“The Boss Hides The Remote”
The sun sets behind a cloud and as its last magenta rays filter out over the gothic tops of downtown Buffalo Stephen orders a Rolling Rock and slides a five across the wet surface of the bar. He eyes the pool table but there is already a couple playing there, a skinny blonde man and his tattooed brunette companion. They stay close to each other and whisper intimacies into each other’s ears; Stephen turns back to his bottle of beer and plays with the corner of the green label, fraying the paper and getting the adhesive gummed into his finger pads. He looks up at the aging television mounted behind the bar and sees John David Henderson looking like a deer that has been shot from behind a blind. His eyes are wide and staring into the middle distance past the CNN camera. His hair is grayer than Stephen had previously imagined, and is styled in early contemporary bird’s nest. A solemn police officer is cuffing Henderson’s hands decisively behind his back.
“Hey,” Stephen says, “can you turn this up?”
“Sorry,” the girl behind the bar replies, “the boss hides the remote unless football is on.”
Potential Unused Server Space
Stephen hovers his fingers over the keyboard and thinks of all the things he isn’t going to say. He has Henderson’s profile page open on the forum they both frequent, and he has the private message function open. The box waits, a blank space willing to be filled with all manner of confessions or pleadings. Are you there? is the first thing he thinks of to type, but he would never get it. His fingers fold over each other and he stares at the caustic glow of the page. Sooner or later they would find out whose name John David Henderson assumed when he was spending time in the savage anonymity. Stephen navigates to his own user page and hovers the cursor over the delete account option. In the end he shoves the mouse away and walks into his living room. He turns the television on to CNN, morbidly rooted to the eternal crawl of the ticker.
All The Clocks
It starts with an aerial shot of a quiet leafy subdivision, somewhere that could be anywhere and everyone knows is really nowhere. The camera, obviously affixed to a circling helicopter, causes a moment of vertigo. When reality reasserts itself, you can see that the camera is rotating around a particular building, an unassuming little cube with vinyl siding and a brightly colored plastic playground erected next to it. You notice that there are people running from the building: big people, small people, and big people carrying small people. Faintly, beneath the muted sound of the helicopter blades, you can hear faint pops, and a scream.
“All the clocks have stopped in Memphis,” a grave voice intones. “It will forever be 2:27 PM in the hearts of 15 families.”
The shot switches to a camera that is stationary to the ground. The camera is on a sidewalk facing the building that the helicopter was circling. You can see that the building is a day care—the cheery, cartoonish sign announces as much. The scene is buried in yellow police investigation tape; there are streams on the door, streams blocking off various sections of the playground, and one long stream wrapped around the perimeter of the property. A pair of uniformed officers stand near a tree by the entrance, conferring in leaned-in whispers.
“This is the scene at Kidz Two,” the grave tone continues, “a daycare in the Cooper-Young neighborhood of Memphis. Earlier today, at 2:27 PM, John David Henderson began his killing spree with day care attendant Alice Markel, gunning her down as she stood next to the tree where the police officers are speaking. He went on to murder eleven children and three more workers, using what police have said is a standard AR-15 assault rifle. Details are still coming in as the police release them. So far, they’ve only released the name of one of the victims, who we’ve already named as Alice Markel. Eyewitnesses have said . . .”
You can tune out at this point. Eyewitnesses are unreliable, the subtle hallucinations of adrenaline make everyone see an event a bit differently. CNN will repeat it ad nauseam over the next week anyway. Continual cable news is a river, and when you step out on one bank and wade back in further downstream, it’s the same water flowing over you, time without end.
There Is No Record
Stephen has been waiting for her to call since that night in the bar and here she finally is. She’s a little younger than he’d expected, and her voice contains qualities beyond the brisk, businesslike confidence he’d been expecting. Could one of those qualities be “cute”? Is he really feeling his heart race a little just from the unique pattern of her voice? He swipes a thick layer of dust from the top of his keyboard and considers it.
“We’re just looking for some insight into his character,” is what her confident, possibly cute voice is saying. “A profile of who John David Henderson was.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, and it sounds simpering and hollow even to him.
“Sorry,” she says, and Stephen can map out the smirk on her face just from the inflection. “I think you know him better as OutOfGrace, from the Frequency Of Life forums?”
Stephen rests his head against his palm. There is a clammy warmth there and he finds it oddly comforting.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to that website,” he tries.
“Well, sure you have,” she says. “Your account there—IdealHusband—is linked to your Soundcloud, and that’s linked to you. Stephen Klim.”
There is a ragged breath that issues from his throat but otherwise he is silent.
“You know,” she says, her voice regretful, “if I’ve made the connection the big dogs will make the connection too, soon enough. Talk to me exclusively and I’ll make sure you don’t get hounded to the grave by them.”
He opens his mouth, shuts it, and tries to pinpoint a place to begin.
“I guess it begins out of boredom,” Stephen muses, playing with the straw in his organic lemonade.
“Doesn’t everything?” Tina asks no one in particular. She is cute, as it turns out, but not in a way that would ever have made Stephen turn his turn his head in the street.
“Maybe,” he replies. “Either way, it was boredom and frustration. I found this forum . . .”
“Frequency of Life,” Tina notes.
“The very same,” Stephen says, annoyed at being interrupted. “It’s a place where aspiring musicians can trade songs, talk about the industry, shoot the shit about their lives, anything goes.”
“And John David Henderson was one of these.”
“Yes.” Stephen sips his lemonade, winces at the deeply sour taste. “He was a roots rocker. Bruce Springsteen, maybe, a little more country. Not the kind of stuff I was really into. I do most of my work on a computer, not out in the barn, but we managed to get along.”
“What did you bond over?”
“Being assholes, mainly. He was the guy that would pick apart someone’s song in an effortless fashion. If you want to say that he had a very particular idea of what ‘real music’ was, I suppose you could. It wasn’t made on computers, I can tell you that. He was automatically dismissive of anyone who used software to write music. EMD heads, wannabe pop singers, aspiring rappers, it didn’t matter. The second he heard a synthesizer, or an artificial drum sound, it was all over. Instant dismissal, dripping with disdain, followed by an attempt at baiting them into a specious argument.”
“This happened a lot?”
“It was a forum populated mainly by people working with electronics. He didn’t have a lot of friends there, but there was a small core of people who thought he was funny, or that he had a point.”
“What kind of music do you make?” she asks, and a pigeon flutters down from the slate stretch of city sky to land on the edge of the roof overhanging the patio.
“Drum and bass, mostly, remixes and a few originals.” He takes a sip of his lemonade immediately after he finishes the sentence.
“You maintained a friendly relationship with him, though?” she asks. She leans forward as she speaks and there is something hungry about the gesture, as though she is licking her chops and eyeing his throat.
“Yes. I’m sure he knew, but it never really came up.”
She looks at him over the rim of her cup for an uncomfortable length of time. The pigeon flutters again, this time down into the collection of people trying to make their way through late-afternoon drinks and conversation. There are screams and cries of disgust and one well-appointed young woman is forced to slough the remains of a strawberry daiquiri from the front of her teal designer dress.
A Tapping On The Window Late At Night
She left me is the message Stephen received when he opened the website at 3:15 AM. Took the kids, the truck, think she emptied the savings account. Have to call the bank in the morning.
His fingers almost touched the keys and the reply seemed to edge its way out of his skin. The only thing that prevented the leap were the details. He wanted to commiserate, of course, but there were considerations to make: the level of humor to use, how to gauge any potential outbursts of anger that later replies would carry, where to draw the line in disparaging his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He’s mercurial he thought and knew instinctively that this was somehow short of the mark.
Facebook up, hit a lawyer, delete the gym. He immediately taps out. Do you have anyone nearby? as a way of balancing out his response.
Probably. I’m finally opening this bottle of gin I’ve been saving either way. Have anything?
There was a half of a bottle of bourbon floating around. After some consternation, he tracked it down.
“Look At Your Game Girl”
Stephen answers the phone one night and there’s the stuffed-nose voice of a young man on the other end.
“Hey, is this Stephen Klim?”
“Sure,” Stephen answers carefully.
“Hey, I heard you knew John David Henderson.”
He rests his forehead against a palm that has quickly become sweaty. His heart races painfully.
“I heard he wrote songs and stuff,” the voice continues, the excitement in his tone ramping up. “I checked that forum he was on but all of his stuff looks like it was deleted or something. Do you have any of it? Did he ever send you his stuff?”
Stephen’s mouth has gone dry but it isn’t until he tries to speak that he even notices.
“What?” he demands in a rough, cragged croak. “Where did you even get this number?”
“Some guys on 8chan posted it.”
“Vultures!” Stephen spits, and ends the call. He shuts the phone off, throws it at the corner of his desk, and stares into the void of his desktop.
There is a folder inside of a folder that purports to be a collection of infographics. This is where he moved the songs, after the news broke and his paranoia was peaking. He thinks briefly about remixing them and then drags the folder into his computer’s trash bin, revulsion dripping from the arc his mouse describes.
OutOfGrace (8 hours ago)
Do any of us deserve happiness?
IdealHusband (8 hours ago)
Have you been drinking again, JD?
OutOfGrace (8 hours ago)
Not as much as you might think. Actually I’ve been on my balcony looking out over the city and thinking.
IdealHusband (8 hours ago)
The visitation meeting didn’t go well?
OutOfGrace (8 hours ago)
Nah, that bastard Hunts over at the garage firing me really did a number on me. I’m not allowed to see them unless I get a job, keep a job, and take the court’s recommended anger management course.
IdealHusband (8 hours ago)
Really making you jump through the hoops then.
OutOfGrace (8 hours ago)
It’s criminal what they make you do in this country now. Used to be you could get in a little fistfight at work and you’d go out for a beer afterwards and that would be that. Now they keep you from making a living, they keep you from seeing your kids, they make you go and talk to a bunch of liberal pussies. We’re living in a feminized age, Stephen, and I don’t think I can stand it anymore.
IdealHusband (6 hours ago)
Sorry, I got caught up talking with the neighbour, and she ended up needing a ride to the store really quick. Look, JD, whatever’s going on is fixable, okay? You’ve got skills, you can get another job, persistence will show them that you have the drive to be a great father and they’ll have to relent eventually.
OutOfGrace (3 hours ago)
They don’t deserve their fucking children. Don’t deserve a goddamn one of them. Be better off without them.
IdealHusband (3 hours ago)
Better off without who?
OutOfGrace (2 hours ago)
Do any of us really deserve happiness? Let’s start there. Let’s say we don’t. Happiness is a delusion, it’s how our brain fools us into accepting our situation on this Earth. It tricks us. It’s tricky. We find ourselves living in tenements, separated from our kin and from anyone else really capable of sustaining respectful human contact. There’s no one, except when someone needs something from someone else. Other than that, it’s look out for number one. Look out below. We lock ourselves into these negotiations with each other and tell ourselves that it makes us happy, because otherwise what would the point be? We would just die of loneliness, die or go insane. We don’t have any right to happiness though, even though we have a big fancy piece of old paper that tells us we have the right to try to achieve it. We have the right to mask the reality of our situation with happy thoughts. Ain’t that grand? Real nice of them. Bad stuff happens, though, and we don’t have the right to expect it to not happen. This world doesn’t give a damn for our expectations no matter how we wish it were otherwise. Bad stuff happens, and they don’t have any right to expect it not to happen. Not one goddamn right.
IdealHusband (1 hour ago)
Woah, JD, come on. Sleep it off. It’s morning, you should probably get some rest.
OutOfGrace (27 minutes ago) *UNREAD
Well I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Moss Park At Dusk
“You know I have to use that in my article,” she says, and Stephen scuffs his shoe on a rock.
“I really wish you wouldn’t,” is all he says in reply, and she doesn’t answer the implied question. There is a scent of burnt hamburger on the wind. The park is sparsely populated, most people gathered around the man playing guitar while leaning up against one of the posts at the entrance. He finishes “Ziggy Stardust” and moves into “The Carpet Crawlers” and his voice is wavering with drink but still strong.
“Why do you think he confided in you like that? Why were his last words before he went to the day care sent to you?”
They approach the crowd and Stephen tries to pretend that he hadn’t heard her question over the singer. She’s staring at him, though, and eventually he has to shrug uncomfortably and dither away at an answer.
“He felt comfortable talking to me,” he says slowly. “I don’t know where that began, to be honest. One day he messaged me privately and we talked for hours. Turned out we had a lot in common as long as we weren’t talking about music. I was divorced, he was in the process of getting divorced, I didn’t have kids but I was more than willing to listen to him talk about his. It was odd at first, but after a while it started to feel really natural. He’d message me every other day or so, and we’d exchange messages until the small hours of the morning. If more than three days went by without hearing from him, I would send him a message asking him if he was okay. Sometimes he was just busy. Sometimes . . .”
“Sometimes he wasn’t okay,” she finishes, and all Stephen can do is nod. The singer soaks in the applause of the crowd and switches to the Stones, “Angie.” The crowd begins to sing along midway through the first verse.
“I never met him. Physically, I mean.” Stephen says it aloud but the way his voice trails out into the twilight makes it seem as though he’s speaking really to himself. “I knew what he looked like because I looked up his pictures. He had a website for his act and after we got to talking a lot I needed to know what he looked like. I don’t know, I guess I just need a face to hang words onto.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“You can be friends with a handle and a persona,” he says, staring past the singer, the gate, and the city beyond. “It’s a lot easier to be friends with a persona if that persona has a face, though.”
She walks away slowly and he follows, and the nighttime gloom creeps in between them. Somewhere in the distance, a lighter flicks and flares multiple times in sequence.
“I had an internet boyfriend once,” she says, her voice narrowing as it wraps around
her head and slingshots towards him. “He lived in San Diego. We met in a chat room back when you still did something as dynamic as go to a chat room and have strange conversations on the internet with strangers in real time. We did most of our talking through private messages, and I never once saw a picture of him. Looking back on it, it was odd, but I never questioned it. I guess I put a face on him myself, and any real face would never live up to it. Today, anyone can snap a picture of themselves instantly and send it along nearly as quickly. Ten years ago it was a little harder, so . . . I got to construct him as I wanted him to be, and whatever the reality was didn’t matter.”
“Whatever happened to him?” he asks, catching up with her. There is a patter of raucous laughter and the automatic gunfire volley of coughing from the direction of the flicking lighters.
“I don’t know. He said that we should take some time apart and then I never heard from him again.”
Stephen laughs at this, the sort of laugh that speaks more to commiseration than to derision.
“Wasn’t that all the time you spent?” he asks. “Time apart?”
Tina shrugs her shoulders and the cloak of the night slips a little further down onto both of them.
In The Wee Dark Hours Of The Afternoon
The first thing Stephen does when he gets back in after running out to the store is check his mailbox and retrieve the junk mail. There is nothing but junk mail in his box these days; anyone with anything important to say sends it through email. He shuffles derisively through the riot of colorful marketing flyers, and lets them fall one by one into the oblivion of the trash.
The second thing Stephen does is check his phone again for a text message. Specifically, a response. There is nothing new there to see, however, just his Can we talk? in white lettering over a grey background. He hesitates, and then types out Listen I want to apologize for the other night. I know you want to keep things professional and I completely agree with that. I’m just lonely and I thought there might be something there between us. He hovers his thumb over the pale green Send button, thinks each word over in detail, each letter, each bit of kerning. He deletes the final sentence, thinks over how to prune the second sentence, and then deletes the whole thing.
The third thing Stephen does—the final thing before stepping into the shower and getting on with his life—is sit down at his computer and log into the Frequency Of Life forum. He brings up his account settings, navigates to the end of the line, and does not hesitate in deleting his account. Within seconds it is scoured from the internet: every post, every considered track, every comment and aside. The spiders will no longer crawl him, the algorithm will no longer dig him up out of the web. That persona is no longer. It is an unperson.
Morbid curiosity holds him still and he finds Henderson’s account. It is still there, looking for all the world as though Henderson could still be lurking somewhere behind it, ready to post another wrought-iron midwestern song or another screed on what constituted reality in art. Stephen blinks at it once, twice, and then shuts the browser down entirely.
“We need to take some time apart,” he says, and then he leaves the room to track down a towel and a clean shirt.