jimowenswrites

Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

I Know You’re There

I know you’re there, hiding,

you think;

in the long gray shadows of time,

behind the gossamer clouds,

lurking in frigid depths,

in the blinding glare of dawn,

in the strange noises of dim halls,

and in the knock on the door

when sleep darts and weaves and taunts

like a pup freed from its tether,

wearing the grave face of the man in the white coat.

Averting your eyes, believing you’ve hidden yourself, marking your time,

marking mine,

measuring my days,

insinuating yourself into the cracks of quiet moments,

believing we are adversaries,

that you are the bane of my sometimes doleful soul,

the planter of subtle seeds,

the gardener of grim thoughts germinating in the ground of confusion;

I see you.

Oh, deceiver, you cannot hide.

Come to me.

Come now.

Come and join me and let us walk together.

I will make you my friend.

Let us break the bread of communion,

let us walk hand in hand,

like silent searching companions,

singing songs of celebration in joy and sorrow and victory and defeat,

emancipated from the weeping wounds of

what if.

Chapter One: The Darian Matter

Author’s Note:  Here’s a taste of my new science fiction novel, tentatively titled, The Darian Matter.

One

It was cold and damp, the sun hanging low behind a gray curtain of clouds wrestling against the horizon.  On the Friday the before Thanksgiving, the sidewalks of Birmingham were filled with distracted men and women anxious to make their way home to begin their holiday festivities.  The rhythmic incantation of a ringing bell, intermittently punctuated by coins falling into a red steel can, danced across the chill. A tall gaunt man, wearing a wrinkled navy suit, stood at the edge of the curb, unperturbed by the noise and fumes of the growing traffic. Across the street, the DON’T WALK sign flashed its silent orange warning.

The tall man had first felt Mike walking beside him more than he had seen him.  He had seen Mike before and generations of watching had honed his ability to distinguish humans that were unique in some way.  Mike stood over six feet, with a lean body and cautious eyes, carrying himself with the confidence of a man unburdened by social expectations.  Letting his eyes briefly meet Mike’s, the tall man then stepped gently, but deliberately, into the path of the oncoming traffic.

An impatient driver was punching at the radio dials in her silver BMW and jerked at the wheel just in time to avoid the man who had stepped into her path.  A pick-up truck, it’s horn blasting an angry warning, raced around the pedestrian.  From behind the wayward man, a woman screamed a desperate warning. Whether the bus driver had failed to see the careless man, or simply had no time to react, was never clear.  Only after the bus had rolled over the man in the suit did it come to a frantic, jerking halt.

Most of the crowd of pedestrians had turned away in horror, but now reluctantly peered through half-closed eyes to find the red pulpy remains of the victim of the bus’s violence.  Their fears quickly turned to disbelief as they watched man continue his deliberate march across the intersection.  He continued walking, stepped onto the opposite curb, and quickly disappeared into the incredulous oncoming crowd of pedestrians.

Even though the distortion of space-time, time dilation as Einstein had called it, was a skill he had fully mastered, he felt the brief but sure fatigue that accompanied his feat.  Normally, such measures were reserved for times of battle or other perhaps other dire circumstances. But something had been stirring this man, driving him to action that might well become a matter of collective thought and, perhaps, a rebuke—if not something worse—from the The Magisterium.

Regaining his strength, the man quickened his pace and continued down the sidewalk, turning right at the end of the block.  He walked about fifty feet and turned to face an unmarked gray steel door.  Reaching into his left coat pocket, he pulled out a small scrap of paper, reading the instructions scribed in the complex mathematical language of his race.   For a moment, he stood before the door glancing over his right shoulder, then passed cleanly through it.

As he vanished into the blackness of the building, a police officer and several others turned onto the same block.  They searched for the tall man in the rumpled suit and encouraged one another with uncertain assurances.  He was right here!  I just saw him. I’m certain he turned this way.  Had they known to look for the door through which the man had passed, they would have found none.  Like the man, the door itself had vanished.

Once inside, the man paused, waiting for his pupils to adjust to the darkness.  He adjusted his clothing, buttoned his jacket, and tightened the Windsor knot of his paisley tie.  Rather than walk slowly through the darkness, he plunged forward across a seamless concrete floor.  He took precisely twenty-five steps forward and stopped.  The next moment he stood unblinking, bathed in white fluorescence.  “What is your report?” asked the man standing before him

The second man had white hair and wore khaki cotton twill pants along with a blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt.  He was a bit taller than the man in the suit, older by some vague number of years, but had broader shoulders—as if he might have been an athlete in his youth.  The man with the white hair carefully studied his younger friend.  Anyone listening to the exchange would have thought the men were speaking some ancient dead language. Latin, perhaps.  Or maybe Pali—or something Arabic.

“They are not prepared, Theisen,” he said.

“Not prepared? How is that possible? Your last report was almost a generation ago.”

“It is just as it has been so many times before.  Many of them are still bent on destruction.  Some kill in the name of religion.  Some in the name of race.  They will oppress and destroy one another for anything from perceived offenses, lust, or greed.  Some of their cultures still oppress their females, treating them as chattel. It is a difficult thing to watch.  They have yet to learn they are one.”

Theisen recognized the man’s unspoken plea. “The Magisterium and the Path forbid our intervention.  Influence without revelation. Perhaps if there were more of us to offer some gentle influence. What then?  Is there any progress?  Any at all?”  Theisen’s own words were tinged with desperation.

The man in the navy suit thought for a moment.  Weary, his head hung low between his shoulders.

“There are some.  Though few are in a position to help them make dramatic leaps forward.  The others tend to destroy or imprison the ones that might unify them. It will take time.”

For several minutes the men exchanged their observations about the condition of the indigenous people of this tiny blue planet.  Theisen repeated his questions, looking for any sign of hope, his face washed in a brownish-orange dismay.

“Thank you, Athelius, my young friend.  I will consider your report carefully.  Return to your duty, Watcher.  Your time here may be nearing an end,” said Theisen vanishing.

Darkness fell over the room once more and the solitary man strode through it to the opposite side from which he had entered.  He did not slow his pace as he approached the interior wall of the abandoned building. Reaching the wall, he effortlessly passed through it as if the steel and masonry were nothing more than the morning fog that had laid over Birmingham that morning.

In the amber light of dusk and neon, Athelius stopped and took a deep breath.  He had grown to enjoy the smell of this world, especially the damp cool of fall.   He would miss this place. “How long have I watched them?” he wondered.  

These Gods Who Made Her

These gods who made her,

this woman first,

bestowed their good gifts,

yet hid the dark curse;

 

Hephaestus created

By Zeus’ command,

With earth and the waters,

And Athena’s soft hand;

 

Her lilting speech,

Hermes he gave,

Yet from that strange jar,

These gods wouldn’t save;

 

Apollo, he offered,

The gift of his song,

The lid was still tight,

Though not for too long;

 

Her beauty bestowed,

Aphrodite’s own gift

And though she was warned

The top would she lift;

 

Now Apate she creeps,

Forevermore,

Could Pandora have seen,

These things to abhor?

 

Unleashing their demons,

The god’s sure revenge

Prometheus stole fire

Now they would avenge;

 

But could it be,

That our bejeweled box

Holds terrors unknown,

A thing we should lock?

 

Despair now creeps,

On her padded feet,

From behind in the shadows,

‘Tis our soul that she seeks;

 

Still in the bright light

Some time there may be

A chance for us all,

The truth we might see;

 

These gifts that tempt

In deceit so adorned

Might only deserve

Our steadiest scorn;

 

Beauty and Riches

Glory, Fame too,

It seems that our world

They’ll someday undo.

 

Beware of the strangers

Bearing gifts they still say,

And guard all your steps

Each one every day;

 

So be it a box, or be it a jar,

The gods may soon offer,

Release only Hope,

From heart’s shining coffer;

 

For the once the lid’s opened

It may only release,

Fear and regret, 

Leave you longing for peace.

Living on the Razor’s Edge

It’s 4:04 a.m. and I’m wondering about someone.  A few people actually.  I’ve been wondering about them a for a while.

There are more than a few homeless men and women living near my home in downtown Huntsville, Alabama.  When I lived in the suburbs I rarely saw them.   Oh, occasionally I would find myself trapped in that awkward space at a traffic light where men or woman gaze vacantly past the eyes of me and other commuters.   In the liminal space between red and green, these doleful souls stand quietly hoping someone will crack a window and pass a few coins into their fatigued waiting hands.

I’m wondering how long it’s been since the young man with the Sewanee University tee-shirt has had a meal.

I’ve led a pretty charmed life.  Sure, I’ve had my share of disappointments and trials.  Promotions I didn’t get.  Relationships that didn’t work out.  A scary call from the dermatologist followed by some unexpected surgery.  Those were rough patches.  Very rough.  But this morning, they don’t seem to loom quite as large.  My apartment is cool.  My bed is soft.  There’s food in my pantry.  And last night, I celebrated a victory with some friends.

I’m wondering about the man with the scratches on his face, sitting on the curb, with the ice-stuffed blue trash bag delicately pressed against his elbow. 

A few weeks ago, I spent a sleepless night suffering from a terrible headache.  The following morning, I called my doctor.  Within a few hours, I walked away from his office with two prescriptions and high hopes for a better night’s sleep.   When I picked up my medicine, I threw in a half a gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream—just because I could.  Then I went home to an air-conditioned home where I waited comfortably for the meds to kick in.

I’m wondering about the old man with the beard dragging the cart behind him.  He’s the one continuously talking to himself.  Or maybe he’s doing battle with some relentless demon that plagues him.  I’m wondering how far he walked today and how he can wear that long-sleeved shirt and gloves on a sweltering Alabama August day. 

To be clear, trials are trials.  They should not be diminished.  And they are ours to navigate.  But I can navigate mine with the comfort and wisdom of my family, my friends, and, from time to time, my counselor.  They are my physical and emotional safety net.  I’ve had to learn to trust it—my pride gets in the way, you see.  But when I’ve fallen those short distances into it, my net has never failed me.

I’m wondering about the shirtless man peddling a bicycle who barked “I’m okay” refusing my offer of a bag full of food.  I’m wondering if he really is okay and if I somehow offended him. 

I’m wondering if we recognize we all live on the razor’s edge of calamity.  A few missed paychecks.  An unexpected diagnosis.  Betrayal. An economic crisis. It doesn’t take much for the mythological Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife, to have her way with us.  If we’re paying attention, we will recognize it, I think. Perhaps it will change us.

Maybe, we will learn to genuinely appreciate the value of the warm touch of a friend.

Or perhaps we will be grateful that our family and peers do not avert their eyes in our presence.

We might be less likely to complain there’s nothing to eat, or that it’s too hot or too cold, or even that we can’t sleep.

Or perhaps we will realize the least of these deserve our compassion regardless of how they found themselves on living on the streets, that we feed them because they are hungry.  We clothe them because they are cold, not because they have passed our test of worthiness.  Our meager efforts may never change the world.  It may not seem to matter in the grand design of life.  But I’m certain it matters to the ones to whom we’ve offered our help—if only for a moment.

 

 

 

 

Long Distance–Final Chapter: A Brief Fiction

Author’s Note:  This is the fifth and final chapter of Long Distance.  If you haven’t read the four previous chapters, you should scroll back and begin at chapter one.  

 

“Alethia, it’s Ian.

“Hello, Ian.  Nice to hear from you.  How can I help you?”

“Well, for starters, you can explain how I ended up with this number.”

“Ian, I think I told you,” she said it like a mother to her child, “I can’t do that.”

“Can’t or won’t”

“Can’t.  If I knew, I would.  People call here for all kinds of reasons.  How they get the number isn’t really what matters, Ian.  It’s why you call that matters.”

Ian suppressed the urge to lash out at Alethia.  Another night without sleep, combined with this madness, made him ill-tempered and impatient.  But he knew—with that kind of deep down in your belly sort of knowing—that Alethia was telling him the truth.

“I’m not sure I know why I’m calling.  I wish I did.  Maybe if you could tell me why other people call you that would help.”

“Oh, Ian, I wish I could.  But that wouldn’t be right.  You see, people trust me with things—important, scary things—and I can’t betray that.  I could no more do that than tell someone else why you called.”

This conversation was maddening.  Everything led back to where it began.  Ian was a child riding atop the carousel’s winged-horse going round and round.  He paused, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Ian?”

“Yes, Alethia.”

“Are you there?  I mean, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.  I’m thinking.”

“Thinking is a good thing sometimes, Ian.  Not always, but sometimes.”

“Why isn’t think always good?”

“Hah!” blurted Alethia with a smile.  “Now there’s a question I can answer!”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, thinking is a good thing.  But sometimes your thoughts get you in trouble if you believe all of them.”

“Wait.  What?  Why wouldn’t I believe my own thoughts?”

“Well, just because you think a thing, doesn’t mean it’s true, right?”

“I guess not.”

“Trust me on this one, Ian.  Not to make a pun, but think about it.   One minute your thinking about the past and you’re living with regret.  The next minute, you’re thinking about the future and you’re anxious.  Then you worry it might rain, or that you’ll be late, or that you won’t have enough money.  Or you tell yourself a story—you think—about your disappointments and your victories and how someone mistreated you, but you don’t know the whole story.  But you believe your thinking anyway. And your life just ticks away while you’re thinking”

“Jesus, Alethia.  You’re a woman of few words—until you’re not.”

“Like I said, Ian.  You finally asked me a question I could answer.  You have any more?”

“So I’m supposed to figure out why I called, right?”

“Yes, Ian.”

“So maybe, there’s a question I have to figure out before I can ask it.  Is that possible? Assuming you can answer, I mean.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, meaning you can answer it or yes, I have to figure out what the question is first?”

“Both, Ian” whispered Alethia.

“You know, I really wish I’d just left that ’effin piece of paper where it was and let somebody else pick it up.  What if I had done that?”

“Then, Ian, you would have missed something important.  Sometimes, it’s the smallest, seemingly most insignificant things in your world that are the most meaningful.  They are like little divine appointments.”

“I’m not really a religious guy, Alethia.  I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”

“You don’t have to be religious to see the order of things, Ian. To revel in mysteries.  You just have to pay attention.  You have to pay attention to yourself, to your thoughts, and to others.  You have to look for what matters, Ian.”

“So what matters, Alethia?

“I’m sorry—”

Ian interrupted her.  “I know.  You’re sorry.  You can’t answer that, right?”

“Right.”

Ian hadn’t noticed, but traffic had slowly been gaining speed.  His was finally nearing the State of Georgia’s prescribed limit of fifty-five miles per hour on this part of the road.  As the traffic was clearing, so was his head.

“Alethia, can I call you again some time? My exit is just ahead.”

“Of course, Ian.  Goodbye.  Call me anytime.”

Ian drove the remaining few blocks in silence.  He was still exhausted from not sleeping, but the anxious voices in his head were strangely quiet.  He felt a dim flame arising from the embers of his mind.  As he paced across the parking lot, he went through his final ritual before entering the office.  He buttoned his collar.  Cinched his tie close to his neck.  He patted his pants pockets.  Yep.  Wallet’s there.  Then he patted his jacket pocket.  Phone?  Check.  He slipped his car keys into the outer pocket of his jacket, finding the yellow scrap of note paper that had plagued him for the last week.

Approaching the door, Ian saw the trash can.  As he opened the glass doors, he lobbed the note at the open can, watched it swirl into the basin and disappear as the building breathed cool air onto his face.  He punched the elevator’s up button and waited.  For a moment, Ian thought he would go back and retrieve the note—maybe keep it as a memento.  But the elevator doors opened and he stepped inside still pondering his conversation with Alethia.

With the elevator doors closing, he caught a glimpse of a young woman glancing at a yellow scrap of paper.

“Did anyone drop this?” the woman asked, waving the ragged note.  “I found it in the parking lot.  It has a long distance number on it.”

Long Distance–Chapter 4: A Brief Fiction

Author’s Note:  If you haven’t read chapters 1-3, scroll back and you’ll find them in the three preceding posts.  

 

Ian didn’t sleep that night.  Haunted by the wraiths of what if, he kept turning the events of the last few days over in his head.  What if I don’t call?  What if I do?  What if this is a scam?  He kept trying to solve for all the variables, find the most probable outcome, and minimize his risks.  His mother had called it wrestling with God.  Only he wasn’t Jacob and come the dawn there would be no blessing.

 

Spreading a thin layer of shaving cream across his face, Ian saw a much older man than he’d seen in the mirror a week before.  “You look like hell,” he said to himself.  But somehow he managed to drag a razor across his face and remove the stubble along with a bit of his fatigue.  He splashed his face with cold water after he finished and slapped at his cheeks, coaxing some color into them.  When he finished dressing, he poured himself a second cup of coffee into his favorite mug and headed for work.

 

He had told himself he would call the Alethia during his morning commute—just be done with it.  But he was rationalizing why he should wait a little later in the day when his cell phone rang. He knew it was Mike because he had assigned his friend with Vader’s March as a ringtone.  The bom-pom-pa-pom, pomp-pa-pom, pom-pa-pom of the dark side roared through his speakers.  He spilled half a cup of hot coffee into his lap.

 

“’Sup dude?” asked Mike.

 

“Well, if you must know, I’m cursing you at the moment.  I spilled hot coffee in my lap when the phone rang.”

 

“Don’t be a hater, bro,” said his unfazed friend.  “We still on for racquetball tonight?”

 

“I dunno, Mike.  I didn’t sleep at all last night.  Not any.  I’m exhausted.  I look like a Bassett Hound with a case of chronic fatigue syndrome.”

 

Ian hadn’t expected it, but Mike actually showed some genuine concern for his condition.  He told Ian he had been worried about him.  He knew Ian hadn’t been sleeping.  But he hadn’t wanted to mention it.  It was part of the man-card thing.

 

“Are you still wondering about that phone number?”

 

Ian paused.  He was in no mood for any of Mike’s tough love.  But Mike’s faint compassion gave him enough courage to take the chance.

 

“Yeah.  I am.”

 

“Look, I know you’re gonna do whatever you gonna do, no matter what I say.  And that means you’re gonna call her.  So just do it.  Get it over with and see if you can’t get some peace about this thing,” Mike said with an unfamiliar restraint.

 

“I will.  I was thinking about it when you called.”

 

Inbound traffic was worse than usual that morning, moving like a sloth through the trees of Atanta’s asphalt jungle.  The congestion boxing him Ian, both on the highway and within his own thoughts.  So he picked up his phone and punched up his contact list.  He pressed Alethia. 

 

She wasn’t in his list of favorites.

Long Distance-Chapter Three: A Brief Fiction

Author’s note:  If you haven’t read chapter’s one and two, be sure to do so before reading here.  

 

Ian sat in the sterile confines of the waiting room thumbing through an old magazine.  He wasn’t really reading.  The ragged copy of National Geographic was just a prop, a barrier between himself and the others waiting their turn to see one of the doctors.  Dr. Dunn was running late, probably sorting through some genuinely dark and plaguing issue with another one of her patients.  He comforted himself with the thought that crazy people don’t worry that they’re crazy.  He was.  Ergo, he wasn’t.

 

When she finally invited him into her office, Ian’s averted his eyes from the women who was departing.  A courtesy.  People who went to counselors, at least the ones like him, didn’t want to make eye contact.  They’re greatest fear was encountering someone they knew.  But that was silly, he often thought.  Anyone who was at the counselor’s office was probably the least likely person to judge you for being there.  But still.

 

“It’s been a while, Ian.  How are you?” she asked.

 

“I’m good.  Pretty good, I mean.  The meditation stuff you gave me has helped a lot.  I still have trouble sleeping sometimes.  But that’s okay.  I’ve kind of learned to accept it—not fight it.”

 

When she asked him what he’d like to discuss during their fifty minutes together, Ian stumbled. He was genuinely afraid she would see something deep within him, some madness she hadn’t seen before.  Sharing the stuff about the panic attacks had been difficult enough.  But he had been able to rationalize that.  He worked hard.  Had a challenging job.  And the lack of sleep.  Well, the panic was just the physical manifestation of all those things. Anyone in his situation would be a little prone to panic every now and then.

 

He dodged her question a bit more.  But she cut through his bullshit like a razor through paper.  Precise, clean, and efficient.  Before he knew it, Ian had told her about the note.  How he almost thought it had followed him.  He told her about his conversation with Alethia.  She didn’t interrupt, just nodded and gave him that affirming non-judgmental look he was sure they taught in medical school.  Doctors probably gave that same practiced look to smokers who had lung cancer and obese people dying from heart disease.

 

“I know it’s crazy.  It makes no sense, Doc.”

 

“Well, I’ll admit its unusual, Ian.  But not crazy.  If it’s a comfort, I believe you.”

 

Ian refused to let himself be lulled into any real sense of relief.  He thought she was being honest with him.  But he wasn’t going to let his guard down any further.

 

“Tell me again what she said.  About Mike.  And about how she was waiting on your call.”

 

He repeated the story, giving her all the details, but no more insights to how all this made him feel.

 

“I know you’re probably going to tell me this is all some kind of transference thing.  Or that when she asked me what I need, I interpreted that to mean something different than she meant because maybe deep down inside, I need something I’m not aware of.”

 

“It’s a thought.  But that may not be the case entirely.”

 

“Look, Doc.  For $250 an hour, I need more than it’s a thought.  I need, do this, don’t do that.  I need Let it go, Ian.  You just need more sleep.”

 

“Well, you probably do need more sleep.  Are you using the prescription I gave you?”

 

“No.  Well, yeah. Sometimes, I mean.”

 

“It won’t help if you don’t use it, Ian.”

 

Ian nodded.

 

“Look, our time is almost up.  But here’s the thing.  I don’t see any harm in calling this woman.  Just talk to her. I mean, sometimes things just happen for a reason.  We have to accept them.  Learn from them.  You have to choose not to be afraid.”

 

Ian muttered something that sounded like another trucker under his breathe.  She smiled.

 

“Call her.  You have my cell.  If something really distressing happens, text me.  I’ll call you back.  But come back to see me next week and let’s talk about it when you’ve had a real conversation with Alethia.”

 

Leaving the office, Ian reached into his pocket and removed the piece of paper.  It was becoming increasingly soiled.  The sweat from his palms had smudged the ink a little, and the scrap seemed to be growing thinner.  He had programed the number into is phone.  He’d even taken a photo of it, just in case he lost it.  Ian shook his head and stuffed the note back into breast-pocket inside his navy blazer.

 

“Call her,” he mocked.  “Just see what she has to say.  Have conversation with her.”

 

He slid into the seat of his car, cranked the engine and punched at his phone a few times.  By the time he crossed West Paces on the interstate, the stereo was throbbing with AC/DCs Back in Black.  He lost himself in it and the remnants of Atlanta’s rush hour traffic.   But somewhere deep within him, he felt his resolve growing.

 

Long Distance-Chapter Two: A brief fiction

Author’s Note.  Be sure to read the previous post of Long Distance before reading Chapter Two.  

“It’s bizzare,” said Ian.  “Feels kind of like I’m in the middle of a Dali painting.”

 

When he told Mike, Ian knew he was taking a chance.  He expected his oldest friend to chastise him for calling the number, which he did.  Mike was the kind of guy who didn’t mince words.  He was aconstant friend, but he thought tough love was always was the truest form of compassion—which meant his friendships were few and often ephemeral.

 

“Just let it go, man,” said Mike.  “You found a note.  You tried to find out who it belonged to.  You couldn’t.  End of story.”

 

Ian wanted to believe Mike.  He wanted to just throw the thing away, forget about it and move on. But the thing chirped at him like a cricket in the darkness.  Every time he thought the insect had settled down, the chirping started over.

 

It had been two days since he had spoken to Alethia.  Two long, distracted, days.  Ian wondered if he was losing his mind.  Was he becoming obsessive-compulsive?  Did mental illness run in his family?  His aunt was a bit of a hoarder and sometimes she had what his Mom had called her “spells,” but other than that he didn’t know of anything he should be concerned about.

 

He decided to call her again.

 

“Hello, Ian.”  This time she picked up on the first ring.

 

“How did you know it was me?”

 

“You do know what caller ID is don’t you, Ian?” she laughed.

 

“Oh.  Yeah.  Sorry.”

 

“I’ve been waiting for your call.”

 

Her voice was gentle, imbued with a kind of understanding and kindness that made him both calm and uneasy.

 

“You have?”

 

“Of course.  What do you need?”

 

Ian laughed.  He wasn’t the needy type.  All his personality profiles told him he was a guy in control.  Diligent.  Analytical.  Can-do.  Everybody said so.

 

“I’m sorry.  Did I say something funny?” asked Alethia.

 

“No.  No.  I’m sorry.  It’s just I don’t need anything.  I’m still just trying to solve this puzzle.  For some reason, I can’t let go of this number—the note I mean.  I can’t figure out why I even bothered to pick it up.”

 

“Everybody needs something, Ian.”

 

“Well, sure.  I mean I get that—sort of.”

 

“I think maybe you were the one the note was meant for.  I think you were supposed to call me, Ian.”

 

The way she kept saying his name, he thought, it was as if she had known him all of his life.  He felt vulnerable and safe at the same time.

 

“Alethia, can I ask you a question?”

 

“Of course, Ian.  That’s what I’m here for.”

 

“Do we know each other?”

 

Athlethia paused.  For a moment, he thought she had hung up.

 

“Yes.”

 

Just yes.  That was all she said.  No backstory.  No stating of her case.  No need to prove herself. She just said it with a confidence that defied the need for explanation.  Ian wondered if he was in the middle of some elaborate hoax.  He and Mike played practical jokes on one another.  But this?   This was the apotheosis of all pranks if indeed it proved to be one.

 

“I’m gonna need a little more than that, Alethia.”

 

“Of course you do.  Let me be clear.  We haven’t met.  At least not in the sense of how you and Mike met.  But we do know one another.  We’ve known one another for a long time.  Since you were a boy.”

 

Alethia continued for a while, offering validation of their relationship.  She told him things about himself, some of which he had long since forgotten—things that made it clear she was telling the truth.  She told him about that time his sister Callie died and how he was afraid he would die too.  She told him she knew about how he still talked to Callie—which was also something that had made him worry he was crazy.  But that was something he had never told anyone. He should have been afraid.  But the more Alethia told him, the more his anxiety fell.

 

“Is there anything else you want to ask me, Ian?”

He started to ask her a question, but the train of his mind had entered the pitch of black of the tunnel and for a moment, he couldn’t think.  The train, there in the middle of the tunnel, had stopped.  No rattle of the steel wheels grinding over the rails.  No roar of the engine.  No bells of warning.  Only quiet.

 

But the engines roared to life.  The horn blew with the power and fury of the priests with Joshua at Jericho.  The train raced further into the darkness.  Not in the sense of how you and Mike met?

 

He hung up the phone without saying anything more.

Long Distance–Chapter One: A brief fiction

He was in a hurry.  Just like always.

 

Subconsciously marking off his steps, Ian marched across the parking deck.  He noticed the scrap of paper in his path laying on the freshly cured concrete laying midway between his car and the electronically secured doors into his building.  The yellow page, marred by time, exhaust and dirt almost seemed to be staring at him—a big-eyed shelter pup longing for a place its the world. But Ian’s mind was cluttered and the temptation to stop and pick it up waned quickly.

 

His mind was a tunnel into which trains of thought raced, disappearing into dark tunnels.  Some emerged, bursting into the light, after passing through the labyrinthine passages of his brain.  Others didn’t, stymied by lights on the tracks flashing red and yellow in a symphony of creativity and fatigue.  There were things that needed doing and someone else would clean up the litter.

 

When he entered his condominium Ian plopped down at his desk and exhaled.  He pulled open his laptop and found the spreadsheet.  Ian kept track of his life here—his money, his achievements, his fitness goals.  He didn’t know when he had begun this chronicling of his life successes and failures.  But this ritual brought him a kind of uneasy comfort.  Some where along the way, life had become an algebra equation and his job was to solve for all the variables.  The way he figured it, the math worked.

 

Once he had finished his daily entries, he packed his gym bag and headed back into the parking deck.  Passing through the gray steel doors, he re-entered the moist misery of evening in Atlanta. He had a date tonight, or at least he thought it was a date, and he’d need to hurry if he was going to complete a full workout.  From the corner of his eye, Ian saw the scrap of yellow paper he’d seen earlier, dancing in three of a passing sedan.  The thing was hopping around, irritating him like a fly buzzing in the darkness.

 

Late that night, after learning that his date wasn’t really a date, his mind and body weary from long week of disappointment and long days, he staggered from his Lexus.  He wondered if the demons of insomnia would haunt him tonight of if the nocturnal gods would grant him their favor tonight.  Maybe he would take an Ambien tonight.  But they made him feel weak and he could grab a nap tomorrow.

 

When the green light on the keypad appeared, he began to step forward into the cool of building.  That’s when he noticed the paper stuck to his shoe.  Damn.  He had to shake his leg twice to dislodge it.  He was exhausted and found himself more than a little pissed off at the distraction.

 

Laying in the bed that night, Ian realized the ghosts were there and that there would be no sleep.  Not tonight.  He got out of the bed and wandered to the couch.   Picking up his copy of The Times, he thought he would work the crossword puzzle.    But something was bothering him and he couldn’t concentrate.  Thoughts of that scrap of paper kept nagging at him.

 

In his stupor, Ian wandered to the exit doors and found the note that was now laying just inside building.  The damn thing was following him. He stood over it, casually glanced around, as if he were on some midnight mission for justice—an undercover detective in flannel sweats and a faded Widespread Panic t-shirt.  In the amber of neon, he squatted, picking up the tattered scrap.  Squinting, he tried to decipher its message.  Extending his arm fully, he tried to focus.  He could tell there was an 800-number and a message on the page.  And someone had gone to the trouble of writing the note with a fat-tipped Sharpie.

 

1-888-207-9911

Alethia

Call her. It’s important.

And don’t lose this number

 

For the next several days, Ian asked a few of his neighbors if they had dropped the piece of paper in the parking deck.  A couple of times he began to crumble the page and toss it into the trash.  But for some reason his concern with returning the note to its proper owner became something of a quest.  I mean, I would want somebody to return it to me, he reasoned.  The page had begun to feel like some sort of holy message and he was now it’s bearer.

 

By mid-morning that following Monday, Ian had been unable to find the owner of the note and was now toying with calling the number himself.  Maybe Alethia was waiting.  Maybe she had bad news to share.  Or perhaps she needed help.  Ian didn’t want to get involved.  She could one of those woman he had watched on television in the middle of the night—a psychic bearing a message from the dead. Worst case, she’s a whackadoodle and I can just block her number and be done with the damn thing. 

 

For reasons he didn’t understand, Ian left the building and walked to a quiet spot across from his office.  There, under the shade of a red oak, he punched the numbers into his cell.  The ring was one of those hollow sounding electronic sorts of ring that made you wonder if you were calling a bad number or if maybe you were going to hear someone say The number you have reached has been disconnected.  Please hang up and try….

 

“Hello?”

 

“Oh.  Hey.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t think anyone was gonna answer.”

 

“Can I help you?”

 

“Is this Alethia?”

 

“Who’s calling?” A cool reply.  Some indistinct European accent.

 

“Ian.  My name is Ian?”

 

“How can I help you, Ian?”

 

“I know this is strange,” he began.  He told her about the note—how he had found it and even surprisingly, that he lived in Atlanta. Alethia didn’t seem dangerous or crazy or sad.  She was calm.  Later he would say her voice was almost like a balm, a healing ointment on the scars of his soul.

 

“I’m sorry Ian.  I don’t know who wrote the note.  And I don’t know who that one is for,” she said.

 

“What do you mean, ‘that one?’  Do this happen a lot?”

 

“More than you might think.  That’s what we do here—well, it’s what I do, I mean.”

 

Whatever peace Ian had expected to find by making the call was now proving to be misplaced hope.  He felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

 

“Okay.  Well, thanks anyway, Alethia.  Sorry to bother you.”

 

He started to hang up.

 

“Ian?” she said, her voice soft, almost breathless.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Mistakes like this happen sometimes.  But sometimes—it’s rare—but sometimes the people who call like you are really supposed to be the one calling me.”

 

“Huh?” Ian felt off-balance.  Almost dizzy.  He steadied himself against the rough thick trunk of the oak.

 

“Why on earth would I need to call a toll-free number and to speak to someone I don’t know who’s probably sitting somewhere on the other side of the world?”

 

“I don’t know, Ian.  That’s the one question I can’t answer.”

Half-Way Man

Daylight breaks,

upon the shore,

the emerald seas,

are calm once more;

 

Gulls soaring

cross bluest skies,

and children playing,

a baby cries;

 

Sea and sand,

waft on the breeze,

Creation yawns

her waking ease;

 

Along the shore,

this young man walks

perhaps with his gods,

he surely talks;

 

Pondering long,

His future bright,

Or could it be,

his worldly plight?

 

Bare feet washed

by the wave,

This solitude,

his longing gaze;

 

And from behind

he hears that voice,

tender she calls,

make now, thy choice;

 

A gray man fishing

there on the shore

Casting his lines,

surf’s gentle roar;

 

No sound makes he,

this wrinkled man

his shoulders bent,

his body tan;
He turns to watch,

the passing man,

and nods his head,

Some thing in hand;

 

And watching him,

this passerby,

nods in return,

and wonders why;

 

From the east,

the sun beats down,

This universe,

ever spinning round;

 

Footprints fading,

Behind his path,

Half-way now,

he’s done the math;

 

Waters creep,

the tides they strain

The voice draws near,

her clear refrain;

 

The dolphins diving

in their seas green,

Plumbing depths,

In dreams he’s seen;

 

The gulls they screech,

all filled with pride,

Sandpipers racing,

the relentless tide;

 

The sun now risen,

nigh at it’s peak

This half-way man

can finally speak;

 

Clouds in the distance,

Not far away,

The lightening cracks,

What does it say?
This half-way man,

must still pursue,

not something different,

yet something new.