He was going to Santa Monica.
Santa Monica is where many people go with dreams of making it in Los Angeles. You see them wandering the streets, loitering outside convenience stores, washing up in restrooms, looking to scrounge money or get a job. They intermingle with drug addicts and Iraq war veterans. Some are drug addicts. They carry guitars on their backs or screenplays in their back pockets or ideas in their heads. If only you would listen. If only you would give them a chance…
Needless to say, most of them don’t make it.
He didn’t have a guitar or a screenplay or—as far as I could tell—an idea, only a peculiar set of headphones and a bus ticket, which he’d thrust at you if he noticed you speaking to him.
Detroit–Santa Monica. One way.
I got on near Joliet, Illinois, which is a little southwest of Chicago. The bus was late, and I remember waiting at dawn in a nearly empty parking lot, with only a single car—its lone occupant either sleeping or tripping in the driver’s seat—and the faint buzz of the I-80 for company, thinking, what the hell have I been doing with my life?
I was thirty-one, with a high school education and a few college courses to my name, a patchy low-wage employment record (currently between jobs), no girlfriend and almost no stable relationships.
Two nights ago, I’d had a big fight with my parents and they’d either kicked me out of the house or I’d left in anger. I don’t remember. Either way, I’d packed a duffel bag full of random stuff and decided to take Horace Greeley’s advice and go west. One of my only friends lived in Los Angeles and said I could crash on his couch for a while. After spending one night sleeping outdoors, I very much didn’t want to do that again.
So here I was: bus ticket in hand and waiting for my carriage ride to salvation.
I didn’t expect it to be so crowded.
After storing my bag under the bus, I embarked. The driver looked me over with tired eyes, nodded in recognition and started the bus rolling while I was still in the aisle, trying to find a place to sit. Almost all the seats were taken. Only two were available: beside a fat guy in a leather jacket and beside him. I gravitated toward the former, but when I got close the guy looked up and told me to fuck off. “There aren’t any seats,” I said. “Then go sit in your momma’s lap,” he suggested.
I smiled like a coward and continued to the back of the bus.
I didn’t want to sit beside him.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being on a cross-country bus, you know that it’s not exactly a gallery of America’s finest citizens. People take the bus because they don’t have cars and can’t afford to fly, which usually means they’re what civilization has chewed up and spat out. Losers, in other words, just like me. People who’ve for whatever reason been unable or unwilling to succeed at life by life’s generally accepted rules. Some have failed. Others haven’t tried. Looking down the aisle, I was looking at bums, idiosyncratics, deadbeats and visionaries—and I was unable to tell the difference. But there’s wisdom in crowds, and if nobody wants to sit beside you, there’s a reason. As I got closer to him, I could name a couple: he smelled like an unventilated urinal, he was dirty and had the unmistakable aura of weirdness, which means unpredictability, like a drunk or a mental patient.
I sat down and said, “Hello.”
He didn’t react—just stared ahead, jerking his head to the music I imagined was playing through his headphones. None of it bleeding through.
I tried again.
And a third time.
Finally, he reacted: by thrusting his ticket at me.
Detroit–Santa Monica. One way.
Then silently he returned to staring.
I tried to maneuver my body into as comfortable a position as possible in the tight space allotted to me, and resigned myself to a long and unpleasant bus ride. I tried reading, listening to podcasts or staring out the window past his head. Although I never did learn his real name, in my head I was already referring to him as Sooty.
But a bus being a bus, you can never do anything for too long before feeling fed up. The book made my eyes water. I zoned out while listening to podcasts. And looking out the window became looking at Sooty: at his jerking head; his skin, dark and heavy; and at his odd headphones, which were either homemade or somehow adapted, because they resembled two heavily-taped cardboard boxes connected by a piece of rough plastic. They looked like they’d met cement and barely survived.
Or—the thought chilled me as it passed—they weren’t headphones at all, Sooty wasn’t listening to music, and Sooty was bobbing his head erratically to the inner sounds of his own insanity.
Did you hear the one about the guy on the Greyhound bus who decapitated a stranger with a knife, then started eating parts of him…
I awoke to deceleration. I must have dozed off because an hour had passed, and the bus was pulling into a service station.
Sooty was seated as before.
The driver announced that we had fifteen minutes to go to the bathroom and eat. “But there’s no food on the bus. Next stop won’t be for another three hours.”
Most of the passengers shuffled off.
While using the public restroom, which stank of equal parts vomit and disinfectant, I wondered if Sooty perhaps peed in his seat, which would explain the smell emanating from him.
Getting back on the bus, I considered taking a different spot, but passengers had left behind some of their belongings like little tokens of ownership (“Move your ass, boy. Can’t you see my cigs is here?”) and I was too afraid of violating some rule of bus etiquette.
So down the aisle I went, sensing Sooty’s pungent scent and realizing there was something cloudy about him: about the space around him. As if the daylight shining horizontally through the large bus windows was evading him—almost dispersing in his presence. Then I saw that perhaps he wasn’t dirty at all. That it was perhaps this dimness which had attached itself to him, taken up residence in the pores and wrinkles of his skin like smoke.
I sat and took out my book.
Night befell us near Omaha, Nebraska.
A persistent headwind blew away the day’s remains like a carpenter clearing sawdust from a half-sanded tabletop, and the first stars emerged upon a canvas of fading blue sky.
On the bus, a series of reading lights turned on.
Ours remained off.
Sooty jerked his head to whatever was playing through his headphones.
In the saturating, inky darkness, his aura of dimness was less pronounced but more profound.
I tried to sleep, but found myself too on edge: too irritated by the hum of the bus engine, which almost but not quite fell into a soothing hypnotic repetition.
Increasingly, the other passengers dozed.
Sometime during the night I heard Sooty begin to moan, softly at first, but excruciatingly, as if a great hurt was being done to him deep within his soul. His eyes were still open, so I knew he wasn’t asleep, but I perceived him at a greater distance than before. Although I doubted he had ever been all there, now he felt absent. His sounds, while intimate to the point of discomfort, were otherworldly. On a few occasions, they became loud enough I was sure the passengers in the seats in front of us would hear, but they betrayed nothing, and mostly the moans swirled around us only, like fruit flies orbiting a pair of ripe melons.
“Are you OK?” I asked him.
He kept moaning.
I waved my hand in front of his face. “Hey, you alright?”
Open eyes and moans and sometimes the twitch of a muscle on his face. Like a dog dreaming. Maybe he was dreaming—
He thrust suddenly his ticket at me.
Detroit–Santa Monica. One way.
But this time he also turned his face, and beheld me with such immensity of fear that instinctively I recoiled.
In the passing headlights, I could see his skin beaded with sweat.
He stuck one arm below his seat, where I saw the frayed edge of a plastic grocery bag—heard the shuffle of paper—and he looked at me again, this time holding out something other than his ticket: a photocopy of a handwritten note, torn at one edge, the handwriting ragged but legible, comprised of an address in Dallas, Texas, and the words: in the basement is a light switch turn it off turn it on turn it off turn it on.
Unsure of what to do, but pressured by his pained expression, I took the note and slid it into my pocket.
Then grimaced, pressed his headphones hard against his ears and lowered his head between his knees, all the while moaning dreadfully.
The hum of the engine. The shadowplay of the headlights…
Half an hour later, he started grinding his teeth. I could hear enamel scraping.
Sucking in air.
When the bus next stopped, somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, as I and all the other passengers except for Sooty exited the bus to stretch our legs and visit the restroom, I told the driver that Sooty wasn’t feeling well.
The night air was vast and cool.
As I was making my way back to the parking lot, admiring the stars, I noticed the driver and two others coaxing Sooty off the bus—
He didn’t want to go.
It was becoming a scene, and the other passengers were watching.
Two service station employees had joined them.
The bus engine was off and the night-quiet was pure but for the swish of cars speeding down the I-80.
As the driver and his two helpers finally ripped Sooty’s unwilling body from the opened bus doors, he screeched the only words I ever heard him say:
“Detroit–Santa Monica. One way!”
“Detroit–Santa Monica! One way!”
“Are you feeling OK?” the driver was asking him. “Have you taken anything? One of the other passengers—” That was me: I felt the gut punch of guilt. I had said… “—you weren’t looking so hot.”
“Detroit–Santa Monica. One way!”
“Do you need a doctor?”
“Detroit–Santa Monica! One way. Detroit–Santa Monica! One way!”
“It’s no use. He don’t hear you,” someone shouted.
“Does anyone know this fucking guy?” A few people looked my way, but I kept my head down. I didn’t know him. I had merely sat beside him.
“Can you take off your headphones?” the driver asked, miming the request. “Take off the headphones, please.”
Sooty had his hands pressed against his ears. He was becoming manic. Darkening. The lights from the service station fell just short of him; the lights from the bus stayed inside. Even the headlights from the highway seemed to bend around him.
“Detroit–Santa Monica. One way!”
“For fuck’s sake,” the driver screamed. “Take off those goddamn headphones!”
The driver reached for the headphones—
Sooty swatted his hand!
The driver’s two helpers grabbed Sooty from behind, each managing to hold one of his serpentine arms—
The driver reached again. “Just gonna take ‘em off for a minute.”
As he reached gingerly for them, Sooty craned his neck and his black eyes bore into mine. It was as if a tunnel had opened between us. I felt his note burning in my pocket. I felt like this was all my fault because if only I had kept my mouth shut. Why couldn’t I have just let him be? Because he seemed in pain.
The driver removed the headphones—
That’s when I saw pain truly.
We all saw:
As soon as Sooty’s ears were exposed—swollen, bloody ears—he shrieked, dropping to his knees, the driver leaping back, Sooty pounding with his fists: against the asphalt; against his own head. Pounding violently and shrieking and the bus windows burst into a rain of glass and someone else started screaming, then more people. I saw the lights of cellphones. Some calling, some recording. One of the passengers lost consciousness. Sooty crawled—if that’s what you call it when you use your legs to push your shoulders and face along the ground—forward, toward the driver, who was backing up, still holding the headphones. He dropped them on the asphalt and ran. The sounds of screaming were adamantine and the night itself had hardened into a terrible black gem.
Then Sooty rose to his feet.
Strips of flesh fell away from one side of his face.
And ran onto the I-80—
into the path of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler that eviscerated him on impact.
Squealing rubber. Honking. Interstate traffic grinding to a halt.
The screaming: a crescendo, and—
Nothing but the sound of my heart beating. Eyes pulsing in tune with the twinkle of stars. The scattered bloom of realization.
Sooty is gone.
His body is no more.
All that remains of him are the headphones, still lying on the asphalt, ignored by everyone but me. Each step I take toward them makes my lights flash on and off. I didn’t know one could walk so loudly. So sluggishly. Like swimming through the night. Until I’m beside them, and I bend down and pick them up. And everything returns to normal.
From somewhere distant I hear sirens.
We spent the night on the bus, listening to the interstate through the frames where the glass used to be, trying to sleep. Feeling the occasional gust of wind on our skin. We talked to the police. They took our statements. They didn’t ask me too many questions, and I didn’t mention the headphones. I figured that if someone else did, I’d hand them over. But no one did. It was clearly a suicide. There were witnesses. Sooty was unquestionably unwell. “You know what kind of people we get on these trips,” I heard the driver tell one of the police officers.” I suppose I should have felt relieved I still had my head, but the truth is I felt unsettled on a subatomic level. Maybe it was the unreality of the Nebraska landscape, stretching flatly as it does to nothingness. Maybe it was that I’d never seen a man die. I’d seen a dead man, but that’s not nearly the same.
Sooty was; Sooty wasn’t. The horror was in the semi-colon.
Never have I been so uncertain about the coming of morning as I was aboard the bus that night. The possibility of permanent darkness terrified me.
I hated the absence of a ticking clock: of a mechanical reminder of the passing of time.
Someone snapped their fingers—
“Yes?” I said.
It was light out, and a kindly face explained to me that it was time to go. Beside our bus stood a new one, windowed and humming. The man speaking was the new driver.
We transported ourselves single file from one bus to the other, wordlessly maintaining the same seating arrangements, which meant I was now sitting by myself, but I refrained from taking the window seat: out of respect for the recently departed—or out of fear. Before leaving the old bus, I had reached below Sooty’s seat and removed the plastic bag from which he’d taken his note. The bag was filled with papers, and I set it beside me. The papers, I decided, would continue to Santa Monica. It was the least I could do.
Soon we left the I-80, heading southwest on the I-76 to Denver, then down the I-70 across the arid alien landscapes of Utah before finally turning onto the I-15 through Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
Passengers left the bus.
New ones got on.
It was in Utah that I went through Sooty’s plastic bag, paper by paper, only to discover that they were identical: a Dallas address and the words in the basement is a light switch turn it off turn it on turn it off turn it on. All were photocopies. There was no original.
Sometimes I took his headphones and turned them over in my hands, but low so the other passengers wouldn’t see, and ran my fingers over theirs planes and edges, and remembered how passionately he’d screamed when they had removed them from his head; his bleeding ears, the shredded half of his face; the short, final punctuation of impact…
It was a long way from Nebraska to Los Angeles and it passed in an atmosphere of somber grieving. Although none of us would have admitted it, we knew that ultimately Sooty was one of us more than one of them—the tourists in Las Vegas, the commuters in Barstow and Victorville—so we grieved not only for the dead but also for the living, because in Sooty’s death we saw our own discarded lives.
We arrived in Los Angeles (City of stars / Are you shining just for me?) on a stormy weeknight.
Most passengers got off.
The rest continued south to San Diego.
The rain drummed. I retrieved my duffel bag and ran on aching legs to the nearest shelter, from where I bid the bus goodbye. Rolling away it resembled a giant metal cocoon. When it disappeared, I ordered an Uber from the bus depot to my friend’s house. While waiting, I put on Sooty’s headphones for the first time—aware only after the fact that there was blood on the cushions. No sound flowed out of them, only the dulled reverberations of the outside world. I took them off and wiped Sooty’s blood from my ears. The rain came down harder. The Uber came.
I knocked on my friend’s front door, but nobody answered.
I called his phone. Nothing.
It was the middle of the night and I was late, so I decided he must be sleeping.
The house itself was small, fit snugly between two others, on a street overgrown with houses the way a branch is overgrown with fruit. Burnt lawns, big cars in small driveways, the aroma of domesticity. Still, I was glad for his front porch because it kept me dry, and huddling in a corner I dozed.
He met me in the morning—opening the front door; there I was. “Christ, you look like absolute garbage!”
He made me coffee, toast and fried eggs, which I wolfed down while telling him about the fight with my parents and the trip to Los Angeles.
“That is some trauma-level shit,” he said.
“How long can I stay?”
He said it could be as long as I wanted as long as I got new clothes and took a shower. “Because you reek, dude.” I had to admit it was nice to feel the lather of soap on my skin and tile under my feet. Cleanliness can be a luxury.
He took me clothes shopping, and we went to Santa Monica.
We walked along the ocean. I carried Sooty’s plastic bag of photocopied notes, looking for a place to leave them. I couldn’t explain why it was so important to me. Perhaps I thought it would free me from the feelings of dread (“Trauma, man.”) that had clung to me since Nebraska. Eventually I left the bag on the Santa Monica Pier. It was busy even during the day, and when I looked back there was already someone peeking inside and retrieving Sooty’s cryptic last words to the world.
Back at my friend’s house, I pulled out Sooty’s headphones, determined to have a closer look at them.
“Those are ghetto,” my friend said.
I let him handle them. “Careful, there might be blo—”
“Gross!” He almost dropped them. “Absolutely fucking gross. Throw that shit out. I mean, do they even work?”
He returned them to me with genuine disgust. I cleaned the cushions with rubbing alcohol, scratching away bits of dried blood with my fingernail, and let them sit.
“Why are you so attached to these headphones anyway?” he asked.
I explained Sooty had been wearing them the whole bus ride. That he’d been bobbing his head as if listening to music through them. That he didn’t want to take them off. That when finally they did take them—
“OK, OK. In the spirit of healing, I know an electronics guy. Let’s get him to take a look, and then we never touch those ghetto phones again. Deal?”
It happened that the electronics guy owned a pawn shop, and it took him five seconds to say, “These aren’t headphones. You know how people call headphones cans? These are actual cans. Wrapped in cardboard and tape.”
“It’s settled,” my friend said.
I protested that Sooty had been listening to something through them.
“Impossible. The only thing the guy could’ve been listening to was voices in his own crazy head.” The pawn shop owner held up a small knife and motioned with it at the headphones. “May I?”
He made a few incisions, unfolded cardboard. “See? Nothing. No electronics. No magnets.”
Although he was right about the electronics and magnets, the headphones weren’t empty. They were filled with an intricate array of variously sized cardboard rectangles: notched, interlocked, and adorned with symbols. Most of them I didn’t recognize. One I did.
“Yeah, that’s weird,” my friend said.
I grabbed the headphones before the knife could do more damage, careful not to upset the interior symbolic arrangement.
“Suit your crazy selves.”
My friend was a session musician and spent a lot of time away from home. I lounged about, looking for rest that wouldn’t come and trying my best to forget about Sooty. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the headphones. I hid them, and examined them only when I was alone. Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep. I convinced myself it was the change of time zones that was grating on me, but deep down I knew it wasn’t that simple. I entertained the possibility my friend was right: I had been traumatized. That sound of Sooty grinding his teeth together. But whenever I googled doctors, I sensed another word was more accurate: haunted. No doctor could help me with that. Then I’d place the headphones on my head and sit, listening to their distorted, uncanny interpretation of the world, which even at the height of summer could chill my flesh and make me doubt the coming of the dawn.
A person may live for years in a restless, haunted state. Some do it their whole lives. It’s a matter of adaptation, and humans are masters of that. For me, the state lasted three months. I found one part-time job hauling a/v equipment, a second with a moving company, and started making something of my life. I even contacted my parents. “I think I’ll stay out here awhile,” I told them. “Things are good, and I see a future for myself.”
I opened a bank account.
I met a girl.
Then one day my friend suggested a road trip. “Anywhere you wanna go?”
“Dallas,” I said.
I’d said it inevitably and without thinking. “Not somewhere closer. More fun. Vegas?” he asked.
“I have family in Dallas,” I lied. “I’d like to visit.”
We made the drive in two days, taking turns behind the wheel, and checked into a one-week rental. While my friend tweaked our itinerary, I ducked out under the pretense of meeting kin and headed for the address on Sooty’s note.
I was initially disappointed.
There was nothing remarkable about it: a brick house in the suburbs, slightly worn down but obviously home to a family, judging by the cars in the driveway and toys scattered about the yard. I watched it for a quarter of an hour before gathering the courage to knock on the front door. A man answered. “May I help you?”
The lie came naturally. “I—’m sorry to bother you, but I grew up in this house and I was wondering if it would be alright if I took a look inside.” The man blinked without answering. I continued, “My father died recently, and I…”
I let the unfinished sentence linger.
“Please,” he said finally, ushering me inside.
The place was busy: packed with the detritus of life. I heard a woman talking on the phone and children playing upstairs. I pretended to be overcome with emotion, and in a sense I was. My heart was pounding. “May I see the basement?” I asked.
“Of course,” the man said, leading me to a set of stairs. “One of the things that makes this place unique. You won’t find many Texas homes with basements.” He sounded as if he was giving a tour. I imagined him as a salesman.
“Yes. I’m from the north myself—”
“I mean I live in Illinois these days,” I corrected. “I miss Texas.”
We reached the basement.
“I’m sorry to hear about your father,” the man said. “I lost mine a few years ago. Colon cancer. I know how tough it can be.”
I scanned the room—cramped with unused things—for a light switch.
I saw two.
The man flicked one on.
And I raised a hand to my gaping mouth. The man bowed his head, mistaking my shock for melancholy. But I was not moved. I was staring at the wall, on which faintly visible was scrawled a large ankh.
“Do you want some time?” the man asked.
As soon as he was gone, I inspected the ankh. It looked neither painted on nor scratched. Burned perhaps—or something else. I ran my fingertips across it but felt nothing. The wall was smooth.
Next I flipped on the second light switch, which further illuminated the room.
Then I followed Sooty’s instructions:
Turning each switch:
off on off on
One of the light bulbs burst—
The man’s anxious face appeared at the top of the stairs.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Needed replacing anyway.”
I ascended the stairs and thanked him for his kindness. “By the way,” I said, “does it ever bother you: the ankh on the wall?”
“The cross on the basement wall.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He showed me out.
The world was as it had been: blue sky; sunshine; white clouds travelling. Nothing was changed—but I didn’t know what change I had expected, or why I expected a change at all. I had met a mentally ill man on the bus. He had fake headphones and a plastic bag full of papers containing an address, perhaps one significant to him; perhaps not. Walking along the street, I realized my own life was so devoid of meaning that I had placed my faith in whatever came along. Whatever insanity came along. The true meaning of life, its foundations, I had just started laying down in Los Angeles. That was real. As for the ankh—what ankh? It was but a trick of the light enabled by the power of suggestion. The homeowner had no idea what I was talking about, and he lived there. Light bulbs, I decided, sometimes shatter when you fiddle with light switches.
I didn’t want to go back to the rental so I wandered the area.
The streets meandered.
I entered a park and sat on a bench. Opposite me parents spoke to kids playing across monkey bars and down slides. Someone kicked a soccer ball. Beside the bench stood a garbage bin, and I resolved to throw Sooty’s headphones into it. I had been on a hunt for symbols, and here was a healthy one: to free myself of a psychological anchor. Trauma. Yes, my friend had been right: I was traumatized by what I’d seen. A truck had collided with a man of flesh and bone, snuffing out his life. Many people would be traumatized by that. But now I was over it. Now I could throw the headphones—
I decided to put them on: one final time.
That would be symbolic too.
I slipped them over my ears, closed my aching eyes and—
heard the most beautiful music in the world.
Dimly angelic: as if from another city: or from another galaxy: as if the first rays of light touching an incomprehensibly unknown darkness…
The kids played.
The clouds traversed the blue.
And I listened: enthralled and awed and utterly frightened both of the music and of being removed from it—
I willed the headphones off my ears and found myself assaulted by the real world.
The feeling dispersed.
The garbage bin beckoned, but I tossed nothing inside it.
One does not simply dispose of miracles.
Back in the rental, my friend asked about my family. I told him they were fine, and we spent the remaining days of our trip engaged in what he considered fun and I considered penance. I endured it gladly. At night, when he slept, I snuck outside and under starlight listened for hours to the music of the heavens.
I continued my night listening when we returned to Los Angeles.
The skin around my eyes darkened.
I slept only during the day.
“You don’t look so good,” my friend told me once. I didn’t doubt his worry, but I was fine: infinitely more! “Life is good,” I told him.
I lost my jobs.
“Are you eating? How’s things with what’s-her-name?”
“Yes. Good.” I didn’t remember her name either.
I barely remembered her face.
“Hey, you wanna come out with me and my friends tonight?”
“Not tonight, thanks.”
“Hey, you wanna come—”
Weeks passed in a haze of moonlight.
One night while sitting peacefully on my friend’s porch, filling my head with the audio joy, I experienced a shock.
“Jesus Christ! Is this what you’ve been doing all night?”
My friend was holding my headphones, staring at me from above like some kind of man-mother and I said, “Give them back to me.”
“I thought you were over this shit, man. We agreed you’d—”
“Relax, Smeagol,” he said.
“I want to listen.”
“There is no listening. Remember? These are not headphones. They’re junk, and junk goes in the garbage.”
“Just listen,” I said.
He shook his head but dutifully put on the headphones. “I’m listening—to… nothing.”
“It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful music.”
‘It’s nothing.” He took the headphones off and put his hands on his hips. “I’m gonna level with you, bro. I think you need help. Whatever you saw messed you up and you need professional help with that shit.”
“I don’t need help.”
“Then throw out the headphones,” he said.
“I mean throw ‘em out now.”
“You know what? Fuck it. I’ll throw them out and you’ll thank me for it later.”
He turned—and I grabbed for the headphones but missed, catching him in the back and nearly knocking him off balance. “Dude! Seriously.”
“I want them back.”
“OK. Here’s the deal,” he said. “These things are fucking you up. You can’t live here if you’re fucked up. So you can either keep living here or you can take the—”
I grabbed the headphones, turned my back on him and left.
I never saw him again.
Slipping the headphones delicately onto my ears, I pounded down the sidewalk—the pounding receding with every step: replaced by those glorious sounds: sounds so dim at first but now becoming a little louder, a little clearer, each day. Yes, yes, I thought. This is beauty. I didn’t notice that as I passed under the glowing streetlights, their light had begun to curve around me.
I roughed it for about a week, then called my parents and asked if I could come home to visit. I apologized for the past. “Everything here is great. Great job, great girl. I just miss you guys,” I told them, and in their spoken words I knew their happiness.
I used what remained of my money to buy a bus ticket from Los Angeles to Illinois.
The ride was long but passed like rain.
I sat in the back by the window, and although the bus was full of passengers nobody sat beside me.
I had my headphones on.
The doorbell rang—
My mom answered and saw me standing in the same clothes I’d been wearing for over a week, raccoon-faced and wearing my headphones. “Oh…”
She and my dad greeted me, then started piling food onto a plate.
My mom said I had lost weight, but I knew she meant it as you look unhealthy, and when I went to the bathroom and saw my reflection in the mirror—something you avoid when you’re on the street—I couldn’t blame her. I looked scary: gaunt, concave, shaded. I scrubbed my skin but couldn’t get the shadows off. What the hell was this? I told my parents I needed some rest, and they happily saw me to bed. That night, I wallowed in a similar kind of fear as the night of Sooty’s suicide: I feared the not-coming of the dawn, except that tonight I was afraid for myself: I was afraid what wouldn’t come was the dawn in me. I prayed to God as best as I could, like talking to a friend, and asked Him to help me get through whatever this was. This existential crisis. Then I thanked Him, because no matter what I was experiencing at least he had given me the music. Then I decided I didn’t believe in God, curled up on my childhood bed with the headphones on and went to sleep.
A few days later, my parents confronted me in the living room and in somber voices told me they wanted me to get the help I needed and that whatever I had done in Los Angeles didn’t matter and the only thing that mattered was my well being and so they needed me to take a drug test so my healing could begin.
I agreed, and when the drug test came back negative, I overheard my dad thundering at our family doctor: What do you mean he’s not on drugs? He’s on drugs! Do you test for all drugs? Maybe it’s a new west coast drug…
I wasn’t on drugs.
At some point the doctor shined a light into my eyes.
I didn’t react.
“Huh,” he said. “Isn’t that odd.”
Although my parents treated me with kindness and tried to hide their worry from me, I saw the pain I was causing them. They wanted to help me but didn’t know how. One day, I returned from a walk to find a gift waiting for me. “What’s this?” I asked.
“Open it,” my dad said.
I did. Inside was a pair of new noise-cancelling headphones. “Wireless, just like your old ones,” he said.
“And where are my old ones?” I asked.
I fished them out of the trash and cleaned them with a moist towel as my parents watched. “Maybe you should try the new ones,” my dad suggested. “You might like them more.” Then he asked to try mine. I let him put them on. He looked over at my mom, passed the headphones to her; she put them on, smiled—
That’s how I met Dr. Baker. He was a well regarded clinical psychologist.
“Tell me,” he said during our first session, “about your trip.”
I narrated it faithfully.
“And this man, whom you call Sooty, although I understand this is not his real name—”
“Like I said, I didn’t know his real name.”
“Indeed, so this Sooty—did anyone else on the bus see him?”
I rubbed my fingers into my face. “Breathe,” Dr. Baker instructed. “I know this is not easy. It is not easy for one to plainly admit, even to one’s self, that what one sees is not there.”
“Like I said…”
The sessions were not productive.
What was productive—what kept me sane during this period—were the headphones: the music. It was loud enough now that I no longer had to strain to hear it. I could just slip on the headphones and melt away. Which is what I did, night after day after night after day after night…
Until the day I took the headphones off to eat breakfast and noticed a ringing in my ears.
When I put the headphones back on, the ringing stopped.
As soon as I took them off:
It bothered me during breakfast and throughout the rest of the day. Consequently, I wore my headphones more often and in public.
People had generally treated me at a distance here in Illinois, even when I was a kid, but now they blatantly avoided me. I knew I didn’t stink, because I showered regularly, sometimes even trying one more futile time to scrub the smokiness off my skin, and kept a strict routine of hygiene. They avoided me because of the headphones. “Don’t point,” mothers would whisper to their children (“Why is that man wearing cardboards on his head?”)—or so I imagined—“that man is not well.”
As soon as I took them off:
An echo: of the past:
I had come down the stairs to eat dinner with my parents, headphones on my head, the divine music soothing my mind, when my mom said something to me and I didn’t hear. Calmly she repeated the question. I still didn’t hear. “Take off those headphones,” my dad said, only barely audible above the gloriousness, “your mother’s trying to talk to you.”
“For fuck’s sake,” the driver screamed. “Take off those goddamn headphones!”
I pulled them off. “Sorry—”
The sudden ringing was immense: painful.
I grabbed my head with my hands.
The pain subsided.
I exhaled. “I’m OK now,” I said.
Except I wasn’t. The ringing was audibly persistent. Imagine the sensation of a bee sting. Now imagine that sensation as a balloon, and that balloon inflating in perpetuity in your mind. A delimited container containing unlimited suffering. I am a bus with blown out windows. I am in need of help.
I made an appointment with our family doctor.
“What you’re describing is tinnitus. Do you listen to loud music?”
He ran tests. “It’s not tinnitus.”
“What is it?”
“It could be stress. It could be something else. We’ll need to run more tests.”
I was subjected to evaluation (“Do you consent?”) and imaging (“Do you consent?”) and diagnostics (“Do you consent?”) and it tooks months and both the music in the headphones and the ringing without increased in volume and intensity, and at the end of it all, the doctor asked me to sit and told me: “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
I blinked my shadow-encircled eyes.
“You’re healthy,” he said.
“You’re young. Live your life,” he said.
“Pain only really starts when you get old,” he said.
I told my parents the good news and it set their hearts at ease. Contrary to the reality before them—what I looked like, what I acted like, how I was—the doctors had convinced them. “That’s such a relief,” my mom said. No matter what I said ever worried them again. “A clean bill of health,” my dad said. “How I miss the days when I had one of those!”
I was God’s lonely man,
sitting on the sidewalk with my back against the door of a foreclosed store that once sold antiques, listening, watching people scurry, thinking it wasn’t death I was afraid of; Sooty didn’t just die. I was terrified of what had happened to him before, of which I had caught glimpses, first in him and later around me, and finally within. I had a darkness pooling. Light avoided me. Then one dull afternoon, Father Mackenzie sat down beside me and existence began to clarify.
He said words I didn’t hear.
“What?” I said.
He was wearing his priest’s uniform. “I said: don’t you look like someone with the weight of the cosmos on him.”
“I’m not looking for religion,” I said. But his words had struck me.
I slid my headphones partially off my ears. The music quieted; the ringing began. “Religion cannot be found.”
He extended his hand. “Father Mackenzie.”
I shook it and introduced myself.
“The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” he said.
“Quoting the Bible already.”
He smiled. “Something like that. Consider it an icebreaker. Mind if I sit with you?”
“Not my sidewalk.”
He sat like that, neither of us saying anything, for a long time. Then he got up, dusted off his pants and said, “It was a pleasure to meet you. If you ever need to talk to someone again, I’m over at the Merciful Redeemer.”
I thought yeah, haha, good talk.
“On the contrary,” he responded. “I believe we each said quite a lot.” Before I could comment, he added: “No, I don’t read minds, but I do read faces. Like I said, Merciful Redeemer. You’re welcome any time.”
During dinner that night—a blissful family scene: two happy parents and their healthy adult son, the lights flickered; for a fraction of a second went out: replaced, whether really or in my mind: unknown: their flayed bodies slumped onto the dinner table, exposed muscles twitching, tongues slithering out serpentine—
Blissful domesticity: “Hey?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I must have been daydreaming.”
But these flashes of nightmare recurred, impinging briefly but vividly on the real world: a highway metamorphosing into a river of fire, car-fishes blazing; a skyscraper in downtown Chicago becoming suddenly covered in translucent skin, its metal structure bone, the bones cracking, pulverising, people falling; the sun joined in the sky by a twin, each eclipsed by a moon, and the moons reduced into their suns like two diminishing pupils.
The ringing in my ears changed also. What had been one sound was becoming the overlapping of many, human and inhuman pain, screaming and moaning and suffering. Like the buzzing of a fly on the other side of a window. Like children crying down the street. Some of them were desperate, like a cat clawing desperately at the neighbour’s screen door. Others were resigned, like the wailing of a grieving mother who knows her hurt shall never pass. The dead stay dead. Only the living can desire change.
Only the headphones gave me respite.
“Did you hear?” my mom asked. “There are forest fires out west. Los Angeles is burning.”
I could hear its screams.
I wanted it to end.
That is how I found myself on the sidewalk outside the Church of the Merciful Redeemer, staring at its twin steeples, darkly rendered against the sky, and wondering how I could have passed this building innumerable times without realizing how other it was, both in its function and its architecture. Out of place and time. I entered.
Loitering at the back, I watched a few scattered people kneel and pray.
An old priest walked by.
I asked him about Father Mackenzie.
He bade me wait.
When Father Mackenzie emerged, he was wearing a jacket and smelled faintly of eggs. “I’m glad you decided to come,” he said without a trace of surprise. “Let’s take a walk.”
As we walked the streets, I told him everything. I didn’t intend to. I didn’t expect he would let me. But he listened without interrupting—without any indication of disbelief—until I was finished. Then he said, “I believe you are a sponge awaiting sacrifice.”
I stopped walking.
“You are a container for pain.”
He was mocking me. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. Fuck off back to your church and leave me alone,” I said.
“On the contrary, I’m the only one who believes you.”
I stared at him.
“What you’re hearing is pain. The pain of the world. That pain will only become louder,” he said. “Your headphones are the divine.”
“So that’s Christianity?”
He laughed. “It’s much older than Christianity.”
“So what is it I’m supposed to do? I feel like it’s driving me insane.”
We had started walking again. “No doubt, although insanity is certainly the wrong word. If anything, you are becoming hypersane. You are sensing so much more of the world than the rest of us. As to what you’re supposed to do—it’s rather conceptually simple: endure and die.”
“In itself, that’s nothing extraordinary. Certainly nothing to fear. Endure and die is what we all do. What makes you extraordinary is your ability to experience not only your own suffering, but the suffering of others.”
My mind felt as if it were overheating: bulging: a freshly born creature pushing at the final elastic membrane separating it from the world. “It won’t stop at hearing pain,” Father Mackenzie continued. “You will feel their pain.”
I remembered Sooty. His pain.
“How is that even possible?”
“According to most, it’s not. But it depends on how you approach consciousness. Is consciousness something your mind creates using the hardware of your brain, or is there a cosmic consciousness of which our minds are the receivers, with most of us tuned specifically and forever to a frequency called I?”
I imagined the headlights of a truck. I imagined—
“But that’s theory. You have something greater. You have experience.”
We had arrived at a coffee shop tucked between an Italian cobbler and a store selling collectibles, and Father Mackenzie motioned for us to go inside. “Best espresso on this side of the Atlantic. Trust me.”
He ordered one for each of us.
The place was empty.
“You said something about sacrifice earlier,” I said.
He smiled. “Are you imagining a pentagram, knives and a stone altar?”
“Something like that.”
“You’re not entirely wrong. But before we talk about that, I want to point out the obvious. We all die. What makes a sacrifice special is not the death but the intention and the consequence.”
I drank my espresso. Father Mackenzie ordered another. “What’s the consequence of my death?”
“Salvation—temporarily for us, but permanently for you.”
I didn’t understand.
“You relieve the world of pain. You take some of its agony and contain it in yourself.”
Father Mackenzie’s second espresso came. Steam rose from its black surface. He lifted the cup with his right hand, but instead of taking a sip, he inverted it and poured the scalding coffee onto the top of his left hand. For a fraction of a second he painfully sucked in air—then I felt the burning: not on my hand but in my head: as if somehow a strip of my brain had been cut away, rolled into a tautness of wire and snipped with a pair of pliers.
“I apologize for the crude trick,” Father Mackenzie said, “but I wanted you to experience how special you are.”
The top of his left hand was red.
“It doesn’t hurt?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You took the pain away from me. What I would have felt for hours or days, you condensed and felt in an instant. There are rules to this, a physics of suffering. Some of the rules cannot be subverted. Once summoned, pain must be felt. But it must be felt only once, and there is no requirement for it to be felt by the person who summoned it. The cosmos is concerned with the bottom line. It does not micromanage.”
“And I’m special because I flicked a light switch in Texas?”
“It’s not the act which makes you special. The act is merely symbolic. You’re special because you found yourself in the position to flick a light switch in Texas. You’re special because you found yourself on a bus with Sooty; because you worried about him; because you picked up the headphones. You’re special because you’re you.”
“Can I shut it off?”
Father Mackenzie smiled. “The knife cuts both ways, I’m afraid. Just like you cannot choose to become special, you cannot choose to become ordinary. You are what you are—what you choose is how you deal with that. You can always shut yourself off. You can smash the radio receiver. Doing that won’t affect the broadcast, however.”
I pictured myself as some kind of sentient receiver: a human-shaped coil of wires and knobs. “Hardware is hardware,” I said.
“That’s right, but I would encourage you to look at it as an opportunity. Always remember the laws of suffering. Everything you feel: someone else doesn’t. The more you suffer, the less they do. You can save lives—” Father Mackenzie grabbed me suddenly by the hands. “—and remember one more thing. If I found you, others can too. There are those even within my own organization who have less encouraging methods for salvation.” His voice dropped to a whisper, and my perception flickered, and I saw flames erupting all round us as the skin peeled away from his face, revealing not muscle and bone but overlapping petals and thorny vines escaping from his orifices: winding their way over everything around us, including my legs and arms, until I could not move. And they were gone and Father Mackenzie’s face was one of empathy and concern. “Imagine existing like that,” he was saying, “kept barely alive in a windowless room deep below the city, forced to endure the pain of others. Never feeling anything but pain.”
I ripped myself free of him—
“That’s not what I want for you. I want you to choose.”
“What if I can’t take it?”
“Suffer willingly as much as you can, then bring yourself to an altar and sacrifice yourself to the cosmos.”
Tears had begun to stream down his face.
“What’s an altar?” I asked.
“Cities are altars.”
I felt the tautening of my brain. “They are axes mundi,” he said through clenched teeth. “Links between the realms.” He shut his eyes.
“Go now,” he commanded.
I could see him struggling against the coming of the pain: pain he didn’t want me to suffer. “Father, can we—”
“I’ve betrayed them,” he said as my brain buzzed. “I’m finished. Go!”
I ran out the door and into the street, where the appearance of normal life appalled me. I felt as if everything I saw was superficial, a forest of fake plastic trees through which I stumbled toward home. I felt as if I had gained the appreciation of a new dimension, but with it came the flattening of everything else. When I turned onto my parents’ street, I saw a black car parked in their driveway and two men standing at the door talking to my mom—and knew I could never go home again.
My headphones were my home now.
On the sidewalk, I passed through cones of streetlight cocooned in darkness.
I listened to the music of the heavens and accepted my condition.
I had become unseen.
That was almost seven years ago. As I type this now on a computer in a public library in Santa Monica, I no longer remember what it was like to live without pain. I spend my days on the streets, coping with the intensity of suffering around me. I wander. I loiter in front of convenience stores, hoping to wash up in their restrooms. Sometimes I beg for money. The music in my headphones is so loud I can’t imagine it becoming louder. But so is the suffering, which means the music no longer offers me a reprieve. I don’t think I sleep anymore. The ringing in my ears is a ceaseless torrent of individual agonies, and I know the time of my sacrifice is near. I have endured so much. Whenever I pass someone on the street—too wretched to be acknowledged—I hope I have taken some of their pain: used what makes me special to the benefit of the world: saved a life.
One unexpected discovery I’ve made is that my ability to feel pain is not restricted to humans. I also feel the pain of animals.
Animals are the only ones who are thankful.
They ease my pain.
Every year now it seems that Los Angeles burns, and the fires encroach ever closer on the city. They are like the visions I have, which I am convinced are seepages of hell, except prolonged and visible to everyone. In that sense, they are real.
Fake plastic trees—it must be said—burn just like the real.
Sometimes, when the suffering abates, I remember Sooty’s bag of photocopied addresses and imagine what became of them. Sometimes, when I feel that everything I’ve suffered is punishment for the act of leaving that plastic bag, I take comfort in Father Mackenzie’s words that whoever found that bag was fated for it.
I hope he’s right.
Because I no longer sleep, I no longer dream, but that means my entire existence has become a kind of waking dream, and it is in that dream I see an ending for myself. One day when the flames loom over Los Angeles, as the black, melting highways fill with people fleeing the city, I will walk in the opposite direction: into the inferno. I will take into myself the pain of all the burning animals, the strays and the wild, the terrified and the defeated, and I will give them painless death. In my dream I see them all coming to me, gathering around me. I see this as my final act of salvation. In their embrace, I too shall burn and die—
And, in death, I shall be released.