Emory Silver Has Overslept (All Is Well)
By Benjamin J. Gohs
“Six o’clock and all is well.”
Those were the words, until today, Emory said each morning when he rose for work. But this morning there was silence. Not the natural quiet of day which springs from solitude. This was lack of sound when noise is expected. A decided silence … the kind of nothing that withers the insides of triage doctors, expectant lovers and lookers for lost dogs.
It was the thing Emory feared most. And this morning that terrible quiet came barging in like old uncle and old aunt and the kids and the dogs and trampling the breakfast table and knocking the wash off the utility room shelf and rattling the windows and pushing a smelly wet heat from too much breath against too little air.
This big, loud, obnoxious silence all started with a broken clock, as if anything ever starts where a body thinks it does.
For nearly thirty years, no matter sickness nor weather nor disinclination, Emory woke at six and dressed. He gulped oatmeal and slurped black coffee and left the house in pressed wool, trudging at 7:45 a.m. for hour-long trek by foot and bus and train six-days-weekly to perform tasks he refused to understand or appreciate.
But, this day, there knelt Emory, side of bed, child’s clock in hands. He rocked it with futile jerks and frantic sick baby pleas to wish it well. Red round body and giant yellow clanging ears, or once clanged, and Mickey frozen at three-thirty in the center of it all staring out of stupid evil rodent eyes over condescending all-is-well smile.
“All is well?” Emory whispered to the blank white wall with one small rounded dent high up where a proper clock could have gone, should he ever had thought to hang one.
“Get up,” he told his legs, and peeked out the curtain to gauge the hour. Impossible to know with the mouse on skid row. Bright and sunny. Late-May. Could’ve been six-thirty, might have been nine.
The old man cried a little while he brushed his teeth, and he wondered why he bothered with either. Found a button missing while dressing and balled up his favorite shirt and threw it hard as he could into the closet and winced when his shoulder protested.
“All is well,” Emory whispered into the sink. The thumping trickle answered with echoes as old man grumbles over string of tree-house-soup-can phone.
Stomach too nervous for food or drink, Emory brushed lint from his father’s suit jacket. He picked up his father’s briefcase and put on his father’s hat and wished for wife and child and Sunday drive with smoking pipe and roast beef dinners. Then he wished he really wanted those things.
Half a step out the door and no more. Emory’s right foot hovered above the peeling ivory of buckled porch wood slats.
“All is well?” But the tumbledown house looked as old and empty as he felt.
Emory pondered calling in. But that would still mean catching a bus to the edge of the city, fishing for change, holding breath while greasy speaker warbled, groveling to nosy secretary with peppermint breath and “help me” eyes.
Even the idea of missing a day at the office gave Emory acid. He burped and swallowed bitterly, forcing it to claw back into his belly. Took a breath and closed eyes for three Mississippies and stepped out the doorway and forced feet up path to gray dirt road.
Breeze turned into headwind. Emory had to lower his face and pin his hat to his chest and walk slower for a while. Began to wonder, jokingly at first, if there were greater forces working to keep him from town. Vexed, he shook his head and hunched forward, redoubling his resolve. And when the gust subsided, he said to the wind, “All is well.”
Once on the grassy road shoulder, house out of sight, Emory gave an easy sigh. Down steep hill to train bridge. Peering through the runoff grates spun his head but he looked anyway. Imagined the fall, splash, dark folding in as he went to sleep. Only thirty feet but who knew what might lurk in the depths with the quiet fishies who never talk back.
Emory took the rail and leaned against the warm ledge until the falling left him. Sick tickle in his stomach made him feel young and stupid, and he screamed down at the water: “All is well!”
Through tunnel of oak, Emory laughed at his own foolishness and stepped into a stroll. Gravel crunched underfoot. Chickadees sang in the meadow. He thought, All is well, and about how nice it would be to have someone to slap on the back or tell jokes.
Emory sniffed wild petunia and admired a stand of birch, and remembered his uncle teaching him to start a campfire with its papery bark. His back straightened. He breathed deeper. “Picnic,” he said in a song of his own. Thought what a nice place this would be to lunch, in the clearing among the pine. But how silly for a man to eat alone on the side of a country road.
“That boy,” Emory whispered, thinking of who he would invite to such an outing. He could not remember that boy‘s name. For that boy was what Emory’s mother had called the child, her voice twisted in disappointment and fear. That boy—faceless, ageless, nameless—a perfect little phantom; a wish granted and stolen in a puff of smoke.
Emory laughed aloud thinking about the time he and that boy were caught throwing dirt clods at passing cars. In his wrinkled nose the rich grassy smell of that summer forest, cornstalks in midnight green. Two boys breathed hard in the waning sun of their twelfth summer.
“Got sumpin for ya, Em. Gotta close yer eyes first.” That boy’s moist lips and hot breath on Emory’s soft cheek. Emory remembered his certainty that the buzzing in his middle meant he was about to die. Felt like the times he had the wind knocked out of him. And for what? Emory would never understand how the boys knew he was different—knew without knowing. Thought of his big brother feeding bullfrogs to the chickens, holding thick green bodies to the cage while those beaks slashed in orgasmic murder. How he tried not to barf at the ooze and twitch of the leftover legs.
Mom, dad, kids at school, they were all chickens to Emory—mindless, brutal, menacing birds looking to gobble frogs or sins or even little boys who made them uneasy.
“Piss on em anyways,” Emory said, and smiled to think how good a shot he was back in the olden days. The all is well days. He sharpened his skills on stop signs, shack windows, and stray cats … but moving cars were the real prize. And, that day in the corn, emboldened by e-lec-tricity of new love, Emory took the first big target. His hunk of mud landed “thunk!” on a passenger window. Tires squealed. Fat man in a brown suit, driving a blue Cadillac—with one freshly broken window—jumped out and bounded into the field.
“Let’s go,” whisper-screamed that boy, but young Emory was limp with fear.
“You little shits’ve done it now!” The big man shook them by their shirt sleeves.
Emory remembered wetting himself and, for the second time that day, feeling certain he would die. But God or luck or a mother’s love sent a patrolman crashing through that August jungle just in time. The big fella was so worked up and startled he let go the boys and took a swing at the officer. Cop ducked it and popped the motorist in the back of the jaw so hard he sat straight in the dirt, head bobbing, eyes wide in amazement.
“All is well,” said the patrolman. And as the boys ran for home, they heard him scolding the driver. Emory and that boy giggled and squealed all the way back to Macomber Street. And never once talked of pissed pants or secret kisses.
Old Emory’s stomach gurgled as he neared the bus stop with its faded tin sign of green letters.
“Breakfast,” he said, in a voice low with longing. Was it already after eight? He looked up and down the crossroads. “Shoot.”
Maybe it hadn’t come. Maybe the bus was late. Emory’s head picked up at the rapid-fire ticking of stones on steel. Massive tumbleweed of dust swarmed down from town way. Emory stepped off the road.
“Please. Please. Oh please.” Just a big yellow truck. “Shoot.” Emory coughed and swatted the swirling cloud. He perched on tippy-toes to see the long nothing in all directions before rocking back on uneven heels. Road hadn’t been scraped in weeks. Shoulders were covered with mummified remains. Peels of petrified dirt thrown by the big rusty blade of the county grader.
“Juuust right.” Emory grunted as he stooped and nabbed a crusty hunk and chucked it at a tree stump the other side of the road and missed. He threw another. It exploded in a smoky gray cloud.
“Yeah,” he said, then yelled it, “Yeeeaaah!” Big grin stretched his lips. Emory gathered three good-sized pieces of earth, each a little bigger than a black walnut still in its green-skin. He looked around. “Nothin.”
Emory jumped the narrow ditch and sneaked off into the tall grass and hunkered down and waited for the bung-and-ping of rocks on glass and metal. When the chaotic xylophone played, it made the old man drool in his mouth. He inched to the edge of his cover, ears thumping.
“Gonna git. Gonna. Hee-hee. Oh’s gonna be a good one.” Noticed he was mumbling excitedly and bit the inside of his cheek to stop. Hums of evil laughter trickled from his nose. Hadn’t felt giddy in so long, and now he had to pee.
Big black sedan spit from the dry fog. Emory stood and wound his arm like an old-timey pitcher. With all his weight behind it, he hurled the dirt clod straight at the car’s hood as it passed. It biffed the passenger side with a satisfying thud which blew a black puff across the windshield.
“Direct hit!” Emory screamed in triumph and winced at the pang in his shoulder. He hunched back out of sight and danced like a little old dung beetle, his back all-a-hump, and squeezed his hands until the remaining chunks crumbled. The car swerved and honked, and the sound of the horn put a boyhood terror in Emory so that he tore off through the weeds. Ran through a stand of maple, and over the quiet stream. Birds hushed. Emory stepped frantically until he was out of wind and collapsed in a field.
On his back and panting, Emory tried to comprehend the liquid periwinkle sky. Was it ever so blue? When again he could manage, he stilled his breath and listened to the buzzing bugs, chortling water, chirping birds, and lullaby hush of the breeze in the leaves.
No that boy.
Emory thought about the terrified expression on the face of the motorist and laughed so loud and hard he covered his mouth with both hands for fear of something he couldn’t even name. Wiped joyous tears from cheeks and ears and reached into his wallet. He pulled out a square of folded cardboard. Small print of cherry blossom and white swoopy letters that read, “Springtime in the Northeast.”
Emory flipped the card over and read aloud:
“Dearest Em, Back in the states. Sorry to hear about your folks. Forever and a day, I know. Call if you can. If you don’t, I’ll understand. Love, H.”
Emory thought he could die happy … if only to see that boy again. But that was false. The notion hadn’t even landed before he shooed it away. Who could die happy? He would die pained and afraid, just as he’d lived. And anyway, he didn’t want to die happy. He wanted to live happy, and sleep only when all the joy had been wrenched from his gnarled hands.
“I can’t do this anymore.” Emory held the postcard so close his eyes blurred. Flipped the card over and over again and rubbed a finger along the stamp’s scalloped edges. Admired the reddish seashell which looked like a conch to him but was labeled in tiny white letters “Frilled Dogwinkle.”
Postmark was nearly a month old. Emory had wanted to call. He dug the dusty old black and ivory rotary jobbie out of a box of junk in the basement. It had come with the house but never seemed necessary with a pay phone down the road.
Emory sat in bed every night since, dialing numbers and listening on the off chance that hope, and love and mad desire contained enough electricity, just the right amount of magic, to complete the connection. Every night until the night before this most distressing day, when Emory put down that cold quiet telephone and picked up the red Mickey Mouse alarm clock given him as parting gift-love token-secret dowry by that boy … and threw it not with dirt clod glee but old man joylessness at the white wall which might have had a clock on it, had he ever thought to hang one.
Emory folded the postcard and put it back in his wallet. Moved the bills around and fingered each quarter into his palm until a dollar was had. He dusted himself off and straightened his hat and jingled the money in his pants pocket as he headed back for the road leading to town, and said to himself, “All is well.”