ouroboros borborygmus: a short story

OB2

  1.

Stock was just beginning to dwell on the fact that he’d been sitting alone in the waiting room for an improbably long while when something happened. The door to the waiting room opened and Stock walked in and grabbed an old magazine and took a seat. Stock stared at himself.

It wasn’t exactly Stock but Stock at a much younger age, maybe twenty, stylish but poor. He looked relaxed and very healthy. He was sun-burnished and the smell of his health crossed the room. Stock wondered if this was his grown son. A mesmerizingly-pure and beautiful version of his grown son. Wearing a grass-green sweater.

But Stock’s grown son wasn’t in the country and wasn’t his grown son a bit older? What would his grown son be doing sitting there reading an old Vogue, wearing a grass-green sweater, ignoring him? The young Stock had glanced a cursory greeting at Stock before grabbing the Vogue. He’d smiled politely while shielding himself behind the magazine, leg crossed over his knee at the crux of his sockless ankle. Stock didn’t recognize the model on the cover.

My grown son would have recognized me by now, thought Stock.

Stock was quite sure it was Stock. He realized this must be a dream. A dream with a strangely sharp-edged, un-crazy, non-dreamy texture to it. A dream made of standard proportions of the five senses, measured in waking units of time. Stock thought he could remember owning that sweater. He spoke, softly, at first, but then not so softly, almost loud, remembering that this must be a dream:

“It’s like looking at the original of a copy of a copy of a copy!”

“Pardon me?” said the young man, startled.

“I said that looking at you is like looking at the original of a copy of a copy of a copy.”

Stock stared at Stock with a frozen smile of nil comprehension. Stock said,

“You don’t recognize me?”

The young Stock looked uncomfortable. It occurred to Stock that anyone else sitting in the room, had there been anyone else sitting in the room, would have thought he was flirting with himself. Hitting on the young. He said,

“It’s just a dream, anyway. Who cares?”

By asserting his ownership of the dream, the older Stock hoped to spare himself some embarrassment. The irony was that he hadn’t felt this embarrassed (or been in a situation this embarrassing) since being the young Stock who was now squinting at Stock from the other side of the room, too young, possibly, to understand that there were two kinds of embarrassment at play here.

Stock was embarrassed that the young Stock might think he was trying to seduce him, which was bad enough; that was one kind of embarrassment. Worse was the second kind, which was over the fact that his younger self could not, or did not seem to want to, recognize him. Embarrassment wasn’t quite the right word for it. Stock was humiliated. He joked, so loudly that the younger man flinched,

“Well this is a fine how do you do!” And he thought: yes, this is the way to handle it. Keep it light.

“Are you a friend of my mother’s? You know I’ve been away for a while. Don’t take it personally if I don’t recognize you… I don’t recognize anyone.”

Stock half-crossed the room without quite standing up, extending his hand. Stock met the gesture in the middle. They shook.

“Stock,” said young Stock, “But I guess you know that. Because you already know me from somewhere. But I don’t know where. So who are you?”

“Stock,” said Stock, sharply, and they were locked, for longer than was standard or natural, in a crouching handshake in the middle of the room. Their eyes were locked and the younger man jerked his hand out of the older man’s firm grip. He took a long step backwards and looked up at one of the fluorescent rectangles in a ceiling paneled with time-stained acoustical foam and shouted, at the top of his lungs, as though he was trapped at the bottom of a well, “WAKE UP!”

Stock just smiled at the first few seconds of the shouting. He had time.

He rolled his eyes. He mimed looking at a watch (he hadn’t owned a watch in twenty years) and then mimed conducting, with swooping arms and a snapping chin that made his thin hair flop on his head like an even-campier Leonard Bernstein. He mimed conducting the bellowing aria of his younger self shouting “WAKE UP!” at the top of his powerfully terrified lungs.

Stock stopped conducting and stuck his fingers in his ears, winded. His arms ached from over-the-top conducting. It occurred to him that there were no legal consequences to physically attacking one’s younger self in a dream but also that this was out of the question considering his rubbery arms and bad back and weak ankles and high blood pressure and irritable bowels and slightly blurry vision and reduced reflexes and so forth.

He decided to sit and wait the noise out.

He crossed a leg over the knee of the other leg, balancing it on the ankle. He drummed on the outlying knee. It occurred to him to check his pockets for his phone but patting his jacket from top to bottom turned up nothing. No phone, no keys, no wallet. A reassuringly-familiar dream dilemma.

His wife was probably asleep beside him in their bed. Their four-year-old was down the hall. This would be over when the sun rose. Or when Noa went to the toilet and/or he woke himself snoring. He suddenly remembered why he was in the waiting room.

He’d volunteered as a subject for an experimental program of drug-assisted behavior-modification treatments for snoring. It occurred to him that he might not be at home, in bed, beside his wife, dreaming in safe territory, at all. Maybe he was unconscious in a strange chair with wires coming out of his scalp while foreign interns monitored zigzags on a readout and joked about his bald spot. He felt some anxiety. He tried to recall a Doctor’s name or the address of the clinic.

Stock stopped shouting. Stock realized that his ears were ringing.

The quality of the light in the room seemed to change when the noise level dropped. Stock was hunched in front of himself, hands on his knees, revealing to Stock the thick hair at the crown of his skull (a view of himself Stock had never before seen), coughing on the carpet. From close up, Stock could see that the darkened armpits of the grass-green sweater had holes in them. From his experience as the father of a young child, he knew to go and push through the swinging doors to the left of the check-in desk and find a cup and some water.

Stock pushed through the swinging doors and they opened into a suite of little offices and examining rooms lined up on either side of the corridor. He hurried.

He caught a peripheral right-glimpse of a seated figure in a dark examining room and reversed by two short steps to peer, half-hidden by the door frame, at a shirtless old man in half-shadow. The old man looked weightless as a bird’s nest on the examining table. Head bowed, his freckled pate shined where the light from the corridor touched it. Tufted shoulders rose and fell while puckered-cunt belly distended and shrank on the old man’s laborious struggle to continue to exist. Stock felt short of breath just watching him. The old man wafted pale odors of baked piss as he lifted his head and Stock was certain that he had never seen this man before in his life.

OB

2.

Stock was reasonably sure that the distance between himself and Old Stock was greater than the distance between himself and Young Stock. He hoped. He hadn’t asked Old Stock his exact age yet. Hadn’t mustered the nerve. He would not have been able to say if this was a function of exaggerated politeness or primal fear but Old Stock was a certified mystery. Stock had never looked at another human and been so absolutely unable to jump to conclusions.

It was like looking at a being from another world whose unexpected reality caused you to question the solidity of your own. Stock realized that way back when there had been a terminology in place for referring to men of a certain age (duffer, codger, coot) but now, ironically, these words were too old-fashioned to ease unironically into a conversation. To say coot now was to be a coot. That hadn’t been true when Stock was a child. Maybe word pollution was the ecological disaster they should have been worried about all along, thought Stock, in so many words. Not even words but pictograms and emotions.

There was something disquieting about the old man who was now dressed in a white terrycloth bathrobe they’d found on a coat hook on the back of the examining room door. The aged had always seemed to Stock like Death spying on the Living but that wasn’t the point this time. Or, no, at least, not all of the point. Part of Stock’s problem with Stock nestled in the sidelong quality of the old man’s smile, which put Stock on his guard, despite his amusing resemblance to Henry Miller.

Stock had read and liked quite a lot of Miller when he was young and Old Stock even spoke out the side of his mouth like Henry Miller, too. But more like a Henry Miller at an impossible age, boiling off at every extremity into the ether. Stock could practically see the white hairs evaporating one by one off the mottled griddle of that scalp. In contrast, Young Stock’s hair was so thick and covered so much of his skull that there was something obscene about it. The top of young Stock’s head was fecund as a convex Mediterranean cunt.

Look at them chatting under that out-of-date picture-calendar of Nova Scotia while I experiment with the telephone, thought Stock. The young one had his heels up on the edge of the seat of his pastel chair, hugging his knees, showing teeth more brilliant than the recessed fluorescents in the ceiling. Stock hadn’t noticed, before, how dark the waiting room walls were. He wondered if it had really always been wood paneling? It was then that he remembered a name associated with the experimental sleep-disturbance cure program he may or may not have been in a coma on the premises of. Doctor Pritchett.

He got a dial tone easily enough and punched buttons. The call signal rang and rang at the other end of the line but no one and nothing, not even an answering machine or voice-mail, responded.

After he’d gone through the private numbers he knew by heart he started on random numbers he’d found in the Yellow Pages on the bottom shelf of a small metal table behind the receptionist’s desk. He was listening to the unanswered call signal for Wagner’s Hardware when he saw and pretended not to see Old Stock’s right hand alight upon Young’s Stock’s left knee. The young one was chuckling with genuine pleasure at something the old one was saying. Averting his gaze from Young Stock’s knee, Stock noticed an earring in Old Stock’s ear. It looked like a little silver poker chip with blue hieroglyphics .

Old Stock looked up as Stock walked over with the handset and he said to Stock, “I was just telling the kid here about the time you tried to get the number off that young waitress in that, “ he took a breath, “Vietnamese restaurant after leaving a ridiculous tip.” He patted the seat of the adjacent chair. The tessellated surface of his mechanically-confident grin was orders of magnitude lighter than his sun-fried face. Stock’s mouth ached just looking at it.

Stock remained standing and said, “The phone seems to work but no one answers. All over the town. Nothing.”

Old Stock touched Young Stock’s knee again and said, “And you know what? After she’d told Mr. Big Spender here that she… get this…  that she doesn’t have a phone… she goes into the kitchen, if you can picture it,” he paused with relish and, again, for breath, “and then he hears…” He winked at Stock. He took another breath. “He hears everybody in the kitchen…”

“Do you have your cell-phone on you?” asked Stock. He was squinting at Young Stock but pointing at his own pants pocket.

“My what?”

“Your cell-phone.”

“My what?”

“Remember Dick Tracy?” said Old Stock.

“Sure.” Said Young Stock. “Tess Trueheart. Two-Face.”

“A cell-phone was like Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, only it wasn’t on your wrist. You carried these things in your pocket, back in the day. They’d play popular song melodies when someone called you, if you wanted.”

“Aha,” said Young Stock. Scratching his chin with boredom.

“Oh, it’s a little more than that,” said Stock, glad to help change the topic of conversation. “It’s a revolutionary telecommunications device. You can talk to anyone almost anywhere on the planet. You can watch television.” He was about to introduce the topic of  laptops when Old Stock said,

“Like I said, Dick Tracy. Look at this.”

He twisted in his chair to show off to the two others his quasi-Egyptian earring. Stock could literally count the hairs on the back of Stock’s head. “You squeeze it like so, for so long, it powers up.” He demonstrated. “You won’t hear this but I just heard, in the middle of my head, the most mellifluous voice in the world telling me, ‘Call ready’. Then I might say, ‘Call Noa’ and it calls Noa. Simple as that.” He said something under his breath to his phone and added, “When I’m finished I say, ‘Call finished’ and the voice repeats ‘Call finished’ and asks me if I want to do anything else. It asks me, ‘Would you like another menu?’”

Old Stock added, this time audibly, but in a strangely different voice, as though talking to a hireling whose opinion mattered to him, or, no, like a secretary he’d fucked once or twice without regrets but with whom he was now trying, with mitigated results, to resume a strictly professional relationship, “Access local weather, Robert” and he blinked at the middle distance while waiting for information to come into his head.

Young Stock brushed a flap of hair out of his eyes and said, “Wow. That’s pretty happening.”

Stock was still busy being bothered by the fact that Old Stock had mentioned his wife.

“Hmm. Guess there’s no service,” announced Old Stock. “Satellites down, probably.”

“End Times, huh? It’s like The Book of Revelations,” said Young Stock.

Stock rolled his eyes.

“I’ll be honest with you both. I was just thinking the very same thing, kid,” said Old Stock. “Coincidentally, I’ve started reading The Old Testament in all seriousness again, recently and I think this might be some kind of, what would you call it? A kind of prophecy or omen or so forth. Ignore it at our own peril.”

Stock chuckled. He sneered,

“Omen? Why not shit in a bucket and read the entrails? I doubt it. It’s a lot more likely to be three slices of cold pizza I ate too close to bedtime, jalapenos on the side and a warm beer to wash it down, thanks. Listen to you two.” Stock felt better hearing his rational words as he spoke them.

“The best theory I can come up with is I fall asleep, start snoring, not enough oxygen gets to the brain and the indigestion causes nightmares. This is just one of my nightmares. I’ll wake up soon and tell my wife all about it.”

The other two belly-laughed.

“Well, we can certainly see why you’d like to think that,” yawned Old Stock, wiping his eyes and winking red-faced at Young Stock, who was holding his belly like a kid who’d pigged out on Neapolitan ice cream.

“Tell me about your wife,” said Young Stock to Old Stock, still smiling broadly after a good laugh, “Are you still in love with her?”

“You want the truth or a little reassurance?”

“Excuse me?” said Stock. He was still so in love with his Noa that the possibility that he might actually be dead and therefore separated from her for eternity was a thought he hadn’t even allowed his conscious mind to creep-towards crabwise. Noa was everything to him.

“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies,” said Old Stock.

Young Stock was not particularly bothered. He said “Okay,” a couple of times, stroking his chin.

“Kid, one thing I’ve learned in all these years is that change is the only thing you can count on.”

“Bullshit, Stock,” said Stock. Old Stock shrugged at Young Stock and Young Stock, who seemed embarrassed for Stock, gestured at the handset Stock still clutched and which was emitting the shrill pulse a phone emits when the receiver has been off the hook for more than a few minutes. Stock could remember the first time he had heard that sound: his mother’s first suicide attempt. An open bottle of candly-colored tranquilizers by the perforated black mouthpiece of the club-like receiver. Stock had just come home from school.

He punched the Off button. “Receiver” was obsolete terminology, he knew. The one among them for whom the terminology was most obsolete stood and cinched the belt around his bathrobe.

“Now please excuse me while I go do my very best to attempt to take a well-earned crap.” He shuffled towards the swinging doors and added, as an afterthought, “Pardon my French.”

“We’re not going anywhere, man,” said Young Stock. He saluted the old man’s back.

Stock was waiting until Old Stock was safely out of earshot before commenting but Young Stock suddenly found his Vogue again. He immediately started paging through it, pretending to be immersed.

Stock’s suspicion that this was a dream of his making (as opposed to either of the other two’s) was confirmed by the fact that the waiting room and all of its devices, furniture and overall style was very pointedly of Stock’s own era and not the near-Past or distant-Future, as would have been the case had it all been taking place in either Young or Old Stock’s skull.

No sooner had Stock thought this than his eye caught an object on the far left corner of the glass plane of the receptionist’s desk (had it always been glass?) that he could not, from where he stood, identify.

“Stock,” hissed Stock to the Younger Stock. He pointed at the object with his left hand while gesturing, with his right, for Young Stock to look. “Stock!”

Its bulbous tip was glowing a lava-lamp orange.

“It’s ‘Scott’, Dude” said the young man. “Scott. S-C-O-T-T. Why do you keep calling me ‘Stock’?”

6 Comments

    1. Well, again, the guy in the story is a character in a fiction (a parable, I suppose we can call it… a parable about “Everyman”)… I may grind up bits of narrative DNA, taken from Life, to make the fiction savory but my imagination-driven reconstitution of the bits renders biographical readings of the fiction pointless

      [editor: I see a reader has now clicked that link, posted in the comment above, to an article at the Daily Mail… which has nothing whatsoever to do with the short story these comments are attached to. Why not link to an ad for adult diapers or discount Cola, too…? If I want to have anti-Literary conversations I’ll go back to commenting at The Millions… ]

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      1. 1)the way in which the daily mail article about the racist fast food worker is similar to your short story is:

        a)in the short story one character clumsily attempted to get a waitress’s phone number – she said she had no phone, and she goes into the kitchen…he hears everybody in the kitchen…

        b)in the fast food restaurant incident, the worker uses the a racist term on the sales slip to describe the customer – after the customer complains, the worker goes back to the kitchen and starts cracking jokes with his coworkers, once again using the offensive term – this is overheard by the customer and his friends

        2)speaking of real-life events involving restaurants, here’s a dream synchonicity example from about a year ago – not my dream, but of a young music student at a community college where i took a few courses –

        the classroom is locked before maestro s______ arrives, so we music theory students gather in the hallway – the youngsters chat among themselves and I comment rarely

        from time to time a fellow who carries a guitar stops to chat although he does not attend the class – perhaps his individual lesson is at the same hour somewhere else in the building

        when i arrived at the gathering – half a dozen people around, approximately – he was telling the story of his first date the previous night with a coworker he’s had his eye on for a while at l___’s (a local pizza chain)

        the night before the occasion the guitar player had a dream in which he arrived to pick up his date at the family home and was told he had to wait – the grandmother was there – more and more people began to arrive and it became a big party

        the next day he actually goes to the house, which he had never been to before, and it is THE SAME as his dream

        he does have to wait, and is asked to move his car from the driveway because THE GRANDMOTHER is coming and will need to park there

        they go do whatever on the date (possibly specified before i got there, or else i just don’t remember)- then he says “let’s go get something to eat – maybe it seems a bit strange but I’d like to go to l___’s” – she readily agrees – one of their managers is their server – when they are finishing they are told – “we accidentally have an extra pizza – you can take it away” – the fellow looks at the sparse attendance in the restaurant at that time and the small number of pizzas waiting for takeout and deduces that the “extra” pizza is NOT an accident, but rather a favor from the manager – then the girl and he go on to something else, again I forget what

        the fellow says he considered telling the girl about the coincidences, but didn’t want to freak her out

        i said to him “the stars are with you” and he said he hoped so

        later, as i thought about it, it became clear to me that the “big party” of his dream stood for the wedding reception that might follow if this pair-bonding is formalized – a wish, or a prefiguration of something that happened?

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        1. “1)the way in which the daily mail article about the racist fast food worker is similar to your short story is:

          a)in the short story one character clumsily attempted to get a waitress’s phone number – she said she had no phone, and she goes into the kitchen…he hears everybody in the kitchen…”

          The problem there is that that particular detail is not important enough to warrant such a disproportionate amount of attention. It would be the same if a character mentioned a border collie in passing… and we ended up having a discussion about border collies. It’s almost an excuse to ignore the story itself, or anything of substance in the story.

          Also: the fact that the article you link to is about racism de-focuses any possible discussion of the story even further; racism is not a topic relating to this story. No clue in the story would indicate a theme of racism.

          Using a short story as an excuse to go off piste on random words or phrases in that story may or may not be a springboard to fruitful conversations, but the conversations probably won’t be about the story… what Writer could enjoy revisiting one of his/her efforts in the service of ignoring the effort?

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          1. OK – to turn to perhaps the most puzzling – to me – thing “of substance in the story” – i am unable to imagine what the object with the bulbous tip glowing a lava-lamp orange is [here in the states toy guns that resemble real guns are made with orange tips – guns are a big deal right now in the news, but could you be referring to that – i would guess not, but i could be wrong] – and the “i’m not stock, i’m scott” last line is completely flummoxing to me – possibly if you supplied a bit more context i might be able to make some meaning out of these details, but you are the author and you have followed your muse – all the editing work i have done is in non-fiction, so i don’t claim that these thoughts of mine would be useful and/or amusing to you, but they are the thoughts i have, and they are an attempt by me to honor your effort, while honestly saying ‘i don’t get it’

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            1. Mistah Charley! That object is not an important thing of substance in the story, which is an allegory about a man’s (naturally fraught) relationship to his past and future selves; the Eternal Now of existence set against how structurally innocent/ naive the Past is doomed to be versus the Strangeness (bordering on menace)… ” Stock had never looked at another human and been so absolutely unable to jump to conclusions” … of The Future. The defamiliarizing details (eg the glowing object/ the last line) are there for context, themselves… they don’t require context. The meaning of the story is in the story. The flummoxing is a deliberate effect; if you have a look into any life, for only a segment of that life, and look closely enough, you will be flummoxed! The flummoxing is mystery’s sensation and is good… the opposite of banal certainty. Thanks for digging in! Consider this a lo-fi fifteen minute version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” with its flummoxing finale… a cross between that flick and a koan.

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