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by Andrew Dunn
There’s a pay phone at the end of the universe. It’s always ringing. If you ask Jared why, he’s not going to know. Don’t ask Jared, okay? Just don’t. Just know that it’s ringing.
If you were to look at the phone, you’d see it had a number written in ballpoint black on the front. It’s right there. In a recessed space on a gleaming metal plate so clear you can see your soul reflected in it – if you still have a soul anyway. Right there above the pushbuttons sits (513) 342-8…, the pay phone’s number. Written there on the pay phone and scrawled inside a Dayton restroom stall along with things like:
“For a good time call Amber”
A rudimentary sketch of a skull and crossbones above the name of a punk rock band nobody’s ever heard of.
“If you shake it more than once…”
But the restroom stall isn’t in Dayton anymore. It’s out there too. Big thick panels of puke green and graffiti slow tumbling end over end in zero gravity forever. It used to have a tail. Of toilet paper unraveling little by little in the void. Cosmic rays disintegrated the toilet paper over time. Not the restroom stall though, where above the pay phone’s number the words “if Jared says the world’s about to end you gotta call me at” are written in thick black.
Off Dawes Street, Mr. John’s sits wedged in between a sheet metal warehouse and a vacant lot. The warehouse used to be something. Really something. It isn’t anymore. The company name painted on one side is faded and many of the loading docks sit idle day in day out. Mr. John’s is faded too and many of the stools and its counter sit idle day in day out.
In fact, walking into Mr. John’s is like stepping back into May 12, 1982. That’s the date on the calendar hanging just behind the cash register. It never changes. Neither do the same three truck drivers with their coffees and eggs or the lone waitress watching the second hand chase the minute hand around the clock. Neither does Jared working in the back to make sure the omelet you ordered matches the picture of the omelet in the menu.
A cheese omelet seemed like the best choice although the western sounded pretty good too. Cheese omelet with a side of hash browns and an orange juice. The waitress – with Liz printed on her nametag – jotted it down. It would’ve been delicious, that cheese omelet. It was neutralized early on through. Bot not Liz’s pencil. Yellow, with a little pink eraser on one end and the number two stamped in blue. Her pencil is somersaulting somewhere through interstellar nothingness.
In those final moments before Jared said it, a palpable disquiet settled over Mr. John’s. The second hand chasing the minute hand. Liz staring blankly out the window. Three grizzled truck drivers mumbling through their conversation between slurps of coffee and mouthfuls of eggs. The screech of a loading bay door opening or closing over at the warehouse. The rumble of a tractor-trailer barreling down Dawes Street trying to beat the claxons and crossbucks that would block traffic so a freight train could pass through.
And then the jingle of the bell attached to Mr. John’s door. The sound of shoes walking across the linoleum. Liz shifting her attention from the window to the middle-aged man coming her way. With his hands shoved into his pockets and a tense expression on his weather-beaten face. She’d seen him before. Jared had seen him before. Somewhere. But where?
How a wanted poster survived as long as it did when cosmic rays turned so many other things into ask is anyone’s guess. It was fitting. The grim weather-beaten face sailing past the galaxies had survived as a fugitive for a long time.
Authorities never knew the stick-up man’s name. They knew he had robbed dozens of places all over Ohio and before that they had reason to believe he might have done the same around Buffalo, New York. At first, he knocked them off at night. Then he started robbing places during the day. By the time he made it to Mr. Johns’s in Dayton, his robberies involved violence. “$25,000 for information” had once appeared in red – now washed pale pink – above his likeness on the wanted man poster.
The wanted man marched Liz, Jared, and the customers into a storeroom before he ransacked a small office off the kitchen looking for cash, or anything else of value. Outside, the distant throaty whine from an approaching freight train’s whistle cried.
“All right,” the wanted man shouted, “you ain’t got nuthin back here and there was twenty-two bucks in the register. Where are you hiding the money!”
“That’s all there is,” Jared offered.
“That’s a load of bull,” the wanted man snapped, “get over here and get on your knees. Move it!”
Jared took a small, nervous step forward and then looked at the others. “Our world’s about to end,” he told them.
Right then, if you could, you’d reach out. You’d answer the phone ringing at the end of the universe. You’d tell Jared, Liz, or one of the old truck drivers about the freight train pounding way too fast down the track towards a tanker truck stuck in the train’s path because one of its front tires had blown out. That the wanted man wouldn’t even have time to cock his pistol because once 10,000 tons of heavy freight hit the tanker truck the ensuing fireball and derailment would annihilate Mr. John’s and the warehouse next door. If you spoke to the wanted man, you’d tell him to look at what his own greed had done to him and that he could’ve been anywhere but Mr. John’s if he hadn’t decided to knock off a diner on a Wednesday morning.
If you could reach out and answer the phone, you’d tell yourself how lucky it was that you’d been in the restroom when the wanted man rounded everybody else up. And that if you moved fast – like your life depended on it because it did – there was a chance you could make it. Yeah, you might get hurt once the train cars came off the tracks and whipped their way across half a dozen city blocks. But those odds were better than the odds those people trapped in the storeroom had been dealt.
Dashing out Mr. John’s the thundering sound of an approaching freight train almost drowned out the pay phone near the front door. It seemed strange that the phone would be ringing. As you reached out to answer it, it seemed even stranger to see your own reflection in the pay phone’s shiny metal surface fade, and a reflection of the universe emerge in its place.
micheledutcher - I like the implication that when a person dies, it really is the end of the universe for them. At the moment before death, the universe is about to end, and the moment after death, their universe has ended. It's like when you read a horoscope it should always say - You are going to die today - because someone always is going to die today on a planet with 6 Billion people. I like it that there is a phone ringing at the end of the universe - it is almost calming - it means the end of the universe hasn't happened yet.
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