William melted in the summer morning, a wet hot lowland morning which slicked his palms and fogged his wayfarers the moment he stepped from his car. He moved across the asphalt toward the offices of the South’s most prestigious lifestyle publication, Carbine and Camelia. In the eighties, they had purchased a Romanesque armory—a stately Civil War relic at the outskirts of the commercial district—and gutted the interior for office space. William loved the ancient brickwork and despised the cubicular abomination the corporate heads installed inside. He recalled Auden, who gazed into the shield of Achilles expecting “vines and olive trees, / Marble well-governed cities,” and found “An artificial wilderness / And a sky like lead.” Well, that was the new South: decadent façades, sweet tea, and magnolia blossoms, handcuffed to gruesome Yankee materialism.

The writers swam in a glass fishbowl of an open office, a space that had become cavernous after decades of staff cuts. Evan, writing for the travel section, sat at his desk bright and early as usual. William would say hello and good morning to Evan, who grunted from behind dual monitors. Lately, Evan’s pieces had grown joyless. William dreaded reading the nth iteration of “A Deeper Look at the Historic Homes of New Orleans,” and began to wonder whether corporate might open their pocketbooks to send Evan on a month-long assignment to some remote coastal island populated by inbreds and feral apes. Had the Carbine and Camelia readership been lulled to sleep by visions of luxury? Could they be aroused again by the implied threat of cannibalism and rape?

If he said hello and good morning to Evan, he would need to do the same for Olivia in arts and culture. There was no avoiding the arts and culture desk on the way to his office. If he refused to acknowledge Olivia, his silence might be construed with suspicion. Olivia smiled at him when he waved, and William smiled back. He smiled through two layers of deception. First: he wished to beam at her warmly, to cock his head to one side, to let the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepen. It felt good to be admired and it felt even better to be desired romantically, though William had consistently declined to reciprocate her affection. But he chose to subordinate this joy, as he did every morning, beneath a mask of grim indifference. Second: over that mask, once established, he faked a lifeless smirk.

William had his own office, which was more of a glass box, an oversized version of the entomologist’s display case. Perched in his chair, he felt a new layer of middle-aged blubber gather around his hips and belly, sagging over the belt. For the thousandth time, he resolved to quit eating garbage. He then braced himself for the morning emails. Monday morning emails could be a real motherfucker. Booting his laptop, sighing through his window at the chestnut hair falling over Olivia’s shoulders, William could not have imagined the one-two punch lurking in his inbox.

At the top of the stack, in all capitals, screamed the subject line “MY MANIFESTO,” from a sender he had never heard of, someone named Edwin Kowalski. The magazine did not accept unsolicited submissions, but occasionally something so psychotic crossed William’s desk that he would read it for amusement. He clicked the email, and as soon as he did, he began to regret it.

“Dear Editor,” it started, “By now you have heard the cries of grief and the agony of the wounded. By now you are wondering: why did I do it? And will I strike again? Be assured that I plan to kill many more innocents in the days ahead unless you act now. I have sent this email, with my manifesto attached, to the editors of every English-language periodical in North America.  If my manifesto is not published, I will continue to reap the innocent. I am determined. I am ruthless. I cannot be stopped. Cheers, Edwin Kowalski.”

William had chosen to listen to music on his commute rather than the morning news; had he missed another mass shooting? Did this email mean he would be somehow implicated? The last thing he wanted was a visit from the FBI. He typed “Edwin Kowalski” into the Google News search bar. A few headlines appeared, out of Virginia, describing a loner who had apparently planned to attack concert-goers with an AK-47. An FBI spokesman praised the fieldwork of one of their female agents in neutralizing him at the critical moment.

William exhaled in relief. No harm, no foul. No endless speculation about race, armaments, motivations, or mental health. No editorials from the right attempting to pin blame on the left. No editorials from the left screaming about Nazis and Russians. Who had the perpetrator voted for? Which Facebook pages had he “Liked?” The discourse in this country had reached nadirs of mental defect William could scarcely comprehend. In any event, he clicked the attachment.

At the top of the file, bold and in all caps, appeared the title “AGAINST SYSTEMIC BOREDOM.” He read on:

Man is born heroic, yet everywhere he is in chains. Neoliberalism, having triumphed over fascism and communism in the last century, now enters its fourth decade of global rule. For all its honeyed language of freedom and democracy, it is a system of domination as sinister as those it vanquished. It is an audaciously crude manipulation of man’s biological stimulus-response hardware, a domestication of his neural circuitry in the service of the consumption-based economy. Neoliberalism is addiction. All of its proudest institutions, from the capitalist system to the academy, amount to little more than Skinner Boxes administering periodic conditioning. The endless supply of tiny rewards overwhelms man’s innate capacity for long-term thinking, anesthetizes him against struggle and overcoming, and bathes him in a warm pool of dopamine and cheap carbohydrates. Camus once said to imagine Sisyphus happy. I tell you: imagine Sisyphus fat and complacent, rolling a thousand pebbles over a thousand molehills.

The universal condition of the neoliberal state is boredom, and I am its antidote. I call you to the righteous path. The first of your slavemasters whom we must kill is the one named Comfort.

Beyond this paragraph lay a black and white illustration of a resistance fighter brandishing a rifle. Beneath him, the words “ADVENTURE” and “COSMIC DESTINY” appeared in stylized typeface. William stopped reading, feeling accused, and promised himself that he would return to the manifesto after work. The guy was a crank, surely. He may have had a point, but what did any of this have to do with killing innocent people at a concert? Edwin was not a Muslim, an anarchist, or an alt-right racist, but he seemed to exhibit the same tactical myopia. Surely a man hell-bent on disrupting modern life could find a more resonant target, like utility infrastructure, that in any case did not require perforating docile bourgeois revelers with military-grade ammunition.

On to the next email, then.

“So Sorry,” the title begged. He could not decide whether this or “MY MANIFESTO” was more ominous. William took a long drag from his coffee before clicking.

“Hey man,” the email began. “I don’t know what the right thing to do is, but I feel like you should know. I work with David Prince here at the Wellness Center and he is having an affair with your wife. I’ve been suspicious for a while to be honest. But a couple days ago, he left a computer still logged in to his personal email and I was able to confirm. This stuff is going to be hard to read, but again, I feel like you should know.”

The email ended abruptly. It had come from a foreign server and the sender’s name was a meaningless scramble of letters and numbers. There were several attached files showing photos of a computer screen.

William opened the first attachment. It was a photo of an email unmistakably from his wife which read in part, “David, missing you this morning and wishing your cock was inside me.”

A grown man does not think of suicide; he savors the expectation like a glass of pinot noir. It would be good to take a rest, at last, from all this shit. Delicious warm sleep, with a hint of rosemary on the nose, a silky palate, and a bright finish.

The prior editor of Carbine and Camelia, Saul Meyer, had kept a revolver and a bottle of gin in the top drawer of his desk for precisely such moments. The obstreperous old Jew was an industry legend. Ten years ago, just before he retired, he had pulled William into his office, drawn the blinds, and opened the desk drawer so that both men could observe the pistol.

“I’ve been the editor-in-chief of this magazine for 15 years,” he said. “And this gun has been loaded the entire time. One bullet. If it ever gets bad, the captain goes down with the ship. The gin is for resolve.”

His hands shaking, William opened his own top drawer. Index cards and a handful of old pens. He slid the drawer closed, took another gulp of coffee, and, unable to think of anything better to do, returned to Edwin’s manifesto.

The individual is deeply inauthentic. Observe your peers chasing authenticity without knowing where to look: lifestyle trends, brands, consumables, ideologies. Women read E. L. James seeking the kinetic eroticism that has been abolished by universal androgyny. Men read extremist tracts seeking the virility that has been banished from public life by the politics of consensus. We are mild and subservient in the day, yet at night we dream of kings. How, then, do we resolve this disparity and restore the authentic?

Authenticity is derived from embodiment. But the world of abstract contracts and digital interfaces, the world in which we are currently ensnared, severs us from the immediacy of the body. We chase diversions, because our bodies are a source of pain. But it is necessary pain. When we confront our physicality, we become aware of our unstoppable descent into death. Death provides the spark of urgency that animates us toward risk and adventure. This is the secret pleasure of sensation: it is fleeting. Temporality sharpens the senses and heightens delight. In order to achieve the sublime, one must make oneself physically uncomfortable each day. Subject the body to trials and pain. How much longer can your mortal flesh survive? What will you make of the time that remains?

William closed his eyes for a moment to gather himself. When he opened them, he navigated to his work calendar and cancelled his upcoming appointments.

He left his office, without stopping to pick up his briefcase, and walked to Olivia’s desk. She looked up at him, and he surprised them both by maintaining a long moment of eye contact. Hers were a honeyed brown, dancing above cheeks that flushed readily when she became embarrassed, or when she grew effusive over her latest writing.

Last year, William knew, she had really begun to hone her powers as a literary critic. It happened after she went to Savannah to work out a long retrospective on Flannery O’Connor. She visited the childhood home and attended mass in the same cathedral where O’Connor once knelt. By the end, her prose dripped with passion and introspection. She described how the “sensual theology” of Catholicism, as expressed by O’Connor, had “transcended the Southern Gothic fixation on the grotesque.” She noted that O’Connor’s life-long struggle with debilitating illness had “imbued her work with reverence for the glory—and tragedy—of incarnation.” Editing the draft, wiping tears from his eyes, William felt as though Olivia had finally gained command of her own voice. Late that night when everyone else had gone home, William told her that he loved the piece; she told William that she loved him.

“Cancel the rest of your day,” William said.

“The rest? Wha—it’s not even ten—” she began.

“Just cancel it. Forget the shit for now. Come with me.”

As they left the office together, Olivia chattered excitedly about a handful of new artists whose books she was eager to read and whose music she was keen to sample. She had not been this enthused about a summer of new releases, she supposed, since she had been a starry-eyed undergraduate at Vanderbilt. The rising sun had burned away much of the day’s early humidity. The world seemed full, expectant, exploding with potential energy. After they rounded a corner, turning toward the harbor, William reached down and grasped Olivia’s hand, threading his large fingers through hers. She squeezed him, and reached across to run her other hand over William’s arm, down the forearm and up again over the bicep.

“Do you know what you’re getting into?” William said.

“No clue, honestly,” Olivia replied, smiling, letting herself burst into laughter.

Hand in hand, they made it all the way to the harbor, where crowds of tourists had already started to gather. Summer holidays choked the city with thousands of delirious sightseers, drawn to the intoxicating romance of cobblestones under Spanish moss. Who could blame them? William and Olivia sat on a pier and let the sun warm their skin. Sea birds—a flying menagerie of gulls, pelicans, terns—wheeled above the glimmering tide. Olivia turned toward him and they kissed, hesitantly at first, then deeply. They pulled apart. Olivia’s cheeks flushed; the wind over the water blew her dark hair toward William, mingling it with his own.

At eleven o’clock, the lunch cafes began to open. William and Olivia retreated to the shade of a cloth umbrella overhanging an iron patio table. They each ordered a light beer and decided to split a basket of French fries. The fries arrived in a delightfully American style: piled with an insouciant amount of cheese, bacon crumbs, chives, and God knows what else. As they ate, discussing their lives and laughing at their misfortunes, they each kept a hand beneath the table, holding one another.