Seth Phelps


Jack C.

Jack C. spilled coffee over his papers, across the top of the table, it dripped down onto his lap, but more dramatically onto hers. A feeling of extreme anxiety crept from his gut to the apex of his eyeballs, forcing them to bulge and flare with the unmistakable sign of fear. Nobody knew if it was fear of what she had just insinuated, or fear of what he might do as a result of what he had just heard. Nobody knew. Not he nor she nor the four art students sitting about six feet away from the coffee flooded table.

Now two minutes had passed and nobody had mentioned the incident. She gazed at him with disgust, almost looking through him as though trying to change him into the man she always imagined. Or rather the man she thought he could be, no, the man that he thought he was because he knew she imagined that man. As he looked at her he sipped what was left of his coffee, trying to enjoy the cold, stale burst of caffeine as though it was all he had left to hold on to. If she was angry he could not tell. Perhaps he had spilled the coffee on purpose, subconsciously wanting to disrupt the conversation. A way of throwing off her choppy, demanding soliloquy that he wanted no part of. For those two minutes the earth spun backward on its axis, reversing its elliptical path. Now the coffee had just spilled and Jack C. reached out to her with an obviously pointless attempt to stop the flood of liquid from landing on her legs. The gesture had little impact on her decision to leave him and never look back.

For months Jack C. tried to reestablish contact with her, but she was clearly happy with her new boyfriend. A muscle bound construction worker who had once fought in the International Super Brawl and liked to make it known, but concealed the fact that he was TKO’d two minutes and forty-two seconds into the fight. He was a mean guy with mean tattoos. Even his dog had tattoos, “a mean fucking dog with mean fucking tattoos” as he often boasted. Jack C. eventually accepted the fact that she would never come back.

A few months pass and something deep inside of him still needs her, but he gave up a long time ago and has forgotten how to go about fulfilling his desires for her. When he gave up his life changed. He always thought that it was for the better, that this was how things were meant to be with him, that he had beat the system. He gave away all of the possessions that he didn’t need, sold his stereo, and threw out the old fitness and electronics magazines that reminded him of the person he once wanted to be. He planned on selling his television but found the receipt and returned it to the store where he bought it. He told them that it was broken, but the truth is that it had broken him. Along with millions of others that think they can cure their troubles by coming home and escaping into the lives of people whose actions are funnier than life. Actions as banal as burning an egg. Actions that somehow seem more real than reality. Actions that were originally meant to replicate our lives, but now replace them. Actions that tell him he will never be good enough for her. He needs washboard abs and bulging biceps. He needs a nice car and money to spend lavishly. He needs a nice house for her to decorate. But first of all he needs a job.

He hasn't worked a steady job for over a year. He is more than capable. His last job was distributing products that shipped directly from Europe. They came through a third party and he sold the products at a dangerously high markup. The IRS is still in the dark. It was one of those fly-by-night corporations that burn you out like a cheap match and then leave you with your head screwed on backwards, wondering how all of your hard work seemed to dissipate with each passing week. The type of company that has a carefully planned out shelf life and leaves town in a systematic fashion, all the while putting on an act of being an employee driven operation. When the heat came down on him to increase sales he quit and has never looked back. When he handed over the keys to his warehouse operation he was handing over the last of his faith in capitalism. He fears that any stupid little job can transform him into a product of society, forced to sell himself for a dangerously low profit. So he avoids long-term employment. Only sticking around long enough to see the signs that they want him to be more responsible. They see potential in him and try to capitalize on his energy. He only sees that he is about to be sucked into the vortex of a capitalist scheme. A pyramid scheme so vast that nobody can see it, so vast that it keeps people from knowing that they are the ones feeding the system. But if the system is a true pyramid scheme then nothing is ever really getting done. Everybody is relying on everybody else doing their part so that as long as they all act like there is a system, there will be a system. The few that reject the system see that most people in the system reject the idea that there is a system. They deny that they are playing a game with rules made up only for the purpose of not breaking the rules. Like a computer system whose program only exists to interpret its own language. Jack C. is beginning to think that he is only interpreting language and creating a sub-division of reality from fragments of people’s conversations. He feels like he is attempting to crack the code that is slipping through the fingers of the media. But that is only a feeling, and it usually goes away when he relapses into the system for a few months, forced to submit himself so that he can once again realize that he doesn’t belong, a realization that is his only source of happiness since she left him.

He maintains this cycle for a while until he is no longer capable of focusing on his goal of having no goal. Eventually he begins to feel the need to pursue something concrete, something real, something that is not just an idea. He thinks about what his goal should be but has trouble grasping the concept of his life moving forward in time. He tries to think harder but becomes lost in the thought for almost eight years. Eight years that see him shuffled around from the streets to homeless shelters to a hospice where he spends everybody’s time trying to understand how he can have a future if every moment is spent either in the present or in memories of the past. A past that for him always ends with the day he spilled the coffee. A day that he re-lives with such vividness that it feels as though the earth is spinning backward on its axis, reversing its elliptical path, rewinding space-time back to the moment that the coffee cup tipped over, the moment that encompasses the end of Jack C. and the beginning of a new Jack C. because the earth actually has spun backward. Space-time has encountered a major setback that once again places Jack C. in the café at the table sitting across from her with his coffee in hand. Only this time she hasn’t given her soliloquy yet and Jack C. knows exactly what to do.

Just as she begins to open her mouth to recite the words that could ruin his life, he gets up and walks out of the café, leaving her in bewilderment. A feeling of extreme anxiety creeps up from her gut to the apex of her eyeballs, forcing them to bulge and flare with the unmistakable sign of confusion. Confusion that is a direct consequence of never really getting to know Jack C. Confusion that is replacing her confidence in her decision to leave him. Confusion that shows her a handful of memories from their time together. Memories that collide and twist into a vortex of confusion. Inviting her into a state of mind beyond rational thought until the memories crash onto the floor, colliding with the cold tile, lying there waiting for somebody to mop them up and discard them as if they never existed. She is stuck in this state of mind for eight years during which she spends most of her time de-centering the idea of the self, trying to rationalize his actions as anything but a consequence of the way she treated him, and going to therapy for her self-esteem issues. Her psychiatrist wants her to start dating as a way of building up social skills so she has a co-worker set her up on a blind date.

When she shows up at the restaurant her date is already seated. As she sits down across from him at the table they both have a feeling of extreme anxiety creep up from their gut to the apex of their eyeballs. Two minutes pass and neither of them says a word. Nobody knows what to do. Not he nor she nor the four businessmen sitting about six feet away from their candlelit table. Jack C. sits there for those two minutes and interprets the language floating through the air of the restaurant, deciphering the code of space-time and forcing them to separate. The separation begins with sound moving below its limits, voices and ambient noise mingle together but refuse to dip out of the audible spectrum and instead coalesce into a thick haze enveloping the restaurant. Temperature becomes aware of itself and begins an epic battle to neutralize its fluctuations by seeping into particles of hydrogen and causing millions of implosions. The implosions seize everybody’s perception, forcing their thoughts to fuse together into a circle of impossible answers which grow into an electron field so dense that even the smallest particle of energy feels trapped in a bad relationship, the type that has gone on too long and must be ended, yet has grown into an uncomfortable naturalness that is almost impossible to live without. This separation exponentially increases space and time until there is not enough room for events to take place in a linear fashion or a tangible space. An instant before everything is chaotically blended into a vortex of confusion, Jack C. understands why the future is an impossible concept for him to grasp.