Blueberry lager tastes great. It’s the side effects that will kill you. It was on sale, in a stack on the floor with all the other cheap beers. I assumed Big Blue, was the big blue rhino on the box. But the rhino turned out to be a smiling, animated blueberry. The lesson learned is I should keep my glasses on in the grocery store.
That Friday night when I suddenly couldn’t sleep at all, I had a Big Blue. I always sleep like the dead; from the instant my head hits the pillow. It was all I could think of to do, to help me sleep. David Letterman was waving and smiling a gapped tooth good night and I was still wired; so I grabbed a handful of cashews and powered down a second Big Blue.
When I opened my eyes the red numbers on the electronic clock said 02:44. I picked up the bottle from the coffee table and finished the last few drops, thankful to Big Blue for getting me off to dream land. “It’s a quarter to three,” I sang to the bottle, “no one in the place except you and me.”
I stayed on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep, listening to the white noise hiss behind the steady, white snow on the TV screen. It seemed like another station was trying to come in, maybe the Spanish channel. But I could hear voices, in English, a man and a woman talking in a low, conversational tone. It wasn’t like dialog in a movie though. It was different. It sounded like my neighbors were lying on the floor behind my flat screen and didn’t want me to hear them. The voices faded out, replaced by a steady sssss and an occasional blip of static like psst. I closed my eyes and leaned back.
Then I heard my name. It wasn’t just a name similar to mine. It was my name. I heard it clearly, Tony Clemens. There was some mumbling, and I heard it again. The man said it. I grabbed the remote and put the sound up as loud as it would go. The voices were still just audible. “I was his first,” the woman said. I stood up then and put my ear right on the speaker.
“Really, you’re not serious.” The man seemed close to giggling.
“Yes, then we got married.”
I strained to hear more but they seemed to be fading out. I listened for a long time. Only the hiss now and the tiny electrical blips. Ssssss, psst, sssssssssssss, psst.
Something in the woman’s voice wouldn’t leave me alone as I went upstairs to bed. It was a young woman’s voice, almost a child’s voice. But it seemed familiar.
At 04:25 I sat straight up in bed with my eyes open wide. “That was Diane,” I blurted out loud. There wasn’t any doubt. That was my first wife’s voice - - on the television. I was her first. And then we did get married.
It was all I could think about through my Saturday. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing, I thought. Or maybe I’m losing it. How do you tell someone about something like that? You don’t. Maybe the voices will come back tonight.
At nine o’clock I drank one of the blueberry lagers, hoping to get a nap in before the station logged off. It didn’t work. The hours dragged by painfully.
Two-forty-five finally came and it began again, right on time. The talking. “It’s not the same now,” the man was saying. “It never is.”
“No. Willie’s not around. I miss Willie.”
A physical chill went through me like ice water being poured into my veins. Willie was our dog, the German shepherd we had. “Diane?” I just blurted it out. My heart nearly stopped, because the voices stopped. It wasn’t a natural, conversational pause. It was as if two people were talking and I’d walked up and interrupted them.
“Tony’s so old now,” she said after a moment.
“Seriously, he was your first?” Something about the man’s tone bothered me a lot.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I never told Tony about you.” Sssssssss.
“Who is he?” I asked the question mostly because I didn’t know what else to say. “Where are you, Diane? How is it you’re talking like this?” Ssssssssssssss. It was over. I waited, listening for an hour for the voices to come back, my hands caressing the speaker. Only the hiss. An occasional muffled, electronic click.
Sunday evening Bill and Joyce called to invite me to dinner. I thanked them and said I’d already eaten. At ten o’clock I put down two Big Blues and woke to see the Ginsu knife man giving his time honored sales sermon in black and white. It was an old version of the commercial; but it was the same. He looked right into the camera, wearing those big, square, plastic framed seventies glasses and swore that he’d send me not one, not two, but an entire set of amazing Ginsu knives for just $29.99.
I went to the refrigerator and found the last lager. I downed about half of it and gradually zoned out. That’s when I had the dream.
It was that day again, the day I went down into the basement and found her hanging there. She was wearing the blue work shirt again, and those ripped up jeans she always wore in that period. My tool box was two feet away. The policeman said she’d probably kicked it. He said they kick like crazy in the last seconds after they step off. He said a lot of times they change their minds and want to stop; but it’s too late.
I only saw her from behind that day. I didn’t want to see her face. Her head hung down, forward, her long brown hair hiding the leather belt she’d used. But in the dream it changed. In the dream, she turned her head and looked at me. That was the terrifying part; her eyes weren’t afraid. It wasn’t like she was dying and wanted me to help her. She just looked at me, the way she’d look at me if I’d walked into the kitchen and she was glancing up from a watercolor she was working on.
I woke up, struggling for my own breath. The TV screen was white and blank and hissing. The clock said 02:39. Almost time. My right hand felt funny. I looked down at it. It was shaking uncontrollably, just my right hand. I couldn’t stop it. With my left hand, I reached for the half empty bottle of blueberry lager and it spilled over the magazines and over my good Persian rug.
As I bent over to grab it, I found myself looking at my reflection in the door of the curio cabinet. I saw an old man, a terribly old man with frightened eyes peering out of a shriveled face. I realized then I hadn’t shaved in three days and my beard was already white, matching the tufts of snow white hair on the sides of my head. I was looking at a shaken old man with his right hand flopping like a sunfish on the bottom of a rowboat. A ridiculous old man, talking to his own television in the middle of the night. Awkwardly, with my left hand, I threw the bottle of Big Blue across the room and into the kitchen as hard as I could.
I stumbled toward the stairs, feeling lousy and tired, so tired I couldn’t see or think straight. I didn’t go back to turn off the TV. I just wanted to get to my bed and sleep, sleep this all away.
Ssssssss. “He wants to know why I did it. I’m going to tell him.” Ssssss.
“What? You know we can’t do that.”
“I don’t care. I’m going to tell him next time.”
“Well, he’s gone to bed. And . . . Sssss, Psst, Psst. “. . . with us here soon.”