A Decent Fellow

What Value Waste


He did not know where the question had come from, but he couldn’t lose it.

He had heard it—that’s all, that’s what it felt like, like just one day it was there, loud, in his ears, broken off from another life, from the Doppler-bits of conversation of passing cars, from right out-the brain, man, of somebody else or out-their mind but not mine, he kept saying to himself for years, not mine; it fell out the sky, he thought in the beginning, free-floating words that somehow got strung together and lodged, deep up in his head—one day driving home, and it rung a little but was fine, hung back, it was cool, but then slowly it burrowed in, dug itself in, he didn’t know, got in his head, until for a while there was a time he couldn’t tell was it even a question. That was the hardest. When he couldn’t tell it was a question, he couldn’t tell it from himself—like it had taken him or he had taken it—and so there was nothing to point to outside of him, nothing to refer to, to ask after, no way to move outside of this new cardinal map, no way to navigate with these heavy coordinates of his somewhere body.

Later, he found out that if he stopped looking for its source he could get out from under it, could ask it, could use it. That first day, he was sitting right here in this truck up on this overpass, watching late-day sun hit off the tops of cars. They made their way on the ramp’s tightening circles so slow he remembers thinking: mountain, fern; of fronds. Something about the light made all the cars look like one thing, like part of one thing, like if you just rest your eyes you could see the form under the glare. That’s why he keeps coming back, gets stuck right here when he’s lucky, because now the question’s as much ritual, as much practice.

That first day he stared so long he woke up the next morning with blind spots in the shape of a compass rose, had vertigo for weeks. The spots moved as he moved, eclipsed faces—of clients, of his kid, his wife; the spot erased his neighbor and his fish-colored pants who stands at the fence as he waters the lawn with his fish-colored shirts, who rolls up his sleeves talking about heat and waves, and seed—and eclipsed his screen at work; they burned through his closed eyes.

But before this erasure, there was presence. As he stared out at that widening glare, suddenly, a penny on the shoulder caught the light, and just as he reached for the handle to jump out and grab what would be number three-hundred and ninety-four—not bad for a new guy, the group of change-savers had told him—that is when the question appeared. Not quite language yet it was still able to hold it all: cars’ makes, interchange grades, the traffic’s deep logic. There was a sizing and reckoning, and he saw the reach of what all laid out before him. Seized by the binds and the boundlessness of his soul, of how much bigger he was than his body and how there is nothing beyond body, the first language came: save, lose, lose-lost, save again. He was struck by how the center does hold, how little falls apart anymore, and again: losing, lost, saved, saving, saving.

There was, above all, a claim made on him in this moment. It terrified him, seduced him, in no small way embarrassed him, the entirety of the claim. After the moment passed, he sat in his truck very conscious now of all the drivers in their cars around him, and very conscious too of where he should put his hands and also of his face and can they see I am now only blood and bones, but also whale, also algorithm, and ruin. And then, because this was all so new, he flushed with the seconds-old memory, covered his face with his hands and slid down in the worn bench seat saying against his will: passé, passé, passé. He heard the voices on the radios around him and repeated the words as the cars began to move: cray-cray, cray-cray, cray-cray and then he uncovered his face and sat bolt upright, turned the key in the ignition.

That was the first day.

After he made out it out, though—made out the question and set his course—his conversion changes only in degree, not in kind. In the beginning, he came to this spot and just took the day’s bills from his wallet and one by one tore them into dozens of soft green tabs of paper that he held in his palm until the wind picked them up and out of the cab, out in to diffuse flocks that lifted and dove down below the guardrails of the overpass out of sight, or, sometimes, if the tides were low they stopped just outside the window and all at once took flight to the back corner of the truck’s bed, chasing tails in short-lived cyclones before falling out of any pattern he could still see. In those early days he didn’t have much and so the bills were fives and tens and twenties—anything they didn’t need to get by on, anything that could be penance for all that time lost before, anything that gave him time to sit up here and look out at it all take shape, keep shape, be shape. But one day a woman on the off-ramp below got out of her car, and hoovering along the shoulder of one of the exit ramps below, she hop-stretched her leg out with her foot tapping her forward. She looked like the coyote after running off the cliff testing the air for solid ground, and then all at once she planted the faithful foot hard on the freeway, trapping something below her shoe. Bending down to pick it up, she kneeled in study for a second and then with the industry and zeal he had only seen in other savers, she pulled off her shoes at the heel and bee-lined straight to the base of the traffic barrels placed just inside the ramp’s bow curve. Once her pockets were full she looked up and scanned the sky with narrowing eyes that know of harrow and of harvests. He watched her search for an origin in the air, then in the eyes of the traffic overhead and so he vowed to be more careful from now on.

But his time here each day, looking—learning to see—had made him sharper, made the world more clear, had made him better at his job. Since all this started, he quickly shot up: from reading the script at the call-in help desk to IT for the team to coding and then architecting and a few years ago he stopped writing things down all together and was just paid now for thinking. There’s not been a title for his job for so long, and it keeps moving in the same direction: away from machine, from matter. The further he gets from these, the harder it is to name his work, but he has learned that naming things makes them particular, and that is no longer the domain he works in. He is after the unnamable now, and for that they pay him more than he can rip up. He gets paid so much now that it takes him all month to destroy the tender. His wife thinks he is still day-laboring at the help desk. She thinks the cash he brings home is under the table and never suspects a thing as long as every now and then he comes home empty handed, cheated by somebody up the chain, and they rail together and wring their hands. The rest he withdraws at the teller and ever since the woman on the freeway interchange almost found him out, he brings it up here to burn now.

There have been periods of doubt, of wilderness, of wandering on his knees through the lanes of parked cars here asking forgiveness and looking for signs in plate numbers, in fragments of talk radio. These are the days the vertigo has returned, when he forgets the soft animal of his own body, when he tries to be good and believes in sin and symbol and debt. When he tries to wrestle demons of gold standards and exchange, of mints and credits, his knees bloody and flesh dragging across pavement as the cars talk together about storms and recoveries, about power like weather, about jobs, always they talk together about jobs, about the bank of Indochine. Crawling across lanes he closes his eyes until he can shut out the noise, until he knows again what the faithful have known all along: if it is just symbol, then to hell with it.

Today, he has this faith and he does not need to tell apart the blood from the wine, the time from the money. The air is just air today, the sky is wholly sky. He feels only his breath and knows this is the deep singularity of his soul, and knows, too, it is not his. He holds these two thoughts together in his mind, stands in the bed of the truck, thronged now by drivers with no car, and lights the match.

“It is so beautiful,” one man cries, and throws more fuel on the fire.