This is what it’s like to have your life flash before your eyes. It’s not really that you live the whole thing over again. And it’s not even that you see images of important times in your life; it’s not some kind of metaphysical highlight reel, a “this is your Album of Kodak Moments.”
One minute you’re driving along, and you’re talking out loud to yourself, enthusiastically upholding both ends of a conversation that you meant to have with the girl that works the cash register at the bookstore, the girl with the really great ass. The next minute, you’re trying to stop and swerve, and you’ve jumped those cheesy aluminum guardrails that are supposed to keep you from flying off the overpass and onto whatever street that was.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how you’ve driven over that street every day for years, now, and you still don’t know what its name is. Here is the street, “Insert Street Name Here,” playing an integral part in your life and you don’t even know what it’s god-damn called.
There’s a single, timeless, breathless moment. A free-fall as your car, no longer driven by you, and instead solely under the command of harsh Physics herself, reaches the top of a parabolic arc, and will shortly begin to careen towards this stupid street whose name you never bothered to learn.
Your body panics. Your adrenal glands go off like fire alarms, flooding your system with all those chemicals whose names you also never bothered to learn, and damned if it isn’t too late now. Your Fight or Flight mechanism, not knowing that it can’t really help you here, anyway, has just wrested control of your body away from your conscious mind. It is feverishly trying to put one of its two skills to work, inhibited by the immutable laws of a) not having anyone to fight, and b) not having anywhere to run to, because you’re wearing your seatbelt, and even if you weren’t, you’re upside-down in a car fifty feet over a busy street. We can presume that a plan will not be forthcoming.
And while your limbic system and your adrenal glands and your subconscious and cerebellum and all your other important, instinctive parts work to try and save your life, your conscious mind finds that it has nothing to do. It is completely out of control. The National Guard has declared martial law, Emergency Services is on the scene, and that self-aggrandizing figurehead Thought is asked, not for the first time, “Why don’t you go for a little walk, boss? We’ve got things taken care of here.”
This is basically the same thing that happens when you dream, except when you dream you’re asleep, so you don’t know it. This time, you’re awake, and you can be privy to all the things that you’re doing, while your mind wanders off down its corridors of memory.
Naturally, you take a moment to look around. The inside of your car is upside-down, but you’re upside down with it, so everything looks about right. It’s the rest of the world that seems confusing—it’s the image beneath you, rising rapidly and strangely slowly, that is inverted. The damp inner-sanctum of your car, filled with the detritus of months of nor bothering to clean it out (I mean old plastic bottles that used to be filled with water, and receipts from what must have been the hundred sandwiches you bought at Subway, a flyer about “Would you like to have your house painted?” There are some old parking tickets as well, that now will never likely be paid, and a hesitant and usually-ignored little bit of consciousness points out that there is an upside to all of this after all.) is all right as rain. It’s just a little shook-up.
Marcel Proust apparently relived his entire life after having a cup of tea, and I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it is; maybe you did, too, and you forgot it all. Maybe Marcel Proust was some kind of a freak. The fact of the matter is, as fast as your mind can move now, unfettered by the sluggish input from your senses—and it can move fast; you remember a dream, now, in which you spent a full ten years fighting an army of men made from old wooden fence-posts, who had barbed-wire claws and gnashed splintery teeth; you lived a whole decade holding them off, keeping them from the blood-red poppies that grew in the garden beside your house, though of course you cannot now for your life remember why it was so important to defend them—it still cannot move fast enough to give you your whole life.
You take a moment to remember fragments of today. Waiting in the rain for someone to open the door and let you into the bookstore. The greasy smear you left on the window pane after you pressed your forehead against it stands out particularly vividly. There may have been some guilt there; it’s irrational, the way guilt is usually irrational, that you should care about a greasy window on the store that you’ve come to hate. A bookstore, I hear, is a nice place, but good god I wouldn’t want to live there. The blonde girl with the spectacular ass is the one that let you in this morning; she flirted with you, but only a little. She has a boyfriend, of course, and there are laws of destiny that do not respect your skipping heart.
There is a cheap, beige plastic identification card (everything official here is beige; beige is the color of employment, it makes up the coat of arms of Management) with a white piece of paper affixed to it. The paper is held in place by Scotch tape, placed both thoroughly and cunningly, such that it almost seems as if this was a card specially printed for you, instead of a generic card with a white label on it that bears your name, a card that will bear someone else’s name soon enough. The truth is that this is a card that simply does not care what name it carries. Its sole purpose is to be picked up for five seconds, slid through an electronic machine that, through some arcane principles of electricity and magnetic voodoo (and there’s something else that you probably could have taken the time to learn), will record somewhere, somehow, you are clocked in. The card will then be returned to its place, waiting again for its brief orgasm of activity.
The memory of sliding the card through the card-reader is clear as a crystal. It didn’t work the first time, and the machine beeped irritably at you. It did work the second time, and this memory is accompanied by an actual feeling of triumph, and a simultaneous sense of disgust—disgust that a human being could be so degraded in dignity as to feel triumph at so small a victory. Two thoughts came unbidden there, I am quitting this job, was first, and then, I’m going to write a god-damn novel.
It is a peculiar feature of thoughts that the more we feel like we must believe something, the more aggressively we assert it. Surely there is no chance that the Almighty would consign any novel to Hell, simply because its author had quit his job at the bookstore—if that were the case, undoubtedly most novels would be so confined.
Oddly, memory jumps away here, to the sixth grade. Josh and Sam sat with you in the cafeteria, and when you got up to buy milk, leaving behind the brown paper bag that carried your lunch, they would steal your dessert, which consisted of a pair of butterscotch snack-cakes. They did it regularly, and it was utterly infuriating, and yet you never seemed to realize that no one could steal your lunch if you took it with you to buy your milk. Fortunately, you had to pack your own lunch every morning. The memory would certainly have been unbearable if it had been your mother who had made your lunch for you. Worse yet, imagine if she had packed your lunch, but hadn’t told you about the dessert, leaving it as a surprise, perhaps with a little note reminding you to have a good day and that she loved you.
Imagine how many days this might have gone on, and you never realized it, because those two bastard sociopath pre-teens (and let’s not be too harsh on them; aren’t all children bastard sociopaths, in their way?) kept stealing the best part of your lunch. They didn’t even eat it, either; they just peeled the icing off, rolled it into little balls, and stuck it to the ceiling. But imagine, those tokens of your mother’s love, each day going awry. You, not realizing how much your mother did love you, and how much she wanted you to have a good day. And she, not understanding why you never mentioned it. Why you could never just say thank you and give her a hug.
The two of you would have grown to resent each other, slowly and surely. You would think she was uncaring, she would think you were ungrateful.
That’s not how it happened though, or at least that’s not how you remember it. The memory is fickle, for all its stark relief. It is vivid, but there’s a moment of uncertainty, now. Did the boys steal your dessert from you, or did you steal it from someone else? Why didn’t you take your lunch with you when you went to buy milk? Why didn’t you just sit at another table?
This leads directly to a second memory, which is the memory of when you did start to sit at another table, next to Kari Gately who wore short jean shorts and had long, smooth legs, that she didn’t seem to mind letting brush against yours under the table. Middle school is a time for sublimated sexuality; retrospect makes things clear. How would life be different if you’d asked her out then?
Probably much worse, considering the jowls she’d grown by the time your high school reunion had rolled around.
The car is shuddering against the ground now, an intricate series of short jerks and shakes, happening at just such a rhythm as to make it impossible to see or hear. The portion of your brain responsible for doing math—neglected as it has been for so many years—has spent the intervening moments of boredom calculating things. It informs you that you’ve spent three-thousand, one hundred and five hours urinating, sixty-eight thousand, nine hundred and fifty hours sleeping, and that you’ve said, “God, I hate this job, I’m so going to quit it and write a novel” approximately one thousand and ninety-five times in recent memory. That part of your brain goes on to say that this is about once a day, every day for the last three and a half years. Which, coincidentally, is about how long you’ve been working there. It adds that it tried to calculate precisely how many times you’d just said something along the lines of, “Screw it, I’ll do it tomorrow,” but it got tired and give up after sixty thousand.
This would be a time to feel regret, perhaps, but you don’t. Your conscious mind is unmoored from its housing, free from the purely biological thinking of the emotions.
A strange sensation from your neck makes it through the barrier of endorphins that your lower-brain has erected, a kind of armor to protect you from pain. A sudden sense of inevitability rushes in, a wave-front just ahead of a slow, tiny, dark constriction at the edge of your vision.
The afternoon comes back to you, courting coquettish Memory, who so often alludes, so often teases, but so rarely gives up the goods. She is loose and easy today, and she conjures up visions of Kirk, who works at the bookstore with you. Kirk, who almost everyone used to call Captain Kirk, but whose name is really Kurt. A sudden flower of realization blooms, and it occurs to you that the nicknames probably evolved the other way around—from Kurt, to Captain Kurt, to Captain Kirk, to just plain Kirk. “Captain Kurt” is the only weak link in the chain of reasoning, and you make a note to yourself to ask someone about it. You’re almost giddy when you think, “Screw it. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Kirk looks like an old hippie, and has aged exactly the way that old hippies must hope they won’t. His beard is ragged, his hair is lanky. His face is bright red. He seems to be a kind of stubby, perma-fried Santa Claus. Kirk likes to talk about obscure bands, and you had a conversation with him today. At least, you suppose it was today; there’s no real way to tell, because virtually all conversations with Kirk are the same.
Conversations with Kirk go like this:
Kirk, “I just saw ‘Slippery Toad Anus’ at Slappy’s last night.”
You, “I don’t know what that is, Kirk.”
Kirk, “Oh, Slippery Toad Anus was at the forefront of late 70s epic prog-synth rock
movement, before that whole scene got taken over by Whacked-Ass Mindy and flit bulla wok dallalala baghhum fakdug….”
And so on.
Kirk has been working at the bookstore for fifteen years. He has not written a novel. He hasn’t started a band, either, or built a house, or learned German. He’s never seen Morocco. He’s never found his soul-mate.
Your thoughts light, finally, on the one thought they’ve been skirting around this whole time. It’s too late, of course, to really worry about it. A kind of fuzzy darkness has crept in around your eyes, and now you feel like you’ve got glaucoma. You’re just staring up at the dashboard of your car—it’s up now, because the car is inverted. You’re looking at the dust on the dashboard, and realizing that dusting the inside of a car is something that people actually do (and aren’t you still avoiding the issue?), but you can’t turn away or close your eyes or do anything but stare.
It’s not like I ever thought it would be a great novel. You. It’s not like you ever thought it would be a great novel. But it would have been something that was mine, not just something that I was doing, or interested in, but something that was really mine. Yours, I mean. Your novel. The one that you kept thinking over and over in your head. Shit.
Never mind. That’s not the way that it ends. That’s not the last thing that you or anyone else thinks about when their life flashes before their eyes. There is a last thought that pops into the dark, once it’s closed out the last little bit of light. You have one second to think it before fragile consciousness dissolves into rain and dust. One second to think it, the last thing you’ll ever think, one whole thought before it’s over. Do you want to know what it is? It’s this:
“Crap, I forgot to clock-out when I left work.”