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All these cars, all these cranky people behind steering wheels, jammed at stoplights or crawling along a freeway where the posted speed is sixty-five miles per hour, frowns on their faces, ninety percent of them dreaming about where they’d rather be right now. Back in bed. On the beach somewhere. On a golf course. Skiing fresh powder. Anything other than driving to their boring jobs.

Working in a cubicle at a job you hate has always seemed vaguely bizarre to me. In theory you are providing food and shelter for you and your family, but from moment to moment it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems more like you are just a cog in a wheel that would roll on with or without you. I sometimes wonder if cavemen ever felt this disaffected. I bet they didn’t. Can you imagine them standing in the trees, debating the merits of hunting for food? Me neither.

But today I feel a bit differently about work. Today the morning monotony is comforting, because it seems familiar to me, as if I could right this sinking ship by settling into a routine. My cubicle may be a prison cell but at least I know what the four walls look like.

One thing I really hate, though, is when traffic stops on a bridge. Intellectually I know the bridge isn’t going to fall down when my car is sitting on top of it. The structure has stood for years, will stand for many more, and even if it were to collapse, the likelihood of it happening when I’m on it is almost zero. And yet whenever I am stopped on a bridge I feel this irrational fear that it might fall, or that somehow I might fall from it. Today I’m stopped directly over the apex of the bridge, in the farthest right lane, and when I look out my window I see cars and trucks and tractor trailers intersecting my path in two dimensional space. Of course ours is a three-dimensional world, which means they are on a plane below me, which means I’m safe. But I don’t feel safe. I feel like any minute the bridge will fall and I will be crushed.

I hate stopping on bridges.

Finally traffic begins to move again, and the very next exit is mine. From here it’s only a few hundred yards to my employer’s property, a gorgeous plot of hilly land with red brick buildings hidden among giant oak trees, and whispering streams that drain into a shaded duck pond. Wait. That’s not true. In reality the campus is actually a flat rectangle covered by acres of parking lot and a five-story, concrete building that is conspicuously short on windows.

Every morning I park in the same spot—all the way in the back of the lot against the curb. There are ten of these curbside parking spots, and typically people with new or expensive cars park in them, for obvious reasons. Today, however, there is an old Chevy pickup truck parked in my spot. It was probably blue at some point, the truck, but the paint is so faded it’s like someone imported the thing into Photoshop and turned down the color saturation. I park in some other, random spot, and as I get out of my car I notice a softball-sized dent in the truck’s front left quarter panel.

A few minutes later I reach my cube, where I switch on my desktop and monitor. Then I head for the cafeteria. I pour myself a giant coffee, black, and order two eggs over medium. When the eggs are done I ask the short-order cook for two sausage patties. The patties are kept in a warmer, and I always select the best-looking two in the lot. That I enjoy selecting my own sausage patties in the work cafeteria should tell you a little about how exciting my days typically are. Recently I calculated I’ve consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of seven thousand eggs and seven thousand sausage patties during my storied, twelve-year tenure at this company. You might think my arteries would be completely sealed shut, but somehow my total cholesterol count has never gone higher than 165.

I usually get to work around eight-thirty, and by then the cafeteria is mostly empty. Today is no exception. There are two heavyset women talking in one corner, possibly debating about whose pantsuit contains more polyester, and there is a blue-collar dude eating pancakes near the TV. Two or three tables behind him sits a guy I have actually seen before. His name is Dick Stanton. He’s probably six or seven years younger than me, and from what I’ve heard, he and his first name are a good match.

In the cafeteria Dick keeps mainly to himself and reads Ayn Rand novels. I’ve never spoken to him before, but I’ve overheard a few of his conversations with other people, and he seems to be an arrogant, liberal-minded guy. For instance, he hates FOX News, and I’ve heard him complain bitterly about Republicans. But then again lately even I feel like doing that.

On a typical day I would find an empty table and spend five minutes inhaling my breakfast, but today I am overcome with an intense desire to strike up a conversation with Dick. I find my way to his table and sit down beside him.


“Oh,” he answers, still chewing on a bit of bagel. “Hi.”

“I’m Thomas Phillips.”

He nods and sort of waves as he bites into his bagel. “Dick Stanton.”

“Hope you don’t mind me sitting here.”

“Not at all. Just having some breakfast and watching FOX News.”

“Your favorite, right?”

Dick looks at me a little sideways and then chuckles. “Yeah,” he says. “My favorite.”

I never do this. I never sit down and talk to strangers. And yet as the news drones on, my desire to manufacture conversation with Dick is so strong it’s like it was scripted this way.

I try staring at my plate. I stab at my eggs, which bleed sunshine. I mop up yolk with pieces of sausage. But as soon as the news breaks for a commercial my mouth flies open.

“An interesting thing happened at my church yesterday.”

Dick looks at me with what seems like feigned surprise. “Really.”

“Yeah. The priest explained why gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married and how their lifestyle is immoral.”

“And this was interesting?”

“Not in itself. What I thought was interesting was the reaction of the congregation. I mean, some of them are probably gay, right? And plenty of them must know a gay person. But no one seemed surprised by what the priest had to say.”

“Well,” Dick says. “Why should they be? It’s not exactly new, the church condemning homosexuality, right?”


“Do you go to church?” I ask him.

“A few times when I was a kid, but that’s it. How about you? Every weekend?”

“Pretty much. I’m Catholic.”

“Then you already knew the church doesn’t support homosexuality and especially not gay marriage.”


“So what’s the big deal? What makes yesterday special?”

“It was that blue orb.”

“The what?”

“It floated across the church and penetrated my forehead.”

Okay, I don’t really say that. That would make me sound crazy. What I do say is, “I guess it’s the way the Father was so adamant about it. We look up to this guy, confess our sins to him…and he’s up there demonizing people who haven’t done anything wrong. What bothered me the most was that no one cared. They all seemed so damned enthusiastic about it—”

“How do you know what anyone else was thinking?” Dick asks me. “Are you psychic?”

“If you had seen these people, you wouldn’t have to ask me that. They may as well have been hypnotized.”

There is only a bite of two left of my sausage, and the eggs are all gone. I stab one of the sausage bits with my fork and eat it.

Dick watches me and says, “Isn’t pork forbidden meat of the cloven hoof?”

I laugh in spite of myself.

“All I know is it’s greasy and a little rubbery.”

“Manufactured and frozen for your convenience,” Dick says. “Just like my high school cafeteria.”

I nod and keep chewing. Through the windows I see a lawn crew cutting grass and manicuring hedges. I think about what Dick said about his high school cafeteria, and about this lawn crew outside, and I imagine the lawn at my own high school, Placerville High School, which does not fuck around, which comes right up to the building and says howdy.

“You ever get the feeling nothing ever changes?” Dick asks. “In school you sit at a desk in the morning, break for a prefab lunch, then go back to your desk until they let you go home. Now I’m twenty-seven and it’s the same damned thing.”

I remember a strange event at Placerville High School, where a crazy kid held a classroom of students hostage, only it turned out the kid wasn’t so crazy after all. In fact it seemed as if the kid had been labeled insane because he was the only person willing to tell the God’s honest truth. And then I remember this isn’t even a real event. It happened in a book I read once called Rage, written by the novelist Richard Bachman. It’s interesting, don’t you think, how my first instinct was to remember that book as a real event, that I couldn’t separate it from actual reality? And now that I think about it, Bachman himself wasn’t even a real guy. He was the pseudonym of Stephen King.


I look up, startled out of the scenes playing in my mind.

“Are you all right?”

“Sure,” I say, rubbing my forehead. “I guess I zoned out there for a minute. You were talking about how going to work every day isn’t that different from going to school. Right?”


“Well, I know what you mean. Sometimes I want to stand up, right in the middle of whatever project I’m working on, and just walk out of my cube. Without saying a word. Down the hallway, out the door, drive away. To wherever. I don’t care. Get the heck out of this life.”

“Right on,” Dick says. “Right on, man. I think about that very same thing all the time.”

“You do?”

“Shit, yeah. But you? I thought you were happy in all this. I never thought you were the kind of guy who might rage against the machine.”

Dick believes these things because he doesn’t know anything about me. No one at work does, because I don’t talk about my personal life here. I don’t generally like people to know who I really am. But for some reason I am willing to make an exception for Dick.

“Then you probably wouldn’t believe I sold a screenplay once.”

“You what?” he asks. “When?”

“In 1998. Well, it didn’t actually sell. A production company optioned it. Paid ten percent for the rights for a year, and then renewed it for another year.”

“A production company in Hollywood?”

I name a few films produced by the company in question, and Dick’s face lights up. As I said, I rarely tell people about my screenwriting, but when I do, this part always impresses them. These famous films that have nothing to do with me.

“No shit,” he says. “What was the screenplay about?”

“A big government conspiracy.”

“Trilateral Commission? Illuminati?”

“Sort of. In my film a group like that is trying to get one of their members elected president, but they don’t realize the guy is a Satanist who wants to start a world war to bring about the end times. My protagonist went to school with this conspiracy guy and tries to stop him from getting elected. He thinks he’s safe when the FBI assigns two agents to him, but then he figures out they work for the bad guy. Eventually it turns into a race-against-time thriller as they chase him across the country.”

“That was pretty good timing,” Dick says. “In 1998, I mean. End of the millennium and all that.”

“That’s what I thought. And the film was almost greenlit a couple of times, but something always seemed to get in the way. My agent and I had this running joke about how the film would never be made because it was too close to reality.”

Dick chuckles. “There’s no question the government is out to get you, but the problem is more economic than Satanic.”

“What do you mean?”

Dick doesn’t answer right away. I look out the window, where the lawn crew is still cutting grass. One of the men looks into the cafeteria and I make eye contact with him. He’s an older fellow with a beard. He’s staring right at me. He doesn’t look anything like the other members of the crew, who are brown and leathery and probably get more sun in one day than I do in a week.

My heart beats hard and hot and fast.

It’s the man from the bathroom.

But then I blink and look at him more closely and realize it isn’t the same guy at all. He’s just as tan as the other members of his lawn crew, and a lot younger than I first thought. He’s also not looking at me, but rather down at his gasoline-powered weed trimmer, guiding it along the ground in long, slow-motion strokes.

I look around the cafeteria and notice the polyester women are gone. So is the blue-collar fellow who was watching TV.

The guy outside glides along the window, trimming grass. Still not the man from the bathroom.

Dick hasn’t said anything for a while now. When I look back at him I see immediately something is wrong. He’s still facing me, but his eyes…it’s as if he’s looking at something behind me, something far away.

“Ha,” I say. “Very funny.”

He doesn’t answer. It’s almost like his eyes aren’t talking to his brain, like they’re just floating in their sockets.

“Hey,” I say. “You all right?”

On the television, some FOX anchor is ranting about the Internet and how virtual relationships are no substitute for the real thing. The heavy smell of bacon and sausage hangs in the air. Someone in the kitchen is listening to Shania Twain.

Dick just sits there, and the metaphorical hairs stand up on my metaphorical neck.

Time crawls to a stop.

This is what I’m talking about. Everything is all wrong with me. I’d like to believe it started with the blue orb, with a migraine, but I know that isn’t true. I’ve been coming apart at the seams for some time now. The scary thing is I can barely remember anything before the church that morning, except for the Halloween party and the fight I had with Gloria. And the things I do remember don’t make any sense.

“You want to know how it works?” Dick finally says.

A little life has returned to his eyes, but not much. I feel like I’m living that moment in a suspense film where something shocking is about to happen, except I’m fairly sure it’s not happening at all.

“How what works?”

“The world,” he answers. Complete monotone.

“Sure,” I say, “tell me how the world works.”

“The truth is in numbers.”


“Lots and lots of numbers.”


“Did you know the value of pi has been computed to more than one trillion decimal places but no simple pattern has ever been found?”

“No, but—”

“Pi appears in nature, it’s all around us, but no one really knows why.”

I don’t even bother to respond this time, because even though Dick is talking, he’s definitely not hearing.

“It’s almost impossible to see the pattern when you are part of the pattern, Thomas. Remember that.”

I look up at the television. Another talking head is yapping about a House appropriations battle between Democrats and Republicans, and at the bottom of the screen a stock ticker scrolls by.

Lots and lots of numbers.

Dick touches his forehead with his hand, rubbing it the way a person with a headache would.

“I better get back to my desk,” he says in a shaky voice. His eyes still don’t look exactly right. “I have to put together a proposal for my boss before noon, and I haven’t even started.”

We stand up, ready to leave. I get the feeling if I asked Dick about the numbers, he wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Is that because he went into a trance or because it didn’t happen at all?

“I tell you what,” he says. “I’m going to send you a link to this game you should download. If you want to see the world from a different point of view, especially religion, this is the way to do it. It’s called Ant Farm 2.0”

“Ant Farm?”

“Yeah. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but check it out.”


“Wow,” Dick says, shaking his head. “A disillusioned screenwriter. And just when I thought there were no surprises left in the world.”

No surprises? At this point everything feels like a surprise to me.

“Let me know what you think about the game,” he says. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

I pick my way through the labyrinth of hallways and cubicles back to my desk. I feel like a rat looking for a piece of cheese. Eventually I find my way into my cube, inside its four gray walls, six feet by eight feet. I’ve got a desktop, a file cabinet, a gray desk. I have a black chair.

Normally, I would be staring at another eight hours of mindless pointing and clicking, another futile day, like living in that supermax prison.

But this is not a normal day.

It’s becoming more obvious by the minute my normal days are over.

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