Cream & Sugar – The Hollow World

Tue, Apr 17, 2012

Stories

Installment #4 of the serialized novel, Cream & Sugar: a story of advertising, race, and one man’s midlife quest to rein in his unruly testicles. In Chapter Four, Elton Pierce rushes home from a day of photo shoots for a lifestyle condominium project, and from there, he rushes out to an evening lecture by David Suzuki. As tempting as it is to persuade himself that he is going to the lecture to do his bit for a better world, Elton can’t help but note in himself a more straight-forward motivation: the mere sight of Liane Gordon gives him a hard-on and he knows she will be at the lecture. Read more about the novel here. You can read chapter four online below, or download it to your favourite e-reader. Catch a new chapter every Tuesday afternoon.

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Wednesday’s presentation to the condo developer has gone better than expected. Mona demonstrated a diplomatic side I’ve never seen before. Len is our in-house photographer who would rather be shooting architectural photos and has no patience for bimbo models with IQ’s smaller than their waist size. If Mona hadn’t intervened, he would have hurled the talent through the window and onto the street below. Somehow, Mona interpreted Len’s instructions to the talent who was able to give Len approximately what he asked for, while I got the art department to do the rest. The result was a series of decent “lifestyle” stills. The plan is to mount them on corner panels at the construction site, eight metres high, gazing down at passing motorists: a woman in a business suit standing over a knock-off Bauhaus desk and talking on her cell phone; the same woman in haut couture handing an envelope to a doorman while her rat of a dog waits at the end of a pink leash; a man lounging in a hot tub with a buff, hairless chest and square jaw that looks like it’s been chiseled from a rock; a genteel matron, silver-haired, curled on a divan and reading a book. The life you know you deserve. From $2.5 million.

One of the client’s founders has come for the presentation, a hairy-knuckled thug named Bruno whose family is using the construction industry as a front for a drug cartel. At least that’s the speculation hanging like a toxic cloud over the water cooler. Then again, the water cooler crowd hasn’t dealt with the man; that’s been my job. His greasy palm squeezes my greasy palm. His pasted-on smile beams at my pasted-on smile. And we walk together down the hall in our suits, dreaming our separate dreams of places we’d rather be and people we’d rather be with.

At six, I rush home and change my clothes so I can go out again to the David Suzuki talk. Or is it Al Gore? I can’t remember. The angry one. There are at least two things I ought to be doing instead. Now that Bruno has signed off on the print ads, we’re supposed to be shifting the marketing machinery into high gear, launching it into media orbit, fast-tracking it to the moon, inflicting on the world a thousand more clichés than it deserves. I ought to be there at the office with all the others, ordering in Chinese and drinking Jolt® by the bucket. But I can’t. I just can’t. I’ve been at it for twenty years now. I feed the beast. That’s what I do. I throw shovelfuls of its own excrement into its maw. It can live well enough without me and my shovel for one evening of the week.

The other thing I ought to be doing is spending time with my kids. Giselle can help them with their English homework, but when they pull out their math books, she starts to quake and says: Go get your father. But the truth is: they don’t want my help. Katrine zones out when I’m talking, and Griff is downright hostile. He starts talking smack which makes me want to whack him on the side of the head. His voice changed in the spring and now there isn’t a waking minute he doesn’t remind the whole world dat he da man and what the hell do I know? If we were a pack of wild dogs or a band of mountain gorillas, Griff would be that skinny whelp or young grunt asserting itself for the first time and, as alpha male, I’d be the one to put him back in his place with a snarl or the sharp crack of knuckles across the jaw. But I can’t be bothered with his smack. I just can’t. So I wolf down re-reheated leftovers and throw on a jacket and move towards the front door.

Where you going? Giselle says it with a note of contempt as if it’s impossible that I would have something of my own to do in an evening.

Out.

Where out?

To a lecture.

You taking a course?

It’s David Suzuki.

Oh.

At the Westin Theatre.

Oh.

About the environment.

No shit.

Bye.

Have fun.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to walk away from everything, to close the door behind me, to step off the front porch, to disappear into the gloom of the approaching night. Let’s be clear: I would never do such a thing. It’s more a fantasy of mine. I wonder what it would be like to start fresh, alone, somewhere else, maybe in a different country, one where they don’t speak English, one where they’ve never known the touch of ad copy that makes them feel empty in their lives and urges them through desire to fill their empty lives with products, beautiful shining products, in magazines, on radio and TV, on billboards eight metres high. I could give it all up: wife, kids, house, car, pension—the whole damned works—even my name.

Liane’s environmental group rented the Westin Theatre for the evening. This is the biggest event they’ve ever hosted. There’s his name in lights: David Suzuki splashed across the marquee. I park in a municipal lot on Beecroft, then (because I’m early) I walk over to Yonge Street and have a coffee at the Second Cup®. I start to feel self-conscious or squeamish or guilty or something. Is it right to drive to an environmental event? And what’s the true cost for a cup of coffee? How far did the beans travel before they landed in the pot behind the counter? I look at my watch and realize I have to leave, so I gulp the last of the coffee and burn my tongue. But I have to finish it here. There’s no way I could toss a disposable coffee cup in the theatre lobby with so many environmentalists staring at me. They’re like dogs, you know—these environmentalists—like the dogs at the border that sniff out cocaine. Only these ones sniff out hypocrisy. With a single whiff, they can tell which guests are true environmentalists and which guests are suburban wannabes who like the movement in its broad strokes (who doesn’t want to save the planet?) but not at the expense of a cushy middle-class life where bits of waste splash out one way and another like head from a fresh-drawn draught of lager.

I hand my ticket to a young man in a penguin suit—probably a senior from the high school on the other side of Yonge Street. He tears the ticket in two and lets his half flutter to the ground by his feet.

Enjoy the show, he says in a mechanical voice.

Actually, it’s a lecture.

Whatever, and he takes the next person’s ticket.

My seat is on the main floor two-thirds of the way back. Five minutes to go and still at least half the seats are empty. After a quick scan of the audience, I decide there are two kinds of people here. There are the real environmentalists, and there are the curious but uncommitted mostly middle-aged suburbanites. The real environmentalists divide into two subtypes: committed and hard-core. Both wear denim or hemp clothes and canvas high-top shoes, but the hard-cores also wear bandanas and have either one conspicuous tattoo or at least one piercing in an appendage other than an ear, and they carry beat up back packs covered in pins. The hard-cores gravitate towards the foot of the stage and the doorways to either side of the stage. Okay, I exaggerate. Not all the hard-cores are dressed in denim and hemp. Take Liane, for example. There she is, front row centre, wearing her black Lycra® cycling pants with reflective stripes down the side and matching jacket hanging open to reveal a mauve tank top underneath. She’s holding a metal water bottle which she sometimes jerks from side to side to underscore whatever it is she’s saying to the man standing in front of her. I’m too far from her to hear the precise words, but the exchange is animated and intense—the sort of exchange you’d expect from hard-core environmentalists.

The man behaves like the alpha male of the band. He carries himself with a take-charge manner. Other hard-cores approach with questions or greetings; he smiles or talks, then dismisses each in turn and returns his attention to Liane. He’s younger than me—and he’s hip in a way I could never be. For one thing, he wears faded no-name jeans and a black T-shirt. For another thing, he has those long wide sideburns like Wolverine from DC Comics® and dark-framed glasses like Buddy Holly. There’s an obvious chemistry between Liane and him. He hoists himself onto the stage and walks to the wings, stage right, where he disappears from sight for a minute, then returns to the lectern and clears his throat into the mike.

Good evening.

The audience is excited and the talking continues.

Uh. Good evening everybody. There’s a quaver in his voice. Ah, I think. So the alpha male isn’t invulnerable. Can you all take your seats? We’re ready to start. People shush one another into silence. He grips both sides of the lectern and leans heavily into the mike. My name is Luke Kidrun and I’m the director of ECO, the Environmental Coalition of Ontario. Tonight, we have a special guest who needs no introduction.

I roll my eyes. Whenever an emcee says the speaker needs no introduction, you just know he’s going to give one anyways. I bet he’s the kind of guy who wraps up an introduction by saying: And without further ado, and sure enough, after an exhaustive and embarrassing cv, that’s what he says: Without further ado. Only he says: adieu. To yieu, and yieu, and yieu.

Suzuki doesn’t appear to have patience for long-winded self-aggrandizing introductions and has crept onto the stage, and even before the final words have left Luke’s lips, Suzuki is thanking him and launching into his talk. Suzuki doesn’t appear to have patience for much of anything that smacks of stupid. He wears a wireless headset and drifts back and forth across the stage, speaking without notes. We engage in certain activities that will have horrible consequences for the planet. If we continue to engage in those activities, then we are stupid. There is no argument, only censure. He reminds me of Len who was prepared to hurl the stupid bimbo models out the window.

I don’t hear everything the man says. It’s been a long and stressful day and I’m beginning to fade. But I hear a few phrases that I recognize, sayings that have become part of the movement’s lore. He confirms E. O. Wilson’s claim that if ants suddenly became extinct, then life on the planet would die, whereas if humans suddenly became extinct, then life on the planet would begin to heal. He says that eating meat leaves more of a carbon footprint than driving a Hummer. He says the eco-terrorist label is bullshit; the real terrorist is the corporate polluter who bullies the public with lawyers and then lies to the public with slick media PR people. I sink in my seat and hope no one notices the crimson rush to my cheeks.

Suzuki spends at least half his time in a heated Q & A. Emotions run high. There are catcalls and boos and hissing. And there’s cheering and clapping, especially from the true believers. But at the two-hour mark, he announces that he’s taking only one more question which he dispatches succinctly, then mutters something about getting to the airport to catch the red-eye to Vancouver, and he ambles off the stage to modest applause. Luke offers words of thanks while looking offstage, but you can tell by his hurt expression that Suzuki has already left the building.

While I’m waiting at the coat check, a man steps to the counter. He has a brusque manner but speaks to the attendant with humour. He’s my age and not one of the hard-cores. I recognize him from somewhere. Usually I’m better at remembering names and faces, but the context is all wrong. I put on my non-descript, non-stylish, non-standoutish jacket, drop some change into the tip jar, and pause to stare at the man in profile. There he stands, mid-forties, coal-coloured stubble, strong jaw, full dark hair, well-trimmed hair, enviable hair. A client? Husband to one of Giselle’s innumerable literary contacts? He pulls on a black full-length trench coat, as timeless as Casablanca, and after looking down to tie the belt, he lifts his head and our eyes meet. He reflects to me the same vague recognition, and together we hang suspended in an awkward pause.

Elton Pierce. I offer my hand. I know I’ve— When he reaches out his black arm and ruffles the hem of his black coat, it trips a switch in my brain, but I still can’t remember his name. I was at St. George’s on Sunday.

Ah yes. We spoke briefly after the service.

The priest spoke briefly to everybody after the service, so it’s a comment that would be easy to fake, but his look of recognition seems authentic.

Did you enjoy the talk? he asks.

Well, I spent most of it wincing with guilt, so I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. But it was still a good talk.

I hear you, and he does. For me, guilt is an occupational hazard. But most people aren’t willing to do anything with it. Well—and he snaps upright in an if-I-go-any-further-I’ll-have-to-have-a-deep-conversation-with-a-stranger posture. Gotta go. Gotta get home to my kids.

Mm.

Will I see you on Sunday?

Uh, sure. As soon as I say it, I want to kick myself. I have no desire to commit my weekend time to anything, least of all to religion. Yet I know I’ll feel guilty now if I renege. I’m trapped.

I don’t feel like walking out of the building with the priest because I still can’t remember his name. So far, I’ve managed the awkward encounter with a certain adroitness but don’t want to push it further. I solve the problem by saying I have to go to the bathroom—which is kind of true—and we go off in our different directions. After I’ve washed my hands, I reach into my jacket pocket and pull out the order of service from Sunday. There it is: Rev. Dr. Richard (Rick) Fellowes. I repeat the name ten times and commit it to memory with as much care as I’d give to a business contact.

As I walk back through the lobby, I see that someone has propped open the door to the theatre so ushers can move freely in and out as they pick up discarded programs and scraps of garbage. I peer inside. The house lights are up. Luke sits stage right on the steps that go down to the audience. If his head weren’t propped on his hands, it would probably droop to his toes. Liane sits beside him, an arm across his shoulder, and draws him into her breast. She makes clucking sounds, then cooing sounds. I wonder if she’s practising bird calls. Taken together, the two look like one of Michelangelo’s pietas. They form a wretched tableau of despair.

Liane sees me standing just inside the doors. She waves and jumps to her feet and says: You made it. Her voice echoes from the bare walls and sounds too loud. She hunches a little, self-conscious at the sound of her own greeting. We move towards one another and meet at row L. So glad you could come.

I stand like a teenager, smitten, speechless.

So what’d you think?

Enjoyed it. Very. He was—

Isn’t he amazing though? Sends my head spinning every time I hear him speak.

I point to Luke and ask what’s wrong. Luke looks even more pathetic now that Liane has abandoned him. Things went well, I say. I think he’d be ecstatic.

Oh. Well. She shrugs and creases her brow into a worried expression as she looks back at Luke. Now, Luke is flat on his back, head downstage, feet dangling over the orchestra pit. He holds his forearm pressed against his eyes. All he needs to do is moan and I’ll feel obliged to set a gun to his head and put him out of his misery. The event was great, but we only sold half the tickets. Luke’s worried we won’t cover our costs. And Suzuki left all in a huff because we’d promised a full house.

I look at Liane. Her eyes are luminous, filled with a deep empathy for Luke’s pain. It makes her beautiful.

I want to help. Almost as a reflex, I want to make things better. But I’m like a dog, and not a clever dog either. I salivate when there’s food, and do the one trick I know best. I reach into my pocket and pull out a business card. You know, I say as I finger the card, this is just a matter of marketing. I give her the card. Next time you throw a party like this, why don’t you let me handle the promotion?

Liane stares at the card: Elton Pierce, Senior Vice-President, Feinman Marketing Inc. She looks up at me again as if she’s a cop confirming my identity. The smile has vanished from her face. The eyes have chilled to hard inscrutable dots.

Thank you, she says.

She doesn’t move. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t give me an opening to scoot the conversation along. I scrunch my shoulders and smile and mumble something about having to get home, then, as I turn to leave, I ask if I’ll see her at church on Sunday.

Don’t know, she says. I never know until five minutes beforehand.

When I get to the car, I slap my palms on the roof. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. She thinks I’m one more self-promoting douche bag; environmentalism is just a business opportunity. I slide behind the steering wheel and turn the key in the ignition. Christ. No wonder she gave me that cold stare.

I turn off the engine and get out of the car. I have to tell her. I have to set the record straight. When I gave her the business card, it wasn’t because I wanted business, but only to give her a way to contact me. Time for some damage control—also an important skill in the marketing business. Christ. There I go again. If I go back and explain myself, that will only confirm that I’m a self-promoting douche bag whose first concern is his own image.

I get back into the car and turn the key in the ignition. Fuck it. She thinks I’m a douche bag. So what? I’m a married man. What’s it to me what another woman thinks of me?

When I pull into the driveway, I turn off the engine but I don’t get out of the car right away. Instead, I sit and think. The fall air is cool and feels good against my forehead. The windows fog up so that when I look through them, the whole world is a dark blur. I think of the story I’ve been trying to write. I think of a hollow world, one that’s been traveling through space for two thousand years, one that’s empty now, and useless, and irrelevant.

Cream & Sugar, fiction

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