Since nearly a week has drifted past without you hearing from me, I thought it timely to write once again. I keep you constantly on my mind as I go through my daily life, swimming like a carp through this ocean of time, hoping find sunshine near the top as I search for issues to discuss and for stories to tell. But whenever I write letters to you, we both realize that other people can read them as well. Not only am I making my confessions to you, but I’m actually confessing to the whole world. I sometimes contemplate the ethics of what I’m actually doing in here, describing in graphic detail actual situations and real people without their knowledge or consent. It would be better if I could write essays, but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. I’ve even tried to write fiction, but my writing abilities are so limited that I just cannot express myself in that fashion.
As I continue to share with you the facts of my inner and outer life, a phantom endowed with artificial intelligence has been scanning my correspondence, trying to find ways to predict and control my behavior, by offering what I might think would be a reward. I received an email the other day, from the corporation which owns this platform, embedded with a video. When I played it, a cartoon filled my screen, telling me about a single mother who started blogging about having a job cleaning the houses of wealthy patrons, living on food stamps and Medicaid, who saved up her money and bought herself a premium plan. When she did this, her blog generating a plethora of readers, she recieved a book deal, quit her day job, and lived happily ever after. I doubt if this story is true, but I know for certain that I’m a voluntarily party to my own surveillance. They’re learning more about me than I am about them. I probably agreed to something I didn’t take the time to read, and now they are lurking in the shadows, part of a secret society, and these spectral entities — these agents of corporate authoritarianism — believe that I will always write to you about the exact same things, my mind being stuck in the very same places, with no chance to change or evolve.
As you can probably tell, I have been carrying around with me a sense of uneasiness and apprehension. I’ve been having serious problems with insomnia. When I awoke the other night, it was midnight and I felt restless. After I sat at the kitchen table for a couple of hours, reading the poem “Evangeline,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I found myself unable to concentrate anymore. I entered my bedroom, turned on the lamp upon my nightstand, and, switching on my tablet, traveling within the search engine of YouTube looking for music, I pulled up The Greatful Dead. I queued up a five-hour video of nothing but their instrumental improvisations. I lied upon the bed listening to it for an extended period of time while a vivacious electric bass line, carrying on an underpinning as well as a rhythmic function, acting as a sympathetic expressway with the driving accentuations of an electric guitar, had its the lead instrument perform a halo of ringed and angular figures. I looked into the screen of my tablet, viewing an image of their iconic human skull with its jawbone missing, the top of its cranium removed, and its inside cavity bisected by a lightning bolt, the colors red and purple filling the enclosure on each side of it. Other pictures were appearing, illustrative of galvanizing roses, with the Dead’s trademark multicolored walking bears, sequencing upon a dark circular band like the fleeting pictures of a kinetoscope, as they were looking in my direction, smiling, with joyful faces.
This was reminding me of the crafts project Laura was currently working on. She had been staying awake a lot more lately, painting a ceramic reef with figures of trees, bushes, and forest animals moulded into it. I was impressed with Laura’s artistic ability, including her use of different sized paint brushes to create shading and perspective. She was planning to give the finished product to her dentist, as a gift for repeatedly fixing her partial which she was constantly breaking. She had also set a goal for herself, and I felt a sense of pride in her for painstakingly working toward it. Her love of painting, along with my desire to educate myself and to write, is part of a work ethic we both aspire to.
As these thoughts of endeavor and determination were crystallizing in my mind, the sun was rising and it wasn’t long before Laura called to wish me good morning. After Pee Wee finished helping her around the house, Laura offered to take me out to breakfast. We went to Bojangle’s. I sat at one of the booths as Laura was getting our food. When she arrived at our enclosure, Laura told me that the young woman who was in the lobby wiping off the tables was a client she served at the food bank. We knew she wasn’t the only person employed there who couldn’t afford to feed herself.
Fast food restaurant chains are part of an obnoxious industry, serving up obesity to the masses and throwing copious amounts of food in the garbage. The employees at Bojangle’s were all black women, who found themselves growing older and feeling trapped, all of them relying on public assistance and not having the resources to leave town for a higher paying job. The only employee in there who could feed herself was the store manager, who frequently tells her underlings to clock out and to keep working, in a corporate effort to receive ten or fifteen minutes of labor for free. This practice is illegal, but the workers have no access to the legal system, and have to agree with it to keep their jobs. They have no money, most of the cash we spend in there go to the apex predators near the top of the food chain. When Bojangle’s came to Robersonville, they built a brand new building beside the local McDonald’s, erecting a tall illuminated sign so it could be easily seen by people passing through town and along the surrounding interstate highway. McDonald’s immediately hired its men to raise its own sign, with the golden arches emblem, in order to block the view of the Bojangle’s emblem.
One morning when I first moved here, I had the experience of walking into the local McDonald’s to get one of their Egg McMuffins and a small cup of orange juice. When I walked in there at dawn, I noticed that all the customers who were hanging out in there talking were retired, affluent, and white, while the workers serving us all were black. The whole food service crew was sullen and angry, slamming their cooking utensils, snapping at each other, and treating their customers with cold indifference. They had been encouraged to compete against each other — to get themselves a raise — but whenever they received one, their work schedules would be cut, and they never saw an increase in their paychecks. Their economic entrapment was filling them with hatred as I approached the register. After I payed the money, picked up my tray, and turned my back to walk away, I heard the uniformed servant mutter, “I want that cracker out of my face!” When I sat down at one of the tables and called Laura to tell her about this, she thought that this was all a part of my disorganized thinking processes — that what I heard was an auditory hallucination — and it was all in my mind. When I left the restaurant, I feared that the whole community of Robersonville might be like this, filled with racial conflict and antagonism. I received a load of junk mail with a set of McDonald’s coupons enticing me to go back in there, but I never did, and several years later McDonald’s left town, taking their golden arches emblem away, leaving behind a vacant building with a “No Trespassing” sign affixed to it. Bojangle’s had become its prime adversary, and eventually won the war.
As Laura and I were sitting in there, eating our meal, we discussed common everyday things in our daily lives. I told her that when I stopped drinking coffee, I turned to food, and I didn’t know what my psychiatrist would say when he put me on the scales again. I also conversed about my problems sleeping, and that I had planned to take my mountain bike to the bicycle shop in Greenville to get the back tire fixed. Even though I don’t own a car, I own two bicycles: one ordinary one for short rides around town, and a high-end mountain bike I bought with my settlement money for distance riding. But if I had known how difficult and expensive this bike would be to maintain, I would have thought twice about purchasing it. I had made an attempt to pump air into the back tire the other day, and I bent the metallic tip in the stem and the tire lost part of its air. Now I needed a new tube. So tomorrow I would make a day of it, riding my bike on underinflated tires the thirty mile trip up there, and I needed to come back home really tired. This should cure my insomnia.
When the day had ended, I had another bad night in bed trying to sleep. I turned the fan on to provide a little white noise to relax me, but it didn’t work. I kept dozing and waking. This went on for hours as the frustration was building, and I shifted my body this way and that, getting tangled up in the covers. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, as I was dozing off again, the budding flower of my unconscious mind was beginning to bloom, revealing a movie in which I was the star performer.
I was up and already dressed when the school bus arrived. I carried my textbooks in my satchel. I left my apartment to pass through the double-doors the bus driver was holding open for me. When I took my seat inside the bus, I was much older than the teenagers who were also riding in it, but for some reason no one noticed this, including myself. The adult driver, who was my age, was stopping at other residences to pick up more kids until the bus was full. When we arrived at the high school, the bell rang and I arrived at my English class just in time. Having trouble squeezing my fully grown body into one of the tiny desks at the back of one of the rows, I was the oldest person in the room — including the teacher — and there was this girl in my class, and over time we became infatuated with one another, passing secret notes back and forth in defiance of classroom subjugation. We met up in the hallway after the bell rang again. I walked her to her locker. When we arrived there, this was the first time I had gotten a good look at her. She was coquettish and pretty, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She was turning the knob back and forth on the combination lock so she could open the thin metal door. As she was putting her ringed composition books inside, I felt an inner tempest beginning to brew inside of me — I had the eerie feeling that something was wrong — and I began questioning my place in this scenario, with a sense of trepidation rising by degrees. I overcame my shyness, and I asked her directly, “How old are you?” She turned toward me, looking into my eyes with a smiling sense of youthful rapture. “I’m sixteen,” she replied. When I heard this, the fruit plucked from the tree of knowledge was immediately swallowed — the inner eye of realization was suddenly opened — and with a shudder, a shock, and a repulsion beyond belief, I was scorched by the flames of enlightenment, knowing that my life was taboo and perverse. I didn’t know what I was doing there, how I got to this point, or how to escape!
I awoke safe, startled — alone in the darkness of my bedroom — lying still in my own bed. I had never left home to begin with. None of this had really happened. I had been persecuted in my sleep once again by another nightmare. I knew that my bike trip today would take me through downtown Greenville, past the neighborhood where East Carolina University stood, and I would see the students walking along the sidewalks peering into their iPhones. I wasn’t truly concerned about my failure at attaining a formal education anymore — I had come to terms with my disability, I had come to terms with the long stretch of time I spent in the state mental hospital — but it was this degenerating infantilism which was percolating within my subconscious, generated by my traumatic experiences in both places, which was tormenting me at night.
And it was freezing cold when the sun came up. I covered my body with layers and layers of clothing. I went outside to the shed and removed my mountain bike, checking the back tire. It might have been low on air, but experience was telling me that the pressure inside it would hold, and that I wouldn’t have a flat. I got up on the bike and started riding, flexing my leg muscles, my lungs filling and expelling volumes of airborne nutrients, my heart rate rising upwards. I traveled past the outskirts of town, to pedal down a network of secondary roads which would lead me towards the city and avoid the traffic. I pedaled down a lonesome road, along wide open land covered in a lush green and brown, with tall pines stripped of their needles, groups of blackbirds migrating, chirping in unison, and past farm houses in varying states of repair.
I was paying more attention to my back tire than to my surroundings as I was rounding a curve. Then I approached a crossroads, where a house with a flagpole was not displaying the American flag. The colors which were blowing there in the breeze represented the rebellion of a burgeoning nation that lost a war for the rights of white men to own black men, along with black women and children, as chattel property. The people of color brought over here from Africa under bondage to work for free would have no rights at all. Their white slave drivers could beat them, kill them, and rape the women to produce even more offspring of servitude. The flag that was flying on that pole was crimson like blood, crisscrossed by a diagonal X the color of iron, embedded with stars representing the southern states in their brutal, slave-holding union. The conflict had been a vicious one, fought with cannons, rifles, and bayonets. Thousands of men lost their lives. Black men from the North fought side by side with white men, showing the variegated scars from the whips applied upon their backs by their owners whom they escaped from. The men of the South had been arrogant and filled with pride. Their’s was a fight for states’ rights, and against Northern aggression.
The family living at this residence are showing off their values as well as their flag. They don’t believe in being politically correct, but adhere to the well-worn maxim “to tell it like it is.” They feel that human beings should be the result of mass production, like the biscuits Laura and I ate at Bojangle’s. When they come out of the oven, they should all look the same, taste the same, have the exact same pattern upon its top layer, have the same sausage inside, having its bottom the same shape and texture. The store manager should not tolerate any biscuit that looks or tastes different. Any deviation from the prescribed norms are garbage, and belong in the trash. Since a person can look around and see for himself that God didn’t hold fast to these ideals, the people in this house now believe in a hierarchy of races — the white man throughout history has always been the ruler, (always been the givers, not the takers) — but whenever they find themselves alone in a crowd, the one caucasian in a mass of black people, it fills them with fear. They have faith in their violent stereotypes, but they try to console black persons by declaring their flags and statues as symbols of heritage, not hate; and they are scared to embrace a black family, or to invite them into their home for dinner. Now they wish to make America great again, feeling nostalgia for the social systems of the past, wishing to mold this country back into their own image once again.
As I traveled past this crossroads and left this residence in the distance, forgetting about the speaking points I frequently hear on talk radio, changing my inner dialog which was reciting the propaganda pieces I read on my iPhone, I was now halfway to Greenville, and soon I would have to be on the lookout for passing cars. When I finally entered the north side of the city, I traveled down its sidewalks, constantly on the lookout for pieces of sharp glass from broken bottles. I crossed the bridge across the Tar River, and made it downtown, cycling among the slowly moving cars and tall apartment buildings. There was a construction boom in this part of the city, with luxury condominiums rising up and a new overpass being built. Business was excellent, with the college students shuffling around wearing shorts in this cold weather, either walking to the library, going to class, or going out to eat.
I rode up an incline, past a huge parking lot, making it at last to the Bicycle Post on Arlington Boulevard. I squeezed myself and my bike through the front double-doors, which cannot be propped open, and I was greeted by the owner. I was glad she was the one I had to deal with because she was my own age, and she was the one I bought my bike from, and she still remembered me. “You rode your bike all the way up here today, didn’t you?” she asked, as I approached her, pushing the most expensive item she once had stocked in her inventory. I told her how I messed up the stem on the back tube as I was trying to inflate the tire. My front tire was also underinflated. I needed a new tube and both my tires put in shape so I could ride home before dark. The owner approached the mechanic in the back, a strappling young college man who kept his pedigree Alaskan Malamute close by his side on a leash, whose bulging muscles and tight clothes indicated that he worked out at the gym, was interested in mating rituals, and able to eat all the pizza he wanted and not have to worry about gaining weight. He said he could fix it by this afternoon. I left my phone number with the owner, and decided to skip lunch, even though there were plenty of eating establishments close by.
I decided to retrace my path, and wait for my bike at the public library downtown. As I walked among the tall buildings, the congested traffic, and the younger generation, I felt awkward and small. I had to get used to pushing a button on the telephone poles at every intersection, waiting for the signal in front of me to indicate that it was safe to cross the street. As the Sheppard Memorial Library came into view, I walked past an apartment building that wasn’t there a couple of years ago, with a girl almost young enough to be my granddaughter wearing wireless headphones as she was turning to enter her building. When I walked inside the library, musing along the stacks, I ran into my mother who was looking at a paperback with a cowboy printed on its cover. We surprised each other at this meeting. I asked her about what was going on at home and at church, and we conversed at length about our much different lives. I declined her invitation to lunch when my phone began to vibrate. My bike was ready for pick-up, and I needed to leave quickly so I could get out of the city before the rush hour began.
After I left the library, approaching one of the crosswalks at an intersection, I pressed the button on the nearby telephone pole, and a couple of college students approached the crosswalk on the opposite side and did the same thing. I could tell from their hair styles and their designer clothes, along with their self-confident and optimistic demeanor, that I was now viewing society’s conservative elite, the product of neoliberalism and social class. One of them was grinning profusely, even though he never looked directly at me, and I didn’t know why. We walked past one another as we traveled toward opposing sides of the crosswalk. I once had a roommate when I was their age, who used to pick on me all the time, whose father was a doctor and mine a chronically unemployed construction worker, propose to psychoanalyze me. “You have an inferiority complex, Thomas,” was his arrogant conclusion, but he had an overwhelming sense of inferiority all of his own. If the truth be known, I believe everyone has an inferiority complex to a certain extent. It forms in our psyche when we are born tiny and helpless. We have to depend entirely upon our mothers — for better or for worse — because we cannot feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, or even walk on our own. The elephantine adults all around us are so huge, our surroundings so large and intimidating — with giant furniture we could never climb onto on our own — and we cry out in frustration whenever we don’t have the ability to get what we need, as our caregivers always receive their gratification without even paying attention to it, or struggling with it at all.
With my spontaneous musings upon developmental psychology interrupted by a ringing iPhone, I was walking down the sidewalk, and it was Laura. We talked for twenty minutes until I approached the bike shop. After I ended the call and entered the building, the owner wasn’t there anymore, but a young woman was minding the front counter. She brought my bicycle to me and I checked both tires. “Wow! Nice bike,” she declared, “and you got dual suspension.” I thanked her, replying that it came in handy when I was riding through the city. After I left the shop, I would now have to leave this metropolis as quickly as I could to beat the afternoon rush and to get home safely. I made it through downtown again, across the Tar River bridge, rushing toward the north side of the city, past the Pitt County Office Park, past the factory, moving rapidly into the rural areas, past the house with the Confederate flag, out into deserted open spaces.
The wind had shifted and I was battling against it. My heart was racing, my lungs were pumping, my legs were flexing as the air was blowing directly into my face, down my nose, down my mouth. Then, suddenly, my heart flew out of control. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. My cardiac muscle had squeezed into the wrong pattern. It released and did it again. I was feeling another sharp sensation. My body was trying to tell me something. I was placing too much stress on my heart. I needed to slow down. I put my bike into a lower gear. I knew I was out of shape, and I needed to take care. I had pushed myself to my limit.
I could tell from the angle of the sun that I had plenty of time now to make it to Laura’s before it sunk below the horizon. When I arrived there, I sat in my favorite recliner in her bedroom, trying to cool down, waiting for my heart rate to slow itself. After about fifteen minutes, Laura brought me a glass of iced tea. I sipped on it slowly. Looking at my wrist and the crook of my elbow, I could see my arteries throbbing. I heated up a bowl of stewed tomatoes, but I just picked at my food, having lost my appetite. I was totally exhausted.
I knew, at long last, I would sleep well and not have any nightmares tonight.