This is pretty crazy. I just composed a 3000 word story called "You Called Me." It's the sixtieth short story I have written since July 2019 when I wrote "Fitty." When everything happened in 2012, I wrote that many short stories--and of course many other things--from March to December, and I guess I never thought I'd ever do anything like that again, because it was not humanly possible in the first place, and yet I had done it, but now I have done it once more and actually done quite a bit more in a shorter period of time. So that is crazy. But so is this story, the perfect story for our times. The other night I was out in the hallway with Emma, and we both heard my phone ringing inside of my apartment. When I checked the phone a couple hours later, I saw that the call had come from me, from my number, and was ID'ed as "Maybe Colin Fleming." I'd never seen that before. And it gave me an idea. So I wrote this story about this guy, who is the pariah of the internet, who is getting, as they say, "dragged" by the mob, and his life is over, and he's alone, and he's lost his job because of the fallout, and media outlets are reporting on this story, and he's uniting the country, because people who disagree about everything are coming together to agree that this guy is an asshole. He's gone viral in the worst way. Or a pretty bad way, anyway. And he starts getting phone calls from himself. And even a kind of voicemail. And eventually a text. Just a perfect fucking story idea, which would explode, get everyone talking. Were I, of course, not blackballed by an entire industry. They are hurting me right now, but I will figure this out, figure out how to prevail, and I will prevail, but they are hurting themselves more, because their ventures, magazines, venues, are dying, and this is the kind of work that would save all of that and them. And I have so much of it of so many varieties. Man this is fucking good. I don't know how I think of all of this shit. Well, I do, but it's still nuts.
Steven knew what he would tell the doctors, if they insisted upon complete honesty. “I was just trying something,” he’d say, “It was a first time deal, never happened before.”
He had read about people who went to the hospital because they had lodged items in their rectums and could not get them out. All manner of items. Light bulb, chalkboard eraser, Snuffleupagas doll, peroxide bottle. Doctors had seen it all, doctors understood. He’d been in the waiting room for hours. They must not have thought his injuries were serious. Blood still leaked from his head under the cloth he pressed to his forehead. The forehead bleeds a lot when it is cut, he thought. Maybe it heals quicker. He liked how the body determined what needed to stop bleeding faster and what could take longer. Any cut on his penis healed quickly. It had always been that way. He assumed that was how science helped humans to reproduce. They were, after all, animals, and the goal of any species is to propagate.
Previously he had received a phone call from the dentist while he was at the dentist, which seemed very strange, though he did not press the matter and follow-up as to why the receptionist called him at home when he was in the dentist’s chair. He didn’t even have a cavity. Maybe if a tumor had been detected and they thought he was not prepared to hear it at the time—if he had been jittery or something, as though he anticipated that he might have a mouth tumor—and they were phoning to leave a message that he needed to schedule a follow-up with some haste, though he never did find out.
But Steven calling himself was new. He had never called his own cell phone before from the number of his cell phone. He did not know how it was even possible. Technology was not his thing. There were probably kids who could call themselves, but still—What the hell, man? he would say in his head, wondering if it would help to say those words aloud, softly, to himself. Sometimes he did say them because he was someone who would try and use humor to diffuse fear. He said them with an Irish lilt, despite not being Irish. He sounded more like a guy known to everyone as Sully than a guy with the last name of Yeats.
He often left his phone at home. Was worried a call would come in from himself and he would be unable not to answer it. To date, all of the calls had happened without his knowledge. When the phone was off, or when he forgot to turn the ringer back on. He’d tell himself a watched phone never rings, which seemed to apply more to house phones and land lines back when he was fifteen, sixteen, and liked some girl he knew was not ever actually going to call back after he had manned up—a phrase his mom, curiously, used more often than his dad—and left a message with her father because the girl would not come to the phone. Many of the girls he called were in the shower a lot it seemed.
What if he answered the phone and there was someone there? What if it wasn’t him? What if it was? When he was really stressed about something he would say it was “problematic” or “dire,” which sounded better than “I want to die” and “I am so fucked, this cannot be solved,” and he found himself using “problematic” and “dire” in tandem with regularity lately. The internet had come to destroy him. It seemed like no one in the world could agree upon anything, but everyone agreed that he was a dastardly fellow who deserved to die. Sure, some people tried to help him and he knew that’s what they were doing, when they would reach out to him on his social media pages and say, “Dude, the entire world hates you right now and is holding up a mirror to your face. Man up and take stock of your life and use this as an opportunity to grow.”
Man up. Weird how that phrase repeated. He’d click on the profiles of the people who used that phrase to make sure it was not a burner account for his mother, but she was dead. Still—if he could call himself, who knew how she could reach him. He missed her more when it was just some doctor or lawyer or grad student or Walmart employee and he’d get drunk then, having first shut off his phone. He’d probably answer if he called himself if he was drunk enough. There would be no going back then, he reasoned. People told him to take down his accounts. “Have a breather, dude.” “Come back in a month.” They were the kinder ones, but the kinder ones made him angrier.
There was something to be said for being shit on, he’d once heard a drunk say. Everyone in the town he grew up in knew the drunk. Stepped over the drunk at some point or other. Pulled their kids to the other side of the street when the drunk came along, barely remaining upright, saying “that’s nothing, never mind,” when the kids asked who this person was that they figured was sick or needed medical assistance. Steven bent over the drunk once in a doorway where he was laying in a manner that made Steven wonder if he was dead. He wasn’t dead. His resting position was just contorted. “You can shit on me,” the drunk said. Steven didn’t want to shit on him. “I deserve the shame. The shame helps.”
So Steven spit in his face. He had been planning to spit for some time—maybe a block—while he had been walking. He was home from college after his freshman year. He lifted that year. He still thought about being tough. Figured he looked good. When you look good, at a certain age, and you have lifted, you spit, Steven reasoned when he was older.
The drunk was surprised. A flash of anger came across his face for a moment. Steven felt his fingers tighten into fists. The flash of anger dissolved. Or passed. Steven wasn’t sure how to put it. The drunk was not agitated. He reached into his pocket on the front of his shirt and took out a handkerchief. Steven could not believe how clean it was. It was immaculate, one might say. It was like an altar piece. It probably meant a lot to the drunk. Maybe it was the last pride he had. He brought it to his face, wiped away Steven’s saliva, and said, “It’s okay.” Steven wanted to throttle himself, but he could no more do that than he could phone himself, given that he did not know about the possibilities of phoning himself quite yet.
He’d go online and he would write things like, “I hope your kid is born deaf so it never has to hear you say I love you.” He’d wait. For an onslaught. But previously the onslaught did not come. He’d get more people to follow him. They seemed a lot like him, actually. Maybe there were his people, but that didn’t make sense, because then Steven would be popular, and he was never very popular. A woman organized a rally and lots of people went. Thousands and thousands. The cause was just, Steven read, but he also thought that if a lot of people had to say a cause was just it probably was not and he also didn’t care because he trended to the opinion that no one cared about anything but being popular, which he had only recently gotten good at. You had to fight for your turf.