Weekend Fiction: The Tube Men by Spencer Fleury

In Tokyo men live in tubes just long enough to lie down in. These tubes form a honeycomb, stacked three high, each with a built-in TV screen the size of a cereal box and a flimsy privacy curtain strung across the opening. Carl had read somewhere that there are entire hotels of these ultra-spartan accommodations, each floor stuffed with pods upon pods of anonymous salarymen, no room for much of anything beyond the occupant and his thoughts. He was impressed with that kind of asceticism, that willingness to live without in a city where there was just so much of everything, people, food, bacteria, stimuli, perversion. No, more than just impressed. Fixated was more like it. Lately he could think of little else.

“It’s not because they don’t want any more space,” Sara pointed out one night over a glass of viognier on the back patio. “They’re stockbrokers or whatever, not monks. They want space, believe me. They just can’t afford it. Everyone knows Tokyo is crazy expensive. It's the most expensive city in the world.”

“Not this year,” Carl said. He tried to tune out the frantic buzzing of the cicadas, that indigenous dinner music of summers in the Deep South, but could not. He scowled. The very sound of it made him sweat. “Forbes says it's Hong Kong.”

“Same difference. Anyway, the point is, if they could get a decent two-bedroom in a rent-controlled building, they’d be all over it. Especially if there's a washer-dryer hookup.” Which is exactly what the article had said, but for Carl, that was beside the point. His whole life, he had carried around a mental inventory of appliances and gadgets that, taken together, set out the implicit baseline requirements of civilized life. A car. An iPod, or before that, a Walkman. Cable TV with 300 high-definition premium channels. A microwave oven. A tablet.

But the tube men, they needed none of those things. They needed nothing, and because of that, they had everything.

“I think the microwave is broken,” Sara told him the next afternoon. She fiddled with the power cord and poked at the front panel’s inert buttons. No happy little electronic chirps came in response this time, as they always had before. Her fingertips tapped out an impatient staccato pattern against the granite countertop.

“Perfect,” Carl said. “Let’s not get a new one.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, squinting at him. “They’re like eighty bucks at Best Buy.”

“I’m serious,” he said.

“Whatever.” She let the cord drop onto the counter. “I have to water the plants.”

Carl didn't move from his chair, didn't shift his gaze from his laptop as she left. He had no intention of going to Best Buy that day, or the next, or the next day after that. Instead, he started cooking slow dinners over the gas flame of the stovetop. He reheated leftovers the same way. He made popcorn in a cavernous, heavy pot with some canola oil. And he knew that soon he would discover that he had no real need for a microwave. He never did, really, and probably never would again.

“You see?” he said to her one day, weeks later, as he warmed up some leftover barbecued chicken thighs on the stove. “No cold spots in the center. Who needs a microwave?”

“It takes so long though,” she said. “And everything always comes out burnt.”

“It’s just a matter of adjusting. You’ll get the hang of it.”

“I don’t want to get the hang of it. What I want is a microwave. I haven’t lived without a microwave since … actually I’ve never not had one, now that I think of it. I grew up civilized.”

“Oh, just relax,” he said. “We’re still alive, still civilized. The only difference is we can’t melt a brick of frozen lasagna in the time it takes to walk out to the mailbox and back.” He smiled as he said this. He did not consider it to be any sort of deprivation.

Maybe that's how it starts, he thought. Maybe it's a matter of shedding the easy stuff first. Leaving the low-hanging fruit on the branches. Just start passively, and work up to discarding the perfectly good yet still non-essential.

Once you realize how unnecessary a thing really is, he realized, not having it is no longer a sacrifice.

Maybe that’s how the tube men did it.

The next week, on Thursday, Sara came home from work carrying an unboxed 42-inch LCD television. She nearly tripped over the power cord dangling in front of her feet before she could set the TV on the dining room table, where Carl was working.

“Careful,” he said. “You’ll nick the wood. I don’t want to have to refinish this table again.”

“Why was this by the garbage?” she asked him. “Is it broken? You know we can't just dump this stuff in with the regular trash. It has to go to the hazardous waste place.”

“It's not broken,” he said.

“Then why was it out there?”

“We don't need it.”

“Okay,” she said. “I'm going to go plug this back in. You just leave it where it is from now on, understand?”

Carl left the TV alone after that. But on Wednesday morning of the following week, he drove his navy blue Volvo to the SouthPointe Towne Centre, a crumbling shopping mall in a faceless suburb about fifteen miles north of his house. He parked it in the asphalt savanna in front of the JC Penney's before stopping in at the food court in the center of the mall, where he bought a jumbo chocolate chip cookie and a large Dr. Pepper at the Classic Cookie.

“That's a jumbo?” he asked the teenager behind the counter. The kid shrugged.

Carl took a bite from his cookie - it had spent about two minutes too long in the oven, he could tell - and went outside to wait for the next bus. The only other people waiting were a couple of pallid, cigarette-smoking teenagers who glared at Carl when he noticed them. The number six bus picked him up about forty minutes later and, after taking him on a rambling path through countless acres of 1970s-vintage tract housing, dropped him off more than two miles from his house. All told, it took him over three hours to get home.

“Where's your car?” Sara asked him when she got home. She plopped her cavernous purse on the table and began digging through it. “Did you have to take it in? I keep telling you we should get you something else. Volvos are overrated anyway.”

“I think it was stolen,” he mumbled. She stopped what she was doing and looked up.

“Stolen? You think?” She waited for a response. “What does that mean, you think? When's the last time you saw it? Did you call the police?”

“I haven't seen it since this morning,” he said. “And I was going to file a report but I got busy with work.”

“Okay,” she said. “I'm going to call them now.”

The police called Sara back the next day to tell her the car had been found.

“That was fast,” she said.

“It was parked illegally,” the officer told her. “That's how we spotted it so quick. Also, you shouldn't leave the keys inside like that. That's just asking for trouble. So when can you come and get it? We start charging for storage after three days.”

“You left the car at the mall?” she asked Carl. “How did you get home?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he said.

“You tricked me into filing a false police report,” she said. “That's a crime, you know. That car wasn't stolen at all, was it? What, were you trying to collect the insurance or something?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he said again, then looked up from his computer. Sara was watching him, her mouth drawn in a tight line, her eyes sharp. “But even if I did, so what? I hate cars. I hate having to drive anytime I want to go somewhere. I hate that cars are, are, are some kind of, like, an unofficial requirement for meaningful participation in society.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Sara asked. But he didn't hear her.

“I mean, look at what mandatory car ownership has done to the American landscape.” He felt his face going purple already, but he kept going. “It's turned countless acres of open and productive farmlands and pastures into ugly, wasteful sprawl. The car, man, it's killing us as a society. Killing us. We're, we're, we're all choking to death on exhaust fumes here.”

“I see,” she said. “So to fix all that, you decided to trick me into filing a false police report.”

Carl took a slow breath to give his tongue the second or two it needed to catch up with his brain. “I didn't trick you into anything. I didn't leave the car there. But you know what, I wish I had. There is nothing, nothing in my life I would rather jettison than that car.”

And he had almost pulled it off. He had been so close.

“Then just sell it, for Christ's sake,” she said. “And be done with it.”

Maybe I will, he thought. But he hated selling things almost as much as he hated cars. It just felt more natural to abandon it instead.

A few days later, Carl went out for a run in the afternoon. Running was a new thing for him, but he was already certain it was exactly what he’d been looking for. It required no gym membership, no equipment, no special clothing. Just legs and lungs and shoes, and he already had all of those things. They would all fit in the tube with him, once he finally got to live in one. That thought, of life in a tube, a future life of simplicity and zen, kept him going as he ran, until his knees ached and his lungs itched and burned, and then he kept on going, his body screaming at him to stop, please god just stop already, until he had no choice but to obey. Then he walked home and let himself in through the back door.

He might not have even noticed the brand new microwave oven, all glass and polished chrome and hogging most of the available space on his kitchen counter, except he tripped over the cardboard box it came in. The box sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, its top flaps hanging open and looking exhausted and limp, as if it had just given birth and expelled its progeny with enough force to launch it all the way up onto to the counter.

“What the hell is this?” he asked the empty room.

Carl ran a finger along the top of the microwave, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was really there. The plastic film from the factory was still stuck to the window on its door. Sitting there wedged between the bread machine and the espresso maker, the damn thing looked very much at home in its spot - almost smug, even. Carl was sure it was mocking him.

“Did you say something?” Sara appeared in the doorway.

He pointed at the microwave. “What the hell, Sara?”

She sighed and folded her arms and leaned against the door jamb. “Don't you think that all... this has gone on long enough?”

“What are you talking about? No. Of course not. I'm living more with less and I like it. I love it.”

“Well I don't,” she said. “I'm sick of having to spend half an hour heating up leftovers. I'm sick of not being able to cook my Lean Cuisines. I don't really understand what you're doing, but it's stupid and pointless and you are never going to live in a goddamn tube, so just give it up already.”

“How could you say that to me?” He grabbed a bottle of water out of the fridge and turned to face the sink, his back to Sara, before opening it.

“When you see yourself living in this tube,” she said, “am I there too? Is there any room for me?”

He took a long swallow from the bottle before answering. “I guess that would depend on the size of the tube,” he said. “And how much stuff you wanted to bring. But it's possible, I guess. Maybe. I don't know.”

She shook her head. “What kind of an answer is that?”

It was an answer he'd been working on for some time, and he still didn't have it right, he knew that, even though he'd been anticipating the question ever since he began working on tube-sizing his entire life. Just in case he ever actually got the chance to live in one for real. But the things that weighed him down - the television, the car - kept finding their way back to him. It was almost as if he couldn't get rid of anything, like the universe wouldn't let him shed the ballast it had fastened to him.

Later that night, over a plate of mushroom and bacon risotto, he had an epiphany, one so powerful he had to set his fork down for a moment.

“Are you okay?” Sara said. “You’ve been acting weird.”

Of course, he thought. Of course of course of course.

“The biggest we got is a 55 gallon model,” the man told him over the phone the next day. “What were you looking to use it for?”

“How wide is the opening?” Carl asked.

“Lemme see here… says 23 and three-eighths of an inch.”

“And they're what, three feet tall or so?”

“Not quite,” the man said. “More like 34 and a half inches. So, almost.”

“Hmmmmm.” That would be a tight fit, even for Carl. Still, he was sure it could be done. He had seen people putting dead bodies in large plastic drums in movies and on TV. Some of those bodies had been a lot fatter than he was. “I think I'd better get three,” he said. “Can I pick them up tomorrow?”

The next day he cut the bottoms off all three barrels, duct-taped the ends together and laid them all out on the living room floor, directly beneath the television he'd tried to throw away. There it was. His very own tube, the bright yellow plastic almost glowing in the sunlight from the picture window. There was no privacy curtain, no tiny television screen. But the amenities would come. Or maybe they wouldn't. He hadn't decided yet. First he had to figure out how much it could hold.

He opened the hall closet, pulled out a goose-down comforter, shoved it into the tube and tamped it down around the bottom. Then he grabbed his favorite pillow and climbed in. His shoulders cleared the tube with a few inches to spare, and he had plenty of extra room at both ends. Lying down wasn't especially comfortable because he couldn't lay flat, thanks to the curvature of the tube itself. A good engineer should have thought of that, he chided himself.

Still. This could work. It could.

He'd need more than bedding to live in a tube. He was afraid to even try to sleep without his CPAP machine, even though his doctor had told him several times that his apnea wasn't all that severe. And he couldn't sleep without his white noise machine even if he wanted to, because he needed something to drown out the sound of his own breathing. The air whistling through his nostrils often kept him awake indefinitely. So those things were must-keeps, and he set them both down in the empty space at the top of the tube, up near his head.

What else? Books and clothes, Carl told himself. And my laptop, for work. I can get along fine without anything else. He climbed out of the tube and looked up at the overstuffed bookcase on the other side of the room. Books—his books, mostly—spilled out of it.

He pulled one book - Programming in Python - from the shelf. Did he need this anymore? He knew Python. He used it regularly. Did he really need a reference guide that was years out of date compared to the information he could find online?

But how will people know I'm a programmer if I don't have any programming books on my shelf?

Wait. What kind of shelf space would he have in a tube? And it's not like he was planning to have guests over. Hey, why don't you guys come on over Friday and see the tube? It's where I keep my programming library, so in case you didn't believe me when I told you that's what I did for a living, I can prove it by showing you some books.

He stood there, cradling the book in his hands for another minute and a half before setting it on the floor. This is the keep pile, he decided. Over the next half hour, the keep pile grew larger and larger as Carl pulled title after title off the shelves. Sometimes he flipped through the pages and pretended he hadn't yet made up his mind to keep it. Others just went straight from shelf to pile, until there were more books in the keep pile than there were left in the bookcase.

I'll come back to that, he thought. Maybe focusing on clothes would be easier. All he really needed was a couple pairs of jeans, a pair of shoes, some socks and underwear, and some shirts. Maybe a jacket. Clothes would be easy.

Carl's t-shirts had all been stuffed into translucent plastic tubs - three of them, he'd bought them at the Container Store years ago—which he kept under the bed. He dragged them out, then stood back and apprised them, hands on hips. There had to be more of them in there than he could wear in a month. How the hell did this happen? he wondered. Hadn't he just given away a whole box of them to the Salvation Army a few months back?

He pulled the shirts out of their tubs, one at a time, and examined each one, looking for holes or frayed stitching, stretched necks or permanent stains. Anything that might give him an excuse to discard it. But he’d already given all those shirts away. Most of the ones he had left were grey or off-white and had come from one of the countless technology industry conferences he’d attended over the years. Others advertised bookstores or record stores in some faraway city. Those were mostly black. Here was one from the British Museum. He had bought this one during his trip to London, the day before the Underground bombing in 2005.

What did it all amount to? Wearable documentation of all the places he'd been. Nothing more. Do I need that if I remember the experience? That's enough. Isn't it?

Carl scooped up as many shirts as he could carry and hauled them into the living room, dropping them onto the keep pile. He crouched down, yanked the bedding out of the tube and started lining the bottom with books, until they formed a nearly-even surface. He stuffed the bedding back in, spreading it across the platform of books, and climbed back inside. His face was now so close to the top of the tube that he could feel his own breath refracting off the plastic and dissipating around his face each time he exhaled.

“What the hell is this?” Sara asked.

Shit, he thought. Is it 5:30 already?

“It's my tube,” Carl said from inside it. “I made a tube. What do you think?”

“It's a goddamn mess is what I think,” she said. He could see her form only as a shadow falling across his tube. She was an outline, a blur, a slight cosmetic blemish in the plastic. “There's stuff everywhere. What the hell, Carl?”

“I'm deciding what I can live without,” he said. “I need to see it all in front of me.”

“I see something I can definitely live without,” she said. “This - whatever it is. This tube. And everything in it, Carl. Everything.”

“Well as it turns out, there actually isn't any room for you in here anyway.”

“Okay. Well I'm leaving, so that's just fine,” she said. “I'm leaving you to your tube. I've had enough of all this bullshit of yours. I'm going to my sister's. Take a few days and get this… thing out of here. Take whatever else you need. But I don't want to see you or it when I come back.”

“I'm not actually going to live in here, you know. Not in this one, anyway. This is just a test. A lifestyle prototype.”

“Goodbye, Carl,” he heard her say from the foyer. Her heels clacked across the tiled floor.

“Don't forget the microwave,” he called after her, but the door slammed just as his mouth began to form the m sound.

He stayed in the tube after she left. He didn't know how long, but it was long enough for the light inside the tube to fade from a synthetic dandelion tint into a washed out gray. The room was silent. Carl realized he had to pee. What did the tube men do when they had to go? The article hadn't said. Did they use adult diapers? Did they all share a communal bathroom? That seemed to Carl like a loophole, a cheat, a way to have something without taking responsibility for the fact that you want it.

The pressure on his bladder grew more insistent. He ignored it.

The room was dark now, really dark.

Carl lay there, perfectly still, his mind finally as quiet as the rest of the house. After a while he didn't feel the pressure on his bladder anymore. He snaked his arm into the empty space above his head and felt around until he found the remote control, and then the TV screen suddenly bathed the tube in its electric blue light. He couldn’t see anything from inside the tube, but he didn’t care. He could hear it - grating voices in a pawn shop somewhere, bickering over how much money they wanted in exchange for some of the things that had long ago come to own them - and that was enough. This is okay, he thought. Even the tube men get their own televisions.


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