If you see something, say something. That’s your directive—on buses, train platforms, airport walls. But they may have to change the saying before long, because mostly what people see now are their phones. Riding escalators, wheeling suitcases, standing in the ticketing line, chins are tipped phoneward, all eyes cast low like cartoon monks. Some use both hands, and to blurred eyes they might be praying. According to NPR, neck-related repetitive strain injury has gone up 61 percent since the adoption of smartphones. Your phone stays in your bag. It’s not because you’re looking for lonely backpacks or anything. You’re just looking. Here are the levels: baggage, ticketing, security, gate. Outside each, bar code readers are stationed, teethy rows of lasers humming in their square mouths. One by one people step forward and hold their phones up to them like dolls they are making kiss.
When it’s your turn at the machine, you punch in your six-digit confirmation code, which you have memorized. Bloop, the machine says. Same as when a row disappeared playing Tetris on the old suitcase-sized Compaq in the basement. Bloop. Bloop, bloop.
You memorize a lot of things like that, little chains of numbers and letters. The closest thing you’ve got to a party trick. An ex-boyfriend used to brag about this part of you, tell friends about the time just after you’d met that he’d given you a lift to the UPS warehouse and you stepped up and rattled off your entire tracking number without looking. “By heart!” he’d say at the end of the story, emphasizing heart. You liked when he did this, though not because he was bragging, but because he was discussing your heart with other people. It seemed sturdier, after he did.
That was back when you were a body. Now you are mostly ears and eyes and a thumb good for swiping, separating plastic bags, dragging a carry-on. A thumb that shown a knife can deal a banana into faceless coins.
Remove your shoes and liquids. Ahead of you in line, two girls wearing hats and no bras sound excited to get to Mexico but are in no rush to get through security. The guy they’re traveling with, flip-flops and zero luggage, does his best collie and herds them gently along.
“This week Ashley’s baby breathed underwater and got eyelashes,” one of the girls says. “I think it was eyelashes.”
“How does she know?”
“There’s an app.”
“Just for hers?”
“Well, all babies develop at the same rate so they can tell you when it’s the size of an onion, when it will take a breath.”
“Oh,” the other says, and their collie nudges them ahead. “But what if yours doesn’t?” No one has an answer, including you. The girls slip their beach bags onto the conveyor belt, their breezy shoes.
There is one seat left at Altitudes, prong of the horseshoe. The man one seat over is regaling the bartender.
“I’m trying to get my mom’s whole life down to one room,” he says, twizzling the straw in his ice. Four limes crouch at the bottom of his rocks glass, their stringy mouths pinched open like feeding mollusks. “Of course, it’s a disaster.”
“I bet,” the bartender says.
“Dad’s in the hospital and isn’t coming back out. So when I can get the time I get Mom in her green chair and hold things up for her, and if she starts crying then I keep it and show it to her again in a few days. And it’s crazy to say it, but the one good thing about her mind going is in two days the same whatever-it-is means nothing to her.”
The bartender says God and pulls a beer.
On the TV in the corner, cars rip around an oval track. Then the image switches to a still photo of the last beheaded man. He’s in front of a lake, smiling and holding a sleepy fox like it’s a baby. Some intern was probably told to pull an image off the internet and started with Facebook. In any other case it would be a ridiculous photo, a farce, but the circumstances do something dark and soft to it. This is how kind he was, the image seems to say—a friend to the former pelts of this world, snuggler of the hunted.
You’ve been visiting your parents, too, but don’t have nearly as good a reason for talking to strangers as the man next to you, no terrible missions to recount. Three days on the way back from a policy conference, just talking, eating their food, drooling on their pillowcases. A visit. Nothing was new, not even the plants on the patio. “Just grass,” your mother said when you asked about them, stroking a blade of grass. Though you booked a cab, your father insisted on dropping you off at the airport. In the concrete dusk of the departure lane, he unfolded two dollars from the cup holder for tipping the skycap, but you wouldn’t hold out your hand. “Take it,” he said. When you refused he pushed it at you again. “One day you’ll have to get yourself to the airport.” He hugged you as he said this, like it was the same as goodbye.
Everyone else at the bar, fifteen out of sixteen of them, is doing their phone. There’s a motion, the thumb pulling down, which you can see from far away. You know, because you have the same phone, same thumb. The motion means: Nope—okay—what else? Show me what else there is.
The thing is, you don’t mind the phones—how easy they make it to feel holy just for keeping your eyes up.
But as any saint will tell you, it can get lonely, being holy, and boring, looking at the tops of people’s heads all day. You take out your phone. Swipe. On Twitter, people are hawking thoughts and ads, telling themselves little coded jokes. You you you, they say. You need to read this. And this. Not specifying what this is so you’ll click. Four, ten, nineteen reasons why you should rethink your views on vaccinations, sugar, micro-lending in the developing world.
Why we’re not worried enough about Ebola—and why we should be.
Stop fearing Ebola, yesterday.
Bring back our girls, the First Lady pleads, or demands.
The real reason Icelanders don’t drink more iced coffee.
The one article that nails your web habits—and why you’ll never read it.
Ways to Die on The Oregon Trail, Ranked. This you click. The list is what it says it is, annotated nostalgically with songs and snacks from the early ’90s. Most are ways real people still die.
And everywhere, the subtext the radio’s been goading you with all week: What are you waiting for?
Here is one of Twitter’s tricks: if you touch an icon labeled HOME, the world scrolls down for you, and you no longer have to see the terrible last part. There, in your hand, the present is only the size of your glowing screen, plus or minus your tolerance for rewinding.
Even though it’s called home, it’s more like a house. A blue birdhouse which, when it senses the heat of your finger, resets the world.
You lived in a blue house once. Blue apartment, actually. The woman who lived on the first floor had her radio on at all hours, top volume, and you felt sorry for whomever lived above her. You were blissful, immune on the fourth. This was years ago when a real voice waited for you upstairs. One that said your name over and over towards sleep until it was a nonsense word because you liked what it made his tongue do. Oblige me, another thing he would say through the dark.
Now, in a grayish building on the other coast, you understand that woman a little better. Some people listen to music to fall asleep; others, the sound of digitized oceans. You listen to public radio. When you can fall sleep, it’s usually somewhere between the BBC World Service and the first run of Morning Edition, at 3:00 AM. But this past week most of that’s been set aside so local hosts can tell you how much more the stories will mean to you once you start paying for them. While you don’t believe this, you listen more assiduously during pledge drive because you like the lies it tells: This is your chance. Be part of something that matters. Most of the year the voices talk as they were trained to, like you’re not even there. But for a week or so every year, they are made to admit the embarrassing fact of your presence, and they speak head-on: We need you.
What he said about your public radio habit: The whole world wears headphones to keep extra voices out, but here you are, piping them in before you’re even out of bed. You wanted to tell him why: that more than once your day had gone so quiet and blank that you thought you did have headphones on. How frightening it was to reach for an ear then and realize it was unstoppered, that absence was just following you. But you didn’t say that; there’s only so much you can hand a person before he drops something. Instead, you said: Then you wake me up. So he did.
At the gate, the TV fills in stories you know from your phone and the radio. The tape’s a loop: Boys in T-shirts shoveling through rubble, a missile burrowing itself into a building, smoke and open mouths, the outside of an unbombed building the ticker is calling a school. After, before. Armed men stand guard at the edge of a gold charred field. Cut to a talking head and a stock train, passing nowhere. The picture of that sweet man giving his baby granddaughter a bottle appears, so you know what’s next before it plays: the cell phone video of cops dropping him to the ground, choking him to death. The sound’s off, but you’ve heard the audio on your phone. I can’t breathe, he says as they push his head further into the pavement. I can’t breathe. The woman next to you digs out her sandwich with a fork.
That’s when you notice it: a paper grocery bag near a bank of empty seats. It was there before you arrived. Check the clock on your phone, watch it for five minutes. Ten. No one comes back for it. At fifteen, you shoulder your backpack and approach the bag, pretending to look at your phone in case its owner comes running up. But no one does. You peer in, half-expecting nothing, but there’s a net of grapefruit, a foam bowl of ramen, and a plush armadillo wrapped in the Texas flag. Say something, your brain teases. But instead you just stand there over the abandoned ramen, the lostness in you pulsing so loud you think someone else will hear it, come over. After all, last time you were found. The stupid Pavlov’s bell your past becomes.
On the plane you take a window seat, and a young woman takes the middle. Her feet are immaculate, opalled nails, toes dark and thin as fingers. She has her ear buds hooked through her belt loop, and her watch’s face looks like a recently emptied aquarium, huge and ominous and serene.
You open your laptop at ten thousand. “Oh, wow,” the woman says, and it takes a second for you to realize she’s talking to you. “Here.” She digs in her purse and hands you a sleek gray rag. “My company makes these. They get everything.” You start wiping your screen for her. When you don’t scrub hard enough, she takes it back from you and rubs more expertly at your screen, which, you freely admit, looks like it’s been loaned to a toddler at some point. Though she didn’t spit on it first, it feels like she did, and you touch the corner of your mouth.
“I’ll work on it,” you promise, then ask where you can get one, to show you mean it.
“We only sell them wholesale, for now,” she says, wiping the cloth on her jeans before she folds it. “Here, have it,” she says. You are unsure how to thank her.
When you lean your head against the plane, a sound like the place between stations crackles then quits. The ground falls away, and when you wake up, people are passing empty cups over each other, chewing the last of their ice.
As you begin your descent (the first officer always makes it sound like a collective effort) the mountains trade themselves out for water. On final approach, the shadow of the plane on the green sheet of the Bay appears as a speck, a speck that grows to a sliver then a jack then a waterfowl and then it is large as a whale trailing your flight, the wing a mis-attached dorsal fin, and just as the whale is about to surface, to greet you, concrete rattles up and the flaps straighten then fall and the people around you grasp at their phones, typing, I’m here. I’m here. Leave your phone alone, like it’s a game where the last person not to do something wins. Win.
When you reach the gift shop you check your phone to see if you have any new voicemails (you don’t), make sure there’s still room. Before, you had to listen through the saved messages to find out if you had a new one, the voicemail robot intoning each digit slow as bingo, as if you didn’t keep track. Now you can just see them. A month ago, you started getting a 100 percent full warning, even though you didn’t have any new ones. When you called, the representative asked how many messages you had saved. You ran your finger down the row, counting, careful not to accidentally call anyone. “Hello?” he said. “I’m still counting,” you said. Then, “Thirty-seven.” “That’ll do it,” he said, laughing. “Voicemail holds between thirty-five and forty. But you want to let people get to you again, just go on and delete some of those thirty-seven.”
Science Friday is supposed to be on, but when you turn the ignition in the short-stay economy lot, the local anchors are revved up about this hour’s new subscriber gifts. You marvel at the possibility that it is pledge week everywhere in the country at the same time. Your options get explained patiently: what a Roku is, how a pocket water-filter works. How for only fifteen dollars a month you could be the proud owner of an Earthquake Preparedness Backpack, filled with a two-person, five-day supply of food and water and a crank radio, which uses only power from the sun and your wrist to work. Good for real-time updates during the apocalypse, as long as the sun and your wrist hold out. It will probably be pledge week then, too.
Turn off the radio, only to find you miss its jokes: bottled water and the Big One being sold as a twofer, a gift. That’s good. Turn it back on. Volunteers are drinking good donated coffee; they are awaiting your call. Occasionally there is some sample news. A videographer in Syria watched through his camera as his own cousin was shot and killed and now the film is up for an award. The overnight truce did not hold, and according to the UN, Gaza has run out of schools to use as shelters. Hundreds of girls stolen from their school in Nigeria by religious militants are still missing. Eight more were taken yesterday, the same day the First Lady held up that sign for all of Twitter to see. You will be entered to win a Subaru. A visiting expert on cars has never seen such fuel mileage coupled with this safety rating before, plus they will have to give back the match money if you don’t call in the next four minutes. Please.
The “gore point” is the V between the road and an off-ramp that means too late, you can no longer cross. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. Many people do. When you were learning to drive, it proffered its own mnemonic device: If you cross the gore point, you will be gored. Until recently, some part of you was waiting to see this. Now you never want to.
Your mind works this way, too. Among the endless strands of user IDs and old landlines are useless shapes and increments: one flight, one takeoff and landing, one slice in the pizza of a year. Pity for the closest stranger. A boarding group. A three-minute news story. The ever-emptying funnel of the pledge drive. Before the bottom of the hour, the radio begs you. Hurry, we don’t have much time.
But that’s another radio lie: time keeps happening, the news keeps happening.
During the last pledge drive, a white cop shot an unarmed black man during a traffic stop. A passenger plane disappeared from radar without a trace. A black boy was shot and killed by a cop in a park, in the back, then left in the street for hours. (Only four minutes left before we have to give the money back.) Another pledge week dawns. Health workers in Liberia are trying to prevent new infection by urging families not to bury their dead. A man dies after his neck is broken in a cop car. Armed separatists shoot down a passenger plane over Ukraine, killing nearly three hundred people, among them six of the world’s top AIDS researchers. In the national news block, Renee Montagne says that the DA who failed to indict the officers in the chokehold case has just been elected to Congress.
The bodies glide by on the radio voices like that river that bore the dead but stayed a river. The Acheron. In Nigeria, the terrorists responsible for kidnapping the girls have declared allegiance to the new group in the Middle East. In Amman, the waste authority is changing the color of its trash collectors’ jumpsuits because the old ones look too similar to the jumpsuits this new terrorist group uses in its beheading videos. Don’t watch, your phone warns, just remember their names, names which tetris down your phone as hashtags, disappear when that row of calamity has been filled. Then they appear again, at the top, already falling.
At your apartment, you prop the door with your suitcase and check the mail. Credit cards you already have offer better versions of themselves to you, confirming a growing suspicion that you’re bad at picking right on the first try. Unlock your door. Everything is right where you left it: the jacket you didn’t take, the library books, the rooster lamp you dusted and unplugged, and seeing all this, something drops inside you like a bookbag hitting the floor, a thunk pitched halfway between relief and heart-stop: nothing broke, but it could have.
A few months back, the neighbor upstairs wrote and asked if you were out of town. You weren’t. Sometimes I see lights, he wrote, but I wonder if they’re just on a timer.
Your first impulse was to really leave town. But you didn’t: you stayed, crashing pans together when you cooked, keeping the hairdryer going even after your hair was dry. Started letting the radio run all night. Listen, you let the professionals say for you. I’m still here.
In the crook of your dark refrigerator, you rearrange some things to make it look fuller, like there might be close to four groups. Was that right, four? One of the groups currently well-represented in your fridge is: about to expire. This group includes a red bell pepper.
Slice up the pepper. Holding it by the stem, tap the seeds onto the board. You heard somewhere recently (NPR, probably) that the food pyramid is obsolete. It’s another shape now, a circle maybe, which makes it harder to remember what goes where.
On your phone, you click on an article about Ukraine. International investigators have been warned to stay away from the crash site, since a war may have begun, and now the passengers’ remains are being carried away in train cars guarded by armed men. Most likely the Russian-backed separatists, the article says, but this is unconfirmed.
Here’s a terrible thing you can do now: touch a word while standing in your kitchen eating a bell pepper and your phone will tell you where it came from. But your phone reads it wrong and brings up the verb instead. To remain: from the Anglo-Norman out of the classical Latin remanēre—to stay behind, to be left, to lie untouched or undisturbed.
Two different things, you remind your phone as you eat another slice.
You read the warning label: a first love can preclude. Cordon certain hours. Put his mouth along some stretch of you so every mouth after is barred. A body can go off-limits this way. But that’s not what happened. Yours stayed open. Tasted other knees, freckles, walls, swallowed, shuddered when you came. And then one day three years had gone by and no one had touched you on purpose.
So if he isn’t the reason, Terry Gross might ask, why is his voice still so loud? And you’d take a minute and let your lips feel the foam of the mic. He didn’t cause those years, you’d reply, but he saw them coming. You’d never say this to the real Terry Gross, the real anyone, but it’s true: he was a prophet, beseeching and wild-handed and then, one day in spring, calm in the knowledge that salvation was not his job; the relevant parties had been warned.
Before, you believed things worked in seasons. Only, was how it felt, to wake against him. Each person who came and went afterward was simply an observance of only, a return. They stacked, each inside the first, the way each winter the first snow reminds you of the winter your brother was flying missions over Baghdad. Scraping Vo5 out of your ear as your father drove you to school, listening to Bob Edwards describe the air campaign from a carrier in the Gulf. Your father kept a billing envelope in his middle desk drawer and marked chits on it for each day he’d been over there. Cardinal, he’d say if he saw one, pointing into the woods with his chin, but the bird was always gone by the time you looked.
An error of spirit, thinking this way, a mobius or flow chart that arrows every hope-shot encounter back to the first. You saw the error, felt it pinch behind your sternum. So you turned the radio up, where they’ll report the traffic to anyone who’s listening, whether or not she’s anywhere near a road. Get you where you’re going, is how they say it.
The year that war ended, you were asked to save lives by collecting coins in a paper box. A series of arrows on the box showed you how to fold it. You kept it by the kitchen phone for weeks, emptied your coin jar, asked for your allowance in quarters. The day the banks were due, your father drove you to school and held the box while you put your backpack on, fake-dropping it from the weight. When you had both arms free again he handed it back carefully to you and said, Go be enlightened. It was years before you realized they never told you whom you’d saved, or whether you’d saved them enough.
Dad sleeps in his desk chair in the afternoons now, facing the road, hands folded on his belly, lights off. Though you brought him nothing to save or part with the last few days, you found yourself leaning in the door frame a few times, listening to him breathe. Only the exhalations sounded, horse-long sighs, and the ting, ting the tail of the ceiling fan made as it drew the same circle in the air.
Turn on the radio, dreading what you’ll hear. After eight and before eleven: the deadest programming hours, when the airwaves get turned over to tape from local ballrooms and convention centers, hours ceded decades ago to TV, and lately to other glowing screens. An hour that used to belong to radio, your father has told you: neighbors gathering after dinner to listen to the prize fight, a whodunit, Tommy Dorsey’s band, Benny Goodman. And is this the half-acre of fairy tale you’ve fallen for, these few hours? A time when every ear was tuned toward a single thing. Each eye left to pageant the voices for itself.
Sure enough: A billionaire is fielding softballs about how he did it, how he made so much. He’s got theories, the best of which sound like slogans, the worst like conspiracies. Someone in the ballroom coughs, a string of dry yelping coughs, and you love that person then for interrupting the billionaire’s pitch. Cough once, in solidarity, then turn off the machine.
Watch The Daily Show buffer on your ancient laptop, rubbing at a spot the girl didn’t get. The commercials are the only things that don’t freeze. Click YES on “Is This Ad Relevant to You?” every time you see one for AXE body spray or the latest first-person shooter game. Like how you used to put your real birth date but wrong year on online forms, not quite knowing whom you were throwing off by being a fifty-six-year-old one day, nineteen the next. But definitely someone. Relish the fact that tonight part of the universe—the part with spending power—believes you are a fifteen-year-old boy.
Your phone is your alarm clock now. It stays locked until you put a thumb at its mouth for a certain amount of time. Then, knowing it’s you, it opens, gives. See? Everything you took for love was actually just an improved security feature, a few years down the road.
Check the internet while you’re there. No word about the girls, the trains, another truce, but the fox photo is everywhere. Still should-ing and joking on Twitter. For all its you, the problem with the place is that no one seems to want to pick one. A you. To waste their chart or wit on one lousy person. One person who might not even know what you mean.
Stare at your old clock radio, the glowing numbers jointed like those school-owned jump ropes, long macaroni beads sloshing on dirty strings. The slap of them on asphalt. Or the one where two people each held an end and swooshed the rope along the ground like a snake or a blue and red fire, and you had to get over, get over.
Pull your laptop from its resting spot on your bookshelf, leaning out of your bed precariously, as if it’s a canoe. This is probably a bad move for your back, but you make it, every time, and this is the era of the little victory. Type a sentence from bed about those old jump ropes. Then close it again, since you know the rule about no screens right before bed, when the goal is sleep. You have not been sure of the goal for a while.
Without thinking, you reach for the radio. A news update in six minutes. You love the radio, you told someone once, because it requires concessions: the order isn’t up to you, and things go on whether you’re there or not, conditions that seem honest. Preparatory.
Listening has its drawbacks, of course. You wake up tired, run over with radio dreams. Asked yourself why, once, but the answer arrived with the question: If you listen to emergency overnight, then the call will not surprise you. It will seem gentle, almost, just the next story.
His last prophecy: You’re waiting for me to leave. I can feel it.
Why would you say something like that? you asked into his shoulder, a cool peal of recognition ringing in your ears. (What you wanted to ask: You feel it where?)
He took his shoulder back. Tell me you’re not.
I don’t know what game this is, you said to the ceiling. That’s when you knew you were in trouble, when he stopped turning you. Why would I do that?
So you can just think of me instead. Frees up some disaster room up here, he said, and tapped your skull.
What are you waiting for? the radio asks.
The girls to come home. To be delivered. One little piece of that plane to be found (they stopped hoping for the box of voices long ago). You are surrounded by boxes of voices—books, radio, phone—here, you think each time that story runs, take mine.
You are waiting for one truce to hold. For schools to expand, as they did in storybooks, overnight. The sunflower field to be emptied of bodies. For every body to be sent back to where it used to live. Solitary to be ruled cruel and unusual. For a call in the night. A yes. A promise that it is not too late. That buckle of heart that says, Here’s why, a feeling you last had singing Thompson’s “The Last Invocation” in a borrowed church in winter, and before that, crouched on a beach at low tide turning over limpet shells, pointlessly, but with great care. A feeling that came to you often when you were younger but that arrives now so infrequently you’ve mistaken it for terror, the adrenaline, the flight. The flight. (And the tenors led: Let me be wafted.) You are waiting for a slow news day. A day a boy walks down the street and gets where he is going. You are waiting for every street to become his street. To walk down it again. For him to open the door. To say you were worth his while, however long a while is. To be told, at the last, that you have spent enough, not cost too much.
But the problem is that there’s no world in which the song from your winter reaches those disappeared girls. There is a kind of waiting that turns to hope right before it sours. You are just ears and a memory. Someone pressed HOME, and the world refreshed. The spigot of names wells and spills, wells and spills, even after the bodies are erased.
And like that your panting retriever of a brain brings you what erase used to mean: pencils, the pink-gray stubble stuck to your forearm. The salt of chalk at the back of your throat, wincing as you made a wish so small you can hardly believe now you bothered: that a nail would not scratch the board. Turn the radio off. If you close your eyes the cars sound nothing like waves. They say you can tell it’s a dream if you only have hearing and sight. Fourteen hours ahead of you, a trash collector unfolds his new blue jumpsuit from its bag, checks all the pockets of the old one before dropping it into the hamper where they are being gathered to be burned.
Turn out the lights. Tuck yourself in.
Count the bones in the top of your foot with the toe of the other as you go down hours in your head to see if anyone expects you anywhere tomorrow. Saturday. Lose count and start again. If no one plans to hear your voice—. You feel like one of those trees in the hypothetical forest, but instead of roots, you have a day’s worth of bones along the top of each foot whose names you never bothered to learn.
Stare through the dark at quadrant four. Your bed, like many beds, is a coordinate plane, and quadrant four is where folded clothes and shed jackets go. You only sleep in quadrants two and three, so things in four often stay there for days, undisturbed. For instance, the memory of the day that man was coming over to see you, the last one you told your mother about. You spent the morning shining the basins, clearing all quadrants, letting a thick quiet tuck down in your mind so that if you thought of a word it would be his voice you heard say it: Ballast. Alleluia. Afternoon. Before. Before long. Until pretty soon he became another warning, so you turned on the radio, which would only say what had happened already, and elsewhere. Listen, next up in the hour, and now—even now, what else is there you could have done?