Original Short Story: “Twenty-two Voicemails” by Chris Ames

Fiction: Chris Ames

Twenty-two Voicemails

— M. it’s Noreen. I’ve been very busy lately learning how to take a joke. It’s come to my attention that I have been taking them incorrectly this whole time. How embarrassing thinking back (knowing what I know now) on the hundreds and hundreds of jokes I must have mishandled. Those hysterical parties, those elevator indiscretions. Foolishly, I thought it was in the knees. A strong, steady posture for taking in the joke. Not dissimilar to how you might take a piece of oblong furniture down a flight of stairs. He says no. A joke is not a thing to brace for. Turns out it’s all in the teeth. Well, you know what they say? You can take the girl out of Asheville. You can take the girl out of any old place, cause a girl can be taken anywhere.


— M. it’s Noreen. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a glass of wine with dinner.


— M. it’s Noreen. At the shop. Need your advice. Two dresses. The first one looks to be made of some type of canvas material. It is small and slick and hugs me in a way that feels good, but also shows the scar on the back of my leg. That one I got from trying to cut corners, which I’ve been told more than once, looks like an earthworm. The dress has canary piping and a keyhole back with buttons, in varying degrees of white. Through the keyhole, you can see the crease of my spine, like a folded sheet of paper. It is quite a number. When I was trying it on in the mirror, I looked like the kind of woman who might say something like you simply must try the wine, it’s remarkably angular. I looked like the kind of woman who knew how to properly take the world in. There is no point in describing the other dress, as we both already know it is more modest, more affordable, and ultimately the one I already purchased. It hangs in the closet, identical with the others. There are still 29 days until this LITTLE MISTAKE becomes a PERMANENT DECISION.


— M. it’s Noreen. Are you watching this program on TV about the giant squid? They are looking for him with all sorts of big machines and bait-and-switches but they cannot find him.

They’ve brought out an expert who supposedly knows all of the squids likes and dislikes, but no one has ever seen one alive, so how does he know / why should we trust him? The talking head says he is very elusive. We have been following his trail for a while now. He has seen most of our tactics. That’s what makes this so hard. We might be able to fool a new target with these tactics, but the squid has seen the scope of our cunning, and he is decidedly not impressed.

Now they have constructed a small model of the squid. It is not life size; it is only a visual representation. Someone has suggested coaxing out the giant squid with a dummy. The suggestion did not come from an expert, but they are at the point of exhaustion where all ideas show promise of being great ideas. We do not know how he will react says the talking head. He might become furious at this inaccurate representation of himself, and strike it repeatedly. He might mount the model in a fit of prolonged loneliness. I cannot reiterate enough about the not-knowing.

Some people don’t believe he exists. That he’s only leftover mythology, like hydras, or heaven. As an American, I have a hard time believing they would make an hour long documentary that did not culminate in finding the thing we’ve been looking for. It will come in the last five minutes, directly after the last commercial break, with violins and credits to wash the screen black. They wouldn’t bring us to the bottom of the ocean and leave us here, would they?

Tension builds as they prepare to eject the model into the water. They are aiming it over a crevice they believe the giant squid is hiding in. All of the experts are very sweaty. They are reaching the end of their film reels, and they understand this to be their last shot at a prime time slot. Suddenly, it appears absurd to have put all their hopes in this basket, the launching of the model, but it is too late for another plan. To dispel some anxiety, people have begun to criticize the appearance of the model (its lazy, overly dilated eye, the chipped paint on its sagging tentacles) which has hurt the prop guy’s feelings. He says this is no time for an aesthetic workshop.

The last advertisement plays. The time is now. The engineers turn their keys in unison, then push the big red button, which sends the model jetting across the crevice in a perfect arc. For a moment, everyone forgets we are conducting an experiment deep underwater. Instead, it seems like we are witness to some spontaneous act of nature, like a meteorite screaming across the sky. And just as brilliantly, the model zooms across the crevice untouched, its red paint job appearing dimmer and dimmer as it sinks past the observable depths of what we know.


— M. it’s Noreen. Did I leave my sunglasses in your car? What a klutz. I only ask because I slipped and fell straight into a doorknob, because I was trying to cut corners again, because I am such a klutz. Caught me right in the eye. Sporting a shiner and everything. Can’t leave me alone for two seconds. I suppose I’m a real piece of work. But—no one asks questions about a nice pair of shades. You understand.


— M. it’s Noreen. Where does the time go? You certainly can waste a whole day learning how to ration. I mean, being rational. You wanna take the pulpy meat of the heart and set a fixed allowance, then distribute it among the 5 working days for a nice even keel. Saturday is a free-for-all, with Sunday for rest. In restricting consumption of the heart, you’ll find it much easier to have a discussion like adults. You will be calm as pink granite. No one tells pink granite to calm down because you can’t milk a stone into an argument. No one picks on pink granite for being pink either, cause they know it’s from potassium and potassium can blow you to smithereens. Just breathe and ration. You’ll know you’re an adult when you treat your heart like meat in wartime.


— M. it’s Noreen. What’s worse: that I keep calling (?) or that I still believe you will answer (?)


— M. it’s Noreen. — M. it’s Noreen.


— M. it’s Noreen.


— M. it’s Noreen. Another train delay, so I passed time watching the subway escalator slide into itself. It is mesmerizing. You can stand at the base of this machine, observing one single step rise steadily away, and one might be compelled to say something to the effect of you’re changing, you’ve changed, you’re not the same anymore, you’re leaving. On the other hand, there’s an understanding of this machine as stationary, immobile, and altogether crippled when compared to other devices of similar nature. So in observing that same single step predictably return to your feet, one might say something like this is so typical of you, classic you, here we go again. I know it seems impossible that a thing could be accused of changing while continuing to become more of itself, but you’ll have to take my word on this one. I’ve ridden these machines my whole life.


— M. it’s Noreen. Am I just like you? I’ve been told I’m just like you. I was told this right before he went out. Where? Just out. We do bear a likeness. No getting around that. I have often found myself in one of your gestures, the idle hum, the absent whistle. The long running joke being that you were under such pressure, if you didn’t half-sing through your spare moments, you’d boil over. And how to crack an egg (against a clean flat surface, not the pan’s lip) to keep from eating shell. Using the pan’s lip forces shards of shell into the white, and risks puncturing the yolk. To risk the yolk is to put the entire breakfast at risk. And how while it’s generally agreed upon that life is far too brief to learn how to fold a fitted sheet, the mastery of something taxing and useless is always cause for celebration. Look at algebra.

(a) Hold the sheet lengthwise. Tuck your fingertips into the corner seams. Slip one hand into a foot corner, and the other into a head corner. Now that your body is confused, you are ready to begin.

(b) Fold one corner over the other. Grip both corners in one hand. Grab the next corner. Long-arm yourself a short loop of edge on edge. Follow the hem that is tickling the sheen blonde hair of your arm until you reach the next corner. Continue to corner yourself until you cannot remember a time you weren’t being right-angled. Then tuck and keep tucking.

(c) Smooth it all down. Lay it to rest and level it out into a square. The shape should feel satisfying and come naturally. If not, you may need to pleat the fitted corner in order for it to lie flat. The fitted corner may not take this lying down. Fold in a definite, even way. Think of a bad hand in poker. The elastic should be hidden. The right side should envelope itself. Bend till your bent. A made bed is harder to lie in, but sleep is its own reward.

But then maybe I think we are nothing alike. I have never pawned a baby. I mean, made a baby a pawn of a larger game. In response to a broken plate, I have never said something like look now the baby’s upset, too. I have never broken a plate. I have never had a baby. Who can say? Imitation is only flattery if you can stand to look at yourself without wincing.


— M. it’s Noreen. I’ve called to talk about nothing. It’s what I have most of. Nothing is the daily special. If a waiter were to place my order, asking what do you want from me? or more likely what’s wrong? I’d say I’ll have the nothing, please and fold my menu on the table in a way that ends the exchange. It’s faster in the short term to get your point across using meaningless words. They are easier to swallow. The trouble with meaningless words is their buoyancy. Because they are not dragged down by meaning, they have a nasty habit of floating back up the stomach, gaining heat in the chest, then lodging uncomfortably at the tongue’s root. Now everything you say has to pass through a spongy, congealed wad of meaninglessness (not to mention the foul taste of someone else’s words in your mouth). Don’t get choked up. And if you must retch, do not reach for the napkin. That’s the coward’s way out. Those who eat live octopus would argue it’s a symbol of perseverance, the choking, for the octopus continues to fight even as it’s being digested. Of course, all the gagging will make you a lousy conversationalist. It’s okay. Nothing is a dish best served mute.


— M. it’s Noreen. We are still receiving the old tenant’s mail here. ANGELA CHEW gets lots of mail. I can’t save it all. It’s unreasonable. The perforated coupons and the magazine cologne and enough pre-approved credit to ruin a man’s life three times over. So I told myself I said Noreen, in this age, anything handwritten is worth saving. It’s not much. In descending order of formality, they read MS. ANGELA CHEW, MISS CHEW, and ANGIE. I haven’t yet worked out how I’ll get her the messages. But if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m keeping them more for the senders than the receiver. She doesn’t know what she’s missing. But if I stop holding on, it means there’s a group of people sending missives into the dark. I don’t mind being everyone’s incoming. I don’t mind being someone’s receiving end.


— M. it’s Noreen. Quick, channel thirteen. I had no idea it was a two-parter. They’re giving it another go. It’s a trace signal, invisible to those not in the know, but stable enough to pinpoint a basic location. Toss the skeptics overboard—they’ve got a fresh lead on the giant squid.

The model was more than a pretty face. Its face was stuffed with all sorts of meters: accelerometers, declinometers, fathometers, framing squares, a fuel gauge, gas pycnometers, hydrometers, inkometers, lactometers, mass spectrometers, a quartz crystal microbalance, viscometers, and perhaps most importantly, a generic brand, civilian-grade GPS system.

Brace yourself: the experts are back and they’re sweatier than ever. They’re saying the model has been damaged in a peculiar way. See the slash starting at the funnel, stretching across the mantle to the nidamental gland? This was either a crime of passion, or a random act of vandalism. Two things are for certain: 1) the giant squid could easily have been the perpetrator 2) it just as easily might have been something else. Literally anything else. Continental drift. Ship debris. Extreme self-harm. Again, we don’t know.

When they finally haul the model back to the surface, it’s nearly unrecognizable. Three of its tentacles are missing, four have lost their red color, turning a sickly pale like candy sucked clear, and one is wrapped around its own head, in an impossible to decipher gesture on the border of pain and pleasure. Worse still, the camera keeps cutting in tight on the prop guy, but there’s no misinterpreting his reaction. His face looks like a wall socket: two thin slits for eyes, mouth agape, one prod away from short circuiting. They say something like let it go, man or what’s the big deal? After a long silence, he blinks heavily and says she was two years in the making. Live and animate for six months. With me, all the remainder.

No one is sure where to go from here. Was the model’s destruction a sign? If a sign, was it positive or negative? Should they construct another one? Or are they shooting empties into the breach? As you might expect, the captain will get the last word. Cue the last advertisement. The time is now. You can tell he’s serious, because in a moment of vulnerability, he unscrews his hook of a hand and places it on the table. His voice is sharp and clear like sea glass. The hardest thing about losses is knowing when to cut them. I’ve seen enough to know I’ve seen too much. There will be no second dive. The program ends two minutes ahead of schedule. Commercials happily fill in the blank.


— M. it’s Noreen. Can anybody out there teach me how to watch a tone? Here I was thinking that a tone was something to beat your fist to. Here I was thinking that a tone’s defining characteristic was its steady periodic sound, and who would waste their time watching that which doesn’t change? Or here I was thinking of giving a greater strength, or toughness to the body, his body, a part of it. But he wouldn’t have to watch that either, because it would creep up his calves and the lines around his hips, whether or not he was paying attention. Sex can define the body. It might bring a particular quality of flushness, brightness to the face. A tint, sure. It could have you emitting a deep, low thrum. Again, something to tap your foot to. But none of the above needs watching. How can I watch my tone when I’ve never even heard it purely? That is, without this lousy skeleton getting in the way.


— M. it’s Noreen. I know how to crack an egg with one hand, how to count to ten in three languages, how to gut a fish, how the nearest exit is often behind you, where the clit is and what to do about it, some of the foxtrot, most of Dolly Parton, and all the zones of the ocean. But never in my life did I know there was an incorrect way to dispense toothpaste onto a brush.

— M. it’s Noreen. (30.1), (.504), (.454), (.908), (.669), (73), (402) … are you getting turned on yet? Me neither. Hard as I try, I can’t get hot for numbers. You should see the way he lists them. He has all the #’s memorized. Even as they change (and they change every day) he tends them carefully. Knows their count, measure, and label. I don’t have to ask. He tells me unprompted. From 28ft to 50ft, he’s 35-of-52, (.673) in 2016. I touch my crotch, nothing. You can’t take abstraction to bed.

He flexes his arithmetic at me again. 50—40—90? 50—40—90! I do not understand. At one point, I thought I had a grip on all its teeming components: a ball and its players, sweat and its sponsorships, scandal & its settlements. I see now sports are only a stand-in for deep love of dull math. So, I jump in the game. In the self-assured voice of a sideline commentator, I say 11—15—86. He says what? Maybe it’s my tone. Leaning close, I try again in the gentle whirr of a radio broadcaster, I whisper 11—15—86. He says sorry I don’t know that one. Pulling away, I say that’s my birthday.


— M. it’s Noreen. What’s worse: that we can’t see each other in person (?) or that we’d have nothing to say (?)


— M. it’s Noreen. — M. it’s Noreen.
— M. it’s Noreen.

Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. Most recently, his work has been featured in Split Lip Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, vitriol, and elsewhere. He can be reached @_chrisames.

Image: midatlanticconsulting.com

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