Fiction by Carlo Thomas
cw: suicidal ideation
It shocked me how easily I slid back into office life. The seven of us fit into an office the size of a living room. Bossman Avery installed stereo speakers into the ceiling corners and we rotated who picked the music each day. Not that music was missing from my life before. The regular paycheck was. And after years of freelancing, my last venture leaving me broke and entering what I now call my dark phase, the regular paycheck was a relief.
“Can’t believe you’ve been with us ninety days,” Avery said. “But time flies when you’re having fun, ha!”
We were having lunch at this divey burger spot a couple of blocks from the co-working space where we rented our office. He offered to take me to MBar, an upscale place with a great view of Seattle, but I refused to become a guy who’s too good for a burger and beer.
“I guess it does,” I said. “It’s been years since I’ve had a performance review.”
“It’s no biggie,” Avery said. “Really, everyone on the team’s happy you’re here. You’re a good copywriter. Like that tagline for the assisted living home, great stuff.”
“Appreciate it,” I said.
“Not to mention you’ve got some solid music tastes. Who’d you play the other day? That Norwegian house guy?”
“That’s right. And today, it’s my turn to choose, and who do I pick? Blink-182!”
He slammed his hand on the table jokingly and then dipped a fry into the mayo-and-ketchup mix he made himself. Avery was the kind of guy who never quite grew up but still managed to be successful. Small yet profitable agency, married with a child on the way. Joked about his teenage obsession with skateboarding and his now-receding hairline.
“Rumor has it you’re also an author,” he said.
Rumor has it? There was no rumor, just the casual conversation between me and the teammates while Avery pitched a client in Ballard. I mentioned how I tried to make that dream come true: a short story writer, to be exact. Freelancing was a way to get by while I focused on my stories, not that they went anywhere. Not back East or in Denver, not with magazines or grad schools.
He then waved at our waitress, who adjusted the black apron around her large waist as she walked over.
“I’m the boss, and I’ve decided we’re taking a long lunch. Ha!” Avery said and then ordered us another round.
I smiled as I handed the waitress my empty glass and then watched her walk to the beer tap. Only then did I realize the place was empty save a man at the bar, his gray hair in a ponytail, scratching lottery tickets.
“I haven’t written anything in a while,” I said.
“Well, you’re a copywriter,” Avery said. “But I get what you mean.”
At home that night, my roommate Parker lay on the sofa with his Mariners cap over his face so only his red, lumberjack-length beard stuck out.
“I had a revelation today,” he said without moving. “The songs I’ve written suck balls.”
I stomped my shoes on the doormat before taking them off thanks to the mist that had been going all day. “How do you know?” I asked. “You ever suck a ball?”
“Plenty,” Parker said before sitting up. He tossed his cap onto the coffee table next to his notebook.
“Now I gotta start from scratch,” he said. “Work double-time if I wanna have something for the open mic next Friday. So I guess the whole losing-my-job thing worked out.”
I found this small bungalow through a friend of a friend who worked as a property manager. She didn’t want to rent to college students, albeit most adults had better options. The kitchen and bathroom countertops needed recaulking. The vents blew warm air through the rooms half-heartedly. I set my bag next to the recliner and walked to the fridge for a can of seltzer.
“I’m sorry dude,” I said when I sat down on the recliner.
Parker shrugged his shoulders. “Wasn’t just me. They laid off most of us. ‘We’re streamlining processes and cutting costs and yadda yadda yadda.’”
He had sent me a text about all this during lunch. Before, a roommate’s firing would’ve been enough to push my deadlines a day. Not anymore. People can’t leave their jobs willy-nilly, especially not on performance review day. Especially when the review takes place over burgers and beer, courtesy of Bossman Avery.
“It’ll be fine,” Parker said. “I’ll figure things out. But right now I need to focus on this song. It sucks; it needs to be better.”
Things won’t ever get better. During my dark phase, I couldn’t shake that thought. It lay in my mind as punishing and permanent as a branding. The move to Seattle helped, but only so much. You can take the man out of the city, but you can’t… et cetera. That sort of thing. That’s how I explained this to Billy—not “Will” or “William”—during my first therapy appointment. I’d been seeing him every Wednesday afternoon since.
“Avery said you’re a good copywriter,” Billy said. “That must’ve felt good.”
We sat face-to-face with a short wicker table in between us. His office was a bit cramped, as if the furniture had outgrown it. Underneath his chair was a noise machine that played the sounds of a beach. Crashing waves, singing chimes, crying seagulls, that whole deal. By now they felt as familiar as a favorite song.
“The world’s full of decent writers,” I said. “So yeah, Avery’s happy with me but I’m sure he’d be just as happy with someone else.”
I grabbed the yellow stress ball off the table and squeezed it, let its foamy texture mold in-between my fingers. Billy sat there with a cup of tea cradled in his hands, cross-legged so that his slacks rode up, exposing his bright, striped dress socks.
“My roommate lost his job yesterday,” I finally said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’ve been there and I know it sucks. I wish there was something I could do. But there isn’t.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Billy said, wiping a drop of tea from his gray, stubbled chin.
“Well, my agency isn’t hiring.”
“But you can still be there for him. ‘Return the favor’ as you put it.”
As a kid, I spent summers at the boardwalk near home. Always at the arcade, though, never on the beach. My favorite game? Skee ball, hands down. The hollow tha-thunks the balls made as they rolled down the shoot, the congratulatory jingle that played when I scored some combo. One summer I won enough tickets for a remote-control car.
“The ocean isn’t relaxing to me,” I said. “But it is for most people, right? Otherwise, you’d play something else.”
“We’re talking about you now,” Billy said.
“And how I need to return the favor.”
“I didn’t say you had to.”
“Well, that’s how it feels. He’d just moved in. It’s hard talking to anyone about suicide at all let alone a stranger. But he stepped up.”
Billy set down his tea and picked up his notepad and pen on top of a manila folder and started writing. He didn’t do this often, so I couldn’t pick out a pattern for when or why he did. I’m not a mind reader.
The next day’s work consisted of writing taglines for a new soy-based protein bar made by a local business. You can’t bullshit a good tagline. It takes intense thinking and molding your bullshit ideas into something simple and memorable. It also requires an interesting distraction, something more than staring out the office windows. The gray sky went unmoved as if it were painted there.
“Another great playlist,” Avery said when he walked over to my desk later that morning. “Not that I’d expect anything different, ha!”
Alexa, our social media manager and my next-desk neighbor, looked over and nodded in agreement.
“Glad you like it,” I said to them. The playlist I chose was one I’d put together years ago and rediscovered during my dark phase. Sleater-Kinney, The New Pornographers, Built to Spill. Bands that still churned out quality albums but whose heydays were long gone.
Avery asked me to join him in the building’s communal conference room for a call with a potential client. He said introducing “the talent” would be helpful. The windowless room was lined with whiteboards and a black projector stuck out of the ceiling like a periscope.
“There is no client meeting,” he told me as we sat down at the long glass table. We swiveled our chairs so we faced each other and then he handed me the stapled packet he brought with his laptop. The first page read Adventures Afar From Minnesota in big, bold type.
“It’s the first chapter of the book I’m writing. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
I opened the packet and looked at a page caked in single-spaced text. “I don’t know how good my feedback would be,” I said.
The conference room door opened. “This room is reserved for a meeting in ten minutes,” said Tim, a product owner at the company that rented the office next to ours.
“We’ll be out in a sec,” Avery said.
He nodded and flipped the switch next to the door. The projector whirred to life and painted the wall in a bright blue.
“Look, I don’t have any creative friends,” Avery said. “And I also need to make as much progress as possible before our boy comes along. He’ll take up all our time afterward.”
Tim pulled a cord from the podium and plugged it into his laptop. The blue screen was replaced by a presentation titled Project Management Best Practices.
“It’s a boy?” I asked.
Avery nodded. “I’ve been brainstorming names all morning. Haven’t gotten much work done, ha!”
Six months ago, my dark phase reached its climax. One afternoon I downed five shots of whiskey, blasted a favorite album, and started writing my suicide note. Only I couldn’t get the words right. Saying goodbye felt obvious so I scribbled it out. My reasons looked petty on paper, so I scribbled those out, too. And soon enough that’s all I had, a page of scribbles. You can’t even get this right, I thought. I stood up, shook my body like a swimmer before a meet, and then saw Parker standing in the doorway.
He drove us to Green Lake and we found a spot against the water that wasn’t too damp. I told him my share of the rent was four days overdue. I was delinquent on my student loans. My latest client threatened to sue me for ten grand. Parker listened as he picked up stones and tossed them into the water with a flick of his wrist. He said he wouldn’t have guessed all that was on my plate. I didn’t think that’s all it would take, just that simple acknowledgment. The pressure inside me deflated. I watched a mallard paddle in the water, occasionally dipping its head in the water and nudging at its wings with its bill.
Since then, things will never get better had been replaced by this is it. My job was helping me pay off my debts. My co-workers weren’t horrible. But still, maybe, this is it.
“What game is this?” Parker asked when he got home. I heard him kick off his boots and shake out his damp cap.
“Banjo-Kazooie,” I said, sitting on the sofa, playing the N64 we picked up at a garage sale. Next to me was Avery’s draft that I needed to take a break from after reading just the first few pages.
“I was always a Zelda kid,” he said.
“This game’s a classic, too,” I said. “Banjo’s trying to rescue his sister. Not a princess, like in so many other games. He’s trying to save his own blood.”
After a while, Parker came out of his room and sat on the recliner, shirtless and guitar in-hand. I paused the game, put the TV on mute, and then resumed.
“I was up until four last night writing this song,” he said and started playing.
Parker’s song was about a man watching trains roll past a warehouse on the edge of some town. I listened as I moved Banjo around a world with golden shores and steep cliffs and giant crabs as enemies. “Rusted railcars,” he sang, “going where they’ve gone before. Rusted railcars, take me.”
He finished as I moved Banjo into the water. A shark emerged from the depths and swam rapidly toward him. “Shit, forgot about that,” I said and moved Banjo to shore.
Parker leaned the guitar on the recliner, stood up, and stretched. “Dude, I said I was up until four writing that.”
“It’s good. I really like it,” I said.
“Well, I want your honest feedback. I trust your opinion.”
“But I’m not a songwriter.”
“Bullshit. You’re a writer—what did you think of the lyrics?”
“Lyrics are different from ad copy and very different from stories.”
Parker walked away. I heard the fridge open and the clinking of bottles. I now controlled Kazooie the bird, who carried Banjo and flew higher and higher toward the world’s highest cliff.
“How’d the interview go?” I asked.
Parker sat back down with his beer. “Went well. It was informal, I just talked to the coffee shop manager for a while. He said he’d let me know early next week.”
He placed the beer onto the table and picked his guitar back up. “But for now, I write. And you could, too.”
Adventures Afar from Minnesota was about a young boy who went exploring in the woods behind his home. Only he gets lost and finds a village of small cone-headed dwarfs who see the boy as a kind of god. The dwarfs can’t leave their home due to an unexplained curse: whenever one tries to leave, poof, they’re turned to ash. So the dwarfs rely on the boy to tell them about the outside world.
I explained this to Billy at our next appointment, who sat there in the same chair in the same position with the same mug in his hands.
“What did you think of it?” he asked.
“Unrealistic,” I said. “Dwarfs aren’t real.”
“Come on, Daniel.”
“What am I gonna say? He’s my boss, not my friend.”
“But he seems to want your honest opinion.”
Billy reached underneath his chair to start the noise machine. I grabbed the stress ball and leaned into the sofa, waiting for those familiar sounds. Only they didn’t come. What came instead were cracks of thunder, cooing monkeys, falling rain.
“You said oceans don’t relax you,” he said.
I laughed, tossed the ball into the air, and caught it with my other hand. I motioned to Billy, who nodded and set his mug on the table. We tossed the ball back and forth, stopping only when I botched a catch and the ball rolled to the door.
“The last page summarized the rest of the book,” I said. “The boy continues to visit the dwarfs as he gets older. After he joins the military and then in-between college semesters, after he gets married and moves to Seattle. He always goes back to tell these dwarfs what he’s seen.”
“Sounds like Avery has a story to tell,” Billy said, picking up his tea again.
I walked to the door and picked up the ball. “Sure, but does it matter? His time’s up. Once his boy’s born he’ll never write again. That much I know.”
“So you’re saying he can’t do both,” Billy said.
I stood there, tossing the ball rapidly between my hands as if it were burning them.
“We’ve talked about how counterproductive this kind of thinking is,” Billy said. “All or nothing. Go big or go home. Artist or sellout.”
“Well, he is a sellout. And so am I.”
“Because you’re taking care of yourself financially? You’ve told me how stressful freelancing was, always hustling, dealing with clients, fighting to get paid on time.”
“Do you miss it?”
“And that’s okay.”
“Well, it doesn’t feel that way.”
I placed the ball on the table and sat back down. The bird on the track settled into a steady two-note ta-weet, ta-weet that sounded sweet but was more likely hostile. I imagined it calling out from its golden beak, its blue and red wings stretched, welcoming the rain like an old friend. Do birds like that even exist?
“I told myself that everything I was doing would pay off. The moving around, the new experiences, the new people. But there is no payoff. I hardly see my family. I don’t have a partner. You could take scissors and cut off the last decade of my life and I’d be in the same fucking place.”
Billy set down his tea, moved his notebook, and then picked up the folder on the table. He opened it, pulled out a piece of paper with printed text and held it out for me to see. “Do we need to review your prevention plan? Just in case?”
There’s something absurd about staring at your prevention plan. At that moment I felt as capable of killing myself as sprouting wings from my shoulders. Yet thinking that the plan was ridiculous was also, in itself, ridiculous. Play guilty pleasure Spotify playlist. Queue up YouTube clips that make you laugh. Talk to Parker. Call the suicide hotline. Call 911. Below these steps was my signature, which codified them into a life-saving contract. None of this was ridiculous—I knew that—for one obvious reason: I couldn’t answer Billy’s question.
That Friday afternoon, I messaged Avery via Slack to meet me in the conference room to “touch base” with the potential client.
“The wife’s visiting her sister this weekend, so I have the place to myself, ha!” he said as we took our seats. “But anyway, what did you think? The suspense is killing me.”
I pulled out the packet I stuck between my laptop and notebook.
“The boy, why does he always go back to the dwarfs? Does he feel obligated to do so, or does he genuinely want to?”
Avery leaned back in his seat, folded his arms, and tightened his lips. “That’s a good question. I honestly haven’t thought about it.”
“I think his motivation needs to be clear.”
Written on the top of the whiteboard next to us was the phrase “Our Company Zoo.” Underneath was a list of your standard-press animals: elephant, lion, zebra. Why do bosses think these kinds of exercises help employees?
“The dialog he has with the dwarfs is, honestly, flat,” I said. “They’re expository and they don’t share anything the reader doesn’t already know. I think if at least you knew his motivation, it could strengthen their conversations.”
Avery stared at the packet and then started laughing. “Damn! That’s a good point,” he said. “I can see you being a good writer or editor. Makes me wonder what you’re doing here working for me.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I needed a change,” I said. “Seattle’s always had a rep for being a cool city.”
Avery’s smile faded. He unfolded his arms and leaned forward. “Daniel, why are you here?”
My body shuddered. Goddamn, Billy was right. Avery was trying to get something out of me and, by extension, himself. He needed to deflate the pressure.
“I gave up,” I said.
Avery nodded, picked up the packet, and flipped to the first page of text where my notes lay scribbled in the margins. “Was there anything you liked?” he asked.
“The setting,” I said. “Your descriptions are great. I could see the woods in my mind.”
Avery stood up, folded the packet, and slid it into his back pocket. “I explored those woods all the time as a kid.”
Parker heard of the open mic night through one of his musician ex-coworkers. The venue was an old warehouse-turned-brewery with a concrete floor and acoustics that made people across the room sound like they were talking to each other. I could hear Parker chatting with the other performers near the small wooden stage when I arrived. Besides them, the place was near empty. I walked to the bar, which was being managed by a woman with a shaved head.
“When are you going on?” she asked when she set down the beer I ordered. Her left forearm was inked in thick tattoos of arrows pointing down to her hand.
“I’m just here for moral support,” I said.
“I was hoping for some fresh blood tonight,” she said.
“My roommate’s playing. It’s his first time.”
“The guy with the guitar.”
She laughed and then moved to help the woman next to me.
I turned around to face the room. In places like this, I always felt sadness. The few people here, all of whom only cared about their own performances. The reality that this is it, maybe due to a lack of talent or just being unlucky, most likely a mix of the two. The lights dimmed and I took the last seat in the last of the four rows.
The MC—a dreadlocked guy in a fitted red flannel—said that people can still sign up as the night goes on. He introduced Parker and the few of us there clapped. The spotlight on him brought out the darkness under his eyes and the gray hairs in his beard.
But you know what? None of that mattered once he started. Parker crooned about rusted railcars and a nomad ready for a home. I looked around and saw how still everyone was. Nobody sipped their beers or checked their phones. Parker had passion, we all felt it.
I also felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up to see Avery, shook his hand and then moved over a seat. He wasn’t late, I whispered. He could still sign up but after Parker’s song. We listened as Parker gave the chorus a third and final go-around, throwing more weight behind every word and every note.
It shocked me how easy it was to return to office life.
I smiled when the line came to me. It wasn’t quite right, I knew that. The line needed work. But still, it was something. The song ended and we all clapped, and I jumped up as I did so.
Carlo Thomas is a freelance digital marketer and writer originally from Manchester Township, New Jersey. Along with fiction, he focuses his writing on music journalism, contributing to Beats Per Minute, No Ripcord, and Spectrum Culture. Carlo currently lives in Seattle, and you can contact him through carlothethirrd.com.