BY: Nicholas LaRocca
“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
For my fifteen minutes, when I was the talk of the town, everyone was saying I was being anti-heroic, revolutionary, symbolic, that my tunnel was a metaphor: the underground, a shot across the bow to warn the powers-that-be of the tenuous control they have over a world full of chaos—filled to the brim with the raging proletariat. Part of this mythology is my own fault. I shouldn’t have gone on the Today Show with my high mind and artistic ideals, my shtick. When Katie Couric asked me to spell out the nature of my protest, my answer about “the surface and the underneath,” which has been viewed on YouTube over three million times (eat your heart out, Lisalette), was the please-stroke-my-cock rhetoric of a young man full of deceit, bravado, and seductive modulation, as in, Here’s what I think Lisalette, that gorgeous pre-med, would want me to say.
So let this be my confession.
I was working across the street from Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters, Boca Raton, at Oasis, one of the finer gas stations in all of America. Columns of rock face supported the spotless canopy. There was a service bay, where, for $199.99, your car could be made to look fresh off the factory floor. The whole works was backed up to a bucolic greenbelt that faded into Susan B. Anthony State Park.
I was on janitorial and maintenance duty. Sophia Russo, big and chesty and rough around the edges, managed me, and Lisalette, petite and darkly Colombian and facetious, was paid to flirt shamelessly at Register 2 and deride my baseness in a friendly enough way that I wasn’t able to take offense. I don’t blame her; who wants a nineteen-year-old non-stud hanging around? Razor bumps on his neck, thin shoulders, teenage moods still flashing, morphed as they are into pseudo-intellectual weirdness. Maybe my mother. Maybe.
I spent most of my time mopping the entrance; there were days when a Florida downpour meant the CAUTION—WET FLOOR sign was never put away. From the front doors, I had a view beyond the gas station pumps across the service street to the Chase building, four stories tall, with a branch on the first floor fronted by a blue sign like an opiate. Chase. It was a command. You’re driving by, and a sign tells you, “Chase.” But chase what? Since this was Boca Raton, the answer was easy: Chase the white boat on the crystalline water.
“Chase the white boat on the crystalline water,” I said to Lisalette.
She had a sideways, sarcastic mouth, as though she were always chewing on her cheek. She looked like a native princess. Her hair was in a halo braid that morning, and her lipstick was the color of a new bruise. She looked at me like I was losing my marbles.
I said, “The bank you were mentioning—”
She said, “What are you talking about, Car?”
Carmichael Moltobetti. Car.
“The sign across the way.” I had effected a lisp, a rasp, and a drawl all at once. I sounded as though I was on the wrong medication. “The Chase sign. What do you think they want us to chase?”
There were two customers in the store. One was browsing antacids. The other was making coffee. He grinned at her, she asked him which creamer he preferred, and I resented them both. In his grin, I saw my father: derisive, supercilious, superior. In her response, I saw my mother in her maiden years: seduced, ripe-to-be-abandoned.
“I was just making a joke, Lisa.”
“That’s not my name, Car. Is that all?” she asked the man with the coffee.
Later, in the break room—it was pouring outside, business was slow, and Reginald had taken over the register—I got nervous and started telling Lisalette about a fungus growing on my back. “It’s like athlete’s foot of the back.”
“Jesus. Go get some Lamisil.”
I didn’t think someone so pretty knew what Lamisil was.
“I can’t spray it on my back.”
I wanted her to spray it on my back. I’d have paid her all the money I had in my Chase account to spray it on my back. “I sprayed it in my face by accident. It tasted like tea tree oil.”
“Car, c’mon, mop. It’s wet up front. Someone’s gonna slip. Sophia will be here at two, and if she sees any water, she’ll throw a fit.”
“Are you sure you want me to mop?”
“I really don’t care.”
She was trying to eat something that had green vegetables and brown rice in it. She was a fitness buff; her Instagram was all bikinis in the lowering sun until you wanted to stab yourself, and her captions were about inner beauty, finding it, accepting it, internalizing it, preaching it, dying for it.
“I can be a tremendous conversationalist,” I said.
She looked up from her phone and made a face like you would at a pile of dirty dishes.
I said, “I need to confess something.”
Think of when you hit the gas pedal in a slow car just to see what little horsepower it has.
“I think you’re beautiful.”
“No, no, no. No, no. No, no.”
“I look at your page. I have your page in my search history. I pull it up.”
“I just want your permission. I love you.”
She got up with her food and went away.
I knew that as she walked away, she was trying to obliterate me. Women had done this to me my whole life. She was using her mental powers, which contemplated Lamisil, to erase me from her consciousness.
But I had plans for us, and that night, I talked with her—meaning, as I paced my room, I went so far as to make believe she really was there. To my mind, convincing myself I was hallucinating rather than fantasizing made me a true artiste—troubled, dark, sick. She sat on my bed with her legs under her. She was fidgeting because she wanted to make love to me. But I wasn’t ready to grant her the privilege. She first needed to hear about my genius.
“You need to be reeducated,” I told her. “Remade.”
“By the thoughts you think and the dreams you dream.”
“I’ll take mercy on you. I have a kind heart. There are thousands of beautiful girls, Lisa.”
“It’s pathetic to see anyone use beauty as though it was earned.”
“Flourishes. You’re only flourishes and retreats. You know, there’s a sort of writer—all style, no substance. Reading them is like having your colon scraped by a disenchanted Nazi.”
“You’re magnificent and strange. I know that now.”
“I’ve written a television-show-slash-film-slash-franchise, Lisa. Why do you seem so surprised? It’s going to rival Disney. I’m going to prove that I am that rarest of sensibilities who entertains, moves, touches, humors, and provokes all in a single episode.”
I hadn’t actually written anything more than notes in a cow-patterned composition book. I showed her the book, but I didn’t let her open it. I told her I used a composition book—rather than a computer—because I was symbiotically connected to language and needed to feel my words on paper. “Like braille,” I said, though I’d never felt braille. “Words are an extension of my aesthetic rather than a medium for it, like Hendrix’s dissonant tones. I have so much to teach you.”
We talked on, and our love was etched by our confessions. She lauded my brilliance and admitted to being intellectually submissive. I saw in her shining eyes how long she had yearned for a man of my capabilities. I told her—in poetic language, for this was the climax of the fantasy of the hallucination—that with her loyalty buttressing me from self-destruction, I would be able to endure the slings and arrows of lesser creatures though they be the gatekeepers of the castle. “With you by my side, I will find a true champion of my genius, Lisa. An editor, a producer. New York. Hollywood.” I was on the other side of the room. I was sticky with sweat—my armpits, my chest, my lower back. The room was musty. The fungus on my back itched so badly I had to use the right angle of the closet wall to scratch myself. “They’ll fly us out. We’ll go arm-in-arm. They’ll thank me for merely existing, for bestowing my genius upon humanity, my intellectual heft, my unrivaled talent. They’ll know you’re the wind beneath my wings. There will be cocktail parties, attendees present to glimpse The Me, to steal a moment with The Me. Threesomes, fivesomes, twelvesomes. Orgies. With you on my arm!”
She pouted because she wanted me all to herself, but I smiled in a patronizing way. “All experiences serve to enhance my creativity. It’s your duty to support them.”
“My creation will be our empire, Lisa.”
“Of course. I love you.”
“I love you.”
I made my way to the bed. I sat beside her.
“Greatness is your fate,” she told me. “A reeducation of everyone.”
“Of women,” I said.
She climbed on top of me. “As long as I’m yours.”
I slid into her. She leaned over me. I studied her face. I met her Mayan eyes, and there I saw the rain, the sunlight, the mountain range.
“Let’s be vast together,” I said. “I am your god, and you are my muse.”
“This is your first and last warning. If you make one more comment to Lisalette, one more comment that is, to quote our handbook, ‘sexual or romantic in nature,’ because she has clearly expressed her discomfort with what you said yesterday, I’m going to fire you. Understand?”
This was Sophia, the next morning. The night before, I fell asleep in my clothes, a sweaty mess, and dreamed of eating Lisalette’s pubic hair, a bowl of it like squid-ink angel hair pasta—it’s mouthfeel attractive and slick.
It likely goes without saying that when you dream about eating someone’s pubic hair, it’s a little embarrassing to have your boss tell you to keep your mouth shut around the very person who would have supplied the hair in the first place. I walked out of Sophia’s office, hurried down the hall, and went right back to painting the men’s room door.
All morning, I had to tell men to use the women’s restroom. I felt uncomfortable doing so, as though my recommendation would be mistaken as harassment. But I wouldn’t leave my hallway. I couldn’t. Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was too ashamed to share the same space as her. I had this feeling she knew what my fantasies were—not just that I was in love with her but precisely what I thought about and had imagined talking to her about last night.
I applied several more coats of paint than I needed to. I painted the hell out of that door. Like the guys in the service bay, I made the door look new again.
Sophia found me around lunchtime. “Last coat, Car. Take your lunch, and then I want you back on the mop.”
“And so it shall be.”
“I shall mop the store in a manner that befits Oasis, that brings to our little place of work disinfection, sanitation, and cosmetic restoration. Here in Boca, these are the three fundamental elements of life—like water, oxygen, and sunlight to the rest of the world.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she said.
All afternoon, Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was mopping, dusting, swapping, noting, inventorying, mopping, noting, and mopping. I carried out my menial tasks in a fugue-like state. Criminals talk about blacking out during the crime. They’re trying to argue that you’re not you when you’re stabbing someone. Turns out nobody buys it.
But does anybody think about it? Because the criminal is merely being imprecise, in this manner: when you give in to the primordial darkness of destruction and fury, you actually mean to say, “Pardon me.” Because there is something like a blackout happening, some turning up the dial until every synapse is firing and the most extreme action is the only action left.
You’re the Super-You. You’re The You.
But you’re not in a zone like some batter who keeps pounding it out of the park or some basketball hero sinking everything he shoots. Those people are in the “positive zone.” I’ve been there three times and only when writing—though never when writing my show/film/franchise. I’ve written three essays about my truest feelings: one about my mother’s preference for my brother, how close they are, how she still, a little perversely, cuddles him on the couch; one about my father, a pediatrician—rare, for a man—who lives in Miami and sends us checks and dates waitresses; and one about being a loser and pretending to embrace it when, in fact, it hurts like chemo. Writing all three essays, I was in the positive zone, feeling the hand of God.
But there’s a negative zone. The entire time I was digging my tunnel, I was in the negative zone. I was digging mindlessly; what I was doing in the present, the actions I was committing, were rarely part of my consciousness. I would come back to the here and now and think, Hey, look what I’ve done! Way to go, Car! But for the most part, I dug on and on thinking about all the heroes who have floated through my life, whose heroism hardly touched me, including my father, who takes care of everyone else’s children, and my mother, a destroyer of worlds, and Lisalette, who could have shown me kindness and affection. I had confessed in the break room, had told the truth, which is more than I can say about most young men, and had earned her derision. There’s a direct line from that to my lies on the Today Show, as obvious as the line of my tunnel from the woods behind Oasis to the Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters.
The night Sophia threatened to fire me, I returned to Oasis. I parked down the road, where it dead-ended just after the entrance to the Chase lot. I had stolen a yellow workman’s vest from the storage room at the gas station. It even had the name Oasis across the breast in glow-in-the-dark yellow lettering. I had bought a hard hat at Harbor Freight. And a Maglite. I looked official. Had you driven by me—and why would you, unless you were a member of the cleaning crew that took care of Chase—you would have thought me gainfully employed at the task. Not only would you not have disturbed or questioned me, you would have admired my grunty toil.
I was pretty brazen about it, you know. I was far enough from the gas station that in my hard hat, in a different uniform than I wore to work, even Lisalette and Sophia, T.J. and Reginald, and all the others at the gas station couldn’t recognize me. And though one or two people from Chase who came by the station for coffee eyed me a little askew, there was no way their cognition went beyond, “Why is someone working by the woods at this late hour?”
It should have been a risk. Except it wasn’t. So it turned out there was an upside to being Car the Conditional. The Nobody Man. The Human Embodiment of Purgatory. Half-Italian, half-Peruvian, but really a tenth of this, a fiftieth of that, until I was the melting pot, until I had assimilated all that our giant economic collaborative had to offer: an American in America being American, searching for a way where there is no way.
In I went and down I dug. I was surrounded by mud, by dirt, by the strange cake batter under Boca. Some nights I didn’t shower. I went home exhausted. My body was fine, but my mind, racked with thoughts of vengeance and destruction, was worn down to a thin filament, and I fell into bed managing only to kick off my boots. The first few nights inside the tunnel, I got a disoriented feeling. I was in a fixed place doing a fixed thing, but the spinning of the earth was suddenly unfixed, and I could count on nothing, not even Time.
I deeply resented Disney. All those tenuous lives, all those strategic villains, all those happy endings. A lie. I resented Steve Jobs, too. I not only resented these corporations and founding men, I wanted to see them fall to pieces. I wanted their dark secrets laid bare to the world. I wanted them to break down, to die of shame. In I’d swoop, all deus ex machina. But I would not go easy on the world. My franchise was going to black out the sun. My signature endings were going to be nihilistic dogma engineered to teach the world’s children the futility of effort in the grander scheme of a meaningless life.
Early on in my digging, I said to myself, “I can’t contemplate her. I don’t.”
But then something wonderful started to happen. A change came over me, a new way of looking at things. With every inch I gained, with every foot of progress I made, I was earning my confidence. Try as they might, the Sophias and Lisalettes, the T.J.s and Reginalds, had never done anything like I was doing, hadn’t the patience nor the drive nor the ambition nor the fortitude nor the stamina. My life had taken on a clear and present purpose. Like a fighter in training, every meal I ate, every moment of sleep I got was dedicated to improving my performance as I dug my tunnel.
The dirt got into my pores, my nose, my teeth. I thought about my meeting with Sophia—my shame, the sad terms and conditions of my meager employment. I thought about the bathroom doors at Oasis. I’d painted those doors nine times, yet I’d only been working there eight months. So every .88 months, I had to paint the doors, to both bathrooms, which destroyed the myth that women are gentler than men. Both genders subverted those doors. There was a steel plate on each door that customers were supposed to contact when pushing them open so that the paint didn’t get smudged with hand goop. And these were not small steel plates. They were a good two feet by eighteen inches. You had to try to miss them. But people did.
Early in the dig, I was sure people had pushed open those doors from the center and worn down the paint out of sheer ignorance as to what the steel plate was doing there. I figured they were just dumb shitbirds. A little further in, I decided they had opened the doors the way they had to subvert me. They had deduced that because I was the man with the mop, I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole, and the responsibility to paint would fall to me. Some customers had seen me painting. We had quite a few regulars, including many who stopped by just to visit Lisalette. I was convinced these regulars hated me. I had, at the time, the kind of face you wanted to punch. It was my eyes, mere slits, with which I confronted the world in a scornful way. I was Holden Caufield, though my confessional sensitivity had been subsumed by sexual fantasy, and I was nineteen, not sixteen. Punching me was all but acceptable in the eyes of man and God.
I’d wanted to burn Oasis to the ground, to stand across the street in the Chase lot and watch the fire with everyone else, knowing I’d lit the match. But just beyond the median of the street above me, as though the median represented my coming of age—my crossing over from one place to another and, in that way, my graduation from one version of Car to a better, more precise and insightful version—my energy flipped. I came to understand that it doesn’t feel good to lay your hand on a steel plate; wood is a more sensual, tactile experience. That’s why the hand reaches instinctively for wood. You’re not doing it on purpose, but it is sensible. It’s sensual. It’s touch.
I felt the cool, moist earth on my hands. I could hear, when it was quiet enough—when it was very late, past midnight, and there was little noise coming into the tunnel—water rushing underground, the high water table of South Florida. If there were a cave-in, it would start below me, not above.
I would put my ear to the floor of the tunnel and listen to the water. I would think of being down there with Lisalette. No hostage. No lover. All of a sudden, a friend. We’re sitting in the dark and chatting about Lamisil. The water is running under us, the world is running over us, cars are moving along the service street above. We’re eating nachos from the gas station.
She says, “I’m sorry.”
I say, “No worries. I’ve dug on.”
She was the surface. Boca at street level. Send the Google car around and she’s what it captures. But I was the water underneath, the dangerous water moving on its own, a current no one sees and only a few get close to. To get to me, you’d need an ultrasound.
Then one night, I did no digging. I sat deep in my tunnel with my legs under me. My head was bowed because the tunnel was not tall. I thought of where I would have been if I’d been on the surface: almost across the street. A grand calm washed over me. I saw myself in the years to come, tunneling through life, excavating my way through the years. For the first time in a long time, I felt hope. I saw the faces of heroes and heroines who had denied me entrance to their castles. I gave them entrance to mine—Dad, you may enter my tunnel, and you, Mom, and you, my brother Charles, and you, Lisalette.
I scurried out of the tunnel. I’d never been so scared in my life. It was just my luck that I’d be smothered before I got to act on my new feelings. When I got to the surface, I breathed in Boca. I breathed in the Chase building, Oasis, the lights, the cars on Glades Road up ahead at the intersection. So many people, at this late hour, were hurrying home.
That morning, before my shift, I bought my mother, father, and brother cards and candy. Valentine’s Day was coming. But I couldn’t wait. I gave them the candies and the cards. And I gave them each a trowel!
When I’d written the cards, I was in the positive zone, even the card to my father, who hadn’t been a good father by any measure but money.
I went further. I drove to Miami. Down off the highway, the city was a tunnel, with skyscrapers like walls and no roof, just sky. There were Lisalettes everywhere—in sports bras and leggings, short shorts, sundresses. Everywhere I looked, every turn I made, hundreds of them, all looking ragged to me, as though if I were to get up close to them, I wouldn’t even smell the raw earth of my tunnel but the decay of decadence pitched against age and time, media against purpose like a duel until the very cells of the body are worn down to a malignant dust.
All that surface noise. All that surface beauty. I turned down the street of my father’s clinic. The blacktop was cracked and potholed. Everyone was going everywhere. I understood they couldn’t stop. But I could tell them, if they wanted to listen—it isn’t you: your class, your type, your phylum. Flowing below you are thousands of people like me. Most of us suffer in quiet desperation. We’re underground when the cave-in starts. I was one of the lucky ones. I made it out. Alive.
Nick LaRocca’s stories and essays have recently been featured or are forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Flint Hills Review, Blue Lake Review, Canyon Voices, Euphony, Crack the Spine, Valley Voices, The 3288 Review, The Flagler Review, Outside In Magazine, Steel Toe Review, South85, Per Contra, The Milo Review, and Mason’s Road. Work from his early twenties appears in Rush Hour: Bad Boys (Delacorte Press) and the Beloit Fiction Journal. His short story “Gestures” (Lowestoft Chronicle) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Fiction. His short story “Understandings” was nominated for Best of the Net by Wraparound South. He has just finished the novel A Guinea Street Punk in Greenville Park. Interviews of Nick are available online in The 3288 Review and Wraparound South. He is Professor I of English at Palm Beach State College, where he teaches creative writing, essay writing, and literature.