Thoreau in a Phone Booth
by Caleb Michael Sarvis
The last time they’d seen each other, Marcus lied about what he’d found in his brother’s note, claiming his brother placed the blame on Arella and his best friend Lucas.
Arella took a seat next to Marcus, on the same side as his glass eye, and Marcus didn’t notice her until the bartender spoke.
“Rum and coke, please,” she said.
“Oh, shit,” he mumbled. “Arella. It’s me.”
He used to resemble his brother, Noah, a whole lot when he was younger. As of recently, though, Arella had a hard time finding the resemblance in Marcus. Not that she had forgotten what Noah looked like; she looked through albums once a week, but maybe her memory had faded some. No, Marcus had changed. He’d grown a beard and gained a considerable amount of weight.
Marcus smiled, mouth closed, and cocked his head to the side. He tilted his glass to his mouth, but only met ice.
The bartender brought Arella her drink. “You seem good,” she said.
She swiveled her chair around, taking in the bar. It was small, with no real tables. Everything was a fold-out of some sort, with the exception of one table made of plywood supported by wet-floor caution signs. Two young men sat next to each other, splitting a pitcher and eating cheese fries.
“You never used to wear so much black,” said Marcus.
Arella swiveled back around. “Today was my grandpa’s funeral.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Eh,” Arella sipped from her drink. “I didn’t really know him.”
They sat in silence for awhile after that. Arella finished her drink and ordered another. Marcus proceeded to order shots of bourbon by the threes and finish them in quick succession.
After eight shots, Marcus tapped Arella on the shoulder.
“Hmm?” Arella hummed through her straw.
“You want to know a secret?”
Arella nodded, continuing to drink.
“I’m going to . . .” Marcus laughed and pressed his forehead on the bar, and raised it back up. He continued through a grinding smile. “I’m going to kill myself at 5:23.”
Arella dropped her drink, spilling the little she had left. She turned to Marcus and slapped him. “I don’t care how long it’s been. That is not funny.”
Still smiling, Marcus said, “I wasn’t joking.” His eyes were only half-open. “5:23, and if you tell anyone, or try to stop me, I’ll only do it sooner.”
Arella lay cash on the bar and stood.
Marcus shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt anyone else.”
“I just thought I’d tell you ahead of time.” He wiped his face with his hands. “So it’s not, like, a crazy surprise this time.”
Arella reclaimed her seat at the bar. “A pitcher of water, please.” She placed her arm on his shoulder. “Sober up. Then let’s talk.”
Marcus leaned his head back, propped himself out of the chair, then left the bar. Arella followed.
Outside the bar it was chilly but humid. The brick of the building was slimy against Arella’s palm, and she could feel the damp sidewalk through her flats. Marcus stumbled on towards a destination Arella didn’t believe existed.
She checked her phone; it was 1:17.
This was the first time Arella had been back home in eighteen months, and as she watched Marcus steadily make his way down the street, a pressure built in her abdomen. She slowed her pace and watched her breath dance into the air, conjuring memories out of nothing. This side of town—Riverside—had been their spot. The nausea was the most nostalgic of all.
Marcus reached a bus stop and sat down. The street light between he and Arella was out, and in his silhouette, she found him unrecognizable.
He sat hunched over, face buried in his hands, breath escaping through the space between his fingers.
Arella wondered if things would be different for them had he been an uncle. Maybe they’d be closer. Marcus would be there to do the things that she couldn’t. Like fix the faucet in her kitchen. The one that kept her up at night because it never turned all the way off. It was always dripping. One. Small. Drop. At a time. The pressure welled to her chest, teasing her with tears.
Marcus approached her. “Are you okay?” he asked. He reeked of sweat and bourbon, and Arella managed to suppress her vomit.
“I’m okay,” she said.
Together they shuffled to the bus stop and sat next to each other, staring at the half-lit street in front of them.
They’d never been close, she and Marcus. He was always Noah’s kid brother, and she imagined that he resented her for taking Noah away from him. Noah, Lucas and Arella. They were their own dark and twisted version of Cory, Shawn and Topanga, never to be separated; except, Cory kills himself while Topanga is unknowingly pregnant and Topanga has an abortion because the idea of giving birth to his kid is enough to bury her, too.
A bus pulled up, opened the doors, and Arella pulled Marcus up the steps with her.
Only two other people sat on the bus; a woman, petite with dark hair pinned back, wearing a tight black cocktail dress, was seated closer to the front, and a man dressed in a red t-shirt and gray vest, with a matching fedora atop his head, sat closer to the back. They both stared out of their respective windows.
Arella and Marcus took a seat in the middle, between them.
Passing streetlights painted them with orange stripes. The smell of coffee flew from the Maxwell factory and squeezed into the cracks of their window, inflating Arella with a euphoria and invigorating her with a second wind.
For the first time in her life, she found herself present in a moment, aware of herself. She’d spent so much of her life struggling with an inability to see outside of herself, misunderstanding that it was her uncanny ability to spin things into selfish affliction that alienated those around her rather than what she believed to be a lack of empathy from others. How many times had Noah looked at her, soaked in confusion, while she asked him, “How am I supposed to feel about that?”
“Do you think you could live with cerebral palsy?” asked Marcus.
“It depends,” Arella said, “Are you asking about my ability to live with it? Or about my will to live with it?” How was he awake?
“I guess whether you would or not.”
There are people in the world that Arella knew were hopeless. Yet, their will to live never went out. So why did Noah, and now Marcus, give up so easily?
“I would live through anything,” Arella said.
The petite woman stood up from her seat and approached the driver while the bus remained in motion. She leaned over his shoulder, whispered into his ear, then returned to her seat. The driver took the next right.
Then the man seated in the back walked from his seat to the front, disrupting the peace with a trail of musk and the clack of his cane every other step. He sat next to the woman, leaned over and kissed her on the temple.
Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the encounter with Marcus, but Arella hurt. She felt Noah’s absence in her lungs; she remembered the surprise of his death in every sharp breath.
Arella’s phone read 2:03.
Marcus belched. “Where are we goin’ anyway?” he asked.
“We’re just killing time,” she said.
She looked to Marcus, and slowly the resemblance she couldn’t find earlier materialized in front of her. Eyes closed and rugged, Marcus favored his brother. Arella slid her hand in his.
For the last few years, Arella thought she’d hated Marcus, but what she’d truly hated was herself. His words, claiming that Noah blamed her, cut her deep at a time she was without any strength. Alcohol, molly, coke. She built a false sense of security around her, avoiding the need to repair and instead doing her best version of moving on.
Here, now, with her hand in his, she not only forgave Marcus for his lie, but forgave herself, as well.
A quarter-mile down the road, the street lights were out and the bus pulled over. Doors opened and the woman curtseyed towards the bus driver, exiting the bus. The man looked over his shoulder towards Arella and Marcus. He placed one finger over his mouth, instructing them to be quiet.
Then he stood, pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, and handed them to the driver.
The driver unrolled the bills, counted them, and recounted. Sure of his count, the driver re-rolled the bills and threw the wad at the back of the man’s head as he walked down the steps of the bus. The man returned to the bus driver’s side.
In quick succession, the man removed a knife from his sleeve, grabbed the driver by the hair and stabbed him in the neck.
The man disappeared and the only sound was the echo of the cane down the sidewalk and the driver’s choking on his own blood.
Arella looked to Marcus. He was asleep.
As he snored, she didn’t move. She didn’t shudder, she didn’t whimper.
The bus driver’s hand fell to his side, mirroring the grip that Marcus had on hers.
She’d never seen death before.
Arella opened the phone and dialed 911. It was 2:14. The dispatcher answered. Arella said nothing.
She shut her phone.
With her grip still in place, Arella shook Marcus’s hand, nudging his shoulder with her own. “Marcus, we need to go,” she said.
Marcus grumbled to a half conscious state. As Arella stood, he wobbled to a standing position; however, Arella couldn’t bring herself to walk towards the dead driver.
She found an emergency exit in the window a couple rows back. Marcus lay his head on the top of a seat.
Arella could easily pull herself through the window, but she had no hope of getting Marcus out of it. Her choices lay in front of her, transparent and unsettling. Lead a stumbling Marcus past the dead driver, or pull herself out of the bus and leave Marcus to figure everything out for himself later. Her first instinct was to leave him. After all, they weren’t close anymore, and if she let him pass out, he would surely sleep past 5:23.
But she couldn’t desert Marcus. Not without reopening a wound.
She shook him, and they shuffled as one unit towards the driver.
He was no longer choking; the silence of his corpse brought life to the hairs on Arella’s legs. Blood dripped from the driver’s throat, down his shoulder, his arm, and his hand. It dripped from his hand on to the floor. One. Small. Drop. At a time.
Off the bus, the man and woman were nowhere in sight, and Arella led Marcus towards the street they had just come from.
Marcus was coherent now, but Arella didn’t know what their next move was. She knew she needed to call the police. Left would take them back towards the bar.
“What’s happening?” Marcus asked.
“Did you drive?”
“No, I got a ride.”
Arella had taken a cab. She checked her phone. It was dead.
“Can you call a cab?”
“I think I left my phone at the bar.” Marcus pressed his thumb and forefinger into his eyes, wincing while his teeth shown bright through his beard. “Why’d we get off the bus?”
“The driver’s dead.”
“Yeah. He stabbed him.”
“Who stabbed him?”
“The man in the vest.”
“Wait, the driver’s dead?”
“There’s a phone booth down here.” She pulled Marcus right.
“Fuck. I need to go back to sleep.”
Riverside was a work in progress. Splotches of the area had been remodeled and modernized to appeal to the younger crowd, while other buildings maintained their southern-colonial exterior, preserving the memories of the Confederacy.
Where an old court room used to stand, now stood a brand new Publix and where an old slave-owner’s house stood, still stood an old slave-owner’s house.
As they shuffled block after block, silence still demanded attention. Arella tried to process their situation; tried to make sense of what she’d just witnessed. A man was dead. Murdered. Why? She looked to Marcus, tried to read his thoughts, but he was a safe. Locked shut and she without the combination. If only he’d seen what had just happened. If only he’d been forced to stomach the violence. But then she remembered he had.
5:23 on a Thursday morning was when Marcus found Noah dead in the bathroom of Lucas’s apartment. He’d woken up, still drunk from only hours earlier, stumbled in through the bathroom door, missed the toilet and vomited on Noah’s lifeless body.
Arella never asked Marcus how Noah did it. To her it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Noah was gone, and that was enough reason to continue on as she did. There was never a funeral; everyone was too angry, and no one was willing to say goodbye.
“Where’s this phone booth?”
“Another couple blocks. By the Mexican spot.”
They approached the phone booth, but something was off. Instead of a clear, glass case, Arella saw a box covered in blue . . . what was it . . . paint?
“Is that smoke?” Marcus asked.
It was. The door was taped shut, and, inside, blue smoke tumbled and swirled like blood in a syringe during a pregnancy test.
Marcus peeled the tape back, opened the door and disappeared in a mass of smoke.
There was a brief moment where Arella’s stomach turned over; where her lungs deflated and her feet cemented into the sidewalk. Marcus was gone.
But the smoke dissipated and Marcus reemerged unscathed, embracing existence. Relief melted over Arella.
“Do you have any change?” he asked her.
She pulled some coins out of her purse.
“Should we call the police?”
“I don’t know. I guess so, right?’
“Do you think I’m awake?” he asked her.
“What do you mean?”
Marcus wasn’t looking at her. He’d fixed his gaze downward, staring at his feet.
“Am I awake? Like, am I present?”
“I don’t think we’d be in this predicament if you were.”
She walked over, standing outside of the phone booth. He was looking at an open page in the phone book. Maybe she could kill the rest of the night here, saving him.
“I think it’s time I woke up.”
Maybe she wouldn’t have to.
Hope was an approaching storm cloud, threatening showers but inconsistent with its delivery. Sometimes it passed. Other times it poured. And occasionally it broke. Teasing the drought. One small drop at a time.
Arella joined Marcus inside and fixed her attention to the open phone book. Someone had painted a message over the directory that said: To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? – Thoreau.
“Does it even matter?” It wasn’t a question.
Marcus let out a heavy sigh, dropped a few coins in the phone, and placed a call.
Caleb Michael Sarvis is a graduate of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. He currently resides in Jacksonville with his fiancé, where he teaches high school English while putting the finishing touches on his upcoming collection of short stories.
His influences include (but are not limited to) Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, David James Poissant and of course, Marcus Pactor.
At the age of seven, he pooped in a water park in Spain and credits that moment as the spawn of any deviance illustrated in his writing.
He enjoys alcohol, sports and the Jacksonville music scene.