Reuben dreams a dream. He is in his office alone with the lights out. A buffalo is eating the carpet, chewing, coughing a laryngitic cough in the dark. Reuben sits at his desk. The office is a dry place and Reuben feels dried-out. Smoke detectors make red constellations across the ceiling. Reuben looks around for a while then back at the buffalo. Its hair is thick and brown. It stops to brush its snout with a hoof. Reuben thinks, I wish I was a buffalo. He can’t remember the last time he saw an animal in the wild. When he turns around, he sees a palm tree. A coconut falls out of the palm tree. The buffalo looks at the coconut and kicks it at the wall. Reuben wonders why the buffalo is in his office. He moves his tongue around his mouth and tries to breathe; feeling a desultory half-heartedness towards his inactive being, thinking his entire life is nothing but a subjective fever dream. The buffalo looks at Reuben and seems to laugh. Reuben feels self-conscious and stares at his palms. He thinks about palm trees, convinced that if he doesn’t do something with hands, he will stop breathing. He rubs his eyes for a while. When he stops, the buffalo is gone.
It’s a Tuesday but it feels like a Wednesday. This is what Reuben is thinking when his telephone rings. He answers pensively, holding the phone at an arm’s length, like a loaded diaper, before pressing it against his head. It is a male co-worker. The co-worker states his name and department. Reuben doesn’t know this person but pretends he does. He is always pretending. He thinks, Pretending is easier than Knowing. The co-worker asks Reuben if a particular report has been sent to a particular person. Reuben hears the word “report” and begins to feel nauseous. High levels of anxiety accumulate inside his skull in the region behind his nose. He stares at the telephone receiver. Something red begins to swell behind his eyes. Gradually, he is overcome with the urge to light something on fire. The man on the telephone says something about the weather. Reuben wonders what’s happening to his brain. He wishes he knew. The grey mesh of his cubicle begins to churn like the ocean. He thinks, The tide is rising. His office begins to rock like a vessel at sea and gradually begins to sink. There are screams. Icebergs. Reuben thinks people are going to drown. He says, “Yes.”
“Thought so,” the co-worker says. “Thanks for everything.”
“Uh-huh,” Reuben says and hangs up the phone. He sits motionless for several minutes, wondering what to do. He pictures the person with whom he has just spoken. This person makes money to provide for a family. This person has everything he thinks he wants. Still, he is not happy. This person knows this. Reuben thinks about this as he slouches in his chair, counting his breaths, and closing his eyes. When he does, he sees a buffalo grazing the Dakota plains. There is a whistle. Grass. Wind. Soft, prairie ennui blends with the amber glow of a setting sun. Reuben opens his eyes and pops his knuckle. When he hears the snap, he feels normal again.
Reuben thinks he is a phony. He is convinced he has done nothing in his entire life with a good-natured attitude. He has the sense that all he has ever attempted to accomplish was done with the goal of gaining the acceptance of others. Reuben thinks about this for a while, wondering if this really is true. He considers people and their priorities: people’s needs and their ability to understand them in relation to other people’s needs. Reuben thinks, People have the need to be liked or admired. He wonders if he is like or admired by anyone. Deep down, his thinks he doesn’t like or admire anybody. He only wants them to like him and admire him. He thinks, I am afraid of not being liked by everyone. Reuben tries to recall all the close relationships in his life, recounting deep conversations he has had with people who he — at the time — thought he wanted to be liked by. He recalls numerous attempts to listen in a seemingly interested and sympathetic manner to people while not really wanting to know or understand who the other person was inside. Reuben rolls around in his swivel chair. He wonders what life would be like in a wheelchair.
The Xerox machine spits out paper. Reuben watches the reams stream into uniform stacks on a paper tray. He thinks, This is how a Xerox machine ejaculates. He stands in front of the machine for several minutes, watching other peoples’ print jobs gush from the machine in plasticized electric euphoria. For a moment, Reuben entertains the idea of making one-thousand copies of a blank sheet of paper. He thinks, For the Xerox machine’s pleasure. He wants to do this but is afraid.
At lunch, Reuben walks down the hallway to the elevator. As he waits, he realizes his jaw is aching. He doesn’t understand why. He thinks, My wisdom teeth hurt. When the elevator arrives, Reuben rides it to the ground floor and walks through a revolving door to the sidewalk where there are rows of people smoking cigarettes. Reuben remembers when he used to smoke, feeling vaguely nostalgic about the person he used to be. He walks across the street to a deli. Inside, he looks around for several minutes. He takes a sandwich out of a refrigerated display case. He wishes he could have a hamburger. He thinks, A buffalo burger, then feels guilty for some inexplicable reason. He has the mental image of everyone on the planet earth gorging themselves on raw bison meat. The deli air feels cool on his skin. He checks his wallet. He has no cash. He never carries cash. He will pay with plastic. Reuben picks up a bag of jalapeño chips and looks at it. He thinks, My fingers feel like aliens. He puts the chips back and picks up a carton of yogurt then stands in line, impatiently attempting to appear patient.
“One sandwich. One yogurt,” the boy behind the cash register says. His voice has a robotic quality that makes Reuben think about the future. The boy looks at Reuben. Reuben nods at the boy without saying anything. The boy looks down at the register, types, and reads. He says, “$5.66” and Reuben hands to boy his debit card. The boy takes it and slides it through the credit card machine. Reuben stands watching nervously, waiting. Beads of perspiration dot his forehead. He is always afraid of his card being turned down. He has plenty of money in his account. He knows this. Still, he fears rejection.
A woman stands behind Reuben. She is elderly. She is watching the credit card machine, looking concerned and mumbling indecipherable things to herself. Reuben pictures the woman with robotic limbs making Xerox copies of a buffalo. She has blinking blue lights on her torso that match spidery tracks of varicose veins on her calves. Reuben feels the woman is crowding his personal space. He inhales and holds his breathe for ten seconds. When the credit card machine spits out his receipt, Reuben breathes a sigh of relief. He takes his receipt and begins to walk away, gripping the earth awkwardly with his feet, feeling bent, worthless, and familiar.
Back in his building, Reuben walks through the lobby. The doormen stare at him as he passes. Reuben nods at them as he hurries past, trying to walk as quietly as possible. He presses the elevator button. He presses it again. He cannot stop pressing. He feels the doormen’s eyes on his back. Reuben is tapping his foot. He hears himself tapping. He feels ridiculous and stops. Someone is whistling. The elevator opens.
Reuben walks to his cubicle and sits down. Emails. He has emails to read. He sets his sandwich down on his desk. He bumps the cord of his telephone and it falls off the receiver. Reuben picks it up and holds it to his ear. Dial tone. He hangs it up slowly. He wishes he didn’t have a phone at all. He thinks, Every time my phone rings I have to pretend to be something. He wishes he had a hot towel to wrap around his head. He smiles as he thinks this.
He eats for a while, then stops. The walls of the office move like an assembly line. An idea to do something exciting with his life pops into his mind miraculously then disappears. Reuben sees the rest of his life flash before him. His middle-aged years. There are income and taxes. There are handshakes and Fourth of July parades. Rows of identical houses and mailboxes line a road in his mind. The road becomes narrower and narrower. His body becomes weaker and weaker. Seasons come and go and return, like a revolving door. Reuben is stuck inside it, growing more and more intoxicated with each revolution. He feels unable to prevent this. All the things he loves most in his life are staring at him with abandonment and hatred. Reuben is looking at them with bags beneath his eyes. He can’t stop doing nothing. He won’t.
Reuben does the minimal amount of work possible between one and five o’clock. He leaves his office. As he walks, he feels his body move. He thinks, I am moving in a robotic way, as he walks to his car in the parking garage. As he slides the key into the ignition, he looks into his rearview mirror. There is a buffalo standing behind Ruben’s vehicle. The buffalo looks thin and malnourished. It will not move. Reuben cannot move. He closes his eyes. He sees a prairie — an empty prairie with long, yellow grass. The wind blows the grass. The grass moves. Reuben thinks, Like the ocean. When he opens his eyes, the buffalo is gone. Reuben stares at himself in the rearview mirror then turns around. He begins driving home. It is rush hour. Traffic refuses to move. Reuben turns on his radio and looks for a song. There is nothing to hear. He turns the radio off and looks at the sky. Lines of cars ahead of him assemble in a static queue. He sits frozen with his hand on the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions. He looks around his car for something to do. He opens the glove box and closes it. He checks the fuel gauge. He has more than enough gasoline to get home. Reuben feels temporarily protected by the amount of fuel he has. When he looks out the window, he feels increasingly restless. He picks his scalp and rolls the window down. The air is hot. He rolls the window back up. The air conditioner fills his lungs with recycled ozone.
Reuben parks outside his apartment. He wonders where he will be five years from now — where he’ll be living and what he’ll be doing. He walks into his building slowly, feeling the urge to do something unhealthy right away He walks back and forth across the downstairs entry. His head throbs. His teeth ache. His brain is an abandoned warehouse crammed full of everything in his life. Reuben pictures a new world in his mind: half reality, half fantasy. A new planet. A vision. He can see the death of the natural world. The dead writhing bodies of today and tomorrow. Human beings. Giant hamburger faces, devouring the earth and ocean — the planet, the prairie, descending into a red sea of moss and ooze and flames, placated in dark basements before a snowy television screens.
Reuben leaves his building and stares at the sky. He walks back to his car and sits behind the steering wheel, feeling vaguely like an astronaut in some faraway orbit. He thinks, Five years from now everything will okay. He looks at the sky. He wishes there was a moon out to howl at, he thinks, Or something. Reuben starts the engine and rolls through the parking lot in a gradual way, not knowing where to go as he pulls onto the road. When he begins driving, he drives fast.