Midnight Pub

Frames Of Reference- Chapter 13


“How was your day?” she asks as I clear the porch holding a bag full of shaving cream and some other small essentials I picked up on the way back.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” She grasps it from my clutch, I follow her through the living room into the kitchen and she begins methodically arranging the items on the counter. I remove my tie, taking note of how free my neck feels with it off, how for the majority of my waking hours it bears a striking resemblance to a noose.

“I guess what I wonder is which specific aspect you’re referring to,” I retort. “There are a lot of individual factors that comprise a day, you know.”

“Oh, you.”

She lets this remark slide with humor but there’s something strained about it- I suspect she’s had a long day of procedure, maybe some new training based on the way she rubs her aching forearms. She’s growing tired of my feverish rambling- she wants succinct love, an immediate remedy, and it’s dawning on her that such a thing will be inaccessible tonight.

I pull up one of the cheap folding plastic chairs which are presumably for parties and set it up next to the stove. I preheat it, open up the freezer and pull out a family-size frozen lasagna. Too tired to cook, and all the delivery services charge extra out here.

“Who’s Eddie?”

“Huh?” I nearly burn myself on the rack, the door swings shut on its hinges and I quiver a little. Run my wrist underneath the faucet, just to be safe.

“Someone left a message on the answering machine,” she reveals. “About seven, before I got home. Said his name was Eddie. Kind of- I don’t know- nervous sounding. Said he’d like to get together with you some day, to call him back first chance you got. Who is he?”

“Oh, Eddie. Yeah. Friend from work.”

I don’t know how he would have found the landline number. I never even told him my address. Surely, there are reverse lookups, but he’d need to be seriously dedicated to find me. Good thing she wasn’t home yet, or she would probably have struck up some cordial banter with him. I make a mental note to go upstairs later and block Eddie from the directory. I maintain a casual and collected attitude even if I think she sees past my ruse.

“How’ve you been doing?” I inquire. “Make any friends around here?”

“Sort of,” she responds, downing an oatmeal creme pie straight from the box. “That lady next door to us in the split-level, Ms. McCluskey. One with the light blue bathrobe on all day, she must be pushing 85 or so. I talked to her across the fence, she invited us over sometime. She suggested this week, but I said I’d have to talk it over with you.”

“Uh-huh.” I remember catching McCluskey across the aforementioned fence a few days ago- she was lounging on her patio, reclined on one of those mesh seats, a newspaper tented over her nose. The fence is, like everything else in West, poorly constructed and barely recognizable as a divide, completely absent at points. Only three feet tall and offers no privacy. She was like a frail desert willow, elusive and quiet. I said nothing, kept watering the lawn as if she weren’t there, and she had turned up the volume on her boombox, her emphysema-mottled ankles barely visible protruding from the hem of her long violet dress.

“I told her I’m a nurse,” she goes on, “And she was very taken with the idea. She has a nurse of her own who comes over twice a week to tend to her, replenish her meals, everything like that. So she knows the intricacies of the job quite a bit. Sweet old woman. Everyone is like that around here. Seniors who just want to retreat from the world.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I realize. “That’s everyone along Culloch. I don’t know why, after a life of relative success and ease, anyone wants this. It’s better than real families occupying this space, I suppose, but, still... you can’t stay here long enough and live, entirely. It’s only a partial life. A phantom existence. Right?” She nods, vaguely cognizant of what I’m alluding to.

“We need friends our age,” I peer out the curtains onto the unlit driveway, the Camry lodged in its usual spot, its windows completely dark. “Need to go out and find some couple in some bar and drag them back here for a party, a get-together. Housewarming. You. You need a book club or something, need to find someone to read with and connect to.”

“Not really. I like reading alone. Helps me digest the plots better.”

“Well, you see what I’m on, whatever,” I concede. “The demographics around here are all wrong. Scattershot. It’s like someone took a board, spun a wheel, all the pins landed in an unforeseen quadrant. It’s not right for me, and it’s not right for you. You deserve more.”

“I’m fine,” she answers, “I like the quiet. I like sitting out back on my off-hours, because the rest of my day is all noisy and keeps me up. Need to wind down in the backyard, watch our neighbors on the other side excavate their new pool, watch the sun set. Good for me.” The oven dings. I put on a mitt, haul the tray out, the cheese on top is roasted to a deep brown crisp and I invite her over to chisel out a slice.

“You want me to make you a salad?”

“No thanks. I just like the lasagna. Pour me a cup of milk, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Gotcha.” I take the glass out of the cabinet, set it down, lug the carton around to pour and she grabs it. It’s amazing, really, to watch someone dedicated to the upkeep of public health devouring such a mass of fatty acids and proteins, a caloric payload. Her jaw closes around each bite like a serpent’s. You wouldn’t imagine she goes at food so quickly, based on her figure, but you’d be wrong. Her metabolism is unusually high.

“Want to take in a movie?” I ask. “I can hook the DVD player up if you want.”

“No. Too tired tonight. Been through a lot today. Maybe tomorrow night.”

I don’t push the issue, in fact I don’t know if I could thoroughly enjoy a movie myself. She stands, yawns, holds her arms over her head and takes a deep pantherine breath inward.


“I’ll be in soon.”

She disappears down the hall into the ropes of shadow, footsteps growing less marked. I hurriedly try to finish my slice and the damn tap keeps dripping. One drop every second, cascading into the platinum basin, whisked past the growing pile of marinara and ketchup stains. Our dishwasher isn’t nearly as good as it was advertised in the catalog, so we have to thoroughly pre-rinse. Nothing here is as effective as it initially appeared. It’s a shame, because I was looking forward to having a dishwasher for the first time in my life.

Maybe the drip is a solemn reminder of the waste, the sprawling redundancy of such a locale, and the dishwasher is sucked dry by that very redundancy, rendered an arid microclimate that buzzes and clicks but can’t seem to operate at its peak. A raisin being desiccated on a granite slab, slow life-sucking ordeal. So goes all.

I add my own plate to the growing heap, twist the faucet to release a torrential downpour which subsumes the implements and causes them to levitate by a few inches, a teacup becomes a yacht and a fork becomes a canoe. I drizzle a thin stream of bright pink dish soap over the whole mess, bubbles form amid the rushing base of the flume and spread outward. Five notable islands are formed, tectonic shifts occur as I dislodge a small frying pan. New archipelago.

I leave the calmed South Seas behind in my wake, shedding my role as Poseidon for the night. Dry my fingers off with the dish towel. I’m shaking. I need to exert myself less, but today’s session was particularly intrusive.

I think he’s getting to me in ways I can’t even begin to fathom. The worst part is, maybe he doesn’t even mean to.

I ascend the stairs, taking special care not to produce audible creaking. Not that she’d be able to make me out- she’s undergoing a general malaise, a recurrent fatigue, and right now she’s in there tucked in beneath multiple covers to shield her from the horrors in the surgical amphitheater. I dart across the hallway into the bathroom, take a good look at myself in the mirror, which has been left a couple inches askew.

Just as I suspected- blanched skin. Probably from the coolant. Need to apply some lotion, figure out the proper balance of condensation and evaporation. Bags under the eyes, but that’s to be expected. Jowl sags. Honestly, I don’t know what she sees in me.

I squirt a few pumps of lotion out, apply it to my skin, consider what the substance does, how it permeates the epidermis and brings moisture to the cells on an individual basis, if the cheery graphic with the simplistic beige prisms on the bottle is anything to go by. Little circles all around, big movements. I smile. Facial muscles seem alright.

I’m not tired, the memories of Nil in the blank room keep repeating, like still frames from some long-abandoned film, each one identical to the last, each one coated in that thick layer of Hi-8 static. I can’t sleep so long as I remember who and what he is. I can’t rest so long as I know he’s in the same general vicinity as me.

Long hours today. Particularly long hours which bled from long minutes, time hung still and I was forced to repeat the same phrase again and again, with no result. Heavy breathing, the stare through the veil, the lingering form. I am being affected. My senses are undergoing an assault from all sides, the claustrophobia is dawning on me, every minor action in my life is completely recontextualized. These are the spans of near-Herculean determination which will make or break me. This is the boiling point, the waiting game. A test of patience. A test, as certain figures would say, though I hate to admit it, of emotional maturity.

It’s all so meaningless. So banal. And you know what’s truly banal...

I trod to the end of the hallway, into her little work corner in the den. It's set up with care and attention but doesn’t have as many of the resources as it used to before the move. One squeaky revolving leather chair, a new desk with 5 drawers, her clamshell laptop and a notebook with a clasp. All this she keeps for her role as a public servant. Needs to give off the image of a calm, collected prodigy to her employers, although that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I hesitate before I depress the smooth rubber button on the landline. Turn the volume down to a minimum.

“Hey, Jerry!” the speaker explodes. “Not sure if this’s the right number, but hey, I was wondering if you’d like to do somethin’ with me sometime. Sort of a favor, moreso of an adventure. Eh... pick your poison. Right? Right! So, yeah... anyway, get back to me. You know where to find me.” Beep. Click. Then the dead air of some telephone dispatch away in the hills.

What disturbs me even more, come to think of it, is that it’d be impossible for him to have a functional phone. Surely, living off the map as he does, he doesn’t pay a monthly phone bill. He’d need a registered address for that. Must be an endangered Puebloan pay phone, or one of those cheap disposable plans from the gas station. Why he said for me to find him.

Regardless, just in case, I take out a pen and jot down the number in Sheila’s notebook, carefully rip the page out along the perforation, and fold the page into my wallet. I’ll call him sometime later, on my own time, and see if he’s able to pick up. Then, with a sigh of relief, I press the red key. Blocked from making any future calls. Shut out from disturbing my domestic life, prevented from engaging me when I’m not emotionally prepared. It feels wonderful.

No, I realize. If he bought a disposable flip, he can just as easily buy another one with another number. And another. And another... fuck.

I stumble back downstairs, cross the kitchen over to the coffee maker in its designated alcove, Keurig single serve K-Slim model with the silver top. We’ve had it since Denver, got it about three years back and it never failed me when I was tackling a particularly difficult case. I fumble around in the recesses of the dish cabinet for a mug with my manic, desperate hands, rip out a pod of vanilla-infused Colombian, pop the sucker in and wait for the brew to form. I know I don’t need caffeine right now- with my heart racing and thumping as it is- but I do need to stay awake, awake and vigilant, and I need to drink a warm potent beverage because there’s a cold hole in my heart.

I pop a couple ibuprofen, swallow them dry and clutch at my chest as the trembling increases. Warm, sickly wave of horrible tremors, a reckless tsunami rendering everything in its wake destroyed. I grit my teeth, my head begins shaking and my jaw dislocates. I don’t know what it is I’m having, but it isn’t good. I wasn’t built for this.

The oozing tar drips slowly into the mug, an orange ceramic piece with an elliptical handle. I hate how slow it is, how inefficient. It mocks me with its sloth, withholds the substance for as long as it thinks I can manage without collapsing onto the floor in a puddle of my own excreted blood. Finally, it stops, one centimeter from the top, and I collect it from its compartment, taking special care not to splash myself with the scalding liquid.

“Fuck almighty,” I whisper as the brew slips past my lips and down into my eager gullet. I use my nose to inhale the fumes, long deep breaths of the mixture, fire-roasted alchemy from faraway jungle basins and tiered desert ziggurats.

I lift the cup, walk over to the little window over the stove, peer out through the shutters at the empty moonlit backyard. Paranoia, that’s what it is taking hold of me, rampant feelings of discontent and inadequacy. Hammock swings gently between its posts, homes all along our little street with darkened windows and deserted porches, low sandy haze blowing over the sidewalks in a moderately fast wind.

I open up the screen door, it closes behind me and I feel as if I’ve walked onto an old movie set with the false fronts and the puppet horses, the warm cup in my hand quickly turning lukewarm from the chill. It’s difficult to make out what’s ahead. I hesitantly drop off the stoop and walk around the perimeter of the house away from the backyard, clearing all the basement windows. My legs brush up against the bushes.

There it is. The Camry. Idling like a forlorn spacecraft in the expanse of the driveway, shining from the lunar ambiance. I feel around in my pocket, whip out my keyfob, press the button and the lights flicker on once, bright orange lanterns calling me in. Click.

I sit down in the passenger’s seat, gather myself, really take it all in. reach across to the ignition, pop the key in, turn it, take note of how strange it is to do this from the right side, flip on all the heaters at full blast. The engine springs to life, purring beneath me in feline anticipation, and the entire vehicle is promptly transformed into a cozy womb.

I recline.

My attention wanders over to the FM band. AM and FM frequencies, it dawns on me, are difficult to receive out here, even with the vast monolithic radio towers which stand on Highway 50 like lighthouses in a frozen sea. Every day on my way into Pueblo I try to dial something in, but only static comes through. Either there’s something in the Camry which creates interference, or the radio is broken, or my mind is broken. Perhaps all three.

On a whim, however, on this particular night, I decide to bombard myself with the cacophony. I grab the volume, wheel it to the maximum, disregarding whatever municipal guidelines may exist pertaining to noise this early in the morning. Damn the neighbors, damn the world, cover it all in a thick stew of steady rushing auditory particulate.

Wait. Yes, I thought I heard a voice somewhere in the mix. Human speech. For one brief instant, something vaguely legible came through...

I lean forward, use surgical precision to maneuver the threads on the side of the dial in relation to the panel in which the dial is embedded, and the static gives way to something else. A sequence of washed-out synthetic bulletin-sounding notes. I immediately let go of the dial, confident that this is as perfect as it’s going to get.

“Welcome, from the high desert and the great American Southwest,” comes the dulcet tone of the announcer, “This is another edition of National Mysteries. I’m your host for the evening, Stewart Harrison. For those of you just joining us, tonight’s episode may contain disturbing material. We here at NM are concerned with the discovery of the truth, whatever that may be.”

I cover my eyes. Caffeine is taking effect, there’s already a poignant alertness, the host’s words carry a particular weight, I run my cheek over the soft fabric of the headrest and settle into place. The background music dies down.

“Getting back to the matter at hand,” Harrison states with a blunt affect, “For those of you just tuning in, we’re here with Dr. Buford Saunders, author of the new book, Reign of the Impostors. Dr. Saunders is a licensed speaker touring the Phoenix area, and is known for his work in parasociology. Would you mind- erm, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself? How you got into your particular field?”

“Hello,” comes a voice from a speaker with noticeably lower quality. “Thank you for that remarkable introduction, you have a penchant for them, anyone ever tell you that?”

“Yes,” Harrison responds. “Yes, as a matter of fact they have.” Light chuckle.

“Well, in simple terms,” I imagine Saunders raising his hands and spreading them wide. “In simple terms, parasociology goes one step further than parapsychology. You’re familiar with parapsychology, of course. Parasociology purports to study the ways in which parapsychological phenomena interact with each other, providing a detailed, balanced look at the hidden undercurrent of the human mind.”


“My new book,” Saunders relays, “is a true memoir regarding a case I encountered in 1998. I had a patient who was convinced that everyone and everything in her life was staged, and that her family were conspiring against her. She came to me during my early career, begged and pleaded with me for help. I was prepared to diagnose her with paranoid schizophrenia, but after some time, during which I got to know her, I realized that her claims were largely accurate.”

“Like for instance?”

“She claimed that her husband was an impostor,” he answers. “That is to say, a manufactured person. She had been married four years, two of which during she believed him not to be the same person. His mannerisms had changed, he was less receptive to her.”

“Well, now,” Harrison notes. ‘That is a bold claim.”

“Exactly. Anyone else might not have given her concerns any credence. As it turned out, however, her actual husband had started a new life with a completely different family, and had constructed an elaborate ploy wherein he would hire an actor of a similar facial makeup and build to accompany her on a daily basis. The actor was paid to feed her a steady diet of sedatives, which he assumed would keep her pliable and inert.”

“That is twisted,” comes the response. “So what did you learn from all this, exactly?”

“The obvious conclusion. That paranoia is, in many cases, entirely justified. That people do actively conspire against you to ruin your life. That you can trust nobody and nothing beyond your own five senses, and even then they aren’t always on your side.”

I raise my hand and split my vision. My eyesight doubles, my palm feeds into itself.

“That’s the thesis behind your new book, I take it?”

“Yes,” Saunders enthuses. “How to find impostors in your life. Liars, manipulators, tricksters and frauds, and to excise them completely. I take a comprehensive, methodical approach, with case-by-case advice and simple solutions. After reading my material, I guarantee you’ll never have anyone around you but the absolute genuine article.”

“How can you tell?” Harrison interjects. “How, for instance, are you certain enough that I’m not an impostor trying to discredit you that you’re willing to come here, on our syndicated radio program, and espouse your beliefs?”

“Trade secret, and the truth is really much more complicated, as my book shows. But the simple answer is that, no matter how many methods I utilize, I can’t. Nothing is certain anymore, we live in strange times. The impostors are breeding in the walls, man. Breeding and suckling and growing at an alarming rate. I don’t know what it is they want, how they aim to enact their end goal, or what that end goal even is. But they are watching, and listening. One of them is likely tuned into the show right now.”

“Frightening stuff,” the host responds.

“Oh, yes,” Dr. Saunders says with horrible confidence. “They’re everywhere. Waiting...”

The time slips from me and my eyes close, I’m listening to the interview as it continues unfettered, and the heat from the vents keeps pouring in, the wonderful boiling air filtered through the car’s engine, warmed from the inhospitable exterior to satiate my needs. And it feels so nice to have my two new friends for company.

I awake with a start, check my watch. 4:43 A.M. Not quite dawn yet, but getting there. The moon hangs suspended, fat and yellow out over the invisible range, and the full tank of gas I bought yesterday has been entirely depleted. The car is running on fumes.

The interview seems to have ended, there are only the all-too familiar gnawing buzzsaw intonations. I pick up my keys, mull them over, consider what happened. The mug of coffee has spilled onto my lap, my lips are dry and the heaters are still going full force. I’m dehydrated, I realize. My muscles spasmodically twitch.

I take note of the band’s number, tell myself I’ll keep it in mind for future reference, if I’m ever bored again and need some secret entertainment. Something only I know about. Hidden truths, unseen realities...

The blocky digits stand out in sharp blue contrast against the slick noir LED display. Without warning, just as I’m about to turn the blaring static down and head inside for a few more hours of much-needed rest, another voice makes itself heard from beyond the veil. An old woman’s voice, loud and hideous, verging on insanity. Screaming directly at me.

“I’ll kill you! You hear me? I’ll kill you!”