Note: story originally published in the Dillydoun Review.
I’m stuck at another red light. I seem to be catching every stop today–a rhythmic procession of interruptions, delivered between shades of yellow and green. It’s causing my frustration to build as an eager tapping at the floorboard of my car. I need to keep going, must feed the habit energy. That way, the world slides by in a productive haze and I can feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s the single-minded focus of a racehorse with blinders on, always looking for a goal and a finish line. The crowds rush by in a blur.
No, that’s not right. I notice the crowds, get caught up in the expressions and faces. It’s the words they speak. That’s the better metaphor–I forget the words, the superfluous details. I don’t forget the meaningful ones, though, like the heaviness in a laborer’s neck, or the way trees cast shadows over the crenelations of a gothic church.
The words. What am I forgetting? It’s the meeting. Damn. I forgot the meeting today at noon. Another side effect of my peculiar brand of absentmindedness, I suppose. But that’s not a big deal, is it? Just business, nothing personal. I’ll call the accountant’s office to reschedule. It’ll be fine.
Through the window of my car, I glance up at the street light above me. I pass this one many times a day. Never noticed how the outermost light is mounted on a double bracket. Just one light. That’s strange. My eyes drift down the spindly steel mounts and catch on the fluorescent yellow of the fixtures. Never noticed that before, either. In California, all the streetlights are encased in clunky tomes of black, with billowing collars of steel. Another difference that adds to the subtle otherness of this place, Colorado.
She’s in California, the accountant’s secretary. Back in the realm of low altitude beachfront property and high strung personalities. It’s a real shame, that place: beauty wasted on workaholics who never see it–too busy grinding away to afford living there; the irony. A sinkhole of human ambition, and an anachronism of my past, knocking at the door. But I’ve no choice but to deal with it. This was my uncle’s CPA, after all, and he’s dead now.
The stoplight turns green, and I pass the familiar intersection, turning left at the next light to arrive in my parking lot. It’s a quick dash up the stairs to my apartment, where I spread out on the couch to make the call. I dial the number and put the phone to my ear. The receptionist answers promptly, her voice curt and distant. Can’t remember if it was like this before.
“Office of Walter Blake, how can I help you?”
“Hey there, this is Tom. I’m just calling to get back to you. Sorry I missed the call–just spaced out and lost track of time. There’s no excuse.” Easiest way to explain it, anyhow. Not sure this is the appropriate time for horse race analogies.
“Mhm,” says the receptionist.
“Would it be possible to reschedule?”
“Sure. Would two-thirty today work for you?”
“Yep, that’d be great.”
“Sorry again. Apologies for any inconvenience.”
“Ok, bye,” she says, and hangs up with a punchy click.
There’s something in her tone, I think. She’s not pleased–didn’t acknowledge the apology, either. Perhaps I came off as too dismissive. But I was only telling the truth, and I am sorry. Oh well.
I check the time. It’s already two o’clock. Only half an hour to kill before the new appointment, so I watch videos on the internet to pass the time. Two-thirty comes fast, and I plug my earbuds into my phone, preparing for the call. It’s two thirty-three; she was so prompt last time. I finish watching the last few minutes of a John Mulaney bit. Two thirty-five. It’s like I’m hitting all the stoplights again, losing my momentum.
At two forty-five, I unplug my headphones. She’s not going to call. I know it’s an assumption, but I also know it was on purpose. I’ll have to call back tomorrow, and deal with that dynamic. I feel anger boiling up in my chest, rising to tickle my synapses with self-righteous indignation. Pure pettiness. Despite myself, I let out a cackle. “Ridiculous.”
I pause with my phone halfway to my ear. The number’s already dialed, just haven’t clicked the call button yet. How will I handle this? Try for the high road, ignore the behavior, and move on? Call her out? It sure would feel good. But it would make me just like her, wouldn’t it? The high road, that’s the adult thing to do. I press the call button and put the speaker to my ear.
“Walter Blake’s office.” She sounds cheery this time, drunk on the perfume of victory, perhaps.
“Hey there. This is Tom again, calling you back.”
“Oh, Tom Muller? How are you today?”
The voice is patrician now, airy and distant, as though she’s just put on a business suit and did up all the buttons. Images flash through my mind: coastline mansions, big city skyscrapers, and powerful executives with toothy smiles. California–I’m starting to realize how great a distance it really is, between that coast and rural Colorado.
“I’m fine. Looks like we missed each other again yesterday.”
The secretary lets out a chortle. “Oh my, appears so. I presume you’re looking to reschedule?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
She laughs again, a bubbly chuckle smashed between efforts of condescension. “Ah, looks like we’re all booked up until Monday. Would that work for you? Or, I could just have Walter call you back if he has a minute.”
Fury is boiling up in my windpipe and percolating on my lips, vision hot and white. “Are you kidding me right now?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know exactly what I mean. Look, it was an honest mistake, okay? Do you really gotta do this?”
“Feeling alright, sir? I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Her voice is silky, venom and ice.
“Alright, chuckles. You mean to tell me you forgot our appointment thirty minutes after we set it up? Sounds vindictive to me.” So much for the high road.
“But sir, that’s exactly what must have happened. I forgot the call, just like you forgot that day.”
“There it is. Convenient, isn’t it? If you’re gonna stick it to me, have some fucking courage.”
“But it’s so much more fun to watch you squirm.”
“You’re a piece of work. You know that? Real petty. Is your life so pathetic that you get your kicks like this?”
“I did no different than you. You disrespected my time, so I disrespected yours.”
“What?” My mind is a fuzzy mess of shock and awe. “There is absolutely no moral equivalency, here.”
“Sure there is. I just explained it to you.”
“No. My missing the call was a mistake. Your missing the call was vindictive.”
“What’s it matter? You missed the call, disrespected my time. I did the same.”
“You already said that.” I squeeze my temples with my free hand. “The difference is in intent. I had no intention of wronging you. You had every intention of wronging me.”
I hear a snort over the receiver. “Intention’s such a dated concept. Outcomes are what matter. You wasted my time. I don’t care what you were thinking when you did it.”
“You don’t really believe that,” I say.
“Sure I do. I’m a scientific determinist.”
“Is that how bourgeois pricks justify their behavior these days?”
“I don’t have a penis, Mr. Muller. And frankly, I find your vulgarity repulsive. Correct your tone, or I’ll hang up.”
“Fine. Look, this scientific determines is conceited bull… fiction. Wild conjecture, dressed up as fact.”
“What, you believe in a soul?” The secretary giggles.
“No, I believe in the possibility of a soul, or some other metaphysical process we don’t understand, and I know that we know far too little about the universe and consciousness to make any knowledge claim regarding the fundamental nature of reality.”
“But isn’t it silly, Mr. Muller, to believe in a soul? Such an extraordinary claim.”
“The point is, it’s wrong to make any claim at all. For or against a soul, or materialism, or whatever. You can’t know anything in that realm, only believe.”
“Alright. Well, I believe in scientific determinism and I judge your actions accordingly.”
“You do realize that in scientific determinism, nobody is guilty, right? Our actions are all preordained by physics.”
“Well, that’s not the type I believe in. I’m a utilitarian determinist.”
“Now you’re just messing with me.”
“Alright, what’s a utilitarian determinist to you?”
“There is no soul, so all that matters is the impact of your actions, not intent. Intent has no utility.”
“I guess we’re moving on from materialism, then.”
“I believe that materialism is a fact of life, but we maintain the illusion of free will and so must operate as though we are free entities. As a determined entity under the illusion of free will, I believe we should judge people by the net effect of their actions, not intention.”
“Mr. Muller, it’s not my problem if you can’t follow my–”
“I followed just fine, and your problem is two-fold.”
“Oh is it?”
“Yes. First, you can’t just impart moral judgements based on your own esoteric belief system. Society wouldn’t function.”
“But I just did.”
“And wrongly. For society to work, you have to operate under the pretense of a social contract, or it all goes to shit.”
“Not true. I judge others constantly with no repercussion whatsoever.”
“And on what basis do you judge them? I’d bet a large sum of money that you base it on intent.”
“Not necessarily? Alright, I can prove it to you: that you tacitly operate by considering intentions.”
“Oh can you?”
“You’re a mind reader, then?”
“Something like that.”
“Go ahead. I’m excited,” she says, cackling.
“It’s simple, really. Tell me, why were you offended when I missed your call yesterday?”
“It’s like I said. You disrespected my time.”
“But doesn’t disrespect require intent?”
“Not necessarily, it–”
“Never mind. But you were offended, right?”
“And you wanted to get back at me by skipping our new appointment, right?”
“And when we reconnected on this call, you were giggling like a school girl. Why?”
“Because I felt good,” she says.
“Because you got me back?”
“That may have had something to do with it. What’s your point?”
“You derived pleasure from your intentions, see? If you missed my call in earnest, there’d be no retribution. Put another way, your stiffing me was passive-aggressive. Passive aggression, by it’s very nature, requires intent.”
There is a long pause before I hear her reply. “So what’s your point?”
“That I’m right and you’re wrong,” I say.
The secretary laughs again, her gleeful cackles reverberating through the speaker like the exultation of a cartoon villain. A cacophony of roiling clouds and scratched glass. “Is that what you want, Mr. Muller? To be right?”
“Yes.” I pause, sensing a trap. “I think so?”
“Very well. You’re right. So, so right.”
“But I win.”
“Uh, how’s that?”
“That Monday appointment is no longer available,” she says, words dripping like sour maple syrup. “Unfortunately, our next available slot is in six weeks. Would you like me to book you?”
I sit for a moment in silence, contemplating the massive spiritual stoplight that has reared into my view. I’ve lost the plot again, haven’t I? Got caught up in the wrong race.
“Mr. Muller?” I can hear the secretary’s tone breaking as she attempts to stifle another one of her victory chortles.
“I’ll call back later,” I say.
“Okay, then. You do that. I’ll be here!”
“Bye,” I say, and hammer the end button on my phone before throwing it across the room. It ricochets off the wall, the rubber case leaving a thin black mark on the bone-white paint before bouncing to the ground. As I stare at the mark, my eyes catch on a piece of oriental artwork that I hung on that wall long ago. It depicts a Chinese Buddha, replete with a bowling ball belly and elephantine earlobes that stretch down to its rounded shoulders. He’s smiling with an effortless wisdom, guileless and ageless.
“Don’t you laugh at me, too,” I say, eyeing the Buddha as though the picture might respond with some witty retort. An indecipherable koan, no doubt–something about one hand clapping, or ants on blades of grass. But the Buddha just sits in silence and smiles at the futility of my reasoning. “I know, I know. Should’ve taken the high road.”