“It goes like this.  I mean, when you go, it goes like this.”

The sound came at them from speakers hidden in the wall – loud, atonal, the sound acting as a wall itself.  Electronic?  Symphonic final chord?  Who knows – it was loud.

Greene remembered a movie he’d seen (Marlon Brando? nah – Charlton Heston) where an old guy – despairingly old – had pulled up stakes in the world, walked through the dystopia that waits for us all in the future (because nothing ever goes right) and checked in to the place where you they help you to check out.

The sound was multi-chorded, voluminous, and radiant without room for light. 

Spondie clicked a button on the remote and the sound disappeared – the silence so abrupt that Greene shifted his feet in order to keep his balance.

“That’s what it sounds like,” Spondie said, his voice frayed and naked in the emptiness of the room.

“How do you know?” Greene asked.

“One of the ushers told me.”

“Thought you said that none of the actors or staff could say anything about the – you know – ‘play.’”

“His time was up,” Spondie said.  “It didn’t matter to him anymore.”

“And so he told you that this is the music they play?”

“Yup.”  Spondie took out a piece of Nicorette, chomped it up, then took a sip of the cup of decaf sitting on the mantle.

“The worst thing is—,” Greene couldn’t finish it.  He tried again, “You know—”  Nope, no luck.

“The worst thing is that you don’t get a choice,” Spondie said it – hit the nail on the head, drove the tip home, incised the swollen appendix, excised the demon. 

The worst thing is that you don’t get a choice.

Greene left Spondie’s place feeling numb.  The worst thing is that there is no choice.  The ushers know and the actors know and all the backstage hands know.  But, according to Spondie, even those staff members were getting fewer and fewer these days.  The whole thing was much more – automated.  There wasn’t so much the need for ushers and actors and backstage hands. 

Greene climbed the stairs to his apartment – fourth floor, Penobscot Building.  He opened the window – the central thermostat was kept ridiculously high and he needed air.  Forearms on the sill, he stared out to the east – nothing but night out there.  An hour’s worth of night backed up yet over the lake.  An hour’s worth of blackness that would have to be shifted and mined and winnowed away by the spin of the planet and narrow heat of the sun.

Greene looked down.  Beneath his window, a rough circle, twelve or thirteen feet in diameter, had been cleared of snow.  Cleared of snow and everything else.  It was the everything else that turned his stomach now, looking at that dark circle surrounded by snow.

Yesterday, Garner had jumped from his sixth-story apartment.  Garner – all bone and sinew, an easy smile and tired eyes – had leaned out his window (maybe just to get air) and then (all bone and sinew) caught momentary flight and landed with an unremarkable phlunk on the snow-covered pavement.  All bone and sinew, there had been a remarkable amount of seepage from where the flesh had opened up.

Cops, ambulance (without siren), and a hazmat team had eventually arrived, taken away the body, taken away photographs of the brick face of a building with an open window six floors up, then taken away the rose-colored snow.

“Watcha need that for?” Greene had asked.

The man in the Tyvec booties had leaned for a minute against the handle of his shovel, looked up, and answered, “Hazardous material.”  The man in the Tyvec booties rested for a few seconds like that and then, before going back to work, gave Greene a wink.

It could have been a trick of the air – maybe the wavering heat from Greene’s own breath against the cold or a tear drawn out by dry eyes – but Greene swore the guy winked.

It couldn’t be though.  The ushers, the actors, the backstage hands, they were a thing of an increasingly distant past.  Those who were left would be ancient by now, themselves waiting to check out.  “The process is nearly fully automated by now,” Spondie had claimed.  But what the hell did Spondie know?  He was a skeleton – didn’t eat meat because of the poisonous peptides, didn’t eat root vegetables because of high glycemic indexes, didn’t have sex because of the life-energy that was wasted on it – he was a skeleton, an image of the Black Death left over from the Middle Ages and stalking grimly through the steel and glass of today’s world.  If Garner had been all bone and sinew, Spondie was whatever was underneath bone and sinew.  A mummy with a gaunt face, a phantom left to gnaw at lost hungers, a humanoid insect with too little heart to even touch your hand with more than a hungry mandible.

“The process is fully animated and finely tuned to give you the most realistic experience,” Spondie had said and then went on to describe the possibilities.  Sure, there’s pain.  Heart-attack-pain, car-accident-pain, gunshot-pain.  You don’t know what it’s going to be or when it’s coming, but the process has been finely tuned, Spondie said.

Greene remembered nearly drowning as a child.  The mottled sunlight, the darkening depths, the hand that eventually pulled him up.  There had been an anxiety that was palpable.  And that first breath of water had hurt his brain more than anything.  After that, his feet felt disconnected.  There had been a brief experience of flight.

But what did he know – that had been at age three and what can you really say about the reliability of a memory from age three?

Greene sat a while longer.  And then a while beyond that, his forearms deliciously cool against the sill of the window, his breath clouding momentarily before disappearing into the air that was as cold and clean as the cosmos.

He sat there for an age and an hour.  And soon, the light began wobbling ahead of the coming of the sun.  The sky turned like re-animated skin from purple to red to rose.

Greene was hungry.  A box of Cheerios sat ashen in the shadows upon the table to his left.  The milk was in the fridge – pale blue made even paler blue by the cheap bulb that flickered inside the white box.

Sang Chaud’s served burgers 24 hours a day.  Just down the street.  Greene felt like a burger.  With butter and salt and maybe a layer of ketchup mixed into the grease.

He pulled himself away from the window that overlooked the black circle surrounded by snow. By the time Greene walked down the four flights of stairs to the front door on his way out to Sang Chaud’s,the sun would be up. A young sun, narrow-hipped heat, fresh and new in the frigidity of this young year. And, beneath the thin light, the still-open window sixth-floor window of the Penobscot Building would stare blankly down on the black circle surrounded by white snow where the wind and dry white drifts had covered over any memory of footprints.

from the collection of: m. gantee