The parameters of the assignment were not at all clear. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was to live alone in a house outside of Buffalo. The unspecified length of my stay worried me. I thought perhaps after awhile without human contact I would begin to unravel. I’m a social creature. During the first few days I drafted a checklist, which, if adhered to, would help stave off any peculiarities of the mind. Some were obvious. Others seemed silly.
#1: Avoid pacing to and fro. Madness is always accompanied by pacing to and fro.
#2: Refrain from talking to myself. At times it might be comforting but it is a risky business.
#3: Don’t cut corners. For example: continue to pee standing up.
#4: Engage in mental exercises. For example: think of ten green things before breakfast.
#5: Steer clear of OCD-like behavior, touching knobs and faucets only when necessary et cetera.
The list went on. I was happy with the first twenty-four rules and I would add to them when necessary.
The two bedroom, two bath house, replete with hardwood floors and white walls, boasted a single mattress, no box spring, in the master bedroom, and a single collapsible chair in the living room.
On the wall in the kitchen hung a clock, a calendar and an old phone with a coiled cord. Those were the essentials. A yellow tennis ball and a children’s coloring book had been thoughtfully provided for diversion. Unfortunately no crayons were included. The rumor had it the Agency was experiencing cutbacks.
I was not to leave the house. They were clear on this point. They said the full extent of my mission would be made known to me when it became necessary for me to know. I dreamt up different scenarios but none of them seemed plausible. The closest I got to anything at all realistic was imagining there could be a sleeper cell of local housewives who were all set to be activated in the near future. It wasn’t much of a hypothesis as far as they go.
I bounced the tennis ball against the wall for hours thinking about the Agency and what my mission might be. The Agency liked to be mysterious. No one knew exactly what they did. I guessed this was what gave them the peculiar amount of clout they seemed to command. The mystery was what drew me to them right out of college. The sense of adventure had tantalized me. Now I was starting to wish I had gone in another direction. I wouldn’t quit mid-mission though. I was afraid to. They might make me pay for it.
Having an unknown job to do at an unknown time provoked anxiety. I couldn’t help but feel on edge. I felt the Agency was toying with me unnecessarily. I didn’t understand it. I started to curse them under my breath but I always caught myself before breaking my ‘no talking to myself’ rule.
On day eighteen I emptied out some cereal on the kitchen counter in the hopes it would attract mice. I thought if I could get one to hang around it would give me an excuse to hear my own voice. I’d name it Jerry and chew the fat. “How are you? What’s it like living in the walls?” That sort of thing. A mouse infestation would greatly increase my quality of life, I thought.
Before this I had always wanted more time to sit and think, but now I longed for something to do. Even the most monotonous, mindless chores would have been welcome. I would have gladly scraped the barnacles off a ship’s hull with a spatula, or counted the cars in a train station’s parking lot. Even cleaning the kennels of an inner city animal shelter wasn’t out of the question. I would have done all this for free. Instead I was getting paid to throw a tennis ball against a wall.
Once, I bounced the tennis ball against the wall five hundred and thirty-four times without dropping it. This record stood for weeks. Afterwards whenever I reached four hundred I got nervous. Once I got really close to breaking the record. I got to five hundred and twenty-nine and I bobbled it. As the ball rolled away from me I put my face in my hands and cried.
At precisely 2:22 pm on the thirty-fifth day the phone rang. I dropped the tennis ball mid-throw and ran to the kitchen. I yanked the phone from the receiver before the end of the second ring.
On the other end of the line I heard a man’s voice. “There will be a job for you at 19:42 on the eighty-fourth day,” it said. The man’s voice was chilled like a glass of ice water. “In the meantime,” he said, “you are to learn Spanish.” I felt I had missed a beat.
“How do you expect I do that?” I queried. But just then, true to the cliché, the doorbell rang. I asked the man on the phone to hold on and answered the door. I was wringing my hands. I opened the door wide, glad to see another living soul, and said hello.
The woman wore a frown with a pouty lip. She was either in a bad mood or didn’t like the look of me because she didn’t offer me a single word. Still, being snubbed by her was far better than not having had anyone to be snubbed by. She gave me a yellow box with big black letters on the top that read “Rosetta Stone” and piled an old, used laptop on top—a real clunker.
I went back to the phone to question the man further, but the line was dead. I wasn’t at all surprised and I was too excited to be very disappointed.
Like a kid opening up a new, much-desired toy, I tore open the box and started on the Rosetta Stone immediately. I sat in the corner of the small room off the living room, which I had decided was the study, and plugged right into it. In a few hours I had mastered Level 1.
Rosetta Stone said, The woman is pretty, and I said, La mujer es bonita.
Rosetta Stone said, Asparagus is a vegetable, and I said, Esparragos es un vegetal.
Rosetta Stone said, The bus arrives at seven, and I said, El autobus llega a las siete.
Rosetta Stone had several things going for it. One was that it proved to be considerably more rewarding than bouncing a tennis ball against a wall. Two, it had a pleasant female voice which spoke to my loneliness. And three, it allowed me to use my voice without technically talking to myself. I was immediately hooked. I just hoped my tennis ball wouldn’t feel too neglected.
During study breaks I fantasized about moving to South America and living a simple life near a beach someplace. I’d marry a forty-something woman with thick black hair and a thick rear-end. I’d have a grown stepson and we’d become friends. It would be a simple life but it would be a full one. I’d think about this for several minutes each day and it conjured up a very pretty picture.
On the fifty-sixth day I leafed through the children’s coloring book like I had dozens of times before. This time I imagined using mostly a blue crayon to color it as if I were a big shot like Picasso. It started off with a blue car and a blue house, which was plausible enough, but ended with a blue bear and a blue lobster. I told myself that I was an artist and that this was artistic license. I imagined smiling happily at the scathing critiques of my debut gallery.
The food in the cupboard was plentiful but there was little variety. Whoever had made the selections had little imagination. After awhile you stop looking forward to meals. Clam chowder ceases to make the mouth water. The thought of baked beans makes the stomach feel queasy. Dried banana chips trigger a gag reflex. When I was studying food items on the Rosetta Stone I experienced hunger pangs. Yo quero hanburguesa con queso y papas fritas. Por favor, por favor, por favor… I hugged my legs and rocked back and forth.
I took to spying on my neighbors. I didn’t want to think of myself as a Peeping Tom but I was too desperately bored to worry about whether I fit the label or not.
In the house on my left lived a young woman who I decided was a widow. The middle aged man in the house on my right tooled around in a sports car. And directly across the street a young couple and their two young children made their home.
I spent a good chunk of my day spying on them. I took the mirror from above the bathroom sink to ensure I wasn’t caught. I would lie on the floor and hold up the mirror at a good angle sometimes for an hour or more just to catch a glimpse of the man backing out of his driveway or the two children playing games in their front yard.
Sometimes I felt like a creep. The first few opportunities I had to see the young widow undress before getting into bed I looked away. I commended myself for my fortitude. Eventually I started looking of course. It wasn’t hard to justify—I convinced myself I was watching with an artistic eye.
The eighty-fourth day came and my eyes were glued to the clock. I couldn’t wait for it to read 7:42 when the Agency was supposed to call with the job. At one point I took the clock down off the wall for inspection. I held my ear up to the back where the battery was. I heard ticking but only faintly. I would have hoped for a stronger sign of life. As it was I continued to eye the cheap clock with a certain amount of skepticism.
I played the Desert Island game to kill time. If I had to limit myself to one movie I would choose Castaway. If I could listen to only one song I’d choose Message in a Bottle. If I were stuck with one book I decided on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. I went down the line pretty far. Eventually I chose a kind of car, a brand of sneaker and a type of scented candle. I went as far as I could then started over and chose the next best whatever. This killed thirty-eight minutes, which wasn’t as much as I had hoped.
The phone rang at 7:41, and I was alarmed. The Agency was a minute early. This type of sloppiness was unheard of. I let it ring several times and contemplated the development. After several harrowing seconds I decided not to answer until the clock read 7:42. That way it would be like the mistake had never been made. I let the phone ring and ring.
When I finally took the phone off the receiver the same man’s voice as before said he had a job for me. A warm sensation washed over me. It felt as thought I had just been plunged feet first into a heated pool. I thanked him and asked him how his day was going. I was starved for human interaction. I would have been grateful for any small personal remark, but none came.
“Assemble the crib,” he said flatly.
I would have asked ‘what crib?’ but instead I just waited for the doorbell to ring, which it did momentarily. I padded barefoot to the door. As before when I picked the phone back up the line was dead.
I put the large rectangular box in the corner and regarded it from the corner of my eye. Learning Spanish I didn’t mind, I had always wanted to learn a second language, but where there was a crib there was likely to be a baby and that troubled me. It seemed a messy business. I had no desire to be a single dad. For the moment I left the disassembled crib where it was.
A few days went by with the box sitting there. I continued on with my normal routine. I studied my Spanish, I bounced my ball, I spied on my neighbors and I colored the coloring book with my imagination. For exercise I decided to take up yoga. I knew nothing about yoga however so the poses I did were all completely original. I invented a pretty serious routine with a series of twists and stretches and named all of the poses after my favorite comedians. I always ended the routine with a pose I named The Bill Murray. It was essentially a crab walk but with twisted arms and legs. You knew you were doing it correctly if your shoulders felt on the verge of dislocating.
From day one I had taken it as a matter of course that a camera had been installed in the fire alarm. For a long time I just ignored it but sometimes I found myself standing there in the hall gazing up at it. Often I lost track of time in that position.
As time went on my relationship with the fire alarm progressed. I began standing in front of it gesturing with a series of intricate hand movements that I imagined could be interpreted. If there really had been a camera there, and if there was someone watching, the only thing he or she would have gleaned by my hand contortions was that I was losing it, which I myself already suspected.
Eventually I made up a new rule concerning the fire alarm. I was to start ignoring it again. If I gave it no power it wouldn’t matter if there were a camera or not. Still, if I had had a ladder I would have torn the thing apart in an instant. I tried the chair, but it was too short. I could just graze the circular box with my fingertips but I couldn’t get ahold of it. It still troubled me. Either I was clever or I was paranoid—I had a vested interest in knowing the truth.
Another day started with me rolling off the mattress onto the floor and beginning to count green things in my mind automatically. Mostly I used the same ones over and over. Trees, grass, leaves, celery, Granny Smith apples, marijuana, my Puma’s, Irish Spring soap, the Incredible Hulk… Often I didn’t make it all the way through. I kept getting lazier. I gave up easier and easier. I thought maybe I should change the color but that would mean changing the rules and if I changed one rule there was nothing to stop me from changing another and another and I would wind up with total anarchy on my hands. The rules were all I had to hang on to.
Finally I couldn’t ignore the contents of the cardboard box any longer. The idea of a baby still hung in the air like a bad omen, but the prospect of having a project to immerse myself in trumped all forebodings. I cracked my knuckles and danced around the room like a boxer warming up for a bout. I felt relatively well physically.
I took out all of the pieces and spread them out on the floor. The instructions outlined fifteen steps with pictures included. It looked misleadingly complicated. Everything “male” about me cried out to crumple the paper up in a ball and toss it into the corner. I fought off this urge and instead folded the instructions into an airplane and sent them sailing into the kitchen. It was the mature thing to do.
I put all of the pieces into categories, sorted by size. I saw a picture of how to proceed and put pegs into holes and bolts into smaller holes to hold the pegs in place. I progressed quickly through the steps. I had to backtrack once, but it seemed to come together okay afterward. When I finished there were two pieces left over, but in my experience that often happened and it didn’t worry me. I threw them into the kitchen to where the instructions had landed and put the crib in the guest room. I felt satisfied to have put it together, but looking at it there gave me the willies. I turned away and shut the door behind me. I decided to keep it closed.
My one hundred and seventeenth day in the house came without any more missions. I was up to Level 4 on the Rosetta Stone. I became more and more attached to the woman’s voice. If I was being honest with myself I was completely in love. I feared it would be an unrequited love.
The woman’s voice said, Mi hermana esta ordeñando la vaca, and I said, My sister is milking the cow. The woman’s voice said, Hace mucho tiempo yo solia jugar al futbol, and I said, A long time ago I used to play soccer. Eventually I built up the courage and asked the woman her name. I waited several moments for a reply but none came. In spite of the ridiculousness I found it to be heartbreaking.
On sunny days butterflies flew around, and on rainy days my neighbors left their houses in raincoats and carrying umbrellas. The weather didn’t concern me much. I bounced my ball against a spot on the wall to the right of the clock and scratched my long, scraggily beard rain or shine. If I could have traded five cans of clam chowder for a razor and some shaving cream I would have gladly done so. Having a shave would have greatly helped my morale.
In my former life I would normally drink coffee and eat toast and jam in the morning. Now I drank questionable tap water and ate dried banana chips. I paged through the coloring book as I popped the chips in my mouth. If I could have had only one color crayon I would have chosen purple. On page seven, a unicorn’s mane was just dying to be made purple. I would have gladly offered up a month’s salary for a purple crayon. I would have taken half a crayon, or even taken a nub. Anything to put a mark down on paper. Anything to prove I wasn’t a ghost.
I felt cross with the calendar. It wasn’t being completely honest with me about the way time was passing. Sometimes it careened too fast. Eventually I took it off the wall and put it in the kitchen with the crib instructions and left over crib pieces. We would be spending some time apart.
Somewhere around the one hundred and forty-third day my doorbell came alive and spoke to me. I almost tripped on my dash toward the door. I pulled the curtains aside a crack and saw a pretty, strikingly-pregnant young woman standing on the porch. I took a deep breath and opened the door. I was surprised by her presence but I was not surprised when she greeted me in Spanish. She handed me a note and smiled. I smiled back and opened the note. It said, Look after the pregnant woman. She speaks Spanish.
I was glad for the company, of course, but I wished I had had a little notice. I had been experimenting with degrees of filth, and she found me at an all-time high. I hadn’t showered for more than six weeks. My odor was stiff. I saw that it had hit the woman as soon as I opened the door but out of politeness she had fought the urge to pinch her nose.
I gestured the woman into the house and ushered her into the chair. I hadn’t learned much Spanish vocab about babies and pregnancy, but managed to work out that she was nine months pregnant and that the baby was due any day. We shared a chuckle about her size, but I wasn’t sure about much of what she said. She didn’t yet realize how little Spanish I actually knew and threw out too many words at a time.
“Mi nombre es Inez,” she said with big wide eyes. I had never met anyone with that name before. It matched her face well, and the combination struck me as painfully beautiful.
I told her my name was Joe, but it sounded like a lie. I felt changed from the Joe who had existed before starting on this mission. Maybe I’d go by Joseph once I finished here. Maybe I’d take myself more seriously.
In a lull in the conversation I said, Hace mucho tiempo yo solia jugar al futbol. Inez nodded and smiled. I offered her some banana chips and she said they were one of her favorites.
“Chips de platano son mi favorito,” she said and blinked twice. She was indeed very young.
When the phone rang I ran to it hoping for some kind of instructions. What was I supposed to do with this pregnant girl? Instead all the man said was, “open the front door,” and hung up. I did as I was instructed, and in an instant two men were carrying a queen size mattress up the stairs into the guestroom. I was jealous of the size and I wondered if it had lumps like mine. It was clearly used but looked close to new.
I didn’t want Inez to know I had been spying on the neighbors so while she had a lie down testing the mattress, I put the bathroom mirror back on its hinges to avoid suspicion. I would miss the spying. Though we had never spoken I felt as though my neighbors and I were close friends. Giving them up would leave a big gap in my life. My eyes moistened. I hand tightened the bolts of the mirror as best I could.
The day after Inez’s arrival I got another call from the Agency, and they told me to take notes. I had no writing implement, as they well knew, and did my best to listen carefully as I could. They communicated four items to me.
(1) I was not to speak English to the woman or the infant. (2) I was to ration food for the sake of the new residents. (3) I was not to, under any circumstances, have intercourse with the woman. (4) I was not to use the crayons as they were for the infant.
Three things happened in the next few moments. First the line went dead, then Inez started moaning and, lastly, the doorbell rang. I went to Inez first but found her to be screaming strings of unintelligible Spanish words so I went to the door. I swung the door wide and found a short bespectacled man standing there. I could tell he was a doctor because he was dressed in blue scrubs, he wore a surgical mask and said, Soy médico. Given the situation I decided to let him in without interrogation.
He crossed the threshold and slapped a pack of crayons into my chest. I took a glance at the box then clutched it to my heart. Not sleeping with the woman would be difficult to be sure, assuming she was into it, but not using the crayons would be nothing short of torture. Things were looking up though. And I was beginning to get an idea of what the Agency had in mind for me. My guess was the mission would be another eighteen years. Others should be so lucky, I thought.
Pete Able’s work has been published in Forge Journal, Lost Coast Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, among others. He is 34 and lives in Philadelphia.