By Christopher Krull
At 7 a.m., Troy took his post at at the front desk of the 777 Tower, a skyscraper that housed high-end condominiums and corporate executives’ offices. Troy never actually saw the executives. They had a private elevator. He also never saw the residents of the building, aside from their backsides as they exited for the day. Troy took the early shift at the desk while the other 777 employees attended school or worked different day jobs. By the time the residents came home, Troy was off work and doing whatever else the City of Los Angeles had for him that day. By the end of the day, the City would teach Troy a truth about the universe.
Troy tried not to think about the weight the impending eight-hour shift put on his shoulders or the slightly sick feeling he got from the inescapable monotony to come. Others who worked the desk passed time by twiddling their thumbs over their cell phones’ touch screens. Troy had gotten rid of his phone months ago, having been annoyed with feeling he constantly had to check it for missed calls, text messages, voice messages, news updates, or e-mails. To Troy, these forms of communication were part of the media fame machine Los Angeles was the epicenter of. He chose instead to read a lengthy period piece of fiction set during the French and Indian War by an author who had released the book for free on a torrent site. Troy had been reading the text he printed at the public library ever since disconnecting his cellphone. Despite a drowsy head due to the early hour of the day, Troy set the stack of loose paper in front of him on his desk, carefully turning over pages and placing them upside-down until he found where he had left off. The heady prose and time period specific colloquialisms used throughout the novel had him yawning before he made it to the second sheet.
Troy’s white marble reception desk featured a landline phone, a computer only connected to the building’s intranet, tourist maps of the area, including a map that denoted the residences of Hollywood’s showbiz elite, and a directory of the businesses and private residences in the tower. Getting voice messages from people attempting to contact executives at the 777 Tower was a perk of Troy’s job. Most who left messages were trying to reach Isaac Creative Artists Agency, who had offices on the 24th floor.
It wasn’t part of Troy’s job to check the generic building mailbox where sometimes he found messages of desperation but he did nearly everyday, and rarely was let down.
“Hello, my name is Molly Anders. This message is for whom it may concern at Isaac Creative Artists. I got this number from your press release and I wanted to follow up on a demo I sent you last month. I titled the demo, ’When I Think of You, I Think of Me,’ and it was a collection of me covering some of the great pop artists your company has represented like Christina Aguilera and Cher. I don’t think I am at their level yet, but after listening to my renditions of songs like Stevie Nicks’ ”Beautiful Child,’ you’ll see that my voice adds sugar even to lyrics about an aborted fetus – just like Stevie’s voice did. My contact information is in the package I sent you, which I can resend at your convenience.” Molly recited her contact information and Troy hit delete out of vicarious embarrassment.
Rampant desperation was the norm in the 777 generic mailbox. The 888 number that led to it represented a last resort for those who had tried everything else, and a hopeful avenue of communication with important Hollywood power brokers for the uninformed, out-of-their-league, or simply unintelligent.
Troy immediately thought he should have saved the last message. He needed to commiserate over it with someone also as entrenched in the city as he was. Perhaps he could recount the message to Ashley. After work, he would go to Ashley’s apartment and they would eat shrooms as part of a “psychedelic meet up” a subversive Los Angeles comedian had organized. The idea was that all of the comedian’s followers throughout the city would be tripping on mushrooms at the same time, and therefore be in the same place at the same time, experiencing the same things as one.
Troy stared at the words on the printed out page in front of him until the Times New Roman font ran together. He mentally kicked himself for not having chosen a less-common font to print the novel in.
The landline phone to the left of his text lit up with an incoming call. A man spoke: “I’m trying to get a hold of Jessica Collins. I seem to have gotten lost in your phone system.”
“You need to hang up and call back. When it asks you for resident or commercial, make sure you hit resident.”
“I did that.”
“OK. Did you enter in the first five letters of the last name of the person you’re trying to contact?”
“OK. And then it took you here?”
“Yes. After ringing for several minutes.”
Troy looked up the name in his directory – Jessica Collins was indeed a resident of the 777 Tower – 8th floor, unit 87b.
“Perhaps she’s not home, sir.”
“That’s not possible. The kids are off school and she has them at home all day.”
“I’m not sure what to tell you, sir.”
“Can I leave a message with you?”
“You can, but residents don’t generally check in at this desk unless they have some specific…”
“Tell her that I know. But I just don’t care.”
“OK.” said Troy as the man hung up without giving a name.
Troy folded up an unread page of the novel and wrote the note on the back with a 777-branded ink pen: Message left for Jessica Collins, Unit 87b, June 2nd 11:45 a.m. – “I know. I don’t care.”
As Troy drove toward Ashley’s after work, he thought about the City he had randomly been born in – he hadn’t chosen it anymore than he had chosen his own name. Everyone in Los Angeles craved notoriety for whatever it was they happened to be doing with their time on this planet. Even the people he had grown up with, the locals, gave in to the Hollywood culture of chasing fame. They felt this need even though they had not made the journey to movie Mecca those from the South or the Midwest had – coming in search of self-actualization through notoriety. Troy hated the tourists who came for a few years, failed and then left, making the City more a dingy by-the-hour motel than a home. He despised the ones who stayed more – their deep-seated delusions fueled the City with headshot-toting baristas, bus boys, and quasi-homeless. Troy got off at Ashley’s Burbank exit and turned into her subdivision to find her car missing from the driveway of her duplex.
He turned off the engine and took the magic mushrooms out of his glove box. Troy examined the plants, thinking they didn’t look real. Their purple heads and red polka dots must be meant to warn animals not to eat them. Their dirty white stems extended for several inches until they branched off into odd twisting formations that had not long ago scrounged the earth for water. Now, through the complete chaos and random happenstance of the universe, these two plants had been plucked from their home to be with Troy. He put them close to his face and detected no smell. Despite Ashley obviously not being home, Troy took to the purely symbolic effort of knocking on her door. As he sat on her cement porch, he thought that it might be nice at this point to have a cellphone in order to call Ashley, or so she could have called him to let him know she wasn’t going to be home.
The sun heated Troy’s face, and he felt grains of sand beneath him that had somehow come to rest in between the flesh of his feet and the black rubber flip-flops he had changed into. He still wore the khaki pants and white dress shirt required by the 777 Tower. Troy scratched the back of his neck realizing the Los Angeles sun had begun to do its work, turning his white skin red and sensitive to touch. Troy wondered why anyone would want to stay out in this all day. Troy picked at the mushrooms, crumbling off small pieces from one of the caps and putting them in his mouth as he waited in the heat. They tasted like nothing.
Cars passed by Ashley’s house as the sun lowered. While nibbling the drugs, Troy took a mental account of what he knew about mushrooms: He had heard stories of people “bringing things back” from trips – new pieces of knowledge. Those “things” one brought back surely already had to be with the person when they left. It was impossible that a person could know something objectively that they didn’t know before they had eaten the plants.
Someone could of course figure things out during a trip and come to new understandings or conclusions, but if they didn’t know calculus before taking the shrooms they couldn’t possibly gain such knowledge simply from ingesting something that grows in dirt – unless of course that thing in the dirt contained the knowledge already – like a book in a library readers ingest through their eyes. It was only 14 billion years ago that these plants, Troy, and everything else in the universe were smashed together in an infinitely massive microscopic corner of something that cannot be described in words – maybe the plants did know a thing or two – perhaps Troy was underestimating their knowledge or overestimating his own.
As these odd thoughts passed through him, Troy realized he had eaten enough for it to have an effect. He stood up slowly and felt fine. He could easily pass a field sobriety test, he thought, but his brain smoldered.
Troy sought refuge from the heat in the Japanese-made air conditioning of his Camry. The stereo blared the LP of an accordion alt country band Troy had met at a bar. He quickly turned the music off and gripped the worn leather of the steering wheel hoping the touch of something familiar would ground him to reality. He focused on the street in front of him but the white lines on the side of the road began to wobble. Troy narrowed his focus to a sewer drain on the right side of the street, just ten feet in front of the car. The iron-grated sewer remained static. Troy exhaled his relief. He quickly realized he had relaxed too soon. The grate manifested the essence of the City of Los Angeles. It had confronted him and Troy knew he had to tell what he thought of it.
“I hate the people here,” he explained. “They all try so hard and so obviously fail. This place is like Disney World, but the rides don’t have lines, they have prison camps in front of them. If you happen to survive the prison camp, you’re one in ten thousand. You’re lucky if you make it through, and the public visibility of your luck causes everyone else to keep trying and to remain in the prison camp, working their sub-par job, keeping perverts aroused, stomachs bulbous, and skies polluted.”
The sewer grate was unmoved by this. Troy thought he had said his peace – maybe it was over. Maybe he would come down and resume his life of projecting failure on to everything he looked at and shooting sound waves of negativity in the directions of all who would listen. Troy wanted it to be over, but it wasn’t. The City, or maybe the plants, had one more piece of knowledge for him. Where the knowledge came from did not matter – for Troy it was his reality for that moment.
The other Los Angeles trippers entered the car and surrounded Troy. He felt them and knew these others were in the same place as him, tuned into the same frequency the United States’ second largest City dispatched. These others however were different than Troy – they were the people who left messages at the 777 Tower mailbox, they were the singers, dancers, and short-story writers who had come to Los Angeles to succeed, accomplish, create. They arrived to the City with dreams yet had. Now these people were in the same place Troy was, but they were one. They waited attentively as disembodied entities of Angelinos in the backseat of Troy’s Toyota Camry.
Troy swallowed deeply, not daring to look to his left or right and become face-to-face with the ones he had mocked so cruelly. He focused instead on the sewer. Troy’s world went black until a vision arrived out of the darkness of the City’s innards the sewer led to: Troy saw himself as a child scribbling a portrait in crayon on a oversized white Fisher-Price canvas. He watched himself carefully chose crayons from a 100-pack of Crayola’s putting the finishing touches on a child’s portrait of a middle-aged blonde-haired woman wearing a dark business suit. A second vision appeared as the first vanished. Now the woman from the crayon portrait entered the room as toddler Troy held the finished art project up to the long pair of suit pants-clad legs. The thin legs merely passed through the shot as they walked over him nonchalantly, shutting a door behind them as they exited the room.
Troy’s eyes became wet with emotion. The vision gone and light returned, he looked up through his windshield just in time to see the sewer grate bend open at its center. Two of the thick metal rods slowly parted, allowing the City to speak through the sewer. Thinking now in a slightly more sober fashion, or at least a more-conscious one, Troy knew whatever piece of knowledge the City was about to bestow on him could be either a fragment of information created as a result of the random firing of his own synapses or a new and horrifying knowledge frequency the plants had allowed him to tune in to – a hum that still buzzed with the violence that created the universe. It didn’t matter; whichever it was, Troy knew it to be simple and universal truth:
“I know. But I just don’t care.”
Christopher Krull has published short fiction in Fiction365, Full of Crow, and the Eunoia Review. He’s currently sick to his stomach over an 84,000 word sci-fi manuscript he wrote about a society that worships people who haven’t been born yet.