“Scarlet Fever” by M. Bennardo

ONE.

The clamp fastened on a stack of pages. The teeth of the oversewing machine bit down into them. The bohunk down the line waited to run the thread through. The teeth bit. Down they cut. Beads of sweat burst on my shoulders. The wop up the line tossed stack after stack at me. The bohunk waited with the thread. The teeth bit. The lined backed up.

Where was the foreman? What the hell was the matter? The teeth bit. Machine vibrating to pieces in my hands. Buzzing to pieces. What the hell was that buzzing?

Look at the books backing up. Why didn’t the wop stop cutting them? Why didn’t the wop come help? The teeth bit. What the hell was that buzzing?

The telephone. Jesus Christ who was calling me on the telephone? I didn’t even know it worked. Jesus Christ it didn’t work. I sure wasn’t paying for it anyway. The machine buzzing to pieces in my hands.

No that was the dream. The machine was in my dream. The books were in my dream. The bohunk and the wop were in my dream. But the buzzing was in my room. Jesus Christ shut the hell up already. I’m answering. Hello?

Don’t say anything, said the telephone. I started to ask what the hell it was talking about but the telephone just said, I said don’t say anything. You have to listen this is important. Whatever you do don’t tell me if this is the first time I’m calling.

What the hell, I said. This is the first time anybody is calling.

Goddammit, said the telephone. The voice seemed to be falling out of the air at me distant and tiny like a man yelling over the sputtery roar of an aeroplane propeller. Goddammit, said the telephone. I told you not to say anything and now I can’t call here anymore. Now I can’t I told you Now I

But that was it. The voice was gone and there was no tone and no operator. There was nothing at all. I tried to get the receiver back on the cradle but what did I care. The damn thing didn’t even work.

Jesus Christ I was sick. What time was it? Twilight. Morning or evening? Was it Sunday? It couldn’t be. No it had to be next week already. That meant they moved the wop up the line and he was punching the holes and passing stacks to the bohunk. And who was cutting the pages? I don’t know but it wasn’t me. I had to talk to the foreman tomorrow.

Come on Lenny can’t you put the wop back on the cutter you remember I stuck with the company when the wobblies tried to organize I even ratted out those couple of Poles that had red cards

Come on Lenny I’m an American I spoke good English since the first word I ever said I’m a veteran I went all the way to Goddamn Germany to fight the Goddamn Kaiser and still the krauts and wops and all the rest keep coming here but hell I can read the Goddamn books we bind how can you keep a wop on the line over me

Jesus Christ I wasn’t talking to anybody tomorrow. Jesus Christ I was sick.

* * *

TWO.

The teeth bit. Down they cut. Leaning on the lever.

No

Down they cut. There was no end to the stack.

No

The teeth bit. Down

NO

Jesus Christ not that dream again. The only good thing about scarlet fever is not having to stand on the line all day between a wop and a bohunk and NOT that God DAMNED dream AGAIN

My name is Joe Miller. Okay that’s good that’s real I know this.

My name is Joe Miller I am twenty-seven years old I was born on June the Fourteenth in the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine I am not at the bindery I am not working the machine I am not at the bindery I am at home in my apartment I live in Chicago I live in a tenement I live on the fourth floor of a tenement in Chicago I have scarlet fever I am not at the bindery I have a fever I am not cutting Goddamn endless stacks of paper I have scarlet fever I have bad dreams I have the same bad dreams I have the same bad dreams every day

I can barely move. I can barely think. I have a sore throat and a rash. I have a Goddamn fever that gives me Goddamn bad dreams and don’t pay any attention to them.

My telephone keeps buzzing. My Goddamn telephone that isn’t even hooked up keeps buzzing. My telephone nobody has the number for. My telephone that doesn’t even have a number doesn’t even have a connection doesn’t even have the receiver on the cradle stop buzzing already it’s in my hand.

Hello, said the telephone. The voice was dreamy like it was washing through cotton in my ears. Hello are you there?

Yes. What.

Come again?

Yes shut up already I’m here what do you want?

A pause on the telephone. Don’t you know, said the telephone, and then more of a pause. Don’t you know who this is?

How the hell should I know who is calling me on a phone that doesn’t work?

Another pause. And finally the telephone said, Haven’t I called before?

What kind of joke is this, I said. If I ever find out who is calling me day after day on a telephone that doesn’t work why I’m going to

But then a thought hit me. Say, I said, you’re somebody from the phone company otherwise how could you have a number for this extension? Well I don’t want any service and I didn’t ask for any so shut this line off right now I am not paying you a dime.

You stupid sap, said the telephone. Just shut up and let me say something. I’m not from the phone company and I don’t want your no good dime.

Look, I said, can’t you call back? I have the scarlet fever I’m very sick I can barely hear you I think I just lost my job I want to throw up so can’t you call back?

You’re Joe Miller right?

Look

You’re Joe Miller and your folks are from Howe Indiana.

For Christ’s sake

You’re Joe Miller from Howe Indiana who grew up on a place that used to be a dairy farm.

How the hell do you know all that, I asked. Who the hell are you?

Do you remember, said the telephone, at the age of seven when you came around the old milking shed and all of a sudden you saw yourself sitting on the ground at the age of five and poking a mud puddle with a stick?

Are you kidding me, I said.

Do you remember that? Do you remember being seven years old and suddenly seeing yourself at five years old just sitting there with no explanation? Just coming around the milking shed and there you were a scrawny kid five years old poking a mud puddle with a stick.

Blonde-haired little kid, repeated the telephone, with jug-handle ears and sunburn on your back in that crisscross pattern from wearing coveralls and no shirt? All I’m asking is if you remember seeing that?

Yes dammit, I said. Yes I went up and pushed him in the mud. Pushed myself in the mud. I remember being five and being pushed and I remember being seven and doing the pushing. Now how the hell do you know that?

And do you remember, said the voice, when you were eleven years old and you threw a crabapple at your own head two months earlier? You were climbing the apple tree in September and looked down out of the branches and suddenly saw yourself reading a book in the shade of the tree in July the same year. And so you hit yourself in the skull with an apple.

I remember okay. I almost got a concussion but I remember.

And then do you remember, said the voice, your last night at Kelly Field before shipping out to France with the Army Air Service when

Yes dammit, I said. I saw myself on my first day there and slopped hot sauce in my own beer but what the hell does this have to do with anything?

Well, said the voice. It wasn’t so much a voice as a throbbing in my head. A pulsing of the veins in my temples. A ringing in my skull.

Well, said the voice, I’m like that too. I can’t see you and I can’t throw apples at you but I can call you on the telephone and talk to you.

Who? Myself?

I am yourself from far away. Far and far away in the distant future. It’s Nineteen Twenty-Six where you are but it’s a long time later where I am.

Get the hell out of here, I said. What kind of a joke is this? If you are who you say you are and if you can’t see me and aren’t here then how do you even know what year it is for me?

For starters I’ve only ever had scarlet fever once in my life.

Aw shut up okay.

And for another thing I’ve talked to you before.

Like hell you have, I said. Yesterday you barely said four words before you hung up or got cut off or I stopped having whatever Goddamn fever dream you come from.

Don’t tell me how many times I’ve called already. Don’t ever tell me. You see, said the voice, I’m sick too which is how I think I can reach you. We’re both sick. We’re both sicker than we will ever be again in life. But I’m an old man and I’m not going to get better.

Aw don’t make me cry too hard for you.

Don’t you know better how to talk to an old man, the telephone said. Didn’t anybody ever teach you any Goddamn manners.

Listen, continued the telephone. I’ve been calling you for days now but it doesn’t go in the same order for us. The first day I called you was the last day for you. And the last day I call you will be the first day for you. Somehow we’ve got reversed and if you tell me the first time I called then that might just be the day I die and I don’t want to know about that. So don’t ever tell me.

Jesus Christ, I said. What am I supposed to be dying of?

Not you, said the voice. Me. You a long time from now. I’m ninety-five years old. I’m just falling apart. I’m dying of everything I guess.

Jesus Christ, I said, how can you be allowed to tell me that? You shouldn’t be able to tell me how old you are. That’s got to be against some kind of rule.

Well apparently I can tell you, said the voice. So it must be that you don’t remember this or don’t believe it or don’t understand it because otherwise it couldn’t be allowed. Later you’ll probably think you dreamed all this in a fever.

Look, I said, why don’t you leave me alone? I don’t think I want to talk to you. I’m sick enough as it is and I sure don’t want to talk to you while you’re dying. Whether I’m sick or not I just don’t want to talk to you. So just don’t call here anymore okay.

Even if I stopped calling now it wouldn’t make any difference. We’re doing this in reverse order from each other remember? Any phone calls you get in the future are ones that I’ve already made so it doesn’t do you any good to tell me to stop now.

Look, I said, just leave me the hell alone. And I slammed the receiver down.

What the hell did he think he was doing? I mean, somebody pushes me in a mud puddle and of course the first thing I do is jump up and spin around swinging wildly with my fists. Then I blink the mud out of my eyes and see that nobody is there. That’s a loss. That’s a kick in the pants I can’t do anything about. All through life you get them all the time and there’s almost never anything you can do about any of them. Somebody hits you and you can’t hit them back. That’s just life and it’s just lousy.

But then two years later, I get to give that very same kick in the pants. I get to be the one that does the pushing and nobody can do anything about it. And that I can keep for the rest of my life. That’s a win. Two years of losing and a lifetime of winning is a pretty good deal as far as I’m concerned. But this guy, what the hell is this guy doing?

He was fouling up the balance. There he was, a guy of ninety-five years old and about to die. What did he want with lording it over me? Why couldn’t he just shut up? Whenever this happened before it had always been quick and silent. And that was enough. Just to know I am in charge of my own licks is enough. Just to know I’m smarter and stronger than I used to be is enough.

But Jesus Christ why did this guy have to torture me now? I was already sick, so why did he have to tell me that I’m going to get even sicker? Not for a long time yet but he’s proof that I’m not always going to get stronger and smarter. One day I’m gonna start getting weaker and it sure as hell feels like today now.

Jesus Christ just leave me alone. Leave me alone already I’m already sick.

* * *

THREE.

Yesterday was not a good day. I didn’t pay attention to the time and I got lost in the fever. That was no good.

But this day would be different. I would pay attention. The sun was out and it was streaming through the window. I looked at my watch on the night table. Ten o’clock in the morning. Good. The air was cool and my bed was cool. There were goosebumps all over my body. Goosebumps and the red freckles of scarlet fever.

It wasn’t a good idea to think about anything too hard. It wasn’t a good idea to worry. It wasn’t a good idea to think about my job or getting better or that bastard on the telephone.

Christ did they really give my job to the wop?

I’ve only been off the line for a week Lenny or maybe two weeks I don’t know but I’m coming back to work tomorrow or the day after and I better not find out you gave my job an American job to some wop No No No I can’t worry about that right now

No that wasn’t a good idea. That wasn’t a good way to think. I needed to think about real things and physical things. Christ my body hurt. It felt like I’d been hugging a locomotive all night and even the tips of my fingers were raw. It’s like that bastard on the phone said. It felt like I was dying of everything.

Just as long as that Goddamn phone doesn’t ring. I’d be fine just as long as that Goddamn phone doesn’t ring.

There was a rap rap rap and I jumped. But it was somebody at the door and I had to answer them. I couldn’t remember the last time I used my voice out loud and so I just hollered as loud as I could.

“Come in!”

The door opened a little and my sister Jenny poked her head in. Jesus Christ I said come in don’t take all day about it can’t you see I’m dying on the bed. I feel like a Goddamned scarecrow with the stuffing coming out I said, except I didn’t really say any of that.

“Jesus Christ, Joe.”

“What,” I said.

“Jesus Christ, you got scarlet fever.”

“I know,” I said.

“You didn’t show up for dinner last night, so I went by the bindery this morning. They said you ain’t been in since Wednesday.”

“Did they give my job to the wop?”

“Hush.”

“Jesus Christ, they already gave it to the wop!”

Jenny shook her head. “I don’t know anything about it either way. I didn’t ask about that.”

“You don’t got to ask,” I said. “I know that’s what he said. I know what Lenny said. He said, that bum hasn’t been here the past three days and you tell him not to bother ever coming back we gave his job to the Goddamn wop who can’t even read the Goddamn books we’re binding Goddammit.”

“No,” said my sister. “I’ll tell them how sick you are.”

“Oh Jesus Christ.” My voice was a pathetic whine. “Do I have the fever again? I don’t want to have the Goddamn fever again.”

“Hush,” said Jenny. “I can’t stay here, you know. I got the babies at home–”

“Oh just get out,” I said, rolling around among the bedsheets. “Who even wants you here anyway? All you do is make me nervous and sick.”

“Oh, Joe,” said Jenny. Her voice was sad and round, like a drooping rosebud. “I’ll get you some food at least, some food and some water. I’ll be back a little tomorrow, or I’ll send Louis.”

“Aw just get out,” I said. Just get out get out get out can’t you hear the phone buzzing just get out but the door’s already shut and my head’s already buzzing oh Jesus Christ here we go again.

What the hell do you want?

You don’t sound too happy to hear from me, said the telephone.

Why the hell should I be, I asked. I told you to leave me the hell alone.

And I probably told you that everything in your future is already in my past. I can’t undo the things I’ve already done.

Oh just shut up with that already.

All right, said the telephone. We can talk about something else.

You can talk about whatever you want, I said, but you’ll be the only one on the line because I’m hanging up right now.

You’re hanging up the phone that doesn’t work?

Yes Goddammit.

I want to let you in on a little secret, said the telephone. Are you ready to hear a secret?

Go to hell, I said.

The secret is this, said the telephone. There isn’t even a phone in my room here. I’m just sitting here in my wheelchair with my hands folded in my lap and I’m just talking to you. You can hang up all the phones you want but I’m not really on any phone at all.

Then where the hell are you?

Well right now like I said I’m sitting in my wheelchair. I’m looking out a window at a park or something. There are trees and a big gravel walk and a pond. There are a lot of geese sort of strutting around down there too and

All right fine but where tell me where are you?

I guess I’m not so good with places and dates anymore. There are a lot of things I can’t remember actually but I remember you real well. I remember you Joe. I remember you and that tenement apartment and I remember lying on that bed dying of scarlet fever.

I thought you said I wasn’t dying.

Well who knows, said the telephone. It could go from scarlet fever to rheumatic fever and maybe you’ll get brain damage. That’s a way of dying. Maybe it doesn’t even have to get that far. Maybe just being as sick as you are will put an end to Joe Miller. I mean the current Joe Miller. Maybe you’ll come to an end and somebody else more like me will replace you.

The telephone pressed the point. Tell me, can you really say you feel like yourself these days? Don’t you feel like somebody else? Aren’t you afraid you’ll never feel the same again?

Look, I said, if there is no phone and if I can’t see you then you’re just in my head. You’re just part of the fever like everything else.

Oh what a boring interpretation.

All right then tell me something about the future.

Let’s see I could tell you about your marriage, said the telephone. Do you want to hear how you get a black eye the day before your wedding? It’s going to happen on September the Fourth in Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Nine. You’ll be married the next day on the fifth. You might like to write that down so you can check later since I think that’s about three years from you.

And who the hell am I supposed to marry?

You can find that out for yourself, said the telephone. But does she ever chew you out over that black eye.

I’ll give her one to match then.

Won’t that make a wedding picture, said the telephone. But I haven’t told you the best part. You see it’s yourself who gives you the black eye. It’s yourself from four days later who will walk out of the bathroom and suddenly step into your bedroom the day before the wedding and you’ll sock yourself one in the eye. Beautiful isn’t it? That’s real genius there.

Well that’s no real prediction then, I said. That’s no proof of anything. Just suggesting that to me now might make it happen later. So even if it does happen just like you say that doesn’t mean that you’re really from the future.

So what, said the telephone, you want to hear about flying cars and moon shots and skyscrapers?

How about who wins the World Series or who the next president is.

I could tell you, said the telephone. But it’s funny. I just don’t feel like it.

You what?

Well the president for you now is Coolidge. But when I think about telling you who the next fellow is then I just get this sort of despairing empty feeling like it would be hopeless even to try. Like it’s just not possible. It’s like if you asked me to bend my forearm in the middle of the bone. There’s just not even any way to try.

What the hell are you are talking about, I shouted, but the voice on the phone didn’t seem to pay attention to me.

It’s funny really but I guess I feel that way about a lot of things these days. Did you know that you aren’t exactly a strong man, asked the telephone. Oh I know you think you are but you’re young now and everything is easy for you. But as soon as you think that maybe you can’t do something anymore then you stop trying. In your life you’re going to stop trying so many things. Hell you never took a swing at anybody unless you knew they couldn’t ever swing back. You know that.

What the hell?

Look, here’s the thing, said the telephone. You’re never going to change. Your future is set in stone and you’re never going to change. That’s how I’m able to talk to you.

If this conversation would make any difference in your life then I wouldn’t be able to have it with you. I’d be a different person already who would have a different conversation. So the only way this can be allowed is if it has no effect on you. You’re gonna convince yourself that this is all a fever dream. It’s inevitable.

If this doesn’t make any difference, I said, then why even bother me? Why not just let me alone?

There was a pause on the telephone. I’m an old man, it finally said. When I talk to people here I get confused. I don’t know who the hell anybody is here. If you ask these people here they’ll tell you I’m living in the past. Maybe I think I am too. Maybe you’re just some old memory swirling up out of my brain as the neurons fade away and maybe you’re the last long dream I’ll have before I die. Maybe that’s all you are but that’s all I have and I’ll be Goddamned if I won’t make the most of whatever this is before I go.

* * *

FOUR.

I don’t get it, I said. Why are you such an irascible son of a bitch?

The telephone laughed. Why don’t you ask yourself that same question?

I have been, I said. And I don’t get that either.

Haven’t you heard about that railroad worker, asked the telephone. The fellow who got a six inch rod driven through his brain? Before the accident he was the sweetest gentlest man who ever lived or some nonsense like that. And afterward he was mean and irritable. He insulted his friends and swore and whored around. He turned into a completely different man. Well did you ever think maybe you’re just brain damaged?

Go to hell.

Don’t act so offended. I’m letting you off the hook here. If brain damage can make a man change his personality then maybe some people are just born that way. Oh your brain won’t look damaged but the way it’s set up is just the way that makes you this mean and unpleasant.

Goddammit I don’t want to be let off the hook. I want to change.

You can’t ever change. The fact that you’re talking to me is proof that you will always be exactly the same way you are now.

No damn you.

It’s true. There’s no point denying it.

If it’s true then why the hell couldn’t you stay away. Why couldn’t you leave me some hope? If you had never come then I could have at least thought I could change. I could have fooled myself. You lying stinking blackhearted son of a bitch.

* * *

FIVE.

I rolled my head to the side and looked out the window and it was raining. Thank God it was finally raining. It sounded soft and soothing falling against the windowpane and the room was full of coolness and freshness.

I couldn’t hear any babies crying, any neighbors yelling, barely even anything from down in the street. Just the clip-clop of a horse and wagon rolling over the cobblestones. Oh thank God it was finally ending.

It was a minute until I even noticed that Jenny was there, standing next to the window and looking out of it too. “How do you feel?” she asked.

“Better now,” I said. I tried to say it nice. I tried to say it in the sort of way that an irascible son of a bitch wouldn’t say it.

She didn’t look at me. She looked out the window. “I brought you some more food and filled the water pitcher on the bed table.” She turned and looked me up and down critically like she was inspecting a pig she had to slaughter and was trying to find the best place to stick the knife.

I looked down too at myself and at the twisted pajamas and bedsheets. “Jesus Christ,” I said. I looked back up at Jenny. Jesus Christ no wonder she was looking at me like that. “Jesus Christ.” There was puke and God knows what else all over me and all over the bed. Jesus Christ.

“If you can get up–” she said.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I’m not letting you wash my Goddamn sheets like I’m a baby.”

“Wash them? You gotta burn them,” she said. “It’s Goddamn scarlet fever or didn’t you know? You gotta burn everything you touched and everything in the room even if you didn’t. It gets everywhere, that’s what the doc said. I’m even burning this Goddamn dress as soon as you’re up on your own feet.”

“What doctor? I don’t remember any doctor.”

Jenny colored a bit. “He didn’t come here,” she said. “I couldn’t afford that and God knows I’m not looking for any of your money in this room and God knows nobody would take it if I found it.”

She had a couple old rags over her hands. She had rags over her hands and she was touching the walls and window with the Goddamn rags.

“I got the babies to think about,” she said. “I can’t go getting sick or getting them sick. I just asked the doc as a favor like what to do about scarlet fever. He said don’t spend too long here and don’t touch more than I have to and then burn everything when it’s over.”

“Well,” I said. “Pardon me for getting sick and putting you in mortal danger of your life. I never even asked you to come here. I just wake up and there you are looking at me like I’m some kind of Goddamn rat in your pantry.”

“Goddamn you,” said Jenny not yelling but just saying it like the lines in a play. “That’s just the fever talking but Goddamn you anyway.”

“Like hell it is,” I shouted as loud as I could. “Lucky for you and your babies I don’t have any more fever, so don’t bother coming around anymore if you can’t stand the sight of me.”

“Doc says it comes and goes,” she said. “You feel better and then feel worse again. It’ll be weeks he said until you’re better even if you feel better a day here and there.”

I lifted myself up off the bed, sitting up and shaking my fists at her. “Goddamn you,” I said. “What do you got to come here talking about that for. I feel better, so tell Lenny I’m coming back to work tomorrow and he better not let me see that wop anywhere on the line when I get there.”

“I gotta go,” she said, all quiet. She moved toward the door.

“Don’t forget I never asked you to come in the first place.”

“I’ll be back in a few days,” she said, “assuming you don’t die before then, you son of a bitch.”

“Before you go,” I said but by then she was already gone and I finished talking to the air, “take that Goddamn telephone with you.”

* * *

SIX.

I felt it coming back as night fell.

I don’t see why this goes in reverse order for us, I said. That doesn’t make any Goddamn sense to me. Are you sure that’s not something you just made up?

The telephone laughed. This is why I like talking to you. You don’t know anything and if you don’t know it then you don’t bother to think about it.

Then I guess you know the reason don’t you.

Of course I do, said the telephone. This is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen and it doesn’t happen to other people. And even though we’re somehow special even for us it still doesn’t just happen automatically. We got to figure out how to make it happen.

So one of us has to know how to do it. That’s why it goes in reverse order. If the first time was the first time for both of us then neither one of us would know how to do it and it couldn’t happen. The only way it can happen is like this.

That, I said, is the stupidest Goddamn answer I have ever heard to any question.

Say do you wanna know how you got the scarlet fever, asked the telephone.

No Goddamn you I don’t want to know anything from you.

That’s fine, said the telephone. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

I thought you said you didn’t want to know.

Jesus you are the most aggravating son of a bitch I have ever talked to in my life, I said. I’ll be Goddamn glad when you go back to socking me in the jaw.

I don’t think I really have to tell you anyway. Just think about it.

You’re a Goddamn liar, I said. That’s not true and you know it.

Why wouldn’t it be true?

I would never give myself this Goddamn fever, I said. Never you understand me. There is nothing that would make me do this to myself and you Goddamn know it. So why don’t you shove off.

Maybe you wouldn’t right now, said the telephone. But maybe you would in a different time and place. Maybe you would some other time. Maybe you do change and maybe you get even meaner and more irascible.

No, I said. No and to hell with you.

Yes, said the telephone. And if you check the side of your bed next to the wall then you might find something stuffed down next to the wall that you don’t recognize yet.

No Goddamn you I’m not looking. And you already said I only ever had scarlet fever once in my life so where would I ever get anything contagious any other time you lying bastard.

Suddenly the telephone laughed loud and piercing like it was going hysterical. It was an ugly terrible laugh and I hated it because I knew it would be my laugh someday. Oh you’ll find out soon enough, said the telephone. You’ll find out what happens soon enough.

Goddamn you shut up go away you stupid fucking fever hang up the stupid Goddamn fucking phone.

* * *

SEVEN.

Jesus God I felt like I slept a thousand years. I felt like I’d been dead and buried and resurrected again. Somehow I felt like my own self again and all these Goddamn demons had been driven out and finally I could say Hallelujah Jesus God oh Hallelujah.

I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep and dead and demon possessed. All I knew was that I was my own self again and

Lenny you can take your Goddamn job and shove it because I’m strong as an ox and I can get a million jobs if I want them I don’t need to be standing in no line between no wop and no bohunk I can go get a job where everyone speaks American like they’re supposed to Goddamn you

And if you’re so concerned about touching me Jenny then don’t worry because I’ll burn everything in here I’ll burn every Goddamn thing every towel every blanket every sheet the whole Goddamn bed and every scrap of clothes I own

I’ll burn it all in a bonfire until I’m naked and I’ll burn off the outside of my skin too I’ll burn myself into a new man

And I’ll burn this here this Goddamn thing that the telephone said I put next to my bed this lacy white handkerchief that I’ve never seen before in my life embroidered with S.M. whatever it is and wherever it came from onto the fire it goes

But first Jesus I remembered it. I remembered yesterday in the last throes of the fever that I had this same lacy handkerchief in my hand. I remembered staggering around my apartment with this filthy fever-ridden handkerchief in my hand. Probably Jenny had left it and I had picked up. And then I was staggering around my apartment with it and then suddenly there I was.

Yes dammit I remembered. I remembered suddenly there I was. There I was looking down at myself weeks ago. There I was looking down at myself lying in bed asleep and healthy. I stood over myself with that dirty infectious handkerchief in my hand and I just stood there.

I was supposed to stuff it down the side of the bed but I didn’t do a Goddamn thing. I just stood there looking at myself fast asleep until I was gone again and I still had the handkerchief in my hand because I didn’t do a Goddamn thing. I was there but I never did a Goddamn thing don’t you hear I didn’t do a Goddamn thing.

How long has it been since I’ve talked to that bastard how long has it been but no wonder he won’t call anymore now that I don’t have a fever anymore I’m strong again he’s too Goddamn scared to call

And he knows he knows I didn’t do a Goddamn thing so now I’m going to call him yes I’m going to call him up right now and tell him what a liar he is and how I didn’t do a Goddamn thing

Hello, said the telephone.

Speak up, I said. What’s the matter with you speak up.

Hello, said the telephone again. What the hell is this. I’m a sick man what the hell is this.

It’s me, I said. It’s me calling you on the telephone.

Who? Calling? Jesus Christ I’ve finally gone insane like they said I would.

Shut up, I said. I guess you don’t remember me. I guess this is first phone call for you. Well then shut up and listen to me because I’ve finally got you back and good. It’s me calling from your past all the way back in the year Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Six. You’re ninety-five years old and you’re about to die. See I know all about you.

You don’t recognize anybody around you anymore and that’s why I can get through to you. I can cut a line straight from Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Six to your demented old dying brain.

Stop it.

I’ll stop nothing. You’ve been tormenting me with your Goddamn phone calls for weeks and now it’s my turn and you’ll listen. Because the scarlet fever is gone.

The scarlet fever, asked the telephone. Sure I remember having the scarlet fever.

Good, I said. I’m glad it’s coming back now. Let’s see if you remember something else because I bet you won’t. You used to call me and tell me that I gave myself the scarlet fever you Goddamn lying bastard.

Sure, said the telephone. Sure you did. Didn’t you find that handkerchief?

I laughed at him. Even now, I said. Even now you want to pretend that happened even though I already know it didn’t. The fact is that the handkerchief is burned now. It’s gone.

It doesn’t matter, said the telephone. It already did its work.

I laughed again. But it didn’t, I said. Yesterday I went back and stood there over myself fast asleep and I didn’t do a Goddamn thing. You hear me I never did a Goddamn thing I just held on to that handkerchief and didn’t do a Goddamn thing. Wherever I got that scarlet fever from it wasn’t from this because I told you that I would change and I did.

No, said the telephone.

Yes, I said. And that means you won’t ever exist. Once time catches up you won’t ever exist. You’ll be erased.

No, said the telephone.

Oh yes, I said. I beat you I finally beat you. Finally after all these years and all these licks finally I get to take a swing back you son of a bitch.

No you idiot, said the telephone.

That wasn’t it, said the telephone.

That didn’t mean a Goddamn thing, said the telephone. Where do you think that handkerchief came from? It doesn’t matter what you did with it now because it came from later. It came from much later.

What are you talking about.

I mean that this so-called change you underwent was a sham. This one time that you did the only decent thing in your Goddamn miserable life was nothing but a one-time temporary thing and it doesn’t mean anything and it’s never going to be repeated again.

And I mean that much later in your life you’re going to find out who S.M. is and you’re going to find out where that scarlet fever comes from and you’re going to get another chance to give it to yourself as you stand there in her bedroom clutching that handkerchief in despair and rage and impotence. You’ll be howling with pain and you’ll be capable of anything. And that time you’ll do it.

That’s what I mean. It’s all coming later. Whatever you did now didn’t mean anything at all and I will exist Goddamn you I already exist Goddamn you I already am you.

And the telephone laughed and laughed and laughed and even as I smashed the receiver into shards and then my hand into pulp against the ungiving brick wall of the tenement still it laughed and laughed and laughed and it never seemed to stop.


M. Bennardo is the writer of over 40 short stories, appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and others. He is also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. The second volume, This Is How You Die, is coming from Grand Central Publishing in July 2013. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people anywhere can find him online at www.mbennardo.com
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