Monday, February 1, 2010

O Lucky Man

The Ballad of Mr. Spalding

Gloria Rowe, the chief of public relations, asks me to smile and I feel sick to my stomach and my arm twitches like I’m about to have a seizure. I smile like I’m about to vomit on her and I think I just might, but they let me sit back down, thank god.

I’m supposed to be selling coffee and I hate coffee. You have to believe in it, they tell me. I believe in it, alright. I believe drinking coffee makes me feel like someone has taken a little stone and placed it right on top of my heart. I believe it makes me pee too much and I believe it tastes like someone burned down a wheat field and then watered down some of the scorched dirt and put it in front of me in a dirty little mug with a picture of a cat in a cowboy hat saying, Gonna rope me some doggies. Now smile.

Goddamn. It’s not enough to be good at your job. You have to believe in it, love it with all your heart or else they know and they damn you for it. Like that Mick Travis. He smiles and glad-hands and fucks Mrs. Rowe (they try to be sly but we know all about it, public relations, ha-ha) and gets a plum sales territory and everyone applauds the smiling, glad-handing, fucking bastard.

I get fired of course, and I can’t do a damn thing—no benefits, no severance pay—because I signed a paper when I started that said they could do whatever they wanted to me and I had to accept it.

Things look bad for a while, but one of my friends gets me a job with this Professor Millar, doing some sort of life saving, world changing work at this hospital. Now, I’m no doctor, but I can wear a white coat like nobody’s business. Give me the part, chief. I’ll do my best. Now smile.

It’s alright at first, except that they do terrible things there, like putting the heads of men onto the bodies of sheep—bad, stringy wool, all you’ll get there, I tell them but they don’t listen because I’m not supposed to talk that much. And when Travis shows up, smiling all the while, I feel a bit of satisfaction at watching that cheery jerk wheeled off to be cut up like a little greasy sausage. But I feel a bit guilty too—how are we saving the world exactly, with these stupid dead-end experiments, mass graves in the backyard, no officer, I don’t recall seeing that hitchhiker, I don’t know who says I picked him up, never saw him in my life.

No, I’m glad when Travis escapes, and I sneak out in the confusion too. I’d love to tell the police or the newspapers, but there’s a piece of paper in the hospital with my name on it that won’t let me do a damn thing without sinking myself too. It says I accept full culpability for the actions of the clinic and knowingly took part in everything that happened there. What can I say? I couldn’t get the job without putting my name to that form. I thought they were just collecting blood. It seemed like a harmless thing to sign.

So I spend the next few years looking for work, finding little or none, climbing my way to the bottom. I do my best to smile, but at this point I’ve seen too much to grin like that empty-headed ninny, Travis. Who knows where he is now? High up in some glass tower, no doubt, dining with millionaires and presidents, no doubt, while I’m down here scratching for pennies in the pavement like a starving chicken pecking in the dust.

It’s probably around five years later when I see him again, out on the east end, preaching some nonsense to the Salvation Army minister. He doesn’t even recognize me. People are good if you just give them a chance, he argues, so I take his wallet. Pity we aren’t all innocent like you, eh, Mick?

But I can’t shake the bastard. You can’t keep this kid down. I’m drinking with my friends by the barrels one night, warming ourselves with a bit of liquid fire, you know, and who should appear but Mick Travis, lugging a big old tub of soup for us poor, downtrodden souls. How kind, how generous—should we drop to our knees and kiss his dirty socks? Another phony soup-kitchen saint. We tell him what he can do with his filthy charity, while he tells us we’re all part of the brotherhood of man, some shit about dignity, how we’re the only truth and all that exists. Well, no shit. I could have told him I existed. He just never bothered to ask.

We rough him up and send him on his way with an east-end kiss (that’s dropping a barrel on the face, for you genteel country-estate types). Time to get back to the business of dying and being poor without all the bloody tourists around.

A few days later and I spot some guy carrying a sign like he’s warning us of the apocalypse, except instead of The End is Nigh this one says Movie Auditions. Judgment day either way, but at least a movie part would pay some.

When I hear what the movie’s going to be about, I start to get excited. At last, I think, here’s my chance—this movie they’re making, there’s bound to be a part in it for me. For one thing, I’ve got a very photogenic face, according to my mother. I look like I should be in the background of every picture, she says, my mom, and I can tell you that’s a compliment by her standards.

So I go to the auditions and the place is packed to the gills, and we’re in some empty warehouse late at night like we’re smuggling drugs or something, except it’s a bit like a party and no one is worried that the cops are going to show up because we have a permit. I know I can get the part. This story is Mick Travis’ life, and I know Mick Travis’ life better than he does. I’ve watched this movie my whole life and I can recite the lines from memory before they're even written. But Travis shows up (bastard), and he sits in front of me and looks back at me, stares me right in the eye, and I feel his wallet in my pocket start to glow like it’s radioactive, but the bastard still doesn’t recognize me and turns away.

And then they call him up, and he’s got the part already, I know it. He argues when they tell him to smile, why smile, what for, just do it, they tell him, but why, he whines. So the director smacks him on the head with the script (no mild tap, either—this thing’s three hours long) and then the idiot finally smiles. And obviously he gets the part because the best parts always go to the idiot who smiles.

But then the casting agent comes along with his clipboard. Says, have I got the part for you. Not big, just a few lines, but it’s your life, do you want it? He holds out a contract and hands me a pen.

I think of a cabinet somewhere with all those papers with my name on them, like a great catalogue of all my sins alphabetized for easy reference, all the lies I’ve ever told, because my name means nothing and I sign it all the same. It’s not easy being everyman; sometimes it’s hard enough being just a man. Of course I sign. Now smile.

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