FICTION: Sixteen Notes on The Breakdown of John Downey

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“All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.”  —Andre Breton

1. John Downey is used to waking up early. It is his habit to get up before dawn, often rising as early as 4:30 in the morning. As a college student John is frequently at the old Franklin Library building when the doors open at 7:30. He likes the early morning calm and the fact that few people use the library then. Hillside College is a liberal arts school tucked away in rural southern Indiana, a green landscape of soft hills and forests that borders much of the campus. The walk from John’s off-campus apartment to the library or nearby student union winds through much of this wooded area. In the summer the crisp air and soft morning light, the sounds of dawn and life waking up along the wooded trails enter him wholly. The morning is always a cool drink to the mid-day swelter and humidity typical to that part of the country. In winter, the sound of packed snow crunching under boots, John’s breath visible in the frigid air, offers a different sort of comfort.

2. Over the years John’s habits in such matters remain largely unchanged. He is at heart very much a “morning person.” But now crowded city buses and downtown sidewalks replace quiet walks on a rural small town campus. John works downtown as a proofreader for Oliver Thompson Corporation, a consulting firm where he is involved in production of business-to-business materials on “best practices” in manufacturing. John appreciates the fact that the firm gives him the option to start his day between 7:00 am and 10:00 am and most mornings he is in the office exactly at 7:00 am. As his coworkers stream in over the next few hours, John likes knowing he is always a step ahead, at least as far as being closer to when he can leave.

3. This is the thing about John. Wherever he is, he is always calculating his departure. He does not care for most of the jobs he has held. As a young man especially there are many short-lived occupations: rail clerk, parking lot attendant, coffee shop employee, cab driver, substitute teacher, golf course maintenance crew, and truck driver. Tellingly, the jobs John tolerates best are always the ones that involve the least interaction with others. He doesn’t mind driving a tractor-trailer, except for the tedium of the open road. He does this for two years delivering office equipment to distribution centers in the Midwest. The best part of that job is he does not have to unload the equipment. He arrives at the loading dock, takes care of the paperwork, and then takes it easy in the plant lunchroom or stretches out in the cab for a nap. Nor is driving a taxi too bad. Most contact with the shift supervisor takes place over the radio and the passengers are largely tolerable. In fact, some are actually interesting.

4. As a cab driver John meets Sharon Francis. He is only 19 years old when it happens. Sharon is in her early 30s, tall with long black hair and a kind of lanky athlete’s look about her. She climbs in John’s taxi one hot Friday afternoon at the front entrance to the Townshend Park mall. He drives her home and along the way learns that she is a marketing manager for a pharmaceutical firm, dislikes her boorish boss, loves Alfred Hitchcock movies, Thai food, and visiting South Carolina where her sister lives. She is also divorced, plays golf, and plans to go to Mexico for a week before Christmas. John thinks this is an awful lot to learn about a total stranger in a 20-minute cab ride. It doesn’t take him long to realize why. At the end of the ride Sharon asks him if he would mind helping her move a new chair she has bought from her garage into the living room. She will give him an extra five dollars for his efforts, she says. Of course, John agrees. After he moves the chair she pays him not only in cash, but also with an unexpected and lingering kiss on the lips. To say he is taken aback hardly captures John’s surprise. Sharon whispers in his ear her desire that he stay for a while. Could he do that? Reluctantly, John must tell Sharon his boss will get upset if he is away from the cab radio for more than a few minutes. He makes plans to return to Sharon’s home the following evening. Thus begins a summer affair that ends only when John leaves for college in the fall. He meets Sharon at her home, usually in the late afternoon, and they talk for a while about nothing much, a fragrant flirtation in the air. If john has just gotten off work, Sharon will make sandwiches with chips and soft drinks and they will relax for a while on the back porch. Mostly, they just make love. This will often happen within minutes of John’s arrival. Afterward, they sometimes go to a nearby park where they sit on a bench and watch the people, mothers with small children on the playground, bicycle riders and other park-goers. The summer goes by like a dream. And when fall comes and John returns to college he and Sharon part ways as if everything is as it should be. Later, John calls Sharon during the Christmas break, but it turns out she now has a boyfriend, a man closer to her own age whom she met at work. He is disappointed, but takes the situation in stride. There are always other women to date.

5. Years later John’s brief affair with Sharon Francis haunts him. There have been many relationships since, but something about Sharon stays with John. It is more than the novelty of their age difference. Nor is it a matter of memories of having been in love with her. It is more the time in his life that Sharon represents to him. Those were days when life felt more like an adventure. Life happened then. Opportunities and dreams happened. Women happened. There were ideas for the future. Love and the unexpected were in the air. He barely had to seek it out. John was open to the world then in a way he fears has since left him. Now he worries about whether describing himself on online dating sites as a “morning person” makes him sound energetic enough, a real “go-getter”? At age 46 John believes it is an uphill battle to meet anyone interesting. In an ornery mood he considers writing an ironic Match.com “anti-profile,” in which he would describe himself in strictly negative terms. Instead of being a morning person, he would become someone who likes to sleep in. Instead of a lukewarm character who enjoys candlelight dinners, long walks on the beach, and recommends the Bible as his desert island book, he will seek someone who enjoys spending Saturday evenings dodging the poetic minefields of anarchist vegan coffee shops or hipster bars in bad neighborhoods, pretending surly young artists who equate edginess with vulgar language are either profound or interesting. But even the anti-profile is just another pose. John is—deep sigh!—tired of poses.

6. Age 28. John comes close to marrying Judy Hible, a co-worker at the real estate trade association where he is employed. She is a marketing manager for the association, seductive in a way that is not dramatic or glamorous, but also not ordinary. Judy has a kind of ascetic, unpretentious charm about her that John finds appealing. She is approachable, but also confident and John thinks she is going places with the organization. Caught up in mutual attraction, they date for several months before deciding to move in together. This involves John moving into Judy’s large townhome in the more upscale neighborhood a mile or so from the business district. Unfortunately, it does not take long for Judy’s fastidiousness, which she puts to good use in the workplace, to reveal itself on the home front as a kind of tyrannical pettiness. Judy is constantly irritated about things John never thinks much about. Why does he always forget to squeegee the wall in the bathroom after showering? (He never knew mold required such vigilance!) Why does he put his white socks in the washer with colored shirts? (He doesn’t know!) Is there a reason why he leaves books on the back seat of his car for a week? (These are books he is reading!) Judy does not appreciate John’s irreverence on current events, nor quickness of mind that John is convinced is one of his more positive qualities.

7. After only 10 months John decides to retreat, suddenly announcing he is leaving. He has come to realize his “connection” with Judy was never more than a combustible mix of sexual attraction and mutual loneliness. And as a rule fireworks don’t last long. This becomes clear to John following a public argument over “the homeless” at a café when Judy snaps at John’s liberal sentiments on the issue. Judy believes too many homeless people are just drug-addled losers afraid to take responsibility for their lives. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming! But John barely replies to Judy’s remark, so taken aback as he is by her perceived callousness. In the coming days, however, he becomes angrier, but more with himself than with Judy. How did he get involved with someone with such crass, uncaring sentiments? Within weeks of the argument the relationship is over. John’s friend Clark (he’s married) tells John it’s foolish to break up with someone over just one argument,  But this is just how it is for John. Years ago he once gave $100 to a homeless young woman panhandling downtown. This was the day after John found out an aunt had left him $3,000 in her will. Over the years much more had been given away in small, regular donations to the city’s many downtown street people. John is not an outwardly emotional man, but deep down he cannot bear cold-heartedness. Judy reacts tearfully to the news of his departure, but then becomes angry that John could leave her so easily. Judy’s circle of friends rallies around her. Everyone agrees John is loathsome. Two years later Judy marries a restaurant manager, a fellow John remembers vaguely from high school. The last he hears they have three children and live somewhere in the suburbs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA8. Day after day John’s thoughts drift and float now in endless fragments of old images, feelings, and memories from the past. He obsessively ponders old dramas and people he has not thought about in years. How many people he once knew have regretfully drifted from his life? He even ruminates with uncharacteristic sentiment over Judy, a member of a category of bad memories he is normally not particularly inclined to recall. If this is nostalgia, there is nothing particularly endearing about it. John is at loose ends, floating directionless in the void of his current life. He wants to leave the city for a small town, the cold Midwest winters for sunny southern California. He is bored with the city, with proofreading, with friends, the latter of whom he has stopped calling. He cannot think of the last time any one of them, most of whom he has known either since childhood or his college days, has done anything interesting or lively or unexpected or in any way even remotely out of the ordinary. Everything feels old to him and nothing new interests him. He has no specific plans.

9. One weekend John attends a high-school cross-country meet with a friend. Toward the end he feels suddenly weary at the prospect of the short walk through the large park back to the parking lot and his car. As he walks the weary feeling grows markedly worse. The walk could not be more than a quarter mile, but John feels almost as if he will collapse if he doesn’t make it to his car soon. When John finally opens the door to his vehicle, waving cheerfully to his friend in the distance, he quietly breathes a sigh of relief as he sinks into the car seat. As he reaches over for the water bottle on the passenger’s seat, he notices his hand is shaking.

10. A few days later after shopping at the drug store, John decides to walk to a nearby café for a sandwich. He is aware after less than two blocks of an unfamiliar strain. The feeling is strange, different from normal tiredness. There is a sense of something unsettled at the core, as if his vitality now were only a loose scarf worn around the neck, ready to fly away at the wind’s first gust. Thinking exercise might help, John retrieves his old five-speed Schwinn bicycle from the garage. He takes a short ride after work and finds it refreshing. Maybe there’s still life in the old body yet, he tells himself. He begins to ride for 20 minutes or so a few evenings a week through the park near his home. He takes it easy on the rides, but one spring day when the weather is nice, John decides to increase his modest pace and goes an extra two laps around the park. He even races the bike for a short distance. He enjoys himself, but the next morning after showering out of the blue his heart begins to race. He expects the sensation will pass, but it does not. John lays down on the small futon on the floor of his spare bedroom, waiting in vain for his pulse to slow. He wonders, what is wrong? Had the shower been too hot? Is he dehydrated? For nearly an hour he rests on the futon, before switching to the recliner in the living room. He drinks water. Lots of it. He fights surges of anxiety and impending doom. He puts on a meditation CD. Yet the rapid heart rate shows no signs of abating. The day is warm and sunny and John decides to go for a drive. He hopes the fresh air and sun will make him feel better. He begins the drive out of town in his convertible Mustang, top down, following a residential road with little traffic until he leaves the city limits. Soon he is flying by vast expanses of tall corn and soybean fields as the warm wind and sun caress his face. Weathered old farmhouses with thick clusters of shade trees punctuate the flat, spacious landscape. To John’s dismay the open land, normally so enlivening, is not a comfort. At one point he pulls over and raises the convertible top. The sense of open space leaves him unsettled, as if somehow there is nothing to hold onto.

11. John turns the car around. He begins the drive back toward town. Without quite acknowledging it, he finds himself driving in the direction of the local hospital emergency room (ER). His heart continues to race. As he nears the hospital, he decides he will just wait in the car in the parking lot. If he feels worse, then it will only be a short walk into the ER. John hesitates to enter the hospital. He fears—no, he hates—to be told he is having a panic attack, a condition he has occasionally suffered from since his early twenties. There is something demoralizing about the diagnosis, even though it is always a better diagnosis than a heart attack. When he nears the hospital, John pulls his car into the parking lot. He turns the radio on to a local classical station, setting the volume as low as possible. But the sensation of his rapid, pounding heart is impossible to ignore. He tries more deep breathing, but to little avail. After 20 minutes John decides he can wait no longer. He is exhausted. He steps out of the car and walks unsteadily toward the ER. Entering, he matter of factly tells the admitting staff person about the rapid heartbeat. Of course, the emergency room staff will always treat you according to the worst-case scenario and within minutes everyone is fluttering around John as if he might be having a heart attack. A doctor with a stethoscope listens to his heart. Blood is taken. EKG monitor attached to his chest. The doctor asks John a series of questions, and then, without comment, leaves him to his bed and machines. A while passes before the doctor returns with “the good news.” He is not having a heart attack. He says this in a confident, almost nonchalant way, as if he has said something like this hundreds of times. The doctor asks John a few more perfunctory questions. Is he upset about anything lately? Unusually stressed? John gives vague answers and the doctor doesn’t press it. He wants John to take a tranquilizer and stay in the ER a while longer until his pulse slows down. A half hour later John is allowed to leave, prescription in hand and under advisement to see his family doctor as soon as possible. At least today John knows he is not dying, and for the moment that is enough.

12. John makes an appointment with a family medicine clinic. His appointment is with Dr. Melissa Bradley, a woman who looks to be in her mid-30s. She is friendly and begins the exam by listening to John’s heart, looking in his ears and eyes. His blood pressure is slightly elevated, but she doesn’t seem too concerned. His heart sounds good. Everything else is apparently fine. Dr. Bradley suggests a standard panel of blood tests. She will have the results in a couple days, she tells John. She asks if anything in particular is bothering him. Not so much, he says, just the usual worries about money, work, and love. He says this with a slight laugh. Dr. Bradley looks at him thoughtfully. She could prescribe an anti-depressant if he wants, she tells him. Well, yes, he does get depressed sometimes, he says. But when she asks him why exactly, he only shrugs. Can he think about that and get back to her, he asks. He tells Dr. Bradley he did take Prozac 15 years ago, but it actually made him feel worse. The doctor remarks about the advances in new antidepressant drugs now on the market. They’re much better than the Prozac of 20 years ago, she says almost cheerfully. But seeing his flat expression she doesn’t press the issue. A few days later John gets a letter from Dr. Bradley with the results of the blood test. Everything is normal except his liver enzymes and cholesterol are borderline high. The letter suggests he schedule a follow-up appointment for the near future. John makes note of the news, but a week later still has not gotten around to scheduling another appointment.

13. The next Friday John feels stronger. In the newspaper he reads about the women’s pro golf tournament taking place at a club about 10 miles out of town. John doesn’t play golf anymore, but remembers the carefree feeling he used to enjoy walking the courses when he was young. He decides he feels well enough today and will attend. He drives to the tournament, parks his car in a large makeshift parking lot in a large field, and boards one of the buses that circle the parking lot every few minutes taking visitors to the tournament entrance. It is in the low 70s. Sunny. Beautiful. John leaves the bus cheered by the nice weather, buys a ticket, and passes through the entrance gate. There is a relatively short walk of a few minutes to the bleachers at the 18th hole. As he walks along the pathway, John is suddenly aware of a brewing sense of trouble. It is warm outside, but not hot. Yet the sun’s strength has abruptly become near overwhelming. John keeps walking, but soon has to stop to sit on a bench. He gazes up at the sky with a puzzled look. Why does the sun feel so strong, so hot? The sun’s rays just penetrate his body, almost as if he is being cooked from the inside. There are people all around, many much older than him. And yet everyone looks relaxed and comfortable. No one seems particularly bothered by the sun, which only confirms John’s sense that he is not having a normal reaction. In a few minutes, John decides he must leave. He will have to catch the shuttle bus back to his car, but where is that damned bus? He sees the shuttle in the far distance, almost to the end of the parking lot, and this makes him anxious. John tries to stay calm as he walks slowly back to the parking area. There is another bus sitting idle nearby, with the driver inside reading a newspaper. He walks up and asks the man if he can get a ride to his car. Sure, he says, and with great relief John hops on the bus. Within a few minutes, he is dropped off at the back of the parking lot. John walks in the dry grass of the makeshift lot, still not quite sure where his car is. He walks another one of those minutes that feel like an hour. Finally, he sees it about 150 yards away. With great relief John makes his way to his car, sticks the key in the lock, and climbs in. He starts the engine and turns the air conditioning on high. With the cool air soon flowing, John quickly begins to feel better. Much better. 

14. In recent months, rumors of impending layoffs float through the office. A co-worker tells John the scuttlebutt is the two of them may be among the first to go, but the possible reality of this fact provokes little reaction in John. The next day he goes online and makes a reservation for the weekend at a Holiday Inn in nearby Baker City, a small college town about 80 miles away. When Friday comes John packs a small bag with a few essentials, including his laptop, stops to buy a sandwich and a Coke, and heads for the highway. The weather is nice and as he drives and the subdivisions and stores become fewer John begins to feel better. It has been a long time since he has been out of the city sprawl, he thinks. It takes an hour and a half to get to Baker City, population 38,000. The Holiday Inn is just off the expressway near the edge of town. He checks in to the hotel and immediately flops on the bed, turns the television on and scans the channels. He watches only a few minutes of the old Andy Griffith Show before turning the volume down and resting his eyes. Within minutes, he is asleep.

15. Two hours pass before John wakes up. It is now 4:15 in the afternoon and John is disoriented from such a long sleep in the middle of the day. He feels weak. His first thought is coffee and he makes some with the hotel’s cheap in-room coffeemaker. It is weak coffee, but at least it wakes him up. As he drinks from the Styrofoam cup, John rests on the bed, his back propped up against two pillows. He turns on the TV and watches CNN News for a while. Feeling better, he decides to go for a walk around town. He drives the mile toward downtown and parks the car near the old Walgreens store. The campus for the local state university borders Baker City’s small downtown and the student presence gives the tired old town some semblance of life. John walks into a local deli called the Bongo Hut, which serves sandwiches and pastries and has been around forever. He buys a turkey sandwich, bottle of apple juice, and a peanut butter cookie. He takes a seat at a table in the small dining area with a large window that looks out toward the campus. Nearby sit three students, two females and one male who John can overhear as they chat. They are talking casually about their majors and future plans after college. John cannot hear everything they say, but one of the young women is an education major with plans to teach special education. Another student mentions plans to get his MBA. They speak like young people who take for granted that everything in their lives will somehow work out. They would get the jobs they dream about. They would earn enough money. They would never get sick beyond an occasional cold. They would find love. They would or would not have children, but if they did have children they would be good children whose accomplishments left their parents constantly awestruck at how amazing they were. And if they did not have children, they would be content with this and without second thoughts. This talk of the future is casually interwoven between jokes about friends, class assignments, and events of the past week. John listens with envy. He hopes it will all work out for all of them, that they will not suffer the burden of watching dreams turn to rubble, youthful expectation cut off in some choking sandblast of unexpected tragedy, missed opportunities or other unfairness. For the first time in years, John feels a tear welling up in him. He casually wipes his eyes with a napkin, looking down and hoping the students do not notice.

16. Finishing his meal, John returns to the hotel. He is tired and wants to climb under the bed covers early. He spends the next hour reading a tattered old paperback copy of “O Pioneers” by Willa Cather he picked up recently in a second-hand bookstore. That night John sleeps better and falls into a deep slumber. And in his dreams he is 20 years old again and the morning breeze cools his skin as he runs like the wind through the park near his old home. And in his slumber he remembers the old tree-shaded playground and the park benches where once he sat with Sharon Francis and watched the joggers and bicycle riders and children with mothers on long-ago summer afternoons. 

 

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