Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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4836 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Calendar of Regrets
[An excerpt from the novel]

Lance Olsen

Out on the street after the dinner party Dan waited while first Naomi and then Jerome hailed cabs, and soon he was walking north by himself. It was one of those instants in the city where, despite the intermittent flow of traffic, everything seemed to become strangely motionless, hushed, as if all the people usually around at this hour walking their dogs or coming back from the theater had gone inside for the night. The air smelled like swamp water. Central Park looked shadowy, overgrown, the leaves still left on the shrubbery black and shiny.

Strolling past the Met, he relived parts of the evening’s conversations and worried he had probably shaken people up with his story about covering Chernobyl. But in a real sense this was why he existed: to shake people up. This was his job. Every night at six o’clock he took his seat before the cameras, straightened his tie, and made people feel uncomfortable. He was the guy who told the country that their thirty-fifth President had just been assassinated, that they couldn’t win the war they were waging in Southeast Asia, that the space shuttle had shredded seventy-three seconds after liftoff and yet the crew survived for an additional minute, maybe more.

That’s what Dan did, and then he got paid for it. He got to travel, meet movie stars, murderers, athletes, heads of state, models, refugees, ordinary policemen on the beat. From time to time he got to employ those signature metaphors of his that had become inside jokes with his fans. This race is shakier than cafeteria Jell-O. In the southern states they beat him like a rented mule.

Dan understood he wasn’t supposed to enjoy his slow shading into a pop-culture figure, but he enjoyed it anyway. Every day the news became a little less about itself and a little more about the people reporting it. That was okay with him. You worked the ratings or the ratings worked you and you had to leave.

On East 86th Street he turned right and came across a pizzeria. He ducked inside and ordered a slice of pepperoni and a can of Coke and sat on an uncomfortable orange stool looking out the window. “Walk Like An Egyptian” was playing on the boombox behind the counter. Peeling back his straw, luxuriating in this cramped steamy space, Dan watched the reflection of the a slim man with a Fu Manchu mustache glide in after him and order a plain slice. The guy seemed agitated, preoccupied with life inside his skull. He wore nice khakis, a crisp tan jacket, polished brown loafers, and one of those hairstyles. What did they call them? Short on the top and sides, long in back. There should be a name for that.

Lately people had begun making a big deal out of fancy kinds of pizza. Goat cheese, chicken, asparagus, pineapples, white sauce. But that wasn’t real pizza. Real pizza was about simplicity, and you found simplicity in places like this. Hard orange plastic seats. Harsh lights. Stacks of white and red delivery boxes stacked on top of the ovens. It was like Houston Heights where Dan had grown up. It was like a good piece of television journalism: unsurprising, easy to follow, satisfying. When you wanted real pizza you wanted doughy crust, tangy red sauce, plenty of mozzarella. You wanted grease pooling on your slice and seeping into your paper plate. And most important—this was the secret nobody on the other side of the Hudson seemed to get—you wanted absolutely no skimping on the oregano. There had to be lots of oregano. Otherwise, the point was what, exactly?

Dan stepped onto the street again, heading for Park Avenue. This was often the time of night when loneliness started sifting through him. Jean and he were carried on different currents all day long. She worked on her own art, saw her friends, visited her favorite galleries. Dan worked on his stories, saw his colleagues, got ready for the next broadcast. Often it was past midnight before they converged over scotches on the living-room sofa to reintroduce themselves to each other.

This evening Jean was home with a bad cold. They hadn’t wanted to let down Estelle and Robert, so Dan had attended the dinner party alone. Now he wanted to see his wife. He believed he could jet anywhere in the world so long as he could imagine her waiting for him when he returned.

When they had first met, Dan hadn’t become Dan yet. He was still this skinny eager guy with a B.A. in journalism from Sam Houston State Teachers College. His father laid oil pipeline. His mother bagged groceries at Weingartens’. Dan never kept a job very long because he was always looking for something that made him feel awake and most of them did just the opposite. He started each believing it would be his last, only something better always came along.

For some reason, he could never bring himself to think much about his coworkers as coworkers. He conceived of them in simple terms, as impediments to his prospects. He wasn’t mean to them. He didn’t wish them anything but good. He treated them cordially, as if each were an acquaintance he had just bumped into on the street while late for a more important appointment elsewhere. Every time he came across them standing around someone’s desk or at the water cooler, he smiled, maybe asked a question or two about their families, and remembered his father telling him about locusts. Locusts were usually solitary insects, but they had a secret trigger built into them. When they saw more than two of their species facing a certain direction, they would also start facing that direction. That was how swarms appeared to swell out of nowhere.

Dan did some work for United Press International, some stringing at a couple of local radio stations, a two-year stint at The Houston Chronicle. Jean was game every time the scene changed. They had a little girl named Dawn and a little boy named Danjack. Then in 1961 Dan got his big break. He ended up covering Hurricane Carla live from Galveston. TV stations didn’t own radar systems back then, so Dan took his camera crew to a nearby Navy base and got a technician there to draw an outline of the Gulf on a sheet of plastic and hold it over the radar display to give viewers a sense of the storm’s size and position. CBS executives in New York saw the piece and offered Dan a job.

But Jean never stopped treating him like that skinny eager guy from Sam Houston State Teachers College. Dan appreciated that. It helped keep things spare. With other people he always felt different from himself. With Jean he could be whoever he had to be outside his apartment and then inside be himself. Sometimes at gatherings he noticed her looking at him from across the room, wine glass in hand, trying to figure out who he was supposed to be this evening, who she was supposed to be in turn.

Recently she began cutting her graying hair short like middle-aged Midwestern women did so they didn’t have to deal with it. She wore large tortoise-shell glasses. Dan could see where sun damage stained her face with small brown clouds. She had gone vaguely swaybacked, developed the beginnings of a potbelly, something until it happened Dan didn’t know women could do. That was okay with him, too. Jean and Dan had earned their bodies. Although he had become more handsome in that rough way men do as they aged, he had also become thicker around the middle, puffier around the eyes. His lower teeth had started migrating around inside his lower jaw.

Whenever he thought about Jean and him, he imagined two overweight cats sharing the same couch. They enjoyed not so much interacting with each other as simply being aware of each other’s presence.


The first punch came from behind him, landing at the base of his skull. Dan stumbled forward and a bluewhite surge overflowed his vision. He semi-straightened, began to rotate, and the second punch caught him square on the cheekbone and ear. He went to his knees.

Instinctively he raised his hands to protect his face.

Hey, he said. Hey. Stop.

Someone was beating him up. That’s what was happening to him. Someone was beating the shit out of him. Dan heard fast heavy breathing and fast shoes scraping pavement behind him like someone was doing boxing moves. Maybe there were two sets of scraping. He couldn’t tell for sure. Things were going by too quickly.

A fist knuckled him hard in the right temple and Dan went down on his side. He curled into himself, knees to chest, head tucked.

The footwork ceased.

Kenneth, the voice above him, said, panting, what’s the frequency?

Dan didn’t understand. He opened his eyes and saw polished loafers and white socks.

I said what’s the fucking frequency, the voice said.

You’ve got the wrong guy, Dan said. I’m not the guy you’re looking for.

The mugger kicked him in the back, tentatively at first, then with increasing zest. A few seconds and he stopped again, winded. Maybe he was examining his work. Maybe he was thinking about his options. Dan couldn’t believe no one was coming to help him out. There had to be someone around who had noticed what was going on. He heard cars passing by on Park Avenue, but none of them was even slowing down.

Tell me, the voice said.

You want money? Dan asked from beneath his arms. Let me up and I’ll give you all the money I’ve got on me.

Tell me the fucking frequency. I wanna go home.

I’ve got like a hundred bucks in my pocket and a nice watch. Ring, too. Let me up and they’re yours.

Fuck you.

Rolex. Self-winding. Just let me up here, and—

Tell me the fucking frequency, man, or I’ll fucking kill you.

Dan didn’t say anything else. He just lay very still, collecting his energy, tasting the blood where he had nipped the inside of his cheek and tongue.

Next, he exploded up and was hobblerunning along the block. His shoulder hurt and his coat and pants were torn and somehow he had twisted his ankle, but he knew he couldn’t stop moving. He heard the guy’s footsteps closing the gap between them. A hand brushed his shoulder, scrabbling for a place to grab on. Dan sidestepped it, bobbed and weaved, and a set of glass doors welled up in front of him.

The footsteps fell away as Dan found himself in a marble lobby, palms on knees, inhaling and exhaling frantically.

Behind the main desk a security guard looked up, taking in this new information in his environment. He was massive like Marines are massive. His head was shaved. Dan opened his mouth as if he were about to say something.

Then he was on his back, staring up into bright fuzzy fluorescent light.

He heard someone talking on a phone across the lobby, and, next, talking right beside him, telling him to take it easy, pal, take it easy, an ambulance is on the way.

Listening, Dan wafted in the over-lit white space. He watched as black words solidified before him like they were solidifying on a movie screen, pixel by pixel.

Gradually, they formed a sentence.

Dan had to study it for some time before it made any sense.

Well, it said, it looks like we’re ready to go here.









Testing ... one ... two ... three.






Well, it looks like we’re ready to go here ... This is Doctor Park Dietz. Today’s date is Monday, May 22, 1995. The time is, uh, the time is 9:51 a.m. This will be a taped conversation with the last name of Tager, T-A-G-E-R, first of William, W-I-L-L-I-A-M. Date of birth: November 9, 1947.

WT. That is incorrect.

PD. Okay, Bill. We’ll get to that in a sec. What I’ve done here is I’ve turned on the recorder so I can tape our conversation because, you know, I’m not the best note taker in the world. This morning I’d like to return to some things we were talking about last fall, if that’s all right with you.

WT. Fine.

PD. Okay, uh ... Can you speak up just a little bit? I’m ...

WT. Sure.

PD. Good. That’s good. Okay. So I want to go back to the conversations we were having about October 4, 1986. You were on, what was it, 86th Street, right? At a little before 11:00 p.m.?

WT. That is correct.

PD. And you were, you know, you saw somebody. A man you recognized.

WT. We already did this part.

PD. I apologize, Bill. I’m not the, you know, the sharpest tool in the shed. I just want to understand what happened. It takes me a while. So, okay, you saw this man you recognized, right?

WT. Yes.

PD. And you said you thought he was ...?

WT. I didn’t think. I knew. Everybody knows.

PD. Why don’t you go ahead and tell me—just for the record.

WT. Burrows. Kenneth Burrows.

PD. And what did you do when you saw the man you thought was Kenneth Burrows?

WT. I needed to get the code.

PD. And how did you go about doing that?

WT. I followed him.

PD. Where did he go?

WT. He went into this pizza parlor.

PD. And what happened?

WT. He ordered a slice of pepperoni. A slice of pepperoni and a Coke. I ordered a slice, too. I didn’t order anything to drink because I wasn’t thirsty. He sat at the window.

PD. And where did you sit?

WT. I sat in the back.

PD. To watch him?

WT. To keep him under surveillance. Yes. Only I pretended not to because his brainwaves were arriving and everything.

PD. What do you mean when you say: His brainwaves were arriving and everything?

WT. They were coming in at me.

PD. What did it feel like to you?

WT. It felt like tinfoil sparkling inside my head.

PD. And how long would you, uh, how long would you estimate you remained in the pizza parlor?

WT. I don’t know.

PD. You waited until he was done.

WT. Yes.

PD. Ten minutes? Twenty?

WT. ...

PD. What sort of thoughts were you having at the time?

WT. ...

PD. Your mind was blank?

WT. I was observing.

PD. What did this man you recognized ... what did he do next?

WT. He got up. He wiped his mouth with a napkin, chucked everything into the trashcan by the door. Then he said thanks to the guys behind the counter and left.

PD. Was the pizza parlor crowded at that time of night?

WT. There was maybe another couple of people.

PD. Had you thought in any way at that point that you might want to hurt him?

WT. The Vice President?

PD. Had you pictured it?

WT. Why would anyone picture hurting the V. P.?

PD. Then tell me what was going through your head. Explain what you were thinking to me.

WT. I was thinking about asking him for the code. That was pretty much it. He was walking fast. I had to jog to catch up with him. It seemed like the faster I went, the faster he went.

PD. That’s when things began changing for you?

WT. He knew I was coming. He should’ve stopped.

PD. How did he know you were coming?

WT. He’s the Vice President.

PD. So what did you do when he didn’t stop for you?

WT. Can I get a cup of coffee now?

PD. Coffee?

WT. Yes. A cup of coffee.

PD. Sure, Bill. Just a minute. Let me see what I can do. Cream and sugar?

WT. Two percent. I’m trying to watch my weight.





Okay, hang on here.




Testing. Test ... Coffee’s okay?

WT. The coffee’s fine.

PD. Good. So ... let’s see. You were telling me about what happened when the man you believed to be Kenneth Burrows wouldn’t, uh, wouldn’t stop for you after you left the, you know, the pizza parlor on 86th.

WT. My head felt bad.

PD. What happened after that?

WT. My fist thought of a way out.

PD. What do you mean when you say: My fist thought of a way out?

WT. My right fist.

PD. What did it do?

WT. It punched him. Hard. He went right down. Then my feet did stuff. My mouth did stuff and my feet did stuff.

PD. How was that a way out?

WT. For him?

PD. Yes.

WT. I figured my fist would make him give me the frequency and then he would be safe.

PD. Did you say anything?

WT. I asked him for it.

PD. The code?

WT. Only he just started lying to me. Lying and lying, the liar.

PD. What did he lie about?

WT. Everything.

PD. What would an example be of one of his lies?

WT. He said I had the wrong guy. He offered me stuff. A stupid watch. A stupid ring.

PD. But you believed he was Burrows. Why do you suppose he wouldn’t give you the frequency? You had him on the ground. Why wouldn’t he just tell you?

WT. I told him I was going back home no matter what. He couldn’t stop me.

PD. What did he say?

WT. I knew the messages would start again. I knew I didn’t have much time.

PD. The messages are different from the brainwaves?

WT. The messages are always the same. The brainwaves are tinfoil sparkling inside my head.

PD. The messages come approximately every twenty minutes? Is that correct?

WT. Precisely every twenty minutes.

PD. And they interrupted you while you were assaulting the man you took to be Kenneth Burrows?

WT. They fucked me all up.

PD. Why aren’t they coming now, Bill ... the messages? While we’re, you know, while we’re having this conversation.

WT. They are.

PD. Doesn’t that make it difficult for you to think?

WT. That is correct.

PD. And they made it difficult for you to think while you were assaulting the man on the sidewalk ...

WT. That’s when he made his break. I couldn’t move. Sometimes they make it so you can’t move.

PD. What did you do?

WT. I tried to catch him.

PD. But you couldn’t.

WT. That’s why I’m here.

PD. That’s why you’re in New York?

WT. On this planet.

PD. On this planet?

WT. That is correct.

PD. You mean you feel you’re stranded.

WT. Tell me how I can leave. Go ahead. Tell me.

PD. Believing that must make you feel very lonely. Like you’ve lost control of things.

WT. ...

PD. Well, maybe you can help me understand, Bill, and maybe I can, you know, I can help you.

WT. I don’t think so.

PD. Why is that?

WT. How can you help me?

PD. How about, uh, how about we go back to the beginning? Would you do that for me? How about we take it from the beginning?

WT. Again?

PD. Let’s see ... My records show you were born on November 9, 1947. But you say that is inaccurate.

WT. November 9, 2265.

PD. 2265?

WT. That is correct.

PD. And it shows here you were born in Charlotte, North Carolina. Do you believe that is incorrect as well?

WT. Yes.

PD. Where do you believe you were born?

WT. New York. Staten Island. We’ve already had this conversation.

PD. It’s just, uh, I guess it’s just taking some time for what you have to say to sink in. How do you account for the discrepancy in your record?

WT. Connect the dots.

PD. You believe you’re from the future.

WT. Belief has zero to do with it.

PD. How would you say it, then?

WT. I would say: William Tager is from a future.

PD. From a future?

WT. That is correct.

PD. Not ours?

WT. Different Staten Island. Different earth.

PD. I’m sorry, Bill, but I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re telling me. What do you mean when you say: A different earth?

WT. That’s not the right question.

PD. What would the right question be?

WT. The right question would be: Where is William Tager’s earth?

PD. What would the answer to that question be?

WT. Right here, all around us.

PD. Isn’t that saying, uh, isn’t that saying the same thing?

WT. Only in a different brane.

PD. A different brain?

WT. Brane. B-R-A-N-E. Membrane.

PD. Membrane?

WT. Your physicists already know this. They already know reality is multiple vibrating membranes. You can travel between them, but when they touch it’s The Catastrophe.

PD. The catastrophe?

WT. You call it The Big Bang. We call it The Catastrophe. You see it as a beginning. We see it as an ending.

PD. So let me get this straight. You believe you come from an alternate dimension and in that dimension it’s the future.

WT. That is correct, minus the belief.

PD. I would think even in 2265 time travel to alternate dimensions would be a very difficult concept to put into practice.

WT. I’m a test pilot, you could say.

PD. That sounds like a real honor, Bill.

WT. It’s a real punishment.

PD. A punishment?

WT. That’s how I met the Vice President.

PD. As a test pilot?

WT. Yes.

PD. Why don’t you tell me about that.

WT. I was in prison.

PD. In the alternate future, you mean.

WT. Yes.

PD. And what were you, you know ...

WT. They said I killed someone.

PD. Did you?

WT. My hands played with matches. They set fire to my girlfriend’s house. In Newark. I didn’t know that’s what they were planning.

PD. Why did they do that?

WT. To make me safe. She was cheating on me. She denied everything, but you could tell she was lying and lying, the liar. She kicked me out of her house. I came back at two that morning with a can of kerosene.

PD. How did that make you feel—knowing, I mean, that you were responsible for her death?

WT. Hands do what hands do.

PD. You’re telling me you felt guilt.

WT. Someone had to. Then that changed.

PD. They sent you to prison?

WT. Death row.

PD. And that’s where you met the Vice President for the first time.

WT. One afternoon this suit shows up outside my cell. I’m reading a comic book. They allow you comic books. They’re not like yours. They come on a single sheet of thin translucent plastic and they move.

PD. Like movies?

WT. Only in three dimensions.

PD. And the suit?

WT. He’s from the government, he goes, and he has this deal for me. What kind of deal? I go. He goes if I volunteer for this project and return safely, I get a full pardon.

PD. What sort of thoughts did you have when you lit the match?

WT. There was this match. There was this can of kerosene. That’s pretty much it.

PD. What did you tell the government official?

WT. Next day I’m in the travel chamber. It looks like one of your tanning booths. All this brightness inside a steel coffin. They’ve strapped me in. They’ve begun the countdown.

PD. That’s when Burrows showed up?

WT. I’m lying there, squinting up into this light, waiting. Then he’s leaning over me. He’s leaning over so close I can smell his aftershave. Old Spice.

PD. What did he say?

WT. He’s smiling really wide ... like, um, like a cartoon shark smiles. He asks me if I slept well last night. I tell him yeah, I did, as a matter of fact. Do I remember any of my dreams? he goes. I go no. He keeps smiling really wide. Try harder, he goes. I look at him a couple seconds, then it comes to me. Actually, I do remember a dream.

PD. Tell me about it.

WT. I’m woke up by these suits, five or six of them, in the middle of the night. They carry me by my arms and legs to the hospital ward. I’m struggling and everything. I remember the sounds. It’s that kind of dream. The clatter of the, what do you call them. Of the gurneys around me. And when I finish recounting my dream, you know what the Vice President goes?

PD. What’s that, Bill?

WT. He goes, smiling and all: It wasn’t a dream, Bill.

PD. You’re saying they really took you to the hospital ward?

WT. For the operation. That is correct.

PD. What operation?

WT. To implant the transmitter inside my head.

PD. Why did they do that?

WT. He goes, the transmitter will start barraging me with messages to return if I try to remain in this time and place past when I’m supposed to.

PD. The transmitter will broadcast every twenty minutes in your head.

WT. Till I return and file a report on the mission. That’s when they’ll take it out.

PD. So you arrived in Manhattan on ...

WT. I arrived in your Manhattan on September 1, 1986.

PD. And how long were you supposed to stay?

WT. Two weeks.

PD. How were you supposed to get by, Bill—eat, sleep, that sort of thing?

WT. Take from people. Don’t hurt them or anything. Don’t draw any more attention to yourself than necessary. It was pretty easy. I walked up to people on side streets and asked them for what I needed. People are nice that way.

PD. Tell me about your mission. What were you supposed to do during your time here?

WT. Record.

PD. What did they want you to do that for?

WT. Test pilots don’t ask why the jets they fly are built.

PD. You said you record, Bill. How, uh, how do you go about doing that?

WT. I just open my eyes and it starts.

PD. Everything went well at first.

WT. I was down in the Village. Near Washington Square. It was a little past midnight. I remember it was warm. I was recording nightlife at the cafés and bars along Sullivan. Then these two police on bikes were yelling at me.

PD. Why do you suppose they were they doing that, Bill?

WT. I was just standing there. Then they were yelling at me. Their voices scared me. I ducked left on Third. They followed. One tackled me. The other handcuffed me. My wrists didn’t feel good. Their mouths were doing things. It was all mixed up.

PD. What were their mouths doing?

WT. Their mouths were telling me if I couldn’t afford one, an attorney would be provided at no cost.

PD. Did you tell them you hadn’t done anything?

WT. I explained how they needed to let me up. They said I had been putting coins into expired parking meters.

PD. But you don’t remember doing that.

WT. They put me in a room for thirty days.

PD. And so you were forced to remain in this dimension longer than you were supposed to.

WT. That is correct.

PD. And that’s when the messages started arriving.

WT. That is correct.

PD. But you couldn’t do what they said, could you?

WT. It was going to be another week before I could try a return.

PD. Why is that, Bill?

WT. The ergs. They needed to regenerate. Only there was no way to let the Vice President know. It was a one-way transmission system.

PD. Don’t you think it’s a little odd, Bill, that the Vice President didn’t provide you with a way to contact him?

WT. Membranes are membranes. Worlds are whirls.

PD. And the messages arrived night and day. It must have been very difficult for you.

WT. I couldn’t sleep. My head felt like the angel was screeching inside.

PD. What angel is that, Bill?

WT. The fallen one.

PD. The fallen angel?

WT. From the bedtime story.

PD. I don’t believe I’m familiar with that one.

WT. My mother used to read it to me. It was my favorite. That’s what it teaches.

PD. What does it teach?

WT. That worlds are whirls.

PD. Whirls? Worlds are whirls, not worlds?

WT. That is correct.

PD. Would you do me a favor, Bill?

WT. What?

PD. Would you tell it to me? I’d like to hear it.

WT. You would?

PD. Very much so. Yes.

WT. Uh, sure. Sure. It starts ... how does it start? Let’s see. Oh, yeah. It starts like this ...

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury