“Making The Switch,” by George Sparling

Mar 20th, 2008 | By | Category: Prose

I left my wife and was now was a desperate stranger in another town. Without a job, knowing no one, having no contacts, and without hope of acquiring skills, I sat alone in a skuzzy bar, sipping watery beer. No microbrew shit for me, a guy who’d taken philosophy courses in the same college as my wife Karen, who garnered an advanced degree in computer science.

I’d read, “tear the mask from error is to establish truth,” something a minor Enlightenment philosopher named Maurice Falconet pronounced, quoted in Peter Gay’s The Rise of Modern Paganism. Not a required book, but I was a procrastinator, and read a solid overview of the Enlightenment, the era named by Kant. I relished stray pieces of information, unable to link them except when drunk or on a caffeine high. No amount of Red Bull would push me through college. I hadn’t converted, I hadn’t made the switch to digital as Karen had. One could not remain an Erasmus in 2007.

What I most enjoyed was driving a cab, having the town’s streets memorized, firmed up in mental gridlock. It helped pay for my education, though I stopped attending classes. You might say I was in the horse latitudes, left without any wind to sail through life as Karen had. After five years of marriage, the social and intellectual gap had widened to the point that I felt diminished. So I simply took the bus to a town far away from her.

The best times I had living with her wasn’t actually in our house, sharing experiences as normal married couples, but driving a taxi around town. It supported me money-wise as well as giving me independent terrain all my own. l enjoyed taking fares to their destinations. I looked upon it as fate, each fare having a definite place they claimed, a goal, an accomplishment. It made my own struggle to achieve parity with Karen easier, at least for a short period. As for our marriage, she preferred the status quo, but I needed distance, maybe returning when I found success, i.e., money. Having a career was out of the question

Something about Falconet’s mask attracted me, maybe because I felt uglier than I really was, now peering into the bar’s mirror. The tavern was on the outskirts as I was. I’d tumbled downward: the mirror was severely cracked in two places. My broken images I compared with Karen’s looks, if not beautiful, certainly was above average. Attractive entailed being an attractor, that was plain as we walked down the sidewalk together. Too many male glances; I learned that hard fact as my self-esteem plummeted. The double-cracked mirror reflected Elephant Man, a movie I’d seen bitterly and self-destructively five times.

A man sat two stools away, looking at me in the busted mirror.

“We’re no angels,” the man spoke to me, still staring in the mirror. His name was Hank and he worked in the Building and Trades Local Union. “You hungry?”

I’d just enough money but after that, paraphrasing Nietzsche, sought zeroes. But I wasn’t too proud and would call Karen if I floundered.

“Yeah, I’m hungry,” I said, embarrassed to admit it. He moved over to me, stool to stool, tête-à-tête, French for just plain knocking heads together.

He asked me what I did for a living. That wasn’t bar talk unless it flitted naturally in inebriated streams of words. Maybe my ultra-serious expression gave me away as an old-fashioned bum.

“I can get you good pay for an indefinite length of time. Interested?”

I nodded and said, “I’ve no trade, no skills,” and Hank said that was fine because,

“On this job all you have to do is picket a house under construction.”

“What about the flak I’d get.”

“No problem. The guys aren’t working there now,” Hank said. “The man I hired before quit, out of the blue, just up and quit.” Hank bought me a couple of microbrews while he nursed scotch and water.

“Scared off maybe?” I asked. I saw Hank’s left hand, how a crooked red scar jigjagged through it.

“Did some picketing in the Big City and things got rough. Broken bottle did it.” Travis Tritt sang on the fifty-cent a play box, “Why’s the rich man busy dancing while the poor man has to pay.”

“Too radical for them maybe,” I said. My experience with synchronicity had always been striking, something I never missed. Philosophy hadn’t taught me that, but maybe my grandmother’s wisdom had, how she wrapped everything up as happening simultaneously, slurring time.

We split at midnight after Hank gave me his business card, the address of the hall clearly and boldly printed. I patted the card in my shirt pocket. I swayed and stumbled, making my way back to the motel, also on the outskirts. With Karen it had always been a house close to the central business district. The outskirts reminded me of softcore porn, there but not enough there. You always wanted more, the harder stuff, but I’d forsaken that, at least for the time being. I swatted a couple of cockroaches crawling across the bedspread
before I crept in between the cruddy sheets.

For $40 per day, I held a union sign ( “THIS IS A NON-UNION LABOR SITE” ). The quiet neighborhood spooked me at first. The foundation had been laid, and stacks of lumber were piled near a mound of dirt. Occasional passersby eyed me suspiciously. I drank strong coffee from an Aladdin thermos Hank had given to me. Maybe Hank wanted the union to flex some muscle, get coverage from local TV stations. I felt like Eugene V. Debs of the 21st century, which had most in common Paris Hilton, the blogosphere or the virtual world of Second Life. I was as out of step with the times as Thomas Aquinas would be if he lived now.

A truck rounded the block, three guys looking at me weirdly. I gulped down another cup of caffeine to buttress myself against what I saw a threat. The Dodge Ram cruised by again and again until it finally stopped. A tall, lanky guy stepped out, striding toward me.

“How’s it, bro? I’m Clu.” Not much bopping fists anymore, at least not on the TV shows I watched.

“Cold. Looks like rain,” I said, hating myself for cliche-talking. Out of fear I should have shown my aggression, letting Clu have it with some obtuse Ludwig Wittgenstein epigraph. Maybe that would’ve been like Kryptonite to a stranger wearing a Yankees cap. So foreign, philosophy, as I shifted my feet in loose dirt, wondering why I hadn’t tried a taxi job.

“Me and those two guys were going to get the floor in today, put up studs.”

“The local wants to shut this down. You’re non-union.” I shook as he spoke, my aversion to conflict strong.

“How much is Hank paying you? $30 a day?”

“$40.” I felt small, double digit wages for what, an up-and-coming philosophy teacher? I’d always shirked middle-class responsibility. Too insecure, basically too frightened, knowing I’d be overwhelmed at encouraging others to enter the mainstream bourgeois life. I preferred manual labor jobs. Quick, what was the opposite of philosophy? Driving cabs, no? Standing next to Clu, I realized I had no future as a philosophy instructor. Being a professor, that was as real to me as believing in God and knowing I’d be consciously aware of my sovereign self in heaven. I then wanted to give Clu a big friendly hug for my satori.

“That’s no kind of ends,” Clu said. I assumed “ends” meant money.

“What sort of ends are you talking about?” I asked.

“Maybe three Franklins a week.” I turned my neck, seeing Clu’s friends gawk and laugh.

“Who do I whack?” I asked. Nervousness translated into paranoia which led to humor. I’d read enough Kafka to realize that. “I watch ‘The Sopranos’.”

“I watch football. You’re fucking with me?” he asked, smiling.

“What do I really do?” I once heard a long-ago friend’s priest say the way of life was to live a holy life and go to heaven, but could all that be achieved in eight words?

“I give you three eightballs to sell, you know, Devil Dust,” Clu said, moving closer as if on a busy street. The only noise was a bus, and then the noon whistle.

“I don’t know anyone. I’m new here.” But I wanted to do it and expected Clu to make it easy for me. “Why ask a stranger like myself? I could be a nark.”

“Hank set you up because he’s a big-time dealer around here and wants to turn us into a nullity.”

Nullity: Latin root meaning none. I flashed upon the Cary Grant movie, “None But The Lonely,” its brooding darkness, how one had to chose mind-numbing work or crime. Odets’ screenplay showed a third way to live-fighting fascism.


“You measure out the crystal by the quarter or gram.” Clu sounded more business-like than Hank. But, then, Clu wasn’t staring at me in a cracked mirror.

“What are eightballs?” I asked and Clu said they were three and one half grams. If you want to know the origins of nothingness, then consulting Sartre would be your man. If you wanted to be somebody, I wanted both essence and matter combined, then it was Leibniz’s monads. Questioning, Clu was my Socrates.

“Only I’d be giving them to you. Free,” Clu said.

“How can you trust me?” Clu’s old man had been a contractor before Hank had become a honcho.

“He slashed Hank with a bottle,” Clu said. “We’re non-union and to hell with phony politics.” Clu went to the truck. He came back, handing me the eightballs, in small, clear bags, plus a delicate scale, or “skies,” the arcane professionalism decreed.

“Hank has a fine recipe for meth, made lots of money,” Clu said. “The union job acts a cover for converting straights into methheads, enrolling people into the UFC.”

“What’s UFC?”

“United For Crank,” said Clu. “We just want to work this area, is all. Clu wants the who freaking state to himself.”

“Monopolies end up selling shoddier goods,” I said, my lips uncontrollably twisting into a wicked smile. Clu and company would cook, making good quality glass and I’d weigh and the sell them. It was opening another franchise; capitalism required expansion or death. We shook hands like business partners. The
quid pro quo: I had to quit going radical, so I ripped the sign up. Easy.

 “Let’s get the highway rolling,” said Clu and gave me a ride to my motel room. Clu also gave me two names at the same bar as I’d sloshed in the previous night. No citizens remained these day, only consumers.

I turned on the FM station as I weighed it out. “I am the one. I am the chosen,” sang Lenny Kravitz.

“Confidence-building,” I said, sniffing now and then.

I weighed many bags, working precisely and neatly. That night, listening to an after-midnight, all-music
FM station, I saw car headlights turn off. A woman got out and opened the room next to mine. I quickly opened the door and introduced myself. Maggie told me she worked the swing shift at the only all-night, big chain restaurant in town. It was nearly 2 a.m.

“There’s still room for bacon and cheese hamburgers,” she said, asking with her tired eyes if she could visit me.

The paraphernalia was on the table and I’d no intention of trying to hide it.

“Try it, you’ll like it,” I said. Maggie told me she took Bennies to keep awake because sometimes the other
waitress failed to show. And she worked part-time at a convenience store nearby, too.

“A secret boozer. Uses makeup to hide her haggard look,” she said. We snorted and talked all night. “I declare my independence from the fool and the knave. I declare my independence from the coward and the
slave,” sang Len Chandler. I loved his triumphalism.

We finished a few bags and Maggie knocked the door of another motel room. A woman staggered out and
Maggie burst inside, telling her she had something to wake her up forever. We three snorted, then drank beers.

We tossed the empties hard against the wall, not caring about noise, just shooting the shit. Sunrise, we squinted in unison, laughing how our eyes forced up the sun. Then we got in Maggie’s car and zoomed to a bar she frequented.

I carried the eightballs in my zipped jacket pockets. The barflies shared the candy. I went to the bathroom, seeing the urinal’s harsh, yellow-stained porcelain flaming, making my piss gaudy as it ker-splashed. For days and nights, I couldn’t count the sunrises and sunsets, crank delivered its chrome and diamonds. We bounced around town, downtown and outskirts, people from one bar knowing others in homes, others in upscale bars, to homes secluded in forests to apartments with smooth Danish furniture. The future was ours, the past was the devil.

Maggie finally crashed, slept for a few hours, then drove to the restaurant hoping her long-time employment
there would pull her through the hole of not losing her job. The others scattered and gone, bodies whirling and spinning with platinum, disappearing into so-whatness. I sat alone in my room, touching the leftovers as it permeated my skin, still high. But what about Mr. Clu? How was it left? Did he want the money or the bags? And about Hank: Had Karen put him there, knowing entanglements would bring me down? I meant “down” as in getting over my head, not as crashing and burning. Karen like making certain I had a goal, though menial it was compared to hers. Had she followed me or had she sent private security to watch where I went? Getting even for dropping her? My every move and twitch? How would anyone keep tabs on the vorticism, the crooked-edged machine cubist images, that magazine, Blast. Blackwater surveillance
( “keep watch” ) could. Clu=clue? Clueless, me not him.

I walked to a store where they sold handguns and bought a twenty-two revolver, plus a box of bullets. It began to rain, hard and nasty, as I walked the outskirts. No money for a room, I needed and wanted to hitch back to Karen.

The basis for the paranoia may have been paranoid, like Roosevelt’s ” the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But with me there wasn’t “we” anymore.

The rain pushed me down, deeper into the earth. I knew how to make the switch. I stood in a mud-soaked gully off the highway. I knew what to do with the gun.



My mother read my first published poem, “Wrong Womb,” and told me never show it to my father. It could’ve changed my life if I had. I would’ve been CEO of a bigtime cloning company, replicating as many Buck Owens’s as possible. Instead, I’m stuck typing “Finnegans Wake” over and over. This ritual is destined to be greater than the invention of golf carts.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.