a beginning

by Ben Timberlake

This story begins, like every other, with the ring of a pay telephone at 3 in the morning at some diner where I, a diner myself, am inexplicably the only person.

I am clearly not the proprietor nor operator of this establishment, because I sit on a stool facing an empty grill and unbrewed coffee pot.

Behind me, a row of tables beside large windows sit ready for other people — salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, sugar packets filled and ready to serve anyone who might care to eat. If there were people to eat and people to make food.

Since every story begins with me, I know, without doubt how this one will begin. But I also know that, because of the infinity of stories in the world, that this one cannot continue as any other has.

Even when the phone rings, it sounds the same. And I respect the consistency of this beginning by allowing nine rings every time. I lift the receiver mid-tenth ring.

It will always be the same voice on the telephone, and it will always say something different. But it will always speak at least one significant word that it spoke in the previous conversation.

If I could remember which word the voice repeated, I am confident I would piece together some sort of message, a code, a jumble that would allow me to describe to myself.

The code that would tell me why I’m here, why I can’t remember any detail about my life. Like an amnesiac, I only know skills, like how to flip a frying egg.

But I never remember and I never have any way to record the message.

In times past, I’m sure I’ve scratched what I think is the word into the wood of the phone kiosk, using my thumbnail.

But the kiosk always heals as soundly as my thumbnail does not.

Sometimes — and here the standard diverges because it does not happen regularly — I catch the scent of eggs frying as I listen to the voice and when I look to the flat metal expanse of the grill, I see a yellow and white disk, charred on one side and a bubbling albumen sending splatters of itself, like satellites, into its atmosphere.

And when the call is finished, I go to flip the egg — though I am not hungry — and find that it has become a blackened piece of skin-like material. I touch the grill and find that it is cold, but when I lift my hand, it burns.

With the voice’s message fresh in my ear, I know what my various instructions are, what I am expected to do next: always something I have never done before. I may go to some address to meet yet another voice that rasps to me through a mail slot. Or I may find a set of keys to a car, parked amid many others on a street devoid of life near the diner.

These details appear in my memory like images from an old movie, gray, with bits of fuzz and scratches on them. I could not say for sure that they happened to me, except that I always appear, third-person, in them, like a dream.

I am sure I have been in this diner before, on another night, exactly like this one. And that I have been in this same diner every night only at night. Never the crepuscular fade of the sky through evening and dusk. Always in the deep night, as if I began every day at its nominal commencement.

I do not know how I have ended any of those days. Daylight is a myth told by me only to myself. If I saw it yesterday — as foreign a concept to me as tomorrow — I can’t remember it.

And I decide, every time the phone rings — how many times? — that next time I will not follow the instructions. I will not even pick up the phone. I will wait while it rings and watch as the egg becomes skin to find out by what process it happens.

But I know that the egg never appears until I answer and that I could sit on the round red stool forever: the sound of a harsh metallic ring in my ear and filling my vision, a landscape of cold, empty, eggless metal, stretching unto infinity.


Past pieces presented by Baja Phats

Greasy Body Redux by Fuzzy Winkerbean
Greasy Body by Fuzzy Winkerbean
Performance by Ben Timberlake


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