Focus Group

Christmas, 1998 / No. 2

There’s a movie Paul wants to see, but it isn’t playing in his neighbourhood. Instead, he stays home and batters fish. Paul tries to get himself to have new experiences, but he keeps having the same experiences. Fish.

He still thinks of the time he goes to bed as early, though he’s been going to bed at that time for several years now. Paul gets tired. He watches TV. He imagines creatures living in the walls, spilling out like dust and dried out cadavers during home renovations. Not that Paul is about to attempt any sort of home renovations. He lives in an apartment. He rents. He fries the fish in butter, he doesn’t have a cookbook, he doesn’t need a recipe, he knows how to cook fish, he always intended to make the best of everything.

The phone rings. His brother calls in the evening. Paul puts the spatula on the counter. There is a pattern to phone rings, Paul thinks, a bursting swell spraying the room with optimism like some kind of aural air freshener. Good luck from a can.

Hey, his brother says. Are you on the computer?


Is the computer on?

Yeah, it’s on.

I called before and got the fax noise. I’m calling from the neighbours’.

You know your neighbours?

Listen, your computer killed our phone. The wife is pissed.

Does Joey know you call her “the wife”?

Is your computer still on?

I didn’t have the fax on. The fax program wasn’t on.

Turn off your computer. It did something to our phone.

You can’t use your phone?

There’s no dial tone. Just this crackling noise, like a campfire.

It has nothing to do with my computer.

Will you just turn it off?

O.K. O.K.

I’ll call you back when it’s fixed.

Paul hangs up the phone. The air is thick with burning butter. He runs into the kitchen, turns off the gas, rescues the frying fillets from their splattering hell. They aren’t burnt, Paul reasons. They aren’t too burnt. The phone rings again.

Paul, his brother pants. Did you turn your computer off?


’Cause my phone works now. Don’t use your computer for a couple of hours. We’ve got to make some calls.

Paul bites down on the tops of his fingers. The skin burns where the curves recede into newly exposed flesh. There’s nothing he can do. Absolutely nothing. He’s alone, like the last of some kind of species. He’s the locus at the centre of a shapeless void. He could soak the tips of his fingers in a bowl of ice water. His life without incidence, without beginning or end or—worst of all—middle. He has a belly on him like a jacket in summer. Like pants worn too tight. Women are either a problem or not a problem. He thinks he might be gay, but only in the abstract the way a doctor thinks about slicing open spanking hot organs. If he could at least hate his brother, that would be something. He looks at his watch. It’s two in the afternoon. He isn’t doing any work. It’s quiet, he should be working, reports to type up, statistics to be processed. The afternoon in tight spirals: minute hand: second hand.

Joey has taken to dropping by.

Listen, Paul says to his computer. Quit screwing up.

She walks in without knocking, crinkles her nose, sets her mouth in a wary line, sticks out her chest, says: Smells like fish in here.

Paul half gets up, thinks better of it, slumps back down.

I opened all the windows, he says.

You been two-timing me?

I wish, Paul says.

Joey points to the computer, raises her eyebrows.

I had nothing to do with it, Paul says.

Joey fills the messy office. Paul is always cleaning up. Nothing ever gets cleaned up. Something is different today. Joey is different. She is wearing a white blouse and brown skirt that holds on to her hips, that keeps her from pulling apart.

Blue, Joey says. Nice lipstick.

When Paul doesn’t know what to do, he freezes. Just stops moving. When he doesn’t know what someone else is talking about he keeps quiet. They like that when they watch him run the focus groups. They sit behind the one-way window and watch him freeze up, go quiet. They think he’s taking stock of the situation, maintaining control, doing one thing or another thing in the same methodical way they themselves make their decisions, swing their golf clubs, transfer a kind of money into another kind of money. He licks his lips, tastes bitter. Joey laughs. He holds a fist up in front of his face. He’s been chewing on a cheap plastic pen, a finger substitute. If there was a mirror, Paul would look at himself.

Shit, he says.

C’mon, Joey laughs. She leans over, drags a swell on his lip, smears it along the curved ridge. Let me clean you up.

Later, she’s all skin and bones.

I might not be happy, she tells him.

Paul shrugs, wraps his arms around protruding flesh. He’s soft outside, but inside there’s something hard, a dead seed, a lump of irreversible possibility. He shrugs. He wants her to be happy. It occurs to him that he’s never wanted anything.


Shhh, she says.

They make butterflies. They make fluffy clouds. They leave lipstick imprints. Blue kisses. Fingerprints. We are evidence, Paul thinks to himself. Something happens without them knowing.

Paul has two separate life insurance policies. He got them on sale. He lied about his health.

The phone ringing. The smell of hot fish.

Look, you’re either in control or you’re not. There’s no two ways about it.

What is this? Paul thinks. I hate this.

That one. A burly man stuffed into a suit waves his hand at the row of enlarged photos. That one.

Which one? Paul says.

The other one, the man says.

You try and make it through though. You have to try. Centre Automobile Service Department assistant manager, Paul thinks. His mouth goes tropical. Wet.

The one with the girl? Paul tries to swallow. What exactly do you find appealing about this image?

You know, the man says. He giggles. His face is flushed. The beers are having the desired effect. Slowing minds and lessening expectations. The man says something about tits and the other guys in the group chortle appreciatively. Paul brings a hand to his mouth, starts chewing on a knuckle. He freezes. He’s on camera. They tape the sessions. They get their money’s worth, insight into the minute fluctuations of karma and carnality that make beer sell better in one place or another, on Wednesday or on Thursday. Stand up straight to smile. His grin showing half teeth. He puts his hands in his pockets. He’s wearing a burgundy sweater with a V-neck, casual, luxurious, but not ostentatious—he’s with them, one of them, just another beer-swilling junior executive. The sweater was a present. Joey wrapped it, picked it out, charged it. His brother jammed the box in his ribs: Here. Happy birthday, little brother. Paul starts to sweat. The woman in picture 2 blinks her blue eyes and grows a dick.

That’s great guys, Paul says. He tastes perspiration, the trickling part of a dream that must be fear. That’s great. Thanks a lot. See the secretary on your way out.

The men crowd around the doorway, cracking jokes and burping. They get forty dollars each. Focus group. Paul has an erection the size of Cleveland. He turns the camera off, slides the tape into its plastic case.

Let’s get together. Let’s do dinner. The three of us. To tell you the truth, we have to talk. Something’s come up.

Paul isn’t moving. He doesn’t breath.

It’s that phone thing. The bill’s come and Joey thinks you should pay.

She thinks I should pay?

Let’s get together. I never see you any more. Face to face. We’ll work something out. If you can’t afford it we’ll think of something. It’s a big bill. And you were the one who—

I had nothing to do with it.

Stop being a shit. I mean, if that’s the way you’re going to be, it was your computer that was on when I called. And after that, the phone went dead. I mean, O.K., if it was up to me we’d work something out.

How much is it?

Let’s talk about it. Three hundred and thirty. Listen, forget it. Let’s meet at Gambi’s, the three of us. They had to rip the wiring up. We’ll talk about it. What’d ya say? Do you good to get out.

I get out.

Fine, yeah. Eightish.

At Gambi’s there are candles on the checkered tablecloths. Couples hush together over orders of spaghetti and meatballs. Bad pop songs, soundtrack distance.

Joey’s already eating. She’s got a square of white pizza half crammed into her small wedge mouth. Appetizer. Her lips shiny with grease.

I’m not hungry, Paul says. He feels drunk. Nothing is what he thought it would be. He doesn’t drink. His doctor forbids it.

Sit down, his brother says again.

Joey chews, swallows. Paul’s got road rage, she says. Look at him.

Road rage, his brother says, laughing. He doesn’t even drive. He just needs to get laid.

Joey’s wearing jeans, a T-shirt. She’s slim perfection distended by shadows. Paul doesn’t look. He can’t quite see.

Yeah, Paul, she says. How long’s it been?

What’s all this crap about the phone bill? Paul says.

Oh, Joey says. Is that what you’re worried about? We were just kidding.

Forget about it, his brother says. You can buy us dinner.

Road rage, Joey warns. She flags the waiter down.

But how does it actually happen? Obviously there’s some pain. That’s part of it. Things must get sticky. What about butt hair? Paul sticks a finger back there, feels the folds pressed together in the crack. Lubricants, he thinks. He does it like that to her. She makes him do it.

After, he eats kidney beans straight from the can. He needs energy. A group tonight. He picks up the phone to call in, to make sure all the panelists have been confirmed, to remind someone that he’s still alive. The phone is dead. He runs into the other room. Turns the computer off. It doesn’t matter. No one wants to hear from him. His brother had something to do with it, put a curse on the connection, made his dial tone go fuzzy and hazy like the hour before a storm. Paul starts washing dishes. He notices the smell, thinks, again, of how it might happen, how he might bend over. He can’t get rid of the smell. The water stops in the middle. It’s five-forty-five. The downstairs tenant has just returned from work. He’s taking a two-hour shower or just letting the tap run, drawing the water down—it’s like the more they take away from him, the longer he’ll stand there over the sink, watching the water steam down the drain in useless spirals, the nether regions of power, tidal wave floods carried through by leaky pipes.

Light beer tonight. The women file in. Secretaries, fledgling bureaucrats. Paul watches them take their seats, fill out their name-tags, address the matter of the questionnaire. He stares through the mirror, tries to calculate his net worth, uses his fingers, decides to throw in the life insurance policies at the last minute—what the hell, he thinks.

One of the women looks like Joey. Paul leans forward, touches the glass with his nose. He closes his eyes.

Everything all right? Dan asks.

Paul startles, smashes his face, pulls back.

Yeah, he says. Fine. Thanks. Was just feeling out the group.

Dan looks at his watch.

Time to get started, Paul says.

Right, Dan says.

Inside the board room, Paul pretends to adjust the camera. He stares over at the woman who appears to resemble Joey and decides that she is Joey. The name tag pinned to her breast pocket says Winona. She wraps her red lips around the end of a pen, ponders a vexing question concerning the average number of light intoxicants she imbibes on a typical Saturday night. A phone rings inside Paul’s head. He’s rigid, frozen. She’s fucking with me. He closes his eyes, presses his hands to his ears. In the momentary darkness, he feels pain filling him, imagines how it might be perfect, how it might be like losing everything.

He shouldn’t drink. There are health issues. He fits the key in the lock, marvelling at the jigsaw specifications of the most everyday activities. The light fluctuates in the living room. Blues and greys in sickly boardroom splatters. Paul lets his eyes adjust, freezes up, feels his fists clamping into his palms. He’s sticky under his sweater. He hasn’t had a shower, he should have showered earlier—it got late, he lost track of time, the guy downstairs, that fucking guy. If he could have had a shower he would have been able to wash the smell of fish out of his hair and hey, what happened might not have happened. It’s as simple as that: people responsible; circumstances beyond his control.

This is the best part, Joey says. She’s got the remote in her small fist, the cordless phone in her lap. Paul can’t tell if she’s talking to him. The phone doesn’t work, anyway—voices trapped, they flow across wires and rooms and city blocks and there is no way for them to get out.

Joey is naked.

This part right here, she says.

Paul can’t move. On TV he looks small, miniature, hopeless. The women sip light beer in oval mouthfuls. TV Paul gesticulates, rips up a questionnaire, laughs like he told a good joke. He paces around the room, moves out of the camera’s view, then comes back in. He reaches for a name tag, yells something unintelligible. The sound of a ripping pocket. Silence. Then an administrative assistant named Karen says: Oh my god. Winona smiles mischievous schoolboy teeth, clamps her hand over her exposed bra and starts screaming. Paul stands in the middle of the living room, feels Dan’s arms circling his chest, dragging him. Everything is small, distant, rewound in office colours. Paul pulls the phone out from between Joey’s thighs. He feels a swelling in his hard part. My heart, he thinks.

Hello? his brother says. Hello?