Thursday, October 4, 2012

Man ex Machina: A Halloween Story

            As he did each morning at five o’clock, Richard flung an arm over the damp pillow and pressed the button on his alarm clock. The piercing staccato stopped. He let his fingers rest on the cool surface of the nightstand, as he always did, and stretched his legs.
            In the kitchen, the winter seeped in, black and still, until the fluorescent light cut through. The yellow glow seemed to vibrate. He pushed another button for his single cup of French Roast, the dispenser filled with water the night before, the plastic cup of pre-ground beans snug in its receptacle.
            The coffee was ready and still hot when he returned from his shower. Two pieces of toast were browned to level seven on the toaster. He’d eat again later at the store, either a yogurt with granola or instant oatmeal if he still felt cold.
            Stiff-legged, he walked into the living room to get the car keys from their place atop a small table. He glanced at the red-numbered display on the cable box, the only other timekeeper in his one-bedroom apartment. Five-thirty.
            And yet, every morning for twelve years, Richard followed the same routine and left the apartment at five forty-five. It was always the same—coffee, shower, toast at the chrome-rimmed table for two he and his mother found at a garage sale. Nothing was different. So why was he ready so early?
            In the bedroom, he walked around clumps of dirty clothes and newspapers in origami mounds. The alarm clock was digital but shaped like an old-fashioned clock. Round with two non-functioning bells on the top, a rectangle of black instead of a face and hands. He picked it up and pushed the alarm button on the side. The numbers changed to four forty-five. He had set the alarm for five o’clock, he always set the alarm to five o’clock. In fact, he hadn’t changed the alarm time for many years. But it was set to four forty-five.
            He tried to think of any reason he had to be at the convenience store early that day. He was the morning manager; if anything out of the ordinary was scheduled, he’d know about it. Nothing came to mind.
            The next morning, the alarm emitted its high-pitched tones and Richard rolled over and pressed the button. He left his fingers grazing the nightstand and stretched his legs. A memory intruded. Two weeks ago, coming home from a rare evening shift. The night manager was at the urgent care center with a broken toe after dropping a case of Pepsi on his foot. Richard agreed to fill in until another worker could be reached. Around ten p.m. on Route 42, headlights jagging crazily through the night mist, a dented hood jutting into the road. He parked behind the car, which had come to rest on its side like a tired dog. The smell of gasoline and rubber. A crumpled form against the window and as he rounded the car to get his cell phone, one white sock peeking from the brush near the embankment. An open mouth, teeth glistening like mercury. A blue dress. Small hands.
            Richard’s eyes snapped open. He picked up the alarm clock and waited for the red jointed numbers to come into focus. Four thirty. He sat up, searched the corners of the room.
            The night before, he had returned from work, had watched television and ordered a pizza. And, he had definitely changed the alarm clock back to five o’clock. And now the stupid thing had woken him up at four-thirty. He set it down. The bells on top winked in the dark.
            He went through it all—the coffee, the shower, the toast—and he paced around his apartment. He wondered if someone was playing a joke, if a malfunction was to blame. A weight in the room, a feeling of foreboding. He doubted himself.
            When the alarm sounded the next morning, Richard was awake instantly. He ran through the events of the previous day. He most certainly had reset the alarm to five o’clock. Eyes closed, he remembered his last dream, a mobile alarm clock circled with teeth, biting and snapping. He looked. Four fifteen.
            Throwing back the soggy blanket, he stood up. He circled his apartment, forgetting his coffee, his shower, his toast. A voice descended from the rafters: I had to get up at four-fifteen on the days I helped him. A story, crystallizing. His mother, eleven years old, assisting her brother with his newspaper route, until the day he had rheumatic fever and she volunteered to do the job alone.
            She never saw the automobile before it plowed into her bicycle. She didn’t remember being dragged a full block before the man, coming home in the wee hours with whiskey breath, noticed sparks in his side mirror. Three surgeries and months in the hospital. Metal pins in one knee, a ball and joint in her shoulder, lingering pain in cold weather and a mechanical hitch to her step.
            He’d heard the story many times and had often imagined his mother, bed-bound, her small limbs bandaged and vulnerable. He paced and paced. Thirty-seven years old, he told himself. Too young to be senile, too old to be afraid. He went to the kitchen, made the coffee. At five o’clock, he called his mother.
            “What’s happened?” she said instead of hello.
            “Nothing,” he said. “Just checking on you.”
            She blew her nose next to the receiver. “Checking on me, are you?”
            “Well, yeah.”
            “Black as sin outside,” she said. “We’re early birds, aren’t we?”
            He poured liquid creamer into his coffee. “You can’t sleep in?”
            “Never,” she said. “Up at five, rain or shine.”
            “I was thinking about your accident,” he said.
            “Oh, Lord,” she said.
            “Who took over Uncle Roger’s paper route?”
            She snorted. “My father. Got up before work. You’d think they’d give it away, me in the hospital and Roger still fevered up at home. But they wanted him to have it.”
            “I was thinking about that girl, too,” he told her.
            “No, Ma, the other night.” He shook his head. “The car.”
            “Poor Genevieve,” she said. “I can’t imagine what she went through.”
            “I don’t like to—“
            “You would’ve married that girl,” she said.
            Richard touched his hair, recently thinning in the exact way his father’s had, baldness encroaching from both sides, over his temples. “We broke up, Ma.”
            “I remember that day,” she said. “Those pictures of the airplane, all twisted metal. Where was she going?”
            Philadelphia,” he said.
            “That’s right,” she murmured.
            “I gotta go,” he said. “Running late for work now.”
            “Alright, Richie. You go.”
            Richard had a hard time concentrating on anything at work. A display of cracker boxes fell to pieces at his feet; the register was short twelve dollars at the end of his shift. The apartment wasn’t much better. He watched television and flipped through a magazine, all the while stalling his bedtime. He slept in short jags, tossing and getting the sheets twisted around his legs.
            The alarm jabbed with its shrill notes. Richard fought it at first, sinking into the dark comfort of sleep. But it was too strong, too loud. He reached over and pressed the button. And when he opened his eyes, he knew beforehand what he’d see on the black display: four o’clock.
            He thought of the girl, her legs splayed and the blue skirt of the dress with its lacy, scalloped trim. He remembered the quiet of the night, just the white noise of insects and an occasional distant car. The girl, apart from the car as though unconnected from the horrible incident. A coincidence.
            Richard raced to the kitchen and dialed his mother’s number with shaky fingers. It rang five times, six, seven. She always turned her answering machine off when she was home.
            “What?” she answered.
            “Ma,” he said, throat clenched. Suddenly, he felt foolish.
            “Richie. For God’s sake, what’s happened?”
            “I’ve been thinking about that accident, Ma. Her dress.”
            “Let me get my robe,” she said. “It’s a refrigerator in here.”
            He listened as she set the phone down and in a few moments, picked it up again.
            “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. “Did you have coffee after dinner?”
            “No,” he said. “It’s just, the girl. Remember that photo, Ma, when you played Alice in Wonderland?”
            “The school play,” he said, gripping the telephone. “The photo of you in the blue dress.”
            “It was just the one time,” she said. “I’m no actress.”
            “Her dress,” Richie whimpered.
            A long pause. The house, humming.
            “It’s the same every year,” his mother said in a low voice. “The anniversary. You pretend you don’t remember.”
            “Genevieve!” she barked. “We loved her.”
            Richard pressed the receiver against his ear, where it buzzed and seemed to emit tiny charges against his skin. Through the machine’s tiny holes, a sound started and grew, rose and sharpened. A screech, a crash, a foreign, final sound.
            “Sweet Jesus,” his mother said.
            “Ma? What was that?”
            Boards crackling, something mechanical spinning, an insistent ticking.
            “Still here, Richie,” she rasped. “I’m still here. It’s a car. Another car.”
            “A car?”
            “Someone drove into my bedroom. Right up the yard and crashed into the house.”
            “If you hadn’t of called me, Richie—“ she coughed. “The car is in the bedroom.”
            “You’re okay?” he asked.
            “Yes, I’ll call the police. It’s alright.”
            “Get out of the house, Ma.”
            “The neighbors are coming now,” she said. “Thank God I have my robe on.”         
            “I’ll call you back,” she said.
            Richard listened to the dial tone and heard a distant sound over its drone. A staccato, a warning, a call. From its usual position on his nightstand, the alarm clock sounded. Slowly, he went to shut it off.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka