(blank) cradled the receiver between his chin and shoulder, while at the same time peering with one eye through his binoculars, lenses poking between the slats in the blinds, focused on the nearly deserted street corner at the end of the block outside. The easy listening selection piping through one ear suddenly cut off, mid-note, followed by a click.
“A Cut Above Incorporated, how may I help you?”
(blank) straightened up in his chair with a jolt, the binoculars now dangling around his neck, shades drawn. “…Uh, yes…..I….”
“May I ask who’s calling, please,” the voice on the other end interrupted.
“Who am I you mean…oh, my name, it’s (blank),” the voice on the other end interrupted again.
“Thank you for calling us, (blank). You are interested in the Ginsu Special X4 Series, item no.1999389?” he asked.
“Well, yes, but—-“
“Do you have your credit card information ready, Mr. (blank)?”
(blank) pretended to fumble through his wallet, his shirt pockets….rustled some stray papers, garbage. “Oh, yes….yes I do, but I had a question about product number…..” he trailed off.
“Yes, that one,” (blank) continued. “I was wondering if…….” (blank) paused, thinking… “I was wondering if that package included the white bone swiss army knife as well..?”
“Yes it does, sir,” the voice answered readily. A brief yet noticeable silence. The voice went ahead, “Now then, Mr. (blank), may I have your credit card information?”
(blank) paused again. Deliberately this time. A brief silence on the line, becoming each second much larger, much more silent. Sounds of breathing. (blank) relaxed, sat back in his chair and put his feet up, winding the phone cord around his thumb.
“What’s your name?” he said finally.
A Cut Above Inc. paused as well…a pause to rival (blank)’s. “I represent A Cut Above Incorporated, sir. How may I help you?”
(blank) paused, again. “That’s an interesting question.” The cord was now wrapped taught around his thumb, up to the first knuckle, the skin red at the end. “My dad died this week,” he said, flatly.
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir………..”
“He….he hung in there…..he’s a fighter, my dad….was a fighter. Anyway. Parkinson’s.”
A Cut Above sounded as if to swallow, perhaps lick his upper lip. “Oh. Well…that’s very unfortunate. Certainly sorry to hear it.” The two men at either end of the receiver shared a very respectable and mutual silence, then. “…my grandfather. He had it. The Parkinson’s.”
“It’s rough.” (blank) began unwinding the cord from his thumb, then winding it around his left index finger. “Yeah,” he sighed. “You a married guy…?”
“Doug. No, sir.” A faint tapping sound coming from A Cut Above’s end. “Umm….yes, it is difficult. Very sorry, Mr. (blank)……..uh….about the Ginsu Special, however, do you—“
“Oh yes,” (blank) picked up. “Of course. I apologize. Yes indeed, I have it right here. My card number is………………………”
(blank) had laid the phone back in its cradle, taken up his binoculars again. He peered outside from the third floor, from behind his shades…..between the slats…..a brand new set of titanium specialty ginsu knives along with a bonus white bone handled swiss army knife only two to three weeks from his doorstep. And a perfectly healthy dad some three hundred miles away…..whom he had not heard from nor thought of in many years. No telling the delivery estimate on that item.
(blank) kept watch on the street corner and the blight outside his window. The attractive young woman in the short shorts talking animatedly to her slightly less attractive young woman friend. A man in a business suit stood directly behind the first woman in the too-short shorts…noticeably leering at her ass while attempting to rub some sort of coffee or food stain from his dress shirt. The knife show was still droning in the background. 7pm. A bit too early in the day to be ordering knives, he thought to himself. I’ll microwave myself something, (blank) thought, or maybe order in. Chinese would hit the spot. Later he would catch the 3am showing of the knife show. Or maybe call the phone-sex line instead. Talk to the whore on the line about baseball, or another imaginary, recently deceased dad. Setting his binoculars down on the bureau and taking a ballpoint pen between his fingers, (blank) leaned over the phone and popped out the knife show’s number from the ‘3’ spot on his speed-dial listing, replacing it with the poison control line. Knives had run their course, he decided. Poison control tended towards the more loquacious. Picking the binoculars back up and peering through the slats in the blinds again, (blank) began to run through the things in his mind he might allegedly have swallowed, or touched, or eaten, or been exposed to. “Asbestos…rancid milk…turpentine…antifreeze…lead…bad Indian food…that Japanese blowfish that kills you if the chef doesn’t cut it just right…” The possibilities were endless. As he continued taking mental notes on potential poisons, there came a rather soft knock at the door.
(blank) peered through the peephole. Reluctantly unlocked the deadbolt, then opened the door a crack…the chain clasp still in place. He said nothing to the thing on the other side of the cracked-open door. She spoke nevertheless. “You coming out of there this week?” (blank) shrugged. “Can we open the door, at least? We have to talk through a crack, really?” (blank) shrugged again, and absently unclasped the lock. She let herself in as he lumbered away, towards nothing in particular. Just…away. “We’re all doing our part,” she said to his back. “We don’t ask much. Certainly don’t expect much, at this point. You could at least visit her.” (blank) paced, picking up his binoculars, putting them down…drawing the curtain on the view from his window. “We don’t even have to be there.” She stood a moment, still, silent. Waiting. Turned around and walked away, lingering at the door.
“The dead don’t suffer, you know that?” (blank) said, not looking in her direction.
“She’s not dead.”
“Well. Just about, anyways.” She turned around. (blank) shut the door, locked the deadbolt, replaced the chain clasp, turned the knob left and right to make sure it was secure, and turned around. Lumbering back into the dark of his burrow, the apartment he left only for life’s unavoidable necessities. Like groceries. And toilet paper. And even then, he made do on scraps of both as a practice. “Asbestos…bad Mexican food…glue…paint thinner…carbon monoxide…” he continued. “Formaldehyde.” He paused. The memory of dissecting frogs in middle school biology class flashed inexplicably somewhere in the cobwebs of his mind. This dead thing with its guts spilled open in front of you, he thought; whatever prompted the thought of it, he observed—silently—that he hadn’t gained a thing from the exercise. Nothing learned. He thought of his fake dead dad, then…the one who likewise showed no interest in coming to the bedside of another dead (or dying) thing, currently. The man who lived somewhere in Arizona now, remarried, a successful type guy in business and other like adult pursuits. (blank), at the thought of this, felt only a bit more for the dead thing on the middle school biology lab table. Nothing against either one of them. But he supposed, maybe, the memory of the dead frog resounded as a bit fresher in his mind. Other than that, fake dead dad from Arizona was alright, he guessed. Either that, or he had no real opinion on him one way or another. In any case, “…mercury…mouse droppings…hmm…” (blank) strained to think of more theoretical poisons. His mind gravitated back to the dead dissected frog. The thing was alive, to start with. Brought out in a big glass jar, in pairs. As instructed, you had to reach in and grab yours, then put it to sleep. Then cut into it. But it was only asleep at that point, not dead. “The dead can’t suffer,” he thought again…said aloud. Had that thing with its guts spilled out all over a middle school lab table suffered? Or, was it dead enough? “…rancid beef…”
Somewhere there was a dead enough thing also just waiting to be dissected, and for what reason? For what purpose? Who would really come away from the lesson with a better understanding of the subject…or of anything, for that matter? (blank) went on running through theoretical poisons in his mind, then committing them to writing. He waited a few hours till after dark, ordered some take-out, and sat by the phone.
“You close with your dad?,” (blank) asked the 40-something Chinese delivery guy. The Chinese guy didn’t seem interested. Either that, or he didn’t understand the question. Or, pretended not to understand.
“No dad,” the 40-something Chinaman uttered, holding out his hand for his tip.
“Yeah,” (blank) said, fishing a crumpled $5 out of his pants pockets. “Me neither. He’s dead.”
“Yes,” the Chinaman stammered, confusedly. He took the crumpled $5 and nodded slightly, then turned around and shuffled away.
That’s the trouble with Chinese, (blank) thought as he secured his apartment door and began to set up the various containers of food on a TV tray next to the phone. Probably should’ve gotten pizza. Fake dead dad having gotten rather short shrift, (blank) decided to retire him for now. Instead, tonight would be poison control night. Generally, the dead and dissected didn’t make much of a showing with poison control. Fake dead dads, grandpas, grandmas, fake dead brothers, fake dead sisters…dead or dead enough moms. Lab frogs. Generally, he would talk about other things while fake poisoned. Philosophy, maybe. Or art. Observations about life in general.
For whatever reason, (blank) had years ago developed a habit of dialing up the Poison Control Hotline and wanting to chat idly with the various operators. Starting off at first with a bogus concern…. “I was painting and my cat just jumped onto the palette, got oil paints all over her paws….now she’s licking her paws….what should I do?” and that sort of odd thing. (blank) didn’t oil paint, he had no special skills, no talents, and no cat…other than a peculiar knack for conjuring up imaginary dead or dying family members for the sake of uncomfortable conversation, he had no appreciable talents, abilities or aptitudes. Not a particularly gregarious type of guy…in fact he was downright awkward. But this worked for him. Over the phone, and with the delivery guys and girls who generally kept him fed and safe from venturing out into the world, that certain ineptness was the perfect tool for the job. The job, whatever it was or however it had evolved to this, was enough to keep his mind firmly grounded in the comfort of false sympathies. Though patently false, he’d figured quite some time ago, they were enough to keep him both tethered to some form of reality…and entertained. Perhaps more entertained than the first one. (blank’s) thoughts in the heat of unrehearsed conversation typically ran a fair pace behind the normal back and forth of any human exchange, however. Did not speak with confidence; the low volume and blunted tone of his voice betrayed any attempt at appearing to speak with conviction. So, he typically didn’t. The late-night dialogues with telephone operators and TV knife salesmen could be voiced with the conviction of rehearsal. Preparation. And a certain species of voyeurism. Physically, (blank) was just as understated….almost unstated entirely. So much so that no further description is necessary…
As a result, (blank) pretty much would just stay inside his burrow…a simple apartment with virtually no furniture. Just lots of things on the floor. Some unread books, newspapers, magazines. In bad enough health to get by on a little disability, his days were as empty as the place he lived in, yet just as cluttered. Retired from a brief life in what some may call ‘the real world’, he spent his time watching TV, listening to the radio, looking out the window. Late at night, he’d watch the home shopping channels and sometimes call up to order a set of titanium steak knives he’d never use, and often attempt to strike up some sort of conversation with whoever would answer the phone. Here, his false dead dad made his first appearance. The knife show guys were the place for the fake dead dad, he found. Other places, it would be a fake dead grandpa, or a beloved dog…all fake, alive and well, and often perfectly estranged. There were few if any real dead things to invoke as the center of the conversation. Few enough, in any case, that he could manage to forget them in the ersatz graveyard of his mind. He’d call phone sex lines also, but those were never as fulfilling, since they would be expecting the customer to engage in conversation. In those instances, he would usually try to veer the sex talk into something unrelated, like baseball, or the weather. Anything to break down the defenses of the operator. A real, human moment. A real, fake, human moment.
His family of the dead did not suffer. The dead can’t suffer. And generally, those conversations would end on that particular note—the ‘he’s in a better place now’ note. The ‘dead enough’, (blank) could manage to forget. Like the biology class frog, which had been making frequent appearances in his mind’s eye since earlier that day…now, he couldn’t get that ‘dead enough’ thing out of his head. For a fleeting moment, (blank) hoped he wasn’t doing something ‘wrong’ by conjuring up dead family members in exchange for real, fake, human sympathies. Whatever pang of conscience it may have been, it was gone just as quickly. His minimalist burrow, littered with papers, magazines and Chinese food containers felt at that moment just a shade claustrophobic. The walls moved in just slightly. “Will I go out at all this week?” he wondered aloud. Now fondling the receiver, the cradle in his lap, Chinese food scattered and uneaten on the tray in front of him, (blank) thought again—bluntly—“why bother…there’s nowhere to go…”
He figured he wasn’t missing anything. And there really was nowhere to go. As he dialed up Poison Control, his notepad of theoretical poisons and topics of conversation in hand, (blank) figured there was really nothing to miss. Whatever is out there, he thought, it’s as fake as anything. In exchange for convincing, fake sympathies—real, contrived human connection—the fake world out there could be ably avoided, and deservedly so. There was a dead (or dead enough) thing out there that might otherwise command his attention. But like his fake dead dad, there was no comforting or comfort in the dead…or the dead enough. “Poison Control Hotline, if this is a true emergency, please hange up and dial 911,” a pert, young female voice came from the other end of the line.
“Uh, yes, I think I swallowed some lead paint chips…I’m renovating an old townhouse and I think some got into my drink.”
“When was this, sir?”
“…not sure…” he trailed off. “…I think I’m a bit out of sorts, to tell you the truth. My mother died this week. She’s dead now.” There was only silence. He continued. “I don’t know…I may be a bit delirious. I don’t feel well.”
“…I’m sorry to hear that, sir…” Silence.
“Yeah. She died of Parkinson’s. Hell of a thing…that Parkinson’s…”
Silence on the line.
“She’s dead,” he said, the receiver halfway between his face and the cradle. Faintly, he concluded, “I guess I’ll be going.” Said hollowly, distantly, he gently placed the receiver in the cradle. Tossing his notepad of theoretical poisons and talking points to the wood floorboards, the walls of the burrow began to close in again. This time a little more. And a little more. “There’s nowhere worth going, anyway,” he said aloud. Sitting with the phone in his lap. Feeling dead enough at that moment that all the contrived, real, human sympathies in the world wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Dead enough that he was sure, in fact, that he was not suffering. (blank) placed the phone back on the table, and the walls moved in a little more. No exchanges of false sympathies necessary tonight. The dead (or dead enough) don’t suffer.
No point in visitation.