No customers entered my bookstore for the fifth day in a row. Tired and disgusted with myself, I closed up shop early and walked home because I couldnít afford the subway. The afternoon air was warm and muggy, and smelled of urine and car exhaust. Two blocks down from my apartment building, I heard a phone ringing. I ignored it and walked on.
The ringing became louder as I walked. It seemed I was drawing closer to the source, but that made no sense. Passing cars made so much noise that sidewalk pedestrians shouted at each other to be heard.
One block away, I turned a corner and headed up the street. A payphone at the end of the alley was ringing. I had discovered the source. The sound did not grow as I approached, which violates some law of physics that I no longer care to remember. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes at least, it had been ringing. How long could the caller wait? His patience must endure forever, I thought.
Without thinking, I had come to stand next to the phone. My left hand extended to retrieve the receiver, and I snatched it back with my right hand at the last minute. I heard a bell tone in my head, its pitch perfect and sweet, and at once separate from the phoneís ringing. My right hand lost its grip on my left, and I answered the phone. I heard the sound of metal grating against metal, and explosions echoed in the distance. Birds sang in Aramaic, and dogs barked in Hebrew. A sudden absence of reality bloomed in my head, and I saw and felt nothing.
I came to and I was walking down the sidewalk two blocks away. People flowed up and down the concrete pathways in currents. I felt like a piece of cork in a swift river, and I followed the current wherever it lead. Five blocks further down, and two blocks over, the current stopped and I leaned against a brick wall and took two deep breaths. A young girl with a dirty face and torn clothes extended a cup and asked for change. I dug through my pockets and found three pennies and two dimes, and offered them to her. Her face lit up, and she greedily snatched them from my palm. Another blank time descended upon me. I donít know how else to describe it.
I came to and the buildings seemed to stretch into infinity above my head. A young girl with a dirty face and torn clothes followed me and continued to ask for change. My change. I donít think it was the same girl. High above me a building with a pink neon sign that said "Phillips" pierced the dark clouds above. A withered black woman to my right stated that rain would come soon. I covered my head with an old newspaper. Someone to my right whined about all the damn drunks and homos. I think he was referring to me. I wanted to ask them about phone calls. Anyone would do. Can a phone call drive a person crazy? I would ask them. "Sure buddy," theyíd say, and then theyíd laugh. Or maybe they would just run away in the opposite direction. "I thought Giuliani got them all off the streets," their conversation continued while I thought. I became aware of blankness.
I came to and I stood at a street corner. A strangerís cell phone rang and I answered it. Took it from his hip where it hung like a cancerous growth. A tumor, I suppose youíd call it.
The stranger, angry at the loss of his phone, assaulted me. Blackness followed, and I heard drums beating in time to the honks and screeches of the passing traffic.
A pool of reddish brown blood warmed the side of my head when I came to again. My teeth felt loose. A young woman with blond hair asked if I was all right. Iím a nurse, she said.
Flashing red and blue lights announced the arrival of the police. Professional men with plastic gloves lifted me from the ground and placed me onto a wheeled bed. A small white room with equipment stored on the walls defined my existence. I tried to remember the phone call. What had it said? Who had spoken?
I suddenly understood that I actually existed in a plowed field somewhere in Kansas. Thigh high corn covered the hills for as far as I could see. My wife, a pretty young black woman, called to me. Dinner, she repeated over and over. Come and eat.
Where are you now? A voice asked from behind my head. I was laying on a comfortable couch in an unfamiliar room with a familiar white ceiling. All ceilings are familiar, though, unless youíre rich. I opened my mouth to speak and comprehended that I knew no words. I could still hear my pretty wife calling me to dinner. Where was I?
I sat at dinner in my grandmotherís house. I could see a large field of corn through a bay window to my right. A comfortable couch occupied the space to my left, just beyond the dinner table. The couch was turned away from me, but I could see someoneís feet dangling over the end. Comfort is a relative term, I muttered.
Comfort is what? The voice asked from behind my head again. A phone rang, and I began to rise in order to answer it, but tight velcro straps held me in place. There are no phones in this room, the voice said. I realized I was on the couch in the unfamiliar room again. You never left, the voice stated.
Now tell me, it asked, what did you hear when you answered that pay phone? I began to answer, but again, I realized I knew no words. Someone placed something in my hand. A blank tablet. Here, write if you canít talk, the voice said.
Have you taken any drugs, the voice asked again. I tried to write, but I stood in the field again, and my pretty black wife lead me by my left hand. Come along, she said. You must eat.Where am I? I asked her.
A hospital, the voice answered. I again found myself comforted in the couchís soft and unyielding grasp. How can a couch hold a person down, I thought to myself. A couch is inanimate. It canít "do" anything!
Youíre strapped down, the voice said, and youíre too high to know it. What did you take? For the third time I ventured to use my voice, and for the third time I found I could not answer. The tablet was no longer in my hands, and the lights were off. I gathered I was in a different unfamiliar room, but where?
You must eat, my wife stated. She sat across from me at the table. The plate before me held a piece of bloody meat, and the plastic cup next to it was filled to the brim with red fluid. Where is this, I asked. Surely, this isnít Kansas.
No, this isnít Kansas, and donít call me Shirley, a manís voice said from somewhere in the darkness. You in for detox? He asked. Pale moonlight pierced the darkness, and I noticed a window in the far wall. Since when did walls grow windows?
I heard a sheet tear, and thunder rumbled. It is done, my wife said. Now drink and eat before it is too late. A single candle illuminated her face. I could see the outlines of the meal before me. I raised my hand to take the fork, and a meaty white hand attached to a muscular forearm pinned it to my side. You gonna calm down? A voice asked with stressed undertones. Get a PRN damn you, get a PRN.
Pain in my left buttock, and the sound of velcro straps pulling apart. Too big for the papoose a voice said. Iím not holding him, another said. Was it me? Were they talking about me? Where was I? Where am I? What time is it, for Godís sake?
Calm down and take a bite. A fork with a piece of the bloody meat hovered before my lips. I discerned my wifeís presence by the twinkling of her eyes. Only the fork and her eyes were visible. Nothing else. I bit down.
HOLY SHIT! A voice screamed. Hands slapped me and arms applied pressure. Pinpricks dotted my arms, buttocks, and legs. Where are you now? A voice asked.Warmth covered my face and fluid seeped between my lips. I smelled copper, and swallowed the fluid in my mouth. I heard the voice of a young girl asking for change. A phone rang. My footsteps echoed against the side of a nearby building, and yet someone pinned my legs together and against the floor with incredible force. Where was I?
The phone continued ringing. Cold plastic pressed against my right ear. This is a facsimile, an irritated male voice intoned. This is not the real thing. The cold plastic went away, and I felt nothing at all.
What did you hear when you answered the phone? A voice asked. I felt a warmth fall over my self. I felt a kind of movement I never knew before. Somewhere a door opened, and someone hung up a phone.
I saw my wife again, and she stood on the other side of a brightly lit doorway. A piece of paper in my right hand informed me that this experience was only for educational purposes. I shrugged, and stepped though the doorway into her embrace.
I stood embracing my wife on the screened in back porch of my grandmotherís house. Wordlessly, she let go, and led me inside by my right hand. She answered all of my questions with silence.
Inside, she went into the kitchen and seated herself at the table across from my grandmother. Coffee cups of what I assumed was tea sat before them, and there was one extra cup, which I again assumed, was for me.
My grandmother, a wrinkled white woman with sparkling grey hair, turned to me and asked me to sit with them. "Wait a little while," she said invitingly.
Through the window behind her I saw another room, where I was strapped to a couch of sorts. A man with a white robe sat with his back to the window, facing the couch. I watched myself struggle against the restraints, and then settle back into the couchís soft pads. I walked through the kitchen and into the living room. Each of the three windows in this room showed a different time from my life. In one, I was twelve years old and being restrained on the floor by a hospital worker. His name was Mr. Shaw. I had tried to hit him with a chair, I remembered. Mother had just called to tell me I was a ward of the state now. She would have nothing more to do with me. "Youíre just a bad kid," sheíd said. Poor Mr. Shaw had just been the next person to enter my line of sight. This was a bad memory. I frowned and moved on.
In another, I was thirty-three and standing behind the counter of my bookstore. The storeís landlord was exiting through the front door with a copy of the lease in his left hand. This was the day Iíd rented the store. Such a happy day. I smiled, and moved on to the next window.
In the third and final window, I saw myself at age twenty, sitting on a couch a watching T.V. with a beer in my hand. I looked miserable. I remembered that Iíd just broken up with my girlfriend of two years. Iíd hit her during an argument, so she packed her bags and left. Her departure had spurred a string of positive personal changes, and so I remember this as a neutral event. I moved on to the next room.
Each window in the house, upstairs and down, showed a different time from my life. I felt confused, and I hoped my wife or grandmother could straighten things out. Silence greeted every one of my questions. They sat quietly, ignoring me and sipping their tea.
Finally, I gave up and sat with them. The tea was hot and strong. No matter how much I sipped, my cup never emptied. A length of time passed, and I felt a curious humming in my head. Not a buzz, mind you. My grandmother never drank alcohol or anything even mildly intoxicating..
The humming grew, and I felt it vibrating in every part of my body. Every cell, every atom of my being, hummed with the same pitch. I opened my eyes, not realizing I had closed them, and saw every event of my life superimposed over one another in layers.
Where am I? I asked myself. "Everywhere," my grandmother said from some distant place. "Nowhere," my wife said, from some place nearby. I found I could focus my attention on specific moments at will. I focused, and went back to the pay phone. I watched as I approached, struggled with my hand, answered the phone, and then walked away. I rewound the experience, and listened closely. Just as the receiver reached my ear, sound cut out.
A piece of paper blew past the payphone, and I glimpsed writing on its surface. I rewound the experience once more, and zoomed in on the paper. It read, "this moment is intentionally left blank." I pondered its purpose, and suddenly felt a strange pull upon my being. I looked up and saw the layers of my experiences extending into my old age, to my death, and then beyond there was a bright white light.
A new, yet very familiar voice called to me. A womanís voice. It was an amalgamation of voices, a collection of all the womenís voices Iíd ever heard. How I knew this, I knew not. Upward and ever closer to the light I drifted, and the voice spoke to me of things words cannot express.. Closer, and closer still to the light I crept. As I drew closer, the light resolved into thousands, nay millions, of smaller lights. Each light represented the brightness of an individual person, or soul. Again, I do not know how I learned this. I turned my gaze inward, and found myself to be glowing as well. Now so close I could touch them, the voice asked me to turn around, which I did. Behind and below me, the column of my experiences blended with the worldís great column. All experience became one, and finally, I began to understand. All for one, and one for all, I murmured, and then laughed. And the world, full of wonder and joy, laughed with me at my oh so fine wit.
Author's note: A PRN is a catch all phrase. It refers to either a use-as-needed medication, or to a hired-as-needed employee. In the story, the person is yelling for a medication, which would most likely be thorazine. Thorazine acts as a sedative when used at low doses. When a patient gets too out of control, the nurse comes in with the thorazine and shoots him up, and not fifteen minutes later the patient will be under the table and dreaming. I don't actually remember what the letters, P, R, and N designate.
Bio: Michael is a 23 year old resident of Temple, Georgia. He works at a children's psychiatric hospital, and wrote this story during the night shift.
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