I Clocked Out Early Tonight

October 10th, 1997

Angie was the head waiter tonight.

She asked if any of us wanted to leave early and I volunteered, so it was about 8:30 PM when I walked out the back door with my apron and tie stuffed in my backpack.

We put so much work into making the front of the restaurant look like this elegant, understated, classy place — but the space behind the restaurant would shatter that illusion if guests saw it. Rusty dumpsters smell like expired meat. Weird slimy fluid, mostly from decaying salad greens, trickles out from under the dumpsters across the concrete and into the storm grates. Big plastic containers hold used grease from the deep fryers and recycling bins are overfilled with empty glass wine and beer bottles.

The back is the shadow of the front. You can’t provide a beautiful dining experience without also having a place to dump the offal. And the same thing is true for the staff — that servility generates a byproduct — us waiters gather in the back to complain about which guests stiffed us on tips and which guests we wanna fuck.

Anyhow, I wanted to leave early because in the morning when I was at school, I saw a bunch of fliers tacked up in the college union. They showed a grainy drawing of a giant squid eating sailors. Block letters spelled out “One night only — work by hometown artist F. Mayfield — inspired by the cosmic horror of 19th century weird fiction writer Harry Ludlow. Tonight at Prehistory.”

Pretty cool stuff, right? Right?

Once I got around the corner of the building, I saw the downtown bus coming down the road. I ran the distance and got there at the same time the driver pulled up.

I love that moment. It feels like winning a footrace.

The driver grinned at me and yelled over the sound of the bus engine something like “Don’t worry brother… I’m looking out for you” and it warmed my heart. I walked back to an empty seat while the bus bumped down the road.

But that good feeling didn’t last.

The bus ride to Prehistory takes a while because it’s in that burned out area on the east side of downtown.

While I sat in my bus seat, by myself, I remember trying to get Jake to come out with me to this.

Before a shift when you’re on the schedule, you can eat at a discount. I like to get to work early and have a bowl of soup and a roll.

Today when I got there, I saw Jake in the break room. I’ve known Jake since I started at the restaurant. He trained me a few nights. He and I get along.

While we ate, I told him about the show tonight. I dug out the flier that I grabbed at school and showed it to him.

“Doesn’t this look fascinating? When are you getting another chance to see something like this?”

Jake had no idea who Harry Ludlow was and so I explained how he lived somewhere in New England like a century ago. He was one of the last survivors from some really rich family.

He wanted to be a poet but he wasn’t good enough. He had better luck with his short stories.

I told Jake how his stories were all pretty much about the same thing too:

“Some young aristocrat one day discovers a horrible evil thing right under his nose. Like a monster that only he can see that visits him at night. And then the horrible evil thing usually kills the narrator, or drives him insane, or transforms him into a monster that then devours others.”

Jake didn’t look interested. More like he was confused why I was interested in this.

“The stories aren’t amazing. And he was real into racial superiority pseudoscience. But the stories — they’re just so dang bizarre, Jake. They’re like reading somebody else’s nightmares.”

I went on, “he kind of invented a new genre of horror. Rather than the wolfman or the vampire that hunts us down, the monsters are within us.”

“And this guy” — at this point I gestured at the flier — “is drawing pictures based on that. Pretty cool, right?”

I could tell Jake wasn’t into it by how he looked at the flier then back at me and back at the flier.

While I sat in my seat on the bus and this scene replayed in my head, I felt alone. I looked around the bus. It was the typical bizarre mismatched crew of bus riders. Nobody on this bus looked like they were going to the show. They looked like they were going home maybe after work.

Then I realized I was still in my work clothes, and of course they were pretty dirty.

Every so often during the bus ride, when the sun would go behind a building, I would see my own reflection in the window for a second or so. Every time it happened, I disliked what I saw a little more. I looked too skinny. Anxious. Not sure of myself. I hated my hair.

I was going to stick out when I got there.

I imagined walking into a crowded space full of happy cool people and then people would stop talking and look at me.

I could hear somebody say “who is that?” and everyone would be morbidly curious about the loner weirdo that showed up.

Showed up in clothes spotted with stains. Showed up smelling like french fries and old oysters.

Or what if I saw somebody that I knew? They would realize how I have no friends.

A voice in my head said how the people there will know how I grew up poor. They’ll see how empty I am. How I nearly ended everything a year ago. They’ll see I’m a fucking ghost.

Why couldn’t anyone else come out? Why didn’t I think this through?

It is hard to describe what it feels like when I’m in one of these spells. I knew my heart was racing, but I couldn’t slow it down. It almost feels like those schlocky movies when somebody’s own hand tries to strangle them. Except it’s your own mind and this is real life.

One waking nightmare after another played out in my head. At some point during this ride, I was hunched over, with my eyes closed, clenching my fists, and whispering SHUT UP over and over.

And then I realized what is happening, what I’m doing, how I must appear to others. I unfolded, I sat up, I looked around and checked if other people noticed me.

Tonight on that bus ride I felt like that time at the bowling alley this spring, right before when Penny and I broke up. That night, we were there with her friends from out of town, and I realized she was paying more attention to that other guy instead of me. I started breathing fast. My voice shook when I talked. I could barely hold my hands still. And of course every fucking time I bowled, it went straight into the gutter, and her asshole friends thought that was hilarious.

Looking back now, it was obvious that she didn’t want me anymore. The resentful part of me says she wanted to end it because I wasn’t good for her image.

Another part says she and I only got together in the first place because we were stuck in the same place at the same time and we were both miserable kids in a small town, waiting to get the hell out.

We were in prison and I was cheap hobo wine she drank to get through it.

Now she’s in another city where she is around lots of other beautiful cool people. I don’t fit in that world.

I centered my universe around Penny. But I wasn’t the same thing to her.

I sure mattered to her a few years ago.

I should be glad that now, she’s not the same hopelessly sad girl she was back then. But I loved those nights we used to spend driving around and listening to our favorite songs.

I think those were real moments. I can’t accept that she was killing time with me.

I get it. People grow apart. But I still miss her.

When I get really down, like tonight on that bus, I think about how P was way, way outta my league. I will never ever be with anyone like her again. It was a fluke, an aberration, that somebody like me got a moment of her attention.

Gawd, that Saturday night at the bowling alley sucked. We left early that night and Penny was angry at me for acting so weird.

She left the next morning and she told me on the phone that night how it was just too hard to be with me but living so far apart.

Tonight I stared out the bus window and watched the city landscape change from my neighborhood, which is mostly nice little houses, antique shops, cafes, and restaurants, to the raunchier / seedier gay neighborhood, studded with leather bars and adult book stores, then to the empty night time downtown district, and then under the raised freeway bridge, and then past the empty train yards and boarded-up warehouses. The east side makes me think about the forgotten commercial ruins of a dead ancient empire.


It matched my despair.

But then I remembered another reflection I saw tonight. It was at work at the restaurant, when I was on the patio. It was during a conversation I had with a diner in my section.

He was out for dinner all by himself on a Saturday night, but he was totally at ease the whole time. He ordered enough food for three people and he was so relaxed and happy that it was infectious. Right after I laughed at something he said, I saw myself in the big glass windows that separate the patio from the main dining room.

That reflection was a nice image.

I didn’t hate how I looked in the reflection, at that moment, at least.

I asked him if tonight was a special occasion. He told me tomorrow morning he gets on a plane to some part of rural Africa and it will be a very long time before he would be anywhere like our restaurant.

When I refilled his water I saw how he ate all the capers off the fish right away. Later I brought him a ramekin with extra capers.

I put them on the table and we talked for a few more minutes.

It was a slow night and at that moment I didn’t have any other tables.

He said he was a soil scientist and was going there to work on reforestation. I guess modern agriculture has turned the land into deserts. He said how people there have been farming for at least twenty centuries with no problems. Then aid workers came in and taught the farmers to grow for global export, and now after just a few decades, the land is a dust bowl. He made air quotes when he said “modern” and “taught.”

Then he leaned forward and asked if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, he would love a few more capers. I realized how he hadn’t noticed me slide the little ceramic bowl on the table, so I pointed them out.

He saw them and it was like watching somebody win the lottery.

In general, I don’t love being a waiter. Sure, it pays better than anything else I can do, and it opened my eyes to the artistry in food and wine, and I love cooking on my own now. I’m grateful for that part.

But it drains my soul to get dressed up, night after night, in my starched shirt and tie, and smile and nod my head and fake my joy while I serve these aging brats as they get drunk and plow through dinner.

We place masterful artwork in front of them, and mostly, they don’t appreciate it. We have dead serious, expert chefs in the kitchen, working with the best ingredients money can buy. But the diners for the most part barely notice it.

Sometimes I watch them while they eat. They focus on each other. They look around, assessing their rank versus other diners. Who laughs the loudest? Who is the best dressed?

They drop almost as much money in one night as what I need for a month’s rent.

But tonight was all right. It felt really good to make sure that Mr. Africa capers had a nice dinner. And somehow, his enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and it gave me the whimsy to run and catch the bus tonight.

And if I hadn’t left early and then jumped on this bus, I would have done what I always do — finish my shift, do my sidework, settle up, clock out, buy two cigarettes off Jake, and then walk home. (I buy singles off Jake because I don’t want to start buying whole packs again. Somehow I don’t feel like a smoker if I just have one or two.)

Sure, walkin home while smoking feels pretty nice, but after I get home, and lock the door, it gets lonely real fast.

It’s usually past midnight, but I’m too wound up to sleep. I check my voicemail. Then I play records, I study for school, I do push ups, I read, I watch the guppies in my fish tank, I write in this notebook. I check that the phone is plugged in.

It isn’t fun. It’s fucking bleak.

So, as I see it, my only choices tonight were A: jump on this bus, or B: stay in and wait for the phone to ring, and hope it’s Penny and maybe she’s had too much to drink and she feels alone and wants to know that somebody still thinks about her.

That’s what happened two weeks ago. We stayed up all night talking. I felt so good at the end of the phone call. I went to sleep easily. And when I woke up the next morning, I felt so peaceful. Everything was how it should be.

But then over the next few days, I didn’t hear anything from her. She didn’t call me back after I left messages.

I still feel like trash. Psychic hangover.

The bus reached my stop. A voice in my head shouted I should just stay on the bus until it looped back around and I could ride it back home. But I kept reminding myself of Africa capers… he was so relaxed! Why couldn’t I be like that?

So I got off the bus.

It’s a free country. I go where I want. Acute panic disorder or not.

I walked across the street and then along the broken trash-strewn sidewalk. The air was a little colder now and the sun was down.

The building had layers and layers of pasted-up advertisements, going back for years, maybe decades. Beer and liquor ads, posters for obsolete blockbuster movies, sports events, fashion lines, car ads, invitations to spiritual revivals. They all promise happiness somehow. They all just want people’s money.

Sometimes one layer peeled off in parts, showing the ads underneath. In one funny combination, an enormous bag of fat-free pretzels floated over the head of a preacher with both his hands raised up in fervent prayer.

By the time I opened the door and went inside, I didn’t feel so bad. I could walk right back out if I had to. Maybe even catch the same bus when it loops back.

Prehistory used to be a hardcore club and then it was closed for a long time. I never went there when it was a punk place. But now, for whatever reason, I’ve been here several times.

After you open the door and go into Prehistory, you’re in a big room with cinder block walls and a concrete floor. There’s a bar against one wall and stairs going up to the second floor balcony.

Thrift store couches and easy chairs and coffee tables and shabby rugs are scattered around.

They keep the lights mostly on and the music is quiet enough to chat. What they play for music is really far out there: the night I was here with Angie, there was a guy on stage playing sounds made from NASA telescope recordings and his own homemade drum machine loops.

When Penny was in town, the weekend before we broke up, I brought her here on Friday night after I finished work.

I thought she was gonna be impressed that I found this place. But she wasn’t impressed. She looked around and said this place went too far, past the ironic, into the realm of the bizarre, and that’s why I loved it and she didn’t. She said this wasn’t a diamond in the rough. It was all rough and no diamond.

The next night, when we were out at the bowling alley with her friends, she told them how the place looked like a dingy waiting room in a Russian psychiatric hospital. And I realized she meant it in a mean-spirited way.

Where Penny lives now, in MacArthur, there are no places like this. And nobody would go if there were. Everyone in Mac is too trendy and gorgeous and rich.

But here, there’s a fat old guy sitting at the bar, eating who knows what out of a paper bag, while reading a paperback, and he looks like he might live in his truck.

This was exactly the kind of place where nobody would notice if I still had on waiter clothes stained with wine and cheese sauce.

In Mac, no matter who you are, there are a hundred other people that do whatever you do, but better. Everyone you meet is writing screenplays or dissertations or doing activism or negotiating record deals. You don’t make friends there — when you meet somebody, they scan you and then calculate where you fit in the social hierarchy. If you outrank them, they become sycophants. I never outrank anyone so I become invisible.

I never met anybody in MacArthur that was just trying to scrape together rent and not kill themselves.

Here though, standing in the middle of the room and looking around for where the Ludlow paintings might be, I felt a little like I was among people kinda like me. Not social climbers. Scavengers.

I bought a coffee and the guy behind the bar said the paintings were on the balcony.

The balcony is a cool spot. You walk up two flights of old rickety wood stairs and then you’re in a dark loft. Or maybe it’s a balcony. From up here, big dirty windows let you see the vacant parking lots and boarded up buildings nearby, and further away, the lights from downtown.

The two elements in the view from those windows — a burned out and blighted section of town nearby, and the gleaming steel and glass skyscrapers a mile away — show two different cities, with two different kinds of people, somehow occupying the same physical space. The haves and the have-nots. The diners at my restaurant and the souls that sleep in their cars.

I looked around and saw cheap metal easels holding a few paintings. Smaller illustrations were taped on the walls.

I noticed somebody sitting behind a folding table behind plastic tubs of drawings. I guessed he was the artist.

In the first painting I looked at, I recognized the story it was based on immediately. A guy travels to this dying seaside town to research his great grandfather and discovers his ancestors practiced a secret religion.

And another painting showed a scene from the same story where the narrator spies on a beachside blood sacrifice. A curvy woman is tied up to a wooden post on a pier and cultists are all lined along the beach, watching the sacrifice.

These two were pretty much illustrations… like what I might find in a Ludlow anthology at the start of each story. In other words, there was nothing unconventional. He drew what the text described.

I didn’t recognize the scene that was in the third painting.  While the other ones were just pen and black ink line drawings, and only about 18 inches across, this was huge.  It was maybe six feet across and four feet wide.

The artist had started with a photograph, enlarged it, and then painted on top. The smeared paint across parts almost looked like vandalism.

I recognized the photo; it was taken after a lynching in the 1930s. Just the photo itself is really disturbing — white youth smile and casually chat almost as if they’re at a party, while two murdered black men hang from a tree over them.

On top of the photo there were big green smears of paint across the sky, and red splatters all over, almost randomly. That was what I noticed first. But under that, what looked like wrathful graffiti, the artist did something powerful and clever by subtly altering the photo. Above the tree line, in really muted colors, almost too faint to notice because it was nearly the same color as the night, I noticed a vague outline of a hideous gigantic beast hovering over the crowd, above the tree line. Pale translucent tentacles, like the stingers on a Portuguese man o’ war, reached down into the people below.

The green paint and red splatters on top looked like it was applied quickly and angrily, but altering the photo to splice in this giant translucent ancient evil ghost in the sky — this picture was so subtle, and so detailed. I imagine it required patience and focus.

And mixed in with the people, he had spliced in butchers wearing bloodstained aprons, holding cleavers, and the ground was littered with dismembered body parts. And then I saw how some people’s clothes and faces had been altered to look like alien monsters.

The more I studied the painting, the more detail I noticed, and the more I loved it. I looked at the price. Way out of my league!

Between looking at the art and sipping this mediocre coffee out of a styrofoam cup, I studied the guy behind the table. I was pretty dang curious. He didn’t match what I had expected. He was black, first of all. I imagined that the artist would look like Harry Ludlow the author and Harry Ludlow was a sickly aristocrat that rarely left his house.

This guy looked tough. He looked more like a carpenter than some anemic old money snob.

The fact that this artist was black jumped out at me.

It doesn’t take a literary critic to see how Ludlow’s stories about swarms of monsters were really about eastern European slavic immigrants changing the culture of New England. And Ludlow wrote hateful racist stuff in his personal letters.

I walked up to his table.

He barely looked up at me. I asked him “Is this your work?” and he kind of shrugged.
He had a cardboard box with prints mounted on cardboard and the sign said they were $20 each. I could afford that. I started going through them.

I wanted to talk to this guy. Heck — he drew pictures of sea monsters for a living — in any other context, we would be best friends!

After I flipped through a dozen prints, I held up one. I asked if this was the story about the stage magician that gets kidnapped by the people that think he can do actual magic, and they want him to resurrect their mummified Pharaoh.

I said I always liked that story. No reply.

I paid him for the print, and then I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing the back.

I said, “So you’re F. Mayfield?”

He nodded.

“All this stuff is really good; but that one” — I pointed to the one that I was so hung up on — “that one is amazing.”

I wanted to talk about that painting but I didn’t know how to make that happen. An awkward silence began.

He asked me how the coffee was. I said it was pretty good… maybe not quite as good as a church basement AA meeting, but still not bad.

He smiled and I felt kinda proud that I pulled that out of nowhere.

I wondered though… should I tell him how I quit drinking? Does he already know? Is it weird to drink coffee at a bar or do normal people drink coffee in bars?

In other words, me drinking coffee right now… does it telegraph how I’m a mess and trying to get my life together? The dizziness started and then F’s voice interrupted it.

“I’m getting a coffee. You want another? I got free stuff cuz of this show.”

“And F is the name I use for art. I’m Freddie.”

I followed Freddie downstairs.

We went to the bar and he ordered two coffees. I felt cool hanging out with this artist and getting a free drink.

Then on our way out, I walked right into Freddie because I was looking backwards at an absolutely gorgeous woman at the bar.  Luckily didn’t spill the coffee.

He smirked at me and shook his head.

We walked outside, out onto the sidewalk in front of the bar, and I watched Freddie fish cigarettes from his jacket.

It was now completely dark and much colder outside. I shivered. Then I remembered I might have my sweater deep in my backpack. I dug around in my backpack and lucky for me I still had my sweater; the brown pullover.

After I put it on, I wondered why I didn’t wear this earlier, when I was so dang nervous about sticking out.

I asked him how long he has been drawing.

Freddie explained how when he was a teenager, he made his own comic and tried selling it at this one comics shop.

The comic shop owner liked how Freddie had also drawn scenes from a Ludlow short story anthology. The owner encouraged him put his pictures up on the wall with a price tag. He sold more of the Ludlow illustrations than he did of the comic.

Then I thought about that one big expensive painting.

I said something like “what I don’t get — how the hell are you not famous?”

I said how that painting upstairs was brilliant. He was doing something really new.

He smiled at that.

More quiet and then I said to Freddie how there was something on the wall that he might like and I pointed to where I saw the pretzel preacher ad mashup on the wall.

He walked down with me and I showed him the weird accidental collage.

I gestured at the spot, and Freddie looked at it for a minute and then laughed out loud.

“That’s great! This is amazing!”

I was gleeful. “Right? I saw it when I walked in tonight.”

We went back inside and back upstairs. While we walked back, I felt like I was floating.

Like the exact opposite of how unhappy I was, earlier on the bus.

We leaned on the balcony rail and watched the people at the bar.

From up there, I kept watching that woman downstairs.

She didn’t match the crowd here whatsoever. She looked more like the women that go to my restaurant than the people that come here after putting together ironic outfits from used clothes. I don’t know shit about women’s fashion but I know what brands correlate with big spenders and she dressed like a very big spender.

I watched her finish one drink and order another.

She acted like nobody else was here. Like she was here all alone. She didn’t glance around as people came in. We were all ghosts.

There was something in her face, in that weird stare, her lack of movement. Lost in her thoughts, except when she realized her glass was empty, when she became aware of the room again.

I asked Freddie where the idea came from. Like where did he get this idea of taking Harry Ludlow monsters and remixing them.

Freddie told me how he escaped from the stress of growing up through obsessive reading. A librarian said he might like Ludlow stories and he got hooked.

It was after he became a fan, and after he was selling his illustrations at the comic book store, when he discovered how Ludlow was a white supremacist.

He explained how the experience was bewildering. He found a book of Ludlow’s letters to his friends and that’s when he realized how Ludlow would not have been happy this kid was drawing his own versions of Ludlow’s stories.

He said something like he didn’t fit in at home or in his neighborhood, so he escaped into reading. And he loved reading, but he found out he wasn’t welcome there either.

He said he felt hurt, heartbroken even, when he read letters between Ludlow and other writers and he read his own hero say such awful things.

Just listening to him talk about it, tonight, I felt angry.

He said he realized that his affection remained despite this slap in the face. He said something like, “I was hooked on him, even though I knew it was bad for me.”

He sighed and said, “I loved something that didn’t love me back. I stopped drawing after that.”

Freddie said he joined the Navy and  In southeast Asia, he toured some old temples and then Freddie realized these were the ruins of the pagan temples that Ludlow only read about.

Freddie said that night he started drawing again. Thats when he decided to reverse the heroes and the monsters. Now, colonizers would be the cultists worshipping the evil gods.

We stood quietly for a few minutes. I was grateful for the coffee because it gave me something to concentrate on.

Then Freddie pointed to somebody that just walked in.

Right away, I felt like I knew him, or at least recognized him. Older, long, stringy gray hair, holding court with several admirers orbiting him. You could tell he was a big shot.  He had an invisible aura that you could detect. 

Watching from up on the balcony, I saw other people in the room seemed to notice him. He magnetized the room somehow. I watched heads turn and strangers drifted toward him. At one point everyone near him laughed out loud.

Except for the woman. She was a few stools down but also very far away.

She was ignoring him. And I could tell he hated it.

He said something to her and she ignored him. Then he said it again louder, and still no reply.

Then he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her close to him.

We couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she looked uncomfortable and he looked like he was enjoying himself. Almost maybe because she was so upset. But I know I sometimes imagine motivations that aren’t actually there.

The next part happened so fast I barely followed, but it looked like she struggled to twist out of his arms. And he gripped her tight. Then she either pushed against his face or slapped him.

Then he smacked her in the mouth. Everyone started screaming and pushing away.
Next somehow she tripped him, they both fell to the floor, but she landed on top and started punching his face in.

The guy from behind the bar pulled her off by grabbing around her waist. She looked tiny in his arms. She ran out the door while he helped up the guy. His nose was gushing blood.

I turned to look at Freddie. He was holding his hands on top of his head and looked as stunned as I was.

I checked my watch and the last bus was coming any minute.

I wanted to stay and figure out what the hell just happened. And also keep talking with Freddie. This whole night was so fuckin vivid.

But I hate waiting for the bus late at night. It is absolutely no fun when cars pull up to the bus stop and I have to explain that I’m not playing hard to get — I’m just not a prostitute.

So I told Freddie how Ludlow is gonna be a footnote in F Mayfield’s story and then I ran outside and for the second time in a row, just barely made it to the stop in time.