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  • peterfdavid

Primal Grotesque

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

When I moved into my late mom’s house, I was still optimistic about my future. I imagined the next part of my life would be like the montage scene in a movie where the main character works hard, overcomes whatever is at the heart of his problems, and gets back on his feet. This was the part where I was supposed to find my inner strength, or find a new talent, or find God. I found none of those things. Instead, something found me.

What happened to send me crawling back to that shabby house way out in Packwood? What did I need to overcome and come back from? Just a run-of-the-mill middle-aged flame-out. Layoff. Divorce. Bankruptcy. The kind of stuff that’s personally devastating when it happens to you, but devastatingly boring when it happens to someone else. So I’ll give you the super-abbreviated version of my life’s nosedive straight into the ground - just enough detail to help you understand why Primal Grotesque decided to torment and consume me.

Here’s the root cause of my life turning into a smoking crater: It turns out that I’m an asshole. According to my ex-wife, both my kids, and my former employer, I’m an asshole. Even my mom (she's dead now, but when I was the only one taking care of her), called me an asshole. You know that part of the game show Family Feud where the host shouts “Survey Says?” and the most popular answer shows up on the screen? Picture that part of the show, and “Steve is an asshole” is revealed. The studio audience cheers.

“Sorry,” I tell the studio audience in my imagination. “Sorry I wasn’t a fun person while I was holding down a job and taking care of my dying mom. Sorry that I ran out of money.” The audience doesn’t care. They’re already bored and have no use for me.

My savings. My investments. My retirement fund. All of them were completely cleaned out by the double whammy of the divorce and losing my job. My ex got my old house in the divorce, and I got a bankruptcy. I couch surfed for a couple of weeks after I got kicked out of my house. Her house, I mean. Finally I had no choice. It was either move back to mom’s old place or set up a tent under the highway.

I had moved mom into my place when she got really sick (Well, at that time it was still me and my wife’s place). That was about a year-and-a-half ago. Then mom went into the hospice. I never got around to selling or renting-out her house. It’s a major fixer-upper so I couldn’t sell it or rent it without first dumping a ton of cash into it. Cash I don’t have.

It took me three hours to drive from Olympia to Packwood. Half of that drive was on Washington route 12, stuck behind an endless line of slow-moving RVs and campers. I finally pulled into mom’s gravel driveway at sunset with my fuel light blinking frantically. I turned the car off and just kind-of sat in it for a while. The cedars and firs blocked the last light of sun, plunging the driveway into premature night. I had the sensation that I just completed a one-way trip. Frankly, at that point in my life I was okay with that.

Nobody had been inside mom’s house in a year and a half. The porch was slippery with soaked and rotting leaves. The house used to have a nice yard, but now it was a mess of new growth trees that were now nearly as tall as my waist. From the driveway I could see a few saplings growing out of the clogged gutters.

I hauled my stuff out of my car - just one suitcase filled with the things I still owned and a box of frozen food from Costco. Then I went inside. One trip from the car was all it took for me to move in.

The house was in pretty good shape, considering that when I moved mom out, I hadn’t done any of the preventive maintenance you’re supposed to do when you leave a house empty long-term. The fridge was pretty horrible - I hadn’t emptied it eighteen months ago. The water had evaporated from the toilets and the stink of the septic system wafted into the house. I had to run the faucets for a long time before the water wasn’t brown any more.

On the plus side, mom’s wine was still okay. Three years before she died, she got the idea that she wanted to be … I don’t know. A fun person? A party gal? I’m not sure what she was thinking, exactly, when she signed up for a wine subscription service that sent her two cases a month. She didn’t drink any of it. Nobody did. Every two weeks she hauled each case of wine they delivered off the front porch and stacked it in the room behind the kitchen. By the time I moved her out of the house, literally the entire floor area of that back room was stacked with wine boxes four deep. There must have been three hundred bottles of wine back there. Five hundred, maybe.

Her red IBM Selectric typewriter was still on the kitchen table. Computer? Word processor? Not for mom. She hand-typed letters to friends, letters to the electric company, to the editor, and to the president. A pile of her final letters sat next to the typewriter, unsent.

I spent a few hours moving the moldy food from the fridge into garbage bags, running the water, and basically tidying up the place. I didn’t want to sleep in mom’s old room so I decided to make the bed in the guest bedroom. The second bedroom was a small upstairs room with a window, a bed, and a dresser. Three of the walls were blank - painted flat white and devoid of decoration. But the wall opposite the bed had words written on it in big, professionally printed lettering:

Woe is you, a failed zero of a man.

Don’t quit this house. Don’t exit or venture out.

Just go die you bad prick.

I know that wasn’t written on the wall when I moved mom out. Did someone break in and paint this on the wall? Why? What even was this? Some kind of poem? If so, it was, frankly, really dumb.

I studied the lettering. It wasn’t just graffitied on the wall with a marker or spray paint. It was neatly printed on, like on a sign.

Years ago, I knew someone who painted “Live, Laugh, Love” on their living room wall. The corny phrase bugged the shit out of me, but I had to admit they did a nice job with the lettering. It took them all weekend, but they managed to perfectly stencil the letters onto the wall.

This bizarre message on the guest bedroom wall looked like it was printed the same way - neatly painted or stenciled on. Buy why? Was it some kind of threat?. Was it directed at me? The idea that someone would break into mom’s abandoned house and vandalize it wasn’t particularly mind-blowing, or even scary. But the weirdness of the message, and the care that someone used to paint it onto the wall spoke to a mind that was unimaginably strange. Whoever painted the message on the wall had, at one point, stood exactly where I was standing, and decided to put in a huge effort to print this message on the wall.

I went downstairs and opened one of the hundreds of bottles of wine.

I had to drink the whole bottle before the sense of unease about the message in the wall let up. I fell asleep on the living-room couch. I woke up early the next day, drank a ton of water and got to work. It was time to reinvent myself. Time to really dig into the job search and figure out the next chapter of my life.

I pushed mom’s old Selectric to one side of the kitchen table. Then I set up my laptop across from it and hotspotted it to my phone (mon never had Internet!). I bookmarked a couple dozen online job applications. I opened another bottle of wine. I wrote a cover letter template and customized it for each job I applied to. I sent in applications. I connected with recruiters on LinkedIn. The sun went down. More wine. The next day was the same, but I drank three bottles of wine.

Time passed. After a while, I measured its passing in the count of bottles consumed. Two more empties on the window sill one night. Three more joined them by the next morning. There was plenty of wine! No need to ration it. Heck, it wasn’t going to drink itself.

Eventually mornings got tough. I couldn’t dispel the hangovers with just a glass of water anymore. I threw up with increasing frequency. But no matter how much I drank the day before, and how bad my hangover was in the morning, I still always recovered in the afternoon, and was thirsty for more wine by evening.

I popped open a bottle of wine earlier and earlier each day. My afternoon drinking turned into day drinking, then morning drinking.

Even though I had been applying to any remotely-relevant job within a two-hundred mile radius, I still had no leads. No calls from recruiters. No positive responses from anyone. I eventually figured out why: The intro to my cover letter, which I pasted into every application, began like this:

To whom it may concern,

I was hopping to learn about employment opportunities in you’re organization…

“Hopping”. LIke a frog. And looking for opportunities in “you are” organization. I couldn’t believe I had made these mistakes. That I hadn’t spotted them. I dug through all my outgoing emails. These mistakes were on every application I sent in.

I’d been here for … I don’t know … long enough to drink enough wine to build a stack of empty cardboard cases to the ceiling. And all I had done was poison my job search. Before I found the typo, I was full of hope - a hundred applications sent in. Something was bound to click. But now, I realized, every employer in the state that might have even a slight interest in me had seen my dorked-up cover letter and filed my application in the bin labeled “dumbass - do not hire.”

All I had to do was double check the cover letter. That was all I had to do. But, you know, apparently I’m an asshole. I was too lazy. Too drunk. So I didn’t.

I kicked over my tower of empty wine boxes in a rage. I punched the wall. My hand broke through the drywall and I gashed open my knuckle. I watched it bleed for a minute, just because I deserved it. Then I went upstairs to look for a band-aid.

I sensed something was wrong as I stomped down the upstairs hall. I froze and looked around. Something was different. I turned in a full circle trying to spot whatever it was my lizard brain was freaking out about. It was the message on the bedroom wall!

The message was different. It was still printed in bold, professionally painted letters. But now it said:

You’re a hopping drunk frog,

quivering and zany from wine.

Jump in you’re hole with you’re bad typos and

mix up you’re contractions.

I stood in the hall, hand still bleeding, waiting for my heart to slow down. Then I quietly walked to the bedroom door. Was whoever repainted the wall still there? The room was empty. There was no sign that anyone but me had been there. The black paint of the lettering was dry. There was no trace of the previous message about me being a “zero of a man.”

I studied every inch of the wall. I ran my hand over it. I smelled the wall - there was no scent of fresh paint. The printing was perfect. The paint was dry. Whoever re-wrote the message would have had to sand and re-prime the wall, then put on a few coats of fresh paint just to cover up the old message. Once those were dry, then they could stencil on the new lettering. There was no way to do that without me noticing. I hadn’t even left the house since I moved in!

Whatever was going on here was waaaaay beyond the usual level of bullshit I’m used to. Wife of 20 years hates you - yeah, okay, that makes sense. Kids tell you they wish they had a different dad. That hurts a lot, but it’s still a normal human-being problem. But this. A, like, I don’t know … haunted wall or something? That’s new.

“No damn way!” I shouted to the empty house. My terror had been a few minutes delayed, but when it finally showed up, it was full-strength freak-out panic. I suddenly needed to get T.F. out of there. I sprinted downstairs, shoved my feet in my shoes in such a panic I didn’t realize I’d put them on the wrong feet, then sprinted out the front door.

I slipped on the wet leaves on the front porch and crashed onto my ass. I was struggling to my feet when I saw what had been done to my car. My car isn’t super interesting - just a white Chevy. Well, it was just a plain white Chevy when I drove it out here. Today, though, it had artwork on the hood. Not a picture, but words. Words written in the the same style lettering as the bedroom:

You’re a quitter and useless to the world.

Exit from the drunk zone is prohibited.

Just go back to the void.

I read it twice. I caught my breath and brushed the dead leaves off my ass. Exit from the drunk zone is prohibited - That was clearly referring to mom’s house. Just go back to the void - I did what it said. I went inside. I sat on the couch and held my head in my hands for ten minutes or maybe an hour. Then I opened another bottle of wine. Then another.

The next morning, during my hangover period and before my thirst for wine returned, I came up with a plan. Well, not exactly a plan. But an approach to problem-solving my situation. The start of an approach, anyway. I got a fresh sheet from mom’s stack of typing paper and wrote down the messages that I had seen - the two from the bedroom and the one that was printed onto the hood of my car.

Were these supposed to be poems? Text messages? Were they written by someone who didn’t speak English? The choice of words was so strange. Exit from the drunk zone is prohibited? Quivering and zany from wine? Nobody talks like that. It was like whoever came up with these nastygrams was trying to pick the weirdest combination of words they possibly could.

I had the idea that there might be some kind of secret message hidden in the words. I went into full conspiracy theorist mode. I cut out each word of each of the messages and slid them around the kitchen counter, trying to find a hidden pattern or clue. Hours passed and I still felt as clueless as when I started. I cautiously walked upstairs and peeked into the second bedroom. The message that taunted me about the typos in my cover letter was still there. I peeked out the front window. The hood of my car still told me that I was useless to the world.

I walked into the back room and grabbed another bottle of wine. Then I paused. Did I really want to drink this? Whoever or whatever was writing the messages certainly wanted me to. I put the bottle down and walked back to the kitchen.

I picked up the scissors and cut the words into individual letters. I pushed them around the counter for a while. Then I organized them alphabetically. That was when I finally saw the pattern. I re-wrote each message on a fresh sheet of paper and double checked - the pattern held. Each of the messages used every letter of the alphabet at least once.

There’s a word for a passage of text that uses every letter of the alphabet. I Googled it. It’s called a pangram. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog is a famous pangram because it uses every letter of the alphabet. The bizarro messages that appeared in the house and on my car were also pangrams.

My insight felt like a victory. But after thinking about it for a while, I realized that I was really no closer to understanding what I was experiencing. So - I’m receiving mystery messages that are pangrams, instead of just regular maniacal notes. How does that go any further to explaining this? What was I missing?

I went to the bedroom and studied the letters again closely. I went outside and scrutinized the lettering on my car. Like the words on the bedroom wall, the words on the car were beautifully applied. It was top-quality work on the part whoever, or whatever put it there.

I ran my hand over the letters on the hood of my car. I traced out the curves of the ‘a’ and the ‘g.’ The shapes of letters on the car were identical to the ones in the bedroom. They were written in the same typeface.

“It’s the same font!” I said out loud to nobody. The implication of that was incredible. Whatever the hell was taunting me with these notes - a ghost or some psychosis in my mind - had, at one point, decided which typeface to use.

I tried to imagine it - I pictured a demonic ghost with glowing red eyes, conjured by … I don’t know … warlocks or something, thinking to itself: “‘Hmmm, no - Steve won’t be freaked out by messages in Comic Sans. I should use something else. Times New Roman? Nah, too traditional. Pangrams from the bizarro dimension should appear in a more exciting, cutting edge typeface.”

I stormed inside and threw open my laptop, determined to figure out what typeface this was.

I spent hours online, looking up typefaces - well known and obscure - and comparing them to the samples in my bedroom and on my car. One family of typefaces called the Grotesques were close, especially some of the early Grotesques. But there were differences in the shapes of the loops and stems of lowercase letters like ‘a’ and ‘g’ and ‘e’. A typeface from the 1920s named Monotype Grotesque was closer to the font used by my own personal supernatural tormentor, but I could still spot a half-dozen major differences.

I took a break from squinting at typeface samples online and tried hand-drawing the lettering myself. I practiced copying “the quick brown fox…” over and over again on a sheet of paper. I filled the sheet and grabbed one of mom’s unsent letters from the stack next to the typewriter. I filled the back of the page with hand-drawn lettering, then flipped it over to keep going. I skimmed the text of the letter mom had typed on the other side. The Selectric’s typeface was remarkably similar to the typeface on the wall upstairs and on my car. I compared the loops and descenders and curves of the letters, growing more and more excited and terrified as I went. The bowl of the lowercase ‘a’ - identical. The design of the lowercase ‘g’ - the same. Every feature of the typeface I could think of to check was identical between the letters produced by the Selectric and the insanity printed on my wall and car. The Selectric’s typeface was identical! It was the same typeface!

In the 1960s, when mom bought the IBM Selectric, it was a cutting edge business tool. At that time, a regular typewriter had letters on shafts that swung up and whapped the ribbon and the paper when you pressed the keys. The innovation of the Selectic is that it has a type ball instead: a sphere with letters on it that rotates and slaps the ribbon and the paper when you press the keys. If you want to change the typeface of your Selectric, you just pop off the old type ball and pop on a new one that you like.

The selectric type balls are labeled with the name of the typeface that they print in. I stood and peered into mom’s Selectric. The type ball - a metal sphere about the size of a ping-pong ball, covered with mirror-image letters sat innocently in the well of the typewriter. For a moment I had the impression that the type ball was a little eyeball peering back at me. I got in close and read the name of the typeface printed on top. It said Primal Grotesque.

That pushed me over the edge. I had to get out this house. Why the holy hell hadn’t I bugged out of here earlier? I was too drunk, I guess. I was sober now, and my uncharacteristically clear mind was telling me to Get. My. Dumb. Ass. Out!

I ran upstairs to the second bedroom and threw my clothes from the dresser into a suitcase. I zipped the luggage and spun around to get the hell out. What I saw printed on the wall made me scream. I dropped my suitcase and jumped backwards.

Primal Grotesque is excited to face you.

She is zipping over.

Time to quit work and party jubilantly!

I screamed again. My heart was pounding so hard my vision blurred. I fell to my knees and leaned on the bed for support. Part of me tried to not have a heart attack. The other part counted the letters in the message. It used all 26 letters at least once each. Another pangram.

“Whatever!” I shouted at the wall. I grabbed the suitcase and leapt out of the room. I threw the suitcase down the stairs, then sprinted after it. I was halfway down when the doorbell rang.

From my position halfway down the steps, I could see the shape of a person through the frosted glass window on the front door. A person on the porch wearing a red outfit.

I froze. Could I pretend I just wasn’t home? No - I had just made a huge racket screaming and chucking my suitcase down the stairs. Could I sneak out through an upstairs window? I was thinking through exactly how I might do that without breaking my ankles when my visitor rang the bell again.

I slowly descended the remaining steps and glanced into the kitchen. The knives were dull, but still might be useful. The bell rang again. “Coming!” I shouted. I tiptoed to the kitchen counter and slid a knife out of the block. Then I walked to the door. The blurry red figure on the other side of the door crossed their arms in a pose of annoyed boredom.

Holding the knife behind my back, I opened the door.

A woman stood on the porch. She was thirty-something years old and wore a red dress that was, frankly, stunning. She was beautiful too. But man, there was something about her dress. I’m not exactly a fashionista, so I don’t know how to describe it exactly. It was form fitting, and looked like something Jackie Kennedy would have worn. It was from that era - the 1960s or so. Black piping and shiny black buttons ran in a diagonal from her waist up to the wide black collar at the shoulder. Her lipstick matched the color of the dress perfectly. She wore a black hairband adorned with a bit of fishnet. Black earrings and black gloves completed the ensemble.

Her outfit made outdated phrases pop into my head. Like “she knocked my socks off!” or “she’s dressed to the nines!” In the time period in America when this dress was contemporary, you’d expect creepy old men to say things like “what a dame!” when she walked by.

I must have stared at her like a goon for a totally inappropriate amount of time. She finally said “I’m not getting paid by the hour, so I’d appreciate it if you’d invite me inside. I’m here to service your typewriter.”

Her accent sounded almost British. But not quite. She had the same aristocratic way of speaking like actors in old films. Like Katherine Hepburn.

I mumbled something generally welcoming and gestured for her to come inside.

She stepped inside, removed her black gloves, and held them in front of me. I stared at the silk gloves for a moment before I realized she was waiting for me to take them. “Sorry,” I said. I gently took the gloves from her hand and put them in my pocket (what the heck are you supposed to do with women’s gloves?)

“Ah, there it is,” she gestured at the typewriter on the kitchen table. “Have you been treating it well?”

She marched across the foyer to the kitchen. Her black high-heels clacked authoritatively on the wood floor. I got the impression that this woman was used to being in charge of stuff.

The kitchen table was strewn with my handwritten sketches of the typeface that was tormenting me. She picked up one of the sheets that I had covered with two dozen renderings of “The quick brown fox” pangram.

“I see you’re a fan of my work.” She gave me a knowing grin. In another circumstance, I would have thought the look she gave me was flirtatious. But that evening, in that house, there was something sinister about it. I could tell that she knew what was happening here. She knew about the demented pangrams on the wall and on my car.

She leaned over the typewriter. Her dress and her lipstick were the same shade of red as mom’s Selectric. “Be a dear and hand me that knife you’re holding behind your back. I’m going to remove your ball.”

I took a step backwards, not quite sure what she intended to remove from where.

“Relax, I don’t mean it like that.” She glanced at my crotch and smirked. “I need to pry the typeball out of the typewriter. Give me the knife.”

I sheepishly removed my hand from behind my back and handed her the knife.

She fiddled with the typewriter for a moment. There was a satisfying pop and she pulled the Selectric’s typeball out of the machine.

“Primal Grotesque.” She tossed the typeball to me. “That’s me.”

“Your name is Primal Grotesque?” It wasn’t a great question, but at-least give me credit for finally stringing together a coherent set of words.

“I designed this typeface.” She stood up straight and looked off into the distance. Like she was performing in a play. “Primal Grotesque!” She spoke loudly. “The first and last Grotesque typeface your office needs.”

I shrugged. I didn’t get it.

“That was my marketing schtick. I was very successful for a while. I even got IBM to sell a Selectric type-ball for my typeface.”


“Well, you’re full of conversation.” She picked up the typewriter. “I’m going to have to take this with me. It needs some alterations.”


“More stimulating conversation.” She approached me with three commanding high-heeled clacks, stopping only when she was so close to me we nearly touched. The little typeball twitched in my closed fist.

I opened my hand and looked at the typeball. It had changed. When she tossed it to me, it looked a bit like a golf-ball with letters where the dimples would be. Now in my palm, it was a smooth orb with only a single line of reversed letters protruding arranged on one side:


“Did you forget, Steve? Today is your birthday.”

I had forgotten. Stuck in this rotting old house, drunk off my ass most of the time, I had completely lost track of time. Heck, I had even lost track of the month.

“You know who else forgot your birthday, Steve? Everyone. No calls, no cards, not even a lame happy-birthday text from anyone. You are in nobody’s thoughts today.” She smirked in that flirty-but-threatening way again. “Except mine.”

“Uh, thank you?”

“Are you feeling bad that nobody remembered your special day? Maybe this will make you feel better. I can promise you that you won’t forget your birthday again. Because this will be your last.”

Then she looked me in the eyes with an unblinking stare. It felt like some kind of invisible force moved from her eyes to mine, then into my brain. My mind filled with a jumble of incomplete thoughts that wouldn’t connect to each other.

“Steve, I don’t think you’re an asshole. I think you’re swell. I’m hosting a jazzy mixer tonight. If that piques your interest, then swing by. You can pick up the Selectric. And maybe have a little fun, for once.”

My mind was still as blank as a clean sheet of paper. I heard myself answer. “Fantastic! It sounds like it will be quite an amazing time. I’ll just bring a bordeaux? And my very charming personality?”

She smiled another one of those smiles that would have been flirtatious if the circumstances weren’t so demented. Then she strode to the door and let herself out, typewriter under her arm.

I stood by the kitchen table for a few moments, still feeling like a blank sheet of paper. I was devoid of thought. On autopilot, I walked to the foyer to close the door. She was already gone. I hadn’t heard any automotive noises, and I didn’t see her still walking on the long, rutted gravel driveway.

I closed the door. Jazzy mixer. Bring a bordeaux. The words cycled through my mind. Jazzy mixer. I slowly realized I needed to get ready to go to a party.

I hauled my suitcase back up the stairs and threw it on the bed. I had one outfit that was going to be my interview outfit. Clearly, it wasn’t ever going to be used for that. But I might at-least look spiffy at the jazzy mixer.

The wall in the bedroom was blank. No sign of the previous message, or of any messages ever having been there. I noticed this, but didn’t think much of it. Jazzy mixer. Bring a bordeaux. These phrases cycled through my mind, keeping my thoughts from setting on anything.

I opened my suitcase and put on the suit I had packed in case I had a job interview. Then I went downstairs and rummaged around in the wine-room until I found a bordeaux. Then I left for the party.

* * *

It was dark. I had lost track of the time, but the sun was fully down. Was it midnight? Past midnight? I started walking down the long gravel driveway. The woman in the red dress hadn’t told me where the jazzy mixer was, but I somehow knew that I needed to walk there. I walked to the end of the driveway, and down the forest road for a long time. Mom’s road eventually comes out onto route 12. But I never crossed 12. None of the familiar landmarks were present. Just an empty road through the fir and cedar.

Finally I saw lights ahead. It was a house - a ranch with a shallow slanted roof. Light poured out of every window, but I didn’t see anyone inside.

I rang the bell. Silence. I rang it again. I heard the telltale high-heeled clacking of the woman in red marching towards the door. She answered, still wearing that knockout red dress. Dressed to the nines! What a dame!

“There you are! And with a bordeaux. Come, bring it to the kitchen. I need your help.”

I followed her robotically. My mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I was the only human guest at her party. The rest of the “guests” were typewriters. Two red IBM Selectric typewriters sat on the sofa. Another one occupied an easy-chair by the mantle. The couch faced an enormous television set - not a flat screen, but a huge tube-TV mounted in a wood cabinet. A fourth red Selectric sat on the TV cabinet.

The TV and the furniture was straight out of the 1960s. I followed her through the living room and into the kitchen. The kitchen was also a retro-throwback to a time when tupperware was new and exciting. Avocado-green cabinets and a black-and-white tile floor gleamed as if they were installed yesterday. A chrome microwave oven bearing the name Radarange sat on the counter next to the frigidaire-brand refrigerator.

The woman - I still only knew her as the inventor of the typeface Primal Grotesque - put the bottle of wine on the counter. “I’m afraid I’m falling down on the job as a hostess. I haven’t even made the salad yet.” She produced a bright red plastic bowl from one of the cabinets. “Would you be so kind as to grab some paper from the refrigerator?”

I opened the fridge. The refrigerator was full, but not of food. Instead, reams of typing paper were stacked on the shelves. The vegetable drawers were full of paper. Stacks of envelopes filled the racks on the door. “Just fifty sheets or so,” she said.

I pulled a half-inch chunk of blank typing paper from the top shelf of the fridge. I put it on the counter and watched her rummage through a drawer of utensils. She produced a pair of red-handled scissors and handed them to me. “Cut those sheets into small strips, and put them in the bowl.”

I picked five sheets from the stack I had pulled from the fridge and cut a strip about an inch wide.

“Oh dear, skinnier than that. What do you think this is?”

I had no idea what “this” was, or what she thought I thought it was, but I did what she said and cut the remaining strips about half as wide and placed the strips in the bowl. Meanwhile, she opened the bordeaux with a pop and poured two glasses.

“Wonderfully done,” she said and handed me one of the glasses of wine. “I believe you enjoy the occasional glass, yes? Now let’s sample that salad.”

She daintily pulled one of the strips of paper from the bowl and ate it like it was spaghetti.

“Well, it’s not my best, but it’ll have to do.” She handed me one of the glasses of wine. “Come with me.”

She led me into the dining room. A long table had been set with an elaborate table setting. Chargers, plates, water and wine goblets, and multiple spoons, forks, and knives had been carefully arranged at each seat, except for three. The seat at the head of the table, and the seats on either side of it had a red Selectrics where the place setting should have been. Two of the typewriters were loaded with paper that had already been typed onto.

I bent over the typewriter that was seated at the head of the table and read what was on its page.

Woe is you, a failed zero of a man.

Don’t quit this house. Don’t exit or venture out.

Just go die you bad prick.

The typeface was identical to the print that mom’s typewriter produced: Primal Grotesque. I turned to the woman in red. “That’s right,” she said. “It’s the first little message I sent you. Go ahead, read what our other guest typed out.”

I looked at the paper loaded into the typewriter to the right.

Steve, I don’t think you’re an asshole. I think you’re swell. I’m hosting a jazzy mixer tonight. If that piques your interest, then swing by. You can pick up the Selectric. And maybe have a little fun, for once.

“That’s what you said to me!”

‘Yes. Read it again. Notice anything interesting about my wording?”

I looked back at the typewriter. The written words hit me differently than when she spoke them. I counted the letters. It was a pangram. She had spoken a pangram to me.

She leaned over the table and pulled the silver lid off a platter in the center of the table, revealing a ream of typing paper instead of food. She pulled a sheet from the top of the stack and began to feed it into the third typewriter.

"You haven't spoken to another person in 26 days." She gave the roller a few more careful turns to line it up at the right vertical position."

"And in those 26 days, Steven, no other person has even thought about you. You're isolated from humanity."

The Selectric started typing on its own. The woman in red continued. “You’ve been isolated physically. Mentally. Spiritually. Cosmically.”

"Well, I've talked to you."

"I'm not human anymore, Steven. I was. But when IBM canceled their contract for my typeface, I was ruined - just like you are right now. I retreated to my house and refused to leave. And you know what? Nobody cared. Nobody cared that I holed-up in here and never left.”

“That’s how it found me. People with connections to the rest of the world? They’re of no interest to it. It’s the lonely ones. The isolated. That’s who it feeds on.”

The typewriter kept typing on its own. The letters striking the page sounded like her shoes clacking on the floor. “What feeds on us?”

She ignored my question. “It found me. And killed me. And now it haunts the one thing of lasting importance that I left in the universe. My typeface: Primal Grotesque.”

“You were possessed by some kind of demon, and now your font is haunted?”

“Yes. And now it’s your turn.” She pointed at the text that the possessed typewriter put on the page. “See?”

Fantastic! It sounds like it will be quite an amazing time. I’ll just bring a bordeaux? And my very charming personality?

I counted the letters. It was a pangram. I had spoken a pangram.

She smiled. Then she ripped the paper out of the typewriter, and ripped me out of the universe.

* * *

Everything is white.

My body didn’t exist. There was no sound. Space was distorted and compressed into two dimensions, and was filled with nothing. I was in an eternity of white emptiness.

My bodiless mind formed the words “Everything is white,” and those words appeared in front of me. The letters appeared one-by-one, in sequence, like something was typing them out into the fabric of whatever alternate dimension I was thrust into. The typeface: Primal Grotesque.

Where am I? Someone help me!

I had no mouth and, at first, the words echoed only in my imagination. But a moment after I thought the words, the previous words vanished and the new thought - Where am I? Someone help me! - Was hammered into the firmament of the infinite white reality. Another line of perfectly crisp letters.

I screamed for help again and again. The word Help silently repeated itself in the endless white space.

I stopped screaming - or, more accurately, I stopped imagining screaming. But the terror didn’t go away. It only intensified. I saw my panicked thoughts scroll into space in front of me:

…This nothingness is forever. Oh God help me. Let me out. Primal grotesque. Why is this happening? Primal grotesque, please don’t do this to me. I can’t do this. I’m sorry for whatever I did. Please let me out of here. I’m sorry I said the pangram…

All those words generated by my confused, terrified thinking silently appeared in front of me. Except one.


Nothing. I mentally spoke it again: Pangram.

“Pangrams have a special power here”. The thought was born in my mind in the form of words. “have a special power here.” spilled onto the white firmament.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. I thought each word carefully, pretending I was pronouncing them with my non-existent mouth and vocal cords. This time, no words appeared in space in front of me. Instead, a thin black line appeared. It looked like a faint underline on the cosmic blank page I had been thrust into. I imagined reaching towards the line with my nonexistent hands. For an instant I felt something. A small crack or tear in space. Then the thin line vanished.

Although I didn’t fully understand what was happening, I latched onto the idea that pangrams seemed to negatively affect whatever evil force had placed me into this blank-page universe. I tried to come up with another pangram. A new one.

Words swam in front of me as I imagined different combinations of words. How long did I struggle, trying to come up with a new pangram? Days? Years?

I can’t do this. I’m stuck here forever. No, I have to. I have to think my way out of here.

My lamentations floated in huge letters in front of me. Try closing your eyes and coming up with a pangram. It’s incredibly difficult. Imagine doing that while your mind is held hostage outside of space and time.

Finally, I thought I had one. I carefully imagined each word:

You can’t kill me. I’ll just quit this crazy game and exit this very bad place

The words appeared in front of me. It wasn't a pangram. I counted the letters again. It was missing an ‘f’. And an ‘o’. I tried a slightly different phrase, thinking about each word in sequence:

You will fail to kill me. I’ll just quit this crazy game and exit this very bad place

This time, instead of words appearing in space, a thick black line cut the white eternity in half.

I reached for the line with nonexistent hands. I felt something. A thin gap. I imagined thrusting my fingers through the gap and I felt them squeeze through a narrow space. It hurt, like my fingers were being crushed as I pushed them through the black crack.

I imagined pushing my wrist and forearm through the gap, and was rewarded with crushing pain up to my elbow. I kept going. Bicep. Shoulder. I pushed my other arm through, feeling the same crushing pain. My head was next.

I used my imaginary muscles to push my skull through the gap. The dark line grew, as if I was getting closer to it. I felt gentle pressure on my temples. An instant later, the gentle pressure ramped up to crushing pain. It felt like my head was in a vice. Then I heard something - the first sound I had heard since the woman in red tore me out of the universe.

The sound started as a vibration through my skull. At first I thought the rapid clacks were the sound of my skull cracking. But the clacks continued in a perfect mechanical rhythm. I screamed and I heard the sound of my scream.

I made a final thrust with my head and suddenly I was on the other side. Well, my head and arms were through. I was in a dim space. I couldn’t look around - my head was still held clamped in whatever narrow gap I was pushing myself through. But from my fixed perspective I saw that I was in an old, derelict house. My neck was still trapped on the other side of the crack so I couldn't look down to see what my body was squeezing through.

The next thrust would push my neck through the narrow gap. I winced and willed myself to move through. The pressure in my neck ramped up to an unbearable crushing. I let out a strangled gasp and squirmed forward. The pressure moved downwards to my collar bones

I took in a dozen deep breaths. With my neck through the black gap, I could look around to see where I was and what I was trying to move through.

I was on a filthy, dusty table in a dark room. I mean, my upper torso was on a table. The rest of me was stuck on the other side of the crack.

Two dusty typewriters - IBM Selectrics, of course - sat on the table next to me. Place-settings, dark and grimy with age, were organized around the rest of the edge of the table.

I looked down, expecting to see my body squeezing through a narrow hole in the table. Instead, I saw that my chest had narrowed to a distorted, paper-thin version of itself and was rolled into the rollers of a red Selectric.

"Later," I thought. "I'll worry about how this is possible later. Right now I just have to get myself through this typewriter roll."

I struggled and wriggled. I pushed against the table. After struggling to the point of breathlessness, I had only advanced another millimeter or two. Something was holding me back.


The typewriter roller turned on its own, pulling me back into the universe of endless white.

Clack. Clack.

I was pulled another two text-lines back into the roller.

I grabbed the typewriter’s paper advance knob and struggled to turn it the other way. Maybe I could roll myself out of the roller like a sheet of paper.


I moved back out by one line.

Clack. Clack. Clack. It pulled me back in. I gripped the roller knob hard, but it still slipped through my grip.

Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.

The roller turned on its own, with unstoppable torque, and I slipped another four lines back into the machine. I was now rolled up to my neck, and I again felt my larynx start to crush as I was pulled back into the machine.

I flailed my right arm, trying to find a grip on anything that could hold me in this universe. Anything that could keep me from passing back through the roller, into the world of everything-is-white. I knocked a dusty place setting onto the floor, and smacked the back of my hand into the table.

I eventually hit the keys of the Selectric that was sucking me back into the universe of Primal Grotesque. I inadvertently pressed the Return key, and the roller momentarily reversed its movement, moving me upwards and out of the typewriter like I was a piece of paper. I jabbed at the Return key again like I was pressing the “Fire” button on a game controller. Line-by-line, I moved out of the red Selectric, spilling face-first onto the dirty table.

Each time I hit the Return key, I moved out of the typewriter by a quarter of an inch. Maybe less. This meant that every quarter-inch of my body experienced crushing pain that came from moving through the paper roller. By the time I reached my waist, enough of my torso had emerged to let me twist downwards and get a good view of what was happening.

My body was a normal three-dimensional human body from my head until about five inches before the typewriter roller. Below that, logic and proportion fell away. My waist flattened into a paper-thin image of my waist. The part of my body passing through the typewriter roller was like a flat-stanley version of myself.

Even though the part of my body passing through the rollers was basically two-dimensional, I still felt crushing pain when I was rolled through. The pain in my gut as my belly-button emerged from the typewriter felt like a powerful gut-punch. The pressure in the bones of my pelvis was so intense, I thought they might crack. I hammered on the Return key to move myself through these horrible sensations. I stopped for a moment when I realized what part of me was about to pass through the rollers.

Clack. Clack - The typewriter rollers moved backwards on their own, dragging me a half-inch back into the typewriter. There was no time to think. I resumed my frantic pounding on the Return key. My pelvic bones moved through the rollers, and expanded from the 2-D projection into their normal 3-D size. Next came … the part of a man that’s immediately below the pelvis.

I screamed and screamed. My vision went dark. I threw up onto the filthy old table but eventually moved through, a fraction of an inch at a time. I don’t even remember moving my legs through the rollers. My next conscious thought came when I was lying on the grimy table in a dim, rotting room.

The room smelled of mold. I was sprawled onto the dining room table in a house that appeared to have been abandoned for decades. Most of the drywall had fallen off the walls and lay in mushy heaps at the base of walls. The table I had spilled onto looked to have once been a fancy piece of furniture but was now a water-stained ruin covered with green mold. Plates and flatware were arranged neatly around the table. Three typewriters - the one I somehow came out of and two others - sat at the head of the table where the place settings should have been.

The room was familiar. I sat up and carefully slid off the table onto the rotting dining-room carpet. Moldy, moss-covered furniture was arranged neatly in the living room. Dusty and rusting Selectric typewriters sat on the chairs and couch. One typewriter sat on an old-fashioned TV cabinet.

I was in the same house as the red-dress woman’s party. But where I had earlier seen - or hallucinated - a bright, clean house hosting the bizarre “jazzy-mixer” with typewriters as guests. I now saw the house as it truly existed. The structure was long abandoned and decaying. It was still populated with typewriters, but now it was a fully dead place, the ghost or spirit or demon or whatever the woman in red was didn’t follow me out of the typewriter.

I carefully climbed off the table. My legs were sore from my crushing escape from Primal Grotesque’s typewriter world. I quickly looked around the house - it was exactly the same as I experienced earlier, but with decades of decay. The red salad bowl of paper sat on the kitchen counter - the paper “salad” now decayed into a small puddle of gray sludge at the bottom of the bowl. An empty bottle of wine sat on the counter. The label had decayed to the point of illegibility, but I recognized the shape of the bottle - it was the bordeaux I brought.

Her corpse lay on the kitchen floor, next to the sink. Her skin had long-ago rotted away. But the high-heeled shoes on her skeletal feet, and the black plastic buttons from her otherwise fully decomposed dress told me it was her.

My disgust at being inside this moldy, rotting house with the corpse overcame my curiosity. The front door was stuck shut from corrosion and grime. I forced my way out and stumbled onto the front steps. A fine drizzle lazily fell from a gray sky. The house was hidden from the road by a yard full of overgrown bushes. I pushed my way through the mini-wilderness in front of the house and found the road.

The End?

Not entirely. I wandered down the road in the rain until I found a sign that told me I was on state road 44. Which state? Connecticut? Somehow, in the dazed, semi-conscious state I was in when I walked from mom’s house to the jazzy mixer, I traveled from rural Washington state to Connecticut.

I managed to hitchhike back across the country, all the way from Connecticut to mom’s house in Packwood. I told the story of Primal Grotesque to every kind driver that picked me up. Most drivers humored me with some form of “dude, that’s crazy” when I finished my story. Others asked if there was some facility I’d like them to drop me at. By the time I crossed from Ohio to Indiana, I had nearly convinced myself that my experience with the woman in red and her jazzy mixer was some kind of hallucination. Or psychosis. I was sure that I had a break from reality which lasted long enough for me to somehow cross from the west to the east coast..

A trucker I was riding with stopped at a rest area off I-90 in Minnesota. After I used the toilet and washed my hands, I was annoyed to discover that the restroom was out of paper towels and the air dryers didn’t work. I wiped my wet hands on my pants and felt something in my pocket. I reached in and pulled out a delicate pair of black silk gloves. They were wrinkled from being crammed in my pants for a few days, but were otherwise brand new.

I shoved the gloves back in my pocket. A thought popped into my mind, uninvited. I liked the thought, though, so I kept it in my head - mentally repeating it over and over as I hitched back home.

Knockout dress! What a dame! Primal Grotesque’s jazzy mixer was real - the gloves prove it. I want to know who she was because I want to find her again.

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