close to suspecting him, and to top it all off, maybe he’s actually never done anything to make himself suspect. Say what you want about Macbeth, he at least managed to kill a king, but for all we know Bateman is simply a delusional psychotic, a man who can only assert himself — murderously or otherwise — in daydreams and fantasies.
The end result for both characters, though, is pretty similar. When Macbeth sees where his choices have gotten him — his wife has committed suicide and he’s facing an insurgency of other thanes who think that king-and-Banquo-killing are not proper traits for a ruler to have — he has this famous, nihilistic little ditty:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v)
This is the point where Macbeth basically loses it. He decides that nothing means anything — not even his choices, whether he chooses to murder people or not, because no matter what you do life is going to be a bitch and then you are going to die. I’ll say it again: it’s nihilism, a complete and utter lack of faith in anything.
Here’s what Pat Bateman has to say on the subject:
…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so real and clear and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This is what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality is no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire — meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged… (p. 375)
Wow, okay, so a lot less pithy than Shakespeare, but it’s much the same sentiment. It’s still similar in tone and tenor to Macbeth’s little outburst. This is something a guy today — or a guy in 1980s Manhattan — would actually say, this is how he would articulate a revelation of nihilism. This is the modern description of despair.
And despair brings us back, believe it or not, to Dante.
Despair, by definition, is a state of losing hope or hopelessness. And remember those words over the gate to Hell, those words Bateman reads in graffiti in the very first line of Psycho: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. In Dante the inscription is meant to be read only by the damned themselves — they have nothing to hope for, obviously, because they’re already in a situation where there’s no recourse. Dante-the-Character is simply a special case, a living man traveling through Hell; he’s not meant to lose hope but regain it. And when you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to happen, especially when he sees the following things going down in Hell:
1) Dudes running around in circles for all eternity, being chased and stung by giant hellwasps, the stings on their back blistering and producing pus which runs to the floor on which they are running
2) Dudes encased in eternal flames
3) Dudes being bitten and transformed and burnt up by a never-ending series of snake bites from the pit of serpents in which they are rolling around for all eternity
4) Dudes turned into trees and torn apart eternally by bird women
5) Dudes submerged in lakes of fire or boiling shit, as the case may be
And that’s just some of the punishments — Hell is a big, violent place. And that’s another way Ellis rewrites Inferno: the violence of Hell’s punishments is turned into the graphic violence of Pat Bateman’s murders (or murderous fantasies, as the case may be). This was, as you probably know, the most controversial element of the novel, and yeah, it would probably make any reader laugh queasily when Patrick decides he is going to eat a woman he’s killed but, since he’s lived a privileged life and doesn’t know how to cook, he instead eats a bit of her raw and weeps at the absurdity of it. But come on, Dante is just as bad — I mean, rivers of boiling shit and running around on a mixture of your own blood and pus? Jeez.
But there’s a snag. In Inferno all of the punishments are justly deserved and justly dispensed according to God’s love and infinite wisdom (or that’s the way things are set up in the moral universe of the poem). In American Psycho many of the people Patrick kills are just as shallow and pettily cruel as he is, but Patrick is not an omniscient and loving God, he’s just some yuppie asshole, and some of his victims are actually innocents (even children).
This is crux of what Bateman is and what he has done: in his rant about the meaninglessness of existence, of how horrible society is, he almost sounds like he’s a guy who wanted to hope in the opposite direction but never quite grasped it. And true, earlier in the novel he gets a little offended when his friends make anti-Semitic remarks, but otherwise he takes just as much delight in teasing bums as they do. But maybe that’s because of Patrick’s neuroses — he doesn’t have to work, for instance, but he says he does because he wants to “fit in.” He wants to be what everyone else is, he wants to make sure he is in good standing, he is attracted to a society that he on some level knows is despicable. And since he knows it’s despicable, what does he do?
He murders people, or thinks about it. And he constantly talks about it in conversations, slipping Ted Bundy trivia into debates on fashion, he calls his lawyer and confesses his real-or-imagined murders, everything. Bateman, in fact, wants to be caught. He wants to shatter the smug, superficial complacency of everyone around him, and apparently the only way he can think to do it is by being a psychopathic killer. And it doesn’t work, nothing changes, nothing happens, he’s never caught, and he loses hope — what little he had. But is murder the best way to change the world?
My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world now. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this — and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed — and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing… (p.377)
No. And Bateman, deep down, perhaps never believed otherwise, as he tells us earlier: “it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.”
So the final despair is actually the endpoint of a much larger and more encompassing despair that Patrick’s been dealing with for a while. He began with the assumption that the world was stupid and depraved, and he tried to change it by being very obviously stupid and depraved himself. When it didn’t work he despaired in his despair.
In the seventh and eighth cantos of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the fifth circle of Hell, which is a rancid swamp surrounding the River Styx. This is where the wrathful and sullen are punished — the wrathful run through the swamp, rolling around in the muck, clawing and tearing and biting at one another. The sullen reside below the swamp itself, lying beneath the muck and visible only because their breathing causes bubbles to float to the surface, saying over and over again:
‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun;
Sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.
So what are the sullen guilty of? Of seeing the world, made for them and made beautiful by God, and saying, “Ugh, so what?” Their punishment is to stay forever in one place, drowned, because they felt it was useless to act or care about anything in life. They had no hope for anything — they despaired. And so it is interesting to note that Patrick Bateman, regardless of what he has done, belongs there in the fifth circle of Hell: he is in pain and wants others to feel it, so he is wrathful, but if he never manages to actually go through with his desires, if he only fantasizes but maintains his hopelessness, then he is one of the sullen.
We have the THIS IS NOT AN EXIT episode because Patrick’s done his best to avoid every saving grace afforded him: he let his Virgil sleep with his girlfriend, he killed and dismembered his Beatrice. He never believed he could do otherwise; Bateman’s despair is what damns him. Macbeth at least gets to die fighting but Patrick is condemned, like the damned in Dante’s Hell, to live on in his sullen (perhaps murderous) stasis.
That does it for this installment. I have to give props here to The Acquaintance Who Says Bret Ellis Is the Best Novelist for mentioning the probable Macbeth connection offhandedly once, since I obviously followed through on it for a lot of helpful stuff.
Next time: I’ll explain how there is, in fact, room for hope and redemption in the world of American Psycho, and how we see it play out. There will also, I think, be a short wrap-up where I explain why this book isn’t simply a great novel, but a great horror novel, and that should be it for this series. See you then.
During my senior year of high school I got a job working at a large department store that I will not name (but if you think for even half a second about ‘large American discount department stores’ you can probably guess what it was). I ended up working in the deli. You know how things go when you first get plopped down into a group of people who’ve known each other for a long time: it’s pretty uncomfortable because they have lots of in-jokes or catchphrases that you have no hope in hell of understanding. That’s what I thought the Army Man was, an in-joke.
You see, whenever there was some sort of accident — like, say, a woman working in bakery knocking over a stack of boxes, or one of my coworkers in deli dropping an entire eight-piece chicken on the floor — it was customary to jokingly grumble “The Army Man did it” and then restack the boxes or throw away the chicken. I never bothered asking for an explanation since the only thing that makes you feel like more of a loser than not getting an in-joke is asking what an in-joke is all about.
After a while, though, I began to understand a little of what the crack meant. Sometimes whenever anyone blamed something on the Army Man, they would put their arms out in front of them and do a sort of pantomime of an on-your-belly-under-barbed-wire boot camp crawl. I took this to mean that that there was an imaginary solider crawling around on the floor of the store, causing all sorts of elfish mishaps, and some past joke to this effect had spawned whatever meme my coworkers were perpetuating.
But I’d been working for a few months when I finally decided to ask what the Army Man was all about. I was in the break room when one of my coworkers, let’s call her Betty, happened to go on lunch. She was about my mom’s age and took a motherly interest in my current affairs, so she asked me about how my grades were and if I’d been accepted to any colleges, what my plans were, and all that crap. I humored her while she ate and then, about five minutes before my break ended, asked her about the Army Man.
Betty froze up completely, holding her lips really tight, and just shook her head. She refused to say anything about the subject, not even trying to be subtle about it, but Betty was always one for melodrama. I mean, Betty had made the joke along with everyone else; I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t talk about it now, unless she was being intentionally childish. I dropped the subject and went back to work.
A few days later I was in the break room again when Ruth, one of the women working in bakery, happened by. This time she brought up the subject with me, asking if I’d spoken to Betty about the Army Man. I figured it wouldn’t make any sense to say otherwise so I admitted I had, and that Betty refused to say anything about it.
Ruth just nodded said, “Well, you know how Betty is.” When I said that I didn’t Ruth held her hands in front of her and began to flap her lips in a silent imitation of prayer. Betty was an ardent Pentecostal, I knew, and instead of swearing had a habit of yelling out “Help me, Jesus!” whenever she got hot grease on her hand, but why this meant she didn’t talk about the Army Man, I had no clue.
So Ruth explained:
Sometime the year before one of the unloaders working third shift had been moving pallets into the large freezer where we kept all frozen goods; it was common practice to keep the freezer door open for most of the night while the unloaders took stuff from the truck and moved it in. This particular unloader had surprised his coworkers when they found him outside the freezer with the door slammed shut. When they tried to open it he begged them not to and, when they ignored him, he tried to fight them.
At first they thought it was a joke, but soon it became obvious that this guy was desperate for them not to open the freezer door. He refused to tell them exactly what had happened; from the way he talked it sounded like he’d seen an animal sneak into the freezer, though why this would freak him out they couldn’t guess. They got the managers on duty that night, explained the situation, and against the unloader’s protests, ventured into the freezer.
There was nothing in there but boxes, though a few of them had been pulled down from their shelves and smashed, ruining quite a bit of merchandise. The unloader was fired, since it was assumed he’d done something wrong and was trying to shift the blame onto someone else. But before he left for good he worked a few more days, Ruth told me, and it was during this time he mentioned to some coworkers exactly what he had seen: a shape like a man on his stomach, naked and pale, just disappearing between the plastic flaps that hung down over the freezer door.
Of course the unloader could have mistaken a reflection in those same plastic sheets for whatever it was he claimed to have seen, so he was generally laughed at even after he was fired. It became harder to joke when other people began to see and hear it, though.
It was just snatches of conversation you might pick up, Ruth told me. The women working the returns desk, for instance, would mention that they thought they heard someone moving on the other side of their counter, but since they couldn’t see anything it must have been something on the floor — though they didn’t bother looking, because of course it was nothing. Cashiers had similar stories of hearing something move through their checkout lane when there were no customers, something too low to the ground to be glimpsed over the edge of a counter. Coupled with the description the unloader had given, this was when people began to think of the thing as a person trying to be covert, pulling himself around on his stomach by use of his forearms. This was why they started calling it the Army Man.
Betty saw it — really saw it — in the deli. We had a hot case, a metal and plexiglass display where we put warm food such as chicken and what-have-you under heatlamps; the top half of the case was filled with pans of food, french fries and so forth, while the bottom half was filled with boxed eight pieces and rotisseries that the customers could grab. One night while closing, Betty bent down to clean the glass windows on this section of the hot case. She screamed her all-purpose curse — “Help me, Jesus!” — before promptly tumbling back on her ass and twisting her ankle.
At first the people working with her thought she’d just slipped, since the deli floor was covered in grease pretty much all the time. Betty was having trouble standing up again so they called in management, who quickly arranged a way to transport Betty to the hospital. While they waited, Betty explained to them what she saw: on the other side of the glass, out on the floor of the store, was a thing looking back at her. That was what she called it, Ruth told me, not a man but a thing. Betty was out of commission while her leg healed up — it wasn’t broken, but twisted badly.
A few weeks later, a guy working in electronics insisted he’d seen someone crawling around on the merchandise shelves at the back of the department. Thinking it was a customer’s kid, he ran over to straighten them out, just as a few plasma TVs were knocked over and shattered. When he told management his story they of course didn’t believe him; there was barely enough room on the shelves for the TVs themselves, let alone a person, child or not, to climb around. The employee was fired.
Four months or so before I started working, one of the mechanics in automotive refused to let a customer take their car back. The customer was naturally pissed and called the department manager, a man named Rick. As the mechanic later told anyone who would listen, he’d been working on the customer’s car when he had to take a leak. Upon returning he saw something like fingers poking out from the vehicle’s undercarriage, curled around the bumper. They withdrew before he could do anything about it.
He searched the car and found nothing, but when the customer came back he still had his doubts about letting the automobile leave the garage. He explained the situation privately to Rick, who volunteered to test drive the car first and explained it away to the customer as some new quality control policy.
Rick drove fifteen feet into the parking lot before one of the front wheels of the car let out a groan and fell off completely. Needless to say Rick was very much embarrassed and there was a tangle of the usual insurance issues, with the customer blaming the store for tampering with his car. Somehow this was all settled out of court.
Rick killed himself two months after the car incident, though no one could say why. He hadn’t seemed particularly depressed and he’d been working as hard as ever, but one night he went home and (from what Ruth heard) overdosed on sleeping pills. Ruth had her own ideas, of course, and she was only too eager to tell me: the Army Man had gotten into the car with the intention of leaving the store, but Rick foiled its plans and so, instead of following the customer home, had chosen to follow him home instead. This naturally raised more questions than it answered: what the hell was the Army Man, then, and how had it gotten to the store to begin with? Ruth just shook her head and said something like, “Don’t ask me. I just bake French bread.” And that was that.
I quit the deli a few months later to head off to college. In the intervening time I had begun to wonder why people continued to joke about the Army Man, if it ever existed in the first place and if it was half as serious as Ruth made it out to be. Was it just some way of relieving stress, trying to make it seem less important than it really was, or were they fucking with me? It occurred to me that if Ruth was right, if this Army Man could somehow pass between people and places, then there was a chance, however small, that it might come back to the store, or worse, that Rick had brought it back before he killed himself — and if either of those had happened, it could leave again with someone else.
Perhaps it was done out of fear, as a superstition. I’d been doing it too, I realized. It was just part of the atmosphere of the deli, part of working with people for an extended period of time: you adopt their references, their in-jokes.
I work in the campus library currently. Whenever I’m not paying attention while stacking books on a cart, a practice that inevitably leads to a bunch of them falling over, or when the network goes on the fritz and we can’t figure out why, I often find myself muttering, “The Army Man did it.”
I think a few of my coworkers have overheard me, because they’ve started to say it, too.
Heh heh heh, as the Crypt Keeper would say. Happy Halloween. This story was originally written for one of the Ghost Story threads on a forum I frequent, and which you may also frequent if you want to waste ten dollars. What you see here is a version with some redundancies removed, spelling checked, and various other tiny errors corrected.
It’s October first. In thirty days Esmeralda Sinn will be married.
Because things are a little weird around the Sinn Ranch currently, the update schedule won’t be quite as regular — there may be something I put up on the fifteenth, as is my wont, but at the moment I’m not sure. In any case, whatever goes up then will be a little non-traditional as far as Esme’s entries usually go, as the fiction will have progressed further in a different medium. If you happen to be reading this and you are one of like the 20 people who read the Esme series, I direct your attention to her personal assistant Alissa Montfrere’s twitter. Esme’s take on events is going to become a little less coherent as she enters a time of high emotion, and while Alissa is not precisely a stoic she’s going to give you a better idea of just what is happening.
So we had another orientation session today, filled out some roommate papers and so on. We also got the load of visa applications dumped on us, and let me tell you, that is terrifying. I have to get biometric readings, do a criminal record check on myself, and come up with a bit over two hundred dollars to pay fees. In three weeks. I also have to fill out an application for the particular program in London my college is working through, write a résumé, and write a mission statement.
This is all because, of course, a key portion of my program is a volunteer job placement, ideally one suited to my academic interests. There’s even a list of these academic interests in the application we have to fill out, and hilariously enough most of them do not coincide at all with my interests. Things like “human rights/conflict resolution” and “homelessness/housing” and “environment/sustainability” and “gay/lesbian issues” and I really don’t care. I know that as a student at an institution that values justice and progress and charity and many other fine things, I should feel more strongly about these and many other issues than I do. I sometimes feel a little guilty and say to myself, “Man, you should really do some volunteer thing about like immigration or fossil fuels or whatever it is the TV is telling you to care about today.” Nothing ever comes of it, though.
We’ll see how this job placement pans out, anyway. Providing I don’t fuck over my visa app.