James Turner was 45 years old and living a life that he thought was killing him. His existence wasn’t objectively awful by any stretch of the imagination, but inside his own head — where it really mattered — he was gravely unhappy. In the mirror, he saw a man that was starving to death. Not literally, of course, but in a spiritual sense that he couldn’t quite articulate. The thing that bothered him most about his chronic discontentment — which he often described as a “longing for exciting times” — was that he wasn’t sure if it stemmed from a personal flaw or an external shortcoming. Either way, he was desperate to alleviate the pain.
His wife, Julia, was kind and beautiful, with flowing brown hair and the disposition of someone at least 10 years younger than her age — which was 42. James admired Julia deeply, particularly for what he called her “never-ending well of sweetness” and a laugh that could “make the eagles soar” (his words, not mine). James never intended to hurt her, but the heart is a blind and mysterious hunter, and often it leads the body into rough terrain.
Julia had selflessly bore James two children: Lyra, 7, and Jude, 5. Lyra had inherited Julia’s eyes, and had recently begun piano lessons — perhaps a sign that she was taking after her father, who had played piano for years before hanging it up because of his job, the bills, and other adult responsibilities that tended to suck the life out of, well, life. Lyra was an emotional little girl: she cried a lot, and when she did, James was always there for her in the most fatherly way possible. He’d hold her, tell her everything was going to be OK. While such tender moments filled him with warmth, they couldn’t overpower his chronic longing for new experiences.
Jude, meanwhile, was dirty and frankly kind of annoying. James was disappointed with him on a daily basis (the snot that constantly dripped from the kid’s nose didn’t help matters) yet James, like a good father, didn’t let anger toward his son interfere with being a good parent. He treated Jude just as he treated Lyra — that is, with kindness and grace, whenever possible — while secretly contemplating how he and Julia could have created such a bizarre boy. Despite these typically complicated domestic dynamics, one thing was inarguably true: James’ family loved him, and thought of him as a decent man.
So it went in the Turner household, with the kids going to public school five days a week and James driving 15 miles in his purple Toyota Sienna into downtown El Paso, where he worked as a manager at Wal-Mart. It was decent money, and El Paso was a cheap city to live in, but James would have rather been doing just about anything else: Uber driver, corrections officer, piano player, pole dancer…literally anything that didn’t require him to wear a stupid blue vest, which made him look like an adult Smurf. But James felt trapped because he had a family to support. He was a discontented man, yes, but he was also a logical and selfless one. At least for as long as he could stand to be.
There’s another aspect of James’ life that I haven’t mentioned yet, because frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing for him. At some point, and for reasons not entirely clear to him, he began to obsess over teenage model influencers on Instagram. His visceral admiration for these young ladies started as innocently as such a pastime could have: as a sort of adoration of the timeless-yet-fleeting beauty that the young girls possessed. It reminded James that he, too, had once been young and good-looking, a thought that made him moderately happy yet deeply depressed. He’d flip through these provocative (borderline erotic) images for hours on end, causing a sweet syrup to fill every fiber of his being. Carnal sensations he hadn’t experienced since high school flowed through his veins, and he felt alive again.
His visceral admiration for these young ladies started as innocently as such a pastime could have: as a sort of adoration of the timeless-yet-fleeting beauty that the young girls possessed. It reminded James that he, too, had once been young and good-looking, a thought that made him moderately happy yet deeply depressed.
James had become particularly enamored with one 16-year old girl named Ellie Mae, who posted under the Instagram handle xoellieox. Ellie Mae lived in Los Angeles, as evidenced by the words “LA Livin’ #SoCalSoFly” in the bio section of her profile. Also located in the bio section, directly above hundreds of photos of the overly-tanned, underage lass in thong bikinis and too-short jean shorts, were the words “Jesus>all” and “Live the life you love.” She had somehow managed to work her shapely rear-end into approximately three-quarters of the photos on the page, even those in which she wasn’t doing anything particularly seductive.
There it was, The Butt (as it will heretofore be referred to), in a photo of her and a friend eating hard shelled tacos. “#tacotuesday with bae” read the caption. 432,012 likes. And there it was again, i.e. The Butt, as she poured syrup onto a waffle at an upscale Los Angeles brunch joint named the Urban Pigsty, the caption reading: “Anybody want waffles?” 532,324 likes. The Butt was anthropomorphized, almost staring, not unlike an owl sitting in a tree trunk.
Despite his ravenous and inappropriate obsession, James had remained a faithful husband and a loving father. But his disposition finally shifted from logical to maniacal one hot, dry Saturday in June. He was working 10-hour shift at Wal-Mart when an obese woman, wearing a shirt that read “If you think I’m fat, you should see my other shirt,” demanded a refund for a Frigadaire because the freezer, in her words, “kept things way too cold.”
“But ma’am, it’s a freezer,” James tried to explain. “Cold is what it’s supposed to do.”
“Not that damn cold!” the large woman shouted, a droplet of spit flying onto the shoulder of James’ blue vest. “I have to microwave a pepperoni pizza Hot Pocket for five minutes to get the damn center warm!”
James was used to ridiculous complaints from customers. Like the time a teenager attempted to return a Milky Way because he’d accidentally left it in his pocket for too long and it had melted. “How is that my fault?” retorted the kid, after James had calmly explained that there was a no-refund policy on chocolate that had been liquified due to stupidity. The woman’s attempt to return the Frigidaire snapped something in James’ mind. The social contract he’d upheld for so long, the one that had allowed general niceties, immediately erupted in flames. His face turned devil red and he pointed a finger within inches of the woman’s hook nose.
“If you want a warmer freezer,” he grunted. “Why don’t you shove it up your ass!?”
With that outburst, James ripped off his blue vest and stormed out of the automatic glass doors — making sure to leave through the ones designated “Entrance,” just for good measure. He threw himself into the driver’s seat of his Sienna and floored it out of the parking lot before any of his co-workers realized he was gone. Sweat rolled down his face, which was beginning to wrinkle here and there, as it wont to happen to a human who is growing older. His mind was racing through images of Ellie Mae, his family and the obese freezer-hating woman, as he cut through traffic toward his house on the outskirts of El Paso.
Going 20-miles an hour over the speed limit, he swerved around a tractor trailer and nearly rear-ended a red sedan with two kids in the back. The woman in the driver’s seat, presumably the mother, threw up her arms in disgust. “Get the fuck out of my way!” James shouted, drenched in sweat.
Anger, lust and confusion ravaged him as he slammed on the brakes in front of his adobe-style home, stopping directly in front of the mailbox, which rose stiffly out of an unmaintained yard. Rusty old stuff was everywhere and weeds grew high. Nobody was home — his kids were at school, and his wife was at the grocery store, presumably.
He beat his head against the steering wheel, causing the horn to honk comically with each dull thwack. A small cut opened up above his right eyebrow. He ruffled his thinning hair, yanked his cell phone out of his pocket, and — as if driven by an unseen force — opened Ellie Mae’s Instagram page. Her most recent post featured her riding a blow-up unicorn in an infinity pool overlooking the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The Butt, of course, was, like, the main focus. “Just spending some time with my unicorn,” read the caption. “What did you do today?” 754,234 likes.
Her most recent post featured her riding a blow-up unicorn in an infinity pool overlooking the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The Butt, of course, was, like, the main focus. “Just spending some time with my unicorn,” read the caption. “What did you do today?” 754,234 likes.
Here’s where our so-called protagonist was really unsure of what to do. He gazed down at the digitized butt in his lap, then out at the rust in his yard. The digitized butt, the rust. Digitized butt, rust. Then he reached into the backseat of the Sienna, which he’d purchased for the reasonable price of $9,995 at a local used car lot, to grab a pen and notebook. He thought of his wife letting her flowing brown hair down, Lyra playing the piano, Jude with snot running down his philtrum (that’s the scientific name for the indentation under the nose). Then James lusted for The Butt in his mind’s eye and started to swell with spunk.
He scribbled a few words on the page as droplets of sweat fell from his forehead onto the paper. The last thing he wrote was “Love, Dad.” He shoved the note into the mailbox and balled the jack, heading west toward I-10, his mind growing increasingly deranged by the second.
Two weeks later
James awoke to the loud RATTATATATATAT of jackhammering outside of his window. The air conditioner — which normally made a rattling sound — must have broken in the middle of the night, because now it was silent and James was covered in perspiration. The TV, which had been absentmindedly left on, was playing a rerun of Maury in which it was revealed that yet another subhuman male was discovered not to be the father of a child he obviously didn’t want. “I told you, bitch!” he shouted, getting in the baby mama’s face. She was sobbing uncontrollably. “I fucking told you!”
James scratched his salt-and-pepper beard, which was now oily and thick, as he removed the damp sheets and started making a pot of cheap motel coffee. There was a filmy haze over his right eye. He blinked several times, hoping to remove it. What the hell am I doing here? I should be back home, he thought, dimly. But the thought was a only distant yell, so far off that he barely registered it. He blinked a couple more times, failing to clear the haze, before walking over to the lone window in the room and opening the blinds. THE SANDPIT M TEL read 15-foot high, blaze orange letters, from a dilapidated sign in the parking lot. And, in smaller letters underneath: ENJOY YOUR STAY IN RIV RSIDE.
What the hell am I doing here? I should be back home, he thought, dimly. But the thought was a only distant yell, so far off that he barely registered it.
Today was the day it was all going to come together. He’d planned it all out to a T, and was finally prepared to make his big move — a move he’d driven 700-plus miles, to this ramshackle town in the middle of the desert, to bring to fruition. He’d studied Ellie Mae’s Instagram page intricately enough to know that she frequented the Urban Pigsty nearly every Wednesday, usually between 10 a.m. and noon. He’d driven to a nearby Wal-Mart the previous afternoon to purchase the two things he’d need to turn his vision to reality.
“Have a great day, sir,” the elderly greeter said as James exited through the automatic sliding doors, plastic bag in hand. He didn’t smile at her. James hadn’t smiled once since he’d arrived in the Golden State. Fuck Wal-Mart, he thought as he made his way into the parking lot.
When James reached his Sienna, he placed both items in a small satchel and threw it into the back seat, which was littered with two weeks worth of fast food wrappers. This will do nicely, he mumbled, his right eye twitching uncontrollably from the six cups of coffee he’d drank earlier in the day. He’d slept maybe five hours total the previous three nights, and heavy black pits hung under his eyes. His brain was floating on an ocean of confusion, swaying between The Real and The Delusional. Nicely, this will do, he thought again, slipping further into oblivion.
James’ family had tried to contact him in the days after his abrupt departure, leaving multiple voicemails — including one of Lyra practicing piano and, upon finishing a song, saying “Daddy, please come home.” Somewhere, deep down, James knew that this was all wrong, that he belonged back in El Paso with Julia and Lyra and even Jude, that things weren’t so bad there and that he still had time to make amends. All he had to do was hop on I-10 and drive back to West Texas, where he could sort out this craziness and return to a sense of stability. But that’s not what the new James wanted. So he purchased an iPhone, changed his number and resolved never to speak to his family again.
Somewhere, deep down, James knew that this was all wrong, that he belonged back in El Paso with Julia and Lyra and even Jude, that things weren’t so bad there and that he still had time to make amends. All he had to do was hop on I-10 and drive back to West Texas, where he could sort out this craziness and return to a sense of stability. But that’s not what the new James wanted.
With that inconvenience out of the way, he descended into a hedonistic existence consisting of little more than eating fast food and scouring Ellie Mae’s Instagram page. There she was, in front of a waterfall, The Butt front and center, a coy smile on her face. “It’s getting wet out here!” read the caption. 343, 232 likes. There she was again, making a fishy face — no Butt this time! — in the back seat of an Uber. “Heading to a Dodgers game. Time to round the bases :-).” 232,232 likes.
On most nights, James stayed up until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, eating Big Macs, drinking bourbon and Cokes, utterly losing himself in the flawless, digitized propaganda of a 16-year girl who still lived in her parents’ luxurious home in Encino. He would stare at the blinding iPhone screen with bloodshot eyes until, due to sheer exhaustion, he’d fall into a restless couple hours of sleep. That’s exactly what he’d done last night, before being woken up by the incessant jackhammering.
He closed the blinds, grabbed a half-finished bottle of Evan Williams off the twin bed, threw on a pair of stained jean shorts and stumbled out the door. His vision was wobbly — it always was nowadays — as he lumbered, sweat-covered, across the hot parking lot of the SANDPIT M TEL toward his dusty old Sienna. The old vehicle sputtered a bit at first, but the engine finally turned over, and James was on his way to the Urban Pigsty, bottle of Evan Williams in the passenger seat, the satchel in the back.
I could bore you with some of the details about James’ hour drive to Ellie Mae’s favorite brunch spot. I could wax poetic about how, at a stoplight, a kid in the backseat of a sedan looked James directly in the eyes and gave him a big smile. I could tell you about how that incident made James’ stomach fall through the floorboard, about how, for a moment, an image of Julia fixing breakfast on a Sunday morning flashed across his mind. I could tell you about how he polished off damn near the rest of that Evan Williams and, in his inebriated stupor, ran two red lights, nearly t-boning a Jeep Wrangler. I could tell about how sweaty he was, about how he could hardly form a coherent thought, about how throughout nearly the entire drive, he was flipping through Ellie Mae’s Instagram, and thus filling himself with the same spunk that had driven him to abandon his pleasant life in West Texas for a pathetic existence in soulless Southern California. I could tell you all of that, but what would be the point? Ugly descents such as this happen every single day in this Great Country. We regularly watch good people fall victim to their vices, so theoretically you already know how the story goes: its ups and downs, and how it sometimes ends.
I could tell you all of that, but what would be the point? Ugly descents such as this happen every single day in this Great Country. We regularly watch good people fall victim to their vices, so theoretically you already know how the story goes: its ups and downs, and how it sometimes ends.
But you don’t know how this story ends, so instead of telling you about all of that, let’s talk about how James pulled into the parking lot of the Urban Pigsty and immediately began looking for Ellie Mae. He knew she was there — she’d posted a photo on Instagram from inside the restaurant just five minutes prior — so all he had to do was get in there and do the thing. One motion, just like that. Get it over with. He took one last swig, grabbed the satchel and made his way inside.
He saw her as soon as he opened the door: Ellie Mae, the one and only, sitting in a corner booth with a friend that James recognized from Instagram. A cross necklace dangled between the top of Ellie Mae’s firm breasts. To James’ drunken mind, she was as divine as he’d expected, but a sober individual perhaps would have been a bit more critical. First off, she was much shorter (4-foot-11) than she made herself appear online. She also had a visible mustache, and was noticeably bow-logged. None of these traits were anything to be ashamed of, of course, but Ellie Mae had tried to mask their existence with her meticulous social media propaganda-ing: all of her coyly-taken photos and videos veiled the truth of who she was and what she actually looked like, in an attempt to make her seem as flawless as she thought she needed to be. In truth, she was no less depressed than James, or anybody else for that matter. But who would know, through the gloss and glamour?
To James’ drunken mind, she was as divine as he’d expected, but a sober individual perhaps would have been a bit more critical. First off, she was much shorter (4-foot-11) than she made herself appear online. She also had a visible mustache, and was noticeably bow-logged. None of these traits were anything to be ashamed of, of course, but Ellie Mae had tried to mask their existence with her meticulous social media propaganda-ing…
James didn’t hesitate. He lumbered over to the girls, who were too busy taking photos of their food to notice the haggard, drunken, sweaty 40-something with an unkempt beard and a twitching right eye approaching them. Ellie Mae was glowing in the late morning California sun, and though the restaurant was packed, James noticed no one else. She was everything he hoped she would be, and as soon as he laid eyes on her, he knew his plan would be worth it. He tossed the satchel on the table between the girls — spilling orange juice on Ellie Mae’s friend — and quickly opened it, pulling out the first item.
“I…I need you to take this, Ellie Mae,” he slurred maniacally.
James shoved a pink orchid in her overly made-up face.
“Oh my God,” she replied, pushing herself against the window. “Like, get away from me!‘
“Please. I…I need you to take this. And I need you to take a picture of you holding it, with me beside you. I just…please.”
“Oh my God, like, no! Get the hell away from us!” she shouted, almost in tears.
“PLEASE!” James yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders. Sweat was dripping off his beard and he smelled like onions. “I’ve come all the way here. I just need you to do it!”
Ellie Mae let out a ear-splitting shriek, causing James to release her and take a step back.
“All right, Christ, OK,” he slurred, gritting his teeth. His glossy eyes were focused on Ellie Mae. “I just need you to know…to know…that I love you. That a lot of people love you. I also need you to know what that love is forcing people to do.”
James took a step forward. He pulled a buck knife out of the satchel and gave Ellie Mae one last glimpse. He noticed a patchwork of zits on her oily forehead, but still believed her to be the most beautiful creature in the world. Looking into her eyes at that moment, however, a part of him recognized that she was just a frightened child: an immature high school junior who’d never held a job — or even made a car payment, for that matter.
Looking into her eyes at that moment, however, a part of him recognized that she was just a frightened child: an immature high school junior who’d never held a job — or even made a car payment, for that matter.
James plunged the knife into his wrist. He ripped hard toward the elbow. Within seconds, he was a writhing heap on the cold floor. A pool of blood was growing around him.
By this point, most of the Urban Pigsty customers were standing around James in a semicircle. Some were gasping. Others had their hands over their mouths. But the majority of them were holding up their phones and closing in on James’ bloody body. The world had gone silent, and seemed to be moving in slow motion.
Ellie Mae, never one to be left out, stood up out of the booth. Still shaking with fear, she opened Instagram, lifted her phone to her face — just above the dangling cross necklace — and began filming. And with that, all of James’ dreams came true, even as he lay bleeding to death hundreds of miles away from the only people who truly loved him.