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Critical mass: the smallest amount of force needed to initiate change. So far, it has begun every single day of your life. It will begin every future one of them, too. And there isn’t a damn thing you can do to change it.
It could be the dashboard bass from a douchebag in a passing Mustang. The first chirp of the alarm. A partner’s frozen toes sliding up your leg just before dawn. Or the fright of a dream. Maybe the worst you’ve ever had? Or, perhaps, one so good, you’ll wish it’d been a nightmare instead. Critical mass. The reason you stand tall and take your first step of the day, only to fall down into the cauldron awaiting us all.
For some, like Carl Danielson, it isn’t that far to fall.
At first glance, you may think that the reason he doesn’t have far to fall is because he’s practically on the floor already. Three hundred and fifty pounds of width and six-and-a-half feet of length takes a hell of a toll on any secondhand Simmons Beautyrest mattress, and if this one could talk, it would scream Uncle! over and over and over again. Carl Danielson. A life-sized, battered teddy bear with button blue eyes, stuffed with everything from sloth to self-loathing to tender kindness, and wrapped up in a big, hairy bow for all of us to see.
His day will begin just as all the others have for the past year. How do I know? You see, Carl is addicted to failure; when you fail, the ending is always predictable, but if you succeed, then you’re faced with the shorts-soiling notion of inevitable change, and let’s just say that’s not exactly a strong suit for him. Carl’s unofficial motto after forty-one years on this planet: Stay at the bottom and it won’t hurt if you stumble. Sad, simple, rational. Think of it as self-pity-by-numbers.
Life is made up of mementos, and there were reminders of all kinds around Carl’s room — the air sagged with stale weed smoke, empty Xanax blister packs lined his headboard next to a little Canadian flag on a stick, and an envelope stayed hidden near the bottom of a stack of mail he couldn’t bring himself to open or throw away.
Right now, though, the one over on the bathroom medicine cabinet was the one Carl’s mind ran from the fastest.
He stood there, staring at himself in the mirror. Here in a room that practically never sees daylight, his thick mustache and tawny stubble loses its friendly, strawberry hue, sentenced to a somber look that’s flat and dark. Very unfair, in a way. You ever see kids dressed up like pirates for Halloween? The way they draw their beards on with a fat, greasy stick of Rawlings eye black? Bingo.
There’s one new addition to the routine today: a white Post-It note stuck to the bottom part of Carl’s reflection. On it, two things are offered and two things only: a bummed-out Garfield the cat in a party hat asking, Are we having fun yet?, and beside that, in Carl’s own loopy script, two succinct blue words. The first is stacked right on top of the other.
N o o n
No more information needed. When he had written it, only about twelve hours ago, it still seemed so far away. Now, why bother even looking at the clock? He knew how much time he had left.
Carl stood there staring at his own handwriting. His old friend uncertainty threw the switch and his heart sank. Immediate and weightless, he believed neutral was the only foolproof gear. His brain needed a diversion, but he was too lazy and afraid to do anything more than slide his eyes over to that fat-assed orange cat in the party hat. He looks like I feel was the best conclusion Carl could come to. Hey, at least he was being honest. But damn, there was no way around it — that pussy looked miserable. There was only one thing left to do.
The smile tilted up as it came to his lips, thick shoulders squared, and Carl looked deep into his own huge, rounded features. This was the only time of day he could ever do it. The giant’s face stared back at him, cleaved in half from the line made by the sliding panels of the medicine cabinet. Don’t expect to hear his real voice right now, though, because what’s about to come out is more of a whisper. Like a secret, a confession only he knows.
“Today is gonna be a good day.”
He could hear the rain tapping against the glass, strange and distant, gurgling through the walls as November clouds tumbled over one another so slowly, way out there in the silvery dark. Nothing seemed right at his side. Here with him. Even that goddamned friend uncertainty was gone, but the switch couldn’t be righted, and so Carl blotted out the pinpricks of any and all realities by cramming everything into his head at once:
Getdressed – skypethetaxi – checktheaddressagain – noyouDon’tneedacigaretterightnow – Dwayne – think – ayear – think – don’tshowemotion – thisisbusiness – business – Dwayneabandonedyou – restitution – ithastobeatleastelevenalready – abandonedyoujustlikeyourdad – takeitlikeaman – Think!
Now, what is it they say — “once more, with feeling”? Carl shut his eyes as everything began to gloss and smear from the tears. Even softer it came. Sayit – sayitagain.
Forty-one years and he still didn’t believe a word of it.
“Today is going to be a good day.”