Different words in different fonts printed in different shades of brown along the tan-colored eastern wall of the Dunkin’ Donuts: yum, icy, cold, fresh, quality, genuine, froz)en, extra, latte, and enjoy. Enjoy is the largest of the words. Its shade is the darkest of the browns. The words appear in a loopy cursive font, resembling comic sans, and at 9:09AM the blast makes a sound like a flat tire and the blood flows from there on out.
He is not tall. Lank reddish-brown hair sticks in patches to his pale, sweaty forehead. The closed-circuit television hangs at a 45-degree angle to the counter behind which Dunkin’ Donuts employees stand. Its screen faces out toward the queuing customers. Behind the queuing customers are two small plastic tables, each flanked by mocha-colored plastic chairs. Everyone has non-congruent thoughts, he would try to remind himself, it is OK. Behind the tables are two wide glass windows. The sun peeks out from behind a cloud, and he murmurs unintelligible words as he waits in line and clutches the backpack to his chest. Behind the glass windows are the sidewalk and the street.
It starts in the stomach: a slow lurch and then a twinge. Non-congruent thoughts, his therapist once explained to him, are those that do not line up with a person’s ideal self. His maiden aunt in Santa Cruz recommended deep breathing. He died before he could burn: from impact. The shrapnel was impactful. It impacted his lungs. The non-congruent thoughts had gone around in a loop. He had not managed to fully process certain childhood events. He had developed negative thinking patterns and ineffective coping mechanisms. The bomb burst at 9:09 AM. His first memory was of a puppet show on television: It was meant to be a comic bit, on a variety program: The puppets rebelled against the humans from whose arms they proceeded. He had always disliked the appearance of his own long neck.
His own long neck was flecked around the Adam's apple with little reddish brown hairs that afternoon at the Dunkin' Donuts on Empire Boulevard, and the non-congruent thoughts went around, all his life, in a loop. Though he was raised Unitarian Universalist, he walked three miles at the age of sixteen to see the local priest. He had become obsessed, he did not quite know how, with the idea that he predestined to go to Hell and must bring to an end his wicked ways; but it would occur to him that if he had been predestined to go to Hell that it did not matter just how evil he chose to act: This was an example of circular thinking. The priest had loose, fleshy jowls. He listened attentively to the priest, who recommended a prayer from the Gospel of Mark: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” But he did not like the priest’s loose, fleshy jowls, or the kitschy porcelain sculpture of Sitting Bull on the priest’s desk. A few years later he took an interest in the iconography of American sports. He wrote thinkpieces. We have no plans to get rid of Chief Wahoo, Dolan told the Plain Dealer. It is part of our history and legacy. We do have empathy for those who take issue with it.
Where principles erode, power sweeps in. Though a computer may never be able to feel, it can already approximate well enough the verbal habits of a paranoid schizophrenic, he learned in Critical Inquiry. The back issue was issued on September 11, 1984. The cover was covered with black ink and a pattern of white lines issuing out from the center. They issued out from the center and went on, theoretically, forever. The tile floor of the Dunkin' Donuts is imperceptibly slanted; rather, it would be imperceptible but for the course of the blood that inches slowly away from his body toward the wide glass windows. The stiff petals of tulip magnolias open slowly, over the course of several days in mid-March. Existence is a test, which we are failing. In this dialogue the computer's side is in capitals:
How long have you been in the hospital?
ABOUT A WEEK.
Are you depressed?
Were you taking drugs?
What is your problem?
PEOPLE MAKE ME NERVOUS
How do they do that?
THEY STARE AT ME.
MAYBE THEY DON'T LIKE THE WAY I LOOK OR SOMETHING.
Do you look unusual in some way?
WHY ARE YOU INTERESTED IN MY LOOKS?
Because you said people stare at you.
At 8:53AM he waits in line to purchase a sausage, egg, and cheese on an English muffin and a large coffee with two sugars at the Dunkin' Donuts on Empire Boulevard, between Franklin Avenue and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. The video advertising screen behind the counter displays the same pattern of images over and over in an approximately three-minute-long loop. Donuts appear and disappear. Hot coffee is poured in slow motion from offscreen into a plastic cup emblazoned with a pink Dunkin’ Donuts D. He never made it to the marathon: The device ignited too early. A strawberry shortcake croissant donut rotates counterclockwise. Descending tortillas flop against one another as they fall: It is a new menu item: the GranDDe Burrito.
Women and men with numbered signs attached to their stomachs pass by outside the Dunkin’ Donuts on their way to the marathon, scheduled to begin at 9:00AM. The closed-circuit television displays grainy, greenish footage of the customers, from the perspective of the security camera affixed to the ceiling, only inches from the wall on which words such as icy and fresh are printed in brown. People make me nervous, he would say to himself when he woke each morning, maybe they don’t like the way I look or something. At 8:56AM Erica, the employee behind the counter whose shift is coming to an end, smiles at him as she enters the order for a sausage, egg and cheese on an English muffin and a large coffee, two sugars into the computer that will transmit the order to her fellow employee, the coffee pourer and sausage and egg and cheese microwaver, Estelle. Outside, a warm wind blows. A sparrow chirps as though it were spring—on his walk over to the Dunkin’ Donuts from his dirty apartment he thought of the tulip magnolias and their stiff pink petals—but the date is November 1st, 2016. Erica leaves at 9:03AM. She wears a brown pea coat over her uniform and strides purposefully offscreen. The security camera continues to record. It shows in profile a small, thin man in black jeans and a black sweatshirt, clutching a black backpack to his chest. Lank reddish-brown hair sticks in patches to his pale, sweaty forehead.
Each of the tiles is 15" by 15"—patterned with the irregular lines of the stones from which they've been cut. A penny, tails side up, lies near the southwestern corner of a tile that can be counted as four from the westernmost wall and three from the counter. He does not pick it up as he stands in line. Because it is not heads up, it is not lucky.
He read a classic American short story, from an anthology called Classic American Short Stories, and disliked it. The story began with a hook. It made you want to read further. It expressed sympathy for its characters and by proxy for all humankind. (Metonymy.) Dialogue was minimal, but pointed. There was no sermonizing. The evening before he came to Dunkin’ Donuts he squashed a moth against the chalk-white horizontal mullion above his doorframe. The moth’s crushed left hindwing and forewing adhered to the mullion. Its right hindwing and forewing and thorax twitched as they twirled down to the floor. Its entrails were deep brown, and the boxy brick projects outside his window blocked out the setting sun.
He had made a better door than a window as a child. His corpse would be inserted into a bag. Photograph the Body. Conduct External Body Examination (Superficial). Preserve Evidence (on Body). Establish Decedent Identification. Document Post-Mortem Changes. Participate in Scene Debriefing. Determine Notification Procedures (Next of Kin or Interested and Authorized Individuals). Ensure Security of Remains.
"I hate this job," says the thin death investigator.
"I could have been an accountant," says the fat investigator, "or a notary public."
"My mother told me I had a beautiful singing voice," says the thin death investigator, "But now I sound like a rusty saw. It's all the cigarettes."
"Or maybe it's all the yakking. What is this—his pelvis or something?"
"It doesn't look like a pelvis."
"It could be a piece of a pelvis. Pieces and pieces of pelvises. Peter Piper picked a piece of picked pelvis."
"Aren't you amusing. I think it's a femur."
Outside the Metropolitan Museum he tried to write poetry but never got farther than a few stray lines. He went to physical therapy for the pain that starts in the stomach: a lurch then a twinge. Outside the museum they installed new, more ornate fountains. It had been amusing to take note along Lexington Avenue of the tiny hairless dogs in vests. He lay down in the sun in the grass in Central Park. It made his skin crawl. All around him, whispering in the wind, those trees with the scarred bark: sycamores.
His computer boasted an 11.6-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen display. It displayed Monica Lewinsky's Stunning Transformation. Movies That Were Ruined By Only One Scene. How To Dress Your Age (It's Not What You Think). The simplest thing would be to pathologize him; blood runs along the latticed trail of grout between 15” by 15” tiles. Cyclomatic episodes. Somatization of emotional content. Wellbutrin XL. Wellbutrin SR. It starts in the stomach. Side effects of rare incidence include confusion, fainting, false beliefs that cannot be changed by facts, extreme distrust of people, seeing or hearing things that are not there, seizures (convulsions), trouble concentrating. Ecology is the new opiate of the masses. He made a point never to recycle. Faded yellow tall boys of Coors in a stretch of grass under the bridge, where the bums lived, in the small town where he grew up. A lurch and then a twinge. The physical therapist recommended isometric exercises to improve core strength. His ideology was rotten to the core. The floor has recently mopped: Morning sunlight shines through the wide glass windows onto the spotless stone tiles of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Empire Boulevard at 8:49 AM.
The Police Commissioner appears on television screens throughout the city. The priority now will be to ensure that anyone else who poses an imminent threat is apprehended as soon as possible, he says. The corpse's brain remained intact, but with huge gaps in intelligence. The city is seen as a soft target. It is composed mostly of smoothie shops. The response to terror will need to be calm, lucid and determined—and it will have to last for a long time.
The response to terror that morning was calm, lucid and determined—and it lasted for a long time. The police arrived. The ambulances arrived. The death investigators arrived. The area was cordoned off. News crews arrived, and were warded off by the police. The Police Commissioner arrived. The Mayor arrived. They were shown pictures of the corpse. In ninth grade, on a fresh piece of printer paper, he had written a book of jokes that consisted of only one entry: "400% milk—it's just a dead cow in a bowl."
Lines from all the books he has read, swimming around his head as he carries his backpack to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Empire Boulevard, adding up to nothing. There can be no more human beings in our sense of an historical human being. The healthy automata are satisfied (sports, art, eroticism, etc.) and the sick ones get locked up. The tyrant becomes an administrator, a cog in the machine fashioned by automata for automata. He wondered what drugs to take and about his posture. The kundalini session he sat in on was drab and sad. The instructor's pasty thighs tensed when she said "satnam." From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues. He began researching different types of bombs online—as a hobby. This was in the winter of 2015.
I had last seen him at a party in 2012, before he became unfit for parties.
He said to me: “Noah, you should write a story about me some time.”
I raised my eyebrows. His tone was jauntier than I would have liked. We didn’t know each other well, though we had graduated university the same year, and I had seen him around a few times since then. Even when we first met something about him had unnerved me. He seemed to me like someone I had met before in a dream—some element of the psyche I had preferred not to look at.
“I’m serious,” he said, and squinted at me as if to indicate his seriousness, “but don’t make it one of those tedious realist stories where the fading light over the cityscape is a symbol of moral turpitude, and the main character learns something in the end. You know what I mean.”
I tried to remember whether I’d ever written a story in which the fading light over the cityscape is a symbol for moral turpitude. The idea of it depressed me. He kept jerking his head a little bit to the left as he spoke. An acquaintance had told me he’d been in the psych ward a few months ago.
“Make it a different type. Where the words come at you from all sides. All different kinds of words.”
I smirked at the phrase “all different kinds of words,” and he must have noticed. He began to elaborate.
“I mean,” he said, “don’t make it like a story. Make it like words from the TVs that play all night in empty airports and clickbait on the internet and all sorts of bullshit, all mixed in together. More like life, you know? A real medley. So that you can’t tell which way is up.”
I began eyeing, conspicuously, a group of my friends across the room. He began to speak more quickly.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “a lot about the unconscious. It’s weird that we don’t pay more attention to it. I mean, to its ramifications. It’s ramifying out everywhere, into everything. Like you can’t just say the unconscious exists, and then move on. The discovery of the unconscious is groundbreaking. To acknowledge that it exists means that, you know—”
And here, for whatever odd reason, he winked at me.
“—it means that you’ll never really know yourself. Not even close. You’re divided. I’m divided. We’re divided. You’ve got two machines inside you, but they’ll never be able to communicate with each other. Do you know what I’m saying? But even though they can never communicate, you can sometimes infer. You can make inferences. Because even though the content of the unconscious is unknown, we know the structure. The structure is very familiar. It’s not structured logically, though, like a machine or a math problem or something. It’s structured like—”
“I’ve got to go now,” I said, and never saw him again.
He found a helpful diagram after a quick Google search. He had always been good with gadgets. His hands tremble as he enters the Dunkin’ Donuts on Empire Boulevard at 8:48 AM, as the Don’t Walk signal at Washington counts down from twelve to eleven, and the sun shines through the wide glass windows onto the spotless stone tiles. He holds his backpack in front of him, hugging it to his chest. Blasting cap attached to top of pressure cooker. When primary charge explodes, gases heat up, expand rapidly under pressure. He had intended for the alarm to go off and to detonate the bomb at 10:09 AM, when the marathon would be in full swing, but had forgotten about Daylight Savings Time. He had bought the pressure cooker and the nails and the alarm clock at Phat Albert’s Warehouse, on Flatbush Avenue. The songs on the radio in the Warehouse had sounded as though they’d come from outer space: a bad signal. Each of the differently sized televisions were playing the same college basketball game: An errant pass goes multiple times simultaneously into the stands, and expansion creates shock waves traveling outward. A blast fragments the cooker, sends pieces of shrapnel outward at high speeds. “I'll have a sausage, egg and cheese on an English muffin, and a large coffee with two sugars please.” He repeated the word please.
It was about the size of his parents' Columbia encyclopedia. No man or woman who aspires to erudition should be without it. He spoke less that autumn. An element of the wind that did not correspond to any of the five senses whispered to him, urging him on. He slept better at night, now that he felt he had a purpose. The sun glared orange in the evening against the windows of the projects, and a cool draft in his room prickled the nape of his neck. In the flowerpot by the window: a red amarylis. He had been interested as a child in the names of flowers: narcissus, hollyhock, begonia. Each of them had petals and sepals and carpels and stamens. Most angiosperms have mechanisms by which they avoid self-fertilization. Estelle puts her hands on top of her head when she hears the blast. She falls to her knees and stays curled in a ball. Erica is frozen. She is on the other side of the glass now, having put on her pea coat and exited the Dunkin' Donuts at 9:03 AM. She sees the body, through the glass, torn and bloodied on the ground. And she sees it on the closed-circuit television, in grainy gray. The smoke rises. The body is still. The lone casualty was self-radicalized, and the unconscious is structured like a language.