I have been training for a memory competition for one year. I stopped taking pills for bipolar seven months ago. I stopped working my desk job around that time. Now I work at a pizzeria with a ragtag bunch of misfits, musicians and drop-outs. For the moment I am one of them.
The stage is set like this: The senior pizza chefs are tossing dough in the air, occasionally glancing at orders lined up, shooting the shit with the assortment of natives and transplants that happen by. I’m in the back kitchen, chopping ‘shrooms and making sauce. Black Nate, who’s worked there the longest, calls back to me “hey, Ben 10! Come help these people!”
I stroll up to the pizza case, smile at them all and tell ‘em it’s the best pizza on the West Coast. It’s an easy sales pitch since as far as I’ve seen it’s true, and I play up some sort of NY accent for effect. The people pay me a fistful of cash for the slices and go eat them upstairs in the lounge. Dietrich the night manager starts his shift and surveys the place. The guy is German American, but I say to him “You sure you’re not Italian, man?” He half-smiles at me and checks inventory.
In my mind I’m living several different lives. I’ve got the romantic me, who drove South along the coastline to sweep a gas station attendant named Maria off her feet. I’ve got the ambitious and delusional me, who’s gonna take the world by surprise by memorizing a deck of cards in 15 seconds flat on t.v. Then there’s the real, present tense me, who’s 35 years old and lowest on the totem pole at a pizza shop. At least it’s damn good pizza.
After my shift I ride my bike to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The waves are tossing pebbles and glass fragments at my feet. A woman is scavenging for garbage that washes ashore. As she walks past me she finds a plastic figurine Jesus on the ground and asks me if I would like it. I tell her, “No, you found it. It’s yours.” I sit on driftwood and meditate silently. After a while I squint for a prolonged period at the descending sun and begin to think that this will be my last time here. I have laid no plans to leave, but I feel a growing uneasiness in the air. The San Francisco tech boom has taken over. The city is overflowing with the ruthless efficiency of competition. This is the way of the world, but it is magnified here and it doesn’t suit me. After two years I feel a sudden, urgent need to leave.
On the ride back to my apartment I barely notice the palm trees and vibrant beauty of the city. I pass my friend Dan’s house. Once a week we meet there to play guitar. I occasionally take out my playing cards and do memorization demos for him. He’ll look at me with cautious eyes, seeming to fear that I’ve come a bit unhinged.
I arrive at my apartment. The first floor studio has begun to feel very little like home anymore. Robbers broke in and ransacked the place a few months after I moved in, the first indication that maybe California was not only the land of dreams but also harbored a few of the nightmarish sort. I stare at the Hindu engraving I’ve got hanging on my wall. It’s artificial gold, colorized tin. I bought it cheap in the Indian store down the block. The image protrudes from its frame, an androgynous peasant with one hand tied to the ground behind its back, eyes fixed straight ahead in a Siamese cat gaze. I don’t know what it means, but it’s come to symbolize my struggle. I strike a match and light a candle on the mantle, then sink into my couch and search for some semblance of inner peace. All I can think about is the approaching memory competition. I envision a sea of impatient eyes studying me. Bad nerves will fuck up my performance. I rifle through my cards the day’s last time. My eyes close as I give in to exhaustion.
I rise again with the work force and get on with the business of living.