I am, for the most part, unremarkable. I am twenty-six years old, a conservative thirty pounds overweight, and I work as a clerk for Kinko’s. The company prefers “copy artist,” but in the interest of honest self-appraisal, I decline the title. I was reared in Beaverton, Oregon, a collection of Olive Gardens, Red Robins and Pier One outlet stores completely interchangeable with countless other parasitic suburbs riding the coattails of our country’s better-known cities. Combine this heritage with a 2.7 undergrad GPA and half a Masters degree from a state university and my milquetoast normalcy only solidifies. I do have something, though, to set me apart from most people, an ace up my sleeve. I have an archenemy. Anyone would agree that is not normal.
I realize plenty of people dislike, despise or flat-out hate some other person. They can’t stand how someone talks or acts or chews with their mouth open. Still, these are not archenemies. I am wary to even say I hate my archenemy, for he is so much more than just a person in the next cubicle who makes endless personal calls while listening to the soft-rock station playing the hits of the 80’s, 90’s and today.
It is a matter of principles. An archenemy is diametrically opposed to what you stand for, and despite outward appearances I do stand for things. You may even be able to initially tolerate a true archenemy, perhaps exchanging respectful witty banter with them like in the movies. But where annoying people are sufferable indefinitely, an archenemy in the end cannot be put up with forever. The two of you negate each other in the grand tally of souls. Until one is defeated, the other’s worth will always be nullified.
I admit this is not the healthiest way to exist, but I am hardly alone. Look at PETA, religious fundamentalists who blow up abortion clinics, and those Greenpeace kooks who constantly strap themselves to ice breakers and trees. Their venomous energy is flung around the globe towards people they have never even met. It is endless and all consuming, while my enterprise is focused on one individual. In addition, a personalized effort takes less energy and, with some basic time management skills, it is possible to maintain an arguably normal existence. My nemesis and I share a number of things in common, an ironic requirement of good archenemies. On the most basic level, we share Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland and the number 14 bus that traverses it each morning and evening. He enters the bus with no words for the driver and a disinterested scowl—if anything—for his fellow riders. His look would have you believe his riding is by choice—saving the planet and such—but I am sure his patronage of Tri-Met is, like mine, financially-imposed. He takes a seat alone or stands and reads his beaten paperbacks—nothing any of the other riders have ever heard of—or writes in his fancy notebook. He acknowledges no one, not even me. Some would argue he isn’t a proper archenemy if he doesn’t even recognize me, but I refute that it must be a two-way street. I contend he is so wrapped up in himself he will not know he has an archenemy until it is too late.
Though I’m sure he would claim age is meaningless, I guess my archenemy to be in his mid-thirties. He is already free of hair, though a simple “bald” seems too docile a description. He is belligerently bald. He takes great pleasure in the surprising planes and angles of his shaved head and parades it like he willed his own hairlessness. His dress is unmistakably urban, slightly disheveled and dancing a fine line between retro-kitsch and Goodwill crap. His only Northwest influences are a pair of black thick-soled shoes for the rainy season and a stiff navy Dickies jacket meant to show some commonality with the blue-collar workingman.
His stop is a few influential blocks from mine, near my sterile apartment conveniently across from a QFC, allowing me to be safely seated near a window he boards. Near as I can tell he lives in a stylishly worn apartment building across from a cheapy theatre whose marquee boasts only art films and marathons of previously banned cartoons. His building is probably peopled by the standard urban rebels who occupy the lowest trenches in the war against conformity. These are his henchmen--clerks employed by porn shops, comic book vendors or used record stores specializing in vinyl, and the black-clad clumps of grad students who are so judgmental when buying back my used books at Powell’s downtown. His apartment is doubtlessly the center of the building’s activities, as any archenemy’s hidden fortress should be. Perhaps fortress is too strong a word for what I envision—a living room of beaten furniture and clutter he hopes will be taken as bohemian, walls covered with tastefully-offensive art and posters boasting underground bands from ten years ago that no one has ever heard of, proving once and for all he was there first. There are racks of real records and a surprisingly clean kitchen capable of whipping up only foreign food, perhaps a recipe he picked up while Eurailing across Italy or in the Orient hunting the ultimate Thai stick.
All this is, of course, conjecture. I have never been inside his apartment and doubt I will be until the day I am kidnapped and tortured there in a showy but easily escapable fashion. He is my nemesis and such behavior is expected. In my inevitable escape I will destroy his entire lair—not out of spite or a lust for destruction, but simply as my duty. I will somehow ignite an ancillary fire, turning to ashes the Bukowski books and Spaulding Gray videos I know are there, melting and bubbling his Laurie Anderson LPs and his autographed copy of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I hope to accomplish all this without damaging any of his neighbors’ apartment or belongings. Annoying and pretentious as they are, my battle is not with them and they may have pets. Exactly how all this will happen is still up in the air. As previously mentioned, I don’t yet know the layout of the place.
The second commonality we share is our jumping off point for the bus. It is an inconspicuous East Portland intersection, boasting my Kinko’s, an AM-PM mini mart, and kitty-corner across the street near the bus stop the Java House, where he works as a waiter. I regularly volunteer to make the short coffee run for all the copy artists over to the Java House, which is everything you’d expect from a locally owned Northwest coffeehouse. NPR plays on the radio, amateur art covers the walls, coffee names ring with exotic and literary undertones, and the servers—my archenemy especially—treat the customers like dirt. Still, their cheesecake Danish cannot be denied and the atmosphere is refreshing after days spent in bright walls, big windows and posters advertising even more vivid color reproductions. Once there I scan the rack containing The Willamette Week, The Mercury and other subversive urban literature and study my archenemy. He sees me regularly but never acknowledges me, and I plan to use this anonymity to my full advantage. Reconnaissance is easier when one can move unwatched, and knowledge, they say, is half of the battle.
If it seems I have the hang of this whole archenemy thing, it is because my coffeehouse adversary isn’t my first. Like most, I grew up with schoolyard bullies and hallways snobs, but my first and only other archenemy appeared my first week into a graduate writing program at the state university just a few hours south of Portland. Dr. Michael Halvakas--MFA from Iowa, PHD in Rhetoric, published several times over in the Atlantic Monthly and Paris Review. He was also author of a little-known but critically-lauded collection of short stories and working on a novel Knopf was just itching to publish once he got time to properly finish it. Separating him from that free time was a group of fresh grads who hoped two years under his tutelage would enable us to properly tell the stories we didn’t think we could at the time. We were there to be writers and he was there to save future editors time by heading our mediocre efforts off at the pass. He said as much the first day of class, lording from his podium. Chin up and wearing classic collegiate fatigues, elbow pads and all, he looked like he’d mugged Ward Cleaver on his way to work. His clothes and hair were purposefully rumpled, an attempt to appear the frumpy genius. He told of his struggle for publication and listed his own collection, Her River and Other Aberrations, as required reading.
Although even the smallest student could’ve easily taken him in a street brawl, we cowered from Halvakas and his 143-page book of angry erudite drunks who slept around and then quoted Proust and Rilke to each other in the afterglow. We wrote and wrote and got together to discuss how we all hated him and how best to please him. We huddled around our hot chocolates and too-sweet Italian sodas at the nearby coffee shop like we envisioned Faulkner and Hemingway doing in 1930’s Paris. We wanted to satisfy him and to my knowledge never did. He dismissed everything we submitted as derivative and unattached. The rare praise he gave went to the work and not the writer, as if the story was a last second shot from half court hucked gracelessly by its creator and sent through the hoop by luck alone. My own work was too pedestrian, too distant from its settings and characters, which in the end he didn’t even care to get closer to (his actual margin notes). I fumbled through the year, clinging to C+’s like monkey bars too far apart.
Summer finally arrived and I took a job at a Portland Regal Cinemas near Lloyd Center. I held the belief that storytelling was storytelling, be it cinematic or written, and much could be learned in those half-empty multiplexes while I pretended to clean up. Though I failed to glean much—-Mission Impossible 2 and Big Mamma’s House dominated the big screen that summer—I managed to stay cool as one could in a polyester vest and via buttered popcorn began adding my present extra thirty pounds. Out from Halvakas’s intimidating umbra, I formulated plans to bring about his downfall. Nothing violent or illegal, just something that would send him crashing down to Earth in front of my grad school cohorts. As a last resort, I decided I could just pen a fine story he couldn’t deny. I watched and reflected on my every activity every day, waiting for a real story to reveal itself. As both summer and my imagination waned, Halvakas’s image loomed larger. I expected to see him towering Godzilla-like over campus when I returned in September.
I couldn’t have been more surprised when in late August he strode into my Regal Cinemas, four tickets to Dinosaur in hand. He breezed passed my station and made right for the popcorn stand. Two standardized children, one of whom looked a little spacey, and a severe woman in ill-fitting cargo shorts and Birkenstocks soon joined him. Her bun of hair screamed with the tension of an aircraft carrier deck wire. No sooner did Halvakas receive his popcorn than the woman, apparently Mrs. Halvakas, eyed his four tickets with disgust and dragged the whole lot to my window. She demanded an exchange for four tickets to Chicken Run, which I informed her was sold out until late that night. The tirade she unloosed had every Regal Cinemas employee quaking in their polyester and shook crows from trees as far as Mount Hood. She let him have it and he took it all quietly. I had to grin.
Halvakas’s next look confirmed he recognized me, and would remember recognizing me. It told me not to bother to returning to his classroom that fall—a good thing, considering my grades and the bank balance my Regal Cinemas pay had left me. I wasn’t worried, and now had no reason to return. Michael Halvakas had been defeated. The final commonality my archenemy and I share, and the hinge pin of our polarity, is words. We are both writers, or at least purport to be. Every Monday his coffeehouse holds an open mike night that I occasionally attend to listen. He isn’t the host—he leaves that responsibility to a thick girl with t-shirts and hair of competing raven blackness—but he is a force there. He is an urban street poet. Granted, I’ve never heard him use the term, but his persona and prose scream it. First and foremost he is from New York, or simply “The City” in his writing, where it pops up with the annoying regularity of junior high erections. I’ve overheard him countless times—not eavesdropping, mind you, just overheard him—deriding Portland’s urban landscape, nothing compared to “The City.” These Portlanders eat it up, traitorously agreeing with the shortcomings of their beautiful blue-collar river queen. What events separated him from his home I don’t know, but I think he more enjoys being from there than actually being there. If a lion somehow allows himself to be caught and put in a faraway zoo, one could only assume he wasn’t the most able lion in that jungle. He spends the better part of the night pacing, making overt last-minute scrawlings in his notepad, sighing loudly when the big girls and waifish boys read their “dear diary” poems of dueling self-love and self-loathing. He puts himself late on the list, his inner showman knowing how the opening act/headliner mechanism works. After a last minute smoke and a glare at the street—perhaps towards my Kinko’s--he enters and takes a chair where others stand and pulls the microphone down. Opening his notebook, he takes us into his city. The sun rarely shines there but when it does it rises over slate grey skies--if any writer ever comes up with a grey sky that isn’t slate grey, please award him or her the Pulitzer without question. His city is locked in those desperate hours of night, when no one goes to work or loves truly or even eats a decent meal. It is peopled only by characters who talk about lust and hate and religious flaccidity and life’s contradictory nature. His tone and attitude are obvious—not a person in that coffeehouse, much less in Oregon, maybe even west of Ohio, is worthy of being in one of his poems. One could argue I am jealous. Maybe of his city, as my own birthplace falls short of his Big Apple. I am wary to even say I’m from Beaverton, as any place made up of so many apartment complexes and glass-faced business centers seems incapable of producing people. Rather it is more of a filing cabinet for lives awaiting stapling, collating and copying. Portland is not easy either, the paradox she is. She is definitely a city, with her industrial riverfronts and metal and glass downtown, but her steaming iron heart is easily escaped via the green West Hills or up the Gorge, and even her most steadfast urbanites won’t commit to being the city mice. They parade through downtown streets on mountain bikes in hiking boots and zip-away pants. Like the city herself, the inhabitants are reluctant to let go of the outdoor image. How can a writer be expected to capture the sense of a city that can’t even decide what she wants to be? Could I be jealous that he is actually writing? Pretentious as it is, he is creating. In two years I haven’t written anything other than a stern note to a co-worker who failed to properly clean the break room microwave (to my credit the note was concise and sharp and the microwave remains spotless). He lives the life of the artist. His time at the coffee shop is work, but with its snooty literary bent—a paperback exchange and countless smokers staring starkly at blank pages waiting for someone to ask what they’re working on—he is still exposed to culture daily. His neighbors no doubt knock on his fortress door daily hoping to talk books with him and hear what he is working on. He lives like a writer, which one assumes would increase his chances of success ten-fold. Still, I don’t buy it. Big words from a Kinko’s clerk, but hear me out. A wise man once told me writing should be a byproduct of life and not its focus. A life lived fully will yield the stories, then all you have to do is write them. Okay, no one actually told me that—I made it up myself shortly after I ran out of money for grad school. Still, I believe it. Writing, perhaps all art, should be skimmed from the surface of real life and left out for those who decide they want it. Nothing should be created solely to impress professors, editors of literary magazines, or even the knit-cap-and-journal set down on East Hawthorne. Perhaps that is why I haven’t written in so long. I can’t skim much from eight hours of copying resumes, business proposals, PTA meeting minutes, and a surprising amount of missing pet posters, with an hour lunch at Quizno’s or Pizza Schmizza. I find only the occasional glimmer of inspiration, usually other aspiring writers who come in to copy short stories or manuscripts for submission. Yes, I read them. Don’t be so shocked, you could have guessed that. Don’t say “how inappropriate,” as if some sanctity is being broken. They are not visiting a priest, just getting some copies for seven cents apiece. Besides, I don’t steal anything. My only inspiration actually comes from how mediocre most of it is. I know I can do better. My spirits are lifted by the weakness of their work, counting on life’s big Bell curve. I realize this story of hope won’t put me in league with Vince Lombardi, but when you spend all day in an apron with a nametag, you take inspiration where you can get it.
Granted mine is not the worst job around, and I’ve been assured if I apply myself I might someday command an electronic phalanx of black-and-white and color copiers and a cluster of aproned drones to control them. But I know I must leave someday, though I fear not soon. I have a Visa to pay off and I need enough for a decent car. Not many new lives are successfully launched on buses or light rail, no matter how many free transfers. Hitchhiking, while romantic and safe in Kerouac’s innocent times, is now simply a quick way of getting cut to pieces and left in a musty sleeping bag behind a rural Safeway. I don’t think tramp steamers exist anymore—no more tramps either, now homeless—and too many Doritos and Big Gulps have left me too slow to catch today’s fast freights as a hobo--now transient, I think. So I will take to the open road when finances allow. I plan to pay for the car full out, owing no one, pull off the lot and drive to Kinko’s to respectfully rescind my smock—no hard feelings, they’ve been good with the medical and dental and all. Then I’ll cross the street to the Java House and pop my archenemy in the nose. Just a quick one, the kind that people receive and in their hearts know they had coming. After that follows a quick stop at the DMV for fresh plates. This admittedly doesn’t keep with my romantic flight, but the whole nose popping seems vaguely illegal and best suited by the harder-to-track dealer plates. Still, a run from the law might speed my travel. I tire easily and might be compelled to drive a few hours more each day with Johnny Law in trail.
These loose ends tied up I would be off and driving north. Life sounds real up there, up the Alaska Highway to all the places it goes--Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Dawson. I realize this list is probably not in proper geographic order, but I do plan on buying a good atlas before leaving. Wherever they are, these towns are real places. There is work to be done there, dangerous work that I plan to start respectfully, learning steadily as I go. I will always have a paperback book and pen and paper wherever I go, be it on a boat, a dock, or a dirt road. My rough-and-tumble coworkers will jibe me occasionally, but soon develop an odd respect and be pleasantly surprised when, after I am published, they appear subtly in my work. I will work here and there, and will eventually find Karen. I met Karen my senior year of college. We shared a basic philosophy class required for both of us to graduate. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but bore a rugged sturdy strength, like a Ford F150 with a good Warn winch. She’d try her best to keep you out of trouble, but if you got in some she could pull you out slow and steady. She was still shaped like a woman, though, despite a deep chest laugh and shoulders suggesting she could press me overhead—maybe not now with my extra thirty pounds. Still, I fell for her. I fell because she laughed that deep laugh when I whispered jokes in class. I fell because of the stories she told of the cold and bears and isolation and wild characters when we would meet to study at the sandwich shop across from campus. Mostly I fell for her because I knew no one else would. I don’t mean that as bad against her, maybe just against other people. Still, I never kissed her, never held her strong hand, never did anything. I always figured I could do all that tomorrow or next week. I last saw her walking across campus two days after graduation. She walked with her mousy roommate and smiled upon seeing me. She was going home, flying out of Portland that evening. She would work the summer at home and after that who knew? The way she said that—who knows?—made me want to grab her and kiss her right there. Something about the low moody Oregon overcast and the mousy roommate looking on stopped me. It would come across stupid at best, downright creepy at worst. I bid her goodbye and said maybe I’d come up and there and see her sometime. She said she’d like that and walked away. That “who knows?” may have landed her anywhere in the last four years, but something tells me she never strayed too far from her native Homer. I may stop there first or maybe last—like I said, I have to get an atlas—but I will find her. I will find her and concoct some tale about just drifting north on my own, but she will know she was my compass. We will fall into a love not indigenous to the lower 48’s and Canada east of Alberta. We will move around the state, working, writing, and living. When I finally publish and return to Portland as the prodigal son to read upstairs at Powell’s City of Books, my archenemy will be in the audience. He will be fearful to talk of the pop in the nose, and after the others have left will ask me to sign his copy and maybe grab a beer. I will refuse the beer—it being late and all—but will sign his book and share a smile with Karen. He will know, as I did with that punch to his nose so much earlier, that he has been defeated. The first Friday evening in October brings rain and finds me retreated to the Java House, waiting for the bus. I usually wait at my Kinko’s, but anger has driven me to the lair of my archenemy and his undeniable hot chocolate. Due to temporary budget constraints, all copy artists will be limited to thirty hours per week maximum starting immediately. Apparently management overestimated how much copying, collating and stapling the Portland public needed. I will survive, but my Visa bill will not appreciate it and my used car just rolled forward a few months. I am trapped a little longer—trapped in Kinko’s, trapped on the number 14 bus, trapped kitty-corner from my nemesis.
I sip hot chocolate, listen to my Discman, and glare at the pages of the latest Willamette Week. I am not really reading, just staring hard and hot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pages caught fire. Cars sizzle by outside in Burnside’s standing water and Miles Davis plays lightly over the coffee shop’s radio.
“The Strokes?” I look up to see my archenemy, arms crossed. “Excuse me?” He points at the CD case near my Discman. “The Strokes?” We have never communicated outside of orders for coffee or copies. This contact is unexpected and unsures my footing. “Yes,” I say. “I like them.” I like them? I must stop talking and get my bearings. “Fair enough.” He pulls on his Dickies coat from a nearby rack and slips it on, indicating he is off-duty and any server-customer politeness is no longer required. “You should go down to the used music store and buy some MC5 records. You can see who the Strokes wish they were.”
And he is out the door. He will beat me to the bus and get a better seat, or at least the pole of his choice to lean on. What did he mean by used music store, insinuating the financial situation of a coffee server is so much greater than a copy artist with full medical and dental? And it’s bad enough my writing has been previously dismissed as derivative, but now my choice of music has also. I have no time to contemplate. The familiar neon of my bus is approaching and I must dash out in the rain after it.
Tonight’s load is unusually light, with seats for both my archenemy and myself. He sits up front near the door, while I retire back over the rumbling wheel well. He has made no eye contact and is buried in a thick trade paperback. I eye him occasionally and can’t find interest to reopen my Willamette Week or listen to my CD player. I just look out the rainy window as the adult arcades and barred grocery stores of East Portland rolls by. Winter is no time to have an archenemy. With the rain, wind and reduced daylight, a person’s animosity already gets spread too thin from October through March. Add in reduced hours and a smaller paycheck, and a person can’t give an archenemy proper attention. We huff and wheeze to a stop at a red light. The intersection sits against an empty lot housing nothing but streetlights and parking spots. People leave cars for sale there. It is the epitome of a soft sell—no salesmen, just a FOR SALE sign in the window with an offering price and a number to call. The only other adornments are tickets under the wipers, making the owners aware of their illegal parking. As a result cars disappear for short periods and then return. I usually shop casually each morning, scanning the prices written on the windshields when the bus stops at the light. Tonight I spy a car I had my eye on a few weeks back, now returned. She is a late 80’s Civic—hi miles, but runs great. The price has even dropped to $600. Not the car I imagine making the entire distance up the Alaska Highway, though something in her headlights suggests she’d at least die trying. I turn to see my archenemy smirking at me. Not coincidentally smirking and looking at me at the same time, but smirking right at me. It is as if he has caught me eyeing this piece of shit car and agrees with me. Yes, he says, you and that car are a perfect match, completely deserving of each other. I swear he knows that the available balance on my credit car could only get me the car, cheap insurance and perhaps little more than a few tanks of gas. After that? His smirk asks. Then he goes back to his book. As the bus groans through the stop, I consider changing the order of my plan. I will pop my archenemy in the nose first. Everything will just have to fall into place afterwards. I will walk up and smack him in his smarmy face. No, I cannot and I know it. First, it is basic assault and battery, which a rudimentary knowledge of cop shows tells me is illegal. Word would cross the street and my boss and coworkers would watch me closely—no one wants a loose cannon behind a two hundred-pound Sharp AR C250A copier. I would no longer be able to get cocoa and Danishes from the Java House. Worse I would be banned from the bus, forcing me to walk the three and a half miles to work. The latter two might even cause me to loose some of my extra thirty pounds. Or I would be forced to go buy that car, and go broke or wherever else it wanted to take me. My world would be forever changed.
I reach up and pull the cord for the next stop. We are no more than three blocks from my $600 Civic. Perhaps some browsing and a walk in the light drizzle would help me cool off. Another bus will be by in a half-hour. I can catch it or maybe have dinner in an unfamiliar restaurant nearby. I thought I saw a small bookstore a few blocks back. Maybe they sell atlases.
I rise into the aisle and let the bus’s slowing carry me down the aisle. My hands sing in my jacket pocket. My hands—the one I would use to punch my archenemy, the one I will write with when I start again, the two I would use to grip the Civic’s steering wheel—they positively hum. My archenemy senses me coming and looks up. His eyes betray the smallest amount of concern. He knows this is not my stop. He knows something is happening. He knows who I am.