Purgatorio – Blake Johnson [Fiction]

Purgatorio

When things are slow in electronics, when the inane questions about cables and TVs and expired coupons finally end, Al and I pace up and down the aisles, and he tells me about the app he’s developing and what he calls the hollow dreams. 

“The app measures a person’s potential for success,” he says. “Answer a few questions, and it’ll tell you if whatever goal you have in mind is attainable or just a colossal waste of time.”

“Interesting in theory,” I say, “and really fucking depressing in practice.”

Al squints at me, massages the perpetual five o’ clock shadow he’s worn ever since I’ve known him. 

“You think so?”

“Well, yeah. Of course. No one wants a machine telling them they’ve failed before they’ve even started.”

Al shrugs. “It would’ve saved me a lot of time.”

*

For the most part, I like working with Al—he’s smarter than the rest of the people here, myself included, and he’s got the papers to prove it. I don’t think he minds working with me, too—maybe it’s because despite our fancy, four year degrees we both have landed in the exact same spot we began. 

The diploma is somewhere in the attic, Al told me once. Rotting away with dad’s old Playboys. Both are porn, in their way. Both tools for masturbation. The only difference between the two is that one still has some utility. Go ahead and guess which. 

His cynicism is endearing. Honestly. I can’t help but laugh when he walks by the TV wall and riffs on the short video cascading across all of those crystal clear screens in perfect harmony—it’s a nature clip, depicting lush forests, mountain streams, the untainted world in all of its 4K splendor. There’s this one part where a bear eviscerates a fish, swipes it clean out of the water with a flash of claw. 

“Look at that,” Al said once, nodding at the hunter and hunted. “You weigh our existence against that bastard and the bastard wins every time.”

“Who? The fish or the bear?”

“Take your pick.”

*

The inevitable happens—the hollow dreams crop into our conversation. If Al doesn’t bring them up, I ask. I can’t help it. Talking about them makes the shelves sway, births a greasy hand which clenches my insides and refuses to let go. And yet, I want to hear about them all the same. 

It’s not the dreams themselves that are hollow—no, these are the dreams of substance, the photorealistic depictions of what reality ought to be. The hollowness comes upon waking, when those last vapors of sleep fade and soul or spirit or consciousness or whatever you want to call it grasps that what it had just experienced, all that beauty and resonance and potentiality, is nothing more than the mind’s fickle projection. The sensation of a hollowing follows, like some asshole breached your heart and scooped out everything that mattered with a rusty spoon.

So sayeth Al.

“Why does the spoon have to be rusty?” I asked.

“Fuck off. The spoon is rusty. That’s just the way it is.”

*

Every single one of Al’s dreams had a common thread, a reoccurring character I wasn’t sure actually existed until I met her for myself. 

Her name was Laura—but you’d think she was Cleopatra from the way Al talked about her. 

“It’s all simple stuff,” Al explained. “Laura and I are sitting on a park bench. Or we’re drinking coffee. Or she’s just smiling and I reach out to her and…”

“And what?”

“I wake up.” 

*

“I’m not in love with her, you know,” Al says to me during today’s lull. “I’m not.”

“The dreams don’t lie.”

“That’s just it. I think I finally figured out what they mean.”

I turned to face Al. Held my breath. Waited. 

“It’s like this—I told you we met in college, right? She’s smart. But she was quiet about it, you know? She didn’t feel the need to beat the shit out of you with it. But I was different. I made sure to tell anyone who would listen that I was going to take over the world. Funny how Laura was the only one who believed me.  

 “It’s a good thing we broke up before she learned the truth. Look at me—I’m what happens when a narcissist wakes up.” He gestured to his surroundings, to the price tags and cardboard boxes and the flashing lights. “Maybe I deserve this. But I can’t help but wonder what she would think if she saw me now. You know?”

I stare at Al for a long time. For all his talk about dreams, he doesn’t look like he’s been sleeping much.

“I still think you’re in love with her,” I finally say. 

He sighs. “It’s not about her. It’s what she represents. Understand?”

“Not really,” I lie.

But I do understand. More than he knows. I hate it.

*

Al comes in the next day. His usual grimace is marred by the slight upturn of the lips. He looks almost happy. It’s not a good look for him. 

“I’ve almost got the app in a workable state,” he says. 

“Damn. I’m really happy for you, Al.”

“I should have everything ready by tomorrow. I’ll bring it in.”

I resist the urge to take a step away from him. I see what he’s driving at, and I don’t like it.

“That’s great, Al. Really.”

“I want you to test it.”

There it is. There’s no helping it. I recoil as if he had just dropped his pants and flashed me. 

“No way.”

He says nothing. Expresses nothing. 

“You know why I can’t,” I say. “It’s just—no matter how it comes out, it’s going to screw me up.”

“It’s supposed to help,” Al says. “It’s supposed to make things clear.”

“Then why don’t you use it on yourself?”

He doesn’t respond. A customer with an asinine question about phone chargers saves him from having to do so. But I know Al—the app will arrive tomorrow. One of us will be fodder for the algorithm. Memento-fucking-mori.

*

The next day I manage to avoid Al for most of the morning. We’re busier than normal; it’s the first time I’m actually thankful for the customers. But then the lull comes, and I see him racing toward me, and there’s no escaping him. I prepare my refusal; I imagine myself smashing his phone as soon as he offers it to me. I could do it, I realize. I could knock it out of his hand, and before he knew it I’d be stomp, stomp, stomping away. 

But he doesn’t thrust his phone toward me like I expect him to. No, he grabs me by the sleeve and drags me toward the TV wall. He nods at a young woman watching a bear kill a fish.

“That’s her,” Al says. 

“What?”

“That’s her. Laura.”

I try to get a better look at her, but before I can we’re moving again, out of sight from the mythic Laura. 

“I’m going to the breakroom,” he says. “But I want you to talk to her.”

“What the hell am I supposed to say?”

“Just treat her like a customer. Find out what you can. How she’s doing. Where she’s working. Things like that.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I don’t kid.”

The crazy thing? I almost do exactly as he asks—this Laura has to be something special to get a guy like Al all squirrely like this. I want to meet the object he measures himself against—but I hesitate. To meet this powerful force means I’d be measured as well. 

“No,” I say. “Go talk to her yourself.”

“I can’t. The hollow dreams—”

“The hollow dreams will never end unless you face her. I bet she isn’t half as successful as you think anyway.”

“You don’t know Laura.”

“You don’t either. Not as she is now.”

We could have gone on like that for the rest of the day. But the decision is made for Al—the young woman rounds the corner and nearly bumps into us. Al’s eyes go wide. He opens his mouth to say something and all that comes out is a pathetic croak. The young woman offers a demure wave in greeting, bites her lip and shuffles her feet. 

“I thought that was you, Al,” she says. “It’s good to see you.” 

“Laura,” Al manages. “Good to see you, too.”

*

I watch them from the five-dollar DVD bin, pretending to organize the tangled mess of budget horror movies and shitty sitcoms. She’s pretty enough, but no Cleopatra. Still, there’s a spark of knowing in her dark eyes, something unquantifiable, unattainable, and I have the sinking feeling that Laura was no idealization but a living, breathing monster who was going to eat Al alive.

I don’t know what they’re talking about. I got out of there as fast as I could. From here, though, it looks like a nice conversation. Nothing heated. Nothing heavy. Just the exchange of harmless memories and present conditions. 

But I’m wrong. 

They hug. She leaves. Al’s whole body tightens in premature rigor mortis. He storms away, and I follow.

*

We end up in the breakroom. Al is furiously tapping away at his phone. 

“Are you sure you want to do that?” I ask. “Are you sure you want to know?”

He ignores me. Just keeps on tapping. 

“What happens if it says you’re…” if it says you’re damned.

 I don’t speak the rest of the thought out loud. Again, he ignores me. But I know what happens if the numbers aren’t in his favor. We both know. 

I lean over his shoulder. There’s a spinning hourglass in the center of the screen, calculating, taking into account all that has come before in order to predict what might be. I watch with the kind of fascinated horror that juries must feel when lethal injection is on the table. 

We brace ourselves for the result; we hope and strive and die all at once.

 

By Blake Johnson

  • Blake Johnson’s work has appeared in Ellipses Zine, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Zizzle Literary Magazine, and several other publications. Find out more at https://bjohnsonauthor.wordpress.com/.

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