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๐—–๐˜†๐—ฏ๐—ผ๐—ฟ๐—ด

๐˜ฃ๐˜บ ๐˜™๐˜ฐ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต ๐˜—๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฆ



Desmond worked nonstop at work, which seemed both inevitable and appropriate, but one morning in August, his cubicle neighbor Peter turned the chair beside Desmondโ€™s desk around and sat leaning forward on the back. โ€œLook, Dez,โ€ he said, โ€œyour co-workers think you should not eat your lunch at your desk anymore. Especially when we have no pressing deadlines. And while weโ€™re at it, we think you should take coffee breaks in the morning and the afternoon. Itโ€™s too easy to lose gains we have made over the years if we donโ€™t use them. We just want to know you have your head screwed on right.โ€


Desmond looked blankly at Peter, one of the few people at J.X. who exchanged greetings and farewells when he came in and as he left in the evening. But the image that jumped into his mind when Pete said that about having his head screwed on right disturbed him. He tried to get it out of his mind while explaining he liked to eat at his desk because he could continue to do his work, or, if he had no work, he liked to do online sudoku. Furthermore, he did not drink coffee, and he did not like to sit around doing nothing.


โ€œWell,โ€ Pete offered, โ€œwhy donโ€™t you come with me and a few others for lunch at Moeโ€™s. You seem like a nice guy. Inoffensive. Polite. Come out with us, and you will see itโ€™s not so bad to leave your desk. If you like, you can bring along a sudoku book. Or bring your phone or your pad and do your sudoku on those. No one will mind. Everyone will be pleased to see you leave your desk.โ€


Desmond could see that Pete knew he had not persuaded him, but he could not see the gears turning in Desmondโ€™s head, gears that had emerged from the picture he had of screwing his head on right. If a man screwed his head on, what it contained must be mechanistic. They locked into one another, one gear turning the other, making the clicking, whirring sound like the song of the cicadas all around him of an evening. Pete licked his lips and continued his line of reasoning. โ€œIf you donโ€™t want to come with us, then find something you can do for an hour away from your desk. Work out at the gym next door. J.X. buys your membership, why not use it?โ€


Desmond perked up at this suggestion. Physical activity might do him good, and he had seen people on the treadmill or stationary bike watching television or listening to music with the headphones, or even reading while they worked out. If it would please his co-workers, he could eat a sandwich at his desk when he returned. He told Pete he would check out the gym at lunch, and if that worked for him, he would go everyday thereafter.


โ€œThatโ€™s great,โ€ Pete said. โ€œAnd what about coffee breaks? All of us would like to see you take coffee breaks. It would take some pressure off the rest of us. And it would go far to showing that you have your head screwed on right.โ€


Again, the image popped into his mind of Desmond screwing on his head in the morning and unscrewing it at night. The gears began turning and whirring. He kept on track by telling Pete he was not unreasonable. He would start with lunch break today, but the idea of doing sudoku away from his desk on coffee breaks seemed pointless. He would much rather do sudoku at his desk. If he thought of something else, he would let him know. Meanwhile, he appreciated Pete taking the time to speak with him.


โ€œNo problem,โ€ Pete said as he stood. He pointed at Desmond and said, โ€œWeโ€™re buddies, right?โ€


โ€œSure,โ€ Desmond said. He knew Pete had said that for pure form, to make him feel better, neither of which seemed like a bad motive. He turned back to his monitor to finish what he had been working on before the interruption. He had much to do in the time allotted, and heโ€™d better get at it, as there was no time like the present. That was a thought that occurred to him when he felt like slacking off. The gears clicked into place and whirred and sang.


Slacking off did not appeal to him. He worked with numbers, categories, and thought of his work as โ€œcrunching numbers,โ€ a phrase that served when someone asked what he was doing, or what he did at work. It had the effect of ending the possibility of extended explanations which would make him uncomfortable. At lunch that day, he went to the gym, and a trainer took him to each machine and told him what it did. Then the trainer took his temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate, at the end of which he smiled and said, โ€œI think youโ€™ll live.โ€


โ€œGood to know,โ€ Desmond said, smiling back. He took the option of listening to recorded books, as he thought that would occupy his mind more completely than television or listening to music. Music had a side effect he wanted to avoid. Once he heard a recording, he wanted to hear it again. And one repetition would not do, and that exacerbated his basic problem. While he did not completely follow the storyline of the recorded book, he listened to each word and sentence, and he appreciated the inevitability of one sentence following another. If he imagined writing a book like this, he experienced a shiver he did not completely understand until a voice in his head exhausted the subject of the shiver, and he arrived at the usual understanding of his problem.

What terrified him in the thought of writing anything was having to place one word and one sentence after another, even though so many of the words seemed to fit in the pattern of the sense building throughout. The danger of exploring his own thoughts in this manner presented a threat, though that was not the primary issue, which was the spaces between sentences, when he did not know exactly what came next.


Even now, he had to force himself to remember and focus on issues of the book droning in his head alongside his own thoughts while walking in place on the treadmill. He set the pace higher to make his exertion greater. Both mind and body must be engaged for this to work. He would have to work on this every day at lunch, and this gave him a degree of comfort. He had chosen a very long book, which impressed the trainer, but he had chosen it because it would not end for a long time. What the trainer and Pete did not understand was Desmondโ€™s fear of being alone with nothing to distract him from the sound and shape of his own thoughts.


When he got in his car, he turned the music loud, preferably something he didnโ€™t like, so it wouldnโ€™t get stuck in his head on repeat. As soon as he turned off the engine and stepped out of his car, the heat and the deafening screech of the cicadas enveloped him. He hurried in to watch his recorded programs, study the videos on his smartphone, and play online games that required close attention to assorted extreme characters, made lots of noise, and produced flashing lights in increasing levels. Every night before bed, he drank a cup of tea and took an assortment of pills to help him sleep. But the alteration of his daily routine had upset his careful planning, opening him to the threat of dreams, which he hoped to avoid at all costs. Once he started dreaming, all that he could do was tell himself he was dreaming and wait until it ended.


While many people dream pure imagery, this was not the case with Desmond, or not the entire case. What haunted Desmond was a voice he heard in his head with the persistence of the chitter of locusts in the month of August. As soon as he thought about the locusts, he went about his apartment shutting windows so he would not hear them as loudly. The voice in his head had been with him as long as he could remember. He had tried everything he could think of to stop it, though it disturbed him deeply to realize that it was the voice in his head considering all the ways he could avoid the voice. One reason he could not stand the screaming of insects in the trees was that it ran alongside of the voice in his head and created a hectic pattern that was very nearly too much for him in any state of mind.


This voice drove him to frenzy on occasion. To have anything like a normal life, he had to medicate himself. Even then, he had to keep mind and body occupied to distract him from the sound of this voice. The doctor he consulted explained the voice he heard was natural, something everyone experienced. It had arisen through evolution to distinguish man from other animals, for it was nothing more than his own conscious thought. If he allowed it to do its job, it would keep him out of trouble, help him to navigate his daily life, and enrich him with the pleasure of greater understanding of the world about him.


Dr. Stone recalled a patient who had become so unnaturally fixated on the beating of his heart that he could think of little else and did not understand how anyone thought of anything but their own heartbeat. Still, he must understand a productive life required that he take his heartbeat for granted, unless, of course, it became irregular in any way, at which time he must repair it or suffer the consequences. Desmondโ€™s obsession, he postulated, was nothing more than fixation on a perfectly natural, normal aspect of life, no different than the patient incapacitated by his hyper awareness of his heartbeat.


โ€œWhat became of the man fixated on his heartbeat?โ€ he asked.

Dr. Stone informed him that further discussion of particulars in the case of the man who could not stand his own heartbeat was prohibited by doctor-patient confidentiality. In the same manner, if someone asked for particulars of Desmondโ€™s case, the doctor would be bound to keep these to himself unless it would benefit Desmondโ€™s treatment. Suffice it to say, he continued, the man wanted to have his heart removed or replaced, to tear it from his chest and replace it with a pigโ€™s heart, if it would leave him alone. Desmond had become temporarily so fixated on the man driven crazy by his own heartbeat that now he not only heard the voice droning on in his head, he also became painfully aware of his own heartbeat.

Another aspect of this fixation with the voice in his head, the doctor continued, may well be that Desmond had a rather active, lively imagination that might be turned to some form of art, if Desmond had any inclinations in that direction. Desmond had pursued this line of treatment for some time, always thwarted by the dominance of the voice in his head, which made him question each decision or movement he made in whatever art he pursued. Finally, the voice conquered all, leaving room only for itself.


He had discovered, quite by accident, transcendental meditation, and the possibility of stopping the voice through this means, or, at least, as he read in one of his books, tethering the pony to a post. This led him to over a year of โ€œsittingโ€ until he thought he would completely go mad. Even when he thought he had stilled the voice, he heard the voice telling him the voice had been stilled and knew it had not, could not, would not be stilled, for, as the doctor said, it was his own conscious thought, built into the very structure of mankind. To complicate matters, he had now become so aware of the beating of his own heart he took up video gaming to drown them both outโ€”his mind and his heartbeat.


The evening of the day he spent lunch hour at the gym, Desmond interrupted the video gaming when he suddenly recalled what Pete had said earlier that morning, that his co-workers wanted to know he had his head screwed on right. He literally forgot about the game to pursue the thought-thread of the man who screwed his head on in the morning and unscrewed it at night. He had a sudden realization that his earlier representation of thought as gears grew out of an old-fashioned sense of mechanization. He began to replace this with a complicated system of wires that grew into a veritable nest inside his head. Not only did the man have to get his wires running in the right paths, he had then to screw his head on, and not just on, but on right.


How would a man know he had his head screwed on right? He could look in the mirror, but Desmond did not know what that would tell him about the rightness of his head. Some point in this musing, Desmond had begun pacing about the living room, and the pacing grew to include his little dining area and kitchen, from there engulfing hallway, bathroom, and his bedroom. If he thought about his pacing in detail, he pictured dotted lines showing where his feet had taken him, hearing a voice in his head explaining the pathways he trod as if unrelated to himself. Along the way, his heart began to beat loudly, thumping at his chest and temples.


He stared at his face in the mirror at each pass through the bathroom, always checking for the threading where his head must be screwed on. He knew conclusively he would not go to the gym at lunch the next day, and that he would not listen to the same or any recorded book with its inevitable progression of words and sentences running a dual track beside the voice in his head, a voice that took him ever further from the recorded book into permutations of the voice habitually progressing, revolving, swarming through his mind.


On his peregrination through time and space, he explained to himself that if his own head could be screwed on and off, how the wires must run to reach all parts of the body, until he came to understand the truth of where his thoughts led him. He banged his head repeatedly on the edge of his stainless-steel refrigerator until it cracked open, and then he reached inside the head to pull out spools of wire, first the red, then the interminable spools of twisted blueโ€”yards and yards of it, thrumming as incessantly as the screeching insects in the month of August. He never knew the moment when the voice inside his head stopped speaking or felt the cessation of each and every thought that plagued him throughout life, but at least he would not be there to hear it. โœฆ




Robert Pope has published a novel, Jackโ€™s Universe, as well two collections of stories, Private Acts and Killers & Others (2020) and a chapbook of flash fiction, Shutterbug. He has also published stories in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.



Speculative fiction & POETRY ZINE
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