By Mike McGrath  

For a time during my twenties, I lived outside a small town called Laurel, among the old, gentle hills of the western shore of the state of Maryland. It was some time after the Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, while on what had been scheduled as a routine stop in the 1972 campaign for president, was felled by a man named Arthur Bremmer.

It is generally understood that Bremer was psychotic. For a good while before he actually pulled the trigger there, in Laurel, Maryland, he had detached himself from what most people consider a normal life. He felt invisible. He felt faceless. He felt on the verge of disintegration. He had to let people know that he was alive, that he existed. He could not accept the kind of quiet lack of purchase that his life had apparently dealt him, and so he determined to make a statement, a yell, a bellow that he could later point to in testament to his place on the planet. To help him in this personal campaign for identity, he had chosen Richard M. Nixon and George Wallace.

By the time I lived there, in Laurel, the furor and ignominious attention of the day of the shooting had all but completely slipped away. Wallace and Bremer had moved on along their respective, divergent paths, and the little town between Baltimore and Washington D.C. had returned to its once and future self; a fair and harmless place, a mostly gray-colored warren of malls and multi-unit tract housing that slept in the daylight and at night opened its prefabricated arms to embrace the throngs of contractors, sub-contractors, military, paramilitary, and sundry service and support minions that worked in, but lived outside of, those two iconic cities.

As many did, I spent my workday hours in a putty-colored, United States Government Agency office cubicle, or USGAC. An office fixture familiar to all those serving in the public sector, we who moved in and among them made it our conversational norm to refer to work spaces and other tools and accoutrements of our lives by pronouncing their representative acronyms as made-up words. I worked in an “UZ-gak”, for example. We spoke this way as an amusement, mostly, but I have since learned that it is also a linguistic tool for adding importance to my lot. Indeed, it is used by many people who’ve occupations in common with one another as a device for introducing a kind of bombastic code into whatever otherwise routine communications may be overheard by the outside world. Nonsense words inflated us, separated us. We would pepper our office banter with liberal mentions of UZ-gaks, MUSEs, COM-sats, and prik-seventy-SEVENs—whatever jargonistic over-spray of the day suited us. It made our banter barely intelligible to the uninitiated waifs orbiting on the fringes of our secret circles. We could regard them there, stealing glances at us, their quizzed faces sallowed in the dinner parties’ candle lights or sports bars’ neon.

For some of us, it was all we had.

My UZ-gak was constructed of a sturdy metal frame, padded with a raphinous material and upholstered in a slightly coarse fabric that was purported to be highly resistant to stains. Its purpose was two-fold: first, it furnished me with a modicum of privacy; second, it cordoned off a pre-defined and controllable space for me. It was nearly square and sized perfectly to allow for me, my desk, which was permanently affixed to its south-facing wall and my half-height-sized filing cabinet. It was made so as to blend in with the building in which both it and I were employed.

That building was tall and serious, with an exterior that was intentionally non-descript. It poked out from the edge of a densely wooded area, and so did we who lived inside it (between the hours of eight and five), slightly to the north of this country's seat of power.

I cannot say what stains my UZ-gak was designed to rail against or what reasons there may have been for its being located in a tall-and-in-the-open building. Personally, I would have chosen something wide and slung low, deeper in the wood. Moreover, I can only wonder about what I, myself, may have been made of, what I was stuffed with, and whether or not I was similarly guarded against soiling there, on a razor’s edge between the light and the dark in Maryland.

Each day, I would make the same trip down the same, staid parkway to that serious, non-descript place. I would leave my practical car in its own, designated space outside the building, having made sure to arrive early so as to lessen the chances of having to hunt for a parking spot that was not my own. I would trundle into the same elevator that I used each day, and I would press the same button that would bring me up toward the sun and the farm where my careful receptacle and thousands of others just like it were laid out, column on column, row on row.

I would plug myself in at the same time each day, wearing a badge to which a photograph of my bland face had been affixed so that everyone could know that it was I in my plug-in spot and not someone else. There, snug inside my modicum of privacy, I would wile away the day, preparing reports, filing all kinds of data and memoranda-izing the minute and subtle details of whatever strayed into and out of the distinct and precisely laid out boundaries of my bailiwick. I worked quietly, my half-height filing cabinet standing faithful sentry at the entrance to my domain.

I believe that, during the span of time that I was in the employ of that government, when I wandered the labyrinth halls of seniority amid the transient walls and the fluorescent lighting suspended in cloud-white, reticulated skies stretching out, from my perspective, for impossible distances—I believe that it could be said that I was generally quite useful. To substantiate this view I offer the fact that, by the end of my tenure there, on the edge of the dark wood, poking out yet hidden, somewhere in among the thousands of other Uz-gaks among the old, gentle hills of Maryland, I had very nearly filled my half-height cabinet with the stuff of my work, file upon file, report upon report all neatly arranged, the tokens of a post-modern Bartelby.

When I was not at work, I spent my time browsing the plots of books of little import and skimmed the photo captions and sidebars of popular news magazines. I also watched a good deal of prime-time commercial television from the cheap comfort of an imitation leather sleeper sofa which was set in the center of a capacious, if spare living room in a condominium that had been mortgaged from a calm and venerable bank.

The material used for the covering of the sofa was colored aqua, though it was not at all the color of water, and its texture was supposed to imitate leather, though it did not appear to me to feel as if it had ever been the skin of any animal, living or dead.

Nonetheless, my sleeper sofa was quite an apt underpinning of my place in that time. Covered up by something that was named for something else, dyed to resemble something familiar; it was not uncomfortable, though its design and construction did not actually imply any particular comfort. It did not profess to actually be leather. It was honest, and it was simply and always there, waiting for me; and nestled as best I could on its lap by the flickering glow of my television’s phosphors, I spent nights browsing and skimming and wending through the back stories of all sorts of things that were offered for sale in the vast, ethereal expanse of quality, value, and convenience all around me.

I was a student of many things at that time, chief among them the goods and services which were foist upon me from the pages of the magazines and condensed newspapers, and which were also broadcast on the local network of the coaxial cable television system—the CO-ax LAN—into that trig room. I processed all information, practiced separating the marketing chaff from the grains of good truth and inspired innovation. I kept morally sharp and mentally aware. I memorized the physical dimensions of various essential elements of costume jewelry and the functional specifications of various almond- and cappuccino-enameled time-savers that were premiered from time to time and were guaranteed to bring my life to the very precipice of the sublime.

Why, Bethanne from Texarkana had one and just loved it; I mean she really loved it. Sarah from Idyllwild had one, had worn it to her husband’s office party and had been just so proud. Experts from the Underwriters’ Laboratory had stamped it with their stern seal. Lorie in Duluth had one, and she had used it so much that she had decided it indispensable, and now was calling to get one for her sister over in Twin Cities. Poor Lorie in Duluth was a little nervous, too, what with being beamed into my living room and all.

And while speaking with Bethanne and Sarah and Lorie and any number of others, Staci with an “i” would look right at me through the picture of the television screen, and then the camera would zoom in on her delicate, finely manicured fingers turning the bauble of the hour just so in order to catch the light and show me how it sparkled; or it would focus in on her finely tapered, patent leather shoes with impossible heels, turning just so to accent her delicately sculpted calves, showing tastefully just beneath the hem of her middle-American skirt. Then the camera would zoom back out, and Staci with an “i” would look at me again—really, right at me—and be really quite impressed. (And wasn’t I as well?)

There were times, back then, when I would take a mental picture of Staci with an “i” with me into the cool, faux-porcelain gallery of my bathroom, where I would imagine her standing in there, with me, smiling benignly while I masturbated into the placid waters of the toilet. During one particularly cold winter, I remember seriously contemplating the re-organization of the furniture in my capacious, if spare living room, solely for the purpose of making it physically possible for me to view my unwitting familiar on the television screen whenever I was otherwise engaged in there. I never executed the move, however.

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"Come to Atlantic City with us!" my co-workers would ask from time to time as they passed my desk. "Let's all go up to spend the day at Hershey Park," they’d yell to me from outside my protected fabric walls. (No one ever visited me at my condominium).

Eventually, my response to invitations became assumed, and the bubbly banter of my office mates grew more and more faint, second thoughts trickling away behind them like the wake behind ducks on a still pond. Ultimately, all sound of their clamoring off on their day-trips and weekends and nights was absorbed by the acoustic batting around me, and what scant, precisely arranged expenditures of social and personable energy I did expend seemed to me to fade quite nicely into the only-slightly-coarse and stain-resistant background of my life, both inside and outside of the UZ-gak. Indiscernible from all around me, I became a temporary but immovable king. My half-height filing cabinet was a rook’s tower, my little desk a moat, and its walls the stalwart stone parapets erected against all manner of Goth, Visigoth, Vandal, or proselytizing Friend.

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January 30, 2003
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