Paradime by Alan Glynn, author of Limitless, is a novel of a twenty-first-century identity crisis that will thrill you from page one (Available August 2, 2016).
Danny Lynch didn’t sign up for this, but right now, it’s all he’s got. Three weeks ago, he was working at a chow hall in Afghanistan and―more or less―doing fine. Sure, this meant living in a war zone, but he was never in the line of fire and, frankly, the money was hard to resist. Then Danny saw something he shouldn’t have, and now he’s back in New York City, haunted by what sent him home and lucky to be employed at all, even if that means dicing carrots for ten hours a day in a stuffy Midtown restaurant. The job’s one saving grace? A sight line from his prep station in the kitchen to a coveted corner table in the main room. For Danny, this is a window into the lives of some of Barcadero’s flashy clientele―and one evening, he sees a man who looks exactly like him.
Teddy Trager is the visionary founder of the billion-dollar investment firm Paradime Capital. He has everything Danny never knew he wanted―cashmere suits, a sleek sports car…privilege, power―and the closer Danny looks at Trager the more fixated he becomes.
There’s no app for this.
Though I seem to have one for nearly everything else. I can track my movements over the course of a day, every footstep, every heartbeat. I can monitor my stress levels, boost productivity, enhance cognition.
But relieve anxiety? Eliminate dread? Not a chance.
As the R train rattles towards 59th Street, I look down at my phone and swipe to the right.
Start your free seven-day trial now …
I’ll never use any of these. I put my phone away.
The green I-beam columns and ceramic wall tiles of the station flicker into view. I get up and wait by the car door. It’s 11:30 a.m., the platform not particularly crowded—a lull between surges, the secret hour for tourists, junkies, and unemployed people.
Up on 59th Street, it’s bright and sunny, the sky almost aggressively blue. Just ahead, vast and constipated as always, looms the Plaza Hotel. At the curb, waiting to cross, I gaze for a moment down Fifth at the flow of traffic and buildings—parallel lines that trail towards a meeting point at the blistering horizon. I turn and look the other way, over at the huddled expanse of Central Park, and then, a little farther to the right, at the deck of sidewalk awnings fanning north—the ones fronting the granite and marble mansions that line this side of Fifth, what used to be called, quaintly, Millionaire’s Row.
This morning, up here, the specific anxiety, the specific dread, is easy to identify. It’s simply that I don’t belong. I’m not a tourist en route to Tiffany’s, or an addled junkie wandering lost through the canyons of Midtown. I belong to that third group, the unemployed, and consequently have no real business being here. Every person I see reinforces this—every silk-suited alpha dog barking into his cell phone, every skinny society hostess dripping in jewelry and laden down with designer shopping bags, every map-consulting European family of four, immaculate in their ironed jeans and matching Oxford-blue Windbreakers.
But I have to go somewhere, right? I can’t be nowhere. And that’s the problem. No matter where I end up, there’ll be a local supply of reasons to feel shitty and out of place. If I go into the park, for example, all those bright, determined people in Lycra running towards a better future … well, they’ll crush any semblance of hope I might have. If I go too far west, Tenth Avenue and beyond, the gradual disintegration I’ll see all around me there won’t do my mood any good.
If I go back to the apartment …
Can’t really do that though, not until late afternoon, not until Kate has put in however many hours she needs to put in. And even then …
If I leave New York?
If I go back to Asheville?
It doesn’t matter. When it comes to anxiety and dread, there’ll always be location-specific reasons. But it’s when they run out that the existential shit really hits the fan—because even if I found the perfect location, where conditions were ideal, guess what … I’d still be there.
How do you escape that?
I cross Fifth, walk past the Plaza and on towards Sixth, where I turn left.
The Avenue of the Americas.
I could walk down to Greenwich Village from here, block after block, passing through several Americas in the process and certainly ending up in one that’s different from the one I’m in right now. But what then? Another cappuccino in some dingy café? Another hour or two in the Strand? How long will it be before I start shouting at people—from a park bench, say, or in the street, or on a subway platform?
The prospects aren’t good. I need something to occupy my time. I need something to occupy my mind. I need a job. And I need one fast.
* * *
Three weeks ago I was a civilian contractor in Afghanistan.
Working in a chow hall.
All my life, on and off, I’ve worked in kitchens. My old man had a restaurant—restaurant, it was a steakhouse—and I spent a lot of time there, first as a kid running around the place, then as a teenager washing pots, bringing out the garbage, even doing some basic prep, but always, as I remember—and no disrespect to the old man here—always dreaming of what it’d be like to work in a proper kitchen. By this I think I probably meant the kitchen of some place like the Four Seasons on 52nd Street, which I’d once seen an article about in a trade magazine. But with visions of pristine chef whites and brushed-steel surfaces etched in my mind, sustaining me, I never thought I’d end up working in a place that served food you’d be embarrassed to feed to a dog—food that was tasteless, highly processed, and basically inedible. The stuff still had to be cooked, though, and the job of doing that, it turns out, was an actual job, and a well-paying one—something that at the time I really needed.
The chow hall was at Forward Operating Base Sharista in Nangarhar Province and was one of countless food-service facilities privately operated by Gideon Logistics. That meant production-line industrial food shipped in frozen, then cooked (for lack of a better word) and served up to exhausted, bored, jangly nerved, hot, and, above all, hungry servicemen. Described as a “global provider of integrated supply-chain solutions,” Gideon was in Afghanistan as part of the LOGCAP IV program and had a hand in pretty much everything over there. Security, transportation, freight management, food and laundry services, sanitation—you name it, they were doing it, squeezing every last dollar out of the war before the fucking thing ground to a halt.
I’d only been there for four months, shipped over myself like a box of frozen burger patties after I answered an ad and signed up for what promised to be a lucrative two-year contract with above-average benefits and good rotation cycles. They were looking for food-service managers, chefs, line cooks, whatever, to help run their various overseas facilities, most of which were located in environments ranging, the ad said, from “potentially hostile” to “extremely dangerous.” In short, the work would be “demanding, but rewarding.” Kate was dead set against it, of course—why would you put yourself in that position when you didn’t have to—but all I could see were the numbers. I’d already been in Iraq—done two tours there—so I wasn’t intimidated by the war-zone thing, and I had sufficient food-industry experience to qualify for the job. The math was simple. Two short years over there and I could earn what it would take me five or six to earn here. Which, given our financial circumstances at the time, made it a no-brainer.
It’s just that, I suppose, go figure, things didn’t exactly work out as planned.
* * *
Every few blocks or so, stopped at the lights, I almost resolve to quit this charade and head back to the apartment. It’s Kate’s, a one-bedroom sublet in a rent-stabilized walk-up on 10th Street, so it’s small and cramped—but still, I could lie quietly on the bed, laid out like a corpse waiting to be embalmed, and she wouldn’t even have to know I was there. How different would that be from what I’m doing now, which is, supposedly—and at Kate’s gentle insistence—out looking for a job?
Or meeting people, at the very least.
Sometimes I wonder if Kate has met me.
To be fair, though, she’s doing her best. Equipped with a BA in political science from Atherton College, Kate moved to Manhattan five years ago with high hopes of … I don’t know, going to law school, eventually getting into public service, something, whatever, but after only a few months it became obvious that her chief asset, the one thing she had going for her, was this rent-stabilized sublet, because without it, bottom line, she wouldn’t be living in Manhattan, probably not even in Brooklyn. More than likely, in fact, with today’s rents, she’d be back living with her parents in Baltimore. She got the sublet through a connection of her old man’s, an ex-colleague who’d also promised to show her the ropes, even pave the way to a possible job, something decent, but unfortunately this same guy got sick, lost his job, and had to skip town, leaving Kate with the just-about-affordable apartment and the dawning realization that she had little or no prospect of getting into law school, little or no prospect of getting anything like a “decent” job, and little or no prospect of paying back her student-loan debts, which amounted to more than thirty-three thousand dollars and were probably now set to become the defining fact of her life.
And then—let there be no doubt—she met me.
* * *
I resolve once more to quit this charade and head back to the apartment, but again don’t quite manage it.
It’s like each day now is its own little tour of duty, and in that context there’s no scenario where you can just say Fuck it, let’s return to base. Think I’ll de-enlist. Don’t want to do this anymore.
I come to the lights at 42nd, stop, and look around. The big difference here is that I’m on my own. There’s no command structure, no one barking orders, no exit strategy either, or even talk of one. My four months in Afghanistan might be only just behind me, but I find that my memory, if left on autopilot, drifts more readily to Iraq. Those impressions are bigger, louder, stickier. But that’s just what they are, impressions, because I can’t pinpoint specific incidents, I don’t have recurring nightmares, there are no indelible images in my head. Other guys have stories to tell, this happened, that happened, shit they’ll never forget as long as they live, but some guys (like me, I suppose), while never really able to stop thinking about it, can’t actually fucking remember the experience in any relatable detail at all.
My days at Sharista, on the other hand, they’re in high def. It’s just that I really, really don’t want to remember them—wholesale, retail, it doesn’t matter.
On the far side of 42nd, past Bryant Park, I have what amounts to a mild panic attack, a sudden, razor-blade swipe to the gut … a constriction in the chest, then difficulty breathing. It threatens to become overwhelming, but I know from experience that it won’t. I keep walking, wrestling the sensations down, folding them into my stride.
To look at me you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. To look at me you’d think I was normal. Which I am. But isn’t that the point? People have interior lives—I do, you do, everyone walking around me here on the street does—but the sad truth is we’re all riddled with fear and insecurity. And me acting like a crazy person on the sidewalk, clutching my chest and hyperventilating—that’s not going to help anyone, it’s not going to move the situation along. Besides, I’m used to stress, and I take a certain amount of pride in being able to handle it. Not only have I spent time working in high-pressure kitchens, I’ve done basic military training, I’ve served in a war zone.
This, on the other hand … this is Midtown on a quiet, sunny morning in early spring. I have to believe I’m capable of holding it together here. Because what’s the alternative? I go apeshit? Pull a gun out? Discharge it randomly? Then what, a cop or a security guard shoots me? And that’s it? Game over for Danny Lynch—thirty-three-year-old Iraq War veteran, unemployed, disaffected, and with a history of mental health problems? That’s my fifteen minutes? “He frequently skipped his meds,” a psychiatrist I hadn’t seen in five years would be quoted as saying on Fox News. “He pretty much kept to himself,” someone else would tell Gawker. And then it would come out, the big reveal, that just three weeks earlier I had been fired by Gideon Logistics in Afghanistan after an “altercation” at the base involving some TCNs—third country nationals—and that two people had died as a result.
It’d be the perfect narrative—rounded, cautionary, easy to digest.
Just not entirely true.
Confirmation bias would take a serious hit when it emerged that I wasn’t some lone-wolf type acting out a paranoid fantasy, that I had merely witnessed the incident at Sharista, and that furthermore, several hundred other employees had been let go at the same time not due to the altercation but to the fact that Gideon was embroiled in a multibillion-dollar billing dispute with the Department of Defense and needed to implement drastic cuts.
But who would care? Who would even listen? The only thing anyone would hear is the reference to mental health problems—which is a fairly broad stroke of the brush … but let’s face it, a little ADD as a kid and some standard-issue PTSD after Iraqi Freedom, and they’ve got you on their books, marked and labeled forever.
To them, that’s who you are.
And how do you escape that? I’m not sure you can, but the thing is, when Kate and I are together … I don’t feel like I am that person. I’m more grounded. I’m less likely to spiral out of control. I have space to breathe. And that’s one of the reasons I clear out of the apartment every day. To give her some space. In fact, she’s back there right now sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop open in front of her, learning how to code, doing an intensive online course in it. I’m not even sure I know what coding is exactly, but Kate has read that it’s the absolute must-have skillset of the future, that knowledge of HTML and CSS is the new literacy. It may not get her into law school, but she thinks it’ll be a passport to a job market one or two notches above the one she’s been in for the past few years—service positions that are themselves becoming harder to get, and if you have one, harder to hold on to, not to mention less well paid and with practically no benefits. It used to be that you could fake the necessary enthusiasm to secure one of these jobs and use it as a stepping stone to your preferred career path. But not anymore.
Over the past few years, Kate has been a waitress (at Mouzon, where we met), a legal proofreader, a temp, she’s worked at a call center, in retail, she’s babysat, walked dogs, done all sorts of stuff, and never once (in my hearing) complained about it. She hasn’t relinquished her dreams, either, and that’s saying something. For my part, I don’t have dreams. You might think I’d aspire to be a chef, or to have my own restaurant, or to be out pushing the boundaries of molecular gastronomy, but it’s just work to me, a paycheck, and I guess I’ve got the old man to thank for that. If I’m a kitchen lifer it’s because of him, but at the same time he ruined it for me by the way he let it grind him down, so whatever ambition I have now is vicarious, it’s for Kate—it’s so she doesn’t end up getting ground down. Which is what the Gideon contract was about. I’d go over to Afghanistan, do the work, put in the time, stockpile the cash, and get out. Then I’d head back to my job at Mouzon and Kate would clear her student-loan debts. We’d get some breathing space out of it—a chance to slow down, to look around, to look forward.
At least, that was the plan.
* * *
As I approach 38th Street, my cell phone vibrates. I answer it. “Hi, Kate.”
“Hi, honey, where are you?”
“Uh … Midtown,” I say quickly. “Just ran into a guy I knew from before, Sheldon Wu. He’s got an Asian fusion place in Chelsea, and one in Park Slope, but … he’s not hiring at the moment.”
Fine, that’s a lie, but it’s not as if I’m drinking shots here and playing pool—I want to have just met a guy with two fusion restaurants who almost gave me a job. That’d be awesome. Or almost awesome. I mean, what was the first thing I did when I got back from Afghanistan? Head over to Mouzon, where I’d been a line cook for nearly two years, that’s what, fully confident that they’d rehire me, but I turned the corner at Hudson and there was the place all boarded up, paint peeling off the sign, zombie-apocalypse style.
I’d only been away four months.
“It’s this economy,” the guy who owned the place told me later when I called him. “I don’t know, the customer base just isn’t there anymore.”
So I’m not exactly psyched about hustling for work. And the problem isn’t the work itself, I could do that all day, set me up at a station and I’ll zen out, but really, do I have to deal with other people?
“Well,” she says, “at least you’re putting yourself out there, right?”
“Yeah.” I slow down, stop at a store window, and study the busy display of cameras, tripods, and binoculars. “Something’ll turn up.”
“I know, but for your sake, Danny, pray it doesn’t involve writing code. Anyway, listen, I just picked up the mail and there’s a letter for you, it’s from Gideon.”
I freeze. “What does it say?”
“I don’t know. It’s addressed to you.”
“Well, go ahead,” I say, pressing the phone against my ear. “Open it.”
I hear her tearing the envelope, pulling out the letter, silence for a moment, then a barely audible intake of breath.
I close my eyes. “What?”
“They’re … they’re withholding your last check.”
“Jesus.” I open my eyes. “On what grounds?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Kate, on what grounds?”
“Wait a sec, I’m trying to read it. Uh … suspected violation of … GO-1C? Does that make any sense?”
“General order number one, yeah it makes sense, except that it fucking doesn’t.” I turn from the window display and gaze out across Sixth. My final paycheck from Gideon Logistics is due next week and I need it. We need it. What are these pricks up to? “Does it say anything else?”
“There’s a long bit about … termination of contract, stipulations, regulatory something, pursuant to … I don’t know, it’s all legalese, I’d need to read it closely. But Jesus, can they really do this?”
I swallow hard, the ground beneath my feet beginning to melt, the avenue itself beginning to spin. I lean back against the window.
“Look,” I say, almost in a whisper—and conscious that I’m speaking to a person who believes in the legal system, who actually wants to some day be a lawyer—“the truth is, these people can do whatever the fuck they want.”
* * *
Once she’s established that I don’t have any other “appointments” set up for the rest of the day, Kate insists that I come back to the apartment.
I get an F train to 14th Street, an L over to Third Avenue, and walk the remaining few blocks to our building, slowing down the closer I get.
I’ve never been good at looking for work, but in a weird way that’s never mattered because work has always found me. After the old man died, and the place closed, plenty of other kitchen opportunities opened up for me in Asheville—which was maybe why it took me three more years to get the fuck out of there and why my route out was the recruiting station.
After Iraq—two fifteen-month tours with six months in between—I spent a whole year doing nothing, living in a cousin’s house, smoking weed, going through a box of old paperbacks that I found in the basement, and trying to figure out who or what I was. Then one day a guy from my old company called up and said, if memory served, I was a kitchen guy, right, and did I want a job in New York, that he and his brother were opening a place and needed to build a crew. So I figured that’s what I was, a kitchen guy, and why fight it? Anyway, that particular venture didn’t work out, but it did lead, in turn, to the Mouzon gig and two years of steady employment. The money was lousy, though, so when I saw an ad for the position with Gideon, I jumped at it.
I get to the entrance of our building on 10th Street and suddenly feel sick, like I’m going to puke right there on the sidewalk. I haven’t eaten, so there’s nothing to puke, but the feeling persists. I go inside, along the narrow hallway, and up the stairs, hoping I don’t run into anybody. I don’t like this place, and although it made sense for me to move in, which I did about a year ago, I half suspect that one of the attractions of shipping out to Afghanistan was to get away from here—not away from Kate, away from this damp and cluttered little apartment of hers. I don’t have nightmares about Iraq, go figure, but I do have nightmares about this place, about still having to trudge up these stairs when I’m forty, or about being trapped here, say, with a baby.
Which is something we’ve discussed.
With my key out, I get to our door and open it. Kate looks up from the table, a smile on her face. It quickly fades. She’s out of the chair in an instant, but in the next I’m in the bathroom, retching into the toilet bowl. Not long after this, we’re both at the table, poring over the letter, dissecting it, parsing the language—one minute convinced it’s nothing more than a stalling tactic, the next that Gideon doesn’t just intend to withhold my last paycheck but might actually be threatening me with some form of legal action as well.
After a while I stand up and walk over to the refrigerator. I take out a bottle of water and knock a third of it back in one go. Screwing the cap on again, I look at Kate. She’s small and slim, with bright blue eyes and shoulder-length red hair. At times, in her black-rimmed glasses and plain black T-shirt, she can seem fairly intense, but she’s also thoughtful and circumspect, good qualities, I’m sure, for a lawyer—at least the kind she wants to be. Speaking of which, there’s a conversation we haven’t had since I got back, an interrogation she hasn’t conducted, and I have to say I admire her restraint in not initiating it. What really happened over there? That’s all she’d have to say to get the ball rolling. And I’d tell her. I wouldn’t lie. But she hasn’t asked. When I spoke to her on the phone a couple of days before I shipped back, I tried to explain how these staff cuts were the result of a massive lawsuit Gideon was involved in and that, because of an early release clause in my contract, there was nothing I could do about it. Besides—I was at pains to add—maybe my timing hadn’t been so great. The war was winding down, after all, and troops were coming home.
This was greeted with the kind of silence that told me she knew I was full of shit.
Since there were more important things to focus on when I got back, such as what to do next, there didn’t seem to be much point in conducting a postmortem, in trying to pick apart a decision that couldn’t be reversed, so it became the official line, and nothing more was said about it.
But with this letter now and its veiled threat of litigation, I won’t have any choice but to talk about it. There’s pride in the mix too. Kate never liked the idea of me going to Afghanistan, never approved of Gideon Logistics, and I sort of ended up defending them, being all hard-nosed and pragmatic about it. I don’t usually have a problem admitting that I’m wrong, but when it’s this spectacularly wrong? You need a little lead time.
It’s been three weeks, though. How much longer do I need?
Kate holds up the letter, and shakes her head. “I just … I don’t understand this, Danny.”
I put the water back in the fridge. I close the door and lean against it. “That’s because there’s something I haven’t told you.”
She stares at me, her eyes widening.
If the fridge behind me didn’t have such a loud hum, she’d probably be able to hear my heart beating from the other side of the table.
“There was an incident at the base,” I say, “something pretty horrible, something that I witnessed, and I wasn’t the only one, but for some reason they’re trying to implicate me in it, with this letter, and … the thing is, I don’t understand it either.”
Any lawyerly composure Kate has falls away and, for a brief moment, the look on her face displays a nervousness, a reluctance to hear what I have to say that almost equals my own reluctance to say it.
But then her composure returns.
“What is it, Danny?” she says in a whisper, leaning back in the chair. “What happened?”
Copyright © 2016 Alan Glynn.
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Alan Glynn is a graduate of Trinity College. His first novel, Limitless, was released as a film in March 2011 by Relativity Media. He is also the author of Winterland and Bloodland. He lives in Ireland.