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The Nightmare Ballad of the Drunken Brand Identity

by Jonathan Ball

edited by Kathryn Mockler

With a Cameo by Shakespeare and a Title that Cannot Get Worse


The nightmare begins when you look at a gun. This is how it always begins. Then the gun comes over to ask what you’re looking at and you say nothing then look down in your drink. Then the gun smiles, recognizing you as its old friend.

Then death happens and the nightmare begins, or maybe has already begun before death happens and death is just part of the nightmare. Life is the nightmare and death is the nightmare and both keep happening and neither matters now, neither matters in the face of the nightmare.

Maybe in the moment they seem significant. But soon they just become normal, things that happen. Soon your body’s shoved aside for the next one.

#

Your body, unwanted, slinks out of the bar, slinks down the street. In the street it wants somewhere to lie but everything is walls or hydrants or just other bodies in the night wind. In the street people talk to your body and their faces are the new face of the nightmare.

“Hey.”

Your body won’t arrest itself for one word.

“Hey!”

Your body won’t—

“Hey-yo, Daddy-O!”

Your body slows. Turns back. Checks its watch. The day had been going so well. 2:18 in the afternoon and you hadn’t remembered being alive once.

“Hey, you want me to suck your dick?” 

Alone with her, near an alley, a bit back from the street.

“Hey! You want me to suck your dick, or what?”

You look off into the alley, then back at her. She bites her bottom lip, smearing the red a little down her pale chin. She seems too young. She’s playing at this.

“Yes, but I’ll say no.”

She pulls her teeth into her mouth and nods at your sage wisdom. Then her lip comes up in a snarl. “What’s your fucking story?” Then she’s gone.

What, indeed? Back at the office after lunch at the bar, head blown apart by the morning’s gun, you ponder her question. What is your fucking story?

What’s its point? What are the intentions of its author? When you are drunk you imagine yourself in a story and you are drunk all the time now. 

Who is your author? What is his motivation? He insisted on years of growth and change, decades of struggle were for some reason required. So that you could sit in a yellow boardroom? In an office in Ottawa, near the seat of the nation’s power? And instead of revolution, instead of marching forth for change, you could sit at this long fake-wood table and brainstorm ways to utilize social media to grow your brand’s tribe and leverage influence as a thought leader in the niche market for marshmallows that can be used during sex somehow. 

“Kids these days are having lots of sex. How can we convince them that marshmallows would help them have more and more exciting sex, when they are already sexing in ways unknown to all previous generations?”

You don’t have an answer so you nod as if you did, but the answer needs a few more minutes to bake. You stare at the shitty yellow wall. Is this yellow wallpaper an allusion to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman you wonder? Why not—your life is a horror story, you’re losing your fucking mind.

You’re starting to get onto a drunken roll, nodding like your neck might break as your mind bakes your fake ideas. Then Bob from marketing fucks it all up by opening his stupid fucking mouth.

“Why don’t we try to utilize social media to grow our brand’s tribe and leverage influence as a thought leader?”

“Good idea, Bob!” 

You nod as if you agree with Bob, but your agreement just needs a few more minutes to bake.

You stare at Bob’s neck and imagine pushing a knife through its soft flab. Finding some way to balance the knife so it is wrapped by the folds of his triple chin.

If you balanced the knife just right it wouldn’t cut his throat unless he moved wrong and then it would be his fault really. You just put the knife there and walked away before the damage was done. You gave it to him for safekeeping but then the idiot moved and anyway really you see really he’s the one that moved. You’d be blameless and not held to account in a court of law.

Next he sees, and notice the shift here to the third-person, he sees himself like he is outside of his body, a reader of this lousy story he’s also in, he sees himself volunteering to lead a task force dedicated to whatever the hell Bob just said.

And he does not know what this guy is thinking, this half-drunk or maybe full-drunk idiot. What the hell is he thinking volunteering to lead this task force?

Who even mentioned a task force?

He did, apparently, he came up with the idea of a task force. Whatever that is, either a mission for GI Joe or a bullshit work committee led by some jackass. Which will it be? Only time will tell, as Shakespeare didn’t say, though it sounds like something he would say. Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides, / Who covers faults at last with shame derides. Cordelia to her sisters. The good child to the bad. This drunk jackass knows his literature at least.

He knows his literature and he knows how to drink himself stupid over the lunch hour and get back to the office late and barely make it to the meeting. He knows a lot of stuff it’s true and yet he can’t get it together to refer to himself in the first-person.

At least he manages to cut Bob out of the task force.

The day is already a nightmare, we’ve established that, so let’s just forget about it, let’s skip it, skip skip to the evening. In the evening he sits at home alone and doesn’t mind being alone but does start to think about that girl on the street.

He should have at least talked to her about the idea. It had promise. Kids these days have a lot of good ideas. They start businesses before they hit puberty, have pop hits while still in high school. They make movies starring ice buckets and keep fashionable pets and overthrow dictators using #hashtags.

His company even hired two kids, two youth consultants. They want to consult with the youth so they pay two kids that are still in grade school twice what he gets paid because they seem like cool kids. They have skateboards that are like two skateboards attached by a string so that’s cool right? And it’s even cooler when you are in grade school and are approaching a six-figure salary and all you have to do is go to a meeting in a yellow boardroom for like two hours every three weeks. And you just text your friends while you’re there because that’s what they are paying you to do. If you stop texting your friends and start paying attention and ever get caught taking life seriously then you will be Facebooked a Donald Trump meme and that’s how you’ll know you’ve been fired.

Cool is YouTube or whatever’s cool now, cool is how kids still say cool even though everything else is fleek or whatever, cool is Frankenstein’s monster and how they all know it’s not called Frankenstein but call it Frankenstein anyway, but they know. Oh, they know. Youth and cool, the divine sparks to the marketing monster.

Cool’s like pornography, you know it when you see it. Some kids say maybe it’s cool to question white privilege and maybe it’s cool to be a feminist and to those kids the adults say um yeah sure but sorry you’re not what we’re looking for. Find some Meninist girl and give her the keys to this Mercedes. If Mercedes are still cool. 

Kids are better than adults, everyone knows that, they just need some support, they need to be given money for not working and they need to be believed in like they are Jesus. Mercedes is what they called Jesus’s Mom in Spanish, by the by. It also means wages and reward, which somehow in Latin connects up to pity.

He could have helped that girl. With the right brand identity and a better value proposition she could found an empire.

#

The next day his head splits because he was drinking at night too. Thinking about Shakespeare always leads to thinking about the human tragedy, and the tragic girl on the street didn’t help, nor the missed opportunities of the day and of life, and thinking this way always drives him to drink. 

Another drink to get the train moving.

The train moves and you are a you again. It doesn’t always happen so you treasure it, and your homemade Irish coffee in a plastic Starbucks carrier is as always the perfect camouflage.

And you are happy again, whistling while you go to work in improbable imitation of someone who’s not deep in a nightmare.

#

In your office you decide to write a poem. That seems like the logical first step—some creative brainstorming to figure out what the fuck you’re going to do now that you have some idiotic ill-defined project to deliver that you put on your own plate and can’t even complain about. Poetry is a time-honoured way to waste your life while drawing connections between ideas so you decide to drum up a stanza of four lines because for some reason you think all stanzas should be four lines.

Out your office window no scratch that Out the window of the cafeteria table where you sometimes drink coffee and hide from coworkers while you think, you can spy the National Gallery of Canada. So you decide to start there and then slide into the social branding shit.

You end up with this:

Let’s install a food court in the National Gallery.

Like the Hospital McDonald’s it will nourish our soul.

Shakespeare remains an expert in the field of social branding.

As Milton tells us, Shakespeare’s corpse has got it going on.

The poem has a certain charm and has got you thinking about Shakespeare again and what he might still have to teach us today. Your favourite lines from Shakespeare come from King Lear:

I’ th’ last night’s storm I such a fellow saw,

Which made me think a man a worm. My son

Came then into my mind, and yet my mind

Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more since.

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.

They kill us for their sport.

How dark and depraved a truth is this, and the man speaking just saw this storm happening to another person, just saw the torment the torture, and it is as if he saw his future in this way, saw the steel come for his eyes.

King Lear is a play about torture and the truth of torture, how the truth of torture is that the world is a nightmare. The world is a nightmare in which the gods play. Where dudes fuck with one another and ruin everything they can reach.

Dudes are always fucking with other dudes in Shakespeare. Gouging out eyeballs and dipping swords in poison and making long speeches while they die about how dying is different from what they expected but still worthwhile and you should try it sometime. 

Which reminds you Shakespeare invented the word eyeball although that was from The Tempest but anyway maybe and maybe this is the key, maybe marshmallows need some cool new name like sexmallows and that will get kids these days to fuck with marshmallows.

Have marsh sex with sexmallows or something. Invent some word shit like Shakespeare would. If Shakespeare was fucking today, he’d have marsh sex with SEXMALLOWS (TM). You’re close to something, so close.

You’re proud, you deserve a drink, hell you’ve done so well that you deserve death.

He wakes up in his room again and it has been another day since, that makes two days since he figures. The day the nightmare happened doesn’t count because it was always happening, he just didn’t see it, and also there is the word since. Yesterday was one day after so one day since.

Today is the second day since it happened so what the fuck is he still doing waking up? What the fuck is he still doing walking around?

Why are you drinking your morning alcohol and bussing to your fucking job when everything already happened?

I need a name, you decide, maybe a name would help sort out all this you/he crap. What was your name before everything happened? It doesn’t matter you suppose, that name is gone.

You need a new name. Maybe Bob? But that name’s already taken, by Bob, who walks into your office.

Bob has come to bitch about how you stole his idea and started the task force and then didn’t let him be on the task force. “What’s worse and more of an insult is that your task force just seems to be a list of fictitious names rather than other employees you’ve wrangled. In fact, your task force looks a lot like the character list from King Lear.”

You don’t remember sending any memo. “That’s ridiculous.” 

“I agree—it’s ridiculous.”

“Why would I copy out the character list from King Lear and distribute that as my task force roster?” 

“I don’t know. But this sure looks like the character list from King Lear.” Bob turns the memo towards you.

 

To: Whom It May Concern

From: Task Force Captain

Subject:    Task Force Member List (for reference)

Captain

Cordelia, daughter to Lear

Curan, a courtier

Doctor

Duke of Albany

Duke of Burgundy

Duke of Cornwall

Earl of Gloucester

Earl of Kent

Edgar, son of Gloucester

Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester

Fool

Gentleman

Goneril, daughter to Lear

Herald

King of France

Knight

Lear, King of Britain

Messenger

Old Man, tenant to Gloucester

Oswald, steward to Goneril

Regan, daughter to Lear

Servant 1

Servant 2

Servant 3 

cc: Bob

 

“Bob, why are you wasting my time with this shit?” 

“Just let me on the task force. I will do all the work and you can take most of the credit. I just want, like, some of the credit.” 

“No dice. I refuse to budge an inch on this.” 

“You’re not the only asshole that read Shakespeare. I know that he invented that phrase.’”

“Well, then we’ve come full circle.”

“Why are you fucking with me?”

“Truth will out. The game is up.” 

“Quit it!”

“Bob, you’re losing it. A task force memo that is just the cast list of King Lear? A conversation where I keep quoting Shakespeare just to be an asshole? It doesn’t make sense. It’s an improbable fiction.”

“You know I have a PhD in Shakespeare, right? You must know. Is this your way of reminding me how my life sucks because I’m working at a fucking marshmallow company since the academic job market is shit? Why are you being such a jerk? What did I do to you?” 

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.” You stand and make a show of putting on your jacket, which you actually forgot to bring to work, so you just mime putting on a jacket.

“You didn’t even try that time.” 

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” And with a little salute and a wave you are out the door, leaving a sweaty Bob behind. 

#

The more you think about it, the more you seem trapped in an improbable fiction. The more it seems like your story means nothing and goes nowhere. The thought scares you because of everything that has happened, how the nightmare keeps happening to you. If the nightmare means nothing, that is worse somehow than the nightmare itself.

You want so much for it to mean something, for everything to have been things that happened and not just things that happen. There is the verb tense to consider. Things should be things that happened but they seem more and more like they happen, that they keep happening, keep unfolding across the days.

You drink so much now and you thought that was because of what happened but maybe it’s because it keeps happening and happening and never stops.

You need to reach a point where it happened and something else can happen. Even if that something else is nothing, nothingness and erasure. You would love love erasure so much, love to be a thing erased.

If only you had been erased when your name was erased but instead you became a zombie, what happened in your apartment, in that room, what happened happened but you keep returning to its happening, you keep going towards it happening again. 

Where is it all, where is it now? Bring death to me, you pray to the gods who kill.

Bring it to me, like a wanton fly you buzz from home to work to bar to bottle and to the body oh the body please take this body from me you pray.

#

Three days now since it happened, seems symbolic enough, time to get things moving, time to get it all going for real, so you step into a gun store and step up to the gun store counter. 

“Gimme a gun, I need to kill myself quick.” 

The clerk blinks and squints. “You can’t just walk into a gun store and say something like that and expect to get a gun quick.”

“Why the hell not?” 

The man spits. “Permits.”

“Goddamn.”

“You don’t need to tell me, buddy.” 

“Look, I gotta end this thing. Drinking yourself to death is too slow and requires too much storytelling. A gun would be nice and quick, you just need a motivation, and I’m the kind of character that pops his own head off with a gun so I don’t even really need much in the way of that.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, which is another reason I can’t sell you a gun today.” 

“Shit. Well, I gotta go then.”

#

Gotta go, gotta run. Gotta get to work, there’s a meeting, you’re ready to unveil your new ad campaign which we all assume will go over very well indeed.

Does your author even need to describe this meeting? It seems destined to go well, and thus be uneventful, so why even bother? Maybe he should just spend time describing something else. 

Yes, just describe something else Herr Author, Mien Author don’t bother with this boring meeting, just another ho-hum sort of meeting, nothing special, just gonna unveil the ad campaign that the task force has been developing, it should be pretty routine and just go over pretty well.

Maybe a few hitches, a few hitches probably since you didn’t get a gun so that part of the plan went out the window, suicide by gun in the meeting would have been a fun way to conclude and also a good way to avoid the painful question period that always follows a presentation. But in Canada you need to wait for your guns I guess, what the fuck?

Seems like we need a new system—call an election quick, I’ve gotta vote here ready to cast for the first guy that will give me a gun.

#

Your author’s not sure what else to describe so he might as well write about the meeting, the boring ol’ meeting about the task force ad plan unveiling, just a few boring ol’ PowerPoint slides. 

Slide one just says TASK FORCE PRESENTS AD CAMPAIGN FOR SEXMALLOWS MASTER PLAN CONCEPT all strung together like that and in all-caps and italics like that too.

Slide two is a series of bullets:

Slide three is Shakespeare with his dick out getting a blowjob. You’ve collaged together a porn scene and a portrait of Shakespeare and also a big hand giving a thumbs up. It’s all super graphic and disgusting and sure to get you fired.

“Any questions?”

Silence. Even the kids, the preteen youth consultants have been shocked into silence.

You decide to take the silence as a good sign. “Well, we’ll get started on this then.”

You start repacking your briefcase but your boss waves for you to wait. Waves his hand at you a few times, too many times, like he isn’t sure what to say but knows he needs to say something. 

Eventually he spits it out: “What the fuck is this?” 

Good question. Your author is having second thoughts of this kind too. Has he gone too far? Can he really put this into a story?

What if his family reads it, what will they think? But it is too late for these questions you suppose. 

#

Actually that is something you say out loud. “It is too late for these questions.”

“You want to run an ad campaign of Shakespeare getting his cock sucked?”

“Sure. I’ve always wanted that.”

More silence. You wait a few more moments, then go back to packing up your briefcase.

The youth consultants have leaned forward to stare at the Shakespeare slide, which is still displayed. Like they never saw porn, or maybe never saw Shakespeare. For children brought in to help figure out how to convince other children to start having sex with marshmallows, they seem prudish.

Your boss’s boss, the vice president of marketing, is here too, since it’s such an important meeting. And because you sent her a personal invite that you handmade by cutting and pasting lines from your Oxford edition of King Lear so that it looked like some sort of cross between a birthday card and a ransom note. She looks even more stunned than your boss.

She raises her hand, like this was high school.

“Yes?”

“Where’s the marshmallow?”

You turn to consider the collage, as if seeing it for the first time. “Up his ass.”

“You’re fired.” 

“At this juncture, I’d like to thank Bob for all his help.”

Bob chokes on his coffee. All eyes shift to him as you slip out of the room.

#

OMG, you think, laughing to yourself on the bus ride home. OMG you can’t believe that you did it. OMG like the kids say.

O, M, and might-I-add, G.

OMG kiddie cakes. You imagine Biblical stories unfolding in a beer commercial or something, your wife your dead wife, deadly beloved turns back to look for her daughter and then crumbles to a pillar of salt and you just say “OMG” and then smile and crack open a brewski.

Not to worry because the beer turns the haggard old crones fleeing the city with you into young bikini models, good timing with the wife-dying/turned-to-salt thing. OMG. 

OMG is what Mary Magdalene said when Jesus rose. OMG WTF r u doing here? I thot death happened to u?

OMG that’s so silly says Jesus, OMG like whatevs death is no biggie.

OMG haha guess not haha.

Jesus is like, Lazarus! forgeddaboutit!!!! and then Lazarus rises, up from the dead. Death is no biggie it just happens sometimes but Jesus is there to say fuck it forgeddabout death. 

#

He finishes his drink but nothing happens. Nothing happens even though it already happened. What is he doing wrong?

He gets up and puts the glass down but misses the table and it shatters as it hits the hardwood. Splinters of glass slide themselves into his path and he cuts up his feet as he heads to the next room.

To the next room, the next room, the one with the corpse. 

The smell has stopped bothering him. He sits down on the bed beside the corpse and lowers his hand to touch the corpse’s leg. A gentle touch. Blood drains from his feet into the floorboards and he takes his hand off of the corpse.

“How did you do it?” The corpse says nothing.

“What did you do?” The corpse silent still.

He’s out of ideas. He lies down on the bed, at the feet of the corpse, at the feet of the three-day-old corpse. The corpse is small and huddled, its knees pulled into its chest, and there is still plenty of room on the bed.

“How did you make it happen? How did you get it to work?” He stares at the ceiling as he asks his child, his daughter the corpse who does not reply, does not even know he is here.

His daughter the corpse. OMG, o my god.

god o god, o my dear god o god. 

o god no, please grant us this prayer.