by Joseph McBride
It was Zag's antebellum period, but of course, you never know that it's an antebellum until it's postbellum. He woke up with disdain for getting out of bed. It sickened him. And it literally sickened him when he brushed his teeth, and he washed some disdain down the drain with his spit and toothpaste. He didn't know why he felt this way...until he heard the weather report...an eighty percent chance of rain.
Rain. Rain meant he had to create. His own bragging turned it from something noticeable, to a pattern, to how he defined himself to others, and all the way to how he defined himself in his own brain. He had a two week period in August of last year in which he couldn't paint at all. But as the clouds squeezed out moisture to the ground, so had he squeezed out ideas on to his canvas. It took until the third rain painting until he began to notice the phenomenon. Now over fifteen paintings later, the connection is hardwired like boxing and sweat. Rain turned from his inspiration to his demanding boss.
He was earning a name for himself in the community finally as a painter, even if it was the "rain painter". But even so, it wasn't enough to fully make a living, especially since he could only paint depending on atmospheric conditions. He found a job as a copywriter at an advertising company. Actually, he was a final spelling and grammar checker, like a final layer of software before press time. But he liked it..especially when the slogans were interesting. He even contributed "You Stink Therefore I am", for a new deodorant campaign. It didn't make it, but it made him feel like a person, at least.
Zag felt like he should be home, painting, today. But, there aren't indoor jobs that have a schedule that factors in precipitation, and he was definitely an indoorsman. He did only have to make it until 2:00 today though, because his boss, Watkins, thought himself a patron of the arts, (though his tastes seemed to coincide identically with the last thing someone told him about painting) and felt good about letting him leave early to paint.
With one hour to go, he made a trip to the what seemed like a 200 watt interrogation room to make some copies. As Zag was running off copies of minutes from the morning meeting where the wording of how to tell clients to knock off the suggestions politely was determined., he was using the copy machine to hold himself up. He heard someone enter the room, and determined it was Jack Mith, via his peripheral vision. Jack fit the demographic his name suggested, mid-fifties with pronounced ear hair. Zag would have ignored him totally since he didn't know Jack that well, and really couldn't tell him apart from a couch in demeanor, except for the fact Jack called to him, "Hey Zag watch this." Zag turned quickly, because he was startled by the fact that Jack even knew his name, coupled with the fact that for some reason his attention meant something to him. As soon as it was clear that Zag was watching Jack, Jack took his two fingers, placed them in the paper cutter until the meat of his fingers butted up against the edge of the base. Without so much as a deep breath he chopped. He now had 18 digits attached, counting his toes.. He looked at Zag and silently mouthed "Wow!", as the blood gushed out of hands. Zag was in shock. He ran for some construction paper, as Jack decided to switch into normal behavior...i.e...he yelled in pain. Zag put down the construction paper and picked up a pair of scissors by the automatic stapler. He cut off one of his sleeves, and wrapped up the remainder of Jack's hand. He instructed Jack to apply pressure, and ran into the hall to get help. Jack's yells had also attracted attention, so Jack collided with the security guard who was just passing by. Thank God, Zag thought...he's trained in this kind of bullshit...I hereby hand off the ball to you, continued Zag's thoughts. "What can I do to help?" were the unmatched words, though. The security guard called in the situation on his walky talky. "Do they still call those walky talkies", thought Zag, inappropriately. "We have it under control", mechanically said the security guard as he made his way to a deep breathing Jack. Zag was relieved and zombied back to his desk to sit down and squint in confusion.
Zag now had to time to think about what he just saw, the entire sequence. Did he really hear, "Watch this Zag." Yes, yes he did hear that. How could he have possibly done that on purpose? And if he did, was he crazy? Did he have some twisted workman's comp plan? If that was the case, why did he make sure that Zag was watching. Zag just sat in his chair waiting for 2:00 to take his place. He started to head for the door, when the scene just bothered him too much. Someone must be told the whole story...to take part of the burden. It occurred to Zag that if he didn't tell anyone the whole story, and at a later time it became clear that he should, he would look like either a liar or a totally desensitized machine not to tell anyone earlier. He decided to tell Watkins, not for hierarchical workplace procedural reasons directly, but because taking advantage of those hierarchical structures would allow for him to leave the earliest.
"Watkins, Jack abolished his pointer and tall man on purpose.", Zag said once he sat at one of the chairs at the end of Watkins's desk.
"Why in the world do you think that Zag", asked Watkins..
"I don't think it, I know it. He told me to "Watch this", then he did it".
Watkins paused, breathed in deeply though his nose, and said, "I find that hard to believe. I'm sure it seemed to you that he was trying to alert you, but I can't help but feel you heard him wrong, or he meant something entirely different. Jack is a normal consistent, conscientious worker.. I'll make a note of what you said if you want, but I'm afraid it will only make you look bad. Your call, though."
"Report what I said. It's what happened," yelled Zag as he stormed out of the office.
When Zag got home to his loft he was starving for some reason. He headed to the kitchen, but passed his paints on the way. His palette and paints were glowing. His hunger immediately subsided and he lunged for his brushes. About four hours later he took his first break. He'd been attacking his canvases like Jackson Pollack incessantly, but with results that one would compare more to Matisse. He had created not his masterpiece, but his three masterpieces. Zag sat down to have a glass of wine and his first smoke, since yesterday.
"But, why did he tell me", thought Zag. "If he wanted time off, why didn't he make it look like an accident." Just then the phone rang. Zag picked it up.
"Hello", mumbled a drained Zag.
"I just wanted to thank you for helping me today...for staying so calm.", Jack said in a grateful tone. "I've been so accident prone, lately."
"It wasn't an accident. Why did you do that?", asked Zag.
"Did you ever go to a concert, drink a lot of beer, and work your way to the front? Eventually you have to take a leak, but near the end of the concert the band starts sounding better and better, and the songs get better and better. But you know if you make your way to the bathroom, you'll never be able to get back to where you were."
Zag said nothing.
"Well today, I decided to piss myself and keep listening to the music." said Jack in almost a trance.
"I don't know what that means. But you did cut yourself on purpose." yelled Zag without a hint of sympathy.
"What are you accusing me of? Do you think I'm nuts! Why are you making that up? Are you trying to blackmail me? I'm calling the cops!" as he slammed the phone down.
When Zag made it to his desk the next day, he found he couldn't log in to his computer. He listened to the voice mail on his phone. It was Watkins asking him to go to his office. Before Zag even had a chance to sit down in Watkins's office, Zag found out he was fired. He was told that the company couldn't afford the controversy right now. Watkins told Zag that Jack had told him of his accusations, and the company had to make a choice. Jack was out.
When Jack got home he slumped in front of his computer and sat in shock. He wasn't sure why, but he decided to do a search on Jack Mith. It was an uncommon name, so the first story that came up was about the right Jack Mith.. It was in the surviving members section of an obituary of his daughter, six months prior. He then looked her up, and read an article about her suicide. Zag felt a bit guilty for not issuing any sympathy to Jack. But he also knew he was a victim, too. He also knew that Jack wasn't through with him yet.
The next day Zag decided he should do some more talking with Jack. He decided a phone call would only lead to more craziness, so he determined that he needed to sit with Jack at his house. But on the way, Zag felt unsettled, somewhat afraid. He decided to stop at the Home Depot that was on the way, and try to find something for protection, in case things take a dangerous turn.
Zag decided a carpet knife could provide the proper protection and proper concealment ability. Since Zag was now jobless he decided to use his gift card in his wallet. Zag walked up to the young woman working near the carpeting tools and decided to make sure his card was good. He immediately was taken with her smile.
He asked coyly "Do you honor these gift cards here?", half just to start a conversation.
She said, "We certainly do."
Zag read her name tag and followed with, "Well how many of these carpet knives can I buy with it...Ava? I'm trying to get all new silverware.".
"Well actually none," said Ava. "I said we honor them, we don't take them." She looked at the card and said, "You are a wonderful card."
Zag was in love. All of the sudden he didn't feel like carrying out his mission to visit Jack, but he didn't want to let Ava down so he bought 5 knives.
Zag turned around when he left the Home Depot. It wasn't raining, but he felt he could paint anyway. And he was right. But he didn't use his brushes, he used the knives. He taped them together in different ways to create new textures he had never seen before. He had broken the rain sentence, and now could support himself as a full-time painter. Zag felt more hope than ever before. Hope was now his rain.
The next morning, Zag decided to sleep in a little, but didn't feel guilty because he knew he would paint until the next morning, once he got started. Just as he pulled the blankets up to his chin, he heard the phone ring. It was Ava.
"Well, first", she said, "I'm glad you're one of those people that give your phone number when they ask you when you check out. And secondly, I just wanted to tell you to be careful with those knives. I don't like sharp objects around people I love. And believe me I have good reason...just two days ago my father cut two fingers off with a paper cutter."