/ 18 May 2020

‘Adaptation’: New short fiction from Phumlani Pikoli

Graphic Fri Pikoli Website 1000px
(John McCann/ M&G)

The pairing should have made immediate sense to anyone paying half a mind to them — had they been existing on parallel timelines separated by a decade? They were cool nerds who would eventually herald in a new image of what it meant to know things in media; the American bully as the cool guy export had grown tired. The character resembled too much in archetype what the country did to the rest of the world. If the branding were to lift, the frontman needed to change. It needed a relatability, likeability and trustworthy sincerity that spoke to the ever-growing appreciation of individual compassion. 

They met over a game of pool at a dive bar that Ira didn’t want to be at. His colleague had dragged him over there after a late night spent on a story that they were proud of, though they were certain it would be their least popular. Ira and Spike offered to get the next round of drinks while everyone else finished off the first game. 

They shared similarities that made the rest of the group wonder aloud how it was that they were only meeting each other for the first time and whether they were sure that one of their parents hadn’t lied about having a second family. Spike had introduced himself to Ira with his given birth name — Adam. The two hit it off instantly and could often tell where the other’s joke was going, giving each other opportunities to ad-lib their punchlines. 

Ira was 10 years Spike’s senior, which they figured meant that their actual coexistence was a joke God was telling through giving them separate temporal planes in the imagination of Charlie Kauffman. They shared an eerie fit of laughter with each other, to the amusement of their friends, who had become increasingly lost in their similarly profound philosophical musings and observations. 

They were the last of their friends to leave the bar, the others having left with a bemused regret for orchestrating the meeting. Their swift journey from not knowing each other to creating a fraternal pact that excluded everyone else had made their friends wary that they were the butts of their silent snorts of laughter. They further lost the others via their use of coded social observations that neither felt the need to explain. They had built a world between themselves in a relatively short time, meaning no outsiders could enter. 

By the time they had moved to the next bar, they had both committed to the night ending when it wanted to, and not because of their age limitations. The pair had overt similarities, punctuated by differences in appearance, speech and thought. Ira had book smarts and had probably been part of his high school’s AV club and editorial team. He seemed the kind of outlier who teachers would have found frustrating: not because he wasn’t full of intellectual potential, but because he would have been asking the kinds of questions that they themselves hadn’t started asking until the final years of college. He described himself as talentless, but interested. 

“I think that having a focused interest on anything, will always yield a lot more of the world to you than purely relying on talent, you know what I mean?” he asked Spike as they downed spiced tequila shots at the Mexican bar they’d made their second location of the night. 

Spike squinted his eyes slightly and looked at the liquor display on the shelves behind the behemoth who had served them. The words made more sense to him than he could express to Ira in the moment. Ira, for his part, didn’t need much outside this tacit acceptance. As Spike contemplated the universe of bottles, Ira used the opportunity to survey their new haunt. They were easily the oldest people there, but he made himself feel better about it by considering the other patrons as potential subjects. Before he could get too lost in his excuses, Spike returned him to the bar with a hand on the shoulder and a cheap Mexican beer on offer. 

Sitting at the bar, they questioned their collective identity and meaning in the context of work. They spoke of areas of expertise that sought to remove human contact from their entire existence, and how experts elevated themselves as selfless beacons of importance by claiming that their work was of higher significance for their lack of recognition. They laughed at the absurdity of self-righteous obscurity that could only exist via peer review and collective human interest. 

Spike had earned his geeky place in pseudo-punk and artistic circles by being a constant presence. He had realised early on that imagined social orders made very little sense even to those who tried to participate in or enforce them. He had got over a lot of stupid ideas about social obligations early on and like Ira, he didn’t believe talent was the apex of success. Also like Ira, he had remained interested and sought to magnify his interests. Unlike Ira, Spike had maintained proximity to talent to mine that interest into something he could live with. 

“Even if you’re like, not good at something that you really enjoy doing, I think it’s like, really important to get really good at breaking the rules of that thing. ’Cause then it’s like, when you break enough of them, you find that you might have this whole new thing that you really enjoy doing. And you’ll probably be the only one who’s like really good at that one thing … at least for a while.” He drained his beer. 

Ira had been enthusiastically nodding in agreement with Spike’s every sentiment. They needed more drinks, conversations and probably a jukebox. 

As they rattled off their neurotic tics and unlayered their approaches to work, both pairs of their glasses took turns to be lopsided on their respective faces, and each increasingly felt like the other was the Charlie to their Donald Kauffman. They fumbled while rummaging through their thoughts about who that would make their Nicholas Cage skin suit. They shared an animated laugh at the nonsensical thoughts. 

The evening had yielded the exact result that it was meant to. The regret would belong to those who had seen the potential that would explode from the pair. It was a cross-section of culture very few could have imagined would have ever come into existence. It wasn’t something even the pair would have entertained had it been suggested to them. Therefore, that fateful bar introduction was a stroke of genius. Without it, the world would have never been given the Podcast and TV show: This American Jackass

Phumlani Pikoli is a multidisciplinary artist. He had his multi-sensory exhibition with the British Council in South Africa and Tmrw Mixed Reality Workshop, based on his  acclaimed debut collection of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity  In January 2020. His debut novel Born Freeloaders was released in 2019 and published by Pan Macmillan.