The blare of the evil red eye shatters my world, cruelly dragging me from grand vistas into the cold morning of reality. I roll over in downy warmth to glare back in disbelief, but there it was, the woeful sentinel of my banal existence, solidly burning the time into my retinae, a horrible laser accompanied by a staccato crow-like cawing: 6:00 AM. Groaning, I set my feet on the icy hardwood floor and stumble over to the clock, slapping it into submission.
I pause a moment, looking around at the grey confines of my bedroom, wishing for the life of me that I was back in that glorious land of sleep. Nothing in my life compares. Nothing brings me half as much joy, or even an ounce of the excitement that I find in those few precious hours when my outer eyes are closed and my inner opened to the fantastic happenings of the dreamworld. There, hanging from a bedpost, is my robe. Thick, grey, it is functional. I slip it on.
I shamble out of my room and down an empty corridor to the kitchen. There, on the slate grey counter sat the steel grey carafe that I will soon fill with the black beverage that will sharpen my senses and help me force myself out of the house and on my way down dismal streets to my equally dismal job. It is the way of things.
Up at 6:00 AM. Drink a mug of java. Eat a plate of eggs and some toast. Jump into the shower. Shave. Get dressed. Walk to work. Work for eight hours, interrupted only twice for more coffee and once for a sack lunch. Walk back home. Sit in front of the television watching the news and perhaps a cop drama or a reality show. Eat dinner. Get undressed. Go back to bed where the monotony can, at least for a spell, be broken, and replaced with more incredible happenings.
What I wouldn’t give to break out of these doldrums. To replace this wearisome, endless cycle of repetitive ritual with something else. I don’t know what – if I did, I would do it. But, anything, anything would be better.
I start the coffee brewing and fetch a stainless steel skillet from the cupboard, place it on the stove, and crack two eggs into it. Grease pops in time to the hissing, steaming sounds of percolation behind me. A few minutes later, blackened bread springs out of the toaster, the eggs are cooked hard, and the coffee done. I sit down and eat my meal, not really tasting it, while staring down into the black and white print of the morning newspaper.
News. How inappropriate a term. Nothing in it is really new. Just the same old wars, the same old politicians scrambling for power, the same crimes of murder and robbery and occasional arson. The only things different were the names and the faces, and maybe the places. But none of that really makes it new.
Soon the eggs and toast are gone, and I rise out of my chair, its cold metal legs scraping across the floor behind me. Into the shower I go, pushing aside the white plastic curtain. For a moment I ponder leaving it open, just something to change the routine, but I don’t. It would leave too much of a mess to clean up off the white tile floor. A few minutes of the drumming of water upon a white ceramic basin, myself interposed, and I shut it off, stepping out of the tub and across to the sink. I see myself in the silver mirror, middle-aged, hair graying at the temples, peppery stubble on my face. My hand, of its own volition, picks up the razor and scrapes it off.
Shaven and clean, I pull on my business suit one ashen piece at a time. Ash pants, white shirt, ash jacket. Black tie. Then I pick up my somber ebon briefcase in one hand, my charcoal umbrella in the other, and step out the apartment door. My footsteps echo hollowly off the slate walls and down the spiral of the stairwell. Down, down I go to street level. I don’t encounter another soul as I make my way to the building’s exit. Not like it would matter – at most we would nod acknowledgement of each other’s existence and move on about our morning business, each completely unconcerned about the other’s well-being, intentions, motivations, or passions.
It’s raining outside. A cold mist of rain, one of those showers that makes you want to use an umbrella, but at the same time makes it pointless since the water just seems to hover in the air, so you walk right into it anyway. I pop open the umbrella. It’s what one does when it’s raining.
I sigh, and wish aloud, “What I wouldn’t give for just a little colour in my life. A little variety.”
The streets of my neighborhood are uninviting. The apartment buildings stand in formation, each wearing the same uniform, their perfectly perpendicular fronts all painted in the same shades of neutral stone, the only things separating one from another are the numbers over the doors. There are no storefronts to break up their continuity. A car passes by now and then, its tires hissing on the wet concrete road.
My walk to work is down several such streets until I reach another drab façade, distinguishable from the previous apartment buildings by an increased volume of glass. But I never make it there this day.
I don’t know what made me turn down that alley. It certainly wasn’t part of my routine, nor would it make getting to work any faster, or more pleasant. Perhaps it was the green of the dumpster that caught my eye, or the rainbow of light reflecting off the oily puddle at the alley entrance. More likely it was the brilliant blue of the neon sign I’d never before noticed. Surely, it must have been there all along – bars don’t just pop up overnight, do they? Whatever it was, I broke with my daily tradition. I turned into that alley, careful not to step in the puddle lest it ruin my patent leather shoes, wove around the dumpster, and approached the flickering, buzzing neon sign: Wonderland.
Three steps down, and the door opened inward to a haze of blue smoke. Murmurs of conversation wafted out to me, punctuated by the sharp clacks of billiard balls. I dove in, all thoughts of work banished, excitement and curiosity mounting by the moment. The watering hole was surprisingly busy for so early in the morning. Three bomber-jacketed patrons leaned lazily against the bar, drinks in hand, while three greasers gathered around the green felt of the pool table, dimly illuminated in amber from the beer light gently swinging a few feet above. Still others sat with their heads together at three different tables, each of them also in groups of three, some swathed in oriental silks, others garbed in dapper tux and tails, and some in frilled lace and ruffles disguising their figures beneath all the finery. What significance their numbers may have had was beyond me. Perhaps it was a subtle warning for what was to come, but I didn’t know to heed it, even if I had a way to know what it was. Besides, I was too dumbstruck by the outlandish clothing of some, and the sheer disjointedness of seeing all those clashing styles in one place.
I crossed the room, dodging chairs and tables on my way to the bar, taking in the man behind it on my way. He was short and stocky of stature – a well-built dwarf of a man, standing perhaps a meter and a half tall, with shoulders easily a meter broad. Thick, ropy muscles rippled underneath a tight red t-shirt printed with the phrase “In Infinitio” in gothic script. A snake of iridescent inks coiled around his right arm, and a cigar was clenched tightly between yellowed teeth. His short, spiky hair came in three colours, green, purple, and black. He waited for me, cleaning a pint glass with a dingy white cloth, as I delicately set my briefcase down next to the round, red-vinyl covered barstool, easing myself thereupon.
“What can I do ya for, bubs?” he asked in a deep, gravelly voice.
I hesitated, “I… I don’t really know why I came in here,” then, after a short pause, “I suppose the proper thing would be to order a pint.”
He grunted his assent and tossed the cloth over his shoulder, then shoved the mug under a tap, rapidly filling it with a foamy amber liquid.
“Yer not the usual kind o’ buster to drop in here. What brings yer fancy-pants to this dive?” he asked, but he never let me finish, “Let me guess… yer a suit, but ya ain’t got no colour in yer life. Ya saw the sign, thought, ‘hey, I can play hookie for just one morning,’ so ya came in here, lookin’ for somethin’, but ya don’t know what. Am I right, or what?”
He slid the pint across the counter to me, just like they do it in the movies. I grabbed it, and not near as gracefully, sloshing beer all over the place, soaking the sleeve of my suit. My head dropped. He was right. I did go in there looking for something, and I didn’t know what it was. Change, maybe. Anything. Just something to rescue me from the grind. I nodded.
“Yeah. I just… need something different. Anything,” I take a sip of the beer. It was good. Nutty, full, rich. Not your typical American beer.
“Well, ya already done that. From the looks of ya, just settin’ yer keester down there is new. But you want more, don’t ya. They always do. Ya can’t have just a little change. Once ya start, ya gotta keep going. So what is it. But the better question, is what’re ya willin’ to give up fer it. Change always comes with a price, ya know.”
This made me ponder for a little bit. He was right. Change does always come with a price. My little bout of hookie was going to cost me later – my boss was sure to pull me into his office and give me an earful next he saw me.
“Well… Honestly, I’d give just about anything to really significantly change my life. It’s boring. I’m in a dead-end job, doing the same thing all day every day. I go home at night to the same empty, boring apartment, to watch the same boring news programs and reality shows on television. The only respite I get is in my dreams at night. I just… I want to change my life, but I don’t know how.”
“Anything?” He asked, cocking an eyebrow,” Ya’d throw it all away? For any kind of change?”
I paused before answering, took another pull from the glass, then nodded ascent.
“And what if ya weren’t happy with what ya got? Different doesn’t mean better.”
This made me think some more, but I finally responded, “Anything at least has to be more interesting than what I have now.”
This time he paused. He seemed to be thinking something over, taking his chin in hand, cradling it between middle finger and thumb, running his index finger down the side of his not-insubstantial cleft. He turned his back to me, seeming to make up his mind, and skimmed through the bottles lined up on the wall. It was an unlabelled, silver bottle he selected - tall, skinny, with a tapering neck. Then he turned back around, bent slightly to pull a shot glass out from under the counter, and set them both down.
“This’ll change everythin’,” he said as he unstoppered the bottle and poured a mercury fluid into the small crystal glass. Then he set it down in front of me.
“What is it,” I asked.
“Change. Ya said ya’d do anythin’, give anythin’. Well, all ya have to do is toss that back. It’ll change yer life. I gare-ohn-tee it.”
I looked at it skeptically. I could practically see myself in that little glass. The bow of the surface tension warped my reflection, so the tiny me staring back wasn’t really me. It was somebody different. Even before consumption, it was changing me. Then I made up my mind.
I drank it.
A barrage of iridescent swirls assaulted me, explosions of a thousand fireworks filled my vision. Music, so much music, a million symphonies all at once filled my ears. The world spun, and I felt like I was falling, falling. I reached out for the brass rail on side of the bar, but my hand only grabbed air, and I kept falling, falling, spinning out of control as the lights and colours and explosions and orchestra continued to assail me. Whispers found their way through the mélange, tugging at my ear, barely perceptible, but hardly comprehensible. Things pulled and poked and prodded at me. Things sharp and tangy and sticky and smooth and velvety and rough and sandpapery. Pleasant and painful all together in one.
I lost track of time in that vortex of the senses. When I came to, when the world finally re-coalesced into something that made some modicum of sense, I was on my hands and knees at the base of the stool, kneeling in my own puddle of vomit. My suit was ruined. But this didn’t bother me. It just… didn’t.
I climbed back up onto the barstool, took off my jacket and folded it over the briefcase. Then I did the oddest thing. I looked the barkeep straight in the face.
And I asked for another.
He smiled a wicked, pleased smile, and filled the little tiny crystal container one more time. And I drank it, too. I was more prepared for the sensory blitz this time, and yet I was still overwhelmed. But when I came to this time, I was no longer in my suit. I was dressed just like the other patrons. A pair of Levi’s, and a red t-shirt printed with the script “In Infinitio.” I was still seated this time, and the shot glass was already filled for a third go. Gladly, gleefully, I took that one as well.
That was three years ago. Or thirty. I’m still on that barstool, wearing the same clothes. I’m still taking shots of that damned mercury beverage. And I’m still being bushwhacked by prismatic explosions, by the London Philharmonic, by whispering demons hiding in the light, by unknown things groping me. And I can’t seem to find my way off of this seat. Can’t seem to refuse another drink.
Can’t seem to break out of this new routine.
I’d give anything just to have my life of grey back.