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.
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.
“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’?”