Excerpt From an Autobiography

Brad Phillips

In 2004 I was thirty when marijuana told me I’d come up with a brilliant idea for an artwork.

I’d recently received a large grant from the government to make art ‘’outside my area of expertise’, which back then was painting.

I found a private detective in the phonebook and called him. I wanted someone out of central casting. He had the perfect name, Archie. I imagined a fat, bald, sphere of a man whose ears sprouted hair resembling the ends of paintbrushes. His voice was scratchy with the static erosion of a chainsmoker. I said I wanted him to follow someone, photograph them with telephoto lenses, and stake out their apartment at night - everything I’d seen private detectives do on television and in movies throughout my life.

I’ve heard people say that their relationship with television has been the longest and most stable one they’ve ever had.

I offered him ten percent more than his daily rate so long as he didn’t say I was crazy.

He said okay then asked who the target was. I told him I was the target.

I said I wanted to be followed, photographed with a telephoto lens, and watched from his car while he ate donuts and drank coffee.

 Archie said, “What are you, crazy?” 

I told him no then showed him a roll of cash so large I’d used a zip tie to keep it cylindrical. I then informed him his bonus would be cut to five percent for insinuating I was crazy, which was the one word I specifically forbade him from using.

After some bullshit Archie agreed to take my case, promised me he’d be discreet, then appeared confused as to who that discretion would help. Five hundred a day plus expenses he said.  I felt a week would give him enough time to collect enough documentation to satisfy me. With his now diminished bonus, that was five-twenty-five a day times seven. Imagining him fueled solely by coffee and pizza bagels, it’d cost me around four of the twenty-five thousand dollars I’d received. 

What a deal I told myself. 

One week later I met Archie at an old diner on Broadway called The Ovaltine. 

I’d once had an astonishing experience there involving an old man’s ten-minute journey from the bathroom to the front door. As he shuffled along I watched, mystified by science, feces, gravity and floor wax, as the bottom of his pants began to expose a pencil thin, unbroken and resilient piece of shit. He shat his pants as he walked, then pinched it off where the entrance met the sidewalk. Once he left I looked with astonishment, along with Lucy, the proprietor (who was reasonably disgusted and disheartened) at what he’d left behind. It looked like a telephone cable had been laid across the linoleum floor.

On the day Archie came to meet me, the unprecedented shit had been cleaned up. There were no scientists present. No children on a school trip, bussed in to study the mystery of matter’s relationship to viscosity.  

Through satisfyingly cinematic cigarette smoke, Archie slid a fat manila envelope across the table.  He looked very similar to Ed Asner, who must’ve played a private eye once during his long and prodigious career.

I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by the contents of the envelope. Back then I only went outside to get groceries, cigarettes and Coca-Cola. Were he to use a telephoto lens to photograph me in my house, I knew what those photos would depict: me and my couch. Me on the couch masturbating, me on the couch watching television, me on the couch scratching myself. While my activities would vary, the couch would appear in every photograph. 

I wanted physical artefacts confirming my suspicion that I did essentially nothing with my life. 

As soon as I removed the photos from the envelope my bowels felt uneasy and I began to sweat. There was no couch in the pictures, no masturbation, no bong hits and no Law and Order SVU. Instead I saw myself jogging. I saw myself heading to the doctor’s office. I saw myself in social situations. I saw myself paying rent on the first of the month and I saw myself in pants that had zippers and buttons - which is to say, I saw myself trying. Archie must’ve read the astonishment in my face, because he asked what was wrong. I told him nothing was wrong, thanks for indulging me, take care of yourself, chief.

“I didn’t know you drove a Hyundai,” he said, “your left back light is burnt out, I’d get that fixed.” 

  I looked behind me for the waitress so I could get the cheque. When I turned back Archie was gone. Anxious to leave I put the photos back in the envelope then left a twenty on the table to cover our two coffees, Archie’s western omelette and my grilled cheese sandwich, from which I’d taken a single bite that was hard to swallow.

I wanted to scream but didn’t.

Outside on Broadway surrounded by drug addicts I did scream, then someone next to me screamed, then everyone began screaming. I took the photos out again and scrutinized the face of the man Archie had followed. Down to the last detail, including an unseemly pimple on the left nostril I’d been contending with all week, the person I was looking at was both me and not me. While I’d experienced delusions in the past, they were usually about my intelligence and sex appeal. I’d never once crossed over into hallucination, never imagined my dog speaking to me or my hibiscus recording my conversations. While pulling a cigarette from my pocket, I told myself to think, which for me is typically a bad idea.

 Archie had done his job and earned his money. I couldn’t blame him for my sudden entanglement in a cosmological clusterfuck. I’d paid him to put me there for the blue book value of a 1997 Nissan Altima. 

I ‘found myself at the precipice’.  I had no choice but to accept the unacceptable, fathom the unfathomable. Or, more colourfully, to do as Reggie Miller, providing commentary fifteen years later during Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, suggested to the Golden State Warriors: confront “the rhyme which cannot be reasoned with.”

Face it Brad, I said out loud. Someone had heard ‘base hit’, and I declined a rock of crack cocaine.

Whoever Archie had photographed, they undoubtedly shared my name and appearance. They weren’t a doppelganger, or someone uncannily resembling me. Archie had photographed a duplicate, a replica, an alternate version of myself. He’d provided evidence of bilocation, the phenomena of being in two different places at once. But because this was an unfamiliar version of myself, he’d also revealed the possible reality of clonal pluralization of the self - a rare psychiatric disorder (or ontological truth) wherein a person believes that multiple copies of themselves exist, identical both anatomically and psychologically, yet physically separate and distinct.

This could be the Brad who went to university, instead of the Brad who didn’t. Uneducated Brad I saw in the mirror daily. Now this other Brad and I lived simultaneously, going about our business in the same city in the same space time continuum. There could be others. Jesus, the poor things. After seeing the photos I devoted many years of my life to intensive and obscure research, ironically creating a new and different me. A Brad who had turned his back on what could’ve been a somewhat fruitful career in the arts, searching instead for some ‘deeper truth’.

The question was why I, some utterly hapless dipshit, had been given proof of what was then simply conjecture. 

I existed not just boringly in the world I knew of, but differently, joggingly, in some parallel universe beyond all human understanding. 

I couldn’t lie to myself. After seeing this robust other Brad, I had to admit I’d set my bar quite low and could be doing so much more with my life. The next day I bought running shoes. Six months later I threw the unworn shoes away but kept the box, using it for what shoeboxes are truly meant for, the storage of photographs. I had close to a thousand, having spent the previous six months surveilling this much more fit, and visibly happier version of myself.

WIth all the walking and driving involved, I also spent much less time on my couch.

Brad Phillips' first novel, You Don't Have to Die, will be published by Tyrant Books in 2021. In 2019 Tyrant published his first collection of short stories, Essays & Fictions. He lives in Miami Beach, Florida.