I wake up with my head on a bag of socks. They used to be warm, fresh out of the dryer in the sodden laundry room downstairs, with the damp floor that moistened the socks I was wearing, but now, paradoxically, the socks on my feet have dried and the ones in the bag have gone room temperature.
There are rivers of creases coursing across my face, twisting from my cheek down to my nose and around my mouth. The socks are cool clean lumps like dead animals and the rumples in their fabric have become creases in my face. In the dark reflection of my phone my face is haggard and misshapen, distorted by the marks that temporarily mar it. I turn on the camera, flip it to vanity mode. I am jaundice-pale, with red lines twisting across the skin and eyes. I do not take a picture.
I hit the central button. It sticks a little — spilled Sprite — and it’s then I notice the time. 11:57 am. I breathe and grumble at myself. At least it is morning, just by a hair. Less guilt that way. About the same shame. I drop my head down and nudge it under the pillow. I am an ostrich. I am a burying mudskipper, squirming under the silt.
I check my email from under the t-shirt sheet fort I have created. Carmillo wants something from me. His request is vaguely worded and urgent, capital letters shooting off the screen. NOT INTENDED TO CONVEY SHOUTING, it says. It shouts nonetheless. Edits, rearrangements; new colors and lines, barely described, using a hail of contradictory adjectives. Blessedly, at the end there is a link to a website: Polygon.
Not the kind of internet content provider I would have suspected Carmillo of frequenting. But he has a young daughter that he speaks about sometimes, mostly when he’s angry. A girl with dark brown hair that curls slightly at the edges. When we share screens, I see a photograph of her on Carmillo’s desktop, holding a frog in her two tan hands. A tomboy, he calls her. She just seems like a person. This child must be the gamer of the family.
Carmillo must have seen her reading reviews or watching demo footage, and then something in the web design caught his eye and pulled his attention from whatever she wanted her father to see. Now making Carmillo’s website match that one in some ineffable way (and promptly) is my problem.
There are other emails of course. Jessica from Newark wants me to update the item descriptions on her sales page. Masearte has a band she wants to advertise. Some stranger who writes like an old man on a typewriter (double spaces after periods) asks how to make a resume that everyone who is hiring people like him can instantly see. He says he is a former amateur archeologist and book seller. An oral historian; a collector.
I almost delete the message, but then I see his signature, complete with university contact information, and decide that maybe he has some kind of job, some money. You just never know how it will go. Some of the most clueless and difficult clients attempt to get by paying the least. But not always. A retired lady in Muncie gave me a few grand to build an elaborate paean to her cat. She was satisfied with the minorest effort. Clients like that are the ones to hold on to. You don’t deserve them, and they don’t even realize. People who don’t value themselves make the world bloom and flourish and never even get to feel good about it. Isn’t that just the way.
I slide off the bed and onto the carpet. It’s rough. It will dig into my thighs and make an angry red forest of bumps if I linger. The coffee pot sits on the floor a few feet away. I crawl, croc-like, and flip the switch, and wait for the burnt brownness to groan and percolate out. My mug says CLEVELAND YOU GOTTA BE TOUGH and is dirty but only with the dye of old coffee. No harm in that.
I drink and pull out my laptop. I sit on the floor, spine ramrod against the bare plaster wall. If I were to do this long enough, a yellowed halo of head grease would blossom forth from the space where I routinely place my head. I am a tree covered in moss and lichen. I am a coral reef feeding schools of fish and nipping tiny things.
I start staring at the existing remnants of Carmillo’s website. He was an author many years ago. His specialty was books about the Mexican-American War. Some of them can be bought in airports and Barnes and Nobles all across Texas and Nevada. It helps pay for his house in Ohio City and keeps his daughter in a fancy Catholic school. Magnificat. I helped build the volleyball team’s website. On it, Carmillo’s daughter’s photo is nowhere to be found.
Time unfurls quickly, like when you spill a box of rice or Grape Nuts and gasp while the container is still in the air, suspended with the hope that the mess won’t be that big, only to face a hail of gritting chaotic filthiness one half of a moment later. I am charging per task so it is not to my advantage to take a long time. Charging hourly is the ideal and hope of every freelancer but for me it rarely happens. Clients like a flat fee. They try to steal more work out of you by being unclear, by escalating, by changing their minds. Sometimes it seems they tack on extra requests at the end just for the sense of value it gives them. Half these changes involve undoing the work they already instructed you to do.
I add a pop of color but make it understated. I change the font to something uncannily similar, yet different. Carmillo will like it, he likes serifs. Could never be convinced otherwise. Clients like small changes, and will often back away from them with massive satisfaction even if they can’t articulate why. When I’m lucky that’s all I need to do to shut them up.
I make the background eggshell instead of pure white. I edit the body text and enter a few paragraph breaks. Have I mentioned that I learned all this by myself? I am self-taught. In college I studied poetry. Not this. This kept me eating when my leg was in a cast.
Something is missing. I open Carmillo’s email and review his few edits. They will make the “about” page read a hell of a lot worse. But I have to let him. I copy, I paste, I revert it to regular non-screamy sentence caps. I update. I save.
Another email. He wants music to play. NO MUSIC, I tell him. He appreciates when I all-caps back. Makes it easier for him to focus, being shouted at. IT WILL BREAK THE SERVER. An absurd lie, of course. But I cannot in good conscience go so far as to set up a site with auto-playing music. If I tell him it’s unprofessional he won’t listen.
I drink my coffee. It puts a nasty edge on my teeth. On the fridge is a card with a phone number for the Cuyahoga Community College dental school. I need to arrange another appointment to have the students clean my teeth. The work is incredibly excruciatingly slow and sometimes they scrape the roof of your mouth, and you have to sit there mouth agog for hours waiting for the instructor to walk over, look inside, and assign your cleaner a grade, but it’s free. And I have nothing but time.
My phone rings.
“Yeah, D, this is Carmillo, did I interrupt you, did I call at a bad time?”
“No. What’s up.”
“Are you sure, you’re not having lunch or anything? Out running errands or anything?”
My stomach’s gurgling has been silenced with coffee. Carmillo is always strangely worried about me, over the phone.
“No, I’m fine. So what’s up?”
He coughs away from the receiver. The sound is wet, a recovered smoker’s laryngitis. “Did you get my email?”
“…Yes, I was wondering about how you wanted me to emulate the Polygon site that you sent as an influence…”
There is silence except for the roar of his TV.
“Did you get my email?” I ask.
“Huh, you answered the one I sent you?”
“Yeah, like an hour ago.”
“Oh sorry I haven’t had time to check my email since I sent that message to you.”
I could rewrite the physical laws, transport myself to his living room, and shove his head into the TV screen. I’d bet anything he has an old set, big enough to hold his massive jowly head.
“Well,” I say, “I appreciate you sending me a website you’d like to see used as inspiration, but I’m not sure which elements spoke to you.”
“The website you sent me, Polygon, is a videogame review and news site, which is pretty different from an author’s page, so of course I wouldn’t be copying it whole cloth–”
“What’s wrong with the polygons? The website works for me. I have it up right now on my iPad.”
I sit back. Chest lifted, imagining there is a string in the center of my chest being pulled. There is also a string tugging at the oddly flat read of my skull. Shoulders are pressed into the plaster. Elbows back, hands folded. Looking to the sky, blocked though it may be by the ceiling.
“The website you sent me, it’s called Polygon.”
He coughs. He has no idea. A voice in the distance; a girl.
“I was asking you about my website,” he says with looming impatience.
“I know. I know, I was wondering how you wanted me to change it–”
“I think it needs to be a little bolder with the colors. Like that thing I sent you. Some bright colors like that, but richer and more subdued, but exploding with barely suppressed energy, you understand.”
I do not. I walk to the kitchen. “Sure, sure.”
“Which is why I sent you that other page.” He pauses. A voice is talking at him but he does not listen. “I mean I’m practically doing your job for you here.”
Apple cinnamon rice Chex are turning to mush in my mouth while I’m pouring a glass of water. My sink fizzles and spits out brown liquid before reverting to white, bubbly H20. I take a sip and all the coffee seems to rush right through me and settle at the base of my bladder, heavy and pulling at me.
“Are you there?” He says.
“Mmyeah,” I say, swallowing. “Is Miranda there?”
His daughter. I’ve remembered her name. The gamer with the tan complexion and the frog. But he snorts.
“No, I have a, uh, friend over.”
Perfectly disarming. “Well I had better let you go. There’s a lot to work on here…”
“But wait a second-” he cuts in. “I’m gonna have people trying to visit my website all day, maybe folks who would have been buying books if there was only just a little bit more information and a few links where they could buy them–”
“I’ll do it as fast as I can,” I say, trying to comfort him. My terrycloth shorts are rolled down. I am pricking my skin and then I am collecting blood onto a thin white strip. “I just have to get to it right away and then I will email you as soon as it’s done.”
“Not gonna work. I’m going to be at the pool all day, at this spa on the East Side. Can’t bring my laptop in there it could get all foggy.”
“Don’t you have a smartphone?”
“I can’t look at the website on this thing,” Carmillo says, growing frantic, “It’s too danged small. It’s not what other people see.”
I place the strip in the machine. I wait for it to beep. I open the cabinet and withdraw a bottle.
“Tell you what, here’s the plan,” Carmillo tells me, “You do all of it and then when it’s done, you give me a call. Then just…describe to me what you’ve made it look like.”
“You want me to describe how I change your website’s look. Over the phone.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” I say. “My uh, pager.”
“Okay. Well anyway. I hope you can get to this quickly, D. My career is on the line. Trying to get another advance on this book about industrialization in Mexico City, and I don’t know if you realize this, but my sales figures are everything–”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks. Bye.”
I used to be a poet. My first collection was published when I was eighteen. A wunderkind, somebody called me. The works were short and precisely arranged, written in the voices of a hundred of my ancestors, based on independent research and firsthand accounts. Eventually the story telescoped forward, to a virtual reality eighteen hundred years in the future. This portion of the book was published online, in a multimedia format that blended visual and auditory information with my written words, and superimposed them over a live feed from the reader’s own webcam.
I received accolades. I had an agent and live readings in Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Oberlin, and one in New York. School was difficult for me, everybody thought I was detached. I was just busy. I released another book the following year. It was far more simplistic and prosaic. I thought if I stripped myself down, people would see I was more than a gimmick or a quirk.
It sold very poorly. A reviewer for the school newspaper accused me of emulating Emily Dickenson. Nobody wants to read musings about death paired with images of wilting flowers. The first book and site had been so, so expensive to produce. A lot of ink, a lot of code, too much hype, no profit. The second came with a steep advance and cost the publisher money. I was over then.
He is still talking when I lock the phone. It’s unclear whether it’s me or his mistress that he’s talking to. I drop the phone on the counter and look at the machine in my hand. 79. Why do I have to pee so badly. I could have sworn my blood sugar was high.
I’m shaking as soon as I realize, then I’m on the cool tile eating Chex out of my hand. There is honey somewhere that I could squirt on it. I find a lemonade packet and empty it into the remnants of the glass, realizing too late that it’s sugar free, and of no use to me at the moment.
I crawl to the laptop. All of Carmillo’s edits are already done and published. But it’s better to linger, to wait, because then he will conclude that I have worked hard and made considerable progress. I can’t charge him hourly but I can give him the illusion of value. On my screen, his site is bare but with a pop of Polygon orange-pink, and all the textual edits are made. I change a link so that instead of leading to his publisher’s site, it redirects to the Amazon store. He’ll get less of a payout for those purchases. Ditto his publisher, which long ago acquired the company that published me.
I pee and watch as my breath turns to vapor in my unheated bathroom. The radiator is broken, whining but not warming, out of my control. It’s too hard to get up, so I stay there, and pass the time by flossing my teeth. The blood that seeps out from between bicuspids is thin and sweet. My blood sugar must be recovering, bouncing back from the low point it hit while I was sleeping.
I used to have a pump. I used to sit at a desk in the library writing poetry on an old Acer for hours without giving my health a single passing thought. I can’t afford it now. I have to manually check and regulate and watch. Instead of a pump, I am hooked to and forever dependent upon a different kind of machine, no less essential to the maintenance of my life.
My phone rings.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.