A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 11

Loaded down with five new jobs, I went straight home to work. Iíd originally planned on going to the library to see about supplementing Mr. Beckettís book with something I could understand, but in light of the so-called professional developments, I decided that would have to wait. When I have work to do, I donít like to put it off. If I wait too long after picking up a job ó a day or two, say ó the details get jumbled in my brain. Something that should take twenty minutes to do ends up taking an hour, and then when I look at it later I still find ways to improve the finished product. I hate thinking Iím done and finding out Iím not. It drives me nuts. My goal is to spend as little time as possible without sacrificing quality. Quality is very important. I want to make absolutely sure that the people I do work for go broke on their own, not because of my lousy typesetting. There was also the matter of getting the work done on time ó a small courtesy I offer to anyone willing to give me money. On top of that it was already Wednesday, and I needed to keep the weekend clear for the trip with Mary.

Thus motivated, I organized my work in order of difficulty, beginning with the easiest, which in this case was the baby shower announcement. I like to warm up on something easy. Once Iíve built up a head of steam, the tougher jobs offer less resistance. After the announcement I planned to do the business card, which consisted of a name and title centered, a two-line address in the lower right-hand corner, and telephone and fax numbers in the lower left. A real piece of cake. The letterhead was next. This involved scanning in a simple logo, for which the customer paid the outrageous sum of six hundred and fifty dollars ó as they say, nice work if you can get it. Then on to Christineís job, which was a three-parter ó bizcard, letterhead, and envelope, in that order. Abeís forms were last, for several reasons. One, they were the toughest. Two, I fully expected the Essex Girls to call in changes before the job was done. Believe me, itís no fun hustling out a job only to find out you have to revamp the thing to accommodate new information. I knew by experience that the material Iíd been given was too haphazard to be complete. Three, working on the other jobs would give my subconscious time to figure out the best way to proceed, thus making the task a heck of a lot easier. There was an invoice, a customer order form, a purchase order form, and a shipping form. While there was no way I could make them look exactly alike, I wanted there to at least be a family resemblance. Muckety-mucks like that sort of thing. It gives them a sense of purpose and identity. Four, there was always the chance that I would die before I finished the other jobs and not have to face the forms at all. This gamble has yet to pay off, but you canít win if you donít lay your money down.

Before settling in, I opened the hideous vertical blinds on my front window to let in some light. The blinds were clacking from the breeze ó a major annoyance. I was just in time to see a seedy-looking character emerge from the laundry room, which is located directly across the parking lot. He was carrying an empty cardboard box and a soda pop can, and his holey T-shirt wasnít big enough to cover his hairy stomach. The shorts he was wearing revealed knees that looked like dented hubcaps. Just before he reached his apartment several doors down, he spat in a vacant parking space, then stared at the spot for nearly a minute.

As I didnít have a gun handy, I turned away from the window with a sharp pang of helpless disgust. Anyone who thinks humankind is the epitome of evolution would do well to rent an apartment in this complex. I know we have Beethoven, I know we have the pyramids, and I know we have spacecraft out snapping pictures of other planets. But we are also overrun with grotesque, spitting slobs who spend their days watching talk shows, and who believe the world was created for their own personal use. To overlook this fact requires optimism, lots of money, stupidity, the heart of a saint, or all of the above. Not only that, a lot of these people vote.

To regain my composure, I stopped off at the kitchen sink and forced down a glass of water. I wanted badly to keep myself on an even keel. If I didnít, I was just as likely to make a pot of coffee, put off working, and read myself into a cross-eyed dither ó not exactly the dignified, healthy, productive approach I was after. What bugs me is that Iím always that close to cracking up. Every day something happens that depresses me, or angers me, or makes me want to move underground.

It took me exactly seven minutes to do the baby shower announcement. All I had to do was type the information and make it fit on a small card inside a border of flowers and teddy bears. Very cute. When the job came out of the printer I proofed it a second time, and then made out a bill for my customary minimum charge of fifteen dollars. I charge forty dollars an hour, by the way ó a figure that is below industry standards, but enough considering I have no overhead, no interest, and no brains.

The business card, which was for an insurance adjuster with the interesting name of Dalby Brenton, took eighteen minutes. I could have done it faster, but on my own initiative I set up two cards with different typestyles so Mr. Brenton would have a choice. Both were basic, but one was just a little classier. I ran out both pages, each with four cards to the page, proofed them, and made out the bill. I charge a flat fee of twenty dollars for business cards that consist of type only.

Pleased with my progress, I forged ahead. Slipping on my imaginary pair of white gloves, I carefully opened the envelope that contained the overpriced logo meant for the letterhead up next. What a joke. Besides having no discernible connection with the business it was supposed to represent, the artwork was juvenile and predictable. In all truth, it looked like it had been done by a dropout from Joeís Logo School, just before Joe dumped design and opened Joeís School of Culinary Arts and Modeling. This job actually took forty-five minutes, because I had to break up an argument between the logo and the rigid, unforgiving typestyle chosen by the customer. To mollify the type, I placed a fine line beneath the business name and italicized the descriptive jargon. The logo sneered. When it wasnít looking, I reduced it by fifteen percent, saved the file, and said, ďHa!Ē The address, telephone number, fax number, e-mail address, and web site information framed the letterhead at the bottom, ready to keep corporate lies from running off the page. Price: ten dollars for the scan, thirty dollars for the layout, forty dollars total.

Before starting on Christineís job, I checked my time-to-earnings ratio on my pocket calculator. For seventy minutes of work, I had earned seventy-five dollars. This came to just a hair over a dollar and seven cents a minute ó roughly sixty-four dollars and twenty cents an hour. Since I was ahead of the game, so to speak, I got up to stretch and walk around the apartment. Usually, when Iím on a roll, there is a great temptation to keep at it. But Iíve learned the hard way that it isnít worth it. For every break I skip, there is a price to pay in headaches and sore neck muscles.

After surveying my vast domain, I returned to the window for another look at the parking lot. The only person about was the apartment manager, who was out exercising her poodle. While itís unlikely Diane and I could ever be friends, she is basically a nice person. Twice, when rent was due and I didnít have all of the money, she gave me an extra week to pay. She knows I wonít tell anyone. As a sign of appreciation, I try not to abuse her kindness. Most months I come down to the wire, but manage to pay before the end of the three-day grace period. In some instances I have even skipped a few meals, rather than ask for an extension.

While I was at the window, I caught a whiff of insecticide. This meant Dianeís husband, Frank, was on the warpath again. In all my life, Iíve never seen anyone so spray-happy. One aphid is enough to set him off. A simple weed that can be pulled out and disposed of in two seconds is instead sprayed, then allowed to wither into an unsightly mess over the next several days. Even when he isnít working, Frankís left hand is clenched around the handle of an invisible spray tank, while his right hand grips the wand. In this threatening position he patrols the grounds, ready to pounce.

Satisfied that all was well, I went back to work. I literally mowed down Christineís business card, letterhead, and envelope. I finished the whole project in an hour, counting two phone calls from Abe. I made out a bill for thirty-five dollars.

The first time he called, all Abe needed was a line of type to fit on a sticker that was going on a menu. The type said, ďAll checks must be imprinted with name, address, and phone number. I.D. required.Ē Simple enough, and another fifteen dollars. The second time around, he wanted me to price a job for a potential customer shopping for estimates. Even though the job wasnít complicated and I already knew what I was going to charge, I told him Iíd call back with the price sometime later that afternoon. The thing is, Abe is under the misguided impression that I am busy, and that my time is worth something. Since the truth would confuse him, I play along. Itís evil and childish, I know, but easier than admitting Iím a bum who hates what heís doing, and who would drop typesetting in a minute if the Good Fairy of Finances sprinkled me with gold dust.

Before taking another break I got the menu patch out of the way, then did another calculation: a hundred and twenty-five dollars for approximately a hundred and thirty minutes of work. Not bad, all in all. Unfortunately, Iíve yet to be paid for any of it, and nothing new has come in since.

The truth is, my forays into the wonderful world of graphic design usually bear very little fruit. These days, everyone has a computer. And, thanks to the proliferation of low-end design software, there is an abundance of ďexpertsĒ out there soaking up the jobs. Meanwhile, the big printers are taking design in-house, leaving less and less for us free-lancing morons. My niche, if you will, consists of the few mom-and-pop printers left who have neither the time nor inclination to handle the computer end of things, and whose customers generally canít afford the exorbitant fees charged by the snazzy design studios. Anymore these days, I feel like a logger looking at a clear-cut. In other words, sooner or later, my decision will be made for me, and I will have to do something else or starve. The question is, what? I have no special training, Iím not career-minded, Iím a lousy salesman, and the thought of working for someone else makes me ill. So, what do I do? Iím not lazy. But, just for once, I would like to pursue something that has some meaning, and that might make a difference. There has to be more to life than putting in oneís time and paying bills. If there isnít, whatís the point? Iíve said it all before. Iíve said it and thought it so many times I could choke. But Iíll get to the bottom of it. I swear I will.

Cheered by the growing pile of finished jobs, I made a trip outside to see if the mail had arrived. My mailbox is one of several dozen in a great aluminum heap not far from the parking lot entrance, where itís handy for the carrier to zip in from the street, park, and uncork his happy supply of bills, magazines, and limited-time offers. I unlocked my box and found two pieces of mail. One was a flyer with pizza coupons. The other was a nice-looking blue envelope with a bulk imprint. The envelope was addressed to ďStephen Manroe,Ē and at an angle in fake handwriting was the message, ďHi, Stephen! Thought youíd be interested. Take a look and let me know what you think. Thanks! Take care ó Susan B.Ē Other than the misspelling of my name and the fact that I knew no one by the name of Susan B., everything seemed to be in order. I opened the envelope and discovered, much to my joy, that Iíd been invited to a ďselect gathering of professional singles,Ē whose purpose was to introduce me to other ďlike-minded individuals interested in relationships.Ē If I enjoyed myself ó as of course I would ó I could pay an astoundingly low annual membership fee of ninety-five dollars, plus a one-time initiation fee of forty-five dollars. Once a member, I would gain access to a national list absolutely brimming with people Iíd want to meet and get to know better. According to Susan, whose last name turned out to be Bevels, or Barley, or some such, my future was up to me. That being the case, I tore up the letter, put the pieces back in the envelope, mangled it heartily, and tossed it into the nearby dumpster along with the pizza coupons.

Before taking on the forms, I had lunch. This time I made an official full-sized sandwich. I also had several olives and half the cucumber Iíd bought. It felt good to eat again. But, as happens occasionally, I made the mistake of noticing the sound of myself eating ó the smacking, tearing, crushing, chewing, gasping, and swallowing that, in a quiet apartment, acquires the volume of feeding time at the zoo. Iíve always hated having to listen to people eat, myself especially. People who chew with their mouths open should be shot. People who lick the ends of their fingers should be forced to lick the ends of other peopleís fingers. You can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she eats. Iím sure psychologists could save a lot of time by simply having lunch with their patients. Not that psychologists are interested in saving time.

Once, several years ago, I was coerced by a friend into attending a breakfast meeting of our local downtown association, which is an alliance of business people who supposedly look out for each other while pretending to do worthwhile projects that, by some coincidence, increase their chances of making more sales. We were seated at one of about three dozen round tables, wearing name tags. Name tags are great. Instead of having to look someone in the eye and say hello, people can mill around looking at each otherís chests. Anyway, my friend and I happened to be sharing a table with several women, all of whom were well-dressed extroverts in their twenties and early thirties. The thing that really struck me, though, was the way they ate. I had made only a small dent in my breakfast when the person next to me pushed her plate away, after summarily wiping it clean with her heavily buttered toast. In the space of about five minutes, she had polished off a heaping portion of fried potatoes and scrambled eggs, two slices of toast, a glass of orange juice, and a slice of melon. The person next to her was running only slightly behind, and she sounded like a human vacuum cleaner. Directly across from me, another young lady kept waving her loaded fork while talking a blue streak. She was entertaining, but dangerous to be around. The table cloth in her area ended up being decorated with ketchup stains and several blobs of food. The general free-for-all made me wonder if Iíd stumbled into some sort of cultural food warp. The faster everybody went, the slower I went, until, finally, I couldnít eat at all. Then I spilled my orange juice, half of which trailed into the lap of the person whoíd finished first. She was not pleased at all. I apologized and offered to pay for the cleaning. She took me up on the offer, wrote down my telephone number and address, and said she would send me the bill. I apologized again. By then I was ready to dump my water on her, but I was afraid sheíd wrestle me to the floor and order her comrades to do unspeakable things to me. I glanced helplessly at my friend, who was smiling at his plate. He hadnít finished his breakfast, either.

To cover up the sound of myself eating, I turned the water on in the sink. That worked, but then the silly waste of water got to me, so I shut it off. I felt so ridiculous that I changed tactics and began listening intently to the sounds I was making, rather than trying to avoid them. I asked myself why such a normal thing as eating should bother me in the first place. I had no answer. I still donít. But it does. Sometimes. Not always. When I least expect it. Itís stupid, I know. I even tried to enjoy the sounds, and to appreciate them as a form of music. I couldnít. Itís odd, because in many ways eating is one of the very best things we have. Itís one of the most comforting things.

I finished my lunch and washed my hands. It has to do with hunger, I think. Not just physical hunger, but the hunger that drives us to great things or to ruin. It has to do with who we are at the moment, and whatever happens to be bugging us. It is a combination of things that never stays the same. The quality of everything we do depends on our mood, our state of mind, and what we want. Ability is one thing. Intention and spirit is another. Itís no wonder, then, that food so enjoyable one day can be a nuisance the next. That life, so enjoyable one moment, can be so painful the next. And that isnít the half of it. The rest, which I donít understand either, is just as rewarding and confusing.

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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