The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim—even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon—feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. This is in my opinion why writers—like insomniacs—are so accident-prone, so obsessed with the calculus of bad luck and missed opportunities, so liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so.
~Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Last night I crossed paths with a guy I used to work for. Mine was a sales position, where every weekday, and Saturdays, I was to fan out across Nashville with a band of similarly-programmed individuals, and attempt to sell AT&T bundle packages door-to-door to small businesses for their internet and long distance service. This was back in 2008, and coincided with my period of itinerant homelessness. I slept under weeping willows at the business park where I and all the other 20-30-something young males met every morning for the ritual psych-up. Baby Got Back and like-minded high-energy tracks were blasted from a $30 Wal-Mart CD player, and we yelled at each other things like “You can’t be stopped!” and “No, YOU can’t be stopped, you invincible motherfucker!”
The guy had a wife and a baby daughter with him, and a shopping cart full of exterior rubber landscaping tiles. He wanted to know if, in my professional opinion, a standard box cutter would work efficiently and effectively to cut the tiles. Then he recognized me. We shook hands. His grip was weak. We remembered each other then but I didn’t know his name. He had the upper hand in name remembrance, in that my name was emblazoned across my chest, as is customary for a retail clerk of my position. His name wasn’t emblazoned across his chest. Never was.
He looked merely slightly different, these six years later, but only inasmuch that it was the first time I had ever seen him not wearing a suit and tie. He asked me how long I’d been in my current occupation. I knew why he asked me that as soon as the sentence was just beginning to leave his mouth. He asked me how long I’d been doing what I was doing because the last time we’d talked, six years ago, it was just the two of us in his corner office, mere minutes before the psych-up meeting. He was, as I remember, wearing a suit and tie. He’d said that he had to level with me. I’d looked behind him, out the wide windows of his corner office. The branches of a willow tree were softly scraping on the panes. He had said he didn’t think this was the right fit for me. He said that besides the numbers and my lack of them, I was an obvious outlier, bad for morale. Everybody knows you change clothes in the bathroom every morning and afternoon when we meet back up, he said. The other guys are noticing, he said, and it’s bad for morale.
My changing clothes in the bathroom is bad for morale? I asked. He messed with his ring finger. There was still a distinct tan line where a ring no longer existed. Look, I said, if there’s only one thing you can relate to me about, it’s that. I looked at his hands, with all obviousness. He knew what I was referring to and immediately put his arms down, his hands out of sight behind his broad, cheap wood replica desk. He set his jaw and looked at his lap. Then he told me that it killed him to have to make the determination he was having to make. He looked like he was having trouble not crying. I wanted to ask him how he held everything together the way he did, to ask him to let me in on the secret to pressing ahead when everything falls apart around your head. I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t easy to keep things floating when all you felt like was drowning, and just fighting to keep your airways above water seemed like more trouble than it was worth—that it was easier to die than to engage even the most meager effort at survival, let alone the taking of the world, unstoppable motherfuckers or not.
I stood up.
I’ve been sleeping in that stand of trees by the overpass, I said, pointing over his shoulder. I wanted him to know exactly which stand of trees I was talking about, so I pointed. I stopped sleeping there, moved to the golf course off of Galatin last week, specifically to prevent this having to happen, I said. But I guess the clothes-changing did me in anyway. You can’t rightly sleep on the ground in a suit and then expect the suit to be even halfway decent for walking into offices the next day, I said. Then I left, pulled my duffel bag from the janitor’s closet, and went back into the bathroom to change clothes again for the second time in less than 20 minutes. His daughter’s name, he told me last night, is Auburn. She turns one year old next month.
Later, after work, I went with a couple of my closest fellow retail super box store supervisors to a nearby bar. There were two female bartenders serving. One was a Ginger, with a face and figure that could launch a thousand wars, the other a tatted-up MaryAnn. This Ginger/MaryAnn designation according to Fergus, who has a preternatural talent for classifying types of people, and neatly tying said classifications into pop culture touchstones. Did you know, I said to Fergus, that only a few years after Gilligan’s Island went off the air, Bob Denver played a second, nearly carbon-copy Gilligan character named Dusty on a laugh-tracked sit-com called Dusty’s Trail, wherein instead of a yacht getting blown off course, it’s a late-19th century wagon train that gets lost? In fact, I continued, every single character on the rehash show was an exact carbon copy of a character on Gilligan’s Island: there was Gilligan, playing himself, except now his name was Dusty. He was still a fuck-up and still loveable (“Dusty’s the reason for their plight, thanks to Dusty nothing’s right”). There was the skipper, replaced by the wagon train’s cook. And the professor, who was now referred to in the credits as “the academic.” That’s because they didn’t have professors in the 1800’s, said Fergus. Right, I said. There was another millionaire geriatric couple, who of course had the nicest wagon in the whole train, velvet curtains with tassels and all. And, of course, a Ginger and a MaryAnn. Fergus wiki’d my claims and read aloud that the general consensus for the show’s flop performance (only 26 episodes were made) was that it was simply too blatant a ripoff of Gilligan’s Island. They weren’t even attempting to differentiate it in any way, our friend and fellow supervisor Shinebox said.
By this point we’d discussed at length the relative merits of a Ginger vs. a MaryAnn, directly relating it to the Ginger and MaryAnn behind the bar. And, seeing as I had my fortitude up after my third drink, I decided I needed to have Ginger directly address us. As she passed by, her perfect body all the more perfect as the night marched on, I called to her, asked her if she’d do me a favor and take a picture of the framed picture behind the bar, because I was too far from it for my crap phone camera to adequately capture the image. She obliged, took two snaps, repositioning herself and the phone so as to reduce glare for the second effort. I looked at her work, told her I preferred the first one, the one with glare. It had a red circle and a blue rectangle. This is the picture:
I wrote this piece drunk and edited it sober, as I do everything I write. You’ll have to hypothesize which are the drunk parts and which the sober.
Fergus, Shinebox and I eventually came to the following conclusions: there is no true possessing of a Ginger. She serves only as a representation of all that cannot ever truly be possessed, the likes of which are like trying to file a land-claim on the Grand Canyon—no matter how big your armaments, and the forces at your disposal to back them up, something of such exquisite and rare beauty is going to be in high demand by any and all travelers. Ginger, despite her modestly-sized engagement ring, could never truly be engaged to any one man. His pickup truck would eventually have to be replaced with a crash-tested Mercedes or Audi—something high-end. She is a national treasure, our sentiment went, and therefore could only be on loan for any particular duration of time, and the clock was always ticking. She would always be forced, through the inevitable triumph of natural selection, back into the commonly-held stock of beautiful women, curse that that is. Her shape, hourglass. Her complexion, flawless. Her hair (blond, shoulder-length). Her eyes (blue). Her dimples.
Later, MaryAnn approached and engaged us in talk of the relatively new phenomenon of front yard bonfires, and her inability to gather the nerve to approach her neighbors in their pre-gentrification neighborhood, and how she was almost to the point of fuck-it. She said she was just about ready to just roll a doob and stroll the streets of her pre-gentrification neighborhood, crossing up the front-yard bonfires to see what might come of it. It was an incredibly intimate thing to admit to complete strangers like Fergus, Shinebox and me. But she told us these details, and by God, Fergus was right: she was the more attractive of the Ginger/MaryAnn head-to-head. Because MaryAnn has vulnerability and possibility and all the things that make actual chemistry something something something something. She was beautiful in her own rite. And yet, despite her bangs and tattoos and obvious street cred, she still worried about trying to fit in in her pre-gentrification neighborhood, a year after moving in.
I like to think, in these hours later as I write this, that I could have and should have asked her for her phone number, and that maybe then we would have become a dance of “come-close-and-then-pull -away” until we got to the point where we both realized that we were what the other had always been looking for, without actually knowing we were looking for Us. But I didn’t ask her. I just kept thinking about Ginger. Because she was safer to imagine. Because I am never going to be the guy with the shaved head and the effortless manner that actually attracts girls like Ginger. And though we all like to imagine that somewhere out there a Ginger exists who has risen above her position of “stone-cold fox,” and has demanded to be recognized for her brains as well as her immediately obvious physical beauty, the unavoidable truth is that the reason that such freaks of nature with both brains and beauty exist in such low numbers is because they have grown up—incubated— in a world where nothing more than stage dressing is asked—even commanded—of them. The beautiful people, who with only the slightest of effort excel in any position or stature they seek.
And we want them to be like this. They are forever in our debt. We appoint upon them total hotness and exemption from the typical requirements of the average that is all commonplace most everywhere else, and in return they grant us a look, maybe. Or a sentence (“Where can I find lightbulbs?”). This is the way of things.
I was married to a Ginger. Then engaged to a MaryAnn.
This is the Ginger I was married to.
Sealed in amber.
This is the MaryAnn I was in love with.
I can still almost touch her.
I was unaware at the time of my marriage that one does not just walk into marriage with a Ginger and expect to have everything end up hunky dory. The Ginger is expected to want more than writing and second or third-hand beater cars. And that Gingers have expiration dates. And that such expiration dates are constantly ticking in the backs of their minds, in the backs of their clocks (biological), that they are always wondering if this ticking is an actual bomb or just the latest form of alarm to go up, reminding them that that new Volvo isn’t just going to materialize in the driveway on its own. There is work to be done. You got the free pass with the Ginger looks, yes, but that doesn’t immediately equal the kush life. A Ginger has to work that shit. The looks only go so far. There are porn star Gingers, for Christ’s sake, Shinebox said. Yeah, the porn star Gingers are definitely having to work it, Fergus agreed…
So now, here I am. I think I’ve pretty much gotten past my self-destructive Ginger obsession. Most of them, after all, aren’t nearly refined enough to demand any more out of life than to merely be attractive. Like water, all of us generally take the path of least resistance. But for an average-looking mope like me, this means I am going to be relegated to psycho Gingers who never learned to work it, or MaryAnns with daddy issues, which usually translates to psychotic beatdowns and screaming matches in the middle of the night, when all you want is to log six maybe 7 hours of sleep so you can go back to your mope job not feeling like a total crap pile.
Can I at least get a blowjob? said Fergus, who is married to a Ginger himself. His is a rare one, the kind who demanded to be seen for her brains, too.
Nothing is ever easy.
The midnight disease started as a simple feeling of disconnection to other people, an inability to “fit in” by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing on a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your own hostile gaze.