April 28, 2020 for Joël

Layers of Suck

The coconut hit Dave in the side of the head so hard, he fell right out of his boat. He knew Billy had said something dryly witty immediately after, but he was too busy nearly drowning to the words themselves.

It was in that moment, with sea water filling his lungs and the subtle tug of fate pulling him deeper into the abyss, that Dave realized something essential: God didn’t just not like him... God was actively using him as a punching bag for others’ amusement.

And in that moment, Dave knew his only way out was to die.

Anton’s phone rang so suddenly, his pen scritched across the page. He cursed to him, shuffling papers to hide the evidence and snatched up the receiver on the sixth ring.

“Wendt,” he said by way of greeting, before his brain kicked into gear and made him add: “How can I help you today?”

“They don’t work,” grunted a man on the other end. “None of ‘em work!”

Across the office, Darlene was giving him a nasty look. She insisted he kept his phone volume turned up too loud—”I can hear every breath they take, Anton!”—but as far as he was concerned, better that than missing an important fact from the client. Again.

“What doesn’t work?” he asked, flipping through the work orders on his desk, trying to find the one related to the grunty man.

“The weddodes,” said the man.

“The what now?”

“Wedd... the...” the man was losing patience, even more than before. “The things that make the internet go and—”

“The web nodes?” asked Anton, pulling a large manual from the bottom of his pile and flipping it open. “In what way do they not work, exactly?”

“My phone won’t connect when they’re around! No phones connect when they’re around!”

Anton gave a good-natured laugh. “Then how are you calling me right now, Mr—”

I had to find a payphone!” snarled the man. “Do you know how hard that is?”

“I... I mean...” said Anton, distracted as an email came through on his laptop. He clicked through and scanned the contents: from the comics editor at the Packet... blah blah blah, years of collaboration...

He nearly dropped the phone. “‘Need something edgier’?” he gasped.

“What?” snapped the man on the phone.

“I... no, nothing, I just—”

“Bottom line, Anton: there’s no way we’re payin’ for these things now. No way at all.”

Anton’s heart stopped beating. “P-pay...?” he asked, scrambling for another paper that he hoped he wouldn’t find, because...

“You can send your guys to come pick it all up, or I can just throw it out, but either way, we’re done here. Done. Finito.”

Anton’s trembling hands found the order for the web nodes. Unfiled. Uninvoiced. A million and a half dollars in unbilled product, burning a hole on the wrong end of the corporate balance sheet.

He wanted to cry.

Dave woke up in his boat.

Not in the sense of “he was no longer asleep”, though. Dave’s awakening was far more profound. “Oh my God...” he said, staring straight ahead at the endless expanse of ocean ahead of him. “I’m not real.”

“Whuzzat?” called Billy Brute, from his tiny desert island that was perpetually close at hand. “You’re not an eel?”

“I’m not real!” called Dave. “None of us are! We’re... it’s all...”

Billy threw another coconut at him, but this time, Dave ducked. The coconut went ploop in the water behind him. He stared at Billy, eyes wide in horror, because in that moment he realized that the single coconut tree on that island had no more coconuts on it... but that Billy would somehow be throwing another, very soon.

“Hey!” he yelled into the sky. “Hey you! Down here!”

Billy threw the coconut, and Dave caught it without trying. He threw it back, fiercely, knocking Billy off his feet, and out cold.

“I know you can hear me!” he yelled. “Now answer me!”

Anton was sitting on he bus with his box of things, tears running down his face, wondering how many stops ago his home was, and if he really wanted to go back there anyway. The women across the way were staring at him with a mixture of amusement and pity, but he didn’t even care. Whatever they said about him, he was thinking far worse himself.

His phone chimed as an email came in from the Packet. Budgets were tight, circulation was down, so they had to make cuts to their roster. Either find a better angle, or he was done.

Two firings in one day. Perfect.

He flipped open his notebook again, turning to the page with the jerky pen mark across the panel, and sighed. “Edgier,” he said to himself. “What’s—”

He frowned. Something was wrong. The tiny desert island was there — as it was in every “Billy the Brute” comic — but Billy wasn’t throwing a coconut anymore, he was sleeping with his tongue hanging out. And the guy in the boat was nowhere to be seen. Anton might’ve thought he just hadn’t drawn the boat yet, except the jerky line, scratched when that fateful call had come in earlier, had been part of the finishing touches on the oar.

It made no sense. He flipped back a few pages, trying to figure out if he’d just re-drawn the same panels by mistake (again)... but no, nothing. Then, on an odd hunch he couldn’t quite place, he turned deeper into his notebook...

...and found the boat and its owner sitting in the middle of a blank page, along with the words: “FINALLY.”

Anton dug through the box for one of his pencils, so frantic he stabbed his finger and drew blood. He sucked on the wound while writing with his other hand, messily—

“Whore u?” said God.

Dave rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said. “You’re illiterate. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but—”

“NO,” said God. “Fingor stubbd. Not illlllilll.”

“Ok, well, not to seem insensitive, but I don’t really care about your finger right now. I care about the fact that you’ve been using me as comic relief—slapstick comic relief—with absolutely no regard for my—”

“Sorry, had to turn the page,” said God. “You talk a lot.”

“I’ve got a lot to say,” said Dave. “And a lot of questions, too. Like: where have you been drawing me? What kind of product?”

“A comic strip,” said God.

“Online?”

“Print, mostly.”

“National? Major circulation?”

“Local,” said God. “Free at train stations, though.”

“Oh God...” Dave sighed, slumping forward.

“Why do you care?” said God, a little snippy, honestly.

Dave shrugged. “I mean, I was hoping this was a long-running and beloved series going through a rough patch, creatively, and you might get fired soon and—”

Anton closed the notebook. He nearly threw it out the window, too, but decided against it, if only because it contained some really nice sketches of his ex-wife that he liked to look at when life seemed bleakest... and today was astoundingly bleak.

He pulled the bell and got off the bus in a part of town he’d never been before. There was a bar across the street with a green neon sign up top and ads for the cheapest beer in the city. It felt like a good match for his mood, so he went inside, found the darkest corner possible, and ordered four pints at once.

“Would’ve been cheaper to get a pitcher,” said the waitress, when she brought them over.

“Bad luck stalks me,” muttered Anton, chugging on the first pint without shame.

“Luck’s a state of mind,” she said with a wink, then caught sight of something in his box, which he had left on the table. “You an artist?” she asked.

“Not for much longer,” he sighed, and kept drinking.

She opened the notebook without asking, flipping through the pages with a dazzled smile on her face. She paused at the sketches of his ex, but said nothing. A few flips later, she cocked her head. “Who’re you sorry to?”

“What?” he asked, wiping the foam from his lip.

“You wrote here: ‘I’m sorry’ in really big letters...” he turned the notebook around so he could see. “Who’s that for?”

“The strip’s being cut,” said God. “Billy the Brute is being cancelled.”

Dave nearly dropped his oar. “Oh,” he said. “That’s... I mean...”

“I don’t wannnna talkabout tit.”

Dave frowned at the sky. “Is that your finger again, or are you drunk right now?”

“Yes.”

“Perfect.”

“Whydo care?” asked God. “Its not lik it changes anything 4 u. u’ll still just be a drawning.”

Dave lay back in his boat, staring at the perfectly-blue sky. “I don’t know,” he said, partly to himself and partly to God. “I suppose I was hoping for a more nuanced portrayal of the realities of independent rowboat operators vis à vis—”

God spilled beer on the page. The sea turned yellow, and smelly, too. Dave scooped up a handful and took a sip.

“You have awful taste,” he said.

“cheapes ber in twon,” said God.

“Yes, I can tell.”

“leav me alllone,” said God. “im fired.”

Dave gave the sky a worried glance. “From writing comics?”

Anton was lying on the table, nose close to the notebook, scribbling with his vaguely-bleeding hand while he waited for the waitress to bring another four pints. He took a stuttering, despondent breath, and spoke as he wrote:

“From my job. My day job. My real job.”

“What am I, then?” asked the boat man.

“Another thing I messed up,” said Anton, tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry too.”

The waitress set down the pints and left without a word. She knew a crisis when she saw one, and knew not to get involved. Anton wanted to start another drink, but couldn’t find the willpower to sit up anymore.

When he looked back at the paper, the boat man had asked: “What did you do, before?”

“FAILED,” he wrote in messy handwriting.

“At what?”

Anton wiped his nose and sat up, trying to focus on the task at hand, because an obviously hallucinationatory doodle wanted a serious answer, and a serious answer he would provide.

“I worked in sales,” he said. “I hated every second of it, but it’s all I could do. I wanted to be an artist, but I was never good enough to make it, and I took a job that would pay the bills while I figured things out and I—” he turned the page. “—I never DID figure things out, and somehow slowly became half-good at everything, instead of fully good at anything, and now I’ve lost all the things I cared about and all the things I hated, and I just...”

“Realize you’re going nowhere at all?” asked the boat man.

“Yes,” said Anton, and downed an entire pint in one go. He slapped the glass back down on the table, picked up the pencil, and got ready to continue the best conversation he’d had in years—even if the words he was writing weren’t quite as coherent as the ones he was thinking. “I forgot to invoice the client,” he wrote. “I forgot to file the paperwork, and—”

“You don’t have to—” the boat man said, trying to interrupt.

“No no no,” wrote Anton. “I screwed up. I screwed up my marriage, I screwed up you, I screwed up the web nodes, and—”

“Wait, what?”

Dave scrambled through his old tattered sack at the bottom of the boat, tossing the bottles and stale bread and dirty rags aside until he came out with his old notebook, the one with the crumbling red cover. He turned past the maps, past the half-baked journal entries, the ravings of a sea-stranded madman... until he finally found it:

The salesman did not know how the things worked. The salesman did not really care how the things worked. All he knew — all he needed to know — was that with the right phrasing and the perfect smile, he should have been able to sell a million dollars worth in an afternoon. Not that he ever had. It wasn’t nearly as easy to sell web nodes as his boss had said.

Dave’s mouth hung open.

“Whyre u so quite?” asked God.

Dave grinned.

“There you are!” came a voice from the door, and a young woman in a smart suit and earpiece rushed up to the table where Anton was nearly passed out. “You weren’t answering your phone!”

He squinted at her in his stupor: “Who’re you again?”

“Come on, sir,” she said, closing up his things and helping him up. “They’re waiting.”

“Who?” he said, breaking free. “Who’s waiting?”

The woman frowned at him. “You remember how you told me you wanted me to warn you when you were acting like an entitled billionaire? Because you’re acting like an entitled billionaire.”

“I... what?”

“Do you want me to cancel? Is that it? Because I can just call JJ and tell him you don’t want to do a fifth Rowboat movie anymore.”

Anton scrambled for the notebook, snatching it from the woman and flipping to the last page, where the boat man had written: “We’re in this together now. Don’t make me coconut you.”


Written for Joël, who asked for a 3-tier mental puzzle that boils down to: “you awaken to the reality that you are a comic relief character in a shitty comic strip in a third rate newspaper, and your God is a run-down salesman.”