A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Lucas is a friend of mine who lives here in New Haven. He used to teach astronomy at Southern Connecticut State University; now he is retired, and spends his afternoons at the Café Oblique, playing chess and backgammon and dispensing truth to anyone with ears to hear it. Lucas belongs to a group that explores caves: having forsaken the sky, he now goes as deep as he can into the earth. For months after I met him, in the spring of 2006, he nagged me to accompany his grotto (that’s what they call themselves) on one of their trips. I refused. I had had one experience underground when I was in college, following my friend Momus into the tunnels under Bleak’s campus, and that terrified me. I had no desire to go into a natural cave with passages so narrow I wouldn’t be able to stretch out my limbs.

“You get used to it,” Lucas said. “Think of how long you can sit still when you’re at your desk, writing. It’s just a matter of training your mind.”

“No, thank you.”

“It’s a nice group of folks,” Lucas said. “You might like them.”

“I’m pretty busy right now, to tell you the truth.”

Which was the truth. I’d been promoted to manager at Infinite Copy, and my duties had grown to include supervising a dozen or so document-service workers, who were managing their own complicated lives as precariously as I managed them. Members of my so-called team called in sick, or their kids were sick, or their mothers, or their cars wouldn’t start, or their banks had foreclosed on them, or their brothers-in-law were getting out of rehab, out of prison, out of a relationship, or they just didn’t show up, and came in for their next shift as if nothing had happened, but with red-brown spots on their blue uniform shirts.

It was another lesson in the difference between things as seen from outside and things as they are within. Even Infinite Copy, which provides no extraordinary service to the world, and doesn’t even do a good job of providing an ordinary service—Tyco underbids us and turns jobs around faster—even our marginal competence is built on a tottering tower of worry. Most businesses must be like that. And yet somehow people manage not to know it. Customers come up to the counter blithely, pushing their sunglasses up their smooth foreheads, and shove masses of paper at us, things that could only charitably be called documents, crumpled letters, sheets of loose-leaf paper ripped from spiral-bound notebooks, which jam our document feeders with their white nubs; cocktail napkins with cryptic plans deeply embossed in ball-point pen, they give us these things without betraying even a flicker of worry that our children, our parents, our creditors and brothers-in-law and roommates might somehow fuck things up, not just for us, but for them. And then at the other end of the spectrum there are the people who come in with what they mistake for precious documents, form letters, mostly, from a hospital or a branch of the government, jacketed in translucent plastic, which they entrust to us, as if Infinite Copy were a chapel dedicated to the cult of the Sacred Document, as we ran some kind of document hospital which could heal failing letters, as if we had sworn an oath, first do no harm, as if we weren’t what we are, unstable, unreliable, underpaid, unprofessional, kept on task less by the threat of being fired than by our own fear that if we can’t do this then we are truly good for nothing in this world.

Being promoted to manager was, in this environment, purely a punishment. The job has no perks, unless you count the opportunity to sit at the desk in the tiny, un-air-conditioned office, checking time logs and filling out order forms. The hours are worse than not being manager and the pay only marginally better. No one respects me; the only person who is even friendly to me is Mike, the other manager, who I can’t stand. He wears polo shirts and military-style aviator sunglasses and smells like brewer’s yeast.

Back in 2006, when I wasn’t covering a shift at Infinite Copy, or passed out on my futon, I pursued the goal which made my job bearable: I was writing. I had given up on the science-fiction novel (also called Luminous Airplanes, for maximum reader confusion) which I began in San Francisco; now I was working on a historical novel about my great-great-uncle Othniel. I’d spent months reading about New Mexico, the history of anthropology in the Southwest, the Anasazi, the railroad, the Harvey Houses, everything I thought might help and many things that wouldn’t. Fueled by this research, my imagination raced like a locomotive across the plains, heading for the ending, the opposite coast, where, I thought, I would finally rest. Then it stopped. I started Summerland in the late fall of 2006, and by February, 2007 my imagination was still on the plains, but it was a snowbound locomotive, a locomotive coupled to a train of freezing passengers who huddle in their stiff blankets and survey the blank landscape hungrily for something to shoot. My job was definitely part of the problem: by this point I was having regular nightmares in which I was simply at Infinite Copy, as if my unconscious mind couldn’t think of anything worse than reality to punish me with.

If my history had been different I would have thought about leaving New Haven, a city where jobs were scarce and, aside from Lucas, I had no friends. But for the last six years my life had been nothing but a flight from one place to another, from one wild hope or half-formed plan to another. I’d left San Francisco for New York (I wrote about this in my Thebes story) and New York for San Francisco; I’d gone to Canada and come back (I’m coming to this, reluctantly). To borrow a metaphor from my job, I felt like a document that has been copied too many times: I was blurry and gray. I was afraid that, if I changed my life again, I would become completely illegible.

The only thing left for me to do was to stay where I was, so that was what I did. It was awful. I went to work like an automaton and came home like a zombie: lifeless in both cases, but by nightfall I was animated by unsatisfied hunger and hatred of the human race. I was too unhappy to drink. This was oblivion already; there was no place left for me to escape to, no reserve I could still tap. I had reached an end state, a kind of heat death of the soul.

At the beginning of June, Lucas found me sitting outside the Café Oblique, listening to the wind rustle some leaves overhead.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Thinking,” I lied.

“My grotto is going to upstate New York this weekend, do you want to come?”

“Where in upstate New York?”

“A place called McFail’s Cave. It should be fun. There’s a lot of walking cave, and an underground lake.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll come.” I had no reason not to go any more. I had no reason to do anything at all.

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