ADJUST, by Glen Pourciau
No one could say I was idle. I walked miles every day. I didn’t sit in my apartment moping. I had mixed feelings about being among people on a bustling sidewalk, exposed to their looks and judgments, but it was better than being alone in my apartment. When I walked I often had the feeling that someone was watching, either across the street or behind me, though I knew that no one had been assigned by some unknown force to keep eyes on me. I explained my sense of being observed as a projection of the unspoken voice yakking in my head. But it could be more accurate to say that the voice itself was the thing tracking me, portending a day of reckoning that I’d been spared for much longer than I deserved.
One day while walking down King Street I thought I saw a familiar face, a man who looked like a classmate of mine during the year I attended the local college. I didn’t know if he’d recognize me and I wasn’t sure he wasn’t someone else, but his forward-tilted head and the way he squinted through his glasses did seem distinctly like him. He was just a step ahead so I slowed my pace, dreading the thought of presenting an acceptable account of myself. He might ask me what I did with myself or what I’d become and I couldn’t imagine how I’d answer those questions without sounding as limited as I felt. I tried to believe it wasn’t him, but I couldn’t do it and I turned a corner to put more distance between us, thinking that perhaps he was in town for a visit and I’d never see him again.
At happy hour I went into a quiet bar I liked to visit occasionally. I sat to one side rather than in the long stretch of barstools, making it slightly harder for others to sit near me. I ordered a draught beer, two dollars off during happy hour, and only one other person was drinking at the bar, a man with three or four smartphones spread in front of him, his mind and hands fully engaged. I was at a safe distance from him, and he never looked up at me and seemed to have forgotten there was anything or anyone around him. In a way, I envied him.
I’d drunk about half my beer and was contemplating ordering another when a bulky man of around forty walked in and sat just around the corner from me. He wore white sunglasses and had short white hair that stood on end, aided by a hair-care product. He gestured to the bartender, pointed at my beer, and I looked straight ahead as the bartender brought him a glass of what I was having. I got tired of shrinking from the looks and sounds of others, but was I prepared to deal with all the ranking and judgments that would almost inevitably ensue if he started talking? The white-haired man sipped silently and then looked toward the smartphone user.
“Insatiability, I’d guess, is the opposite of fulfillment, but I can’t claim to know that for a fact. I won’t impose on you by telling you my name. Introductions can create an illusion that we’ve identified a stranger. The same is true with asking people what they do for a living. Their answers tell you how they spend their time but often little about what’s inside them. Why should we conjure up assumptions and hierarchies based on people’s occupations? Some people love to talk about themselves, but the question that occurs to me as I listen is why they want to impress me with their idealized versions of their identity. Others remain silent about what they do, which is much more interesting. Do they feel an aversion to the undercurrents of their own voices or do they prefer to listen? Are they too aware of ambiguities in their nature to present themselves as one thing?”
He paused. I said nothing.
“My brother Tony suffers from a fear of being devoured,” he continued. “I think it’s an expression of anxiety about how he’ll ultimately be judged. He shudders in the presence of large barking dogs, and one day he felt a painful need to defecate when he locked eyes with a bobcat in his front yard. Tony has never overcome his feeling of guilt at being descended from a family with a criminal past, something I have also struggled to come to terms with. Every urge for revenge or fantasy transgression confirms his worst suspicions about his inherent identity. He experiences our family’s history as an indelible stain that runs all the way through him, a case of the destructive potential of internal storytelling. Tony has never accepted himself, and he’s now living somewhere off the grid. My direction also seems dubious to a few people I’ve encountered. I refer to myself as a PA; what those initials stand for is open to interpretation. I consider myself a personal adjuster or a personal account specialist, though to prevent any misunderstanding I must clarify that I never discuss money. Personal assistant is not completely wrong, but I don’t do shopping for hire or serve as an important-person surrogate on phone calls. Some people would call me a life coach, but that phrase makes my flesh prickle because it could imply that I know considerably more than I do. The painful truth is that at this moment I can’t recall a single thing I know, which doesn’t bother me in the least.”
He paused again and drank from his beer. I wondered if there was a real brother named Tony or if the so-called PA had invented him to provoke a response from me. Did he expect me to see myself in his fictional brother? Was he playing mind-reading games with me? How could he presume to know me, and why would he?
“I can guess how Tony would feel if he were in your shoes. He would rather not speak or react. He might harbor a subterranean fear that I’d come to see him about his personal account. He’d suppress questions and hide inside himself. I hope I haven’t bored you. I wish you peaceful footsteps, yours and those around you.”
He put a couple of bills on the bar and walked out, his bulk stirring a draft when he passed. Had his eyes been following me? Did that make any sense? I’d never seen him during my walks and how could I have missed him? I signaled the bartender, paid and went out the door, looking around for the PA, wanting and not wanting to see him.
In the following days as I walked I was dogged by the idea that he’d appear, and if he did I planned to avoid him. Yet the memory of his voice kept returning and I told myself that I deserved to hear any thoughts he had about me. I imagined trying to speak with his possibly fictitious brother Tony, but we merely nodded at each other, something deeper than words in the silence.
About a week after his monologue in the bar I thought I saw him in an ice-cream store, but that turned out to be a younger man whose hair was not as white as his. Later that same day I felt an impulse to look behind me, and I saw him maybe twenty feet back, same white sunglasses, gait rapid, his finger pointing at me. I abandoned any idea of eluding him and waited.
“I wanted to tell you that Tony’s in town. He’s staying with me for now, who knows for how long, but he’s feeling a little better. I told him about you, and he said that if you’re willing he’d be open to meeting you. We could go to my humble impersonation of an office and talk. It’s not really an office, no staff to overhear us, just a converted porch at my apartment. It’s only a block and a half down the street.”
I walked with him toward what I accepted on faith was his office, wondering what he could have told Tony about me and what I’d be letting myself in for, but I pressed on, resigned to hearing more from him and curious about Tony.
We climbed a wooden stairway that took us above a storefront, and at the top he unlocked a door that opened onto a walled-in porch furnished with an old kitchen chair and a lopsided desk propped up by a brick. “I’ll tell him you’re here,” he said and unlocked a second door, the original front door, and closed it behind him.
I feared intruding questions and that any answers I gave would lead to an assessment, and the thought of them coming toward me with their minds choked me. Yet I stood there, and a minute or so later the PA returned alone, his sunglasses folded in his hand. “Tony’s not around. I should have called, but he doesn’t usually like to go out. Anyway, we can start.”
I sat in the kitchen chair, and he went behind the desk and dropped into a desk chair that creaked under his weight.
“You look distressed. Let me assure you I’m not selling anything, not a book or a pill or a set of keys for living. As I’ve said, I know nothing. I’d hoped that Tony could benefit from meeting you and that you could benefit from meeting Tony. I don’t intend to ask you uncomfortable questions and stare into your eyes until you crack and give answers you’d later find embarrassing or humiliating. Let’s say we can sit here and rest together, and if an urge arises for you to discuss how you see yourself, for example, we can take that raw material and perhaps begin to adjust your perspective. In my opinion, everything rests with how we see things. If we see things from a perspective that damages us, suffering accumulates until we feel almost buried beneath it.”
I acted on my pent-up desire to bolt, the course of his words virtually yanking me up, and not looking back I went out the door and rattled down the stairs, my breath already coming more easily. But turning left at the sidewalk I nearly smashed into my ex-classmate and stifled a gasp at the sight of him. His arm rose between us like a shield and he glared at me but continued on his way without any sign he’d ever seen me before. And though I wanted to avoid being identified, it troubled me as we walked away from each other that I was nothing more to him than an obstacle to step around, an insignificant speck beyond recognition.
The next day the closed-in porch came repeatedly to mind as I paced up and down King Street. The PA had mentioned telling him how I saw myself. Where would my reply have taken us, and would Tony have returned? Would the three of us know one another by now, at ease as we talked and drank our beers? I went back to the bar where I’d first seen the PA and drank a beer alone at happy hour, preoccupied by questions. Did I want to lead my life into a void? Shouldn’t I expect more from myself? What did I fear in any questions he could ask me? I feared my answers, but my answers were nothing I could reasonably blame him for.
In the morning I rose earlier than usual. I sat on my front step and watched people pass by, waving at any of them who looked at me, working myself up to a decision.
When I reached the PA’s apartment, I found a for rent sign posted on the door. No one answered my knock, so I dug in my pocket for the cheap phone I carried in case someone tried to assault me. I called the posted number, and a man picked up on the first ring. I told him where I was and that I wanted to get in touch with the former tenant. The apartment had been vacant for two months, he said, and the man who’d lived there was now deceased. I said that I’d struck up a conversation with a guy on King Street, white hair, around forty, and I’d seen him go up the stairs to the property.
“That sounds like our assistant Tony,” he said. “He helps with most of our properties, but he’s not here. He’s eager for any task that gets him on the road, which figures since he recently moved here from out of state. He likes to drive away from himself, he says. I have no clue what that means, but that’s Tony. Want me to tell him you called?”
I said no, I’d catch up with him.
“I don’t know if this will help; he sometimes parks his car on King and watches people. Small car, dark-tinted windows. He doesn’t like too much sun. His eyes and skin are sensitive to sunlight.”
I thanked him for the information. I spent the next hour walking, disturbed that Tony could have been watching me for weeks, assessing me, thinking I had nowhere to go, no one to see, and that I was on the lookout for something I feared I would find. He could have planned to sit near me in the bar at happy hour and pictured my face as he rehearsed his monologue. But I saw no ill will in him, and I couldn’t say that I was in the habit of presenting my true face to people. So why had he created a persona to talk to me? How did he see himself? Had he recognized me in some way? Was being devoured his version of a day of reckoning?
Days passed, no Tony. Then one afternoon, a cloudy day, I saw a white compact car parked on King, tinted windows you could barely see through. I knocked on the passenger-side window and he rolled it down.
“Tony,” I said, leaning in. He looked surprised as he shook my extended hand. “It’s good to finally meet you.”