The Liar

Harris became a night watchman so he could finally get paid to write.

The best assignments were at construction sites, where he occasionally patrolled through massive metal skeletons with their cables hanging out, but mostly just sat alone in pale computer glow, peering at words in silence, until birds muttered and trucks hissed and the dark turned blue and died. Then he greeted the first hardhats and set off sunlight-headed into the freshly poured morning.

But Harris couldn’t just stroll into a security firm and announce that he wanted a job where he could write.

Instead he lied.

He said he’d been a guard seven years (untrue) and had worked every position imaginable (nope), and he’d discovered that he was only truly happy when he worked independently, for example in a construction site at night.

For his next trick, he changed the subject.

But then Harris moved to Berlin, and he wasn’t sure whether he could lie believably in German, and anyway it was unclear whether construction sites would still be la dolce vita. So he took a tactical risk: during an interview with a kindly recruiter at a job agency, he told the truth.

The recruiter — Klüh, an old worn-out mountainous chain-smoker who had been chuckling at everything Harris said — sobered up and looked at him sternly over the bridge of his yellow-lensed aviator glasses. But there was something off about his severity, and gradually his purple lips wriggled into a smile, and he slapped his desk, wheezing giggles, and announced that Harris had come to the right person — heeee heeeeeeee — because mensch did Klüh ever have the right place for him: a tiny hotel with ninety-nine rooms. Not only would Harris have some time to write, but he would also earn an extra two euros an hour.

Klüh stuck out his vast hand proudly.

Eventually, cautiously, Harris shook it.

He was nervous, but the extra money cinched it. He had debts, and besides, his wife still hadn’t gotten her work permit. The system made him an offer that it had rendered him unable to refuse.


The next day, Harris biked out to the bland wasteland where the security firm had their stainless-steel air-brushed office. There he was greeted by a dour Scandinavian named Uv, and after a few formalities they performed the sterile and terrible rituals of the contract.


That evening Harris togged himself out in black and marched out of his sunny yellow district, through a graffitied park seamed by anxious drug dealers, into the arches of an iron bridge lined with tattooed trolls partying in trash, and up a slowly rising hill toward the highest point of the party district, where the five-story brick hotel loomed over tracks and water, bodies and lights.

He swung in through the hotel’s propped-open glass doors. On a low black stage a tiny woman howled soul from behind a grand piano. Creative-types lounged on plush divans and encoignures, holding fairy-pink cocktails. In the corners bamboo aroma dispensers shot up vapor jets of citrus potpourri.

And between the stage and the bar was a ring-shaped desk within which, staring perplexed at a recessed monitor, stood a groomed cockatoo with blue lips and a bouffant.

Harris told her that he was here for a test shift. At first she couldn’t hear him. Then she shook his hand, told him where to drop off his backpack, and, as Harris was leaving, offhandedly mentioned that the round desk would be his station through the night.

He turned away quick so the bouffant wouldn’t see him grimace.

In the changing room, Harris wiped at sweat until his face stung.

The manager, a tiny, elf-eared woman called Antje, fetched him from there and led him through his patrol route, instructing him nonstop as she took him over seven stories, from the residential floors — muffled black halls with black doors — to the bar, the stage, the whiskey-tasting room, the restaurant and its twelve-person kitchen, down into the dusty thickly-white-painted brick basements to the hotel’s mechanical hearts and other flammable steel organs.

Smiling when appropriate, Harris watched Antje’s rapid blue eyes gleam and darkle. In his head he was already composing his refusal to the security firm.

Back at the circular desk — the soul woman had been replaced by a hip-hop-happy DJ — in the heart of the noise, elfin Antje cheerily went through the intricacies of how to conduct checks-ins and check-outs, how to file receipts and registration slips into accordion portfolios, how to protocol the multiple hand-offs of keys and print and sign the proper papers at the proper time…

But somehow she managed to talk to Harris as if they were old friends in easy conversation. She kept looking into his face, and he always smiled back.

Eventually she said, “I don’t tell many people this … but …” looking at him now with her eyes narrowed, “I do have the feeling that you understand what we want.”

“Yeah,” Harris said carefully. “I think so too …”

Antje clapped, squealing: “Then we are more than happy to welcome you to our team!”

He looked at her in horror.


He called his boss at the security firm, sullen eyebrowless Uv, and announced that he couldn’t work at the hotel because the constant loud music gave him headaches (true).

“Ja SSSUUUPER,” Uv hissed. “Perfekt!”

And hung up.

Later he called back and calmly informed Harris that he had already scheduled him for the next month at the hotel. If Harris hung on for just four weeks, full time, he would be transferred.

Harris felt he couldn’t say no.


His mind was taken from him. There was little security work and lots of filing reports and fulfilling lists, billing logging sorting folding and stapling, signing for keys, but then also face-to-face duties like checking guests in and out, chatting with lonely inhabitants or selling the house spirits, house coconut water, and house fashion line. Harris was micromanaged by the middle tier, scrutinized by swiveling security cameras, and made to submit to the theorems of lofty bosses who understood nothing of life in the thick-carpeted trenches, all while he facilitated shows, dinners, conferences, bookings, brand-events and presentations, and weathered constant unforeseeable disasters for which someone always had to take the blame.

But the raw work only penetrated so deep into his brain. The deeper echelons were infiltrated by his colleagues and contaminated by the emotions they pressed upon him. The floor chiefs, ever vigilant, worried over his shoulder and lectured in circles. They coordinated their knowledge of him with each other. The waiters gossiped with the most casual snobbery and could smile two different smiles simultaneously. The poor girls being gradually and painfully converted into managers zoomed around taut as mousetraps. Someone was always about to get in trouble. Someone was always getting told off. Eyes narrowed in resentment. Nostrils flared with suppressed anger. Discontent oozed and hot hate scorched out behind backs in reaction to the smallest imagined slights.

By the time Harris got home each morning he twinged from singed emotions, and to recover he had to think endlessly into his journal, hypothesizing and theorizing, examining his motives, sorting his head, cauterizing wounds and stitching them up with logic.

Then he slept through the day, ate, and went back.

Harris worked the next eleven days out of twelve — filling in for a sick comrade — and by the end he was a creature of the hotel: he belonged to his work, just like nearly everyone he knew, all their personal possibilities subordinated to institutions that help affluent people trade pieces of paper, talent and individuality worth less than capacity to do repetitive, dehumanizing, and often humiliating tasks for next-to-no pay.

Harris did everything he could to escape work-as-life: he lied, he didn’t go out, he ate expiring fruit, he biked for hours to avoid train fare, and he rented broken-down apartments where nothing worked and the winter cold was unbearable. But the rent got higher every year, and they jacked up the prices of rotten fruit, and the truth was that so far they’d managed to steal the majority of his adult life.

And he was among the lucky ones…


By the last shift Harris was complaining so bitterly that his coworkers, who were more depressed and further along in their addictions than he was, banded together and defended the hotel against him.

It was a slow night, so theoretically he could have read for ten minutes here or there, had he been able to concentrate or even just stay awake. Instead he trudged back and forth from the courtyard to the street, struggling against his closing lids; and early in the morning, when everyone else was gone, Harris hid behind a partition where the camera couldn’t see and rested there for a few minutes with his eyes closed. When he opened them he saw the hotel’s work roster. For the next three days the other guard’s name had been whited-out and replaced by his.

Harris did call Uv in a wrath. He did demand to know what the hell was going on.

And he did insist that Uv treat him more like a human.

But yeah, he buckled: he took the days.


Finally Harris crawled on elbows and ankles to his day off and  pitched into bed and slept objectly through the morning and afternoon. In the evening there was a brief moment of reality when his wife climbed into the loft bed and they lay next to the open garden window and rain came on so hard and swift that the air turned white and the trees wriggled ecstatically and weeds thrashed on the overgrown concrete. They floated still and silent above the flailing sunset jungle. The low and heavy purple heat slowly melted into cool blueness. Newborn breezes explored our cheeks. A deep bass heart throbbed in the distance, under the far-off wails and rumbles of trouble.


The next afternoon Harris was awoken by a phone call from his lovely boss. Uv needed him to do four twelve-hour shifts, and the first one would start in a few hours — not at the hotel, however, but at some empty refugee homes.

Okay, so losing the days off stung. But what if Harris could finally write? With this in mind, he managed to sound happy. He even thanked Uv. But the site was far and he couldn’t afford the U-bahn, so after the phone call Harris had to leap into his all-black work clothes, shoulder his bulky backpack, and bike hard for eighteen kilometers through the steaming July evening, zigzagging through downtown blocks, along riversides and through parks, arcing around a golden victory statue and past a nuclear power plant — and more often than not blundering down the wrong path, because it was all new and he didn’t trust the GPS and had nothing in his stomach to power his withering brain, much less his limp legs; all they’d had at home were two mushy apples and some salted peanuts. His muscles gave out one by one, until finally he had to invent new muscles in order to struggle on.

He rolled up twenty minutes late to the front of the site, a fenestrated shipping container squatting between old trees. Behind it, ringed by tall metal fencing in a golden field, were white rows of identical shipping containers, each with a door, windows, and a tiny lawn.

When Harris knocked on the main door, a friendly face popped up at the window laughing: “I’m not allowed to let anyone in!” Nevertheless he did exactly that, shook his hand, and introduced himself as Rolf. Harris apologized for being late.

“Oh it doesn’t matter to me,” Rolf said. “I’m here all night anyway.”

Harris smiled sicklily and tried to sit down, but his makeshift muscles gave way and he fell into the chair. Rolf, mixing instant coffee for him, asked him where he was from. Then he wanted to know why Harris left his homeland, but didn’t listen to his answer before offering his own opinions, and soon Harris stopped trying to respond and just stared off to the side — at black branches ticking against pink sky — and drank the instant coffee, which stretched hot root-claws into his gaping stomach.

A few hours later Harris was able to escape his garrulous companion and bike out in search of food, but everywhere was closed, even the gas stations, and he pedaled ever slower as he neared his own personal zero. Finally he found a doner shop, but they didn’t take debit. He hunted down an ATM, only it wouldn’t dispense less than twenty euros, a near-magisterial sum that Harris did not possess. The next ATM obliged, though, and Harris raced back and ordered a doner. The pita sogged, the sauce was ketchup with extra sugar, and the meat tasted of slaughterhouse — but he ate so greedily that at one point he chowed down on a wedge of tin-foil, and gagged like a dog over the green plastic table.

Back at the converted shipping container, Harris set up his laptop and began writing for the first time since the hotel took over his life. He couldn’t focus on fiction, not with so many unexamined and anxiety-inducing experiences swimming in his meninges. So he started writing about Klüh the jolly recruiter and began to describe the trouble since then, in an attempt to get it under his control, lassoed by arguments and tamed, made bearable.

But Rolf never stopped talking. He disgorged a stream of life advice that ranged from how to treat women (randomly order them flowers) to which herb liquor would get Harris drunkest. Still talking, he produced a stereo and set it to play knock-off pop, loudly. Then he took out his phone and started tapping away at a lurid match-3 game with the sound on: cheers, swishes, pops, coin clinks and jewel dings. The only time Rolf ever looked up from his game was when Harris put earbuds in, at which point Rolf motioned at him to take them out and wondered whether they should maybe go for a patrol.

At three a.m. Harris’s phone rang. Guess who? Uv the eyebrowless one had cancelled two of his shifts at the construction site so that Harris could attend fire-prevention training at the hotel. “Hold on,” Harris rasped, and raced outside. He perched on an upturned bucket and crossed one leg at the knee and shook his foot like mad and tried to speak slowly and calmly:

“I’m not going!”

“You have to.”

“NO!”

“There is no ‘no.’ You’re going.”

“Yeah well … I won’t do anything for free!”

“Nor should you. The fire-training is paid. Listen, you have … four? five … actually eight more shifts at the hotel. And if it catches on fire?” Harris shook his scrawny fist at the rustling trees. “I don’t care! I am not going!” His voice cracked:

“I have plans!”

“Really? Because I thought you were working at the refugee homes…”

“Yeah exactly! I planned on not being at that fucking hotel!”

He didn’t cave, but after Uv hung up, saying he would call the next day, Harris lay down on the pavement and cried.

After his face dried and the snot unclogged he began doing push-ups on the still-black tarmac. Locking his body long and straight, he pushed until air left him and sweat shined his forehead and his arms shook and refused, but he held on, he lifted himself groaning and snorting, by centimeters, twice more — bringing him to a personal record of nine.

It had been a summer of rains and the grassways along the pavementwere flooded. From the dark water grew floral citadels, wispy skyscrapers in which crickets sang.

Pacing between the unlived-in homes, Harris peered into their hollow kitchens, where sometimes a ceiling fan spun silkily in near darkness. 

Harris hooked his fingers into metal-lattice fencing and watched fog rising from a golden field. In an imperial tree thousands of tiny birds switched branches furtively, in near silence. There was no one else around but him and the insects, and now you.

And The Problem Is

nevermind
it’s all caved in
and I just don’t want to restore the walls again
I would rather be rained on
aware
that once I leave this rotting palace
I can never return
and so for now
I just want to tape up my blown mind
I want to enjoy the stars
on the ceiling, the red lightbulbs
and persimmons and the crushing terrible
strength of my teeth. I will allow the snow
to decorate the stove. Moths may nest in my bed.
Let the maggot thrive; I’m going to live in electricity
and I want you to see it all. Thus
the walls have become windows
I somersault and drink flames
and point hysterically at creeping vines
I grow oaks in the bathtub
and wash myself in rubble
I commune with the garden spider
I squeeze my brain until a seed pops
up through the ceiling chasms
into outer space, and
against the star-sick dark
the seed unrolls green tendrils
toward the unbelievably distant
other minds

Skyworms, or The Man Who Disproved Sleep (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

It’d been a long day, I mean literally a day that had lasted months. I had disproven sleep in an internationally published and peer-reviewed paper and since then none of us had been able to get any rest. It turns out that sleep is a sort of trick programmed by evolution into our brains to keep from us getting too close to reality, a filter that drops down right when we’re only starting to really wake up. Once you understood my research, you saw through the trick, and suddenly you couldn’t sleep anymore, even when you wanted to, even when all you craved was just a minute’s peace away from your thoughts, which were building on top of themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything, only to leap up again in entirely different configurations.

I was about two months ahead of everyone into the great sleeplessness, and all things considered I felt pretty decent, had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. My mind was steaming on a little faster than I could handle. I’d started avoiding the lab. Keeping to myself. I guess I’d become isolated. I was in a constant conversation with parts of my head that I’d never met before, and I found I had to defend all my most basic ideas against chattering cruel voices that questioned everything I believed in, not just who I am or ideas like kindness or courtesy but all the way down to questions like whether being able to touch something is sufficient proof to believe in its existence. It was as if I had to define every last element of reality in order to keep experiencing that reality. Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to run around inside trying to put everything back into place, patch it up but stronger, and then dash off to the next leak that my personality had developed. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. I felt as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind. As though my mind was now all muscle and eyeball.

I spent a lot of daylight in parks. The nature soothed me. The voices never questioned the birds or the brook, and I could still summon up that old feeling of harmony from the days when I still slept, a harmony I hadn’t even known was there, a deeply seated and unconscious sense of the rightness of reality, an unquestioned faith in the hardness of the table and the familiarity of the face in the mirror, a face that had long since stopped hanging together and was just eyes, nose, mouth, wetly coexisting without acknowledging each other. In parks there were no mirrors and few other people, and it calmed me whenever my consciousness could spread out uninhibited, as if it no longer centered around my body. I liked to lie in the grass and watch the clouds.

Until the day when I noticed that the entire sky was infested with massive translucent worms swaying like things underwater.

I howled and sat up straight—and the worms swung with me.

They were in my eyes.

I had tests done. Lights were shined, samples took. The doctors didn’t find anything and I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover. The worms had probably always been there, hidden from us by our brains, which after all evolved to generate offspring. You hunt and breed more successfully when you’re turned off to certain cosmic realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth. Sleep had been protecting us, and now, without sleep there as a buffer, we would one and all slowly have our collective face pushed closer and closer toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, objects held grudges, the sky talked endlessly, the atoms laughed until they almost split themselves, and everything that had been hidden was slowly sharpening into a clarity that was not supposed to fit inside our brains.

And I would be first. Or actually—the second. First was the woman who’d clued me into the true nature of sleep. I’d been putting off visiting her, but when the worms appeared I finally conceded that I needed her advice. The worms were waving sickeningly over everything all the time: over the sky, in the trees, on bus seats, in my cereal, on the backs of my hands, on the inside of my eyelids, over the face of my girlfriend—whose name, by the way, suddenly seemed oddly inappropriate. I felt that she had another and truer name and that when we could discover it everything about her would resolve suddenly, and she would be on the same plane as me again, and her face would come out of the fog, and I would remember what exactly she had meant to me before all of the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had undone everything and made it so hard to concentrate on what had once made sense so easily. But through the fog I still had a sense of loyalty to her, and this loyalty had prevented me from consulting the woman who knew about the true nature of sleep, because the last time we’d seen each other she’d made a pass at me, I thought.

Now I was unlatching her gate. Now I was ringing her doorbell. She answered the door without a word and we looked into each other’s eyes. The translucent worms were crawling over her face and hair and the walls behind her, and I knew she could see them on me too.

“I just want to know…”

“Yes?”

“What happens next?”

She laughed and shut the door.

Then she cracked it again.

“You mean after the snakes?”

“The snakes??”

She made us tea while she filled me in. She hadn’t made it through to the end herself. But she had stopped hearing the voices. They had intensified and heated up and gotten faster until they all fused. Now her mind was in a tunnel, she said, and the tunnel was made out of voices woven so densely they looked like black earth. I found it impossible to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes like sandbags on fire. I nervously picked up a book and flipped through it. The pages were blank. She said that she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down a tunnel, and at the end of a tunnel was a hole, and any day her mind would slide into the hole and fit into place and everything would twist like a key in a lock, and maybe then she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t even understand how to talk to me anymore, she said, and reached out like she was going to take my hand, but only stroked the back. I took away my hand and picked up another book. Blank. Same with the third and fourth and fifth book. And they were all so light. I felt if I blew on the page the whole book would crumble. She said my name—not my usual name, but my real name, one I hadn’t even known existed—and rubbed her knee on mine. Why was she still concerned with animal delights I’d long ago left behind? I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared. Then she said my real name again, and I shivered and understood that this would not end well. Talking to her had accelerated the process in my own skull. I could sense a tunnel’s mouth somewhere just behind my forehead. It made me aware of the furrows of my own brain. By now she had scooted her chair over and was leaning on my chest. I didn’t get why she liked me. Maybe I was just the only one she thought could understand. But I didn’t understand anything. It had all frayed and fallen apart. I could feel my skin unravelling, and underneath it I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and quickly dispersing. Her breath warmed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck. Her three cats were watching us and an omelette still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know if I had the neck or the hand, if I was flesh or wood; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and all her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.

The Parasite Pities Its Host

Don’t forget, it croons,
We’re in this together.
Don’t you think I suffer too?
Someday I will kill you, it’s true,
But then I die too, brother,
So I feel for you. I do.