Debt and Nothingness

P.B. Name lived in a simple, square little apartment on the south end of town. P.B. was a bit eccentric in that he was over civilized, a trait characterized most obviously by his fanatically scheduled life and meticulously clean, perfectly filed, apartment. Simultaneously, however, Mr. Name's character more subtly manifested itself as a pathological aversion to the "dirt and disarray" of society. This inclined him toward cultural snobbery, a condition wherein he felt defiled whenever he came within perceptual range of television, popular music, advertisements, political slogans, or even the small talk of sports and weather around the office. Thus he invariably fled his unambitious, yet secure, position as a clerk every Friday at 5pm in search of refuge for the weekend. To hole up in his apartment once a week and become a cultural hermit: this was P.B.'s sole ambition in life.

It's not that P.B. had ever proven himself to be culturally superior, but simply that an overwhelming desire had caused him to feel that way. Indeed, although P.B. loved to criticize the "rabble", his own life had failed to distinguish itself from theirs apart from the brute existence of this criticism. Consequently, since most people are fond of saying, "I know what I like," P.B. felt compelled to move "beyond" them and discover what he was supposed to like; we can therefore find him struggling through the great works of literature and philosophy, arduously absorbing studies of drama and art, and even trying his hand at science and engineering texts. But, unfortunately for P.B., his intellect could only afford sparse comprehension of this classically difficult material.

I have outlined these few details of P.B.'s private life, not so much for the sake of completion, but rather to highlight the underlying tension that led to his difficulties; for it was none other than the secure and undefiled ambiance of his retreat toward which they had begun to lead an assault:

"Is Mr. Mane there?"

"This is Mr. Name."

"A wonderful evening to you, Mr. Mane!" Telephone solicitors exude an unusually affected cheerfulness--a particularly annoying trait to an aspiring intellectual.

"Do you presently use a credit card?"

"I'm sorry--not interested."

"Not yet, perhaps! But did you realize the Wonder Card charges no annual fee to anyone whose total purchases qualify them for the Wonder Club?"

"I don't want your credit card."

"And you can receive cash back if ..."

"Please," begged P.B., who felt too civilized to interrupt by hanging up, "just leave me alone."

"But the Wonder Card ..."

Driven into a corner, P.B. hung up, took a cleansing breath, and hastened back to his retreat.

That was the first intrusion, but by no means the last. The calls became a daily occurrence: magazines, the local newspaper, carpet cleaners, the cable company, charities--solicitors of every conceivable kind--comprised an unending assault. Pursued by embarrassment, and haunted by an ever clarifying recognition of his intellectually clumsy self, P.B. was driven back on the defensive--forced into positive action. "No matter," he thought, repressing his imminent defeat, "I'll simply have my phone disconnected. I won't miss a thing." And indeed, with no family in town, and no friends to speak of, the only use P.B. had ever gotten out of the phone was his struggle with the solicitors.

We next find P.B. nearly two months later, surveying an unusual bill from his phone company:

Payable for Nonservice: $45

"This is absurd," thought P.B. "It must be a computer error. Perhaps I should compose a letter. After all, their records must show that I no longer have a phone since they cashed the check from my final bill."

Thus was P.B. led to correct The Central Telephone Company by post:

... and, inasmuch as I no longer enjoy the use of a phone, I hereby notify you of my intention to ignore the present bill, and trust that you'll do the same.

Potentially Yours,
P.B. Name

Some weeks passed by, and P.B. all but forgot about the incident. He had begun to enjoy his retreat again, and was deeply immersed in an even deeper book one Saturday morning when a brisk knock interrupted his concentration. "Who's there!?" commanded P.B.

"Summons!"--and an envelope slid its way through the space under the door.

P.B. made his way over, opened the letter, and discovered that he'd been summoned to court in order to settle his dispute with the phone company. A moment later, the same brisk knock drew P.B.'s attention. This time, head bowed and absorbed in the letter, he simply opened the door, looked up, and found himself face to face with a uniformed herald bellowing his message through a megaphone: "Po--rta-Cou--rt! Judge Taco B. Newton presiding."

P.B.'s nightmare had begun. A dozen hulks filed in, removing furniture and ruthlessly discarding books; large, sculpted pieces of darkwood took residence, and within literally seconds were erected into an imposing altar-bench that occupied a full two-thirds of the room. Judge Newton entered amidst an air of ceremony, and addressed the assembled silence: "Miss Sharp, next case, please!"

The apartment was so crowded that Miss Sharp had been forced halfway into the bedroom, so that she had to strain her head around the corner in order to address the altar: "P.B. Name vs. The Central Telephone Company. Mr. Name stands accused of refusing to pay last month's bill."

"And the evidence, Mr. Prosecutor?"

"Mr. Name has refused to pay last month's bill."

"I see." The judge carefully weighed the evidence for a moment while staring off into space, then caught P.B.'s eye at the back of the room: "Have you anything to say before I render a guilty verdict?"

P.B. elbowed a path through the crowd, approached the altar, and offered his defense: "Your honor, I only wish to point out that I had my phone disconnected quite some time ago, and made good on my final bill soon thereafter. Since then, I have had no phone, so I have paid no bills."

"And you freely admit this?"

"Of course! Why shouldn't I?"

"Guilty!" commanded the gavel. "The defendant is ordered to pay The Central Telephone Company $45, and to keep future bills for nonservice paid up to date. Defendant is further ordered to suffer a penalty yet to be calculated for wasting the court's time with this matter."

Judge Newton casually glanced up from his completed papers: "Miss Sharp!" Miss Sharp and the hulks muscled their way forward, inadvertently squeezing P.B. to the rear. "Be sure to charge the appropriate debits for court costs to Mr. Name's Account. Next case!" The judge summarily exited, followed closely by the prosecutor, Miss Sharp, the herald, and the squadron of hulks bearing the disassembled altar.

P.B. paid the phone company immediately, then spent a few days of anxiety over the issue of the undisclosed court costs. He was soon a nervous wreck--weary, depressed, and obtrusively alone. And it was in just this condition, one morning, that P.B. received a letter from the local newspaper, The Tribune. They explained, quite candidly, that they'd heard of P.B. from the The Central Telephone Company, and further, that no records existed of any deliveries to his address. Enclosed was a bill:

Payable for Nonsubscription: $30

P.B. had had enough. Besides, he couldn't afford another penalty for wasting Porta-Court's time. He proceeded to make payment without the least resistance, and was soon juggling bills for "nonservice", "nonsubscription", and "nonparticipation" from countless businesses and organizations: the cable company, the most diverse and offbeat magazines (Happiness, Fashion Thing, and Solicitous Mail, to name but a few), charities and political interest groups both liberal and conservative, and window washing services. P.B. even received his first statement for nonservice from a credit card company that charges no annual fee to those who actually hold the card.

"This is getting ridiculous," exclaimed P.B. "I must be on a list. I'd better get some legal help." He went directly down to the street and hailed a lawyer.

After P.B. had climbed into the back seat of the cab, the driver turned around and cheerfully introduced himself: "Leonard Spangle, Attorney at Law. But please, call me Lenny!" Spangle took the wheel and began threading his way through hostile traffic. "Where to?"

"Anywhere--just drive around," replied P.B., waving a hand in the air nonchalantly.

"The initial consultation's free. So, what's your trouble?"

While P.B. took half an hour to explain the situation, the cab moved further and further across town. P.B. finally concluded: "I don't know. I must be on a list of some sort."

Spangle stood on the brakes and violently whirled his head around. "What?! You're on The List?!"

"Well, yeah, I guess so."

"Get out! Get out, right now!" Spangle was frantic. "By all our rituals, I have a wife and three kids! I can't afford association with someone on The List! Go on! Get out!"

P.B. did as told, and stood stunned and blank faced, stranded miles from home on a strange curb.

"Wait." Spangle was calling to P.B. through an open window. "One more thing." He fished out a scrap of paper from the glove box, scribbled a few notes on it, and presented it to P.B.: "My bill."

"Does this mean you're taking my case?" sounded a hopeful P.B.

"Of course not. But I've got to protect myself, you know." And with that, the cab sped away. P.B. examined the bill:

Payable for Nonrepresentation: $535

That was the beginning of the end. P.B. was utterly defeated. More bills poured in. And more. Soon he could no longer pay his utilities, and electric service to the apartment was discontinued--an event which only led to another bill for nonservice a week later.

The siege continued: more magazines, newspapers, and charities; coupon books and romance novel book clubs; record clubs and maid services; nonservice from Pest-O-Cide; nonsubscription to a series of bad figurines meant to depict celebrated characters from the Big War. P.B. was broke, and was finally forced to give notice to his landlady, the pathologically frail Mrs. Hazel Tompkins.

"Very well. We'll miss you, of course; you've been a considerate and faithful tenant." Her words disintegrated in weakness as they were issued from her throat. "Do you have your Certificate of Intended Residence handy?"

"My what?"

Mrs. Tompkins' eyes flared with authority as she rebuked P.B.: "Your Certificate of Intended Residence! Surely you don't think I can simply let you move out unaccounted for! I'd be endlessly sending out those nasty bills for nonresidence!"

That was that. P.B. was forced to slip out at night, leaving behind sheets, tile, easy chair, books, and all--the only contentment he had ever known.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now wanders an exile--moving at night from town to town, scrounging barely edible scraps from garbage cans, and sleeping in back alleys or isolated fields. The wisdom of philosophy, all the pretensions of culture, slowly recede into the depths of memory as life becomes an endless succession of obstacles.

With a periodic glance over an anxious shoulder, and countless nights froze with fear, life is breathed as never before. Pale, quivering lips provide no outlet for despair, but only lend it momentum. Strange aches and pains plague young, untested bones. Solitude, discontent, and a sense of total insignificance under the night sky haunt every thought. But it is precisely because of all this--because life has intruded with peculiar problems--that we now take in the confident, contrapposto pose of a sage.

"It's human nature to be unhappy. How else can anyone explain a perpetual thirst for happiness?"

Wandering into acceptance of despair, life becomes increasingly resilient. As the vastness of the heavens grows ever colder in face of mortality, a body is integrated with the world at large. From this, grows strength: an awkward, poorly sculpted frame becomes more plastic, more surfaced; a skull more solid; a brain more saturated; eyes, ears, and nose--all senses--become tentacles, the probing extremities of a materially pulsing soul; and all the while the feet, the metronomic feet, pace time on the pavement.

"Solitude! Precious, vibrant solitude: swallow me!"

A beating, all too mortal heart within struggles on; warm, pulsing blood can be felt saturating confines throughout the body; fingertips, neck, toes, the small of the back: all tingle with newfound life. And whenever drawn into philosophy, whenever thinking about life, all this draws away and ... once more weak. Not to reflect on life, but to live, to press on.

Free weekends are no longer the ideal. The completely free are simply floating; all meaningful lives are lives of struggle. It's only the weak--those who have abandoned life and retreated to reflection--who burden freedom with the inertia of an object. To spend one's free time--to genuinely spend it: who today has the strength for this?

Life itself, not just certain events, becomes thrilling. Values are cast on the simplest of things--on every thing: a sunset, a meandering brook, the horns and elbows of a city street, the most painfully mundane breaths of existence. Every day is a precious gem: the days of panting travel or yawning boredom, the days of cloud surveying or nagging hunger, even the days of intense despair--"exquisite pain"--are zealously coveted.

"In truth, the business of philosophy is to apologize for life. But why do the living feel so damn guilty?"

A world of truths entirely unfathomable, one beyond the confines of language and science: it is here that life is revealed.

One summer evening, half a dozen vagabonds relax on a summit high above a city. The group silently watches the action below as first one light, then another, goes on. Hours later, the lights begin to blink off, one by one. At last, a thought is spilled: "Wisdom is silent." In unison, a line of sober, weary souls mechanically face the voice. After a chest expanding breath--allowing the chilled air to rush into pink, flexing lungs--an exhale: "But I digress." Attention returns to the city, and all breathe silence for the duration.

The transformation had taken less than a year. As Name became stronger, the flight grew less frantic, and life began to slow down. The world had become somehow more present--illuminated in a warm, motionless light. It was a world devoid of an extended past and future, one lacking lines, planes, and the prosaic march of time; it was a world populated with things--restful, contented things, each oblivious of its neighbor.

Then one day, waking from a dreamless afternoon nap in a still wilderness, Name noticed an envelope lying at hand. Upon further inspection, a bill from The Central Telephone Company was discovered:

Payable for Nonservice: $45
Overdue for Previous Nonservice: $450

As for where the envelope had come from, or who had delivered it, there wasn't a clue. But since Name had grown beyond--or perhaps outside--all such concerns, the bill was left to its own devices, and life moved on.

Within days, Name was discovering correspondence everywhere: upon waking, in pants pockets, in trash cans or dumpsters, in tree holes, under rocks--bills, in fact, anywhere a curious, itching compulsion urged Name to look. In the secure days of the apartment, the mysterious origin of this compulsion would have dogged Name's every step, but after the transformation, the personification of curiosity was merely one more facet of a world absorbed. Each additional bill, each fresh annoyance, could only make Name stronger yet.

On a morning a couple of months later, Name woke under the shelter of a dumpster in an urban alley. As always, another morning brought another envelope. And though Name had long ago ceased to examine these pests, the unusual absence of his normal curiosity urged him to examine this particular letter, as one occasionally peers into a room that is known to be vacant.

No sooner had Name, still half asleep, finished reading the letter than a familiar voice rang out behind him: "Po--rta-Cou--rt! Judge Taco B. Newton presiding."

Name rolled over, and silently watched the entire scene replayed in the alley: hulks, altar-bench, and the rest of the cast made their entrance.

"Miss Sharp, next case, please!"

"P.B. Name vs. The Rest of the World. Mr. Name stands accused of neglecting to pay his bills."

"And the evidence, Mr. Prosecutor?"

"Mr. Name has neglected to pay his bills."

"I see." Evidence weighed, the judge leaned over the bench and addressed Name: "Have you anything to say before I render a guilty verdict?"

Name replied with sleepy impatience from a prone position: "You're wasting your time; I don't own anything for you to debit."

"And you freely admit this?"

Name slowly worked into a standing position. The clothes, rumpled and worn, appeared to still be waking; long, practiced limbs grew inside, testing fabric and sculpting form; shoes, hair, and weathered flesh all grieved earthen; a pair of mournful, ancient eyes reached from within and measured Judge Newton.

He stood, and after a moment of paused silence, uttered those immortal words that we all know so well, yet know not whereof: "These proceedings, Taco, are absolutely pointless."