In the following excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Housebreaking the Muse, the primary narrative entity, a reformed Père Ubu, introduces the protagonist, Ray Burke, a graduate of a large state university in Middle-of-Nowhere Pennsylvania whose grand aspiration is to land a position as “a functionary in a large private university.”
Burke wandered down Mass Ave. to Central Square, there catching a 91 bus heading north on Prospect out of Cambridge. Lights out on another fruitless day. He’d knocked on doors, pounded the pavement, completed application forms, answered the cattle call, put his best foot forward, submitted his resumé in triplicate, sucked preparatory breath mints, shaken hands with a firm grip, offered a 360-degree view onto his person without lapsing into an inappropriate familiarity, looked his interviewers in the eye, took notes, asked insightful questions demonstrating his interest in the hiring organizations, and made excellent cases for why he was ideal for this job, that his knowledge, experience, and skill set were the perfect fit for the particular challenge on offer, a challenge which always happened to perfectly align with the point on his career arc he currently occupied. He even scored sixty words per minute on the typing exam administered by the Harvard Temporary Service. That ought to count for something, he thought, amazed at what grad school had done for his typing skills: paper after forgotten paper produced at speed for just-in-time delivery, and his stint as staff writer for the Office of Public Information in the College of Arts and Architecture, grinding out a dozen or so press releases a day. All of it, he presumed, must have hard wired the connections between eyes, brain, and fingers without his having taken notice. Sixty wpm! Sixty whip ’em. No one can claim I honed no marketable skill chasing an MA in comparative literature. I can type nearly as fast as a tested and certified Kelly Girl, though my fingers are nowhere near as fetching. All this, and yet nothing in the eyes of his interviewers betrayed the slightest reason for optimism. In fact, the boss-lady at Harvard Business School Press appeared so put off by Burke’s presence in her office that Burke scratched, “The woman is glowering at me” in his notebook. A moment later, after an uncomfortable exchange having to do with Burke’s inexperience fielding and directing phone calls, he elaborated: “The first time in my life I’ve felt someone is glowering at me. Beyond a mere scowl. So, this interview has not been a total waste of my time.”
Crossing into Somerville near Union Square, the bus ground past the salvage joint Burke nicknamed Somerville House of Used Toilets (SHUT, which he pronounced “chute,” having deemed it more appropriate to the wares on display) then pushed onward to Washington Street to ply the no man’s land bordered by Union Square to the west and Sullivan Square to the east: East Somerville: Little Brazil. To the south, across the industrial flats and the dirty water of the river Charles, the towers of Boston caught the last probing slivers of orange light. And as the bus tracked its route, Burke suffered a pang of nausea, a piece of granite curbing broken off the street and forced down his gut to stretch its fibers and threaten a rebound that would surge back up his gullet and erupt from his mouth in baleful sobs. The bus was moving, but carried him no closer to his top. He bit the inside of his mouth, drawing blood, then worked his chewing gum over the wound. As one goes faster time slows. How fast must this bus be streaking through East Somerville? Time is not a constant. Speed warps time. They had to fiddle with the clocks in the GPS satellites, slow them down, to get everything synched up right. Time is a dimension. It sits astride space and its X, Y, and Z coordinates. Fleeting excerpts from a long-ago physics course: When did he take it? And why is there a business devoted to harvesting toilets from renovation or demolition projects? He returns to physics, outfitting science in the rags of an emerging slang he’s become enamored with: Time is not a constizzilant. Sometimes the rags fit, sometimes not. Is there really a market for used toilets? Again he marvels at the porcelain arranged in rows outside the sagging brick garage used as an office. Like surplus tanks, he thinks, following the end of hostilities. Perhaps there’s a species of aficionado of which he’s unaware, in thrall to after-work indulgences, disposable booties fitted over their Italian loafers and Armani slacks rolled up at the cuff so as not to invite dirt and mud during the hours-long savor. Burke wished it were true, and yearned to join them, if only to gain access to a jargon coined to enliven the insiders’ discourse and to forge a sense of community, a common bond. Think of the language necessary to crystalize nuances that distinguish one used toilet from another, subtle differences in the degree and pattern of rust staining the underside of the rim, the relative presence and bouquet of fecal matter, whether the float has been preserved and, if so, its construction: hollow plastic ball, Styrofoam, or, most prized, cork. As wines to vintners, so toilets to manufacturer. American Standard: functional and reliable, though plain-Jane and only of moderate flush velocity. Crane: capable of the graceful form its name implies, it’s no slouch and serves duty in as many public facilities as the Standards. Eljer: its Titan line stands up under assault from a society of titanic dugs, accommodating them with an easy-mount low-ride design. Kohler: prized for workmanship, bleeding-edge design, and jet-engine flush velocity, the creme de la creme of comfort room fixtures. The SHUT also traded in reclaimed steam radiators, sinks, and bathtubs, but the rows of used toilets dominated the property and startled the eye. In the end, Burke considered SHUT (better spelled SHÜT) too barbaric a handle for such a baroque operation and so coined the punning “W. C. Fields,” on which he settled for once and for all.
Oddball, but nonetheless a train of thought capable of having reordered space and time. How else explain the bus’s progress down Washington and closer to his East Somerville digs? Stuck squarely in the middle of this patchwork of dense, run-down, triple-decker neighborhoods, abandoned industrial lots, and ambivalent stabs at regeneration–a Holiday Inn Express, a tiny strip mall anchored by a Li’l Peach convenience store, and a do-it-yourself coin-op car wash–lay Florence Street. There, at number 25, a triple-decker abutting a graffitoed playground, Burke and wife Dee tried to make a home out of the second floor apartment. Below them lived an indeterminate and growing number of Brazilian immigrants; above them, the eccentric old woman whom their young Greek landlord described as having come with the building. Rarely seen, she signaled her presence by dropping loaded trash bags from her rear window to the patch of dirt below. On the rare occasions she ventured out of her apartment, they occasionally caught her sitting on a bench in the playground, boring holes with her eyes into the windows of number 25. Even so, Burke pulled the bell string and stepped down off the bus at his stop.