TITLE: An Average Man
By James Wood
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John Hayden was a man who was average to the point of boring. He went to work, school, and church fairly regularly. He paid his taxes on time, though he generally put it off for a few weeks. He had the average number of friends: four, and the equally average number of acquaintances: twenty three. He liked country, but not western, and he owned a ham radio.
In school, John had been an A student in some classes, and a D student in others. He averaged a C for nearly every year he attended. It wasn’t that John tried to be average. It just seemed to follow him wherever he went. The events in his life that might be considered extraordinary by some were balanced by a steady and uninterrupted flow of the mundane.
For example, when John was six years old, his father disappeared mysteriously. A search was called for, and for nearly four days it was believed he may have been the victim of foul play. It turned out that he’d only been stuck in a tight crawlspace in the basement while setting rat traps. His chest had been too constricted to make any serious call for help, and the police had made only a cursory search of the house. His brown shoes sticking out of the wall had been hidden behind a large bag of dog kibble, and when the dog’s food had run out, he was discovered and rescued. The police tried not to laugh about the situation, but they made a poor try.
The event was traumatic enough at its start that John remembered it, and embarrassing enough at its conclusion that he wished he didn’t. And, this theme seemed to follow the events in John’s life all the way up to College. John scored at the very end of the cutoff to get into Waynewright University. He literally scored one point over the average. This moment was one of the few times that John reached beyond himself; one of the few times he excelled.
It wasn’t necessarily that John was unintelligent, or dull. John had an uncanny ability to simply accept things as they were. He didn’t ask questions. As a child, John was one of the few preschoolers that had simply accepted that the sky was blue, grass was green, and that you shouldn’t eat crayons.
Of course, to people like you or I, John seemed incredibly dull – but not stupid. None of John’s bosses, when he first started working, worried about whether he would show up on time or steal from the store, but they also didn’t expect him to stay late or bring in extra customers. If asked what his promotion prospects were, they would likely respond that they were ……average.
Being an average man, in an average time, when being average is what people said they wanted to be (but wasn’t really) gave John the remarkable ability to disappear among the tangled, frail tapestry of disenchanted humanity that went to work, paid their taxes, and lived lives of quiet desperation.
But John Hayden was not desperate, or dissatisfied. He didn’t hate his job, want a new car or to toss out the opening pitch of the season. John Hayden didn’t know that he didn’t know what he wanted, and he didn’t question it. To John Hayden, there were no mysteries.
That luxury of blissful ignorance changed the day that John heard his coffee cup singing to him.
John was a mid-level supervisor at NeoCom, an IT development company that mainly did consulting. John had a private office, which meant he had a cubicle that was separated from the other cubicles by exactly two feet. He had a coffee maker, a radio, a potted plant, and a cushioned seat cover that didn’t come with the chair but was available upon request. Everyone else in the office had the exact same seat cover.
John had passed the day as he had any other. At around 11:30, he decided to take a coffee break in the company lounge. Although he had his own coffee maker, for some reason he seldom used it. One would almost think he routinely forgot that it was there, or that it existed only as a reason to avoid coffee breaks. However, John knew quite well that it was there, and he had no specific wish to avoid coffee breaks whatsoever.
John’s daily break in the lounge was, at an inherently unconscious level, an expression of his need to see other people. Nevertheless, he spent the majority of those breaks with his nose in a book, doodling, or doing cross-word puzzles. On this particular day, so very much like every other, John was reading a book. He began to find it hard to concentrate on the book, when he noticed that there was a strange humming sound coming from somewhere in the break room.
He assumed at first that it was coming from one of the vending machines, and actually got up to investigate. And, though the vending machines were humming quietly as he leaned up against them, it was not the same particular humming that was distracting him. John noticed a co-worker staring at him as he stood bent over and listening to vending machines.
“Do you hear that?” John asked him, pointing to the vending machine. The co-worker tilted his head forward a moment as if to listen, then gave a small shrug and a look that said, “Hear what?”
John returned to his table, and sat back down to his book and cup of coffee. He tried to ignore the humming sound, but instead found himself paying more attention to it. It was an odd, almost eerie sound. It sounded almost…electronic was the only word John could think of. Almost like someone pressing a lot of keys on a very expensive synthesizer keyboard, all in harmony, mixed in with a recurring and deep throated thrumming.
John took a sip of his coffee, and noticed that as he brought the cup to his lips, the humming got louder. He set the cup back down, and the humming decreased. He picked it up again, and it got louder. He set it back down again, and it decreased.
John repeated this exercise one last time before confirming to himself that his coffee cup was humming. Of all the questions he thought he might ask himself today, “Why is my coffee cup humming?” was not one of them. The co-worker who observed John at the vending machines earlier now watched this curious little exercise with a very unkind mental note as he munched on his cheese wafers.
“Excuse me,” John said to a woman walking by his table with a notebook in her hands. She checked her stride and gave him a “Hmmmmmm?”
“Excuse me,” John repeated, “…and I know this sounds odd….but, do you hear anything from this coffee cup? I think I might be hearing things.” He handed the cup up to her. She examined it, and put it up to her ear for half a second before giving a cursory “Nope,” and continuing on her way to the salad bar.
Back to square one, John decided to take another sip of his very curious coffee. He noticed that as he drank it, the pitch of the humming changed slightly. The oddness of the entire event distracted John enough that when he went to set his coffee back down, he set it too close to the edge of the table. It toppled, and fell to the floor with a shotgun spray across the linoleum. John heard the note of the humming get lower and lower until he couldn’t hear it anymore. He went to a napkin dispenser and wiped up the running liquid as best he could. The coffee was already cold in the soaking paper mass as he tossed it into the bin. He disposed of the cup, and decided that his break was over.
As John went about his business that day, the strange incident with the coffee cup slowly drifted out of his mind. The idea that coffee cups occasionally hummed was slowly and inexorably being assimilated by the part of his brain that did not question things.
John drove through rush-hour traffic with no particular sense of hurry. Nobody was waiting for him at home; wife, children, dog, or otherwise. When he got home, the first thing he did was microwave his dinner and sit down in front of the TV. John basically rotated between the history channel, the science channel, PBS and the discovery channel, in that order. He nestled into his armchair, plastic dishes aside, with a bottle of Icehouse beer.
When “Spoons throughout History” came on, he changed the channel. Oddly, before he actually pressed the button on the remote, the channel changed. He didn’t think about it, but assumed he’d tapped it lightly without noticing. The next show was exploratory surgery, with a large pulsating red sack on the screen that John had no desire to have described to him in any way. Again, the channel changed right before John pressed the button.
This time, the event caught his attention. He went to change again, not caring that “Big things that Dig” was on PBS, with the same result. He slowly descended his thumb to just above the button until the channel flicked, and held it there. The channels kept cycling. He lifted his thumb, and it stopped.
John noticed that as he came to the point where the channels started changing, there was an odd prickly sensation coming from the TV remote. It almost felt like the hair on a caterpillar, or the fine spines on a miniature cactus. He hovered his hand over it in curiosity, feeling the tingling sensation. He held it up to his face, and felt it there as well, then held it out in front of him and looked at it.
His channel surfing had landed him on the BW network, which had a new show about dogs that held executive level jobs in a television network, with comedic hilarity that was supposed to ensue – and didn’t. A secretary on the screen was trying to write with an empty pen. She shook it, and with a look of disgust, tossed it towards the waste bin. Suddenly a furry object in an ill-fitted suit and tie leaped into frame and caught the pen in its mouth, trotting up to the desk with its tail wagging. The dog then mourned with an approximation between an animal chewing on a rubber toy with poorly timed voice-over saying, “Sarah! I told you not to throw things in the office! You know that sets me off.” Reel-to-reel hilarity ensued, and was abruptly cut off until the next insipid gag.
John had the thought, Oh, turn this off, and to his shock, the TV flicked off.
It took a moment for what just happened to register with John.
On, he thought.
The TV flicked on.
The TV flicked off.
The TV flicked on.
Channel twenty three?
The TV changed to channel twenty three.
Order me a pizza…..
An angry red circle with a slash through it flashed on the screen. John flung the remote onto the table in a cold sweat. This hadn’t just happened. It was the beer. He needed to pee.
John went the bathroom, and was about to pee in the sink before he realized it. He lifted the lid on the toilet and sat down. He didn’t usually sit down to urinate, but he was very confused. In fact, he just sat there doing nothing for a few minutes with his brain racing, until eventually he got down to business. Even fear and confusion take a back seat to the urge for relief, when sitting on a toilet and doing nothing for a few minutes.
He finished up, remembering to wash his hands, and walked out into the living room before beating a retreat into the bedroom. He sat on the bed, and brushed his face with his hands and sighed. The phone rang suddenly, and he jumped. It rang again, and he answered it. A high-pitched squeal met his ear, and he dropped the receiver. It stopped squealing, until he picked it up again. He slammed it down on the carriage with a ring.
Somewhere in Arizona, John’s mother was looking at her phone receiver with a frown. “Henry,” she called from the den, “The phone’s acting up. Call the company.”
John’s heart was pounding in his ears. Somebody was playing a practical joke on him. He thought about this for a moment. It made sense. Somebody could be right outside his house with a similar TV remote, changing channels through the window. And, they could be calling him with a modem. He picked up the phone again, and tentatively listened. A normal dial tone met his ears. He put down the phone, and went back into the living room and picked up the remote.
On, he thought.
John laughed. Some sucker he was, standing here thinking On, Off, like some buffoon. He had no doubt that one of his friends would be yucking it up on him at work tomorrow. He set down the remote, and went back to the bedroom. He opened a window and shouted, “Very funny!” into the night. A couple passing by looked at each other in confusion at the odd remark.
The phone rang. It was John’s mother, and he talked to her for a while. There was nothing new on her end, except the phone in the den wasn’t working. They discussed uninteresting matters for another twenty minutes before her show started to come on and she said goodbye. John picked up a book, and read until he fell asleep.
* * * * *
John savored that last moment before waking. His eyes focused on the alarm clock. It was flashing twelve. Oh no. He checked the watch on his dresser: 9:38. Crap!! He got on the phone and called work.
“Yes sir…. Yes sir…...I apologize. I must have had a power outage last night, and my alarm reset. Yes sir…….with a battery? Good idea sir, I’ll get one…..I’ll be to work in about thirty minutes…..Thank you, sir…..yes….sorry…goodbye!”
The funny thing was, John’s alarm had a battery back-up. In his mind, he made the mental excuse that it must have died, and shrugged. “It happens,” he thought. His aggravating brain began again to lock unshakably on to the idea that nothing out of the ordinary was going on here. John was a man of average insights. He washed his worries away in the shower, got dressed, backed out of the driveway, and went to work.
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