At breakfast with his father, who had been dead fifteen years, Barden Bernick noticed his own heart had stopped beating.
When he first recognized his father in the maple colonial captain’s chair he’d occupied during informal family meals, Barden checked the breakfast room’s 1970s-vintage starburst wall clock. Both hands pointed to the numberless mark for twelve.
Both hands still aimed at the twelve-mark now, though Barden had taken his time eating breakfast. So long, in fact, that he couldn’t remember whether he’d had eggs. The coffee he did recall, grey and weak.
“Dad? Am I dead?” he asked.
“Course not, Boychik,” his father said. “Just feels that way cause you settled, marrying Inga.”
Barden laid his hand on his chest, feeling for a heartbeat.
Thousands of cymbals clanged a crescendo unbearable to Barden’s ears.
Barden got in his car –- no — his parents’ 1964 tan Buick LeSabre, puzzled because his foot strained to reach the gas pedal. The front seat had disappeared; he was in back. His boss, a foot taller than Barden, was next to him. “I’ll drive,” Barden’s boss said.
The boss’s legs easily reached the pedals, and his long arms, which he made longer at will, had no trouble with the steering wheel. Barden’s thigh nestled uncomfortably against his boss’s grey-suited leg. Other members of Barden’s litigation team squeezed in beside them.
Maggie Levine, a philosophy professor living in London, was there, too.
Ten years ago, Barden felt sure he’d found his bashert in Maggie. Unfortunately, she hadn’t felt the same.
Now she sat in Barden’s lap, kissing him among the poking elbows and briefcases, her lips pasty and cold.
Barden exited the car, his pregnant belly projecting like a bowling ball. Between chortles, the fetus crooned mixed parentage messages: “Inga mommy! No, Maggie mummy!”
Barden wondered why his former employer asked him back, and how he’d manage schlepping to two jobs at once — one in New York, one in California.
In the Times Square building where his former employer rented ten floors, Barden entered the freight elevator, which was missing a wall. A black-masked man toting a machine gun slid down a cable past the elevator car. The elevator jolted sideways, glided up, and wrenched sideways again.
Certain he was being chased, Barden ran from the elevator to his cubicle, an ornate parlor somewhere in 1940s Europe. He crouched under a floorboard, hiding from Inga’s black storm trooper boots.
When the parlor became an office again, Barden flipped on the light. His body rose with the switch and floated to horizontal, while an operatic chorus warbled a single, dissonant note.
Barden tried to scream, but no sound came.
Though he couldn’t recall shtupping men, Barden allowed his boss to service him behind the buffet table while their General Counsel droned a lunch presentation to the legal department.
Later that evening, he became intimate with the General Counsel on the dance floor during the department’s holiday party, while the DJ spun a medley that started with “Gangnam Style” and ended with “Hava Nagila.”
Afterward, Maggie came up to him. Her new beard and moustache looked quite fetching. She flirted with Barden, touching his palm with her tongue. Her husband, Vikram, watched from the kitchen.
“I love you,” Barden said.
Maggie backed away, shaking her head.
Barden left to grab a snack and a swim, dodging pink, wormlike tornados that spiraled from the sky.
He bit into an apple. His front teeth dislodged, fell to the sidewalk, and crawled away. Spongy growths protruded from his cheeks’ lining. He peeled the growths out and flung them into the street. They writhed like salted slugs.
In the health club’s pool, Barden realized he was naked. When he got out, Maggie pointed and snickered.
He ran back to the office, now one of three mysterious apartments he owned in Manhattan and was desperate to sell. He never intended to buy another before selling the first. Being so overextended got him farmisht. Like in law school, when he’d realized he was signed up for a corporate finance class the day before the final exam. He’d never even bought the books.
In one of the bedrooms, thirty pay phones lined the wall. Barden tried one. No dial tone. The next phone’s key pad didn’t work. The third’s cord dangled unattached. When he found a phone that worked, his fingers kept messing up Maggie’s number.
“It’s not what I want,” Maggie said, when he finally got through.
Outside, Godzilla rampaged down Broadway.
Barden boarded a flight to San Jose to put in some time at his current job, but the plane nosedived into the ocean shortly after takeoff at LaGuardia.
Wet and cold, Barden sped a stolen Vespa to his eighteen-bedroom mansion north of San Francisco. He’d bought it for a song, and no wonder — he found a dead body in the study and an elusive, meshugenah old man living in the third sub-basement. Sometimes he heard screaming.
The former inhabitants left tchotchkes Barden kept: tiny gilt-framed oil paintings, diminutive Venetian glass vases, even Maggie’s toy monkey-faced umbrella stand and elephant’s foot hassock. Inga wouldn’t let him throw those away.
Though he’d owned the mansion for years, Barden had never made a mortgage payment. He had to straighten things out with the bank soon, before something bad happened.
A belligerent family of fallout-spackled strangers showed up, claiming the mansion. The husband even had a key.
He was falling from a great height.
Barden crawled into bed and pulled the comforter to his chin. The cat jumped onto his chest and said, “Maggie would have loved you, but you were too scary-obsessed with her. Now she’s gone. Inga’s good to you. Choose contentment.”
“I’ll choose,” Barden said, embracing Inga’s sleeping body. “I’ll try.”
Verklempt, Barden closed his eyes. He counted sheep in hexadecimal numbers and drifted into blissful, predictable waking logic.
He recharged in comforting, mimetic lucidity before another exhausting day, living the dream.
J. J. Roth lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and two young sons. She schlepps kids, lawyers at a tech company, and writes speculative fiction in the interstices. In addition to a previous story in Every Day Fiction, J. J.’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature, Urban Fantasy Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight magazine, and other venues. For more information and updates, please visit her web site, follow her on Twitter where she is @wrothroth, or find her on Facebook where she is JJ Roth.
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