From the award-winning short story A Vain and Terrible Thing, or Therapy, or Mr. Mitchell’s Cock Charade.
I wake this morning to a dream of empty hallways, vast silent bedrooms. I walk past a window and there seems to be a dark brown dust blowing all over everything, covering all of it. I don’t think much of it, so I wander more about the apartment. I walk past the large mirror in my bedroom, only to find two reflections of myself. The one on the left is me in my flourishing youth, with an unkempt pile of hair atop my head and the slightest hint of a facial hair just below my mouth at the bottom of my chin. The reflection on the right is me how I look right now, in my boxer-briefs and a tee shirt, and with shorter hair, still disheveled from my sleeping.
I stare confusedly into the mirror at my two reflections. I raise my left arm up a bit to test the reactiveness of these me’s in the mirror. They both move accordingly and then, quite slowly and magically, the reflections begin to drift into each other, creating a single image that I’m not able to entirely distinguish or define. The picture is about to become clear, when suddenly I hear a radio news broadcast come on in static.
I look about the empty apartment to find from where this news derives and, although I can’t quite find it, the information is coming in clearly. The voice on the program is talking about the dust outside that I’d forgotten about. I go back to the window in my bedroom to see again what all the fuss is about. The dust is blowing everywhere, covering absolutely everything with a healthy layer of that deep brown. The voice on the broadcast is saying how it has something to do with the eucalyptus trees and how the city can’t seem to do anything about it.
Just then the phone rings and, as I lull over to pick up the receiver, I continue staring out the window at the dust-blown sky. The caller I.D. only reads ‘charge’ and I wonder, Who could possibly be calling me collect?
“Hello,” I say into the phone and an operator’s voice comes on, except it’s a new operator, not the one I’m used to. Funny, I thought that operator had been a recording, but apparently she had done something to get herself fired so that this new electronic lady is now asking me all sorts of curious questions.
She asks me for the time of day and I answer her to the best of my ability. Then, she asks my name, which I tell her, and then a question that sticks out to me as especially odd.
“From which planet are you receiving this call?” she asks.
Puzzled, I don’t speak at first, but then I answer, “Earth, I think.”
The operator then says thank you and asks me if I would like to accept the interplanetary charges. My mind is entirely blown, because I realize suddenly that this must be it: A phone call from another planet. Someone somewhere is finally going to put things into a real perspective for me. Or perhaps this is a collect call from God and he’s going to answer everything. What an opportunity is this?! And above all people they have chosen to call me from Heaven or some distant galaxy, but before I say anything I consider what replying “yes” to accepting the charges would really imply. I mean, how much would an interplanetary collect call cost me? I almost consider hanging up the phone, but then I realize that a several-thousand-dollar phone call, or more, would look absolutely absurd on a phone bill and I’m sure I’ll be able to talk my way out of paying for it.
“Yes, I’ll accept the charges,” I say and, just as the other end of the call clicks over to whoever is making this remarkable phone call, I think to myself, This can’t be possible. I must be dreaming.
And suddenly I wake. Damn it. I have again talked myself out of receiving an answer. I mean, what kind of a jerk tells himself he’s dreaming when he’s about to take a collect call from God? How like God, though, to call collect. As if he can’t afford the long distant charges.
I leave my apartment to meander about the day. Gray day. A bird dances on the wind, floating with the sky. Disappears into the clouds. East Campus shuttle. Pretty girl. Thin, pale legs.
Today is warm, a balmy sort of warm that makes one wonder as to the nature of these autumn days. Is the sticky air causing this perspiration or am I simply nervous to encounter the day? Is it possible that the sky could actually be that endless shade of blue or am I again under the delusion that someone is trying relentlessly to trick me into feeling that this might be better than I had expected? The Iowa River reflects the sky as I walk along its muddy banks. A lone man rows a thin boat down not quite the middle of the river and his long, narrow oars hardly break the water. It remains a still, still river.
The sky bends to the horizon, the sun follows along its arch. I can’t tell if I’m sleeping or awake. Either way, I hope God calls again soon. I’ll know what to tell that old man now.