Sunday Stories: “Crisis of Uselessness”

A tent

Crisis of Uselessness
by Sean Thor Conroe

Big cuz E hit me with the gig deets. 

Four days to a week at a farm just outside of Bennington, way up in VT. 

Probably shouldn’t have signed on, how fucked I felt. 

How things didn’t look like they were getting any better.  

Cysts popping up on palms and soles, didn’t know why.  

Cuts on forearms aligned with skin lines.  

Looking like a damn parched-ass desert. 

With grooves that never healed.  

So like hella infected-ass rivers running through em.  

Woulda seen someone, but I had negative money and no health insurance.  

Owed the roomie hella bands, plus had been smoking all his weed since I felt I needed it, and couldn’t afford any. 

Till one day I snuck into his room to nab some and he had a post-it on the jar that said Bro! That’s fkng sus! Stop! 

Now I couldn’t ask for help; I was too embarrassed.  

Generally hit the ma in situations like this. 

But she left for Japan mid-July and wouldn’t be back till late-August. 

 

Trump had passed some bill supporting farmers.  

You a farmer? Need a greenhouse? 

WE GOT YOU. 

You find labor, we’ll send parts. 

MAKE AMERICA FARM AGAIN.  

Only—gotta cash in on this deal by November midterms. 

And the weather started to turn in October.  

So one of big cuz E’s ex-employers, a farmer, hit him up.  

We were the labor. 

 

E came through Wednesday night.

To peel out early Thurs. 

I hadn’t been drinking for a minute.  

But the minute he pulled up, his energy dictated we were gonna drink. 

We were Conroes, and drinking, whenever together, was what we did. 

We walked along 41st, to the beer spot, zigging and zagging as zig-zaggy-ass 41st dictated. 

My socks kept slipping down.

‘Diabetes socks’ I’d copped at CVS a couple nights back. 

Suggested to me a couple weeks back by my neighbor, bigger older church lady across the street, when she saw me sitting on my stoop smoking in slides.  

Cankled ankles exposed. 

Glistening with Vaseline.  

Face hella swollen. 

“Oh baby, you gotta raise those feet.”

“Raise my feet?” 

“That’s what I do, when my ankles get like that. From standing on them too long.” 

“Your ankles get like this? From standing on them too long?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Like this?” I said, looking at them with horror, like they weren’t mine. “Just from standing on them too long?” 

“Well that. And the diabetes.”

 

I didn’t know whether I had diabetes. 

But the elastic of my regular socks were making indentations into my ankles.  

And the results from a ‘swollen ankles indentation’ Google search suggested, as an antidote, ‘diabetes socks.’ 

Like regular socks, except without the elastic. 

Kept having to stop every couple blocks to pull em up even though my ankles looked twice as wide.  

E noticed but didn’t ask about it. 

Just said Aw man, when I, unprompted, explained what was up. 

Expressing or acknowledging or comforting weakness wasn’t our relationship.

  

Autonomous bae came over with new roomie bae, who’d just moved in, shortly after we got back. 

We drank and kicked it out back, beneath the cab-over gazebo E and I built last year. 

When my thing was building semi-permanent structures to show ex bae I was here to stay. 

Even though she’d never once been over. 

We sat in a circle around the lopsided table back there. 

I lowkey felt like I should be on a hydration IV, how fucked I felt; but everyone else was drinking so I did too. 

E did the thing he did socially where he flexed his wit.  

Autonomous and roomie bae were chipper. 

I kept my head down and DJ-ed. 

Took extended IG stories. 

When the convo flagged/veered woke towards the patriarchy and how women, in America, in 2018, were held down, I felt a rage bubbling.  

A rage I knew was sus but nonetheless couldn’t suppress. 

How tf was I privileged. 

I couldn’t do shit. 

Not only that, no one allowed me to show/admit I couldn’t. 

Not men nor—if not especially not—women.  

We had a fkng job to do; so, even though I couldn’t, I was gonna do it. 

Not to mention, every woman I knew—all my baes, both sisters, ma—had their shit together. 

Effortlessly. 

Had no issues integrating themselves economically/socially.  

And even if they couldn’t or didn’t want to, they could always nanny.  

Everyone needed moms; every woman could get paid to be a temporary mom. 

Women didn’t need to cross the street, when walking behind a woman or weak man, to show they weren’t predatory.  

Or keep their eyes down when traversing protected spaces like college campuses or playgrounds, so as to not ruin people’s days.   

Just last week I’d gotten harassed by a security guard for pulling up on my bike to the Penn dorm after ‘curfew’ with Postmates food in tow.  

Who are you you can’t be here tf outta here—how it felt to me anyhow.  

Like Bro—I’m doing literally my job. 

The only job I can do. 

The one way I’m able to feel of use. 

I had negative seven bands.  

Hadn’t paid utilities in months.  

Fuck outta here with American white women feeling oppressed. 

$35K/year and up is the 1% of the world. 

Thirty-five mfkn K!

 

I was only two beers deep but had the tolerance of a virgin drinker. 

Felt belligerent.  

OK anyways, here’s a story I wrote, gonna read it now, I cut in. 

It was 500 words and was basically a transcription of a rant I went on to a friend a while back about how writing was different now, everyone could do it, trying to write in a way that established an elevated stance above readers and other writers was fuckshit. 

A fuckboy move. 

Stop tryna be fancy; share some shit. 

It was lowkey shots at E.  

His poems were complicated. 

Didn’t realize it was till after I read it. 

After I read it, roomie bae was impartial.  

Autonomous bae said it felt unnecessarily literary/complicated.  

E said he fucked with it. 

 

I offered E my bed but he chose to crash in my van out back. 

We had an early start the next morning. 

  

E had a triggering relationship with my van. 

Two Christmases ago—right after I followed ex bae out east, right before she became ex—we—E, big and lil sis, and the ma—linked at big sis’s spot upstate.  

A month after I’d driven out from Cali. 

After living outta my van the previous season doing weed work in Humboldt. 

I’d secured a room by this point—my first closet-room in West Philly—but still considered myself a van dweller. 

My closet-room more a homebase/amenity spot. 

Was still spending nights in my van.  

Except awake. 

Writing in my van at night with a propane heater.  

Red bulls.  

Reds.  

Weed and the occasional (honestly for some moons there daily) microdose.  

Was sleeping inside—in my sleeping bag, on my mat—mornings till late afternoons. 

So sleeping in my van for the Xmas mish was no biggie. 

If anything luxurious since big sis had an off-street driveway.  

 

But big cuz E, that Xmas, was living upstate also, with his on-and-off bae of ten-plus years—since college, like ex bae had been for me—working some sort of renovation construction of this old mill-turned-art space. 

Hella isolated with on/off bae. 

In the town adjacent to the one he went to college at in VT. 

Seeing me, he felt like any domesticated bro would upon seeing one of his ‘uncontained,’ single bros. 

Like tf am I doing. 

Like this bro out here!

Masculinity challenge

Even more insidious/challenging since I presented so woke and self-aware and self-deprecating about how dumb ideas of alpha-beta masculinity were. 

Purported implicitly to inhabit a new category, of alpha-beta-immunity. 

To sidestep this problem entirely, by pivoting the angle.  

Although, ultimately, still tryna establish myself as above that shit. 

 

Anyway, on the evening of that Xmas day—2016—we drank and smoked in arctic-ass upstate, in my van, Canadian hotboxing that bih, huddled around my propane heater, till we damn near could sit up straight. 

Canadian hotbox: like a regular hotbox except with cigs. 

Listened to Savage Mode (2016) on loop, me telling E to listen carefully to the lyrics. 

“He’s in Savage Mode,” I said.  

“He’s showing you what it feels like to be a ‘Real Nigga,’” I said. 

“Hear how sad he is,” I said, cutting E off and demanding silence. “He’s not proud of it. Or rather, it’s not about whether he is or isn’t proud of it. It’s not even a choice. It’s just how it is. How things are. 

Less than a month later, E cut things off with his longtime on/off bae and jetted out to Hawaii, where his parents were posted, to ‘start over.’ 

“That fateful Canadian hotbox,” E said as I led him inside the van, to set up his bed for him. “Changed the course of everything.”

 

It rained nonstop the entire drive up.  

Through NYC, along stretches I’d never driven. 

Over bridges I’d never crossed.

E drove the whole way. 

I DJ-ed.

Things mellowed a bit once we hit the Taconic.

I slept the last two hours.

Forearms cut up, face swollen.

But I distracted myself by IG story-ing so much of the drive my feed was a bunch of dots.

  

The farm was something else. 

Hill overlooking trees for days.

Head farmer S paternal but friendly and stylish also.

E spazzing a bit when we pulled into Bennington but mellowing once on the farm.

Hadn’t slept in my tent for days.

Was missing three stakes. 

So went on a Walmart run, into town, for some.

Which they, impressively, sold a la carte.

Also nabbed granola bars, gauze pads for my arms/feet, more Vaseline.

And a three-pack of cookies I merked on the way out to the car, in secret, even though I don’t know why E would have given a shit.

 

When I was walking across country, sleeping out, tent life wasn’t shit to me.

Unfazed no matter where.

In the tiniest of one-man bivies no less.

Under bridges, in ditches, behind bars.

FUCK IT.

I was that dude.

The tent dude able to withstand any and all conditions. 

Wasn’t sure whether I was still that dude though.

Convinced myself I was, and said as much, when E asked Tent camping’s cool with you though, right?

 

Was so sweaty inside my tent, once I got it up.

In the dark, with a headlamp, as the rain started coming down.

Set up my makeshift tarp rain-flap like I did every night while walking across country.

But incorrectly.

It wasn’t holding.

Still warm out so wasn’t a biggie.

But wasn’t gonna sleep with it how it was anytime soon either.

 

Tried to zone out by listening to a pod about a cult, by a dude who grew up in one.

Everything raw and cracked and chafing.

Putrefying.

Arms like I already said.

But crotch all fucked now also.

V on either side cracked and oozing.

Where either side of my ball bag met inner thigh cut up.

I lay on my side and listened to the disembodied dweeby NPR voice tell me how charismatic the cult leader his parents followed as a child was, initially. 

Turned it up to compete with the assault of raindrops pattering on my tarp draped over my tent. 

Couldn’t believe I slept in this thing for 100 days, while walking 20–30 miles a day and barely showering.

  

Come 3 a.m. I couldn’t take it.

Got out of my tent and smoked a cig sitting on the picnic table in between mine and E’s tents, under my umbrella.

Went “Ayo E” a few times.

Nothing.

Stared at my tent lit up eerily in my headlamp-light, through the rain.

Tried to imagine re-entering it.

Couldn’t.

Didn’t wanna.

Wasn’t gonna.

Recalling S’s offer to “head down to the main house if the storm gets too crazy,” grabbed my pack outta my tent, draped my poncho over it and my head, and stumbled in its general direction. 

Fuck this shit.

I wasn’t Outdoor Dude anymore.

 

Head down, I followed the tire treads that led down the hill, to the huge field opposite the main house.

The field we’d be working on first thing tomorrow.

From there scaled its upper edge. 

Past S’s hollowed out, windowless pickup with flat tires.

To the stoop. 

The minute I pulled back the screen door, S’s dog went fucking bananas.

S had said he’d leave the front door unlocked, so my plan had been to sneak in quietly.

But there went that.

How the dog was snarling between barking bouts, primed on its back legs.

 

Sounded like he really didn’t fuck with me. 

Really hated me.

Like personally.

Maybe he smelled my rotting flesh.

Maybe he smelled my cowardice in the face of the elements.

Or maybe he sensed that I wasn’t a Decider, a Master, like the other humans he interacted with were.

That I was a pushover follower who bowed down and did as he was told, provided there was some dangled treat, like pussy or money.

That I was just like him. 

And this unsettled him. 

Whatever the reason, he didn’t stop. 

Even when S came downstairs, groggy, shirtless and disheveled, and yelled at him to fkng quit it would ya—even then, he didn’t. 

Based on S’s expression, I could tell that the offer had been perfunctory.

That he hadn’t expected us to actually take him up on it. 

That, now that I had, his esteem for me, as a man, diminished.

 

Running on fumes and coffee from the pot S and his wife, K, sparked up at 5:30 a.m. sharp, E and I got to it.

Day one was laying out, measuring, and leveling the stakes.

Thirty on each side, at 5’ increments, level and 30’ from the one across from it.

Laying these down solid was critical as they’d hold the curved-V crossbeams we’d assemble and erect last.

Once these foundational beams were set, they wouldn’t be able to be moved; and the thing wouldn’t stand up if they weren’t set correctly.

 

We used string and preliminary stakes to get the layout right.

Took about all of a sun-blasted morning.

Couldn’t take off my long-sleeve synthetic pullover since it was holding the gauze wrap I’d wrapped my forearms with to absorb the ooze. 

That, and shoddily wrapped medical tape that wouldn’t hold without the sleeves, given the sweat.

Ditto with ankles/feet: gauze/tape held in place by diabetes socks, which in turn crammed into shin-high wellies E lent me.

A lotta squishing going on. 

Inside bc the above.

Outside given how muddy the field, with all of last night’s rain.

 

Come midday I was crashing hard.

E showing no signs of letting up.

I could see him on the far side of the field, going to town on stakes with a sledge hammer.

We’d started in the middle and were working outwards, away from each other. I was using a mallet. 

Had too much pride to ask about lunch.

E was rocking a beater, glistening statuesque.

S off in an adjacent field lower down the hill, pacing the rows puffing on a yellow-pack American Spirit. Bandana tied around his neck.

Kept getting blasted by bugs.

They were going for the cuts.

For the eyes.

Threw my synthetic pullover’s hood on; zipped it up to my chin and drew the drawstrings taut, creating a hole just big enough to see out of beneath the brim of my Nike Dri-Fit cap. 

Despite the heat.

Pushing 90.

Went at it a couple more stakes before I felt like I was gonna pass out.

At which point, barged up the hill, to E’s tent.

Where I tried to pass out, protected from bugs by his tent’s mesh, only it was too blasted out.

So laid down my tarp and passed out beneath the picnic table.

 

E and I got into it the next day. 

On the way to Walmart (for more medical tape) from the one coffee shop in Bennington we went for lunch. 

Where E used to go while a student here. 

Where he used to go when he worked for S before, while living here couple years back, with his now-ex, then-long term on/off bae. 

“Bro what are you tryna prove? Never taking breaks and shit,” I spat, feeling myself go mean.

E jetted his all-black Tacoma past some geriatrics doing 20 in a 45, blatantly mean-mugging as he passed. He didn’t respond.

“Like, a ten-hour day doesn’t mean ten hours of nonstop work.” 

Still nothing.

“Like dude,” I continued, self-righteous now, “I’m not about that panoptic mode of grinding nonstop like a fkng peasant for fear the master’ll catch you taking a fiver. That shit is basic. Not to mention extra.” 

“Alright, man. What are you saying?” he said. “I called you because I thought you were up for the gig. If you’re not now just lemme know and I’ll call someone else.” 

“Bro do you have a deeper purpose? Like besides work?” I was sneering. Tossed the cig I’d just killed out the window and immediately started rolling another. “Besides fkng labor? How you’re talking reminds me of the basic wooks in Humboldt who’d pull up to the trim scene so desperate for work they’d get played by the property owners. You have to not need the work. You have to work on your terms. You’re not a fkng mule, bruh. But you act like one you’ll get treated like—“

“Look dude. S isn’t some faceless corporate master. He’s my guy. I negotiated the day rate to what it is with the understanding that we’ll have the job done in four days. So that’s what we’re gonna do.” 

“OK. Sure. But that was before the storm. We all got our plans to keep the water out. But when that shit hits it hits. Nature don’t give no fucks about no mfkn expedited day rate bruh.”

 

All our shit was drenched. 

We’d been pounding metal beams into the ground, in place of the temporary stakes, with these beam-pounders that resembled like civil war era artillery. 

IN A NONSTOP FULL-ON DOWNPOUR.

ALL MFKN MORNING.

Removing the beams and digging out big-ass rocks whenever the beam got stopped by one and didn’t sink deep enough.

 

The third day, Sunday, it stopped raining and got blasted out again. 

We’d finished the beams right at sundown the night before. 

S and K had moved me from the couch to their guest/computer room.

Legs and arms doing this wild thing where, when I scratched them, a goddamn blizzard of skin flakes flaked off. 

The floor was covered with them.

Like cherry blossoms on sidewalks in spring.

Like shed snake scales. 

Skin’s external barrier utterly compromised.

We were laying out and assembling the curved-V cross beams.

Carrying them out into the mud-field, to where they’d be erected tomorrow, with the help of S’s tractor’s crane-type attachment, and drilling them together. 

The moment I awoke, in a beach of my own skin, I knew it was all over. 

But had heard E and heeded what he’d said on the way to Walmart. 

Plus felt like shit for spraying out skin flakes like I had in S and K’s guest room, lodging a good couple thousand irrevocably into the cracks of their hardwood floor probably. 

So lathered, gauzed up, railed some Advils, and hit it.

 

Worked silently, efficiently, and angrily. 

Got about four-fifths of the day’s work done by midday, before wobbling, realizing I was done, and, without a word, bee-lining it for the house.

Took an ice cold shower before passing tf out in the guest bed.

 

Awoke around 8 p.m. to E shaking me.

I was lying on my back, just boxers on, no sheet covering me.

“Dude,” he said. “You alright?”

“I mean,” I said. 

“Didn’t realize it was that bad.” He looked at my ankles/feet. They were so fkng swollen and cracked, they looked unnatural. Like elephantiasis combined with some infection.

I heard laughter and clinking from the living/dining room. Y, E’s fiancé, had arrived. 

“Got you some extra-strength Tylenol,” E said. “Here.”

I swallowed two.

“And a Greyhound back to Philly first thing tomorrow.”

“But what about the greenhouse?” I said, sitting up.

“It’s cool. Y’s here. We can handle it. You need to go see a doctor.”

 

Sean Thor Conroe (香村 翔宇) was born in Tokyo in 1991. His stories have appeared in New York Tyrant, Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, and other places. He hosts the podcast ‘1storypod’ and tweets @stconroe. This story is a version of a chapter in his forthcoming novel, FUCCBOI.

Image source: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

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