Friday, October 02, 2009

Call Me By My Name

We'd gone for a drunken lunch on a slow and sunny Friday and taken the long way back to work. Bill and Tom and me. Bill was our boss, but he was more of a friend than a boss. We didn't realize it but he was taking us somewhere. When he turned left, we turned left. When he crossed the street we followed him. Soon we were in an unfamiliar part of town. Unfamiliar to me, at least.

Something seemed to be on Bill's mind. He drew the last of his cigarette and flicked it in the gutter.

"I want to show you guys something," he said.

We came to the door of a bland and dreary building. Bill opened it and waved us in. It was dark inside.

"This way," said Bill.

We followed him across a desolate lobby and into a hallway. There was a light at the end, an opening into what looked like a janitor's office or the storeroom of a restaurant kitchen. There was a metal bucket full of pale gray water with a mop stuck in it and an old, gray metal desk with a fluorescent lamp illuminating a clutter of pens and papers and mail. And there was a door that led to a stairway to the basement.

"Down here," said Bill.

We climbed down into a dark and musty, cavelike room. On the wall facing us there was a door. Bill opened it and I was startled to find a large, furnished room with sunlight streaming through windows along the top of the wall. There were people in it, maybe twenty or so. They didn't seem to be doing much. Some were sitting on couches, some were sitting on the floor. Some were standing, perhaps on their way from one side to the other. They did not seem surprised to see us.

"What are your names?" one man asked.

"Yes, tell us your names," said another. Yes! Yes! others said, and everyone gazed at us expectantly.

Bill signaled us with a nod.

"I'm Joe," I said.

"I'm Tom," said Tom.

They all nodded and smiled, and then returned to what they were doing. Which was nothing.

I turned to Bill. "What is this?"

"It's nothing."

"What do you mean, it's nothing?"

He shrugged. "It's a place where people come."

"Come and do what?"

He smiled and shrugged again. "Not much. Nothing, really."

I scrutinized the room. There was a kitchenette to our left and what appeared to be the door to a bathroom. Some of the people had gotten up and were coming our way.

"OK, people are going to walk up and introduce themselves," Bill announced. "It's very, very important that you remember their names."

A young woman extended her hand. "I'm Amy," she said. Others followed behind her: "I'm Lisa." "I'm Paul." "I'm Julie." I shook their hands and nodded and said hi, hello, nice to meet you.

I was startled to see my friend Kate.

"Kate? You?"

She gave a coy smile, like I'd caught her in a mildly embarrassing situation.

"It's good to see you here, Joe."

There were others I knew, too. Another coworker. Someone who lived in my building. And some familiar faces that I couldn't place. I felt like I was meeting them anew, on the other side of some divide.

Finally the introductions were over. Everyone regained their seats and continued to do nothing. There were no books, no magazines. No TV. Very little conversation, even, as far as I could tell.

"Now what happens?" I asked Bill.

"Let's sit down," he said, and the three of us picked a spot on the carpet and sat cross-legged in a triangle.

"Are we supposed to be quiet?" asked Tom.

Bill pursed his lips and looked away as he formulated his answer. "You don't have to be quiet as a rule, no."

"But it's encouraged," I offered.

"I wouldn't say that it's encouraged," Bill said blankly, shaking his head. "Oh, the bathroom's over there," he added, pointing to the door beside the kitchenette. "And if you're hungry, there's peanut butter and jelly and bread in the fridge."

"How long are we supposed to stay?" I asked.

"You can stay as long as you want."

"When can we leave?"

"You can leave anytime you want," Bill said.

"So we just sit here?" asked Tom.

"You can sit wherever you like. Or you can stand."

We sat for a long while in silence, occasionally shifting our legs to keep from cramping up. Occasionally Bill would look at me or Tom with the trace of a smile. After an hour or so, or two, or maybe three, I began to feel a powerful elation welling up from deep within my chest. Bill broke out in a wide smile.

"You're feeling it, aren't you?"

"Yes," I said.

"Isn't it great?"

"It's amazing."

Soon Tom was evidently feeling the same thing too. He appeared to wipe away a tear.

"Wow, Jesus. This is great," he said. Bill and I smiled radiantly at him.

The sensation was not unlike a psychedelic drug, though somehow more profound. More intense. And yet we hadn't taken anything. In fact, we hadn't done anything.

Through the veil of my intoxication I watched a professional-looking woman in heels get up off the couch and walk towards the door. She seemed to be moving very slowly.

"Where are you going?" someone asked her.

She turned around to face the room.

"I'm leaving."

"Don't go!" several people said.

"Call me by my name," she replied immediately.

"Don't go, Linda!" they pleaded in unison. And as if on cue Linda turned her back, opened the door and was gone.

"What was that?" I asked Bill.

"When you're leaving, it's customary to ask people to call you by your name."

"You have to ask them to call you by your name?"

"It's customary to do so."

"If they don't call you by your name, do you have to stay?"

Bill closed his eyes and shook his head. "You can leave anytime you want."

I felt like I was on fire. Like there was nothing I couldn't do. Nothing I could do. Nothing I couldn't. Do. Could do, couldn't. Do. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Dream, dream, dream.

My trip undulated through periods of bliss and of confusion. At one point it occurred to me that I was very hungry. I watched myself walk to the fridge and pull the handle. I heard the suck of the breaching seal. Inside there were rows and rows and rows of jars of Skippy peanut butter on the top shelf and just as many of Welch's grape jelly on the middle one. On the bottom shelf, loaves of Wonder bread were stacked in two layers of six. On each shelf, the rightmost item was opened and about a quarter empty. I placed all three on the counter and opened the nearest drawer. It was filled with hundreds of white plastic knives. I took one, closed the drawer, and made myself a sandwich.

People came and went. Always there was the same refrain: Call me by my name. On one occasion a young woman was not accommodated. They cajoled her impersonally: "Stay! Stay! Stay! Don't Go!" With one hand on the doorknob she balked, and turned, and with a grim and weary smile she rejoined the cheering group.

I drifted in and out of euphoric hallucinations. In a moment of relative lucidity it occurred to me that I hadn't seen Tom in a while.

"Did Tom leave?" I asked Bill.


"Did you call him by his name?"

"I did not call him by his name."

"And still he left?"

Bill nodded solemnly.

Last I knew before the dark, the setting sun shone through the windows to cast a rosy glow upon the wall.

I awoke with a start. (Or was I awake?) It was dead black and quiet all around me. Though it appeared I was alone, I sensed a presence. A bestial shadow in the dark. I thought it was a wolf. The disembodied spirit a wolf. I opened my mouth and let out a croaking, anguished cry into the void:

"Call me by my name!"

I didn't even hear an echo in reply.

"Call me by my name!" I screamed. "Call me by name! Call me by name!"

It was then I had an appalling epiphany. And I'm not sure I spoke or merely thought the words that are to follow. All I know is that they were my last.

My God. You die if you stay here!