by D. Harlan Wilson
I was shopping for Hawaiian shirts in the clearance section when a clerk appeared with a red phone on a platter. A bird’s nest of Bobby pins held her hair in place. I looked back and forth between the hair and the phone.
The phone began to ring.
“It is for you,” said the clerk in an eastern European accent.
The ring was loud, but garbled, as if somebody were trying to suffocate the phone with a pillow. Shoppers glanced in our direction. I couldn’t be sure that the clerk was talking to me, even though she had addressed me squarely, even though she was looking right at me, holding the phone out to me, and I was looking at her, and looking at the phone, but still, I couldn’t be sure . . .
She smiled. Long crow’s feet sprung to attention, redefining the arch of her cheeks. “It is for you,” she repeated.
Dubious, I hung up the shirt I had been inspecting and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” said a voice. “Hello? Is this you?”
“Who is this?” I said.
“There’s no time for that,” the voice replied. “I’m just glad it’s you.”
“Who are you?”
“In five seconds you’re going to hang up the phone. Then something bad will happen.” Five seconds passed. “Ok. Hang up the phone now.”
I listened . . .
The line went dead. I hung up the phone. The clerk thanked me and walked away, trying too hard to swing her hips.
She came back as I was slipping into a shirt patterned with bruised, wilted flowers. This time she wheeled out an old television set on a metal cart. She had let her hair down; it spilled over her shoulders in kinked tendrils. “This will happen now,” she said, turning a knob on the TV. I glanced over my shoulders to see if anybody was watching me. They weren’t.
Nothing but silent peppersalt on the TV. I buttoned the shirt and waved my arms in circles to test its flexibility. Too tight. I unbuttoned it.
The clerk eyeballed me. She had lost all of her color. I thought she might pass out.
The peppersalt dissolved and the sound came on.
There was a commercial.
In it, a thin man in a white hospital uniform demonstrated how to yank a tooth out of a stranger’s mouth using household tongs. He spoke gibberish but somehow I knew what he meant. He stood on a busy street corner. Strangers passed by. At calculated intervals, he tackled a stranger and put him or her in a sleeper hold. After they passed out, he pried open their mouths and, as promised, yanked out a tooth, usually an incisor, but sometimes the front teeth, and once, amazingly, a molar. Blood surged and spurted from the resultant wounds and the strangers woke up screaming and ran away holding their mouths. The man stood, smoked a cigarette, gibbered at the camera, and then it happened all over again. I couldn’t be sure if the commercial was trying to sell tongs or to sell the dynamism with which the man maneuvered the tongs. Perhaps both.
The clerk turned the TV off after the sixth attack. “Mind you, he is an amateur dentist. But one can’t deny the virtue of his product.”
I listened . . .
“Violence happens every day,” she croaked in a forcibly possessed tone. “Nobody knows why. People live and die and are forgotten. Nobody cares. And yet people want answers. Hence the drama of human existence.”
Ignoring her, I said, “Do you have this shirt in a larger size. The shoulders are constricting. The larges in this brand are like mediums, I think. Can you check on that for me?”
“Let me check on that for you,” she said, in a normal tone now. She took the shirt and draped it over the TV and wheeled it into the changing room.
I spent twenty minutes looking at shoes. I needed a new pair of sandals. They had been arranged on a narrow set of shelves that rose to the ceiling of the store. I had to use a ladder to look at them all. Several pairs caught my attention, but whenever I reached out for them, somebody shook the ladder from below, and I nearly fell. It was a different person every time. None looked familiar. I climbed down the ladder again and again to confront them, but I was far too slow, and by the time I reached the bottom, they had run away.
I wandered up and down the aisles looking for the clerk. I couldn’t find her. I asked another clerk where she went. He asked me to describe her. I said she was a woman and that’s all I remembered. The clerk nodded and excused himself.
Tentatively, I crept into the changing room.
It was bright. I had to shield my eyes. I reached for my sunglasses but they were gone. They must have fallen off of my collar when I was scampering up and down the shoe ladder.
I kept moving forward, hunched over, squinting, struggling to bring things into focus. I acclimatized slowly. I heard voices. Panicked voices. Breathing. A few cheers.
The lights went out. The changing room fell silent.
I listened . . .
I moved forward . . . down a dark hallway, feeling the walls. They were cold, like ice, but not quite like ice . . .
I passed through a door into a vast amphitheater.
I could see well enough. There were at least 100 people sitting in the audience, including the glitterati in the balconies.
A circle of light fell onto the empty stage.
Nothing happened for awhile. Then an SUV rumbled onto the stage, spun out of control, and crashed into a support column. A man flew through a hole in the windshield and tumbled, with a certain lumbering grace, onto one knee, arms outstretched, blood coursing from his gored forehead. He wore a disheveled brown suit and struck an a cappella high note. He paused, and struck another note. And another one, and another one. No microphone—his voice was powerful and carried across the amphitheater like timelapsed thunder. At first I thought the notes were letters, and I thought the letters might be spelling out my surname, but like so many things, I couldn’t be sure, and eventually I concluded that the notes didn’t mean or say anything; they merely went up and down and up and down with no apparent purpose or direction or dénouement . . . In time the man passed out. Abruptly he fell forward and his chest and face hit the floor of the stage with a crack of bones and wood. Nobody clapped. The circle of light expanded until the entire stage was in view and a movie screen descended from the ceiling, slowly and machinically.
Sound of an old 35 mm projector sputtering to life . . .
There was an advertisement for coffee . . .
Then the main attraction: a pornographic film called Makeshift . . .
The clerk stood awkwardly in an empty park, naked except for glossy black boots and gloves. She had on a blonde wig. Her wrinkled breasts heaved above a stomach defined by rolling stretch marks. Birds chirped in the treetops. She looked into the camera with glazed eyes and her mouth half open . . . A man with an erection entered the scene. It was the amateur dentist . . . The hair on his chest and stomach was long and feathery and looked fake. He carried a pair of bloody household tongs. I listened . . . The clerk turned sideways, placed hands on knees and spread her legs. Concerned whispers from the audience. The amateur dentist positioned himself behind the clerk. He pinched the flesh of her thigh with the tongs. She bit her lip. He spanked her . . . and entered her. Clapping. I listened . . . They didn’t make any noises. Minimal facial contortions. He repeated the same mantra, sometimes in German, mostly in English, at calculated intervals:
“Hence the drama. Hence the drama. Foglich das Drama. Hence the drama . . .”
A stiff breeze. The leaves of Autumn fell all around them. Beneath the movie screen, the singer bled to death, his rich substance expanding across the stage. I listened, feeling myself go numb . . . I listened, feeling myself disappearing, like a puff of dust, like the flashbulb of life, quick, sharp, gone . . . Rupture of eardrums. The amateur dentist reached climax. The clerk grinned and thanked him. He pushed her off of him. He threw himself on her, forced open her mouth and yanked out her teeth, one at a time. She screamed until her larynx burst—soft plume of gristle—and then she died. The amateur dentist stood and stared at the camera, as if daring the audience to challenge him, or at least to deny his authority and force of will. Finally he turned and walked off-screen.
The lights came on. The screen disappeared into the ceiling.
Dazed, the audience stood, gathered their belongings and left the amphitheater. They ambled up the aisles and passed through the changing room into the department store, exchanging polite comments and talking about clothes they might buy. Behind them, a teenager in a red striped shirt swept the aisles with a straw broom.