by Daniel Arpie (2016)

“I would wake and then begin again, They would wake and then again begin.”

                                                                    * * *                                                             

I know a Person who works at one of the McMahill genetic testing clinics in the Pacific Northwest.

McMahill’s marketing has recently become very diffuse and not totally unhip: the new Senior Marketing Director, Bill Koss made the decision to slash the budget for print ads and reroute that cash towards buying up massive amounts of ad space on[1]—so much ad space that McMahill and Ancestry have, to Ancestry users, become seemingly interminably linked: Ancestry and McMahill basically now appear to be one. Koss dubbed this all the Marketing Revitalization Campaign (MRC). The enormously irritated Ancestry users (who don’t see an end in sight to the head-clubbing ad campaign) complain via official channels and threaten to take their business elsewhere, and initially these complaints were a massive concern to the McMahill CEO, X.Y. Zaihd, but Koss, arguing against much resistance, insisted that they stick it out and wait for the quarterly results to roll in; two months later (April ’11) he was vindicated: the reports concluded that despite the growing insurrection, McMahill had enjoyed a 30% sales[2] increase since the inception of the MRC.

Interested, highly marketed-to parties (i.e., customers/“clientele” [per the MRC vocab guidelines]) read their credit card information over the phone to a McMahill Telephonic Representative, the MTR reading it back to them as they go, then reciting from the script: “Thank you! We’ll be shipping you a box with some instructions; the whole process is pretty simple. You can expect the box in between seven and eighteen business days! Do you have any questions? Great, have a wonderful day!” and then the MTR hits the “SUBMIT” button on the glowing terminal, and an MPE (McMahill Packaging Expert) puts together the small, economically packed box.


-Contents List[3]

-Plastic specimen jar (100ml)

-Specimen jar lid

-Written directions

– Return postage slip (prepaid)

The directions: [1] Open plastic specimen jar (100ml). [2] Spit in plastic specimen jar (100ml). [3] Adhere specimen jar lid to top of plastic specimen jar (100ml). [4] Put plastic specimen jar (100ml) in box. [5] Apply return postage slip (prepaid). [6] Mail. Results typically come by mail in 2-3 weeks.

The job that the Person I know has is to empty the contents of the spit cups into the hopper of a little machine. There is no corporate, M-based acronym for what she does. The machine reads the DNA in the spit and prints out on receipt paper the genetic breakdown of the spitter; additionally, the machine prints an approximate date of death for the spitter according to whatever it is that their DNA says. She explains that this latter bit of information is only really accurate if the person has a genetic predisposition to something fatal. I told her that everyone is genetically predisposed to die; she didn’t think that was very clever.

This clinic does not include the results of the prognostic findings in the final report that is mailed to the person, only the genetic breakdown. Even still, the Person says, it is impossible to not read the prognosis of the spitter. She begs me to understand how awfully depressing it is to be the only person on Earth whom knows that a given spitter is going to die by way of myocardial infarction before their 40th birthday, or that a given spitter already has an inoperably advanced glioblastoma. But what’s worse, she tells me, is the compulsion to spit in the hopper of the little machine yourself.

There are many persons who have the same job as the Person that I know. So far only one of them has admitted to giving in to the compulsion. He submitted his letter of resignation, drove home (stopping to fill up his tank at the Citgo in Junction City and to buy a pack of cigarettes), and blew his brains out all over the inside of his shower stall. We speculate, unoriginally, that the human mind isn’t equipped to handle a fixed date of guaranteed nonexistence, that his suicide was protest against something, like one of those burning Tibetan monks. I wonder if the machine feels cheated.

* * *

The MRC team finishes filtering into the banquet hall, Bill Koss at the helm. He isn’t an ugly man; a little over fifty, not salt and peppered but moving in that direction, and his hair is still thick. His left Oxford is shined more than the right. He is not wearing a wedding ring. He is called up on stage and gives a speech about the progress that he’s been so happy to have helped make at McMahill Clinic #SB233PNW1811, concludes with a sincere tear in his eye, and chokes back a sob as Zaihd hands him the Employee of the Year award. The room, sans Kim Fiorvanti, applauds lightly. Koss takes his seat, stomach rumbling. He looks down at his plate, stops a passing waiter and says something to him. The waiter returns a few minutes later with a take-out box. There are a number of rumors floating around the office about Bill Koss and his allegedly bizarre private life and personal habits, a not small number of which I have heard second-hand from the Person. The girl sitting to the left of me leans over and whispers to the rest of us at the table, “Word is, when Koss was SMD at Dart, he maybe like brainwashed himself a little bit with that “We Make Your World More Convenient ®” campaign. The guy literally does not own a single non-Styrofoam plate, bowl, or cup. Which, if you really think about has a lot of implications: if he doesn’t own any kind of kitchenware other than the Styrofoam stuff then how does he cook? He must just order take out all the time, or else eat TV dinners!” Everybody else at my table is hunched down a little with serious faces on, nodding grimly. I look over at Koss. He’s hunched a little too, but he’s smiling, and gazing at his award.

Bill Koss used to vacation on Block Island, RI annually, always going the same week the nearby (nearby to BI, RI, that is, not to Oregon) colleges let out for Spring Break because BI is, to the Northeastern U.S. University Undergrad, a totally paradisiacal Spring Break destination: yes the booze is expensive, but it’s nothing to pick up a few bottles in Point Judith before hopping the ferry over; yes, there are a ton of cops on the island, but they are totally laid back middle-aged guys who tie their graying hair back in ponytails, wear visors and bumble around the island on bicycles, smiling wistfully and paternally at the college students partying in the sand; the hotels are scarce and expensive (think $400/night) so dugout bunkers on the beach are the most typical accommodations, and there is such a specific charge in the air that anything is possible – racing mopeds through the town center after a dozen beers or experimenting with MDMA or having sex with an attractive stranger – anything, because there are just so many other people around doing the same things; young, affluent, smart, healthy, tanned people from composed, moneyed families, the kind of people who just absolutely could not be doing anything wrong at all.

When Bill Koss is on BI: [1] His diet becomes purely bivalvic[4]; he slurps slimy things out of their shells, forgoing cocktail sauce or lemon, instead opting for a liberal sprinkling of his own pre-mixed blend of herbs (Thymus vulgaris, cymbopogon citratus, elettaria cardamomum, laurus nobilis); [2] Every afternoon he wades out in the water and drops to his knees, allowing the waves to break squarely across his chest, and he smokes an absolutely titanic joint rolled with marijuana procured back in Oregon, marijuana of such quality and potency that the nearby undergrads with particularly keen noses cannot help but look at him with envy[5] and [3] Early in the morning, he totters out across the jetty with a roll of twine, a fish hook, and a can of corn. He plops his mass down and smiles into the rocks, drops his baited line and waits for the Dungeness to bite. Or do they snap their claws down? He is unsure of how they actually affix themselves to the line. But he sits and smiles and says encouraging things to the crabs, urging them to avail themselves, promising not to harm them, saying he only eats the bivalves – that he just wants to catch one so he can snap a picture to frame and put up on a shelf in his 2br/1.5bth condominium, and that he will release it back to its crab friends as soon as the picture is taken.

On a Sunday morning Bill Koss stands up out of his little beach dugout and stretches. The college students are still asleep; it is an overcast morning and the sea is churning and greenish. Koss walks down the jetty, planning his steps carefully, executing all of the necessary hops nimbly. He sits down at his hole and drops the line, leans back against a rock and smiles at nothing in particular. He turns his head out to the far side of the jetty and his smile drops. He sets his line down and anchors it with the can of corn. There is a young man floating face down in the water, his body thumping up against the rocks with the pulse of the Atlantic. Koss whispers, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus Christ. Oh Jesus,” as he approaches. The dread is building. He kneels down and pokes at the boy, and retches. He doesn’t remember much about the walk back across the jetty or the 911 calls or the ferry trip home. That was the last year that he went to Block Island.

* * *

I remember reading a story by one of the magical realists, I think probably a Latin American, slapping along in Garcia-Marquez’s wake; the story was about spontaneous human combustion. A girl is proposed to by her boyfriend, who abruptly catches on fire, and he stays balancing on one knee while he burns and the girl doesn’t scream or try to swat him out with her jacket or otherwise react much at all. A cop pulls over a speeding moped rider who promptly bursts into flames. A lady comes home from work to find her husband nailing the maid; she explodes with the force of a nuclear device, and the explosion levels the whole block, the whole barrio, and the air rushing in to fill the space from which it was just so violently expelled sucks the wind out of everybody all over the entire South American continent, not fatally, just so much as to make everyone sigh and then reflexively gasp.

I asked the Person, “What do you make of that story?”

“Don’t know.”

“Think there are any parallels between your suicidal coworkers and the flammable Columbians? Art imitating life imitating art imitating death?”

The Person snorted. I laughed too. We shook our heads and looked at the ground and kept shaking our heads. She is well read, better read than I am, and has an M.A. from the U of Illinois. We talked about the novel that she works on at the McMahill clinic between salivary deposits. The novel is basically about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel (between salivary deposits) about a person who works at a clinic, who writes a novel… and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, and the whole thing is very meta, very alright and very unpublishable. There is a large, self-aware section of the story that deals with infinite regression: the infinite regression of the-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic-about-a-clinical-person-writing-a-novel-at-the-clinic; the logical foundation for infinite regression, and an attempt to model the given regress mathematically. She told me about it for a little while and I pretended to be interested. It seemed as though we’d run out of things to say to one another, then she spoke,

“There is no such thing as an answer. You know that right? I mean an answer to any of this. To any of what we’re talking about. Maybe capital-A Anything -slash- capital-E Everything. It doesn’t exist. No such thing as an answer.”

I was incredulous. “I don’t buy that.”

“What’s the answer then?”

“Do you mean… like… What do you mean? You’re asking me to answer that?”

“No. I’m just saying you can’t,” she whispered.

“The other day I decided that I’m radically against online shopping. Convenience in general I guess. Netflix and stuff too, especially.”


“I was sitting and thinking about it and I just really hate how convenient things are getting to be. We’re losing so much and getting absolutely nothing for it, you know? It isn’t making our lives any better on any meaningful level. It’s neat that I can watch a thousand different movies without getting off the couch, but is my life really any better for it? I don’t think so.”

“Would your life be better if you had to drive to the video store every time you wanted to rent a movie?”

“Yeah, actually. I think it would be. At least then there’s some sort of an interaction going on, person-to-person, I mean, between the clerk and me. That’s what you get stories and experiences out of. Walking the isles, looking at the new releases with a friend. Picking up some candy and popcorn, maybe a pizza and some beer on the drive home. Maybe the movie stinks, but the quality of the movie is sort of secondary to the actual experience of getting the movie, and the experience of watching the movie, you know? That’s how life is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be scrolling through a pre-determined selection of movies that are already rated while you sit on the couch. There is no fun in that. We don’t have little adventures anymore. We have forgotten, or are choosing to ignore the fact that we are human beings living in a world that is full of other human beings. We are insulated against every interaction that isn’t with a personal friend. We’re becoming solipsists, basically, I think.”

“I think you’re right,” she whispered, “Science isn’t going to save us. Technology isn’t going to either. What do you think will?”

“Moving to a place that still has video stores.”

* * *

It is late at night. My partner and I are sitting on the couch. I’m watching TV and she is thumbing through her cell phone. A commercial for a product, CREST WHITENING STRIPS comes on. Charlie starts talking to me. I am hearing Charlie talk and staring at the enormous mouth that is slowly moving towards me on the screen. The teeth are very white, and a computer graphics artist has added a digital glimmer to one of the lateral incisors. I stare in awe until the picture changes to an advertisement for PROGRESSIVE AUTO INSURANCE. I realize Charlie is waiting for me to respond.

“Sorry, what?”

“Whatever, never mind.” she says, smiling and shaking her head.

“I know, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, it was the mouth.”

“I was telling you that I’m thinking about getting this genetic counseling done. It’s really easy now I guess, they just mail you a cup and you spit into it and mail it back.”

“No, I don’t like that. Stupid.”


“It’s anti-human, isn’t it? I mean, our genetic makeup isn’t really very interesting. What we make of whatever we think it is is a lot more interesting.”

“How is that anti-human?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It is though. Don’t you just feel like it’s very deeply anti-human?”


I got angry.

“Well, you’re wrong. Objectively. Objectively you’re wrong. I’m going to get to sleep.”

“Okay,” she giggled.

I shut off the TV as a seasonal advertisement for COCA COLA comes on. I get into bed with Charlie and pull off my shirt. I lie there and shiver. It is cold. I shut off the lamp and close my eyes. I think about the fact that the McMahill Clinic and the Person and Bill Koss all exist in a time zone permanently four hours in my past. I wonder what that means for a few minutes.

I have absolutely no idea.

I am afraid.


[1] This change was painlessly implemented, as a full 75% of McMahill’s marketing budget was going towards full-pagers in Skymall inflight magazine, but Skymall was going out of print so it’s not really as though Koss had to make an agonizing decision about whether to stay with the magazine or not (really, there’s a fair bit of controversy w/r/t the MRC and if it wouldn’t have sort of just fallen into place regardless of his hiring, etc. amongst the higher ups, Kim Fiorvanti, for one, thinking that his receiving the Employee of the Year award was overzealous in the extreme), and moving the majority of advertising online was the practical, obvious, 21st century solution – thus, his detractors argue, the only credit that should be given to Koss is his selecting to be the primary target of the MRC – but who’s to say they McMahill wouldn’t be doing even better if they were marketing on a different website?


[2]Koss et al. would object to this verbiage, preferring “contract engagements” (the notion being that McMahill does not have customers, but clients, does not sell a service, but offers a “contracted package”, etc. – a memo dated 7/7/14 explaining all of this was shuffled into the mass of papers on The Person’s crowded workstation)


[3] Bill Koss introduced this item; Fiorvanti argued compellingly to the Zaihd that it could be absorbed by item 4 (Written Directions), but Zaihd, being so impressed with the results of the MRC, shrugged and told Fiorvanti to let Koss have it.

[4] He eats primarily oysters and mussels (raw) for lunch, steamed clams or pan-seared scallops for dinner. No breakfast.

[5] Being noticed was a significant (but not the sole) motivation for the ritualistic Smoking of the Joint.

“A Man and His Beard”

by Carleton Whaley (2015)

I had just survived an encounter with a grease fire in my house which had burned off parts of my hair and beard, as well as most of the paint on my door. My friend Dan was with me, and after we both cleaned spilled oil off the floor he waited patiently while I went upstairs to wash up. I took care to avoid the burned area on the tip of my nose and those on the right side of my lips, all while trying to think of how I could salvage my beard. The parts that weren’t burned looked like they had received a bad perm, my normally dark hair suddenly blond, dry, and curled up against my face. The more I looked at it, the less hope I had of saving this magnificent specimen of scruff I had cultivated for months through careful trimming and willpower.

I started with a setting of ‘two’ on my clippers, but there were still burned areas showing. Down to a ‘one,’ but no dice. I went to a ‘zero,’ mowing across my face as if I were obliterating the last rainforest on the earth.

Dan shouted “Oh my God, you look so different!” hammering this destruction home. And even though I had nearly burned my house down, even though the burns on my hands and face radiated pain, I had to laugh as I realized he had never seen me without a beard.

For much of my life I have been preoccupied, and some might say obsessed, with facial hair. Exotic styles of whiskers have especially fascinated me, from Salvador Dali’s moustache to the fantastic beard sculpting of Elmar Weisser, whose famous windmill styled beard defeated one hundred and sixty opponents in the World Beard and Moustache Championship. Yes, that exists. Beyond the exciting and extravagant face hair forms, however, I have just as much respect and admiration for simpler styles for the common man. Whether it’s a chinstrap, a goatee, a Van Dyke, admiral, or just a full beard, scruff of any kind is a way to make a statement and even start a conversation, which I have always been eager to initiate. I’ve found that every beard has a story, especially large or exotic ones. A simple question like “How long have you been growing your beard?” will usually result in an immediate smile as the man being questioned fondly strokes his beard. Some of them can say “three years” or even more, while others will tell you “Well, this is beard number four, the first was really patchy, and so was the second, and I had to shave those for both my brothers’ weddings, and the third was great, but I got a job that wouldn’t let me keep it, and…” and they will go on for some time like that. If you yourself have a beard they will want to know just as much about yours. If I had known about this facial hair camaraderie as a child, I may have wanted a beard even more desperately, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

Growing up, I found the idea that men could grow beards magical, and the knowledge that some men chose not to was almost laughable to me. Whenever I went to a carnival, I would sheepishly tell the cute older girls doing face paint, who usually painted boys like lions and girls like butterflies, that I wanted a big moustache. “No, bigger,” I would say, pointing on my pudgy cheeks where the moustache had to reach to. “And it has to be curly.” After my transformation, I would strut away and look down on all the lions and spider-men who had foolishly not gotten a moustache like mine. Sometimes I was brave enough to walk back and ask for a monocle too. I wasn’t misled, however, about the reality of having a beard. I was told frequently of the horrors and pains of shaving every day, usually right after I complained about my insufficient facial pores. My response, however, was that I didn’t plan on shaving. Simple, right? The one thing that no one told me is that it doesn’t all come in at once. Consequently, the word patchy became a curse once I entered high school. Every night I would stare into the bathroom mirror, commanding my pores to produce copious amounts of hair, and every morning I would wake up and inspect myself in the mirror, hoping some transformation had occurred in the night.

After this pining, and soon after the onset of whiskers, I encountered a veritable army of enemies who wished to stop me in my quest for facial hair. The first obstacle, of course, was my own patchy inefficiency in maintaining and growing the beard to begin with; my own genome fighting and resisting my will. Beyond that, girls, teachers, parents, and friends all tried in vain to tell me what is now obvious, that I simply couldn’t grow a beard yet and shouldn’t try. Looking around at my peers, however, I could see that I wasn’t the only one yearning for a beard. Soon enough, as if all the pleading to bearded deities had finally convinced them of my worthiness, my facial hair began to grow in more uniformly.

Upon my entry into the world of the whisker-endowed I set upon a quest to try as many styles as I could manage. I went simple at first, with just a pair of sideburns. It’s enough facial hair that you can claim to have something, without having the effect of turning off every girl while you experiment with scruff around the lips and chin. Unfortunately, the latter options are also the most fun.

After that I stuck with a goatee, that ubiquitous facial hair that adds an edge to just about any look, although most people simply said that I looked like a stoner or Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (basically the same thing). It became a problem, however, when my drug-dealing roommate thought that I looked more scummy than he did.

Eventually I tried a chinstrap, which has the effect of making the wearer look Amish (if the beard is long or the person generally smells of manure), or like one in a sea of jerks experimenting with facial hair (usually sporty types or Wolverine impersonators). I say that, of course, knowing that I was one of those jerks.

I was told by my friend Dave, when discussing the duality of these styles of facial hair, that beards simply enhance the persona of the wearer. In essence, my beard wasn’t douche-baggy because I’m not a douche-bag, it would seem. This idea was incredibly interesting to me, because it was, although I didn’t realize it, completely different from the way I had perceived beards. To me they were statements, something that a man wore if he wanted to say something about himself. To a certain degree, this is true, as almost everyone has seen a beard that either doesn’t look right on someone or is in conflict with their personality. That might sound ridiculous at first, but try to imagine mutton chops and a handlebar moustache on someone who is generally timid or shy. In this way beards can say something about the wearer that they consciously intend* (handlebar moustaches for creativity or dastardliness, mutton chops for virility), but viewers can also see when that presentation is false. That last part led me to believe in Dave’s words, that a beard was nothing more than an extension of personality, and would therefore take on the characteristics of its wearer.

As I stared at myself in the mirror, beardless for the first time in my friend Dan’s eyes, what did that say about me? If Dave was right, could a shaven face show just as much as a beard? Did it somehow reinforce the fact that I was an idiot for leaving the burner on for too long, or for not preparing better for a fire? Was my lack of beard somehow justice for my misuse of fire, the tool of the gods? My mind raced as I beheld my new, bare visage. In a primitive society, say cavemen, where beards showed genetic superiority, the loss of it would clearly have shown me to be a poor suitor, unable even to defend his mane of facial hair, let alone a cave-family. Who was I now that this part of myself had been stripped away?

One of the first great waves of popularity for a shaven face came with the formation of Alexander the Great’s army, with the idea being that if an enemy pulled on your beard you would be easily distracted and slain. Contrary to our hereditary instinct, the shearing of a beard to Alexander’s army was their ridding themselves of a weakness.

I shaved my beard, which was the longest it had ever gotten, the week after my high school sweetheart and I broke up. So why did I shave? If Dave was right, my beard should have reflected my hollowness, my fractured reality, just as well as a freshly shorn face could.

And yet, a week after his two-year relationship ended, my friend Oliver got a Mohawk.

The same day he left his girlfriend because he had the strength to see they were holding each other back, my friend Kevin shaved his beard.

The stories and cycles continue. Are we, like the soldiers of Alexander’s unconquerable army, ridding ourselves of something as well? I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to believe that we can shave away our mistakes and failures, but more than that I don’t think that’s what we are aiming to do. So the question becomes, if it’s not our past, is it or our very selves that we seek to annihilate?

The warriors of Alexander were fierce and trained, deadly to all who opposed them.

I couldn’t rouse myself from my bed and escape every little thought that told me I was worthless.

They rid themselves of all weakness, even what once made man proud and showed his ancient bride who was a suitable mate.

I walked with my head down, scratched my beard, and heard her voice ringing in my head, “Any other girl would have dumped you by now.”

Billy, one of my oldest friends, died at twenty. He was a giant to us, his friends, just as much as Alexander the Great, who needs no exposition. It doesn’t seem right to say something like “It was surprising/shocking/unexpected” or “We were sad/broken/grief-stricken.” Somehow it was just supernaturally unfair. As a mutual friend pointed out, it shouldn’t have been him. He was finally on the way to getting everything he had ever wanted: a good job, a loving girlfriend, he was looking to get his own place, and had even lost forty pounds over the past year. As humans do, we scattered about and found joy in maddening places and in what would otherwise be morbid facts. He and Alyssa, his girlfriend, had died together. They had died fast, a semi-truck colliding with their car. Somehow he hadn’t broken a single bone, but his spinal cord had snapped instantly. Finally, at the wake he not only wore his usual flannel, but also had kept his beard. True, for most of our lives he had been clean-shaven, but the man in the casket before me was undoubtedly my friend, and I and the rest of my friends had to admire his facial hair even then.

We looked at his beard rather than his pale lips, at the dirt still under his nails rather than the rosary stitched to his hands. Maybe it’s just something we do. We run, we shave, our eyes flit around rather than facing the fact that our friend is dead. Someone was gone that was here before, and memories were all we had. So we drank. We drank until we resembled heathens in some ancient cave, shouting and displaying our possessions across the dirt floor, muttering over bones and legends. And what legends Billy left us. Our knuckles scraped the floor as we lurched about in our drunken stupor, laughing too desperately, shouting and telling tales of “Big Bill.” Even when he was young, he towered over teachers and students alike, a tower of Babel that crashed down after only twenty years. In sixth grade he and I ran at each other for a chest-bump which sent me flying through the air and sliding halfway across our newly waxed gym floor, only to look up and see Billy smiling that goofy smile he wore constantly.

In that cave, nothing needs to be explained. We knew why his beard was good, why he needed to have kept it, but past the shrieking and drunken fires it’s harder to explain. It’s ridiculous to look at someone in a casket and say “Damn, doesn’t he look good! What a beard, man!” After all, he’s dead, he should be looking worse than anyone else in the room. And if anything his transformation, his change from living to not, was more complete and total than the loss of a girlfriend, so why was his beard comforting to us?

We missed him, I guess. His beard was recent, but I had seen it on his living cheeks. I had complemented him on it, and he had beamed with pride, his masculinity raw and completely out of touch with the Alexandrian ideal of honing oneself into a weapon. He was fond of saying “It is what it is,” and his beard seemed to echo those words. The car crash and the coroner hadn’t taken that from him. In the way that we shaved ours off to find someone new in ourselves, we found Bill again in his beard.

“Oh God, you look so different!” Dan had said, but I don’t really believe him.

Carleton Whaley is a third-year English major at the University of Connecticut. He discovered sarcasm when he was eight, and soon after this nearly got his father arrested by telling a Canadian border guard that he had been kidnapped. In order to fully experience the world he has pursued interests in hiking, chemistry, comics, and cooking, all with different degrees of success and close encounters with death. He enjoys a nice pipe-full of tobacco, a healthy sense of danger, and twenty-four hour diners.