Early Man

Friday, December 9th, 2011

The house looked so perfect to Bradley the first time he saw it. If only he had known then how much he would grow to hate it one day. The day the realtor led him up the perfect concrete path to the front door, she took special care to point out the space where he could put a birdbath, or perhaps a flower bed. “There’s a lovely space right in front of the picture window,” she said. “Some dahlias would look absolutely delightful.” Bradley chose not to tell her that he saw no point in spending his time cultivating ornamental plant life. Once, when he was a kid, his mother found him walking around their backyard, sampling the different kinds of flowers and bushes. “Brad, spit that out,” his mother said in the panicky voice that mothers could transition to so easily. “Those are just for show. You can’t eat them.” When the realtor unlocked the front door and led him inside, he noticed how much of an effort she had made to make the house look like a home. There were fresh flowers on the coffee table. A bowl of fruit. A few autobiographies on a shelf. Bradley thought the fruit was probably fake. He bought the house that day.

Bradley woke up very early every morning to sit in traffic. He could never predict how the traffic would flow coming down I-5 into Seattle. Usually he stared at the bumper in front of him for forty-five minutes before he reached the office park with the knowledge of just how fucking smart SBRUDAD’s kid was. Occasionally he flew through traffic, barely having enough time to read what school an honor student attended as he passed each car triumphantly. On those days, Bradley arrived at his cubicle in the Accounts Payable department a good thirty minutes before anyone else. It was eerie, basking in the chemical reek of artificial lemons. Alone, he always closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself among rows of lemon trees. But each time, he could only envision a custodian who stood on his toes to inundate the air with a heavy dose of Lysol. Even with his eyes shut Bradley could tell the lights were wrong. Too white, too sterile to be sunlight. He never knew what to do with this silence, in a jungle devoid of predators. It always ended the same way, though. Every time, Jenkins stalked over, leading his pack, ready for his moment. “Check it out. The early man, hard at work in his cave,” Jenkins said. “What do you do here, all by yourself? Sniff chairs?” The words were barely out of his fat face before he turned to his comrades and barked out a string of laughs that echoed through the room. Bradley always endured another thirty seconds of their company as the rest of them barked along and repeated their favorite punch lines.

At first, Bradley had regretted moving so far away from the city. The daily commute was a bitch, and it took twenty minutes to reach a grocery store. But he needed a place with a backyard for Mowgli, and he was finally away from the churches. His old house, the house where he’d lived with Melissa, was on the corner of a four-way stop. Across the street from their house was a Catholic church made of red brick with a statue of Mary above the doors. Across the street from the Catholic church was a Presbyterian church. Melissa fell in love five seconds after seeing the two buildings for the first time. “Look how cute!” she said, grabbing Bradley’s arm as they pulled up to the open house. “The Presbyterian church has a finger pointing to heaven on its steeple. I can put it in my poems.” Melissa’s poetry was one of things that made Bradley so attracted to her. It wasn’t good poetry. In fact, they were bad poems. Terrible. But to see her write, sitting at her desk, biting her lower lip as she stared intently at nothing, made Bradley think that he could live a lifetime of hearing about man’s finger/ lifted heavenward. But they didn’t know about the bells until that first Sunday. It happened every Wednesday morning, and twice on Sundays. The bells at the Catholic church started ringing, then ten seconds later the bells from the Presbyterian church clashed in. Bradley never saw the point. They were a wolf and a coyote, both howling at the same moon.

More often than not, when Bradley still slept inside, Mowgli woke him up an hour before his alarm. He hopped off the bed and scratched at the bedroom door. Bradley got up, let him out, and watched as Mowgli excitedly ran around in the open world, sniffing and pissing on most of the trees in the yard. It had been his dad’s idea to get a dog after Melissa left and Bradley was about to move into the new house. “It’d be good for you, son,” his dad said one day on the phone. “I know how you get. You’ll withdraw into yourself. It will be good to come home to someone that’s always happy to see you.” Bradley ignored the implication people were generally not happy to see him and heeded the advice. Bradley had to admit, Mowgli helped, even though he stepped barefoot into small lakes of piss sometimes in the middle of the night. That was one of the perks of sleeping outside. Now Mowgli just got up on his own, trotted over to a tree, did his business, and came back to sleep, huddling close to Bradley for warmth.

Bradley brought his own water to work. Every day, before leaving for work, he filled two Nalgene bottles and put them in his bag. The sink water tasted strange, but for the past year it was the only thing he drank. It saved him the trouble of going to the kitchen at work. The kitchen was strategically placed directly across from the manager’s office. Bradley always watched from his cubicle as some nameless worker lumbered his way towards the water cooler, unaware of the predatory eyes that hid behind the office blinds like a lion in tall grass. Once, before he adapted, Bradley was filling his water bottle when two hands slapped his shoulders and began slowly kneading. He jumped and turned around to his manager, Dora, baring her teeth at him in a primal smile. “Hey, Bradley,” she said. “Taking a break?” Bradley looked down at his pants and saw that his flinch had spilled water onto them. “Oh, I see I made you wet yourself. I can have that effect on men, you know,” Dora said. Bradley tried not to show his disgust as Dora cackled away. “Anyway, I just wanted to check up on you, see how you were doing. Look at Jenkins, so hard at work. Don’t tell anyone, Bradley, but he’s getting a raise soon.” She grabbed his shoulder again and gave it a small squeeze. “It’s just our dirty secret.”

A week after Bradley started living in the woods behind his house, he found a letter sticking out of his mailbox. Mr. B. Darwin, Fire safety burn bans in unincorporated King County are declared by the Fire Marshal during long periods of dry weather, normally during July through October. There has been an established burn ban since June 28th. It has come to the attention of the Black Diamond Homeowners Association that smoke has been seen on a daily basis coming from your backyard. Please refrain from burning any outdoor fires during established burn bans, or further action will become necessary. Thank you for your cooperation. That day, after work, he moved his settlement deeper into the woods and constructed a lean-to out of young poplars. The new site was slightly downhill from his true backyard and rested a few yards away from a small creek. He dug a pit to prevent anyone from the neighborhood from catching a glimpse of his fire through the gaps between the trees. Bradley had conquered fire; fuck anyone who tried to tell him to relinquish his control. It was a necessity. Bradley needed to survive.

Lunchtime was the worst for Bradley. When he first started his job, he ate lunch every day with Sam, a salesman from the 2nd floor. It was Sam who explained the food chain to him. “Look, man. Corporate preys on the managers. My manager preys on me,” Sam said through a mouthful of salad. “I am prey, yes I am. But I’m not at the bottom. Why? Because I prey on the customers. I call them up, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ ask them about their kids, ask them about their life. Everybody’s got something that makes them happy. Some people get dressed up, all in spandex, and go biking every day. Some people, like your manager, what’s her name, the creepy bitch, Dora. Well Dora likes chasing after you skinny guys. I just have to let them talk about themselves for a bit, make them think we’re having an actual conversation, then boom, I go for the jugular. I made my living on that shit.” Bradley thought Sam was mostly right about the food chain, but wrong about his own role. Bradley knew that every person he worked with desperately wanted to succeed, and would quickly betray a fellow worker if it was profitable for them. They didn’t just prey on the customers; they preyed on each other. After Sam was fired, Bradley had tried to eat lunch with Jenkins and the rest of the staff from Accounts Payable. They were really the only people he knew. Lunch consisted of rating women in the building on a scale of one to ten. “Check that one out. It’s the blonde from the sixth floor. What do you say, boys, a nine?” Jenkins said, followed by a rumble of agreement from the rest of the pack. “Come on, early man. Why don’t you go talk to her? I know you’ve got some good pick up lines. ‘You smell like a freshly felled tree,’ or something like that.”

“She’s not my type,” Bradley said as he continued to eat, cursing his human biology for betraying his embarrassment. He hoped Ellie, the nine, didn’t see him blushing.

“Oh, I see. She’s not his type, everyone.” Jenkins began his habitual laugh. “What the hell does that even mean?”

“Look, I’m just not into her type,” Bradley said, dropping his fork and turning towards Jenkins.

“Oh yeah, what type is that? Fuckable?” Jenkins said. The rest of the table joined in the laughter this time. “I’ve seen you chatting up Dora.” Jenkins’ face was red too at this point, but from laughter. Bradley stared at the tie wrapped around Jenkins’ neck and imagined what it would feel like to lunge across the table and pull the narrow end until it constricted his breathing, killing him like a python would. Maybe Jenkins’ raise would go to Bradley.

Bradley ended up going on a couple of dates with Ellie. He didn’t have the courage to approach her in front of Jenkins, but he started talking to her in the elevator before work. Eventually, he steeled himself and muttered “Do you like food?” She looked at him in surprise, as if she was unsure of what he said or maybe needed clarification. “Do you like to eat?” Bradley asked. “Food?”

“Are you really asking me if I enjoy the consumption of food for the nourishment of my body?” Ellie asked. “Or are you asking me out?”

For their first date, Ellie suggested that they go to a vegan restaurant downtown. “The human race has advanced to the point where we don’t need to depend on animals anymore,” she said when they were seated at a table near the window. The night went smoothly enough. It seemed to Bradley like they talked about everything, even the certainty of death.

“Look, we both know we’re going to die,” Bradley said. “The delusion of love is just a natural response, it’s a race against time. Do you really love somebody because they eat their pizza with a fork and knife? Is it really true love just because you both love Asiago and think that Wish You Were Here was a better album than The Wall? No, you just know your clock is ticking and you’re afraid of dying alone.”

“Wow,” Ellie said as she looked down into her soup. “That’s a pretty harsh view of love.”

“Yeah, that’s what my ex-girlfriend thought,” he replied.

“You just broke a cardinal rule,” Ellie said, laughing. “You know ‘Don’t bring up the exes,’ and all that.”

“Who comes up with those anyway?” Bradley asked. “It reminds me of fishing tips. ‘To increase strikes, paint the treble hooks red on your topwater lures.’ ‘Don’t bring up past relationships, you’ll scare them away.’ I’m not trying to trick you into liking me.” At that point in the conversation, Bradley realized he sounded like a bad standup comedian and fell quiet. Ellie broke the silence.

“Seriously, though,” she said with her eyebrows raised playfully. “Wish You Were Here was the better album.”

“Marry me.”

Sometimes Mowgli woke up next to Bradley in the middle of the night, growling into the darkness of the forest. Bradley used these interruptions as an opportunity to feed more wood to the fire. Hopefully it was just a rabbit springing one of the traps he had set deeper in the woods, and not some stalking predator. Bradley knew the order of the beasts, that man is the weakest and most defenseless of all living things. He also knew there was no law of the jungle here, nothing that forbade the beasts from man-killing. Even if there was law here, Bradley would still keep his axe and sharpened alder branches by his side as he slept, lest he be attacked by some father wolf killing to show his children how to kill. He knew that the animals of the forest were not all afraid of the fire, but is still gave him a sense of security as he and Mowgli huddled closer towards it for warmth. The beasts associate fire with man. The human voice is most disturbing to many animals, but Bradley felt it would be cruel to subject them to the same torments he dealt with on a daily basis.

Bradley’s second date with Ellie started out just as smoothly as the first one had. He remembered Sam’s advice about everybody having something that made them happy and kept Ellie talking about herself for most of the night. It was a simple rule: everybody loved to talk about themselves. The problem started when they went to Bradley’s house after dinner. Ellie stayed in the house while Bradley took Mowgli outside to do his business. When he returned, Ellie had been shocked to hear that he had been living in the house for more than a year. “It’s just so sparse,” she said, pulling her jacket tightly around her. “If I had walked into this house on my own, I wouldn’t be able to glean any information about the person who lived here.” Their conversation had stalled after that, and eventually she asked him to drive her back to her car. When he got back home he sat on the cold tile of his living room floor and thought back to a few months before when Jones from his department hosted a housewarming party. Bradley had been surprised to see how lived-in the man’s house looked already. There were family pictures on the wall, drawings on the refrigerator, and a TV room painted in garish colors that Jones had dubbed the Mancave. Mowgli ran to him, tall wagging frantically, excited that Bradley was now at the same height as him. Bradley leaned back against his living room wall and listened to the hum of his empty refrigerator. He remembered how, when the realtor had shown him around the house on the first day, he had gazed around, enchanted by his future. But now the window seat where he would read the paper on Sunday mornings was just a resting place for his briefcase and work papers. And the wall where he would hang the oil painting of a Japanese maple was bare. A growing feeling of unease filled him and he felt like a stranger in his house. That was the first night he slept outside.

Bradley enjoyed living further in the woods, closer to the creek than he was before. Once, he had tried drinking straight from the creek by getting on all fours and lowering his head until his lips met the water, but he got sick from bacteria germinating in the stagnant water. He decided it would be easier to be productive at work if he didn’t have to spend his day actively trying not to shit himself, so he began boiling the water over the fire. It was strange to Bradley how water was absolutely essential to life, yet almost everyone in the country had access to running water from their sink. This was the same substance that fueled the bodies of primitive man, and it meant death if they strayed too far from a water source. Mankind had come so far. It was weird to be out here in the forest, to be the only man. He was Bradley. Just over a year ago it had been Bradley and Melissa. Bradley and Melissa’s house. Bradley and Melissa’s armoire. But when she moved away and left an empty house, he saw just how little was truly his. It had shocked him to be thrust into the world of sprawling ants. The first night he slept outside, Mowgli had given him an incredulous look, wondering why the hell they were sleeping on the ground instead of in their warm bed. “Go to sleep,” Bradley told him. “Some dogs have to live outside their whole life. And I promise you that their humans aren’t sleeping outside with them.” It was cold outside. Much colder than he had expected. He wondered what he would do when Mowgli died. He had a few years at least before this would happen, but he couldn’t envision himself evolving before then. Bradley shoved the thought out of his mind and pulled Mowgli towards him under the sleeping bag. He would get through this night, at least. He would get through this night at least.