Outré

The following is a rough draft of a chapter from my novel-in-progess Outré:


The chase. Third day.


Herman wandered around the halls trying not to look or act like a drunken homeless person, but he couldn’t do much about how he looked, and he was in no position to fully wrangle the course of his conduct. If he believed in God he would have asked for help. And if God were up there he just would have laughed at him anyway.

The offices were nicer than he expected, with glass walls, photometric lighting, gunmetal helix stairways, and an aggressive Feng Shui aesthetic interrupted only by the odd art deco painting or sculpture.

The employees were all men, as far as Herman could tell. They wore glossy form-fitted suits, sharp at the joints, and everybody had moussed hair, usually slicked back, sometimes stylized for maximum volume. Nobody was bald. Nobody was old. In fact, most of them were quite young, with rosy, hairless cheeks. But perhaps they had on makeup. Their faces looked too fresh and unwrinkled to be real.

They worked dutifully at their desks. Orderly pillars of manuscripts surrounded them on the desktops and floors.

The office music was soft and tranquil and ethereal and utterly foreign. Herman hadn’t heard anything like it before.

His spleen throbbed.

And his bowels reeled. Wincing, he staggered into the nearest restroom.

For a moment he thought he might vomit. He stood in the empty bathroom frowning at his image in a thin skyline mirror. Water trickled down the illuminated bronze slate on the far wall. His bowels made strange, machinic noises as feelings of nausea rose into his esophagus and fell into his stomach. Eventually the nausea abated and he calmly turned and stepped into a stall.

He vomited. It felt good.

But he didn’t like what he saw in the toilet bowl. He hadn’t eaten solid food in a long time. The content perplexed him. It wasn’t possible. Even if he had in fact eaten solid food.

The content reminded him of something.

He inhaled. There was no smell.

The water shimmied.

The content appeared to be moving.

Like electrified algae.

Like the corpse of some rotting, belly-up fish brought back to life.

Terrified, Herman flushed the toilet and existed the stall. He needed another drink. More than one.

Somebody awaited him.

He resembled all of the others, although up close, he seemed more like a hologram than a physical being. Herman couldn’t see through him, not even remotely. But there was a wraithlike quality. He wanted to touch him to see if his fingers would disappear into his suit.

Slowly he lifted a hand . . .

“There’s gin in the water coolers,” said the figure. “Beefeater gin.” He nodded gravely.

“Seriously?” Herman folded his arms behind his back and in a pathetic, mostly unconscious effort to make himself appear worthy of the gin.

“Why would I lie?” replied the figure.

“I don’t know. People lie, sometimes.”

The figure paused. “That’s true. One might say we are involved in the business of lying. We being the human race. A society of liars—and nothing more.” Enlightened, he chuckled. “Of course there’s no gin in the water coolers. How could there be? That would be ridiculous. Everybody would be drunk.” He turned from Herman as if insulted and left the restroom.

Herman didn’t know what to think. If the man had been telling the truth—that is, if every aspect of human existence was premised upon the business of lying—then nothing he said could be true, including the fact that the water coolers did not contain gin. Which means they contained gin, not water. Of course, the man also admitted that they contained gin, meaning they didn’t. Thus if they both contained and didn’t contain gin, gin must not be a factor: according to the logic that certifies lying as a universal principal, the mere mention of gin would negate it from the equation. In other words, the water coolers must not contain gin. Herman had noted that the substance inside the water coolers was clear, but that didn’t mean they contained water. They could just as easily contain some other clear liquor. Vodka, perhaps. Ouzo. Rum. Tequila, Triple Sec. Sambuca. Even though Herman had been told that having gin in the water coolers would be “ridiculous,” that didn’t mean having other forms of intoxicating substances in the water coolers would also be “ridiculous.” Then again, the man had made a case against this idea by suggesting that “everybody” would be drunk, which presupposed that, if there were gin in the water coolers, or any form of intoxicating substance, “everybody” would overindulge and become inebriated to such an extent that, one could only assume, work would suffer, if not come to a halt altogether. Hence it didn’t matter what kind of intoxicating substance was in the water coolers: they were all equally “ridiculous” as ministers of inebriation. But this idea, being an overt lie, pointed to the man’s original false assertion: “There’s gin in the water coolers.” Which led Herman to the following conclusion: If we conclude that there is no gin in the water coolers, and if, via a canny dialectic, we conclude once again that there is no gin in the water coolers, or any other form of booze—then there must be booze in the water coolers, and the booze could only be one kind of booze: gin. Maybe not Beefeater gin, but gin without question. Multiply this logic by any number and the output, for Herman, remained the same.

He might have been in the restroom for an hour or a minute. When he left, he went to the nearest water cooler and poured himself a drink.

It was water. He spit it onto the floor.

Now he was really angry. But still, somehow, in control. Or what he perceived to be “in control.”

It wouldn’t last long. He needed to focus.

Twenty minutes and ten temper tantrums later, he had found the editor-in-chief.

He didn’t look like the others. Round, weathered, bald and disheveled, he looked like a real science fiction type, not some sleek, spit-shined purpose engine.

There were no bound manuscripts in the room. Only papers. Mounds and embankments and dunes and smears and bursts of papers on the desk and on the floor and even sticking out of the cabinets and ceiling tiles, like freezerfront closing in on an old, forgotten TV dinner.

On the back wall, the blue bottle of a water cooler protruded from an angry pile.

The editor-in-chief had cleared away a small space on the desktop where he slowly turned and turned a coffee cup on the grooved heel of its base, effecting a weirdly loud and sonorous noise, like an iron cable being dragged across concrete. Sometimes he paused to admire and sip whatever was in the cup.

Looming in the doorway like a nightmare, Herman croaked, “What’s in that?”

Startled, the editor-in-chief spilled his drink and fell sideways out of his chair. “Good lord!” he exclaimed.

Herman stepped into the office and closed the door behind him as the editor-in-chief clamored back into position. He moved forward and stood on the only open floorspace, careful not to touch any paper. Part of him worried that, if the paper, just one sheet, came into contact with his body, it would catch fire, and Tor would burn to the ground.

‘How dare you, sir,” said the editor-in-chief, gawking at Herman. “Who let you in here? How did you get in here?”

Herman didn’t know what to make of his tone. His rhetoric rung clear: Herman wasn’t welcome. But the way in which he articulated that rhetoric suggested that he might be joking, that in fact it was perfectly all right for Herman to be there, even making demands of him. It reminded him of how much he preferred the written word to lived experience. On the page, people didn’t sound like anything.

“What’s in that?” Herman reiterated, gesticulating at the cup.

The editor-in-chief looked askance at him, then at the cup. “What’s in this?” he huffed. “Whatever I want! That’s what’s in here!” Swiveling in his chair—and nearly falling out again, but catching himself—he poured himself another drink from the water cooler, swiveled back to the desk, took a sip, swallowed sharply, and put the cup down, fondling it, as if daring Herman to do something about what may or may not have been an act of antagonism.

“Let me have a sip of that.” Glued in place, Herman held out his hand.

The editor-in-chief pounded the desk, hurting the blade of his palm. He cried out. “What the devil is this? Leave my office this instant! Be gone, I say!”

Now the tone matched the rhetoric. But Herman couldn’t tell if the editor-in-chief was drunk or not. He had a right to be mad, after all. He didn’t know Herman and he probably wasn’t in the habit of accommodating uninvited strangers in his office. But maybe he was just an angry drunk.

Herman eyeballed select agglomerations of paper.

He eyeballed the water cooler, the editor-in-chief, the water cooler, the editor-in-chief . . .

He made a decision in favor of expediency.

Moby-Dick,” he said.

“What?” replied the editor-in-chief, flabbergasted.

“What’s going on with Moby-Dick? Tell me.”

Moby-Dick? What the devil are you talking about, man?”

“My manuscript. My science fiction novel. Moby-Dick. This title doesn’t ring a bell?”

The editor-in-chief made a sour, hateful face.

“I submitted it last month. I submitted it the month before that. And the month before that. I submitted it last year too. Several times. In fact I have submitted my manuscript hundreds of times to Tor. I have yet to receive a response. I have not yet even received a form-letter rejection. Hence my hopes remain high and, to some degree, mighty.”

The editor-in-chief belched behind closed lips. “Moby-Dick? What is it, a porno? We do not publish erotica.”

“Erotica?”

“Are you an author, sir? Do you have an agent, sir? We don’t accept unsolicited submissions. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave immediately.”

Herman fell into a stupor. Anything could have caused it at this point. No point trying to localize the source.

He said, “Do you know Nathaniel Hawthorne?”

“Who?”

“Nathaniel Hawthorne. Author of Androids Do In Fact Dream of Electric Sheep.”

“Oh. Him.”

Herman snapped. He was both proud and ashamed of himself. He should have snapped long ago, but he wished he could have kept it together for just a few more minutes. With no real m.o. or plan of attack, he lunged at the editor-in-chief, who ducked to one side and spilled out of the chair. A chase ensued. It didn’t leave the office. Herman pursued him over and around and under the desk until he got tired and the editor-in-chief escaped out the door and Herman lay buried beneath the pigswill.

It didn't catch fire.