He lay awake in bed and remembered being seven or eight at his friend’s house. The epic occurrence of those times, O glorious nth birthday—all the kids were over to sleep in bags on the floor, and he found out that night that he hated sleepovers. The dark in the strange room was not the same dark which he knew in his room at home. The two darknesses divided and hid whatever lay between them. Perhaps that was the first splitting—dark from dark he separated them, evening and evening, the first gloom.
That was not the only fracture which he endured that night. As the evening dissolved into apocalypse (which was the requirement that he fall asleep in a sleeping bag in a strange darkness far from mom), he found a truth too old for his age. He stood at the end of the long hall where two sliding mirror doors did not quite meet on broken rollers. There, in the center of the world he could never enter, two broken halves of himself did not align. Between them, the space of a plastic bar or perhaps the closet’s primordial night, it was a nothing—a hole where his unity was not. Thence, out of that awful vertical line of a void, thence came his splitting.
He tried on suits at the Men’s Warehouse, and he thought, Excuse me, young man, but who are the beautiful young men in the mirrors? They’re us, of course. One, two, three, four, five—you would think Time left one out of the magic number, but no, we’re all here, because you forgot to count the one in the center of the mirrors—the one from which it all comes. That’s six.
“We take that hem up, and these pants cut a real manly figure.”
The assistant took measurements. The Men’s Warehouse didn’t lie. The six of him already liked the way they looked.
“Now, the jacket—this combo really nails it, what with your build.”
“Oh, yeah.” He turned and flung a hand onto his hip. All his selves turned with him.
“Don’t worry about the black—they’re the exact same black.”
The figures turned a few more times. If only they’d worn ties to complete their ensembles.
“Okay, I’m really selling you on this combo, but you gotta try this jacket.”
The figures slipped out of the jackets and tossed them to the assistants.
“You got a more understated lapel here. A little narrower, a little more casual. Very much your generation. Tailored close around the waist, which again, I sell a ton of these to guys your age.”
The figures loved the slim tailoring. The jackets pinched in perfectly to the one fastened button, giving the figures waists like women. The loveliness was almost too much. The figures might fall in love with each other.
“You like that?”
“I love it.”
“I knew you would. I’m thinking chick magnet. Do the kids still say that?”
“In my case, yeah.”
The assistant laughed. “You’re a man’s man.”
But they were anyone’s men, and mostly, quite possibly, their own men, their own magnets, attractors and attracted, fusion in sixfold refraction.
“Now, if you want, I can loan you a tie. I mean, let’s really put this baby through its paces.”
A tie appeared, perhaps by invisible hand emergent from the hung jackets. What an excalibur for the mythic six arthurs, from a lady of the lake oh-so-ready to romp under the coats.
The ties looked all right, but—“This isn’t really something I would wear.”
“Ohhh-kay, let me see… what’s your look? Bright? Patterned?”
“No patterns. Bold and minimal. And thin. I don’t wear fat ties.”
“Bold and minimal! Yeahyeahyeah…”
Another tie came out of the ambiguous lake of polyester and wool. This one, yes, the swords which the figures could really pull from the stones.
“Now that’s fly. I can see you picking up some girl at eight o’clock sharp, you know?”
“Ha. Yeah. I like this one.”
“With the pants and the jacket, I can give you the tie for… oh… twenty-four ninety-five.”
“I’ll take it.”
“My man. Good choices. Now, you want us to take up the hem on those slacks?”
“And the jacket… lemme get some measurements…” The tape came out again, this seam, that seam, here-to-there. “We take this in a little. Which will nail the whole look.”
The figures slipped out of the jackets and stood, O pillars of manhood, in the five mirrors.
“You need to pick a career,” his dad said. “It’s that simple. Here you are, twenty-four, and you have no prospects to speak of.”
“I’m an artist,” he said. “I have infinite prospects.”
“I’m talking about making money.”
Smack, smack, smack, they crunched their Crispix, each bite a little smackdown between them.
“I don’t care about making money.”
“Logan, I put you and your brother through school by working at the university. Without that tuition waiver, you would be in debt—for a—for what, a music composition degree? That’s nothing to go into debt over.”
“I’m not in debt.”
“I know that—I’m talking about your model as a whole—”
“I don’t have a model—”
“—how you view life.”
“—okay, I see you and mom, and I get that you built this life, like having a house and normal jobs and stuff, and I just don’t want that, personally.”
Dad shook his head. Smack, smack, smack, they crunched on their Crispix.
“See for you—Logan—” smack—“I think it’s just a change in perspective. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it does have to happen. You have to start thinking about the future.”
“The future is all I think about.”
“Then—you need to—start thinking about it realistically.”
“So I can’t succeed.”
“Buddy. Listen. I know you can succeed at any of those things. I’m just worried, because all you do is paint and write and make music and whatever else, and to really nail it in any one of those, you have to devote your entire life to it. It’s called focus. You won’t get anywhere with half-assed attempts at each one. You have to pick one, and you have to go for it. The guys you admire in each discipline, they only got to that place by choosing. And working. Working every single day on that one thing.”
But he was many. The figures couldn’t decide which of themselves to eliminate.
“I just… I love it all.”
“Have you had any real-world success with this stuff yet? I’m not trying to be harsh. I just want you to look at it in the cold light of day.”
“I don’t even see success that way,” he muttered. “Like I said, I’m not trying to make money.”
“You gonna live here the rest of your life? Me and mom love having you, but we want more for you.”
“I don’t want it for myself. I’m sorry, I really don’t.”
“Don’t you at least want an audience? Your stuff being seen, or heard, or read?”
“I have an audience,” he muttered.
So he got a job. Somehow, with his work in desktop support as a student, with his stellar references (and, doubtless, having applied next to a stack of whacko carpet-bombed resumés), he got a job. In the whole process of craigslisting and searching on Indeed and Monster and all the rest, the self which he called Ass-Kisser (one of the six) had beaten all the other kids into a pulpy submission. He disliked violence within the body politic, and he had kissed Ass-Kisser’s ass, the only gesture which it understood. Now, having kissed many other asses in a maze of interviews, he was awarded the position of entry-level ass-kisser.
He moved data here and there. He made spreadsheets; he destroyed spreadsheets. He read and sent emails. His main job duty was to fill up the company hard drive. He began to take this duty more seriously, and he downloaded every meme and funny jpg he found while surfing. Ass-Kisser reprimanded him for this.
He got to know Ian, another entry-level kid who sat at the workstation next to him. Ian was in a band, just like Logan, but he also had goals. Rumors, unquiet tremors in the fabric of ethernet cables, whispered that the supervisory role above them would soon go vacant. Ian saw that his time might come. Having always wanted success (obviously more than he wanted music), Ian was prepared to shift his life and give up his virginity to corporate.
Ian liked the arts, too—just not enough, perhaps. But his and Logan’s interests ran oddly parallel. Anything Ian tried to sound all expert in, Logan had dabbled in it as well. Drawing? Yes, even drawing, beside graphic design, music composition, recording, writing fiction and poetry, painting, and photography. Ian had attempted all of Logan’s loves, and Logan saw, secretly, that his own work and gifting were far above those of Ian. He took a snickering comfort in this, and he enjoyed the way Emily, the girl on Ian’s other side, listened to their banter. She always pretended she was lost in her work, but whenever Logan’s tales of artistic prowess topped Ian’s, she glanced urgently toward him and away again.
His other coworkers didn’t understand. They showed no interest in the six beautiful things. They wanted money, and they talked about TV, which was not one of the six. With their glances of intentional separation and their growing exclusion of Logan and Ian and Emily from their inane conversations, they made it clear: six-part refractions of souls were not welcome in the corporation. Unity, unified, one ability to be corporate, closet ubermensch, these were all words for the one type of rugged Amurrrican individual who could find a place at the boardroom table. The funny thing was, Logan felt no sadness at his exclusion from their masochistic ritual. Rather, his coworkers became his unwitting lab rats, and all six of himselves studied them for inspiration on the pitiful state of the human animal.
The job drove him farther into separation. Distinct colors, which he had always hoped for, at last emerged. Ass-Kisser was yellow—no surprise there. Music was blue, writing red, painting purple, and so on. They all worked best in combination, except Ass-Kisser, who simply didn’t fit in. The other colors found they couldn’t work with him. He was their inverse, but he thought he should be the only element present.
The job was fulltime. This was absolutely insane. Why sacrifice the best years of their lives so yellow could get healthcare? Yellow was going to die first anyway, but perhaps that was precisely why he insisted so stridently on maintaining the job and avoiding the purgatorial mazes of Obamacare. Yet democracy is a whole, and where things accrete, the balance rolls. The other kids began to beat Ass-Kisser into the playground mulch.
Ian had changed his line. The supervisor left for a corporate orgy, and Ian got the come into my office of a lifetime. He came out a bigger man, a riillll Amurrrican, his tie sharper than before, more hot sportsfan blood pounding in his face. Ian the boss meant old Ian was dead, as Logan found out almost at once. Ian no longer talked to him about Godspeed or The Oatmeal. Even his voice and the lines of his face had changed. Where Ian had been a splitter in utero, in chrysalis, he now abandoned the decentering path of thinkerhood and gathered himself into an accreting ball of bottomline fury. He was one, on a fast track up the corporate hill of ascent. He pounded on firm and ruddy Amurrrican legs. At the top of the hill, a dad life gloated down on him, perhaps receding imperceptibly into the infinite heights the higher he climbed, yet it gloated down all the same with shining images of home ownership and the bourgeois wet dream of 700 cable channels and a new American car.
One day, Ian came out to Logan’s workstation and stood behind his old desk, which hadn’t been filled yet. He put both his once-musical hands on the back of his old chair and half-turned it, half-turned it, squeak; squeak. “Logan… can I see you in my office?” he said.
The office was small. Unlike the common area where the plebeians worked and laughed together, the office had no natural light and no windows. Blank beige walls the color of yesterday’s vomit declared the two plaques of achievement which Ian had earned.
“I’m a little concerned, Logan, about your work these days.”
“You seem a little bored.”
“That’s not surprising. I’ve always been bored here.”
“Well… people tend to do better when they love their work.”
“I mean, you gonna make me love it?”
“I’m saying, for your sake and mine, that I hope you begin to love your work.”
Logan nodded. The conversation turned to something else, something about a spreadsheet that was created when it should’ve been destroyed. Ian was colorless now.
After that, Ian’s interactions with him became stiff and grudging. It was as if Ian found Logan forced upon him. This did not help Logan love his work, but he didn’t blame Ian in his heart. He saw the fundamental incongruity: the best corporate lab rats shared one singular focus between them—the desire to put ping-pong balls through hoops and get treats out of the treat machine. Logan was their inverse: one man, he contained six selves primed to give. From him emanated six foci primed for giving. He was an imaginary number slash six-way gumball machine.
Late one Friday afternoon, Ian gave him the come into my office of a lifetime. The walls surrounding them were more puke-bare than ever. The light was blank. The coffee on the hotplate smelled like yesterday’s wasted life.
“I think I know what this is about,” Logan began.
Ian nodded with his lips pursed.
That night, Logan lay in bed under a carpeted sky. His fingers netted and unnetted on his chest. Yellow was very angry, very ashamed. What would his parents think, yellow wanted to know, and what about rent? But the others sang wild choruses in the night of his head, and he thought back to his earliest memory of the six.
He was four or five, maybe, a simple window looking out on a big world. In the galley kitchen, he sat on the 70s vinyl between the towering microwave cart and the cupboards. Mom moved past and past, around him, again and again. She was a tree of goodness flowering over him. Her roots brushed him with love. He told her a story, and she laughed and listened, his first audience. The sink ran, the stove sizzled, and the air smelled like dinner. He loved his mom.
He was playing with the tupperware. Every piece was different. There was one lid for every container, and one container for every lid. Yellow, blue, red, green—each had its color.
He awoke to a flat gray day. Without his hour of hell on urban freeways, there was nothing to do but walk. He got up in whatever he was wearing, put his shoes on, and went out.
He took the back way down to the river park. The winter trees drooped over restless water. The colors of the world lived only inside him. Everything else was gray. He walked along the path for a while, then stopped and stood by the bank with his hands buried in pockets. He heard a click behind him, the sound of an old-fashioned shutter which he knew well. He turned slowly. A girl stood at the edge of the path and pointed a camera at him. He stared at her and waited for some kind of acknowledgment. She took another picture.
At last she lowered the camera. “It’s me, Emily.”
He stared harder.
He took a rolling step toward her. “Oh hi…”
“I used to sit next to Ian. I always listened to your conversations, which I don’t feel bad about it, because honestly that’s how I learned I wasn’t alone there. I just took a double exposure of you. It’ll be two bodies of you in the same space, one turned. You’ll be kinda… coming out of yourself, in the developed picture, if I wound the film back accurately.”
“I’d like to see that.”
They walked slowly to the nearest coffee shop. A penniless grad student still drunk on last night’s behringer fed them muffins and tea. Emily talked. She was dying at her workstation. She’d thought about quitting, but what could she do? He tried to keep his eyes on her face, but the curious mirror on an angled post behind her set up doubles of doubles. He kept telling himself it wasn’t true. There was no way he’d met another six-phase soul.
They agreed to hang out again on the pretext of seeing how the double exposures came out. For good measure, she took a few more doubles of him as he hunched absently over his tea. She finished the roll with a strange idea: a double of him over her. She framed the shots quickly, like she worked under the deadline of death, and she threw the shutter with painful authority.
A week passed. He texted her to ask if the photos had come back from the lab, but she didn’t respond that day. At last, four days later, she replied. The photos were done—that is, developed, not printed, because she never got prints but rather scanned the negatives herself. Cheaper, and more control. It was a long text. He read it again and again from sheer hunger.
They’d planned a commute on urban freeways to an upscale restaurant, but heavy snowfall persisted after dark. A few more texts, they agreed not to risk it, and he was heading to her place on foot in massive snowboots.
Her building was old and musty, a budget hovel from the 70s built to get return on investment in the shortest time possible. He knocked on the hideous veneered door of No. 1 and found her ambiguous smile.
The pictures had come out well—surprisingly well, and downright surprisingly, too. The one by the river bank was especially puzzling, didn’t he think? It was difficult to count exactly how many of him had showed up in the frame. She must have wound the film back wrong, because honestly, she’d snapped a single or two of him before the double, she knew, kinda creepy, but he was a great subject in black and white—though come to think of it, those frames were accounted for. Anyway, the result was disconcerting and beautiful at the same time, and what did he think had happened? He said he didn’t know. At least four sets of eyes glowed in the strange picture, but the muddled backs of heads gave no final count.
George Thomas Anderson’s work has appeared in Maudlin House, the Curator, the Other Journal, and Bedlam Magazine. He is working on a novel about the human cost of the singularity. He is a classical composer by training and a writer by choice, though he still releases damaged pop as The Victorious Airborne. He enjoys cooking, biking, and spending time with his wife. Follow him @GT_Anders, or see http://george-anderson.net/.