STILL LIFE WITH ALARM CLOCKS

Creative Nonfiction by Andrew Farkas

If you close your eyes, you can see the motel room. You can. It’s right there. Right there in front of you. It’s yours. At least for the night. You can lie down and …

Oh, sure, in the moment, with the Highway Hypnosis, the road seems to go on forever. For Andrew Everett Farkas. Who’s called Andy. Who thinks of himself as Andy. And so, for Andy, with a bad case of White Line Fever, the road appears to go on forever. But soon enough, oh soon enough, he’ll exit (at long last!) the highway, yes, it can be done, he’ll exit the highway, he’ll pay at the desk, having made no reservations (meaning, even now, Andy doesn’t know this room, this room you can see, is to be his), he’ll limp through the door, take a shower, collapse on the bed, watch some TV, and then, oh then, yes then, he’ll go to sleep.

Later, he’ll be awakened by the alarm clock.

At between 3:00 and 4:00am.

Though he didn’t set the alarm clock.

There being no reason to wake up at such a strange hour.

Four times this has happened to Andy. The alarm clock. Not set by him. 3:00 – 4:00 am. In anonymous motel rooms. In motel rooms he did not reserve beforehand. Sitting in the pre-dawn darkness, the grating sound setting his teeth on edge, Andy will wonder how this came to be, how this could happen, why, why, feeling surrounded by answers, the air vibrating with them, until he fumbles around, turns on a light, shuts the racket off and …

For now, the room is vacant – calm – ready to let. Lacking any signs of the soon-to-be occupant. Who is still out on the road anyway. Wondering where he is. Wondering if the lane markings are beginning to bend in on themselves. Wondering if this trip will ever end. He doesn’t know yet – it will. But not with the relief he expects. Instead, when he unlocks the door, he won’t recognize that sharp click as the sound of inevitability, as the harbinger for a whole new set of perhaps inexplicable circumstances. Instead, Andy, sweaty, discombobulated, a bit achy, thankful he’s no longer on the road, innocent of that which is to come, will merely stumble blearily inside.

Inside of the motel room.

Just close your eyes.

You can see it.

Like it’s right there in front of you.  

*

On a nightstand in between two double beds, next to a slip that says which numbers correspond to which TV stations, next to menus and contact information for lousy delivery joints, next to a landline telephone with a card over the keypad that instructs you how to ring the front desk and how to dial out, amidst all of this sits the alarm clock. Silent. For now. For now. But, yeah baby, in a few minutes, this one’s a fuckin’ classic, in just a few minutes, been waitin’ all goddamn night has Carruther (the name Andy’s attributed to him), even, what?, laid off the last few Bud Lights so he didn’t pass the hell out because this can’t be missed, hell no!, because what’s gonna happen, right at 3:14am, the alarm clock, oh my fuckin’ Gawd!, will engorge and ejaculate its sound again and again and again, a sonic facial, sending whatever asshole happens to be sleeping in that room into the air, thinking it must be time to get up, thinking he must’ve set the motherfucker (why else would it be shooting off the way it is?), thinking about where he needs to be, whether he’s gonna be late or if he has time to make some shitty coffee from the maker over there on top of the mini-fridge, shovel some desiccated non-dairy creamer into the swill to give it that wet sand texture to really start the day off right, yeah buddy!, until, and really Carruther wishes he could be there for this part (or so Andy assumes), the part when that sad bastard in the room looks at the time and sees ain’t nowhere he’s gotta be, ain’t nothing he’s gotta do, since it’s three in the goddamned morning! Wow! Just fuckin’ wow, man.

This ain’t Carruther’s first rodeo either. Ever since, when was it?, that rank ass flophouse didn’t even have dirty movies for fuck’s sake, almost a goddamned tragedy, but on that fateful day, and this made it all worthwhile, after downing a six pack of Coronitas (who in the Sam Hell sells half-sized beers?!), his eyes fell on the alarm clock and a spark of genius, abso-fucking-lutely, genius is the right word, evil genius?, fine, best kind, Carruther realized (or so Andy figures) what he could do. Initially, he thought about two in the morning, but some rat bastard night owl (like Andy) might crash here, and then where in the name of piss would he be? Shit outta luck’s where. That’s when he came up with 3:00 and 4:00am, veering toward the in-between times for whatever diabolical reason. And as he set the inaugural alarm, he was moved by the moment. Moved. Even took off his cheap mesh baseball cap (if he happened to be wearing one) and put it over his heart to properly observe the depths of jackassery he had finally sunk to? Naw. The depths of jackassery he had finally, successfully achieved. Should be a motherfuckin’ holiday.

Over the years, as Andy sees it, Carruther’s continued on. And goddamn, you know what?, it’s never gotten old. Not even a little bit. Sure, the first time’s always the best, but you don’t stop jerkin’ off just because the first time’s behind you, do ya? Hell no! Actually, setting these alarm clocks, it’s added so much to Carruther’s life, he’s not sure how he lived before. Can you even call that living? I mean, can you …? There is one question Carruther has, though he knows it’ll likely never be answered, but if it could, oh baby!, if it could, he could die right there on the spot happier than any other son of a bitch who ever lived: “Have I ever punked the same person twice or even more than twice?” It is his heart’s greatest wish. If only Carruther could meet Andy, he’d learn that he hadn’t labored in vain.

*

“Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call [to adventure] unanswered,” says Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). And, indeed, three times Andy has, seemingly, ignored the call. But in a few minutes, as he lies asleep on the room’s king-sized bed, there will be a fourth. Now, you might say, when the alarm goes off, that Andy could ring the front desk and bawl out the night clerk, who would, in turn, offer not only to refund Andy’s money, but also send up some “company,” which in itself could lead to the expected sex, or melodrama (when the woman admits this is her first night on the job, a job she has only taken because of extremely unfortunate circumstances, driving Andy to do whatever he can to help her out of this situation), or intrigue (when the woman reveals something revelatory that points to a potential plot, one that’s perhaps dubious in nature to anyone save Andy, the woman having skillfully recruited Andy through her passionate telling, her desperate telling, her alluring telling of her, granted, questionable story, the scenario ultimately taking our two characters through a series of episodes escalating in tension, until we reach the shocking climax where … something or other happens), or confusion (when the “company” turns out to be an octogenarian who, through a befuddling collection of half-told, quarter-told, barely told, and retold tales that make us think more of con men rather than dementia, we learn that the elderly man was in a, sure, unspecified war, has been missing and presumed dead from the end of that persistently ill-defined conflict, has only reached the country in the past year, wondering if he can bring himself to return to the land of his birth, penniless as he is, but maybe if you, was it Andy?, could chauffer me, could pretend to be my compatriot – forty year age gap not bothering him at all – perhaps the folks back home would be more likely to accept my appearance at this late date).

On the other hand, Andy could yank the alarm clock out of the wall, storm down to the lobby, demand to know why in the world …, but before he can finish, he’ll be interrupted by an in-progress robbery (an action story), a drug deal in the process of going wrong (a suspense story), a parent who’s been evicted and needs a place to put the kids up for the night (a sob story), a trippy clown convention that has either gotten lost (a comedic story), or arrived here for inexplicable reasons (an artsy story), or that claims to have gotten lost, but as the plot continues to unfold their (the clowns’) objectives grow in oddity until the expected corpses start showing up (a horror story), and all because Andy got his lazy ass out of bed (since it’s unlikely he’d be able to catch anymore ZZZZs anyway), instead of pretending to sleep after shutting the racket off … which, as it turns out, is what he actually does.

Is Andy, therefore, dull, as Joseph Campbell would have it? Because he has brought all of these potential stories to a screaming halt, it might seem so, but he is not. For, as is the case in motels across the country, the heating/air conditioning unit can only be dialed to one of two settings: too hot or too cold. On this occasion, Andy has chosen too hot, and thus sleeps on the top cover, which all of his germophobe friends live in terror of, since that blanket is supposedly teeming with bacteria, bacilli, pathogens, viruses, and generally icky microorganisms that would just love to get their hooks into a person. Andy, our hero, is undaunted. And in a few moments, when he snorts awake thanks to the alarm clock and then shuts it off, dwell not on the tales we will never get to tell, but instead on The Saga of Andy, Defier of Motel Blanket Microbes. Let it be sung for eons to come!

*

Sitting on the likely stained, always uncomfortable lounge style chair in the room, drinking a Rainier, wondering what that smell is (before driving this thought from his mind forever), watching sports highlights on ESPN or movies on HBO (rarely having either channel at home), holding the remote, since Andy mostly stays in cheap motels, it might seem like he’s a mostly insignificant guy, or at least no more significant than any other average human. But this is not the case. After all, someone must be setting the alarm clocks. Since someone is setting the alarm clocks, for at least one person, Andy is extraordinary, worthy of covert harassment the way an antagonist would be. Having explained to his classes that Dr. Farkas is obviously not a hero’s name, our villain does not disagree with this assessment. And yet who is obsessed over more than an enemy? No one. So, it is proven that Dr. Farkas is not only important, but maximally so … for at least one person.

Except that one person is not enough. If Dr. Farkas were more methodical, if, when he took his road trips, he planned ahead and reserved a room in a specific motel, then one person would be enough. Instead, like a mad scientist of the highway, he stops wherever and whenever the feeling grabs him. The person, or actually the people who find Dr. Farkas to be maximally important cannot, therefore, be called stalkers, since stalker implies following. Instead, they must precede him, they must predict which motel he will stop at, they must augur which room he will end up in, they must even deactivate all of the erroneous alarms they’ve set (since Dr. Farkas has not met anyone else who’s had his experience). Mentally, Dr. Farkas, when he starts his car at the beginning of a journey, sees this squad, no, this group, no, this hoard fan out along his prospective path, friendly rivalries having formed, veterans taking rookies under their collective wings, bets being laid with bookies who’ve glommed onto this massive strike force, money getting exchanged for tips on sure things that are anything but certain, true believers declaring systems that aren’t exactly systematic, all in the name of flicking a switch in the right room, the room where the dastardly Dr. Farkas will attempt to rest.

As haunting symphonic music fills this motel lair, from his vile throne, hand sitting atop the controls, Dr. Farkas watches as an army fans out on the screen, a confident army, an army unaware of what they’re walking into. Interesting that there are so many buttons on this remote – buttons everyone is familiar with, buttons few are familiar with. Very few. Our villain holds the clicker aloft, having known full well who was pestering him all this time; he’s merely been waiting for the right moment. Finger poised above what could be the explosive plunger, that which could thwart his petty adversaries forever, he looks at his beverage and remembers the barkeep who told him it’s pronounced Ron-yay. The fiend pauses … and then pushes the big red off button. Let them have their fun a little longer. They really are quite adorable … in a pathetic sort of way. And anyhow, sometime soon, Dr. Farkas will make them pay. Oh, he’ll make them all pay. Just not yet, he thinks, patting the remote. Not yet.

*

Right as he shuts the shower off, Andy thinks he hears an odd noise coming from the main room. Was it the front door? The heater/air conditioner? The TV? Someone in an adjoining room? He’s not sure. Nor is he sure if his mind is playing tricks on him. Maybe there was no strange sound. Maybe there was and is nothing. When Andy was younger, he was highly susceptible to paralyzing fear, a sensation that could be activated by even a slightly creepy commercial about UFOs, a sensation that would not leave sometimes for days. In junior high, however, he forced himself to watch a series of horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-6) by himself until he purged this irrational response. Once in a while, though, Andy’s mind can still be sent reeling by clicks, or creaks, or taps, or the like. Still standing in the tub, Andy wonders if he should turn the faucet back on, as if the potential intruder might let his, her, or even its guard down thanks to the water’s roar.

What a minute: It?

What could It be?

Now holding the doorknob, Andy thinks about the fact that motel rooms resemble living spaces that humans occupy, yes, resemble, but they’re not quite right. More like an approximation. The version that’d appear in an anthropological museum far in the future. Or, the version that’d appear on another planet explaining, to the best of the extraterrestrials’ ability, how the race Homo sapiens happens to live.

Slowly opening the door, what waits for Andy on the other side? Little green men? Tall grays with large, black eyes? A human-like species with a high creep factor (thanks to the Uncanny Valley effect) that you just know, evidence unnecessary, will transport you to their flying saucers, freeze you, and ship you back to their home planet for food like the Visitors in V (1983) or the Kanamits from The Twilight Zone’s “To Serve Man” (1962)? Is that what’s waiting on the other side of the door? Should Andy maybe rip the towel bar or the shower curtain rod off the wall to use as a weapon? Or are they already in his mind, making resistance futile? There’s nothing wrong here. Everything is perfectly fine. Come with us. On our planet there’s even a game like baseball we’re sure you’ll love…  

Is there anything Andy can do?

Well, no.

Because the only thing on the other side of the door is a curious little cubby for the sink. Andy has often wondered why motel sinks aren’t in the bathroom, since that’s the normal setting in houses and apartments across the country. Of course, the answer could be that there are also washbasins elsewhere (kitchens, laundry rooms, garages, etc.), so in this approximation of a human living space, the sink is near the lavatory, but not in it. Andy almost thinks he can hear the alien explaining to its fellow extraterrestrials the use of the spigot and bowl, its usual placement …

Was there another sound?

Rapidly drying himself off, throwing on the shorts and T-shirt he intends to sleep in (if there is to be any sleep tonight, if there ever is to be any sleep … again), Andy darts into the main room, frantically looking around, as if the intruders were somehow able to hide no matter how fast he moves his eyes, everything suspicious, the mini-fridge that never works right (either it’s frozen over or warm), the iron (who’s ironing clothes in a roadside motel?!), the desk with pens and stationery (who’s conducting business or writing vacation-like postcards in a roadside motel?!), the curtains …

As is normal, the curtains are drawn. There are occasional sounds from outside (cars, doors, rolling bag wheels, people), but nothing unusual. Right? Standing stock still directly outside of the little hallway that leads to the sink room that leads to the bathroom, wary of everything (who’s ever seen hangers like that?!), do the noises sound maybe too, how should we say it, regularized? Like an ambient background generator is at work? What about that light coming in from between the curtains, the curtains that can never be closed all the way for some reason? Are the curtains like that because the aliens need to see in? Is it because they’ve designed this habitat so they can … watch?

Is Andy certain if he threw open the front door that he’d see a motel near the expressway? Or would he see a world he’s never laid eyes on before? Would the front door even open if he turned the knob? Or is this where he lives now because he agreed (though he doesn’t remember it) to follow those nice people (not the right word, as it turns out) to the ship?

Andy decides that, after a day of driving, he’s just tired. His imagination is getting the better of him. There’s no need to look outside. There’s no need to wonder about the placement of the sink. There’s no need to worry about the mini-fridge he isn’t going to use anyway. The only thing needful is sleep.

Climbing into bed, Andy shuts off the lights using the singular switch that operates two lamps (one click ignites the left, another click the right, a third both, then darkness). Immediately thinking better of it (who in the world has lamps like this?!), he quickly turns both lights back on, walks over to the mini-hallway, turns on that light (since it won’t shine directly in Andy’s face while he’s sleeping), shuts the bedside lamps off once again before passing out.

One thing the aliens have noticed about humans is that they regularly set and are awakened by alarm clocks (perhaps compensating for some evolutionary flaw), though the wake up times, to the watchers, still appear arbitrary. Furthermore, the aliens have noticed that whereas humans often use alarm clocks, sometimes they don’t. On the occasions when they don’t, it is frequently because they forgot. Still approximating, the aliens are unsure of when Andy wants to wake up. They are certain, however, that some time is better than no time.

*

Somewhere, out there on the road, maybe heading from Knoxville or Tuscaloosa or Chicago or Billings or Lawrence to Northeast Ohio (the place he still calls home), Andy fantasizes, as he gets hit by a wave of exhaustion that tells him he must pull off soon, a normal occurrence even after a brief period of cruising along, as normal as the waves of elation that tell him he could drive to the moon if it were physically possible, well Andy fantasizes about the end of the day, about the cheap beer he can sip on, about the chair he can recline on, the TV he can veg on, the pizza he can munch on, the bed he can (finally) sleep on, the motel room where he can just be, rather than going through the perpetual cycle of soaring elation and crushing boredom, only when he does, when he dreams of that motel room, he can’t help but think about the alarm clock, about the four times (maybe soon to be five in the near future), realizing he doesn’t know where each instance took place, simultaneously believing he’s had the experience in every motel room he’s ever stayed in and none of the motel rooms he’s stayed in, though obviously neither of those options is possible, making him wonder why something so memorable is so difficult to recall, perhaps making it even more likely that it’ll happen again, meaning what he should probably do is remember to check the goddamned clock when he gets to the motor lodge where he’ll finally stop.

Only the chances of that happening are nil. Nil, because before he stops there will be elation. Nil, because before he stops there will be boredom. Nil, because before he stops there will be four million other memories, thoughts, waking nightmares, dreams. But still, when it happens again, and it will, he’ll say, “Next time, oh next time, I will remember.”

*

Someone must have been telling lies about Andy F., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested in his motel room one fine morning. Well, although technically morning, F. thinks while sitting up in the twin bed, it still looks like night. And he hasn’t been arrested in the police, handcuffs, headquarters, jail fashion. No, more like F. has been arrested from sleep by the blaring of the clock. As for having done nothing wrong, F. is, of course, guilty of the usual human misdeeds and errors, but none of the major ones. He certainly hasn’t done anything that would lead a person to exact this bizarre form of retribution on him, setting motor lodge alarms to go off at ungodly hours. And so, as he turns to the clock in the darkness wondering what in the world is going on, someone must have been telling lies about Andy F.

Except that someone has done no such thing.

Switching on the light in this awkward space (two small bedrooms connected by a door, and a second door in the unused bedroom leading to the bathroom, everything paneled like a 1970s basement), F. finds these feelings of victimization to be just as ridiculous as the overabundance of guilt often connected to Catholicism and Judaism, but which others also appear to feel. He believes people hold onto such ideas because they offer satisfying (not to be mistaken with true) explanations for why things happen, when the actual explanation in most situations is likely quite boring. Example: while dusting, the cleaning staff, having to move quickly, inadvertently set the alarm, and F. has, curse the luck, stayed in four rooms where this accident has occurred. The End.

If F. kept this to himself, maybe it would be the end. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that F. decides to complain (certainly it wouldn’t take long to make sure the alarm isn’t set, certainly that wouldn’t increase the onus on the cleaning staff too much). And so, in this hypothetical, he leaves his room wearing his shorts and T-shirt, moves through the labyrinth of walkways and staircases that lead to more walkways and more staircases which give out on a dizzying array of buildings and rooms connected by walkways and staircases, until he finally, somehow, finds himself at reception (the structure itself a rather dramatic A-frame) and then inside at the front desk, where there is, unsurprisingly, no one. F. presses what looks like a doorbell set into the counter. And waits. And waits. And waits some more. And looks over at the nook where the continental breakfast is served, a continent, as it turns out, where everything has gone stale, a landmass made-up of the unchewable, a vast expanse of the indigestible. Pressing the doorbell again, F. can feel himself going stale, as if he were a pulverized pile of inedible Froot Loops dust, prepared to be buffeted mindlessly and absurdly by the winds like snow across Antarctica.

“Is there a problem, sir?” the clerk might say, after finally and mysteriously materializing.

“I’m afraid there is. I was sleeping peacefully when the alarm clock woke me up.”

“Did you set the alarm clock, sir?”

“Did I set the alarm clock? It’s 3:30 in the morning.”

“I don’t know what your … habits are, sir.”

“My habits? What’re you getting at?”

“I am not … getting at anything, sir.”

“Just the way you said habits made it sound like you thought I’d …”

“I didn’t say … habits in any particular way, sir. If you are feeling …”

“Never mind what I’m feeling. How could you let this happen? Is it so hard to …?”

“I haven’t allowed anything to happen, sir.”

“I guess you’re fine with errantly set alarm clocks waking people up at ungodly hours all the time, huh?”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it, sir.”

“Well, it’s not the first time it’s happened to me!”

“Here, sir?”

“Not here, elsewhere.”

Oh,” he draws (or might draw) this out quite a bit. “I see, sir.”

“What?”

“This happens to you. All. The. Time.”

“No! Not all the time. Sometimes, sure …”

“I am sorry, sir.”

“Are you apologizing for …?”

“I am sorry this has happened to you. Again. Whatever you have done to bring this …”

“I haven’t done …”

“Of course not, sir.”

“I mean, right? I haven’t done anything to deserve this … have I?”

Beat.

“I don’t know your … habits … sir.”

Looking at the clock, F. decides it’d be best not to complain. In fact, he decides it’d be best to not talk about this, to never talk about this … again. He could only imagine what they’d think, what they’d do. So, yes, on this topic, silence … But then maybe they already know, maybe they’ve already come to the conclusion that this is deserved, or even that this chastisement lacks the necessary severity, that a greater punishment is needed, that even the agents they have sent are inadequate to exact the … Only, how could he tell if they know, how could he know that they know …? F. thinks of the labyrinth of walkways and staircases and dreams of escape. But there is none. His only hope is to pretend that nothing’s happened (though it has); his only hope is to act as if they don’t know (though they might). He must bear his burden privately, even if it tears him apart; he must operate with the knowledge that if his secret ever got out, the shame of it would certainly outlive him.

*

Andy stares at a box TV broadcasting snow and thinks about the Time/Life series of books called Mysteries of the Unknown. Actually, he doesn’t think about the books, but about the commercials for the books. The ominous, deep-voiced narrator (what dark secrets does he know?), the chiaroscuro lighting (what do those shadows hide?), the ineffable mechanical thunder of the typewriter (what grim portents will it print?), the disconcerting events brought into being (what inscrutable dimensions will invade and conquer our own?).

When his attention is finally drawn away from the TV, does Andy find himself in a motel with not only a dresser, but also an armoire that looks like maybe it’s intended for more than just clothing storage? How long do the moteliers expect people to stay in this roadside dive? Does anyone actually take all their stuff out of their suitcases, put it in the dresser and the armoire, and then pack everything back up the next day and leave? What’s that armoire really used for? Is there like a gate back there leading to probably we’d rather not know where? Is that sound really coming from the television? What kind of place is this.

Well, it isn’t a motel.

It’s a basement.

The snow-broadcaster really is a box television set sitting on a low, thin, rectangular coffee table. Covering the floor are various large squares of mismatched carpet. The walls are gray cinderblock. The couch Andy sits on is black vinyl, as are the two flanking chairs. There is a wood-burning stove in one corner and a sump pump in the other. Andy wonders how he got here. Wasn’t he just in …? But then he looks at the TV again and thinks about the Mysteries of the Unknown commercials, thinks about him and his sister, Stefanie, making a mad dash for the power knob because they know once the dread unleashed by those ads grabs hold of you, it doesn’t let go willingly. Andy, staring into the interference blizzard, expects a new advertisement to emerge, one that must be stopped, one that will feature him, one that will augur an uncanny age of infinite vertigo that …

The alarm clock rings.

Confused, Andy reaches to turn it off, accidentally hits the remote which brings the flatscreen TV to life broadcasting electromagnetic noise (also called “snow”). Andy, with immediacy, recalls an experience he pretty much never experienced, namely the fact that when he was a kid he used to sleepwalk. Normally, Andy was told about his somnambulism either by his mom or dad. One time, though, he discovered he must’ve been noctambulant because he awakened in his basement, at first wondering where he was, only the light of the box television blizzard giving him any idea, marveling at the fact that his body could take him somewhere without him being in control whatsoever.

Looking away from the TV, Andy sees that he must be in a motel room, though, groggily, he doubts he put any of his stuff in either the dresser or the armoire. He’s certain he didn’t set the alarm for 4:00am, however. But where he’s going and where he’s coming from are less certain. Andy has lived so many places, a friend in Lawrence, Kansas, once introduced him this way: “This is Andy, he’s from everywhere.” Scanning the motel room again, Andy stops on the armoire. He hadn’t opened it. He gets the feeling not that he should, but that he will. As if his body had decided. Was the joker who set the clock in there? Was the interior designer who thought, “Why not put an overly elaborate piece of furniture in this dump?” It appears Andy will find out. Walking toward this anomaly, why does it sound like the interference is getting louder? Is there something wrong with the speakers? The settings? The wiring? Or, and maybe this isn’t true, but it sure seems like there’s another television also transmitting snow in here. Putting his hand on the door, when he opens it, will a white light blare through? Will the roar reach an ungodly crescendo, letting any sane person know it’s time to do like in Poltergeist and shove the tube outside? Or will Andy jump through, his brain wondering why his body’s doing this, just as the transmission rights itself?

Will the screen show …?

In the Midwest, a man wakes up in a motel room in 2018 and a boy wakes up in the basement of a house in 1988 at precisely the same time. The man believes he is a boy in a basement, that he’s been awakened by television snow, that he ended up where he is because of his sleepwalking, though he doesn’t come to that conclusion immediately, meaning he wonders where he is. The boy believes he is a man in a motel room, that he’s been awakened by an alarm clock, that he ended up where he is because he’s traveling from one nameless place to another, though he doesn’t come to that conclusion immediately, meaning he wonders where he is … and who set the alarm clock. This boy and this man are the same person. The coincidence is passed off as chance.

Andy wishes Stefanie would’ve gotten to the power knob quicker. Andy hopes his parents don’t tell him about this one.

*

Standing in front of the mirror, Andy thinks about his friend Simon’s paranoia. For whatever reason, Simon thinks that there are cameras hidden behind motel room mirrors and that these cameras were planted by someone named Zimmermann. Simon had, supposedly, run into that name in the way literary and cinematic paranoids stumble upon clues to the big picture, clues which repeat with enough frequency that the character and the audience are subsequently filled with anxiety whenever they hear or see the reference. Consequently, when he can, Simon removes the motel mirror from the wall and looks for two things: 1) a camera, 2) a label that lists the name Zimmermann.

Simon’s own name, by the way, is not Simon. He self-applied that name perhaps in an attempt to recreate himself, or perhaps to hide his real identity from Them.

Andy, looking into the mirror, does not have this form of paranoia. He does wonder, however, why we (and here he means “humanity”) believe people are watching us when what we do is, for the most part, crushingly boring. Currently, for instance, Andy is shaving. If there were a camera recording from behind the glass, and if Zimmermann were tasked with watching the video, he would know by now that Andy almost always starts with the right sideburn area using downward strokes, then with upward strokes does his entire throat area, then back to downward strokes for the left sideburn, leaving him with an oversized Van Dyke of soap, which he eliminates with a combination of upward and downward movements, depending, before moving on to his head (which Andy has been stripping clean since he was 23, when his hair began to thin). Unlike his face, Andy does not follow any particular pattern shaving his head, though, over the years, he has learned that a great deal more scraping is necessary to smooth the skullcap. Unfortunately, his skin has never gotten any tougher (alas!), meaning he’s just as susceptible to cutting himself as he was the first time. Andy has furthermore learned that the area behind his ears needs special care because, strangely, it can feel shaved when actually it is not, the hair revealing itself later when Andy runs his hands over what he thinks is a completely bald head, only to discover what he hoped not to discover, normally at times when he cannot fix the mistake immediately.

Surely, Zimmermann will be able to use all of this essential knowledge to his enigmatic benefit. He can also use the fact that, after long car trips, Andy often feels oddly greasy and therefore likes to shave and shower, in that order because he has found that if he starts bleeding (a likelihood), either because of a nick, or because he has shaved over a pimple, or whatever, the shower seems to clean out the wound, so he doesn’t need to staunch with a tissue and then apply a bandage.

Zimmermann will also be interested in the fact that, after he shaves, Andy will unwrap the tiny soap, ignore the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner (unnecessary for a bald guy), select a washcloth, take a shower, dry himself off with a scratchy towel, make note of the passive aggressive sign that lists how much the towels cost, make note of the sign that asks you to leave your used towel on the floor, drop said towel on the floor, put on his shorts and T-shirt he’ll wear to bed, leave the bathroom (shutting off the light in the process), walk into the main room, pull back the blankets, climb inside, and prepare to go to sleep, while, are you serious?, Zimmermann faithfully logs all of this information so he can file reports with the appropriate personnel at the apportioned time which will be used to do what, exactly? Take Andy down? Blackmail Andy? Manipulate Andy in some other way? No, it seems more likely that the Zimmermanns (Zimmermenn?) would have a high rate of ennui-induced suicide if they had to do this for a living, being an absolutely absurd job.

But then, Andy wonders why we always assume the watchers mean us harm. Since the very idea of this paranoia is that we will never meet Them, never understand Their plan, how come no one ever decides that the conspiracy is neutral? After all, They are diligently recording our humdrum, quotidian lives with exactitude, leaving nothing whatsoever out. Doesn’t this sound like a cabal of accountants? Or maybe even of archivists? What intrigue could they possibly bring upon us? If anything, we should pity their situation. We should, whenever possible, insert climactic situations into our lives merely to entertain the poor, poor watchers. Ah, Zimmermann! Ah, humanity!

Andy will not, however, think about the fact that the people watching might be … benevolent. Knowing that humans often fear loneliness, They watch and find ways to inform people that They’re out there. Looking in. Caring. Meaning, you’re not alone. Meaning, really, you’re never alone. If you speak, someone will hear you. If you do something marvelous and wish someone would’ve seen it, well someone did see it. Unfortunately, for reasons that’ll never be made plain, They are not allowed to fully reveal Themselves. But hints to Their existence are completely acceptable. For Simon, the name “Zimmermann” and maybe, one day, one day when he least expects it, a camera right behind the mirror to fuel his Romantic paranoia. As for the sleeping Andy, well there is the alarm clock, unassuming, ineffable as the ticking seconds, warmly glowing. Will it burst to life with a message of hope, of togetherness? A positive version of paranoia? Only time will tell …

Coincidentally, Zimmermann is a good name for this delusion because zimmer in German means “room.” The man who watches the room! So you needn’t fear a mass suicide from the watchers. Looking on, with that potentially benevolent, though completely unfathomable purpose, one must imagine Zimmermann happy.

*

Andrew Everett Farkas, on this occasion, does not stop at a motel for the night. Instead, he fights off the expected exhaustion with a large coffee, with loud music, with raucous singing to the loud music, shaking his fist at the motor lodges he passes to show he’s defeated them. But when he looks in his rearview mirror, full of hubris, proud that he’ll make it all the way to his destination in one go, he wonders what stories he’s missing out on by not stopping, wonders if one of those motels would’ve finally revealed the answer to this perplexing riddle, wonders if one of those motels would’ve added to the perplexity in an intriguing way. As he continues down the road, all he can do is imagine the rooms he’s been in before, the rooms he might check into in the future. What do they look like? If you close your eyes, you can see them. Right there in front of you. Full of unexpected accouterments, full of expected accouterments, and amongst all that stuff, even though, for years, you always had the option for a wakeup call, even though, also for years now, you could use your cell phone’s buzzer, amongst everything sits the alarm clock. Sphinxlike.

Inside of the motel room.

Just close your eyes.

You can see it.

Like it’s right there in front of you.

for Robert Coover


Andrew Farkas is the author of a novel, The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press 2019), and two collections of short fiction: Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press 2009) and Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books] 2019). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been nominated six times for a Pushcart Prize, with one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He is a fiction editor for The Rupture (the re-brand of The Collagist) and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.