Dial Tone

In Issue 57 by Griffin Hamstead

Image
Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

“Hey, it’s me. Again. I was just calling to see if you had a minute to chat. I guess you’re away from the phone or busy or whatever. Which is cool, I get it. But, um, I’ve been alone for a while now. Couple weeks or months or something and it, uh, kind of gets to my head you know. I saw a bird at the bird feeder today. Very dull, small. Probably a sparrow. But still a bird, can you believe it? It’d be nice to have a pet, I think, don’t you? I can’t remember if you said you had animals growing up. I found an old book in the basement, no cover or anything just the brittle pages glued together. I’ll call you later and tell you how it is. Anyway, call me when you get this. Alright, have a good one.”

That’s, like, an example. I enjoy leaving voicemails for strangers. I’m not sure why, except I guess stuffing letters into envelopes and making up random addresses just doesn’t give me the same rush anymore. Nobody ever picks up, although a lot of people don’t live here anymore. Most people left suddenly, so I’m sure they didn’t think about taking the phone off the hook. Their phones probably rattle on the wall, a shrill ring that doesn’t do anything except confuse the birds that still muck about around here. But I have no idea. I’m no expert in bird calls.

I don’t know what I can tell you that you don’t already know. About how the call came in and everyone starting texting everyone, “r u watching the news,” and stuff like that. I can tell you what it’s been like to stick around, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. It’s not as bad as people are saying. I’m sure people are saying the worst. Like right now, I’m in the sitting room of one of the big houses in one of the nice neighborhoods, because you know those people were the first to get the heads-up to leave and there are big houses in every place. And I’ve got the gas fireplace going, which still works thank God. Plus, the alarm quit after a few hours when I broke the window to get in. Sometimes, they even leave them unlocked. It’s happened to me before. Like they don’t give a shit like it never was about the valuables inside but the concept of possession. The alarm started sounding weak and strained and then it just, ploop, died and that was that. There’s always food in the freezer, too. I don’t know if it’s spoiled or contaminated or whatever, but it’s edible so I eat. My favorite thing to do is eat frozen fruit and then write my name on the wall with the juice so I don’t forget. There are big glass windows in the sitting room so I also watch the outside a lot. Just in case, I guess.

Sometimes things still happen that make me knit my eyebrows. Like just now. I really did find an old book in the basement, and I really was going to read it, so I set it outside on the front steps because today’s not so cold and then I went and made a phone call. The book just isn’t there anymore. I don’t get what an animal wants with a book and I mean it was pretty frail so maybe it blew apart in the wind, but I don’t see any sign of it. Weird. And then there’s little stuff like thinking the furniture in the backyard’s been moved or a room looks tidier or messier than I remember. I just tell myself I’m all alone in a big house and what do I know and who says there aren’t chemicals in the air messing with my brain.

Nobody’s around to tell me otherwise, so everything I think is totally right and totally wrong. I have to trust myself or go crazy.

I tried running the faucet earlier because everyone knows having water is important. It came out scalding hot and started screaming at me and it was getting to sound intense, so I shut it off. That’s probably going on my to-do list. It’s good for me to stay busy; I like doing things with my hands. When I’m bored or confused or depressed, I call strangers.

The phone is in the kitchen. I take it to the couch and punch in a random string of numbers and kick my feet up, listening to the soothing rhythm of the dial tone. Sometimes I think about what I want to say, but most times I just start talking after that whole, “blank-blank-blank-blank etc. is not available. If you would like to leave a message,” and I always do because why not and it’s funny to think I’m running up anybody’s phone bill. I’m always friendly.

“Hey! It’s Laura. I was just sitting at home and I thought, ‘ah! I know the perfect person to call.’ I know it’s been a minute, but I wanted to see how you were getting along. Crazy world, I know. I’d love to meet up for coffee or a drink if you have some free time, just let me know. I’m sure we’ve got a lot to catch up on. Anyway, call me back when you can. Oh! And also, do you have any idea how to fix a faucet? Mine is only giving me like burning hot water. Right then, I’ll talk to you later. Bye!”

Now, I’m not quite sure what to do. I try the TV but it isn’t on, and they never are. I close my eyes and try to take a nap or fall asleep or something. Instead I just build stuff in my head, behind my eyelids. Like there’s a nice block party in my old neighborhood and no one looks sad and no one’s dead. And like I said, I’m all alone so then I start thinking, what if this is a world I made up in my head and I’m just a basket case or else something’s going on that’s not this. But there’s lots to explore and that’s not nothing, so I also think it doesn’t matter too much.

You never know what you’ll find in these places. This one place a couple months ago had this hidden doorway in the dining room. I almost didn’t see it because you had to push on one side of the wood panel for it to open, but if you looked closely, you could see the relief lines on either side. Then this musty green carpet (not what I would have gone for myself) leads you down a short hallway that kind of declines away from you and there are two or three steps at the end that take you down into a room. I found the light switch and by sheer luck the bulb in the center of the room flickered on. I later found out that they had that room running on an external generator, which made me wonder why they didn’t stick around. Anyway, the only things in the room were this lounge furniture (big and flat and black leather) and a hand-crank phonograph and lots of candles. The candles seemed like a bit of a fire hazard, but none of them looked very used. I cranked the phonograph and lay down on the lounge on my back and my spine shivered because it felt that good to hear music again. Full-body affair. I could feel the cool leather on the back of my arms and I closed my eyes and rolled around in my head while the phonograph spun and spun in its wild emission of Thelonious Monk’s 1964 It’s Monk’s Time. (There’s something about that album cover, by the way. The brilliant red and faded coral, the color contrast is immaculate. And you have Monk there in the center, his face deep into pure emotion in profile, the sweat rolling in beads behind his ears and you just know that’s a moment you could be if you dug your shoulder in enough. Some part of you feels the transfer of that energy straight blood-rush to your brain and the sans-serif font whispers but you’re not quite sure what. I couldn’t look away). I played the record three times through. It’s not the best Monk album, not with Straight, No Chaser and the Genius of Modern Music collection and the live albums and the list goes on. Still, I just felt suspended by it, like my whole body on a tightrope. I can’t get over the way the early piano riffs run from jarring to a ragtime melody and back again in this give and take you hardly notice. Like there’s knowledge right under your nose but you’ve lost your sense of smell. I can see why they kept this album out when they left. Discordance in tempo describes the days as well as anything else.

Here’s a list of other interesting things I’ve found in places:

Closet full of shoes without pairs

Tree growing through roof of living room

Letter from the President on the desk (that’s true, I swear)

First edition copy of Drum Taps

Walk-in ice box with person and two dogs inside

I haven’t found anything like that in this house yet. I’m still on the couch and then a very important person comes through my door, or the front door, it’s not really mine, and hands me an index card and it has my name on it and says something like “Congratulations, you’ve escaped the simulation.” But I sit at the window and dream it up as night falls. That’s my favorite line from Kafka.

No one comes through the door and there is no prize for continuing to survive in this nothingness. I’m still on the couch and I decide instead to explore because there’s bound to be something interesting here, right? And I’m in the market for a new coat: the one I’m wearing has gotten rather frayed. On top of that, it needs to be washed but I can’t be wasting water on old clothes and I don’t trust the river these days. Maybe soon.

They have artwork hanging on the wall as you go up the stairs. I always appreciate that, when the homes are decorated, but in an authentic way and not they bought it in the decorated kind of way. I used to love that kind of stuff. Art. When I was twelve, my dad took me on a vacation to New York and we had reservations at this famous restaurant, but he just couldn’t get me out of MoMA and we always laughed about that anytime we planned a trip to a museum after that. He died a few years ago from lung cancer. At least I got to be with him when he went, which is more than a lot of people can say. My mom was doing her widow thing in Italy when the accident happened here. Tuscan Sun, or whatever that movie’s called. I haven’t heard from her so I imagine her happy and safe. There hasn’t been any “news” in months here. I’m sure she thinks I’m dead, which I wish wasn’t the case, although it might be easier on her in the long run. But I’m not a mother and seriously doubt I ever will be. Grief is so strange these days.

From the top of the landing, I make my way into the East Wing of the house. I make the assumption that it’s the East Wing because I’m walking away from the late afternoon sun and I can only hope that the sun still rises east and sets west, though everything may be up for grabs right now. There’s also the chance that the people who lived here had more creativity or lore and named this section of the house the Sunrise Wing or the In-Laws Wing or didn’t even call it a wing since you could never get this huge building to fly anywhere in the first place. There are three doors on my right, large bay windows on the left overlooking the backyard terrace. Weeds are sprouting up around the faded concrete, which endears me to the space, though I have to think there was pressure washing and trimming originally involved. When I try the doors, I find two musty bedrooms with neatly made bedcovers and floral, royal wallpaper. One door is locked, which I’ll save for later. At the end of the hall is a reading room of sorts. The natural light streams in, a few books lie around in stacks. There’s a large table with chairs on either side and a daybed in the corner under one of the windows. I stride over and peer out across the terrace. From there, I can see the other wing of the house. I squint in the brightness and try to make out anything of interest on that wing, so I can have something to look forward to, I guess.

I think about standing very still and wonder how long it would take to become furniture. Through the two sets of windows, I can see a child’s bedroom on the opposite side of the house. The bed is small, and colorful. There are teddy bears and loose trains and a doll house, echoes really. I think I see a curtain move, or a pinch in the carpet, which startles me. My heart is beating faster and I don’t really know why and then they’re standing there, right in the window. It’s not the child, I’m certain of that. So already I’m doubting they’re a ghost. They look very real in their adult frame and shocked expression and limp arms. I stay very still and try to breathe calmly. When I’m confident they’ve gone, I run back down to the living room, grab the phone and punch in numbers without looking and duck behind the couch and listen for any movement until I hear the dial tone, which calms me. I still whisper when I get the answering machine.

“Do you think it’s possible to hallucinate from loneliness? Solitude maybe is a better word. I’m not kidding you, you know me. It’s got to be serious any way you slice it, right? Haunting or hallucination or holy hell I’m not alone in here. What would you do? I’d love your advice, I’ve always valued it deeply. Call me back when you get this. I hope your tea thing went well, I’m sorry I couldn’t go. Next time! Anyway, it’ll be nice to hear from you. Okay, talk soon. Bye.”

I decide to wait until it gets a little darker, and then I’ll look around again. I’ll be less visible that way but sounds are always so much louder at night, so I’ll have to fish out my thick socks. I practice being quiet with my back against the couch, looking out into the backyard, noticing movement and changes in the air, listening for footsteps or door hinges or faucets. I don’t hear anything and I just see the small flitting of birds. It takes a while but at some point I feel alone again. My posture feels steady. I close my eyes and meditate.

Normally this would calm me down, but I keep thinking about that figure I saw and if the clothes they were wearing were tattered and where they found them or who gave them out. And I’m breathing in and out, of course. Then, I’m thinking about ripped T-shirts and how disappointed you’d be to find them fraying in the dryer because your dad let you keep it even though he knew you’d found it in his closet and how you loved to wear it skateboarding around strip malls with your friends a few days after a big snow when no one was out and half of the parking lots were frozen and gray. The more I reach back for memories, the more dilapidated they get.

I listen and hear no noise coming from the other wing of the house, only the branches scraping against the glass windows in the wind. So I think it must be safe enough and I uncross my legs from my meditative stance and slowly peek my head above the back of the couch, my fingernails digging into my palm. The room is empty. I slowly unlace my boots and leave them on the ground. I’m trying my best to muffle my steps as I wade into the center of the room. My ears are sharp and at points I’m even closing my eyes just to build a soundscape and search for the unfamiliar in the loud darkness.

I grip the railing of the stairs. The wood is worn smooth in places so this is where I choose to step. At the top of the landing I pause for a long time. I hear a loud noise outside and my heart drops, but I’m good at this. I immediately fix my eyes in the direction of the sound and see a small dead tree with a frayed trunk sway and fall back into the woods where it disappears. It takes me a minute to calm myself down again, but eventually my heartbeat is steady and quiet and I approach the door to the other wing: the West Wing or the Children’s Wing or the Forbidden Wing. I don’t know these things, I’m dealing in approximations.

Approaching the door, I’m struck with the glaring thought that I haven’t yet asked myself if I want to know what’s behind this door. This house is so fucking big, I tell myself, wouldn’t it be okay to share it? I could tape a note to the door, or even try and find the key to lock it from the outside, somehow convey the message. I could even be the one to leave, I tell myself. Why not? And when I don’t come up with a better answer than the way the light breaks through the living room right around 4 o’clock, I realize that opening this door is a selfish act. Then I do it anyway.

The hallway is dark and smells like mothballs. I run my finger along the wooden panel beside me and come up with a coat of dust, which I blow out into the air. The particles hover there and then fall to the floor. I take a step, then step back. As I thought, my footprint can be seen so clearly it basically glows. I’m proud of myself so I smile and keep walking, very slowly and cautiously. My knees bent but flexible, my hands a foot from my face, hips squared. I’m confident in this position, my breath is steady. I stop at the first door on the left.

I push down on the door handle as I turn it–I learned this trick growing up because as a kid I was always an early riser and didn’t want to wake up my parents but also needed to get down to the basement where the video games were. I’m sure you understand the desire, and the only way to stop the door from creaking was to hold the handle down so it wouldn’t scrape against the top of the door frame. Inside, it’s dark and I can only make out vague shapes. A bed, a lamp. A coat rack, I’m hoping. I shut the door as quietly as I can and try the lamp. It clicks and the room remains dark. I watch the coatrack, which doesn’t move or indicate life to me in any way. I take a deep breath and move over towards the dresser. There, I find a candle and a box of matches, coated in dust. Once illuminated, the room looks like any other guest bedroom. The closet door is even open so I don’t have to go through that whole ordeal. Satisfied, I blow out the candle, pocket the matches and return to the hallway.

The next door sits ajar, which gives me serious pause. Through the gap I notice a pile of toys and blankets and a crib. So, I think with my heart beginning to speed up, this is where I saw them. The someone. I look across the hallway and see a library with the door open. With my eyes on the door to the nursery, I walk backwards into the library and shut the door. I light the candle and look around. The floor remains evenly coated in dust, which I take as a good sign. As I hoped, there’s a fireplace. I grab the metal poker and blow out the candle, which I keep in my other hand because I don’t really have a better place to put it.

The door to the nursery eases open and I slide inside. I dart my eyes to each corner of the room and raise the poker. The rocking chair in the corner sways back and forth. I stand stock-still and listen for breathing or shuffling or anything like that. I collect my breath. “Okay, hey, hello,” I start, “I’m not here to hurt you. Let’s just sit down. You can stop hiding. I promise it’s okay.” I wait for a really long time but nothing happens. I don’t hear anything, which honestly just frustrates me. Finally, I set the poker down against the crib and light the candle again. The quiet light of the flame runs across the floor and then I see. One set of footprints leading in, another leading out. The prints are bigger than mine, likely made by a boot. I have no choice but to leave the candle lit, so I keep a firm grip on the poker when I leave the room. I follow the footsteps along the hallway. Then, they turn a corner. My back is against the wall and I have the poker raised in my free hand. Ever so carefully, I stretch my neck and stick my head around the wall. Of course, it’s too fucking dark to see anything. I pull my head back and lay it against the wall. This time, I hear rustling. The unmistakable sound of someone trying to move quietly: muted thuds very far apart, people thinking that slow movement is the same thing as quiet movement (it isn’t), and the friction of fabric. I hold my breath and count to ten. When I slowly exhale, I ask myself if the noises are louder or quieter than when I first heard them. Whatever is making them is moving away from me, I determine. So I snuff the candle and step into the dark. I know I’m better at this, I’ve had lots of practice, and I feel the ground I’m gaining on the someone. Then the sounds stop. I freeze. We can’t be more than four feet apart because I smell the weeks on the road, the smell of two sets of clothes and rotting teeth and lost socks. I flex my knuckles on the poker and breathe by pulling a small amount of air into my nostrils and no deeper. The thick beat of my heart will give me away, I’m convinced. I take the smallest step forward to give my front hip more leverage, then whisper, “it’s okay.” The wood groans and they take off running. I chase after them through this maze of corridors but they’re much faster than I gave them credit for. My lungs are on fire when I hear the loud thud of a door. I throw it open and see, barely in the dim light, a set of stairs. I race down it, two at a time, and find another door agape, staring at the night outside.

I yell out into the sleeting gray snow-ash, “Hey! I just want to talk!” Nothing responds. The tracks I can find in the mud lead into the woods. I sigh and walk around the exterior of the house just to catch the breeze or maybe spot a deer. Some of them have five hooves now. I have no idea what I’ll do tomorrow but I need a semblance of a plan. If my luck keeps up, it will come to me in a dream. In the living room, I crawl up on the couch and fall asleep with the phone in my hand.

+++

“Hey! This is Laura, calling for Dr. Nguyen. I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be able to fulfill my appointment for tomorrow. Something’s come up at work and so I would love to reschedule for as soon as possible. If you could just let her know to give me a call at her earliest convenience, that would be great. This is a good number to reach me at or by the email I think you have on file. Sorry again about this, and I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks, bye.”

I strap the two canteens I made from a kite and a pair of leather heels over my shoulder and set off through the neighborhood. I always leave the door wide open. The mornings embody melancholy in a potent way. The sun never comes out, but there’s some quality about the air that reminds me of the lives we all used to have. Must be refraction or something like that. I wish I could find a Walkman with a Thelonious Monk CD already inside.

I take the neighborhood road along the edge of the woods, glancing in now and again to see if I can catch the sight of anything living. I don’t. The animals I see make me sad sometimes. They have this look in their eye, I mean you can just tell that they have no idea what’s happened to them. Part of me finds that comforting but I think I only think that way since I get to know these things and the grass is always greener. Another brown bird lands on the road and I halt my motion as to not scare it away. Very rare these things these days what a time to be alive. Fat salty tears pool in the corners of my eyes when the bird sings. The notes are like threads pulling on catches all the way behind my eyes in my brain, unraveling into a hollow bowl to hold this bird’s strange off-key melody and its only my brain because there’s nothing else out here but me and this other creature. So I understand that sound is a way to be present.

The neighborhood ends in a cul-de-sac. I walk right between two houses into and through a thin line of trees into a wide field. Wide-open spaces like this calm me. I stop to rub rocks in a small creek and find at least a couple to put in my pockets. At every step, the edges of the field slip farther beyond my grasp. Some of the grass is less gray than the rest. Dusk approaches by the time I’m anywhere close to across the field. I can see a small line of roofs and aim myself in that direction. The trees are orange. Sunsets have been crazy lately, with all the stuff in the air I guess. You don’t see the sun for ten hours then the world lights up for these twenty minutes. Sometimes. It doesn’t happen every day or anything, so I always think about it like a sign of good fortune. I’ll lead the great awakening of the neo-church of the sun gods. Another thing I’d like to find: paint. I’m actually terrible at painting but holy shit I think I’d cum or cry to see that kind of vibrancy again. “Seafoam green” isn’t a naturally occurring color, we manufactured it. Messed around and got addicted.

I’m a few yards from the row of houses and the dark green silhouettes around me fade to a grayscale black. I come out from a row of trees, using shadow as cover, and see a cute little village of cottages. Sweet yellow-painted things, with carvings of cardinals or moose or pine trees on the mailboxes. I size them up and choose one near the middle but closer to the edge. Unsuspecting. I knock (I always do, it’s a common courtesy still). The ensuing silence tells me all I need to know. I find the door unlocked and slip inside. I can’t see much inside in the dark. The lights, of course, don’t work. This doesn’t end up being a problem for me as I find my way into the single bedroom with relative ease. The mattress is lofted high which gives the bedframe a strange shape. Dreaming drive-by all night all the same. I awake refreshed, as much as one can be these days.

The telephone is old and red and hangs on the wall with a rotary dial. I choose a random string of numbers. The line rings. The thin trees sway from the breeze outside. The natural light in this house pales in comparison to the other but the day is still crisp and bright (which has become a relative term for us all, I’m sure).

“Hello?”

I wait for the rest of the answering message so I can leave a voicemail. Only nothing else happens. Maybe this is one of those folks who thought they were fucking hilarious for making their answering machine sound like they answered the phone. Gotcha! And all that. Then it happens again.

“Hello?”

My heart rate spikes and my throat drops through my stomach. Why this cotton in my mouth? My hands tremble. I’ve gone stiff all of a sudden.

“Hi, it’s Laura,” I say.

“Thank God. I need help.”

“What–what do you mean?”

“I’m scared. The big people are everywhere.”

“Big people?”

“The ones with metal arms. Please.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They’ll find me on the phone soon. I have to go.”

“Where are you?”

“They told us we would be safe inside the fence.”

“Who’s we?”

“Me. My mother. And Ron. I have to go.”

“Wait! Just stay on the line a second. Tell me where you are. How can I help?”

Then I hear a click and the steady pulsing blare of a disconnected phone. The house I stayed in last night has gotten very small. I notice the chipped paint on the wall and the duct tape holding the window closed above the kitchen sink. I call the number right back but no one answers. I pace the house until the sight of the phone dangling on its coiled cord no longer makes me so nervous. I set it back on the receiver, just in case. I decide to go on a walk through the neighborhood.

Like I said earlier, the worst part is not knowing whether or not you’ve made anything up that happens to you. Was someone on the other end of that phone or have I become this lonely? Then you follow that line of reasoning and decide you’re in a straitjacket in some padded room which doesn’t end up productive but certainly confuses you enough. You pinch yourself and nothing happens.

I find a cute little firepit behind a row of houses in a kind of community area. Plastic Adirondack chairs surround the stonework. A fire sounds lovely although I admit that it could bring someone’s attention to myself. I decide to start collecting wood anyway. The trees are brittle and weak and plenty of them are already strewn across the road with weeds and wildflowers growing through its cracks. This feels familiar, as if I’d dreamt it. I ultimately decide against the fire and go back to the house.

I can’t get that phone call off the mind. The small person on the other end. I sit by the phone for hours, waiting for it to ring. I forgot the number. I take the rest of my meals indoors. This becomes my only action. The only way I interact with the world I’m in is by waiting. So am I here?

A strange thing that happens now: there aren’t so many animals to make their noises and you’d be amazed what you hear instead. For instance, in the morning none of the birds sing or anything so you wake up to the sound of a tree falling or an explosion in the distance. It ends up being random, one-off sounds like that. All-at-once kind of sounds I guess. There aren’t really any dogs barking either although occasionally you pass one on the road and it whimpers from hunger. Sometimes I think about feeding them, but I can’t get past considering it as inhumane to prolong their life when everything’s gone to shit like this. The phone still isn’t ringing.

It really bothers me that of all the houses I could have chosen, this particular phone isn’t hooked up to an answering machine. That way, I could go have my fire and do whatever else and not have to worry about missing a call. I reflect on this a while and come up with an idea. I’m clever like that. I comb the closets in this house until I find a long spool of thread. I grab several. I tie the end of a spool to one of the metal brackets that holds the phone on the rotary receiver. I’m going to search the other houses for answering machines that I can install in this one and if I’m careful to keep the thread taut I should feel it vibrate as soon as this phone starts ringing. I leave the front door open, too, just in case I can hear it. Like I said, it’s relatively quiet these days.

I start with the closest house so I can conserve as much thread as possible. I’m still on the first spool over here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have an answering machine either. The taxidermy ostrich really piques my interest but I make a note to come back for it. Imagine putting that thing in the bedroom. I’d probably leave it in the hall and then with any luck it’d nearly give me a heart attack first thing in the morning and remind me that I’m still alive. The next house over has already been ransacked by somebody. I recognize that other people must be doing the same thing as me but it’s always eerie to find evidence of it like this. Stealth ascends my priority list. In another house I find the phone lines cut, which is just dumb. I assume someone was a big thriller fan and always wanted to do that and why not now? At the fourth house, and I’m on my third spool of thread now (I tied them together using a square knot which I learned from some stupid One Hundred Things Every Young Man Should Know book I stole from my fifth-grade boyfriend), I finally find one. I never expected to feel such exaltation looking at a piece of silver plastic from the early 2000s with red blinking lights but here I am. Fucking ecstatic. The machine unhooks relatively easily from the main line, but I struggle to roll the three cords that accompany it into any efficient shape to be carried in one hand. Eventually, I tuck the damn thing between my legs and bunny hop back to the house so I can reel in the thread with both my hands.

Electronics have never been my gig, admittedly. I did not consider that the cords on the answering machine have certain heads which require certain receivers and what I’m trying to piece together are items from various decades. I take a screwdriver and open up the cable heads, then twist the matching cables together which I secure with some electric tape I found in the cabinet under the sink. Of course there isn’t any way to tell if this worked until the phone rings which, admittedly, has been the plight behind this whole operation. Though, given the choice between crippling anxiety every time I leave the house or a chosen belief in my own and total faculty for survival, I’ll always take the latter.

The next few days go on like this. I deplete this poor person’s pantry and freezer (mainly fiber bars and TV dinners, nothing exciting like), I sit on the couch nearest the phone for at least a few hours, reading a book. Right now I’m working through Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie. I really can’t tell you it’s my favorite and this contained much less mystery than I expected. It would be my luck to finally find a Christie on this (sparse and overall pretty weak) bookshelf only for the book to turn out to be her foray into a different genre. Anyway, there’s one up there called How to Be Alone and it’s catching my eye. I leave voicemails and make up dialogue for the trees in the backyard. The tree house back there continues to rot and I continue to use it. I sleep longer than I should but what the fuck else is there to do. I go for long walks. On the fourth day, the phone rings.

The whole world stops. I run to the phone, but it feels like one of those dreams where your legs are molasses and the deepest muscle-burning effort to run does jack shit. I collect my breath and pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Laura.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s me.”

“Are you a good person?”

“You can trust me.”

“There are bad people here.”

“I know. What do you mean by that? Who are these bad people?”

“You have to look real closely. They’re always in the shadows in corners.”

“Where are you?”

“They took us past a big fence and we can’t ever go play outside the fence. I live in the shed of the blue house, with Mom and Ron.”

“Ron. Who’s that?”

“He’s Mom’s friend.”

“Okay. Tell me more about what you see.”

“Um, my red lunchbox. People in bubble suits.”

“Do you see any plants?”

“The trees are dead, though.”

“Oh, tell me about their bark. Please. Hurry.”

“Rough. Like beef jerky.”

“Flaky?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your name. What’s it smell like?”

“They’re coming again. Smells like trash and cherries.”

“Wait. Don’t hang up.”

“Bye.”

My head hangs, neck all heavy. I relieve a frustrated sigh from behind my sore throat. Then I cough and think about the last time I smelled cherries.

I have this problem where I keep remembering me falling into the pond that time we tried to go ice-skating back when we were kids. The ice never broke. I keep remembering this thing that isn’t real and I worry it’s only a matter of time before my brain can no longer say to this memory “you didn’t happen yet.”

I rummage through the clapboard shelves on the far side of the living room. What I’m looking for is a map or an atlas and then I’ll cross-reference it with the local farm names I know which hopefully leads me to any of the cherry orchards. What I find are more Agatha Christie, some encyclopedias of birds, an “Anthology of American Letters” and poems by Bonnie Raitt. All intriguing to me in their own way but not nearly helpful. It’s strange to get to know a person this way: what they left behind. And then I ask, if they were in the room with me how much does that change what I think about them since I can still see what they’ve displayed in the sitting room, which is to say: what they haven’t yet but will leave behind. I think some aspect of ourselves know this or believe this or try and make it true because then our consumption means more than mere disease and we weren’t ever really brainwashed, we were expressing ourselves so no one mistook us for just a body in a place with a voice and some opinions. The crisis of identity is reduced to throw pillows and scented hand soap. It was the wolf crying “boy” and no one the wiser.

The spine of my book crinkles as I open it. I lick the page and wait for the phone to ring again.

+++

My living has been too passive, I decide. I walk five miles a day, surveying the surrounding area in a blank journal I found. Well, I should say it has a dedication from a spouse or something in the upper corner of the first page but it’s not invasive or anything. I need to begin moving again having depleted most of the survival-type resources in this house. I haven’t heard anything else from the young boy. The red light of the answering machine still flashes the number zero.[1] I decide to give the kid three more days to call again. I cannot pin my chances on a telephone, the vibrations of its ringing. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find him anyway. Find anyone, to be precise. Supposedly, they’re out there.

These days, I say to myself. Like limbs made of iron and ore hearts we carry. To go out into the field and dig toes in soil (decomposed flesh) and rest our crooked spines against a crooked tree and listen to the strange voices we pretend not to hear our whole lives. Or coat of cinder or something. I’m sorry, I hit my pen on my forehead and language tumbled out. I cannot claim its meaning.

I often wish for a companion. A dog or something. I would settle for a gerbil, I think. The fact is, that’s another living being requiring the materials to continue living and I’m struggling to understand how companionship and survival are compatible. I know our species only made it this far (this far meaning far enough to eradicate ourselves) through cooperation which seems to disprove my point but then I look around at the vast decrepit volume of vacuous space I’m stuck in now and doesn’t that kind of prove me right?

If I can find something new every time I go for a walk, the days don’t blur together so much. Plus, the searching keeps my mind occupied. Yesterday I drew a new flower in my notebook. I hadn’t seen it before and the way the leaves peeled away from the stem looked like a small choir and the purple petals were some majestic chorus. Today is even better. I find an old swing set in one of the fields near the house. For as long as I’m able, I forget the world I’m living it, forget the law of gravity that’s pulling me back to the earth, forget the membrane between my skin and the breeze and I’m just flying and laughing and everything is grand. Which, truthfully, is a feeling I’d forgotten. I wonder what else I’ve forgotten but trying to remember what you forget has got to be one of the most pointless exercises I can think of, so I stick with step one: wonder.

The sky gets dark early. I begin back towards the house. Either it’s already night or storm clouds have rolled in and I have no intention of getting caught in the rain. The rain poses more danger to me than encountering other people, not knowing what’s been collected along the water cycle. This frames my childhood fear of thunderstorms in a new light. I was just a visionary, obviously. I board the windows of the house but even as I fall asleep hours later, having read by candlelight with my stovetop oatmeal, I hear no pitter-patter.

The next day passes without much incident and now I’m sitting here by the phone, checking the clock above the living room mantle. I swear I can see the phone almost ringing. It’s been doing that all day. My finger taps itself against the hardwood table. I keep checking the answering machine, just in case I missed it ring. As if I would, I know. I fall asleep sitting late into the dark and the phone just sits there, still and silent.

+++

The pine straw gives way easily under my boots. The time is midday and I’ve got my jacket tied around my waist. I collected everything I thought I could need in a backpack, plus the “American Letters,” and set off early this morning. My energy feels sapped from that many hours of walking so I stop and snack on a bag of stale potato chips. I’m being careful with my canteens but I drink some water since the chips are salty and get stuck in my teeth. I’m sitting on a log and I watch the wind ruffle the brown grass off in the fields. A vague smell of pine and rancid meat lingers in the air. A haze of mist stretches off infinitely. I’ve tied a bandana around my nose and mouth to protect me from the water molecules. I have nothing to do but soldier on.

I miss board games. Every now and then I’ll play solitaire with a deck of cards I find or play myself in chess but mostly those things just make me sad. I can still smell the red wine and casserole from board-game night. The thought of sharp and slimy charcuterie causes my mouth to water furiously. Half the time we’d be laughing too hard about one of us messing up the rules or getting confused or we’d just yell over each other to prove we were having the best time. That’s how I remember it going: I can’t even tell you the things that made us laugh the hardest because those are the fleeting, momentary seconds of space where the way your friends are and how well you know them and what makes you happy all align and this consumable and highly contagious energy bubbles up out of the volcano we call our joy. On board game night, you can laugh at despair. We transfer our emotional reality onto painted cardboard and Terrance picks small fights with Jenny about the game instead of their break-up and Eldridge doesn’t notice that he hasn’t thought about morphine in an hour he forgot to count passing by and I’m refilling my wine and Tina and Abby ignore their social media notifications and Bren smirks and makes wisecracks and we all smile back because he never jokes when he’s depressed. Or something like that but we’re playing Ticket to Ride and Cards Against Humanity and Scategories and charades. My mouth curls at the corner as their faces filter through my mind. They’re blurry and I’m reconstructing them according to their laugh and my mind is now a picture of people I love frozen with open, screaming jaws and this doesn’t look right and the world goes horizontal and my face smacks against the dirt because I tripped on a root. I close my eyes and lie there a while.

My movement shifts into a more nomadic wandering, direction deviating towards aimless. This mind of mine rejects my field of vision in deference towards some planar amendment of a recollected reality. So the path of least resistance through the pine straw bears less weight and the neurons in my brain tell my legs to “keep doing their thing but we’re gonna put on a film upstairs.” And now I feel like Pandora, which is great. Except I don’t know where to find Prometheus or the fire of the gods. Perhaps I should be like Poisson’s Mercury and make rigorous interview of the many causes of death floating in my wake, ask which of them fucked my friends and which one wants to fuck me.

I see what I’m doing, too: making myself large and tragic, carving out a niche of home in the “tradition” and then I’m not just out here by myself and everyone is gone because it was meant to go this way and I can rebury my mourning. “It is not a sad story, only some things happened.”

By the time it’s first getting dark, I can see the broken, crumbling skyline in the distance. I’ve reached the edge of the city and find a parking garage to hole up in for the night. I choose an unsuspecting spot on the fourth floor in a nook near the stairwell so I can hear any foot traffic in the night, should I need to. I feel shielded enough to light a small fire without fear of being discovered. The crumpled newspaper and cardboard burn a calm and golden glow while I fashion some leftover fabric from a pair of pants into a scarf. Night wind gets trapped in the concrete structure and whips around, howling its energy out, nipping at my ears from time to time. I would sing with the echo in here being so nice but my voice feels stuck in my throat and so I just hum something low as an elegy for the embers.

In the morning, I climb to the top of the parking garage. That makes it sound like a difficult thing but it’s only six stories. Anyway, from the top floor I get a better view of downtown, the wide avenues stretching from here to there, the luxury apartments and refashioned warehouses and breweries that this parking lot was built for, the unyielding siege of the great urban sprawl. How unique we felt. I pull out more newspaper and some tinder from the forest floor I’d stashed in a burlap sack tied to my backpack. I also pull out one log I’ve been saving in the backpack’s water bottle sleeve. Over the larger fire, I boil water for coffee and oatmeal. I’m hoping the supermarkets haven’t been cleaned out–ambitious, I admit–but this is certainly enough energy for most of the day. I scan the desolate metropolis slipping into the archaic before me. I imagine piles of bodies in the alleyways, weeds and ivy reclaiming brick and cobblestone. Legacy is a meaningless word, I think to myself.

I set off towards the tallest buildings and walk along the highway, a measly cell traveling this dried and empty artery up towards a shriveled heart. The sun burns against my neck through the cloud cover. I look off towards the hills rising in the distance, imagine the people making a survival there in the woods, harvesting the forest as they can and planting crops in the cleared areas. I think of them organizing a church of sorts, there’s ten of them maybe, and they all have dinner together every night. They recite small poems by the campfire and pet the animals that walk by because they’ve all decided to be vegetarians and someone has a stash of marijuana and once a month or maybe longer they get so stoned they can make instruments out of anything they find and thrilling noise and don’t you know they’re having a swell time while they’re able.

I’m thinking about them or who they might be and what I’d say when I ask to enlist: this is when I’m not noticing the road in front of me. The toe of my boot dips into a crack in the highway asphalt but my body is moving forward faster than the nerves in my toe can get back up to my brain and I wouldn’t have noticed except for the grinding crunch. I promptly sit down, leg outstretched. I look down at it. My ankle bends in a funny way and I cock my head at it since those nerves are still slow on the draw and take their time letting me know how bad that shit hurts. Which they do now. I’m muttering curses and pounding the pavement. A sharp searing pain runs down my calf to my heel. I look back out at the hills and realize the true distance between them and me.

Once I’ve had my lay down, I sit up, interlace my fingers and flex them outward. Then I reach over and firmly grasp my foot with one hand and my lower calf with the other. I take a deep breath, grit my teeth, and snap my ankle something like forty degrees to the left and howl in pain and whatnot. I take my bandana and tie a makeshift splint around the ankle. In my bag I have some other cloth I use to recover my face and whatever leftovers get employed in reinforcing the splint. I hobble to the side of the highway towards one of those signs that tell you which gas stations are on the next exit. When I stand next to it, my shoulder nearly reaches the top. It takes a solid hour to get the metal leg detached from the rest, which will serve as a walking stick until I can find the materials to build a more effective crutch. My pace is greatly slowed and night crawls slowly towards me.

Some hours later, I’m sitting on the curb outside a convenience mart. The place was totally ransacked so I checked the dumpster which, as I suspected, had been overlooked. I found a half-finished Coke and a package of peanuts by pure luck. I dump my peanuts in the Coke, which is totally flat, and then take my time enjoying what I’m sure will be the last time I get to do this. My ankle groans and I invite the reasonable thought that my chance of survival is irrevocably damaged. All this work for a broken bit of highway. Where do I put the ideas I’ve found? Should I set them on this curb and write something on a piece of cardboard? Am I taking up room?

I lean my head against a nearby tree. Once upon a time, the trees had no need for my makeshift commentary on their consciousness. They spoke and what they needed to say could go heard or unheard but at least there was something to grasp. Trees were teaching us samsara all along, their death as singularly beautiful per leaf as the whole of their rebirth. The largest organism in the world is a forest. Was, I guess. Now they sit here, dichotomous branches bare, waiting to keel over. Is that sound? One time I saw a lonely tree, which I made some remark about. My friend calmly said it wasn’t connected to the forest’s root system. That was one of those rare moments where you hear something sage and immediately recognize it as truth. We think of recognition as our brain returning an object of perception to its original form but look: re-cognition. Nothing is familiar out here but I’m recognizing all the time. Maybe one day I will recognize a stairway out of here. I pat the tree in thanks for strange communion, ancient energy still resonant in the exchange between my palm and its trunk. The bark is flaky.

Someone yells in the distance. I know the sound is human, our noise sticks out like a sore thumb these days. Might as well give it a run, I say. I hobble along the dark city streets and keep my eyes alert for any movement. Mostly, it’s just wrappers skidding along the pavement. After a couple of blocks I can see a crown of light edging over nearby buildings. I cannot explain why this makes me feel sad.

I approach the noise and light and my eyes dart instinctually from shadow to lamp, all wide and white in the darkness. My nose picks up the evening breeze and I have to hand it to the kid, trash and cherries was spot on. Let me describe the noise: I do not love this noise, or otherwise it is a hard noise to love, and it squeals like metal and you don’t feel like you can touch it. I check out the fence, which is tall and sharp, and quietly back away onto this side street. I gather up armfuls of resolution between two dumpsters. One more thing: I push open a manhole and stash my backpack inside by tying it to the top rung of the ladder descending into a once-known place. I make note of this in case I need to escape or duck out of the rain. I keep the cloth around my face. The cicadas hum. An indiscernible future awaits and I’m just hoping someone inside knows Monk too. This incessant hubris beckons me forward as it always has, but I’m stopping at this pay phone first.

+++

Look, I know this won’t reach you. The answering machine cut me off way, way back in the beginning. I don’t know why I kept talking. I guess I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted someone to hear it. You know, of all the numbers I dialed through all this uncountable time, yours was the only one that wasn’t random. It’s on a slip of paper in my pocket but I have it memorized. The paper is soft like tissue and the blue ink really bled out onto the page, which is yellow, so it’s more of a green smudge than anything now. I must be holding onto it for some reason. Maybe it helps me feel like I’m not all the way gone yet. I’d like to have a better answer, I just don’t. I’m pretty sure breathing the air will kill me soon enough. Isn’t that funny? Maybe you’re somewhere safe. Give me a call back when you get the chance.

[1] the claim that zero is a number is disputed.

About the Author

Griffin Hamstead

LinkedIn

Griffin Hamstead is an emerging writer from Appalachia. His fiction has been featured in Stillpoint and The Foundationalist, with poetry appearing in Red Cedar Review, Process and The Orator. His novella To Be Born in the Time of Nations was selected as the runner-up for the 2021 Clay Reynolds Prize. He currently teaches English in Denver, Colorado.