When the man woke up, things were different somehow. Though the birds still chirped outside his window, and milk still tasted more or less like milk. . . . and even the mutated vegetables (he had long since refused to call them "engineered") still made a salad that was almost edible. The radio played music. The commuters sped daily into the city to work.
It was the same world, but it was not the same. And moreover, it seem to him that everyone knew it, though he had to acknowledge they did not act like they knew;that they did not say what they must have felt.
. . . So there were times he walked among the crowds on the street when he wanted to shout out that something was different. That the world, which admittedly had never been a very congenial place,seemed to be dissolving under everyone's feet. That the cities were melting into the very air around them at such a slow, agonizing pace that it had only now become noticeable, only now become sensible . . . That things were lighter than before. . . somehow less dense.
But what good would it do? Life had to be lived. Business had to flourish, empires had to be maintained, and children must be born, clothed and fed.. . .These were the issues that occupied them all. These were the issues that HAD to occupy them.
So he said nothing at all to anyone. Nothing to his wife, whom he loved a great deal. Nothing to his coworkers. Nothing to his kids. Nothing to the supervisors who passed him over for promotions, nothing to the syncophants who held out their hands,the boosters, the do-gooders in the thin air of their happiness,that always provoked his most heartfelt smirks.
It was not that he actually hated them though-- it was that he felt what he felt. He saw what he saw. It was as if he lived his life through a pane of melting glass, and the people were long, attenuated strands that seemed to decorate the world around him at the same time they floated into the sky's abyss.
This sense, this feeling, went on for five years, until one day, unexpectedly, he could no longer stand it. So he woke up the next morning and said to his wife:
"Honey, the world has changed. Nothing is quite the same as it was a few years back. Have you felt it?"
To which his wife replied:
"But honey, the world is always changing. When I was kid, a gallon of gas cost 33 cents."
It was the one thing he had hoped he would not hear. Because it was not what he meant. It was not at all what he meant. But being desperate for so long, he was already beyond his normally self-imposed decorum, and with nothing to lose, he tried again:
"That's not really what I mean Elaine. The world feels as if it's dissolving, as if the entire fabric of things has gotten thinner and thinner. It's like everything that happens, happens in the air, and we are floating there without knowing it . . and denying it because we desperately want it to be the same, and because we have no precedent for this,we don't know what it is or what to call it. It's like people and things have all lost their anchor and we are all inside a jumble of people,things and air.Ã
His wife regarded him quietly for a moment, then gave him a hug, I'm sorry, I really am, but I just don't know what you want me to say."
The man trudged from his house to the subway. He had his briefcase in his right hand, and a toaster pastry in his left. He knew perfectly well he shouldn't do it, but he was so alone with this feeling. He was so desperate to know if anyone else felt it, that he had to try once more before giving up. So he called his best friend and said, "Hey John, have you noticed anything different lately? I don't mean different in the news, or the weather, I mean different in the atmosphere; in THE WAY THINGS ARE. . .and John said,"Well, things aren't so great, but I think they'll definitely get back on track. -- But I'll be glad to think about it and get back to you next week. . . ."
The man hung up without replying. He didn't know what else to do. He had reached the subway and he was sitting down now. The quiet, slow lurch of the backwards moving train took him by surprise as it did most mornings. He looked out the window at the receding landscape and watched as it disappeared into the thin blue sky. The wind blew a brown paper bag across the tracks, A dog wandered on a side street as they passed the gray tenements where the people had looks of permanent sadness. Then he fell asleep to the clicking of the rails as the car sped onward into the city and finally emptied of everyone but him.
When he woke,the daylight hit him between the eyes. He was confused. He did not know where he was. He looked at his watch : it was ten AM. He made a quick call to work and said he was ill, that he had been up all night and slept past the time he had intended to call. At the moment he hung up, the train entered a tunnel. The light dimmed, then faded, and he could see the gray concrete slabs very dimly on the arch of the walls.
In the relative darkness of that carefully planned abyss, he felt the train straining upward to emerge from the depths. It was at that moment he realized something he must take to his grave, something he regarded as an unspeakable secret: that the world we live in was a world of ghosts. It was not that the cities or the people were melting;but that everything had silently disappeared one day, then reappeared inside a strange, liminal envelope of new existence. It was then, and only then, he could suddenly see what he had been most afraid of: Crowding him through the window and staring at him from every street, loomed the floating faces of the crowds of the dead: peering out of the hidden world from which his own had been twisted.