Right After These Words

Right After These Words
 Ryan Everett Felton

The sun wouldn’t be up for another good hour, but against all natural order the population was already wide-awake through the assistance of coffee, dietary supplements, a well-trained biological clock, or else some miracle. They’d have all been much better off just going back to bed, at least until daylight broke.

It was strictly nerves, though, that kept Tim awake. Of all these people, lined up in their vehicles from here to the horizon, perhaps he was the only one who was up this early without needing to be. He hadn’t slept for a while, though it wasn’t as if the world demanded too much from him to spare a few hours for some shut-eye. He just couldn’t.

One hand gripped the steering wheel while Tim pressed his phone to his ear. He’d been on hold for so long now, circling the block, that the old piece of junk felt like a hot iron held against the side of his face. Traffic moved at such a pace that his ankle felt raw, switching from gas to brake so much, and his battered windshield wipers weren’t doing much about the morning mist.

The FM radio crackled over the course of the Stewart Hawkes morning show, but Tim could make out Hawkes’s familiar timbre just fine. He’d been listening for an hour already – had been waiting to get on the air twice as long.

“We’re gonna take a quick break,” said Hawkes as he amped up some outro music, “and when we return we’ll take a few calls. I think we’ve got Lisping Tim on the line, so everyone hold onto your seats for that!”

Tim dialed down the volume. He didn’t care to hear the same advertisements for the thousandth time, and besides – soon enough he’d have to turn it off anyway. The feedback.

He and the rest of the morning commuters had come to a complete stop. Phone still sizzling on his cheek, his bald head made a slow swivel about his padded, hairy neck. All these people, he thought, headed to work.

I bet every single one of them wanted to be an actor or an artist or a rock star. But the world needs accountants and realtors and baristas, too.

The voice in the back of his head – which wasn’t a voice so much as his own less-filtered stream of consciousness – asked Tim what the world needed out of him.

There wasn’t enough time to answer. The droning, jazzy hold music clicked off on the other end of the line and now Jerry, Hawkes’s producer, was talking to him.

“Hey, Tim,” he said. Even Jerry sounded exhausted.

“Hi, Jerry,” said Tim. His phone, slimy with his own facial oil, slid across his cratered face.

“When we get back from commercial we’re gonna put you right on, okay? Stewart’s looking for something funny after that news report about the fire.”

“I heard it,” said Tim.

“I’m sure you did,” said Jerry. “When have you ever missed a show?”

Tim didn’t know if Jerry was making fun of him, but it was safe to assume, at this point, that he was.

“Okay,” Jerry said, “you’re on. Have fun with it.”

And like that, Lisping Tim – everyone’s favorite dopey Hawkes Show caller was on the air for – what? The hundredth time? The hundred-and-fiftieth?
Either way, it was his last.

“And we’re back,” Tim heard Hawkes say over the phone, “and joining us once again is Lith-ping Tim. Thay, Timmy, how’th trickth?”

“Okay,” he said. At least, he thought he did. He barely heard his own voice.

“What’s goin’ on in your world, Tim? C’mon, make us all feel better about ourselves!”

Tim wondered, looking from car to car on the highway, how many people were listening to him right now. And out of them, how many were already laughing at him.

“Still livin’ with Mom?” asked Hawkes, reaching, hoping to get something going. “Or did you kill her and stuff her in a closet yet? Are you wearing your mother’s nightie right now?”
Tim could hear the others in Hawkes’s radio troupe laughing in the background. He could swear the guy in the car next to him had just thrown his head back in laughter.

“Well?” said Hawkes. The calm cool of his voice rose, in that one syllable, to an impatient jab.

“Well,” said Tim. He stopped. Deep breath. The veins in the hand that gripped the steering wheel bulged as he squeezed the vinyl.
There was a long pause during which Tim thought, honestly believed, that his no-good voice had left him once and for all.

“Look, man,” said Hawkes, “I got a show to do. Gimme somethin’.”

Tim spat out a puff of air and ran the tip of his tongue across his palate. “Well,” he said at last – with some effort, “I’m going to kill myself this morning.”

Silence. Hawkes might have hung up. There was no way to be sure, with the radio down and his pulse pounding in his ears.

“I just wanted you and your listeners to know,” said Tim, into the phone and possibly to no one.

Then he took a sharp left, veered onto the sidewalk, and sped up his maroon pick-up to sixty. He drove it head-on into the brick wall of the Sbarro’s on Briarcliff and Franklin.

There was only a moment of pain before, finally, he went to sleep.

Two days of self-imposed silence later, after turning away another nosy reporter, Tim the local radio celebrity sat upright in a lumpy hospital bed stirring a cup of pudding with a gnawed plastic spoon. Propped up in a nylon sling, his plaster-encased leg looked to him like it stretched on for miles. Since he wasn’t using his mouth to eat or (under any circumstances) to talk, Tim let it hang open, breathing through it in a futile effort to keep the smell of ammonia from assaulting his olfactories. That’s when this Axe-soaked frat boy of a nurse moseyed in to empty his piss jar, grinning from ear to ear.

“You really him?” the nurse asked, his reedy Bostonian dialect the furthest thing from a suitable bedside manner. Bent over, snatching the plastic jug at the foot of the bed, he clarified: “Are you really Lisping Tim?”

Tim pulled the sheets tight around his waist, their scratchy texture like Brillo rubbing against his considerable belly. Screwing up his hairless face, riddled with adult acne, he poured as much concentration into his first words in two days as he could. “Yeah,” he said.

He wouldn’t say, “Yes.”

“I am.”

He wouldn’t say, “That’s me.”

“Man,” the nurse said, straightening up with that foul container clasped between two gloved hands, “I freakin’ love you on show.”
Tim nodded.

“Makes my day every time you call in.” The nurse seemed genuinely star-struck, a phenomenon Tim might have reveled in at one point. He loomed over the bedridden schlub, violating several health codes with an open biohazard in his grip. “Cracks me up,” he said through a mouthful of perfect teeth.

Tim shifted in his ninety-degree position, his elbows pinned down so that the tight comforter dug deeper into his flesh. A burst of fresh pain erupted in his abdomen, his ribs. The curly-haired kid in the scrubs set the jug down on the rollaway tray and, making a beeline for a nearby AM/FM radio, said, “They’ve been talking about you all morning on Hawkes.” He flipped the switch and fiddled with the dial. “Here, listen.”

Two days, from the moment his truck collided with the front of the pizzeria to this instant – it was the longest Tim had gone without hearing a second of Stewart Hawkes’ morning radio broadcast. The longest he had gone without a phoned-in appearance as the show’s resident goofball caller. Now that was all out the window, as Hawkes’s rumbling jester voice filled the room, condensed to a melody through a series of expensive audio equipment.

“But they say Lisping Tim’s gonna be okay, really,” came Hawkes’ voice. “And from what I’ve seen of his vehicle, that’s a miracle.”
Tim swallowed, closing his mouth.

The nurse scooped up the plastic container full of Tim’s refuse and carried it into the bathroom, taking careful steps to better hear Hawkes and his sidekick Kerri dish it out over the airwaves.

“But this wasn’t an accident,” came Kerri’s rumbling purr. “That much is obvious. So what’s going on with Tim?”

“Maybe he finally listened to a tape of the show and heard the sound of his own voice,” Hawkes said. Next came laughter from the staff in the studio.
In the adjoining bathroom, the toilet flushed.

The smarmy male nurse reappeared, peeling the rubber gloves off his hands, just in time for his blood-curdling smirk to couple with Hawkes’s next witticism: “You think there’s any chance he bit off a chunk of his tongue in the crash and now he can talk like a normal person?”

More laughter. Kerri said, “Oh, stop it!” But she was laughing, too. Tim loved the sound of her laugh, even now. All at once a dozen imagined replies came to him. In his head he was bantering with Hawkes, snapping at Kerri, and they were eating it up. He had only to pick up the telephone.

But no. He was done with all that. No more putting himself out there, broadcasting himself to countless thousands, just to be mocked and maligned. For some reason the universe had seen fit to let him walk away from the wreck with his life, and now was no time to pick up old, masochistic habits.

Leaning against the closed bathroom door, the nurse forced out a false cough and folded his arms. Tim looked anywhere but toward his unwelcome spectator, settling on picking his spoon back up and swirling it around in the pudding again.

Hawkes said, “Listen, I gotta take a break. We’ll be back right after these words,” and played himself out to his hard-rock theme music.
In his periphery he could still make out the nurse, observing from his roost just outside the lavatory. Why wouldn’t he leave?

“Can I ask you something?” the nurse said.

Tim ran his eyes from his hip to the tips of his toes on the wounded leg. His little piggies peeked out of the fuzz-riddled edge of the cast, purple and pruny. He gave no answer.

Taking his silence as a “yes,” the nurse took a step forward, stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Why’d ya’ do it?” he asked.

Tim looked up at the young man, incensed by his mere appearance. Smug, good-looking, young – and well aware of all of the above. Tim chose his words with caution, avoiding the more troublesome consonants. He said, “I’m done. With calling in, with getting mocked. With everything.”

The nurse took two more steps, grabbed the pudding cup from Tim’s hand. Tim went still. “Not what I meant,” the nurse said. “I mean, why call and announce it?”
Tim’s chapped lips inverted, creating a ventriloquist dummy’s cracks at the jowls. He said nothing.

“Y’know what I think?” the nurse said. He shoveled some pudding into his mouth with his tongue and swallowed. “I think it was a bit. Like when you streaked at the Falcons game with ‘Stewart Hawkes’ painted across your back.”

Tim scoffed. His beet-colored toes curled at the base of their plaster prison.

“You can tell me,” the nurse said, tossing the pudding cup into a nearby trashcan. “I think it’s funny.”

On the radio, a well-spoken woman announced an impending sale at Penney’s. Tim snorted and touched his chin to his chest, closing his eyes. After enough time and silence had passed that he thought the nurse must have taken the hint and slithered off to bother someone else, he opened them again.

That’s when a telephone creeped into Tim’s vision as if it was alive, hovering around his head. He looked up and to his right, where the nurse extended his arm, offering him the generic-looking, tan landline.

“You should call in,” said the nurse, unable to suppress a fit of giggles.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Tim answered without pause.

“Since when?”

“Since —” Tim stopped. He’d caught himself too late, and with one misspoken word he’d brought down the house. The nurse clutched his own chest, belly-laughing.

“You gotta call in,” he said. He held the phone less than an inch from Tim’s face.

The pasty-faced patient pushed himself upright and away from the receiver threatening to climb down his throat. The pain in his ribs, dulled by a steady dosing of morphine, arrived a few seconds late. He sighed, breathing in through his nose and catching a whiff of hospital stench, expelling it with a forceful cough.
There must have been about a hundred ways he could have ended it. Of all of them, he chose the one method that landed him here, alive, with this kid shoving a phone in his face. Why?

He pondered the nurse’s theory – that the whole thing had been a stunt, a gag to draw attention to himself. The very idea that Hawkes’s listeners might be thinking the same thing sped up his heart rate. With just one quick call he could explain himself, really drive home his point, make his stand.

At last, he nodded. He tore the receiver from the nurse’s calloused hands and said, “Yeah, okay. Yeah.”

The nurse brushed a set of Neanderthal’s knuckles across Tim’s shoulder. “Hell. Yes. Lisping Tim!” he said. He took one step before asking, “You need a phone book or something?”

Tim shook his head. “No. I know the number,” he said, and before the last word left his mouth he was already hunched over, dialing.

The nurse looked on, shaking his own head in disbelieving amusement, no doubt capturing this moment for one hell of a story to tell his buddies later on. An operator answered as Tim stretched himself across the bedside table to turn the radio down.

The Stewart Hawkes Show,” came the tinny intern’s voice. “Thanks for calling. Who’s this?”

“This is Lisping Tim,” Tim said. “Can I get through? I need to talk to Stewart.”

Just a moment’s silence, then, “One moment, please.”

The familiar hold music followed. Soon he’d be back on the air, too nervous to concentrate hard enough to not come off sounding like a fool. Which, of course, was just how Stewart and his audience liked him. The mimicry, the taunting, the other listeners that called in to tell him what a piece of shit he was – two days ago, these things had crossed some threshold, become too great a burden. Just two days ago Tim had been certain he wanted to die.

But now, with the phone in his hand, he felt different. Some feeling in his gut, one he recognized but must have grown numb to at one point, returned with a surge. He felt empowered, somehow. If he could just hear Kerri’s signature chuckle over the landline or get a “thanks” from Stewart for another killer segment during the ads, it would be enough. It would be enough to go on, until it wasn’t, and when that time came ­– well, there would always be tomorrow morning’s rush hour and the switchboard at station ninety-six-point-five.

The muzak clicked off, and Jerry’s breathless voice took its place. “Tim?” he said. “Is that you? For real?”

Tim gave the receiver a little dominant squeeze. “Yes,” he said, “it’s me. I’d like to speak with Stewart on-air about my little accident.”

Having visited the studio, Tim could imagine Jerry in the control room, wiping his forehead and tucking in his top lip. “Sure,” he said, “sure, we’ll get you right on.” Then more hold music. The usual runaround.

Remembering that he wasn’t alone, Tim pointed at the room’s open door and stared down the nurse until he took the message and clambered out. The kid could listen to Tim on the radio out in the hall.

He could hear him the same way everybody else did.

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