By Dean Zach
Alone in his dorm room on a Friday evening in September, pathetically incapable of ignoring Monday’s due dates, exhausted from the previous night’s all-nighter, he stared at his phone and mindlessly scrolled through his socials and his camera roll and his notes app and his green-colored unethical music streaming app and the various other apps which allowed him to forget about the passage of time. He liked, he retweeted, he double tapped, he saved, he tapped to view, he viewed, and he scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled, until he got tired of scrolling on one and moved to another. Eventually, having exhausted his options, he found himself clicking on the rounded red rectangle with the white sideways pyramid. For a moment his phone screen glowed pale white, and then the logo appeared again, and then the app’s home page appeared, and finally he was at Home. Beneath the banner ad, he saw that the algorithm had brought him new recommended videos: mostly music videos, in line with his consumption habits. After scrolling for a bit, he clicked on the third music video from the top, his curiosity vaguely piqued by the blurry, low-saturation image of four disgruntled-looking guys; the cryptic, unhelpful title and the channel name, a band from the ‘90s whose name he vaguely recognized.
First, he watched a 15-second commercial for a deodorant company, and then the video appeared before him. He saw a dark beige wall, and then a robed man looking down into a white bathtub in a small room. The man undresses; a robe drops to the floor beneath the legs. Suddenly, the camera cut to a different pair of legs, belonging to another man walking away from an open window in another room. This man, it seems, is the lead singer of the band, which also consists of a drummer, two electric guitarists and a bassist, who all play in the background as the lead singer walks up to a microphone. Soon, the lead singer reaches the microphone, opens his mouth, and mumbles his lyrics into the mic as a muted guitar strums and a soft drum beats in the background; a calm sea before the storm. The camera cuts again; this time to a tree-lined plaza in the middle of a city. Through the trees walks the robed man, now dressed in a gray suit and black tie, now facing the audience; the shadows of the trees move over his expressionless face. Then, the camera cuts to the man crossing a street lined with skyscrapers of unknown heights, now hurrying even more. The camera cuts to the man again, who has the same blank look on his face, whose walk is slower now, who suddenly stops walking and stands there in the middle of the sidewalk in the middle of the city. The camera cuts to the man’s legs, sheathed in crisp black dress pants, positioned like the two retracted sides of a drawbridge. Then, the legs are bent, and suddenly the man is toppled, horizontal, his legs stacked one on top of the other, and the man is lying down on his side, his right arm splayed out beneath his head, his left resting on top of him. A man in a plaid suit with floppy brown hair rushes down the sidewalk; trips over the man lying there; falls to the ground. The floppy-haired man gets back up, says he’s sorry in white subtitles that appear at the bottom of the screen; says he didn’t see the lying man lying there; asks if the lying man’s okay. The lying man says yes, his face still blank; his eyes locked on the ground in front of him. The floppy-haired man, looking concerned, asks him what happened, if he fell. The lying man says he’s fine, asks to be left alone. The floppy-haired man, with a look of sudden understanding on his face, says you’ve been drinking. The lying man says no, he hasn’t been drinking. The floppy-haired man, exasperatedly asks why he’s lying down in the middle of the sidewalk if he hasn’t been drinking. The floppy-haired man, with renewed concern, gets down on his haunches, asks why the lying man’s lying down again, gets no response, then offers to help the other man up. The other man yells no, don’t touch me. A young couple walks up; asks what’s the matter with the lying man. Soon, more people approach the scene; two, three, five, ten, and suddenly a crowd surrounds the floppy-haired man and the lying man. An older man in the crowd asks if he’s hurt. The lying man says no, everyone leave me alone. He must be mad, someone says. I’m not mad, just leave me alone, says the lying man. Again, the floppy-haired man asks what’s wrong; asks why he’s lying down. I can’t tell you; it wouldn’t be right, replies the lying man, still staring at the sidewalk in front of him. Across the street, a policeman on a motorcycle is parking on the curb; a woman calls him over. The policeman walks over, bends down, asks if the man on the ground’s alright. The lying man replies yes, he’s fine, why can’t everyone just leave him there. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that sir, the policeman says, and reaches for the lying man’s arm. The lying man yells don’t touch me. Tell me why you’re lying there, just tell me, pleads the floppy-haired man yet again. The lying man says you don’t want to know. Is it because you think there’s no point? You think we’re all going to die? asks the floppy-haired man. The lying man says no. The policeman angrily demands, tell us, goddammit, tell us. So, you want to know why I’m lying here, says the lying man. The floppy-haired man yells yes. You really want to know, asks the lying man again. Okay, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you why I’m lying here, says the man, but God help us all. Tell us, the floppy-haired man yells, his teeth clenched, his eyes wild. And then the lying man looks up, and makes eye contact with the floppy-haired man, and the lying man speaks, but the white text has disappeared; his lips move without corresponding sounds. The floppy-haired man stands up; the look on his face inexpressible. The whole band looks out of the window, gazing down at what unfolds beneath. Then, the camera cuts to a view of the lying man from about 20 feet above him — still lying there, eyes still locked on the ground, but no longer speaking. And then the camera pans right, revealing the floppy-haired man and the policeman and the young couple and the older man and a woman in a black blouse and a young man in a gray suit and countless others all dressed in business formal attire all lying there on the pavement alongside the lying man, and the camera keeps panning right, revealing more and more motionless people lying on the ground, and the tapestry of the unmoving unrolls further and further, and then the song crashes to an end, and the video cuts to black, and the video is over.
Without thinking, he slammed his laptop screen shut, stood up, slipped into his shoes, grabbed his ID card, and left his room. He stalked down the narrow hallway, descended the staircase, reached the first floor, reached the glass door, pushed his way out, rushed to the bike rack, unlocked his bike, got on his bike, started pedaling, sped up, and tore down the sidewalks and ramps that wended past the tall sycamore trees, the football stadium, the tennis courts, the parking lot, the swimming pool, the tennis stadium, the social sciences building overlooking downtown, the student center, the Esplanade, the other football stadium, the Zoo parking garage, the highway underpass, the Zoo entrance, the park entrance, and the bike rack at which he stopped and locked his bike and set off on foot. He aimlessly walked in the park for a while, he descended into the grass, he scared away the ducks, he crossed the river, he ascended a staircase. Soon, he found himself on a sidewalk; picnic tables shaded by gnarled live oaks to his left, a two-lane road to his right, and beyond the road, another sidewalk and a dense wall of uncleared vegetation. He kept walking for a while, then began to slow down, and then came to a stop. In the distance, he heard the whistle of the little red train that took kids and their parents on a lazy loop around the park. Behind him, he could hear the river roaring, swollen from yesterday’s rains. Dusk was falling; bright orange light was retreating from the tops of the trees. And then he leaned over, and he was lying on his side on the ground.
For a couple minutes everything was peaceful, there was no one in sight. It continued to get darker and darker, a slight breeze picked up, birds began chirping; he felt his eyelids get heavy, and his limbs relax, and a yawn built in his throat, and, for the first time in 34 hours, he could feel himself fading away. Then he heard footsteps, and he looked up.
A white woman with straight brown hair tied back in a ponytail was running towards him; she was wearing a blue sports bra and blue shorts and had wireless earbuds embedded in her canals. He braced himself for impact; readied his lines. But when the woman reached him, she hopped over his motionless body and pushed on, without even a glance down. He turned his head and watched her run into the distance, until he realized he was breaking the rules, and so he set his head back down and returned his gaze to the pavement.
Some time later, a family with young kids approached from his backside. He could make out four distinct voices: first, a mom with a commanding, calming voice; second, a dad with a goofy affect probably put on for the benefit of the kids; third and fourth, a young girl who sounded lucid enough for 10 or 11, and a young squealing boy of maybe around four. The footsteps gradually got louder, and louder, until he could feel their vibrations through the ground. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the family go around him into the grass. “Mommy, look!” said the boy, who, he could sense, was staring right at his face. “Mommy, look!”
“Ignore him,” said the mom, grabbing her kid’s hand, shuffling past quickly with the husband and daughter behind her. “Ignore him.”
Eventually, they passed into the distance, and he was left alone with his thoughts. A tide of self-doubt was rising; he wrestled with it for a while. Finally, a consensus emerged.
A couple approached, the man’s hair short and curly, the woman’s flowing and black; both wore casual wear and sneakers. The man held a leash in his hand; at the end of it was a miniature dog with a short, shiny coat and a fluffy tail. From his eye’s corner, he watched them approach.
He heard the sound of footsteps crescendo, then suddenly stop. “Are you okay? Do you need help?” asked the woman, peering at him from above.
He said no, said he was fine, asked them to please leave him alone.
“Are you sure?”
He said yes, again told them to leave him alone.
“You know you’re blocking the sidewalk, right?” said the man.
He did not respond.
“You could hurt someone,” said the man.
He did not respond.
“Is it some sort of political thing?” asked the woman.
He said no, asked to be left alone.
For a few moments, everyone stopped. The couple stared at him; he stared at the ground, and around them the breeze died down and the birds stopped chirping and the darkness accumulated. And then, deliverance.
“Come on,” the woman said to the man, and then walked off. The man nodded, stared at him strangely for a few moments more, then walked off too.
Two middle-aged men in T-shirts and jeans— one bald, one balding— lumbered towards him, laughing and chatting, their bantering conversation flecked with friendly fuck yous. They stopped talking when they reached him.
“Dude, what the fuck?” asked the bald man. Abruptly, the balding man started cackling, and then coughing, and then spat on the grass and was silent.
He glued his gaze to the ground; took a couple deep breaths.
“Man, get the fuck out the way,” said the bald man.
He did not respond.
“Move, or I’m gonna move you.”
He did not respond.
“Darryl, it’s fine, let’s just go around,” said the balding man.
“Nah man, it’s not fine, he’s blocking the way. He almost tripped me.”
“Yeah seriously, why you doing this, man?” asked the balding man. “Why you doing this?”
For a while, he thought. Then, he said he didn’t know yet.
“You don’t know yet? The fuck does that mean?” said Darryl.
He did not respond. Silence reigned.
“Look, we’re gonna ask you one more time,” said Darryl.
He said sorry, I wish I could tell you, but I’m not ready yet, I’m really not ready yet, leave me alone.
Darryl looked pissed, but the balding man put his hand on Darryl’s shoulder and squeezed. “Come on man, let’s go. Kid needs help.”
Darryl glowered at Kid and started to follow the balding man in walking off, but, just as it seemed as if Kid was out of the woods, Darryl abruptly turned and gave him a hard kick to the stomach. He winced, gasped for air, instinctively curled up like an armadillo, but did not look up.
A short-haired younger woman in a daisy-yellow tank top walking with an afroed man in a black shirt and jeans. A curly-haired man with a neatly trimmed beard pushing a stroller, the occupant of which made no sound. A man with a buzzcut riding a bike, which the man deftly maneuvered into and out of the grass. A bald man in a white tank carrying a large rolled-up picnic blanket, trailed by three whining kids. A fair-haired young guy wearing khakis and a backpack. All these passed him, most ignored him, some asked if he needed help, some made polite inquiries as to his health, some laughed at him, some told him to get out of the way; and he told them he was fine, he told them to leave him alone, he told them not to touch him. When they asked why he was lying down, he did not tell them, he could not tell them, he said he wasn’t ready yet, or just stayed silent, eyes fixated on the ground, until they moved on. They all moved on.
Darkness had fallen; street lamps were lit; the trees cast elongated shadows on the bare street. The river kept rushing; the croaking of distant frogs got louder and louder, like someone rubbing a metronome against his skull. Otherwise it was dead silent; he wondered why he didn’t hear the train whistle anymore. Before long, he felt his eyelids get heavy, and his limbs relax, and a yawn build in his throat, and he was just about to close his eyes when he saw her leap over him, collapse into a pile on the ground in front of him, and then quickly get back up and walk back over to him. Sorry, I didn’t see you lying there, are you okay, she said, breathless. He said yes, tried to keep his eyes on the ground. What happened, did you fall, she asks. He said he was fine, told her to leave him alone. You’ve been drinking, she said, staring at him intently. For a moment he was left speechless, and then he remembered, and replied, no, I haven’t been drinking. Then why are you here, she said, still staring at him with wide eyes, and then after a split second got down on her haunches and offered to help him up. He said softly, no, don’t touch me. And then there was silence; first, two seconds, then three, five, ten, and suddenly a fog of silence surrounded them, and yet her eyes were still locked on him, intense, searching, and it took all of his power to not to look up at her, to look only from the corner of his eye. A long pause; the roaring of the river returned. Then, after a while, she repeated what’s wrong, why are you lying down, and he exhaled, and the fog lifted. I can’t tell you, it would be wrong, he responded. Confused, she whispered no, it’s — it wouldn’t be — it wouldn’t be right, he said, and a flicker of a smile ran across her face before being suppressed. Why are you lying there, just tell me, she said. You don’t wanna know, he said. You think there’s no point you think we’re all gonna die is that it, she said quickly, and immediately he said no. Then tell me, goddammit, tell me, she said. So, you really want to know why I’m lying here, he said, and she said yes. You really want to know, he asked again, and she responded with her eyes. Alright I’ll tell you why I’m lying here, he said, but God help us both. Tell me, she said, smiling.
And then he looked up, and saw her, really saw her for the first time, and he told her.