Jerry and Me
by Jeff Barr
This is a love story.
I first became aware of Jerry in the fall of 2010. Autumn in Central Oregon has a certain capricious nature. It waits around every corner, holding its breath, ready to jump out at you and scream ‘BOO!’. Some days it’s a snowball in the mouth; other days, it’s a bucket of water, and then other’s, its just a morose, keening wind from the north that bangs against the walls of my empty house and keeps me awake. One morning the streets are skating rinks; the next they are bone-cold dry, asphalt-gray snakes nesting between hillocks of snow. Stoddard Wells, Oregon. It’s a nice town. That’s fine, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I moved to Stoddard Wells based on something I’d read on TechCrunch. They were rounding up the top ten places for internet startups, and I was keen to get in on the ground floor of something cool. To change the game from the inside out, to work for young hungry kids from Stanford who ate venture capital and spit out pure inventiveness. Specifically, I wanted to deal with data. Big tables. Remixed information, remastered data, classification and number theory and abstracted n-tier systems tortured into new paradigms. Blobs, and Globs, and tuples that stretched into infinity and beyond.
Information, you see, is eternal. It’s not a tangible item – it’s certainly not something you could put a value on, though many have tried. Its value is infinite, but impossible to calculate. Data is an ever-evolving snapshot of theoretical, mathematical and philosophical calculations, algorithms and permutations of information that twists and loops in infinite complexity, the uncut Gordian knot of existence.
But I was doing data entry. I was reviewing member profiles, plugging it into a web form, and submitting it. I wasn’t allowed within a ten-foot barge pole of the HTABLE databases. Hell, I didn’t even have a badge for the data center.
Christmas of 2009 was crazy. I had been forced to take the data entry job to make mortgage. My wife had just left, taking my six year old daughter back to Las Vegas. I was a wreck. I got through a bottle of Smirnoff a night, and woke up every day with throbbing, poisonous hangovers. Sometimes I would see big black bugs crawling down the walls of my one-story bungalow. I would shake like a palsy victim until lunch time, when I could sneak off and take a snort in the parking lot. My Ford Explorer made weird grinding noises when I put it in 4×4.
The I-InforNext Christmas party was held at a shitty little Japanese sushi place in downtown Stoddard Wells. The décor was gold dragons, and plenty of them. You could order anything you wanted off the menu, so long as it was raw fish or rice. I got so drunk that I hit on Katerina, the Russian girl who worked graveyard shifts filing and vetting foreign language account updates. To my surprise, she kissed me back, but I fucked it up by having six or seven too many drinks and getting misty over my wife. Information can be poison, too.
Three months later I started having issues in the bathroom. I don’t mean to sound indelicate; gods knows that I’m embarrassed enough just talking about it. But I’m talking serious issues. I would spend an hour in the john every morning and night at home. Eventually it started up at work, too, and every break I had would be spent in the cold, ostensibly pine-scented cavern of the I-InforNext bathrooms. I know people were talking about it. Everyone’s job was so boring that every day was more like a scavenger hunt for interesting gossip than anything else.
It tickled. I’ll never forget that. At first, it tickled something fierce. At first, I thought it was hemorrhoids. Laugh if you want. You spend eight hours a day strapped to a cheap Office Depot foam chair and see what your ass thinks about it.
After a while, a few, maybe six months – that’s when things began to go bad.
“I mean, things were bad enough before.” I found myself saying. It was a weekday, I’ll tell you that much. The neighbors had a god-awful red Bronco that was faded to knife-scar pink, and any non-work day it could be seen from my dining room window. For some reason, I desired to so my drinking from there that day. My business was drinking, by then, you see. And business was good.
“But this is awful.” I gleefully reported into the phone. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a good person.
“Can’t you see this is why I left?” She said. Jessica had been trying to talk over me the entire time, and all I heard was blah blah blah. She may have sounded bored, or angry, or vindictive – but she didn’t sound genuine. I told myself that she was lying. For all I know, she was. “You do really need to talk to someone.”
She was always lousy at convincing me of things. An example: there used to be a short-circuit in our electrical system. Oregon contractors were notoriously lax. Whenever you would plug something in and start it, if the kitchen lights were on, they’d flicker. Just a quick down-stroke in the luminescence in that one room. A downbeat, a note of music. It drove me batshit. I called sub-contractors out. I called my father in law, who had been in construction his whole life. I spent whole weekends investigating the wiring of the house. Stanzi was five, and would watch me from the floor, her chin on her hands, the blessed up-curved crescent of her eyes tilted up to me as I climbed the attic ladder, a Maglite and a thermos of coffee in my free hand. I never found it. Jessica claimed I was making it up. Said I always was looking for problems where none existed. She may have had a point, but information is information; whether from within or without.
Jerry, before he was Jerry, was a piece of shit. I mean this quite literally. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about that morbid fascination that we all share. You take a shit, you stand up, and you give it the old once over. No shame in it.
So there I was, eyeing myself floating in a toilet bowl. I may have been grading the results, it’s hard to say. The drink had been doing a number on me; I suppose I knew that. My sides hurt every morning. I would lie in bed, imagining my liver calcifying, growing hard as stone. I imagined it as a paperweight on my desk. My kidneys were the bookends bracing my collection of SQL manuals and DBA journals. Pissing was a painful ordeal, and my hemorrhoids had surely, if anything, gotten worse. There, in the toilet, was a slimy gray sac of worm flesh. It was instantly recognizable. When I was a kid, I’d developed a fascination with parasites. I had studied them obsessively. I had stopped eating meat for six years. Over time, it became a personal totem of fear, a phobic touchstone, like a string of Rosary beads worn smooth over time.
“I suppose I always knew I would get one. I’m the worst mix of paranoia and superstition. Wish something away enough, and it will bring it to you. But if you don’t wish it away, it will find you anyway. That’s the problem – there’s no right answer. No golden mean. No formula or calculation that will give you the answer when everything, even the question, is a variable.”
She was saying my name over and over again, in tearful litany.
“I don’t know if there’s anything else that can be done for you.” She said, her voice gone cold as a December stone. I saw behind her, behind the machinations that have driven us apart. The monstrous confederacy of her family that had made her take Stanzi back to Las Vegas. Her family hated me, they always had. Like my past is any of their goddamn business.
Shit, where was I? Jerry. My mind can wander sometimes. It’s no big deal.
Jerry was living inside me. An intestinal parasite. I had studied the lot of them – flatworms, Liver Flukes, pinworms, and Jerry himself, the granddaddy of them all, the tapeworm – when I was a kid. It was a train-crash fascination that I grew out of, but that grew inside me as a phobia. I don’t think anyone isn’t horrified by the idea. But oh how simple and elegant they are! A tube, an anus, a mouth. The ultimate example of information processing in its simplest form. There are flatworms that have been alive in one form or another since the beginning of time. Immortality, in a square inch. Wrap your noodle around that particular little factoid, and tell me it doesn’t blow your mind. But still, you know. Yecch.
“It was maybe the size of a quarter. It was still wriggling. Moving like… oh I don’t know. But it was moving.”
I realized I was on the phone. I was talking to my wife. Soon to be Ex – her parents had evidently sprung for a lawyer, and the papers had been sitting on the dining room table for a week.
“Jerry. Listen to me. Your daughter needs you.” My mind wandered then. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter. But if Jessica was going to feed me this big old bag of shit, talking about economic collapse, concentration camps, armed insurrections in the south… I mean, I’m a reasonable guy. But come on. I hadn’t watched the news for a while, but I guess I would know if something like that happened – wouldn’t I?
At least I hadn’t told her about how the sun was a different size now. How it would crouch there, outside of my window. When I woke, it could be peering in from any window. I had started sleeping on the west side of the house. How I fucking hated that yellow pockmarked face grinning in at me every day. Like we shared a secret. At dusk, so full of itself, it would fall down around the house in an amber crash of hot broken glass.
Oh, I had been talking out loud. Now I had told her about the sun. But she had hung up.
Jerry and I were alien and opposing life forms. Except he could live off of me, and he didn’t even have to move to do it. Isn’t that amazing? He never moved, only grew. He ate what I ate. Drank what I drank. If, chemically, we are just a product of balance, of incoming and outgoing, then in the eyes of nature, Jerry and I were the same.
In October, Jerry began to grow again. He had been dormant for about a month. I knew he wasn’t dead, even when he went without moving for long stretches. Two mornings before Halloween day, I was showering, sneezed, and a gray loop of him burst out of my nose and hung there. The feel of Jerry moving was like getting your stitches removed in the old days, before the new dissolvable sutures, when a nurse would just clip those little fuckers and yank the leftover threads out with forceps. That’s how it felt, like something stuck in me, at once so much a part of me and altogether alien. Jerry was expanding and swelling, making me bigger to hold more of him inside. I looked down, and watched him through my skin. I could just see the vaguest outline of him; slow, like graveyard dirt sifting through my body.
I hadn’t been eating well for a few weeks at that point. Jerry was sucking the life out of me to make up for the food I wasn’t eating. It was OK with me, I guess; after all, I was far more concerned with keeping myself in drinks and avoiding the poisonous grinning yellow sun. We had a long stretch of brilliant weather. The cold didn’t bother me, since I didn’t go outside, and I had a fireplace. I camped in front of it all through the bitter half of October and the start of the Christmas month. Expensive as hell, but it kept Jerry and me toasty warm.
I was communing with Jerry every day. Our communication was elemental and prehistoric – the language of blood; arteries pumping, the constant grinding thump of the body at work. I suspect that I had been fired from my job for almost two weeks; I didn’t venture for the to get the mail, and the phone only emitted strange whirring noises, except for the intermittent calls from Jessica.
Pounding interrupts my sleep. Sleep interrupts the pounding of great meat machines in the bowels of the earth that writhe and pound and shudder the heavens.
Things move faster. Jerry is awake, and aware. His consciousness is like sleet sliding down my spine. Like cold hunger, inside me. My guts coil and writhe like a never ended optical illusion that you have to cut me open to see. As Jerry grows, I get colder. Already I am the color blue. Already I am ice. I am a granite wall and nothing more.
It is Christmas day. Kerosene kills tapeworms. It kills. I am pouring it, great sodden stinking gulps of it, in every room of the house. When it explodes, its brightness will rival the sun.