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It starts with me in the lobby of a bank in Chicago.

I don’t know how I got here, or why I’m wearing a t-shirt and a jacket only. It’s twenty-five degrees, according to a school ticker that also advertises that seventy-nine percent of its students rated excellent on the ISAT. I'm standing between two glass paneled doors. One leads to the cold, one leads to the interior of the bank. I'm looking ominous near a pair of automated teller machines. I'm fairly sure I'm waiting for someone.

When he or she shows up, I'll know. I don’t worry about the fact that I don’t know who I’m waiting for, or that I have no recollection of traveling to this particular bank. I feel I probably walked. I’m wearing leather shoes without socks, and there's a slippery accumulation of dirt and sweat under my feet. I'm sliding around in boats made from dead animals.

I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting, but my skin is cold and there's a persistent line of snot rappelling from my left nostril. It could be the silk from a spider’s asshole, and it never stops coming. After several moments of trying to wipe it away, I no longer bother. It comes, and I let it, seeing how far it'll reach before breaking off. It gets to my knee, and the lower half of it breaks off and gathers in a pile in front of me.

The process repeats.

This is me when I’m alone. I look into the bank and find a hefty teller staring at me. I make myself look as suspicious as I can. The line of snot is swinging back and forth, and my hands are jammed into my pockets as far as they will go. I'm slouching, and with my mouth I begin to appear as if I'm speaking gibberish. The hefty man looks away.

Later, when I'm alone, I'm in Sears Roebuck. It's filled with short round women, latina, tugging along little children. They are shopping for the same clothes they’re already wearing. Nothing fits together. I think, what the fuck have we done? You don’t belong here, I want to say to one. You belong in a desert, a jungle, sagging breasts hanging bare and sticks stuck through your face. What the fuck, I want to say, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry we made you into what you are now, because otherwise what are youdoing here, in this northern wasteland, in this tiny building with this failing capitalism? You don’t belong. Neither of us belong.

I’m looking for socks. I find some, women’s, on a wall labeled “accessories.” This description isn’t odd, it’s wrong. Socks are a necessity. An addiction. There's nothing greater than the feeling of pulling on new, never-worn socks. There's no drug that can replicate it, no pair of tits that can make you forget it, no book in the world that can make you feel such faith in humanity.

But these socks are women’s socks. There are no men’s socks, it seems. Not even when I ride the escalator to the second floor, an ancient thing that rumbles like a washing machine and forces me to imagine an open Maytag waiting for me at the top like some woman’s gaping mouth, wanting to eat me alive.

No socks even then, at the top of the Maytag escalator. I return to accessories. I take a pair of socks. I don’t have any money. There's a bag in my left hand, and a book spilling out of jacket pocket. I have just bought Voltaire, Joyce, and The Turn Of the Screw. My pocket is housing Paul Auster’s In The Country of Last Things. I know it's probably that I’ll never finish any of them, but the words are a comfort.

I take the socks. Women’s white socks. I don’t hide them.

I walk to the cashier. I ask him where the bathroom is, and I can see in his eyes that he thinks I'm going there to get sick. I don’t look well. Perhaps this is a common occurrence at Sears Roebuck, and he is more worried about me emptying myself on the floor of the bathroom than he is of me committing any sort of larceny. He points, grudgingly, behind him. I can see in his face that if I get sick, he will have to clean it up.

I don’t like him.

In the bathroom I put down Voltaire. I rip the bag of women’s socks open with my teeth, and I pull a pair of them on over my feet.

There's nothing like the feeling, have I told you that? No opiate, no woman, no book is any better. I put my shoes on and stand up. My books I place on the toilet tank. I look around at the bathroom, imagining the man on his hands and knees, scrubbing away. My fingers I place down my throat. I yark and cover the tile with bananas, nutella, coke and blood. The mixture is a warm brown.

This is me, still in the bank, still standing there with a rope of snot hanging from my nose. The man I’m waiting for enters, uses an ATM, and motions for me to follow him. We leave, and begin to walk. Wind comes at us directly, freezing my eyeballs and the liquid inside the cochlea of my right ear, making me nauseous.

We don’t talk. Inside the coffee shop we go to, I order a coke and a banana and brown sugar crepe. The price should have been 4.75 and another 1.50 for the coke, but the man (he is Greek, and his English is very good) tells me it's 8.82. I don’t argue. He cannot have misheard me, but he gives me something different. A banana and nutella crepe. I haven’t had nutella before, but it reminds me of chocolate and so that’s what I pretend it's.

I'm full. The man across from me is typing on a laptop. We still haven’t spoken.

Next we're in a bookstore. I can't find any poetry, so I pick the Joyce, the Voltaire, and the Henry James. Behind one of the racks the man who doesn’t speak gives me two keys, which I pocket. At the checkout there's a tall girl with crimped blond hair and glasses. Her voice is musical, and she smiles at me. She smiles at everyone. I think about having her naked, bent over a pile of books. She smiles at me, and tells me I’m buying the good stuff. I think about giving her the good stuff on a pile of the good stuff. She smiles at me, and she says thank you, and I say thank you, and I leave.

The man has left me, only moments before tucking a small wad of paper into my hand and turning the other way. I read it, then chew it up. I spit it onto the side of a building as I pass, and it sticks. The building is Sears Roebuck. I think about my feet, and the way they squish around in my shoes. I think about socks, about the feeling of pulling on new ones. I go in.

The door is a revolving door, and as I go through one of its little corner-pie chambers I think about this city and its unhealthy obsession with revolving doors. Human roundabouts.

I’m walking to the address on the paper, hungry again after unloading my crepe. I see a woman with a white puffy dog, watch a man who looks a little like Brad Pitt get out of his car. I see a cyclist with long hair and rubber bands around his ankles, and watch a little girl with a soccer ball bound out of a house to get into an SUV. I realize everything is significant, and order doesn’t matter. At the same time, nothing is significant, and there's no order. Profound, and I don’t care. The square key unlocks the apartment building, the round one the apartment. That is how it has been and how it'll be. And at the same time, things fall apart. Nothing lasts.

Not even anything.

Pay what you want

This story appears in Clayton's Secret Notebook. Get the collection on

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