Somewhere out there or in there was a bit involving a duck and pants. The bit, once he grasped it, Gladman strongly suspected, was the bit with which he would close his next show.
He was sitting at his desk, trying to grasp it—he’d been trying every day for almost a week, been trying for nearly four hours that morning—when a physical unpleasantness announced itself to him.
This unpleasantness, unspeakable but ultimately harmless, was more an aggravation or discomfort than a pain. A flare-up, he would’ve probably had to call it were he somehow compelled to refer to it directly.
While it didn’t demand he seek medical attention, he knew from experience that stress could make it worse.
He figured he’d better stay home that afternoon.
He found his wife in their bedroom, dressing. She asked him what he thought of the shirt she was wearing. He told her he liked it, that he liked all her shirts. Then he said he was sorry to have to cancel last min ute, sorry in fact to have to cancel at all, but that he couldn’t make the brunch/ Art Institute excursion they’d been planning with his parents and sisters for weeks. He was feeling unwell.
”Mauvais corps,” he told her, lying.
Gladman was desperately in love with his wife, to whom he’d been married for almost nine years. His wife was Parisian, but he didn’t speak French. He’d tried to learn French, but just couldn’t do it, the French wouldn’t stick, and that seemed to him to mean that something was wrong with him, and sometimes he feared that his wife thought the same, that she thought he was unintelligent or lazy or that he didn’t love her or love her enough, so he’d use the French words he did know when possible, especially when he was disappointing her, hoping that would show her he was trying his best.
Mauvais corps, literally wrong body, was the phrase the French used to describe the weak and achy feeling that often preceded a cold or the flu. Gladman and his wife used it that way also, but often they used it to mean, “I’m depressed,” which for Gladman always meant, “I’m depressed for no reason, and I’d rather not discuss it; I’d rather we behave as though I have mauvais corps in the original sense.”
For Daphne, however, the I’m depressed sense of mauvais corps meant that only some of the time. The rest of the time it meant, “I’m depressed and would like very much to talk to you about it, but I don’t want to burden you by saying so outright, so please take some initiative and push me to expand.”
Gladman had wanted that morning’s mauvais corps to come across to his wife in the original, French sense. Yet because his mauvais corps was a lie in any sense, and because he wasn’t very talented at lying in person to those who knew him, he thought it wiser, when his wife then misinterpreted his lie, to act as though she hadn’t misinterpreted anything.
“You’re depressed?” his wife said, misinterpreting his lie.
He said, “I’d rather not discuss it.”
“You don’t look depressed,” she said.
“You think I’m making it up?”
“All I meant was that your face looks alive. Fully animated. Undepressed Gladmanface. No one will know you’re depressed unless you tell them. No one will try to talk to you about it. We’ll have a nice meal, we’ll see some Giacomettis, we’ll see some Dubuffets, we’ll be back here by five, six at the latest, and we’ll order a pizza and watch Larry David.”
“That last part sounds good,” Gladman said. “If we could skip to the last part … But we can’t. And it’s not about having to explain myself, really. It’s the volume, you know? They get so loud. I don’t have the energy. I can’t match my dad’s … spirit. I can’t raise my voice.”
“Do you want me,” she said, “to put your cock in my mouth?”
“I want you to, sure, but I doubt it’ll help,” he said. “Probably I’ll still have to stay at home. Then you’ll feel betrayed and hate me a little.”
“I don’t think I’ll hate you.”
“A little,” he said. “It’s happened before.”
“Maybe.” she said. “But only a little. You don’t want to try?”
“Yes, I want to try,” he said. “Of course I want to try.”
The head was transporting. His unspeakable flare-up seemed at first to diminish, and shortly thereafter to completely disappear. His wife left to brush her teeth when it was over, and Gladman lay on the bed for a minute, a couple of minutes, pain-free, grinning, and—what was this? Hungry. Hungry for potatoes and bacon and syrup, hungry for an omelet, ready to brunch. Looking forward not only to eating some brunch, but also to the having eaten of some brunch. To fighting off the drowsy after-brunch bloat via striding with his family through his favorite museum on this gray and chilly November Sunday. To the warm, balanced lighting there, the thick, scentless air, and especially the noise. That cottony noise of humans in motion trying not to make noise. He loved that noise. The thousands of shoe soles padding on the hardwood, occasionally squeaking. The thousands of pantlegs rubbing each other, some of them swooshing. The in- and advertent cracking of knee joints. The murmured comments, the half-swallowed laughter, the sibilant whispers of nervous parents sharply admonishing handsy toddlers. All of it aggregating, averaging out, then fizzing through the ear canals, into the brain, relaxing the nerves, aiding digestion.
Did he really love all that enumerated noise, though? Was thick air—was any air—ever truly scentless? Perhaps the endorphins released by his jizzing had made the coming outing seem overly rosy. He paused to consider the possibility, but owing, perhaps, to those same endorphins, dismissed it just as quickly, fell back into reverie.
They’d walk around and look at art till they were hungry again, or able to imagine being hungry again, and then Gladman, hand in hand with his wife, who had never-he’d learned this just a few days earlier—she had never once, not in thirty–four years of living on Earth—she had never once drank a chocolate milkshake, or, for that matter, any kind of milkshake—she hadn’t ever tasted one, not even a sip of one—Gladman, hand in hand with his wife, would tell his family it was time to call it a day, and his father would offer to drive them back home, and Gladman would tell him the bus was right there, and his father would insist, and they’d be driven home, and that would be that, and that would be great.
But that wouldn’t be that! Gladman decided, smiling on the bed. That would be great, yet that wouldn’t be that—what would be would be better. Better than great. They wouldn’t go home. Yes, they’d be driven home and, yes, they’d go inside the building as if going home, but they wouldn’t go upstairs. Once they’d entered the entrance hall, he’d grab his wife’s sleeve and tell her to wait, and, as soon as his father’s car had pulled away, he would open the door and they’d go back outside, and they’d get in their own car, and take a short drive. They’d drive to the Humboldt Park milkshake spot he’d recently read about, and buy a couple milkshakes.
There’d be brunch, then art, and then there’d be milkshakes, and, after that, pizza and Larry David episodes, or maybe a Chaplin film, or something sci-fi. Whatever Daphne preferred. They had all the channels. They had all the digital on-demand services.
He rose onto his elbows and shouted for his wife, shouted out to tell her the blowjob had worked, that he’d be able to make the excursion after all, and that he had, furthermore, a nice post-excursion surprise in store for her.
“Daphne!” he shouted. “Hey, Daphne!” he shouted. But even before the second Daphne was out, the physical unpleasantness had flared back up.
He lay back down.
Sounds of spitting and rinsing, of the tap shutting off. Daphne returned.
“You called out to me?” she said.
“I just wanted to let you know how much I love you.”
“I can’t shake it.”
“Good.” she said. “I can’t either.” She pinched his big toe and wiggled it around.
“You … what? Oh. That too,” he said. “But I meant the mauvais corps.”
“Oh,” she said.
“As soon as I feel better, though, I’ve got a nice surprise for you.”
“Cool,” she said.
“You hate me a little.”
“Yes, a little,” she said. “It’ll pass soon, I think.”
“I’ll call them,” he said, “and say we aren’t feeling well.”
“We?” she said.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to go without me. Unless—do you want to?”
“I have to,” she said. “I already spoke with your sister on the phone right before you came in. She called to tell us they were stuck in some traffic. I expressed enthusiasm. We joked about how much bacon we would eat.”
“I think it’s probably better not to call them. When they get here, I’ll tell them you woke up feeling not great, but were excited to go, and then you started feeling worse, and still wanted to go, so you took some cold meds, but now you’re too zonked to get out of bed.”
“Maybe tell them you need to stick around to nurse me?”
“No,” Daphne said. “That’s going too far. They wouldn’t believe it.”
“I couldn’t sell it.”
“Why couldn’t you sell it?”
“Because it isn’t right.”
“How is it any less right than the rest?”
“They’re your family, Gladman. I’m your wife:’
Though Gladman didn’t see how that answered his question, he could tell by her tone that if he pressed for greater clarity, she’d get more upset.
“Okay,” he said. “Pommettes?” he said.
She pursed her lips and exhaled audibly, but leaned a little closer and allowed him to kiss her over and over along both cheekbones.
Once Daphne had left, Gladrnan took to the internet in order to seek advice on his unspeakable but ultimately harmless condition. The advice hadn’t changed since the last time he’d checked, six or seven months earlier. You either went to the doctor to make sure that your problem wasn’t worse than it seemed, or took stress-reducing measures and got more sleep.
The three most popular stress-reducing measures were: daily low impact exercise and stretching; cutting out or cutting down on caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol intake; and, lastly, consumption of benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium, which, although controversial (a certain humbug minority claimed that such drugs, however temporarily relief-providing, delayed recovery, and even, in some cases, worsened the condition), was Gladman’s favorite measure, the one he’d most hoped to find was still recommended in the forums he visited.
His smaller desk drawer contained stacks of French Xanax. Some nearly two hundred fifteen-count blister packs of .25-milligram ovoid tablets. About half of them were past their use-by dates, but benzodiazepines never turned poisonous. The worst time could do was steal some of their potency, which itself was unlikely if you kept them out of sunlight. Gladman nonetheless popped the pair of tablets he would swallow from the youngest of his blister packs, one of the dozen that he’d gotten in Paris the previous Christmas.
He washed the pills down with some milk in the kitchen, then returned to the office, printed out the notes that he’d written that morning, brought the notes to the bed, and fell asleep reading them.
Shortly thereafter, he dreamt he’d grasped the bit about the duck and the pants, and awoke to write it down, but by the time he found a pen in his night table’s drawer, the bit had mostly faded.
It had had to do with anger. That much he remembered. Anger was key. Anger was the engine that powered the bit. Anger on the part of the duck, regarding pants.
But not just anger. It was something more complex. Something to do with the expression of anger. How the duck expressed anger or … didn’t?
Didn’t, but wanted to. Or didn’t want to, but should have. One or the other.
The duck should have been angry and wasn’t angry about something having to do with pants, or the duck was entitled to show that it was angry about something having to do with pants and was in fact angry but wouldn’t show it. Both, perhaps, somehow.
But what it was about pants that had made the duck angry or should have made it angry, Gladman couldn’t remember at all. Was it trying to buy pants? If so, from whom? Maybe it was trying to have pants tailored? Maybe the tailor or the seller of the pants refused to treat the duck with the kind of respect that customers deserved?
Or maybe the duck was itself a seller or tailor of pants but customers refused to take the duck seriously because it wasn’t a man but a duck? or because it wasn’t a raven, but a duck? or wasn’t a chicken? because ravens, or chickens, in the world of the bit, were the ones who normally sold or tailored pants?
Were the customers ravens, or chickens, themselves? Perhaps there were a number of animal species of customer, none of whom were willing to take the duck seriously in whatever capacity it wished to be taken seriously, and these customers revealed their contempt for the duck via haggling cynically over the money the duck said they owed it for the sale of the pants or the tailoring of the pants, many of them adding insult to injury with microaggressive puns about bills, the kinds of bills you pay vs. the kinds that ducks all had on their faces? And maybe the duck was a mild-mannered duck, and contempt rolled off its back like water. It was used to being treated with contempt by its customers, but what it couldn’t stand-what made the duck angry-was hearing those same stale puns about bills, day in, day out, over and over, and seeing how the customers’ eyes lit up when they made their puns, how they seemed to think their puns about bills were inspired, inspired and original. And what made the duck even angrier than that was the knowledge that if it chose to display its anger to its customers by winging their necks or biting their bodies, or even if it just failed to politely laugh at their worn out fucking puns about bills-even then, they’d believe they’d ruffled its feathers, and their satisfaction would drive the duck–
No. No no. Forget it. That wasn’t the bit he’d been dreaming about. It was lost for good.
Gladman fell back asleep.
When next he came awake, it was dark outside, his empty stomach was rumbling, and his life had become a meaningless tragedy.
A little more than an hour earlier, at exactly 4:09 p.m., the Earth had opened up under downtown Chicago. The eighty-three-story Aon Center was laid low and folded and southwardly dragged across Millennium Park, which, rapidly sinking, sucked in at the edges, pulling the Art Institute into itself. As the taller building impaled the shorter, Prudential Plaza collapsed and slid south. Then the Crain Communications Building split and toppled, and the Symphony Center caved and toppled, and all the structures on the four-block stretch of Michigan Avenue between the Crain and the Symphony Center, all of them leaning and trembling or buckling, fell eastward at once as if shoved from behind, and a chain of increasingly destructive explosions down in the continually deepening crater blew apart and set fire to and melted and boiled much of the steel and brick and concrete and all of the people and wildlife and plant life from Jackson to Lake between Columbus and Wabash, and Gladman’s wife and Gladman’s parents and Gladman’s sisters and Gladman’s nieces and Gladman’s nephew were, every last one of them, lost to Gladman forever.
Excerpted from Mount Chicago, copyright © 2022 by Adam Levin. Reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency.