It got to the point where I was no longer poor — I was wretched. Like something out of a Dickens novel. My clothes were torn in places where it is not fashionable for clothes to be torn. I couldn’t afford to eat, let alone pay my bills, and Sally Struthers was calling my house asking if she could come over with a film crew.
But worst of all were the roaches. Despite the fact that an old friend of mine, Rodney Maciejewski, exterminator extraordinaire, had taken out their leadership and left them with an interim government, the roaches mounted a counter-offensive during a holiday cease-fire that left them firmly in control of the kitchen. They controlled the closets too, and the battle for the bathroom was tipping in their favor. Aided by sympathizers from neighboring apartments, the roaches conducted suicide raids in my bedroom, invoking the name of their God as they dive-bombed off the ceiling in a campaign to sew terror amongst any woman who dared sleep in my bed. I needed help to squash the insurgency, but having antagonized my allies by running up enormous debts, I found myself having to go it alone. And it wasn’t going well.
It was then that they came to me with The Contract.
In this particular case, the they I am referring to is also known as The Network. Actually, it is unclear whether it was The Network or The Conglomerate That Owns The Network. Since there are but four conglomerates that own all of the networks, and since they all use the same document, signing The Contract with The Network is a bit like swallowing the pill in The Matrix: you don’t quite know whom you’re dealing with, but you suspect they look like self-replicating monsters who wear suits and carry briefcases.
Everyone who lives in our society is familiar with The Contract or some similar version of this document. It works thusly: in return for financial gain, The Contract requires that one violate the one thing in The Universe that one values. If one values truth, one will be forced to lie. If one values virginity, one will be forced to fuck. If one values nothing, one will NOT be offered The Contract.
The language in The Contract is worded in such a way that only people trained in reading contracts can understand its true intent. This particular contract was written in Latin. Lucky for me, I studied Latin in school. But this was a different Latin. This was legal Latin. Scary Latin. The kind of Latin Jesus heard before they nailed him to the cross.
Also in The Contract, there was a set of parentheses, between which rested a number. This number represented the financial gain. The reason this number is in parentheses is because it is the one part of The Contract that is negotiable. Everything else in The Contract is standard and therefore non-negotiable. In order to negotiate the number in the parentheses, one needs to hire a person trained to read and negotiate a contract. We call such people Lawyers.
Now I have a very good lawyer. I know he’s very good because he lives in an expensive neighborhood, drives an expensive car, and sends his kids to an expensive school. I know that if I ask my very good lawyer to negotiate a contract, he can get me a 3% increase in the amount between the parentheses. For that service, he will charge me 5% of the amount between the parentheses. This is how he pays for his house, his car, and the education of his spawn. This is what makes him a very good lawyer.
“I don’t know why I even bother with you,” he told me as I sat in his office. “And no, I won’t validate your parking.” He ate a sandwich as we spoke.
“I don’t understand The Contract,” I told him. “Why is it two hundred pages long? What am I giving away? Why won’t anyone, even you, explain it to me and tell me exactly what it is I am getting myself into?”
“The Contract says what it says and means what it means,” he offered, as a piece of pastrami shot from his mouth. “Nobody is forcing you to sign it.” He belched then swallowed another hunk of meat. “But before you do anything rash,” he used his finger to unstick a piece of food from his gums, “allow me to remind you how much it is you owe.” He examined the half-chewed meat in his finger tips. “In fact this conversation we’re having bills out to more than your gross earnings for the last five years.” He put the meat back in his mouth for further mastication. “Let me also remind you that I can have you declared insane and force your ass into a receivership.” He lifted a leg, emphasizing his ruthlessness. “This I can do because you have proven that you are unable to make even the simplest of decisions.” He unleashed a loud and angry fart. “And there ain’t one kike doctor from here to Park Avenue who’d disagree.” He inhaled through his nose and smiled, admiring the quality of his work. “And do you want to know why they wouldn’t disagree?” He fanned the fart toward me with his hand. “Because only a brain dead idiot wouldn’t sign that fucking contract.”
And yet I couldn’t do it. I was thirty-one years old, and nothing in my life had gone well. None of my goals had been accomplished. None of my dreams had materialized. And signing this contract would assure that none of them ever would. For me, it was better to suffer with my integrity intact. It would lend a certain romance to my struggle if I died wretched rather than having succumbed to temptation.
“What integrity? What romance? You think because you’ve failed until now that makes you an Artist?” Intimate Relationship #9.5 had stopped by my apartment to weigh in. “Artists don’t spend their days jerking off to internet porn, watching Court TV.” I wondered if Beatrice spoke to Dante this way. “You think you’re Marlon Brando?” she asked. “You’re not even Marlon fuckin’ Wayans. You’re a half-assed, failed child actor lucky as hell to be getting this offer.” She was yelling now. “Have you ever even seen your work? You suck! I’m twice the actor you’ll ever be. You should be doing dinner theater on a cruise ship, instead they’re giving you prime-fucking-time. Or is it your writing career you’re worried about? Those shit-ass articles you write for a blog no one can find. That misogynistic column you send to your friends — none of whom can read — always about the poor, self-destructive asshole with a heart of gold. Most women have boyfriends who take care of them, who buy them dinner and presents, who take them on vacations, who listen! I could have been married,” she said. “I could have had a house and a family. Instead, I’ve sacrificed everything for you, and what have I received in return? Nothing! Nothing’s been earned or accomplished, no great art has been produced, no one’s been inspired by your work. I hate you for sucking me into this.” She was breaking things now. “I hate myself for being stupid enough to fall for you. I hate the world that it allows someone like you to be rewarded. I hope you die the slow and agonizing death a fraud like you deserves!”
My mother called. As usual, she’d been crying.
“Everything I’ve done for you, all the money I spent on your education, all the money I lent you over the years. I could have had a life of my own. I could have traveled and seen the world. I could have put your grandmother into a nursing home instead of caring for her myself. Did you know she threw her colostomy bag at me today?”
“I have shit all over me. There is shit all over the apartment. I can’t even afford a maid to clean it because my ungrateful son is too good to sign a fucking contract. Your generation thinks it’s so entitled. Thinks it shouldn’t have to suffer. Thinks it should enjoy its work. Do I enjoy my work? I despise my work. That is why it is called Work. But I do it anyway because your grandmother survived Aushwitz so that you should one day exist and have a life in America, where there is freedom and democracy. In America, where a Jew can live without the fear of being exterminated like a dumb animal. No wonder the woman shot-puts her shit at me, I raised a despicable child!”
A Very Famous Celebrity sat down next to me on the couch in his office. He smiled as only one who had once signed a similar contract could smile. I explained to him what I felt. I explained to him that it seemed too soon. That I was too young to give up on my artistic dreams. That there was something I needed to hold on to, something I was not yet willing to surrender for financial gain. I told him that if I signed The Contract, I wouldn’t be me anymore. I would be someone I didn’t like, and I didn’t want to be someone I didn’t like.
The Very Famous Celebrity put a fleshy hand on my shoulder, a little too close to my neck.
“I think,” he said, “you should go home… and you should get… some sleep.”
That night, I dreamt of revolution. I dreamt I was a drug lord, an arms dealer, an outlaw living in the jungle leading a band of rebels. I dreamt that men’s lives depended on me. That the decisions I made toppled governments and determined the outcomes of history.
And the roaches marched on in their formations. They gathered in the dark behind the walls of my apartment. They scurried over countertops, breeding in the damp beneath the pipes, pouring over their plans for my annihilation. In the morning, I would poison them. I would set traps to capture them where they fed. I would crush them with my boot heel. Fearing nothing, their fleeing at the light would be nothing more than an innate response to a perceived threat. Roaches lack the capacity for decision-making. They know nothing but survival. They will endure long after I am gone.