Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
The latest installment of The Whole in 30 Days podcast–a monthly timed art project from John Pierson and Eric C. Roth, for which I am a regular contributor–is now available to listen online. This month’s topic has been Binge & Purge. For my part, I wrote and performed a work of short fiction titled Pronounced, which you can read below.
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It begins, as these stories often do, with aardvark.
Jerome Westerly swore, for the eighth time in as many months, that this was his last trip out. That the next time Mr. North called him into his office to say “Son, we’re sending you back into the field,” Jerome would stand erect, straighten his tie, and say “Absolutely not, sir. And I’m six years younger than you. And it’s industrial vacuum cleaner components, not the goddamned Bastogne, so stop calling it ‘the field,’ you college-legacy, starch-necked little toad. I quit.”
Maybe he would leave out the part about Mr. North being a little toad. But Jerome would definitely quit, on the spot. He swore he would this time. This hotel was the final straw, the only hotel in this part of Pennsylvania that the company was willing to reimburse for, with its vomitous color palette and air like ancient peanut shells. Jerome had convinced himself that the conditions would be tolerable if there was one cable sports channel and room service. The sports channel was offering up to the minute coverage of the world series of croquet. But at least there had been room service.
When the dictionary arrived outside his door, presented under a metal dome, he was at first perplexed and then incensed. He called down to the front desk. The woman who answered must have come on right after he’d checked in.
“Excuse me,” Jerome said.
“How can I help you?” she said.
“I ordered room service,” Jerome said.
“Have you been waiting more than an hour?” she said.
“My room service arrived. It’s a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
“So what seems to be the problem?”
“I ordered a steak and potatoes.”
“Well, there you go.”
“Enjoy your meal.”
Repeated phone calls left him on hold, listening to redundant Muzak covers of Burt Bacharach songs. Jerome ripped the phone from the wall and hurled it across the room. It felt deeply false, like something he’d been ordered to do to indicate his emotions to an audience. He dropped the dictionary on his bed.
“Fine,” Jerome says aloud. “This is what they sent up for room service then this is what I’m gonna eat.”
Strangely, it tastes wonderful. He pulls it from his mouth and examines it, finds that it remains a saliva-soaked mass of pulp, but when he places it back on his tongue it is prime rib, and butter, and the ideal, comforting heat of just enough pepper.
Jerome swallows, and rips the next page from the dictionary. And the next. And the next. The vast catalog of words related to aerodynamics taste of fresh greens slathered in cheeses. Midway through the letter B his mother’s voice scolds him for his manners; he ceases to paw at his linguistic smorgasbord like some wild beast and instead begins to carefully use the provided knife and fork to remove each page surgically, to take small, thoughtful bites of nouns and adjectives.
The word culinary has so many tastes at once that they all cancel each other out. Dachshund tastes like chicken. Jerome decides to stop being so methodical about it, stop being as boring as he has been for everything else in his life, the safe choices of career and college, the demure and sexless marriage, the bland automobiles, and begins to skip about in the book at random.
Obsequious fills his mouth with jammy fruits, like a robust red wine. Warmonger is all spices and fats. Irony, ironically, does not crunch the way Jerome expects it would, but instead has the sweet meltaway qualities of a well-made flan.
By the time sunrise hits, he has lost count of how much vocabulary he has ingested. He orders breakfast from room service and a thesaurus is left outside his door. Suddenly ravenous, rapacious, gluttonous, famished, he eats, wolfs, gobbles, devours the tome seemingly in a matter of minutes. He lies down and catches a few moments rest before returning to the dictionary again, and by now he no longer cares what sensations each page is giving him. He simply binges, reflexively, lost to the world.
He does not make it to his scheduled appointment. His phone rings, surely an angry voice waiting on the other line, a voice demanding answers that Jerome will not give. He forgets nearly every detail of his own life, his mind instead filled with every relevant word of the English language, his stomach constantly empty.
When his emaciated body is finally found in the husk of the abandoned hotel off of I-83, the detectives note the strange smile on his face, the clutched sheafs of paper in his stiffened fist. The coroner finds so much digested pulp in his stomach that the story easily tells itself. The last thing anybody at his workplace can recall Jerome saying before he wandered off on his seeming misadventure were “See you Monday.”
“Famous last words,” says one of the detectives, and the other smirks, wishing he’d thought to say it first.