by Elizabeth Mayer
He had that feeling you get when you’re pulling down your pants, about to sit on the toilet, then realize, an instant too late, your iPhone is still in your back pocket. It was dread, but it was also surrender. Catastrophe was in motion. You couldn’t stop it.
He dreamt he had crippling arthritis in his ring finger from years of playing steel guitar. He dreamt he shaved his head, but when he dusted the fuzz from his crown and looked up at the mirror, his face had morphed into Randy Quaid’s. He dreamt he was lost in the mall. He found his way to the roof but it was 17 stories high with no way down. There were no zombies, only zombie consumers. It wasn’t satire; it was pure fear-of-heights. He dreamt he said women are inferior to men in front of a woman he had been in love with for years. Her face, so clear in the rooms of his subconscious, turned to disgust. He woke with a pounding heart.
An article appeared in his inbox. Human beings, on average, consumed a teaspoon of plastic each week. Some was inhaled, some ingested. Placentas housed microplastics. As did human blood. In silent self-dialogues, he began referring to himself as Garbage Barge. “Goddammit, Garbage Barge, did you forget to put out the recycling, again?” He tried to stop using plastic utensils, but he couldn’t stop breathing.
In the mornings, before he sat down at his desk, he stood on the porch and watched the birds. A single mourning dove perched on the electrical wire. It wasn’t right; mourning doves traveled in pairs. A trio of vultures circled a tree. A crow came shooting from the branches, shrieking and chasing the larger birds away. The crow eyed him with a small glassy eye then flew back to its nest. From his neighbor’s chicken coop, a rooster cried. When the neighbor’s coop was first installed, he had woken to a hen in a tree branch outside his bedroom window. To keep a chicken inside a fenced backyard, you had to clip its wings. Chickens could fly; it was easy to forget.
His phone told him William Hurt had died. The last film in which he’d seen William Hurt was Altered States, based on John C. Lilly’s sensory deprivation experiments. Lilly researched human consciousness. Also, he did a lot of psychedelics. He believed in a complex alien overlord race. In an attempt to practice communication with aliens, he began studies with dolphins. A woman named Margaret lived in Lilly’s Dolphinarium and tried to teach a dolphin named Peter how to speak. So he wouldn’t be distracted by his pubescent libido during their lessons, Margaret began a sexual relationship with Peter. Later, when the experiment had ceased and he was relocated to a tank by himself, Peter committed suicide. A dolphin can choose not to live. They sink to the bottom of the tank. They don’t come up for air. They stop breathing.
Merriam-Webster’s word of the day was funambulist. Hadn’t he dreamt just last night he was traversing a wire between the twin towers? He knew his phone listened to him, but could it see his dreams too? Lilly also prophesied a race of autonomous electronic bioforms that would someday clash with humans. He called them Solid State Intelligence.
Years ago a woman he loved moved out of his house and left behind a vintage Solid State record player. A big boxy thing, like a credenza. He thought maybe she’d come back for it, but she didn’t. He hauled it out to the curb one night, and in the morning it was gone. From time to time, he would search for similar models on eBay. Last week one had sold for nearly eight hundred dollars. “Eight hundred dollars? Goddammit, Garbage Barge. You could’ve flown to Costa Rica. You could’ve seen the sea turtles before they’re all extinct.”
She didn’t leave any of her records. Of course not, why would she? She’d had a Bobby Darin 7-inch that Darin had put out just a few years before his death at the age of 37. He could listen to the A-side on the app on his phone, but he couldn’t find the B-side. The song was short and sad. There was a little electric guitar bridge that carried one side of the song to the other. It couldn’t have been long that bridge—10 seconds, twelve maybe—but in that short space during the pure lilt of the strings, he remembered his thoughts would leave him, the disquiet he carried would disappear, and his body would vibrate with the sound of the record, with the sound of Big Sur, with the sound of the long gone, with the sound of the world.