Further we plunge into my failed attempt at NaNoWriMo last year, and we are approaching the halfway point! This chunk is much longer than the last, but I think it’s quite entertaining—Jeromy & Cam, many of whose dialogues are based on real conversations between myself and my good buddy Tim, are without a doubt the characters I fleshed out best.
Jeromy and Cam both received emails from directexpressions.web at around the same time the following evening. The body consisted only of a brief thanks for expressing interest, with an attached questionnaire that was three pages long. Upon reading the first few questions, Jeromy immediately began typing a message to Cam, only to receive one from him before he could send it. Cam’s message said something very similar to what Jeromy had been writing:
“What in fuck’s name is this?”
Jeromy cancelled his original message and replied:
“No damn clue. Let’s regroup.”
The two agreed to meet at a bar where, if nothing else, they could get drunk and fill out the perplexing test however they damn well pleased. Jeromy copied the questionnaire to his cellphone and then began lacing up the giant boots that were necessary to keep his pants from being ruined by sidewalk salt. They had chosen a bar halfway between their houses, which meant about a half-hour in the wet snow for each of them if they walked – but cab bills racked up quickly in the winter traffic, and they didn’t have jobs as “creative minds” yet. Jeromy pulled on a heavy wool pea coat and buttoned it on his way out the door. As he waited for the elevator in his building, he started humming a tune. It had been caught in his head all day, and he wasn’t sure why – then all of a sudden he realized. It was the tune Cam had tried to play on his ocarina, but the high D was always whispery and weak on that thing. He was so wrapped up in the tune that when the elevator doors opened, a young couple and their dog caught him singing under his breath: “Light she was and like a fairy, and her shoes were number nine…”
He stopped abruptly, embarassed, but the couple only smiled and then ceased paying him any attention. As they rode down the dog sniffed around his feet, but when he patted it on the head it walked away, and it barked at him when he got off on the ground floor. The couple and their dog stayed on the elevator, which meant they must have a car in the garage underground, and Jeromy was picturing its warm interior with envy as he pushed the front doors open against a strong and bitter-cold wind. But immediately upon turning the corner he saw a car that had spun out and was now wrapped around a hydro pole, and realized he was of two minds about the subject. He fished a toque out of his jacket pocket and pulled it on, then walked numbly towards the bar with his chin tucked down into his collar. The wind was at his back for most of the walk there, at least, and he could only hope it would let up by the time he left to come home.
The bar was in a somewhat blasé neighbourhood sandwiched between two much trendier ones. This meant that, slowly but surely, it was becoming a hotspot: ironically for now, but soon the owners were sure to embrace the change and it would transform into another hip pub-gone-club. Until then, though, it was a reasonably quiet place to drink, and when Jeromy arrived it was practically empty. He found Cam inside, engaged in a heated conversation with some new girl who was tending bar alongside the owner’s son.
“What do you mean you don’t know how to make a Rob Roy?” he cried. “You’re a bartender now, you’ve got to know these things!”
Cam’s mock agression was often charming, but this girl still looked unsure if he was serious. Her eyes were wide and she appeared frozen to the spot, though she was still smiling. Jeromy slid into the seat beside his friend and interrupted his rant.
“It’s a Manhattan made with scotch, and he doesn’t want one anyway,” he said. “We’ll have a pitcher of your cheapest beer that isn’t disgusting.”
The girl blinked and walked over to the taps. Cam and Jeromy watched her hesitate, moving the pitcher back and forth between the spouts until finally she settled on some local brew with an artsy tap in the shape of a screwdriver. Jeromy didn’t think it looked very cheap at all, but perhaps that only meant this new girl had high standards in beer, which was a trait he could respect.
“So did you read the whole thing?” he asked his friend.
“No, only the first page so far. I expected it to be weird but…”
The girl brought the beer along with a ceremonial third glass, since it was illegal in the city to serve a pitcher to only two people. It was Jeromy’s turn to pay, and after his own moment of hesitation he selected a credit card and handed it to the girl.
“Thank you Jeromy,” she said, reading the card. “Would you like to pay or open a tab?”
Jeromy and Cam glanced at each other, and shrugged. “Just pay, I think,” he replied. As the girl walked down to the far end of the bar to process his card, he pulled out his cellphone and brought up the questionnaire on its miniature screen.
“I only read the first page too,” he said to Cam, showing him the cellphone. “Let’s go over it again and see if we can make any sense of it.”
Cam reached into the jacket that was slung over his chair and retrieved a folded sheaf of paper. “Here,” he said, “I printed it out.”
Jeromy put his cellphone back in his pocket and began pouring the beer as they both stared blankly at the first page of what was unhelpfully titled “The Direct Expressions Questionnaire-Style Evaluation Algorithm”. There was one terse, formally worded bit of instruction that read: “Please answer all questions. No length limit on responses. Add lines (or, if replying by mail, attach additional sheets) as necessary. Audiovisual answers are also accepted, as is artwork and any other format that can reasonably be delivered, digitally or physically, to us.”
There was no space for a name, but the first question read “Identify Yourself:” followed by a number of blank lines that were, presumably, just for effect. The second question was “How do you define “expression”? Be semantic.” The third read “Create something that implicitly criticizes another thing you have created.” The fourth and last question on the first page was, abruptly, “Do you or your family have any history of mental illness? Elaborate.”
Jeromy and Cam were still staring at the page when the bartender returned with Jeromy’s card. She took one look at the paper and said: “You two got that thing too, did you?”
Cam looked up at her. “You answered the ad?” he asked.
“Ad? No, not me. Guy came in here on Tuesday to see the jazz band, he said he worked for that Direct Expressions place, whatever it is,” said the girl. “We were talking and when I said I wanted to be a playwrite, he gave me an envelope and said to open it if I ever wanted to try something even more creative.”
“And this was inside?” Jeromy prompted.
“I thought he wanted me to do porn or something, to be honest. He was a bit of a smooth operator,” she said. “But then I saw him give them to all the people in the band too. I opened it that night and yeah, it was that batshit crazy questionnaire. Only it was on one of their company letterheads.”
“Like, it had a logo?”
“Yeah, a weird one. I’ve got it here somewhere actually.” She ducked below the bar and rummaged around, then stood back up with her own sheaf of paper. She laid it out on the table and Jeromy and Cam inspected the logo at the top of the first page: a clean, minimalist illustration of a mason jar, inside of which was a comic-book-style thought cloud bearing the letters D-E. The letterhead also gave phone and fax numbers and the address of the company’s office. It was only a few minutes away from the bar.
“Do you mind if I take a photo of this?” said Jeromy, once again retrieving his cellphone.
“You guys aren’t actually going to reply to this nonsense are you?” said the girl. “Whatever, you can just take it. I don’t want anything to do with the nuts who wrote that shit.” She pushed folded the papers back up and handed them to Jeromy, who put them in his jacket pocket, along with his phone. He turned to Cam.
“Well, are we ready for page two?”
“You haven’t even read the whole thing yet?” said the girl, starting to laugh. “Have fun!”
Continued on next page…