Each night when I go to sleep I become a termite. I am an ugly, shiny, pale thing in a colony full of other ugly, shiny, pale things.
I do the work of other termites. I am not very high up in the chain of command. I bite and I bite and I bite at the hard wood. It feels like I will lose my teeth. The other termites bark orders. I work harder. I want to quit but I will starve if I do.
When I wake up I have splinters in my teeth and stuck in my gums. My furniture is fucked. I’ve gone through eight tables this year. The people at the furniture store know me. I’m afraid they have figured it out.
“You either get better at drinking whiskey or you get worse,” said the old man.
“Or in our case both,” said the younger man, who was not young, but younger than the old man. Relative to a young man he may be considered old. But in this context he was younger.
“If whiskey was a religion, I’d be devout,” said the old man.
“We are here every Sunday,” said the younger man.
They sat on milk crates behind the mercado, next to the dumpster. The scent of putrefaction no longer bothered their olfactory.
“When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a whiskey bottle,” said the old man. “I want to be manufactured somewhere in the Midwest — like Milwaukee or something — somewhere cooler. All of my component parts; the glass, the label, the lid, will be artisanally crafted by cheese-eating pensioners. The whiskey will be the finest in the world, made by the finest distillers from the finest mash.
“And I will be left on the shelf for 100 years, full of the finest whiskey,” he concluded.
“When I die,” retorted the younger man, “I want to be reincarnated as Zooey Deschanel’s favorite shade of lipstick.”
I worked in the boiler room of the great machine I didn’t understand. For years I slept in beds of coal, ate food pellets, didn’t see another soul.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t soulless creatures about. There were the demons in the fire of the furnace. Gremlins would steal my coal shovel from time to time. Then there were the coal eaters; inky shadow forms one could only see in the periphery of one’s vision.
The presence of these creatures was disconcerting, but they never caused me much trouble. The trouble came when a deep growling voice came to me while I was sleeping in coal. It said my name, which I’d nearly forgotten. It said I should step into the furnace. It said my home was in there. Everything I’d lost still existed in the flame.
Of course, at first, I figured it was a dream. I tried to put it out of my mind and shoveled more coal into the fire.
There were no days and nights. There was only shoveling, food pellets, and sleep. And the sleep grew more difficult. As every sleep time became interrupted by a horrible voice. The voice reminded me of all the things that I’d managed to forget. Family, friends, home, meals, love. He told me they all lived in the fire.
It got to the point that I couldn’t sleep anymore. As soon as I close my eyes the voice would come. The situation became untenable. I decided that I would speak to the manager.
I’ve never spoken to the manager before. I wasn’t exactly sure that a manager existed. But I figured somebody must be running some part of this machine that I don’t understand.
So I left my station. I didn’t know exactly which direction to take. All I could see in every direction was mountains of coal. Perhaps if I climbed the highest mountain of coal I could get a view of something else.
The mountain was jagged and painful as it dug into my feet and hands. My body wasn’t built for this. I was meant to shovel. It felt unnatural to use my body for anything other than shoveling.
Eventually I reached the top. I could see for what must’ve been miles in every direction. There was nothing but coal to be found. The climb confirmed what I had long suspected. No one was in charge. There was only the fire and the fuel.
I went back to my station. Exhausted, I tried to get some rest. But there was no rest to be had. The voice came again. It taunted my attempt to seek some escape. He said the only escape was in the fire.
I tried to shovel but the exhaustion was getting to me. I began to stare long hours into the flame. My arm and chin rested upon the handle of my shovel, I would stand yearning for escape. The demons in the flame beckoned. The furnace began to look like home.