The Dream Trip
Editor’s note: On the heels of finishing my manuscript for Happy Jack, I probably should have started submitting it to agents to get the long and arduous (and possibly painfully futile) process of getting it published rolling. But then I got the itch to write another novel. Right on top of one I just finished. My first experience finishing a novel, I didn’t want to think about writing for months, so I figured I might ought to use my surprise writing juices while they were still flowing. The result is a 120,000-word first draft of a novel tentatively titled The Dream Trip. Here’s how it happened: I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty right after finishing Happy Jack and thought, hey, I want to write a feel-good travel adventure story. Carrie and I also took a road trip across the ole U.S. of A. last summer so the feeling of it was still fresh and ripe for some appropriation into my writing. Needing more than just “people on a road trip,” I quickly drifted into making the story of Art and Amelia thematically about America’s cultural comeback, then somehow ended up with a magnum opus for the Millennial generation (I do love me some Millennials). We’ll see how it turns out. I’ve got a lot of revision to do. But here is the opening chapter of The Dream Trip.
Chapter 1 – A Month Ago
“How long has this been going on?”
Art’s coworkers had decided to send for help. Naturally, they went to the head of Human Resources. Vicki Thorpe is not a psychologist or a life counselor. She’s not even first aid certified. But in the face of a potential medical emergency, Art’s boss went to Vicki because A) it was the lowest risk course of action and B) major corporations are where very smart people go to become very stupid.
“No one knows,” Tom said. “Nobody remembers him saying a word this morning, but that’s normal. After a while, we just thought he was giving us the silent treatment.”
“So he hasn’t said a word all day?”
“Nope. None of us remember seeing him move, either. Alice balled up a piece of paper and hit him in the eye earlier. He didn’t even flinch.”
“You shouldn’t waste paper,” Vicki said. “It’s a cost center.”
It was 3 p.m. At 8:56 a.m., Art marched in to work without a word, sat down, turned on his computer and commenced to stare at the screen with his hands folded in his lap. Motionless silence since. As he was leaving the house that morning, Amelia announced to him that after nine-plus years of marriage, she was leaving him. He hesitated a moment, then responded “Love you, bye” like he did every morning. He picked his briefcase up from next to the umbrella stand, walked out the door, put the key in the ignition, and drove the concrete expanse of U.S. Route 1 to the corporate headquarters of Lynx Pharmaceutical in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. Art was not aware that Amelia’s five words (“I’m leaving you. I’m sorry.”) triggered a panic attack that had been ongoing from the moment his mind processed them.
“Art. You there buddy?” Vicki snapped her fingers in front of his face. He didn’t even blink. He stared at the little screen saver picture of Amelia hugging him on the Seaside Heights boardwalk the summer before Sandy destroyed it. It bounced around the edges of his computer like the ball in a game of Pong. The rest of the world was black, a void. His remaining senses were tuned in to his heart. It was beating so fast, but it had also started skipping beats. It had been working at over 100 beats per minute for nearly seven hours, well above Art’s normal resting heart rate. To borrow a phrase: he was freaking out, man. Slight trembling and droplets of sweat on his brow were the only signs on the outside. Inside was much worse. His chest felt tight. He felt like his throat had almost closed up. Then, the picture of him and Amelia became fuzzy as he felt something for the first time all day.
“Art, snap out of it. Come on. You’re scaring everyone.” Vicki shook his shoulder, gently for a moment before really rattling his cage with the full force of her doughy, overweight, white collar body. Her skin smelled like 1988.
“Maybe we should call a doctor, Vicki.”
“This might be serious.”
“He looks pale. He might be having a stroke or something.”
“See, Art, you’re scaring everyone,” Vicki said. “You’re not being a good teammate.”
Art turned his head and stared directly into Vicki’s dull grey eyes.
“There you go. Now what’s this all about, Art?”
“I can’t breathe,” Art said. “I can’t breathe.”
He kicked out of his chair, knocking Vicki and another coworker crowding his chair aside. He ripped off his Q*bert 3D pyramid tie then tore open his Pierre Cardin business shirt from T.J.Maxx, launching cheap plastic buttons that plinked across his neighbors’ desks. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt and his hairy gut wobbled over his belt. Quite a crowd had gathered at this point. The more courteous now had the decency to avert their eyes. But for every one of those, four new gawkers would happen to stroll by to watch the train wreck unfold. They stared at him like an animal in the zoo.
Art started making a noise. A horrible noise. Not a scream or a cry or a whimper. Something long and low and pathetic. Pathetic in action as a verb. He patheticed a terrible, mournful noise.
Art swirled around, not looking at anyone, but looking for something. He saw the plastic five-foot-tall palmetto that had been stationed behind his cubicle since the day he started at Lynx Pharmaceutical almost eight years ago. He grabbed it, pulled it to his soft, pale chest. He clung to it as he started to climb onto his desk, but the pot was too heavy. Art alternated trying to get himself and the tree on top of the desk, but failed either way. On each attempt, his belly fat formed a long line across his stomach in the shape of a smile. His two nipples were like large pink eyes. The smiley face beamed at the onlookers, letting them know everything was OK. Tom was so embarrassed for Art, he stepped forward to help him lift the plastic palmetto onto the desk.
“Tom, please. Don’t. That’s not helping,” Vicki said.
Art still couldn’t hear anything. He sat down on the large pot on top of the desk, wrapped his legs around the synthetic trunk and wet himself. Pissed long and hard as he patheticed that terrible, mournful noise again.