Dude, Speak Up, I Still Got Beer In My Mustache
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Orders"
Originally featured on 04-08-2008
As part of our series "Marching On"

I quit my job at Synth Systems Inc. when my supervisor Mert—a.k.a. Dr. Constance A. Malthius—made clear his intention to emotionally adopt me as his son. Jason Malthius, the sole biological descendant of Mert, was of roughly my age and bearing, and was estranged from his father for reasons exceeding the scope of my give-a-shit-ometer when tangential lunchtime conversation fell into that black hole of a topic.

As mentor, Mert took over where my Bachelors degree in computer science left off. As sick, demented old weirdo—a more literate way of saying that would be 'as a man of questionable character,' seeing as how my artless colloquialisms are unbecoming, making me prone to premature alienation by my peers—Mert left me no choice.

It was during Mert’s family camping trip (upon his invitation, hesitance was absent from my affirmative response, although to be fair, pre-conscious ambivalence had established a perimeter around my brain like herbal tea injected into a bowl of Jello) that he taught me the art of time travel. When I asked Mert if Jason had been exposed to this unique art, I got no answer. No answer can be the clearest kind of answer in such circumstances.

Let me make one thing clear: I find presentations and first impressions tedious.

Mary had been urging me to resign from Synth Systems for several months before my decision dared to materialize. Mary and I are, for all intents and purposes, joined at the cerebrum. The salaried position I occupied in my boss’s affections was exerting stress on my personal life to which I was—in my infinite self-awareness—altogether ignorant until Mary woke me up at Three A.M. and said "Put in your two week’s notice." Still not quite awake, I said "What are you talking about?" She said "I’m serious." I said "You're crazy." Then I looked at her face and said "Did you just have a bad dream?" Unable to sleep that night, I pulled out my resume and gazed at it until sunrise cooked the bottom of my eyelids.

There are two things I’ve never told Mary. The first is a sexual proclivity I’ve held since pre-boyhood in one form or another, a fixation on Etch A Sketch porn (I mean that not in reference to the rendering of erotic images with an Etch A Sketch, but to acts of, well, to put it bluntly, humping the screen and thereby incurring a slow erasure of whatever innocent drawing was present before the lights went out). The second thing I’ve never told Mary—in the three years we’ve lived together—is what Mert taught me on that camping trip.

Seven months have elapsed since my voluntary withdrawal from Synth Systems, Inc. On an unremarkable day in early June, I am attempting something crazy. I will eventually tell Mary everything.

 

The inside of my bottle cap informs me that the city of Los Angeles contains enough concrete to build a staircase to the moon. And the bottle cap just got heavier. Not that I’m surprised. Nothing printed on a commercial product has the ability to surprise me. Once you react, you’re no longer bigger than the product you're consuming. When a wolf bites off the head of a rodent, would it stop to read the writing on the organs, if there were messages planted there for the wolf’s entertainment? Fortune cookies are a bourgeois invention; the desire to end a meal with something that cannot be swallowed, a last bite that your mind chews and chews and chews, waiting for a distraction—I want no part of it.

Nevertheless, I tuck the bottle cap into the back pocket of my jeans. If I sit down for long enough that my asshole grows eyes that see in the dark, my ass will be made smarter by the knowledge that Los Angeles has enough concrete to touch the moon. Corporate trivia for you. Having just downed a sixteen-ounce bottle of Berry Fusion Resurrection, I think I’m ready.

My wrist should be experiencing that momentary sensation of buoyancy I always get when I drink something too fast and then I’m left with an empty bottle—or, in this case, just a cap and some words designed to elicit a gasp from moi—sans the weight of grape juice concentrate, distilled water, raspberry, blackberry and boysenberry juices, high fructose corn syrup, taurine and ginseng root extract, all sixteen ounces of it. It’s that same feeling you get when you press your palms together as hard as you can, count to fifty and then let go as fast as you can—an invisible force pushing in the opposing direction. No buoyancy right now.

Of all bottle caps, why should this one give the illusion of retaining the weight of the vessel it once sealed? Whatever manufacturing plant spat out this cap deemed it worthwhile to spend an extra few cents to stamp this insipid trivia fact on it, and somewhere somebody in an office is being paid thirty bucks an hour to research and come up with these aphorisms that make the Resurrection beverage line a winner. …I wish I made thirty dollars an hour.

I have no reason to look at it again. In any case, I know that it will linger in that back pocket for some time to come. I sometimes pick through all the old bottle caps in that pocket and draw one at random when I’m bored and hard up for inspiration.

Question. Am I ready to do this? Answer. That bullshit about Los Angeles. Question. Am I sufficiently energized? Answer. Shut up and focus.

I’m sitting on a wooden bench where to the left of me somebody has inscribed a heart, and in that heart, two names. Jezebel and Holly. Below that, in different handwriting and etched with a different utensil is the phrase wasabi fellatio, and just downstream in the wood’s striations, midnight milk. The first one sounds familiar. I think it’s the name of a local punk band. Before me the sweeping view of Eagle Valley Parkway is flanked by two Fir trees. I’m high enough that the freeways look like living beaded necklaces and the cars are inaudible. The hills, hayfields, church spires and mini malls in view have the texture of egg salad, and those two Fir trees are my knife and fork. If I catch myself starting to wonder how much concrete is down there, then I don’t deserve to be thinking.

The interconnectedness of the American workforce is my current source of abstract amusement. My next self-appointed mental riddle is to draw a sequential path linking bottle-cap trivia to my own occupation. This should be far too easy: I troubleshoot and revamp executable HTML programs. A recent project involved a data-entry system for a distributor of side view mirrors to the trucking industry. When refining lines of code on a black screen, the farthest thing from my mind is the end user, a warehouse worker who will be enabled to more efficiently disburse the right mirror to the right truck. His end user is a truck driver who delivers cases of Berry Fusion Resurrection… Chocolate Latte Resurrection is the best, hands down. I wish they’d phase out that Apple Tart Resurrection crap—it’s not even made with real apples.

Stupid. Stupid. Damn it. This isn’t working. My mind is rambling. When under pressure, I think nothing thoughts. Mert’s lessons. Breathe and let thoughts unfold. And then seize them.

Anybody can do this. It just takes doing, quoth Mert.

I’m ready. I’m fucking pumped. I’ve got it down now. This is going to work.

Affirmations. I was just making candy-ass affirmations. And before that…

Frustration at my meditations' absence of substance.

Backtracking, previous thought, what was it…

Contrived logic loop; a putative truck delivers my favorite drink to the merchant.

My hometown looks like egg salad.

Hungry.

Midnight milk.

Wasabi fellatio.

Jezebel and Holly share a love, an otherworldly bond so overwhelming in its expressions of tactile and carnal delight that a wooden park bench is no innocent bystander to the intimate embraces perpetrated by Jezebel and Holly before documenting their presence with a heart etched into the wood with a pocketknife, or maybe a shard of glass.

Berry Fusion Resurrection. Los Angeles. My back pocket.

Buoyancy.

The bottle cap feels as heavy as the whole drink before being drunk.

The absurdity of fortune cookies. Comparing our absurd modern customs of dining

to a predator in the wild.

Opening up my IMTaT logbook, still winded from the climb, just enjoying the air.

I sit down.

Just before sitting down, I feel nervous. No sooner do I feel nervous than my inner control freak nags me to document the fact that I feel nervous in my logbook entry. Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it.

Strange to think of the calories I’m burning to hike to the spot where I can work this dubious magic. My plan of success involves convincing myself to do something that will take about three minutes and require little energy. I’ve already been hiking for half an hour and I’ve sweat through to my backpack.

Just a minor alteration to appearance.

-jog-

I slept on the couch, like I always do after we argue. Mary accused me of not taking myself seriously. Now, I’m no dapper Dan, but I could have at least shaved for the banquet, she told me. That triggered something—being nagged over the aesthetics of my face makes me angry. Not sure why. Can posit about twelve reasons why. No logical reason why. I’ve always considered it a form of rebellion to dress unfashionably. Apparently, my wardrobe was not the problem that evening. My scraggly-ass face embarrassed her in public, and made her not want to sleep with me.

She was terse in introducing me to her colleagues as we made the rounds. I knew something was upsetting her, but not until we got home did I imagine it was me.

The previous night I was out drinking with some coworkers. I kept getting food stuck on my mustache. That had been a running joke for some time now.

Jogging backward, I can see myself at that table with Dan in Diagnostics and Maggy from Human Resources, that stupid sloshed grin on my face.

-halt-

My target.

I push through the memory, into the noise of the place, the dim lighting of the place, and I see myself. The grin widens into an O.

“Holy shit,” idiot-me mutters, looking me in the eye.

“Nobody else can see me,” I say somberly. “I will make this brief. Do as I instruct.”

“What?” Idiot-me sways and says “Dude, speak up, I still got beer in my mustache.”

Dan and Maggy look at idiot-me and then to each other.

“Never mind,” I say,

return to present time, this bench, wasabi fellatio, egg salad.

I’m exhilarated.

 

One night I fully intended to shave my entire face—even inside my nostrils—but a particularly compelling rerun of The X Files came on, and then I got tired. I fully intended to proceed with my shaving ambition in the morning, but from the vantage point of my bed, the snooze button was so much closer than the bathroom…

Two months later I had a beard. Mary never commented on it, but at least twice a day she would discreetly glance at it, in the way that she might glance at a spider across the room while entertaining guests. And then she commented.

"If someone gave you a present wrapped in an amalgom of used tissues and condom wrappers from the gutter instead of wrapping paper, would you say that someone is someone who cares about you and is giving you a gift from the heart?" Mary was being ridiculous. "Okay, you can look at me like that if you want to, or-"

"Like what? How am I looking at you?" It hurts when I talk to Mary that way. It hurts like a loud, dissonant noise aimed at the walls of my stomach.

"Like you're looking for an exit." Her nose grips her glasses tighter to her face when she’s upset. I don’t think she’s aware that she does that.

"Well, until I find one, please, go on. You were making an analogy to my-"

"No, John, I wasn’t making analogies. I’m speaking directly; you sell yourself to the world giftwrapped in shit. Those jeans you're wearing? Shit. Those shoes? Dogshit. That dandruff on your shoulders? That’s dead fucking skin crawling with parasites. Worse than shit. And you do it deliberately, like it’s an assertion of something. I don’t care to know where this, this neurosis of yours came from, and I think I’ve been patient and supportive above and beyond my call of duty. Show some respect, for fuck’s sake. Act like you're proud to be walking in your skin. That is, if you wish to continue to occupy my skin. How do you think I feel-"

"Whoah, whoah, hey, I didn’t know it was such a big deal. Alright, I'll clean myself up."

"Fuck you, John."

The next morning I asked Mert his opinion on my appearance. Mert shrugged. That’s when I realized that I love Mary and it would probably be in my best interest to be less of an idiot.

 

I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim myself a busy man, but if there’s anything for which the hours in a day bar the leisure, it’s the contemplation of paradoxes. Science fiction—more specifically, that sub-species of the genre that deals with the subject of time travel—bores me.

If I commit Action A and then journey to a point in the time continuum preceding the fulfillment of action A and intervene so as to preclude action A—and, thus, all subsequent reactions—from taking place, then the reality from which I ventured forth in my time-traveling vessel no longer includes the consequences of action A that spurred me to make that journey in the first place. Leave it to philosophers to tie their brains into knots postulating nuances of the laws of physics to make it possible to discuss such hypotheticals.

As Mert would have it, time is a spiral that’s ever contracting—a translated two-dimensional surface, not unlike a funnel. If linear time is a ribbon wrapped around a conceptual sink drain, then the individual rings get closer and closer together as it orbits the asymptote of darkness, and with human intention and practiced skill, leaps between iterations of the spiral become possible. Mert is no mathematician or theoretical anything, and his explanation of the quantum mechanics of his art form got no more specific than that. Neither will mine.

I would not dare to demean Mary’s intellect with such a discussion, let alone my own. Instead, I say, "Mary, did I ever tell you that I masturbated with an Etch A Sketch all through high school?"

She looks up from her laundry, her back bent up at an angle less than half committed to following this line of conversation. I’m competing with fabric softener.

Her hair is scattered over her peach-shaped shoulder, scattered like drunken words that almost form a sentence. Her hair is the color of dry soil that’s almost capable of bearing fruit. The gold rim of her glasses diverts it into webs delicately hugging her forehead.

She doesn’t look at me. She won’t, until I say something that gives her no choice but to look at me, and when she does, her tiny eyes will pierce me like a toothpick through a deli sandwich, and my argument will thus be held together. I’ve always been careless about presentation in general, and she’s noticed.

"It’s true. I, um, did. We’ve all got fetishes-"

"John?" Here it comes, she’s raising her chin, here it is- she’s looking at me.

"Not the time?"

She’s genuinely considering the possibility that I am inebriated. "Why are you telling me this?"

So that I can tell you something else.

"Are you okay, John?"

"I’m beautiful."

She plops down a gallon container of bleach-free laundry detergent at my feet. "If you really want to be beautiful, finish this load for me so I can take a nap."

"I did something extraordinary today." The words jump out of my throat.

"Did you?"

Did I?

 

Mert’s Theorem: matter cannot trespass in the fourth dimension. While a mechanical body can never accomplish time travel, thoughts, however, can. This requires the hypothesis that thought has zero mass. If an idea, a concept, a story, a summoning of intent, a will to action, consciousness—by any definition—has no mass, it must be composed of waves. Grand statement; waves have free reign in the time continuum. Demonstrable proof: our camping trip.

“It’s all about finding your sensory rewind button.”

“My what?”

Mert and I were drifting in a canoe under the shade of a bowing Sycamore tree. The fishing pole jiggled listlessly to his back.

“You ever tried meditation? Kundalini? Any of that eastern stuff? Yoga?”

I shook my head.

“Neither have I. You don’t have to be a hippy to master this, but you do have to get in tune. You understand what I mean by that?”

A flock of birds crossed the river a couple boat lengths in front of us. Startled, I paddled out of rhythm and splashed a few streaks across Mert’s vest. He smiled.

“Technically, it’s the opposite of meditation. You don’t want to transcend anything, you want to recall everything. You ever stopped and tried to remember every thought that went through your head in the past five minutes? As a game. Try and remember how you were breathing, which thoughts you inhaled on and which you exhaled on. Maybe some thoughts made you breathe a little faster-”

I interrupted him then to say something mundane. I kind of wish I hadn’t.

“There’ve been studies on it,” he told me later over the fire. “The technique has a name. Neuro Tachyon Modulation, NTM. A more romantic coinage that’s been suggested is Intra Metabolic Time Travel. Makes a nice acronym. Imtat.”

The moon fishtailed through the rising smoke. I felt a slight shiver.

“Not to be rude, Mert, but I don’t get it. I mean, you’ve been talking about this all weekend, but…what’s the point?”

Mert’s face was concealed somewhere between the cityscape of crickets in the brush and the cityscape of orange flickers ravaging paper plates and the Sports and Real Estate pages. “Well, my friend—pupil, as the case may be…apprentice, as the case recently was—that is a good question you raise. If you could visit your former self and dictate preemptive actions based on the knowledge of their outcomes, would you then be the same person in real time? What is real time?”

“No, really, I mean, all stoner logic aside, what’s this really about?”

He sighed. He sighed so slowly I thought he might suffocate. “You watch too many movies. We all do. We think time travel is a lofty concept fit for lofty ambitions, noble ones. The hero goes to the sixteenth century to intervene in some historic event, or tries to prevent his wife’s murder or his friend from committing suicide—it’s always something like that. Grandiosity aside, you ever had a conversation and then an hour later you think of something really witty you could have said, and it drives you crazy? That’s the most common type of time travel fantasy. It’s about refining your reality, much as you might refine a command loop in C++. Compare that yearning with the singular cavalier objective that dominates the canon of popular time-travel myths.”

As Mert droned on, it was evident to me that he had been building up this speech for years, and I was the only one who would ever hear it. I wasn’t sure whether to feel claustrophobic or flattered, so I just listened.

“My main point is this.” His finger tapped his forehead. He leaned close to the fire, causing his eyes to tear up behind his glasses. I think he wanted to make sure I saw him tapping his forehead. Weirdo. “It’s all in here. At a different moment in time, the you at that moment is an objective entity you can interact with, if you’ve the balls. And if you’ve got the balls to try it, remember; small missions. Don’t go telling yourself you married the wrong woman or chose the wrong profession—for one, it’s impossible to go back farther than a few weeks. The process is not easy on the body. It’s a sublimation, by analogy; if you think of your past self as a solid object, the you backpedaling through your journals is a river flowing against time’s current, and the you that reaches your target and appears in a ghostly visitation to past-solid-object you, is ethereal. And then once you reconstitute in present time, there’s no feeling in the world more disorienting. And I mean that. I lived through the Sixties, and I mean that.”

“So, after one of these missions, however you- um, if you look at the same journal after you awaken, would the pages be all smeared and faded? How does that work?”

“Another good question. All I can say to that is, it’s best to discard the journal immediately after serving its purpose.”

“Why?”

Mert paused, inhaled heat. “For the same reason that you and I will never engage in an intimate conversation after this vacation is over.”

 

I told Mary everything.

“So, say you wanted to go back two months to avoid the side effects of some bad prescription. In order to do that, you’re telling me, you’d have to remember every single thought in your head every day, every hour for those two months, every dream you had, every little thing? Even the stuff you think about while you’re taking a dump?”

“Not quite. You make daily journal entries, not word-for-word what you’re thinking, but the main ideas, the themes of the day. Whenever there’s a beat, a change of course, you’ll want to know what time of day it happened. Relationships, especially. Say you have rapport with a convenience store clerk, like a daily thing, and then one day you make an off-color remark and she gets offended. The next day everything may be cool, but you don’t want to let that incident escape your journal. It’s like playing connect-the-dots. If every day three or four things happen, then you’re making leaps across several hours, and the more details you recall, the stronger your momentum. When I’m preparing to make an IMTaT jaunt, I’ll meditate for a couple hours and take detailed notes on my thoughts and impressions during those two hours. I may not remember what I was thinking about last Friday, but my journal tells me the key points, and now I’ve got the momentum. It’s like I’m skiing down a hill with huge gaps of empty space, but before each gap I’ve sculpted a jump. That journal is your engine.”

“Why does it matter what you were thinking about? One moment you could be thinking about sex, then fifteen seconds later you’re thinking about a cheeseburger, then you start thinking about global warming and poverty and then you’re thinking about sex again, or the new Aerosmith video—what does that have to do with defying time?”

“You ever been walking alone or driving, or even sitting at a desk daydreaming and suddenly you feel really happy? Then some thought jerks you back, and you lose the feeling. So you try and remember what you were thinking about that made you happy. Maybe you can’t remember what it was, but you remember that when you first sat down you were thinking about the bruise on your shin that was still throbbing because you bumped it against the doorway on your way in. Naturally, your next thought is of the rock you tripped over that gave you that bruise. That was a couple nights ago when it was dark and you were horsing around in the woods with your buddies after a fishing trip. Next you think of the fishing trip, and the trout you caught- there it is, your happy thought, you found it again. Thoughts aren’t random. They’re sequential, and emotions- They may not always follow a linear path, but the patterns are all laid out for you.”

"If I had the patience, if I actually succeeded and had lunch with myself, I’d totally kiss myself on the lips. I'll bet that would be hot. Maybe I’d take it further, only after buying myself a couple drinks, of course."

"First off, stop ridiculing me. Second, you can’t do that; physical bodies don’t actually go anywhere. If someone else walked in the room, they wouldn’t see you. They could walk right through you. It’s a temporal journey within- within- I can’t explain it like Mert explains it."

"So it’s like the you in the past is having a hallucination, right?"

"To all outward appearances, yeah."

"Then why can’t the past you hallucinate that he’s making out with the future you?"

"Okay, well, assuming that this is consensual, I suppose if you really wanted-"

"So it is possible. Why did you say it isn’t?"

"I’ve never thought about it before—I’m not sure anyone’s tried to do that."

"Why? Wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t everybody?"

"Um, no. Only you would think of that. IMTaT practitioners-"

"You mean, you and Mert? You’re too important to waste time indulging some fantasy, I guess. Shoot down my idea. I’m just a-"

"Hey, don’t get angry at me."

"You love me because I never run out of reasons to be angry at you."

"Point taken."

"It’s not like you’d be compromising any masculinity. You jack off, don’t you? That doesn’t make you gay. It’s an expression of sensual narcissism. Tell me you’ve practiced kissing mirrors."

"No, I have never French kissed a mirror."

"Well maybe you should start."

My shoulders tried to throw my arms up in disbelief, but my arms did not have the energy to rise. My jaw hitched several times like a cat on the verge of regurgitation, which was exactly what my shoulders were doing. "I thought we were talking about-"

"Yes, we were talking about what we were talking about. Now we’re talking about your roadblocks to intimacy. Was this conversation on a schedule? If it doesn’t pull into the right station on the hour, should I contact the transit authorities and tell them we’re all fucked?"

"Okay, you know what? First thing tomorrow I'll go back in time just to stick my tongue in my mouth. As a token of commitment to this relationship."

"Why? For me? Don’t bother."

"In the name of science-"

"Are you afraid your advances will be rejected?"

"Ha ha. Well, now that we’ve had this chat, I'll be expecting myself. That way I can keep a Tic Tac on hand."

"Jerk." Her face was a smile factory, and the manager liked to withhold shipments pending proof of payment received.

Time burps, skips like a record.

It’s been doing that lately.

“Just a minute.” Mary excuses herself from the room.

I pour myself a glass of milk. Mary reemerges wearing my green baseball cap and a fake beard trimmed to resemble my own. She’s waving her fingers in hyperbole.

She mimics a phlegmy male voice. “I’m you from the future, telling you to do the damned laundry.”

I swing her around and press my lips into that fake beard. It itches. “Now I’ve lived my narcissistic fantasy.”

It’s impossible to laugh and kiss at the same time. The suppression of one enhances the other.

Shaving would have been a good idea.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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