The morning that Tuesday was steel grey and bitterly cold. There was a slight wind rustling down from the hills that made the trees speak to each other in hesitant voices, as if afraid of breaking the frozen peace that had descended during the night. It was the years’ first frost and it had come early. Everywhere the neat squares of grass, the trimmed hedges, and the hand-placed trees looked hardened, forbidding. When Jack would walk out of his front door in his old yellow bathrobe, taking the shortcut across his lawn to get the paper in his driveway, the grass would crunch underfoot. He would free the small strong blades from their transparent prison cells one slippered size 10 footprint at a time. He would shiver and look at his breath. He would pull in the cold air, feel his heat passing into it, and blow it back out, newly conscious of his chimney mouth. And the lightly moving air would embrace and sweep away this brief, insignificant, addition of heat. His breath would be soon forgotten. His footprints, too, when the frost melted under the fast-rising sun, would be lost in his green manicured square of a front lawn. And so his first steps into the world that morning would have long-term significance in only one sense, they would bring him close enough to the paper to bend over and grab it. He would walk with it back into the house, one hand thrust into his bathrobe above his heart in the height of Napoleanic fashion. His chest would feel so warm to him compared to the air pressed against his face.
“My body is a furnace.” He would mutter to himself. It is also true to say that he would be thinking this, because this is how Jack thought: in an undertone.
But all of this would happen in 21 minutes exactly, because when our story begins the time is 6:16 and Jack is still asleep.
There is a car in motion on Jack’s street at 6:16 and the driver is running late. She is young and she has a job to do. She has memorized her 348 paper route by sheer repetition. It changes little over time. During the course of a given week perhaps 2 or 3 homes will be added and a few others will be taken away but there is a core of houses that have always been on the list. Jack’s house is one of these. She has been outside of his house nearly every day of the year for the last two and a half years. She has seen it in rain, in the hard winter darkness, under the slow warmth of summer mornings, in every possible combination of season and precipitation. She has neither noticed it nor failed to notice it. It has been just one more piece of the morning scenery. But today, while appearing undifferentiated, is a special day. Because today she will make a mistake.
There is a tightly-rolled paper lying on top of the dwindling pile in her back seat. It wears the same orange sleeve as the others, but underneath the plastic blush it is different. It is one day old. It lies content, unconscious of what it will soon set in motion. And then she swipes it up and gives it an unconcerned toss out the passenger window. Smack! It hits the driveway, rustles and is then stilled. It too is caught up in the searing pause of that morning, a frozen moment between two glorious warm days.
The display on Jack’s clock reads 6:28. His bedroom is hushed, stale, and cold. He is sleeping on the far left edge of a king size, sprawled deeply in the unreserve that comes only with sleep. The room is large and empty but for a dresser across from the foot of the bed.
There is one small picture on the dresser next to the clock. The two objects stand there like soldiers on a great brown bare expanse of unadorned hardwood. Between the edges of the gleaming frame there is a heavily creased picture of a man holding a baby boy. The man is looking straight into the camera wearing a joyously distracted grin. The boy is looking to his left and reaching out for something.
The man’s smile appears contained, somehow, behind a natural reserve. But his eyes are open, unrestrained. His hair lies thick and thoughtless and brown. He is holding the boy lightly. The boy is twisting hard in the man’s arms, his mouth fallen agape, all of his energy focused on something just out of view. They might have been surprised in the midst of play. The man may have just picked the boy up, or just caught him back out of the air. He may have done many things.
The alarm goes off and Jack rolls to his feet quickly, makes the six-step journey across his too-large bedroom and turns the alarm clock off. Standing there with his hand on top of the clock/radio he stares challengingly at the bright green display. 6:30. His lips move slowly, deliberately, as if weaving an invocation. The silent words rise up through his throat and wisp out his mouth:
“Stop. Stop. Stop.”
They are a breath, a glimmer.
Nothing happens. And then,
This is a blow. Jack mutely replies:
“Slow. Slow. Slow.”
The words are round and, rolling down, they envelop the clock. They imprison it, crystalline and impenetrable. But then, shatteringly, it is 6:32.
Bowing his head, dropping his gaze, Jack’s shoulders slump a little more.
He stands there – lumpy gut and unshaven face sagging – for a minute or maybe more.
And then, while everywhere else he is still, Jack’s eyes begin to move. They inch up, up, and continue up the face of the dresser. He has moved past two drawers, now three, now he is to the top. Still, his eyes creep across the smooth top, gaining ground. His gaze moves around the frame, circling it once, slowly drawing in every detail, every time-worn indentation. And now he is looking past the man and seeing only the boy. Seeing him jerk and squirm, seeing him reach and explore. There is a fathomless sadness that reaches out from Jack’s eyes. He stands staring at the boy with his head pitched forward, as if ready to receive sentence, for as long as he can bear.
With his head jerking up the connection is broken and, turning quickly, he dons his robe and slippers and stumps downstairs to start the coffee.
He moves lightly around his bare kitchen, starting the Mr. Coffee that he had prepared the night before [“The ‘start’ button should be labeled ‘sputter,’” he remarks], putting his cast-iron skillet on the stove and heating it up for his morning eggs, putting down toast and pulling out a bottle of his Tuesday breakfast beverage, medium pulp orange juice, from his black refrigerator.
His preparations are clipped, honed to a razor’s edge. He disembarks from the kitchen, taking the usual number of steps through the front entry to the door. Four locks later he is on his porch, lengthening his stride out to the waiting paper and it is 6:37.
He walks back into his thin-walled tract home and sets the paper down heavily onto the island in the kitchen.
The coffee has all dripped down through to the pot. Jack quickly fries up four eggs over easy while buttering his light toast. He is moving smoothly, quickly, ready to finish his breakfast routine so that he can move on to the shower and then get dressed. The paper will play only a tangential role, something to occupy his eyes and short term memory while his mouth and hands are busy.
Breakfast is set and he picks up the paper, sliding it out of the plastic. He rolls the rubber band off and whips it open.
Sitting heavily, arms extended, eyes roving, dark brow furrowed, he is a picture of incredulous disbelief.
There is a long pause. The stillness in the kitchen momentarily joins that of the outside world.
His throat convulses briefly, stills. He slowly lets his arms fall, the paper crumpling face down before him.
“You made a mistake; how? No. What’s the meaning of this? No, too formal.”
He thinks for a moment.
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen? Yes, that’s it.”
With this preparation complete, his furrowed brow smoothes. His head bowing, eyes growing quiet once more, he quickly eats the eggs and toast.
His day passes in industrious solitude.
The next morning as the clock reads 5:17 Jack is lying flat on his back, staring unblinkingly up at the ceiling. He is waiting for the alarm to sound, for his day’s opening bell. Crunching up slightly in his bed, he glances over at the clockface.
“Almost an hour.”
He seems to digest this thought. Then he lurches up, swinging his skinny legs over the edge of the bed and rising. His day is beginning earlier than usual, but this is necessary. He must be vigilant. The paper boy could come at any time and he must – must! – be ready.
Slumping quietly downstairs he finds himself breathing too heavily out of anticipation for the meeting. He begins working himself up to full readiness, ignorant as he is of the moment he will be called upon.
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen? Hmmm…”
“Was this a prank or something? How did this happen?! No, no.”
“What is this to you? Huh? A prank?! Are you some sort of prankster…or, or something?”
Shrouded implications rest heavily in that final word. His voice is becoming powerful, working up the circulation in his head and chest. As time passes he quiets down, but continues mumbling the words “prankster” and a heavily, almost absurdly, emphasized “something” as he finishes preparing his morning refreshment.
And then, sitting with coffee in hand, he waits. Loosely gripping his favorite black and white piano key mug he sits staring out the door to his kitchen at the front window. He has opened it slightly, letting in some of the frigid air but also permitting entry to the morning noises. He will hear the engine and then he will rush out. His bathrobe will surely billow impressively behind him, his clear voice ringing ominously through the suburban morning hush. His head ringed with thickly matted bed-hair, haloed as it were. The hot black coffee will still be burning in his ulcerated stomach and his words will similarly rise forth to strike the negligent delivery boy with righteous conviction.
“Yes. Your time is coming.” He mutters slowly, letting the words drip down onto the table. Darkness rests on his brow, a mug-shaped lightning bolt clutched warmly in his hand. He is ready for battle.
Fourteen minutes later the neighborhood hush is struck own by a loudly rattling muffler. The sound lands heavily across Jack’s kitchen and with that the first blow has been struck. Well, the second actually. The paper was the first. He must respond! Honor demands it.
Rising like the tempest, billowing through his kitchen and out the already unlocked front door he flashes. The offending paper clutched naked in his left hand, held at readiness, the cooled, splashing, and ignored coffee still unconsciously gripped in his right, he strides powerfully across the lawn. He can see the car now, rounding the corner. It moves at an impressive pace, papers slinging lightly out of its front windows. Inside, the cab is dark and in the low light he cannot clearly make out the driver. There is only a shadowy form constantly twisting, reaching, throwing. They seem to be driving mostly by instinct.
Sizing up his adversary, he slows his pace and feels his energy flow through him. It is the energy of rising early and going out into the morning chill with a job to do. He has stopped moving now. He is just standing, slightly hunched over, coffee dripping heavily from the soaked sleeve of his robe, paper clutched to his chest in defiance, righteous indignation rising in his chest. It rises to his face, making it grow hot and red, making his eyes flash. The final possible moment for action is fast approaching and now, now he is frozen. He has become rooted.
The car rattles nearer, the noise building. It is perhaps 30 feet away now. It is time.
“PrankSTER!” his rasped pronouncement becomes a roar, a battle-cry.
Lunging forward into the street the mug falls forgotten, irrelevant, into the dewy grass. There it rests, bleeding out the last of its life in one final rush. His slippers hit the pavement and, slightly off balance, he crashes across the street to meet the car as it draws even with his house. Now, in his hour of greatest need, words fail him. The blood is pounding at his temples and behind his ears, the pressure building. It must find expression. He reaches the opposite side of the street a moment before the car does. He turns quickly to face the onrattling beast. He raises the paper up and begins to issue his judgement:
“Was this a…” he begins hotly. But then the obvious realization crashes through him a moment before the car does. His legs are blasted backwards, feet sliding instantly out of his slippers leaving them where they lie, his indignantly ballooned chest dents the hood an instant before his head and raised arms crack the windshield. His widened unbelieving eyes lock for the splittest of seconds with the shadowed eyeholes of the prankster controlling the rattling beast from within the darkness. The moment of shocked unrecognition is broken as he rolls over the hood and windshield back to the pavement.
Looking down from a great height one could take in the whole scene with a wide lens. There, further outside his house than he has been in years Jack lies prone, shattered. His legs are splayed at an absurd angle, arms spread wide, head tilted back unreservedly resting on the pavement and he is not moving. The car is still running, driver-side door ajar, skid marks left behind and beneath. There is a young woman kneeling next to Jack. She has not succumbed to shock. She is quickly dialing a short number and now speaking in low measured tones to an operator, describing her emergency.
Jack’s head is inclined towards her and his eyelids are fluttering lightly in the cold air. His eyes are still and gazing up into the infinite sky. His eyes are glassy and clear, liberated by the collision and the endorphins. He says nothing.
Looking down, one could see further toward the middle of town a blue and red light beginning to flash, a tinny siren sounding. The light moves quickly toward Jack through a series of right angles. Further back a red light flashes on a heavier vehicle and a different siren sounds. They grow closer, closer, four and some minutes later they arrive. Jack is assessed, gently and quickly lifted, wheeled, laid down, doors are closed and he is off.
The young woman stands speaking with an officer.
“He…shouted something, I think. I heard it. Right when I looked up, there he was in front of me. I couldn’t stop. I…” she shakes her head and trails off.
“Do you know which house he lives in?”
“No. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Do you know their names? The people you deliver to?”
“No, only the addresses. They pay the Herald and the Herald pays me. I never see most of them.”
“Okay. Officer Dean has a few more questions for you. We’ll take your information down and be in touch.”
She nods and crosses her arms, looking off to her right. She stares at each house down the line, questioning them. As the first officer turns away and begins to walk back to his squad car she reaches a decision, takes four quick steps and reaches out for his arm. He turns.
“When you find out what his name is, could you give me a call?”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.”
“Ok. Thank you.”
Jack lies stiffly on a small white bed. Everywhere, white linoleum, bare walls, cheap furniture.
He is looking at the small bed stand to his right. His brow is creased, his breathing deep and even.
A young nurse walks into the room.
“You’re awake,” she begins, “good. How are you feeling? You had quite a day yesterday.” She says all this quickly and continues exhaling after the words have ended.
Jack says nothing, but turns slowly to look at her where she stands next to the foot of his bed. Carefully, his eyes move across her face as if memorizing it.
“What do you remember?” She continues.
He sits silently for a long moment, studying her as she moves around his bed, checking the displays. She finishes and appears to be in the verge of turning away, continuing on her rounds, when his voice finally cracks across the curtained room.
“I remember sitting at my table. I remember getting up and walking out to the front lawn. And then…I remember crashing down onto the ground. The cement.” His voice slows.
“I felt…” he trails off. Then, he begins again.
“I felt strange. Something had been broken down. It was, uh…” losing his train of thought, he begins to think of an old picture he has seen.
“What had been broken down?” she asks. She has half turned away; other patients and other responsibilities are pulling at her even now. But this man’s words are different. He is speaking from across a great expanse, from out of the abyss. She can see that and wants to understand where he has been, what the abyss is like from the inside.
“What was it?” she repeats, softer now.
The softness of her voice catches his attention. He has his thought completed, the image set in his mind. The barest shadow of a grin has lightly caught up the corners of his mouth as he begins afresh.
“You know of the Berlin Wall? Yes? You have seen the pictures of the wall as it was falling, being torn down? There was one picture that I saw that had a hole in the wall. It was large enough for a man to step through, but nobody was going through it. There was a boy on the east side and a boy on the west side. They weren’t going through the wall, they were both just sitting there and looking at each other. Maybe they said ‘hi’, I don’t know. But that was what I felt. I felt like I was laying down and looking out.”
Wide-angle pan out.
The nurse smiles slightly at him then, taking him in. She nods her recognition, looks down, leaves the room. Jack watches her go. Now she is gone and he once more resumes his contemplation of the bed stand.
Fade to black. Roll credits.