the short story project


Mike Stone

The Two O’Clock

Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld sat in a tall leather-backed chair behind a dark mahogany desk. He looked irritably at the clock on the wall opposite his desk. His 2:00 pm was late.

He flicked the button on the intercom. “Has my two o’clock called to say he’d be late?” Professor Hartfeld asked.

“No, sir,” Marta answered.

“Please let me know the moment he arrives,” the professor requested, “but have him wait in the waiting room for the time he made me wait.”

“Yes sir,” his secretary said.

Bartholomew’s eyes scanned his consultation office to make sure that nothing was out of place, that everything was in order. The clock showed 2:05. He checked his watch which confirmed that it was indeed 2:05, actually closer to 2:06. His irritation increased.

The professor spied something crawling up the richly upholstered blue chaise lounge chair beside his desk. He squinted one eye to see better what kind of creature it was. After identifying the culprit, the professor slipped off his right Oxford shoe and, standing up with right shoe in hand, he hobbled over to the lounge chair.

The cockroach reached the top cushion and moved toward the center.

Bartholomew raised the heavy shoe above his shoulder, taking careful aim in preparation to strike the disgusting insect. He hoped that his 2:00 o’clock wouldn’t walk through the door exactly at this moment and see him, one shoe on and the other raised to strike a cockroach on his expensive chaise lounge.

Suddenly the cockroach flipped itself over onto its back so that it was facing Bartholomew and hissed, “Stay your hand, kind sir, I implore you! I am your 2:00 o’clock client. I apologize for my tardiness, but it takes a while to crawl under the door and make my way across your carpet and up your chaise lounge. I announced myself to your secretary, but she did not seem to hear me.”

The professor was dumbfounded. Somebody must be playing a trick on him! He looked around the room again, trying to find the camera or recording device. He walked around the office, methodically checking behind every chair and underneath each piece of furniture. He even opened each of the drawers in his desk. Nothing seemed suspicious or untoward.

Bartholomew stumped back over to the chaise lounge and scrutinized the cockroach. The professor smirked jocularly for whoever might be watching him, asking the cockroach, “How do I know that it is you that is talking to me, and not some impish trickster with a hidden microphone nearby?”

“Ask me a question whose answer is six or less and a positive integer, and I will respond by raising my legs as appropriate,” the cockroach hissed.

The professor thought a moment and asked brightly, “how many fingers am I holding up?”

The cockroach extended outward three legs, keeping its remaining three legs folded over its abdomen.

The professor lowered one finger and the cockroach lowered one of its extended legs. Bartholomew thought to himself, well, whatever was going on, he’d play along. “Do you mind if I record our session,” he asked perfunctorily. “It’s something I do with all my clients for later review and analysis. I don’t want to miss anything.”

“I have no issue with that,” the cockroach hissed. “I know how disgusting we are to you, but could you be so kind as to help me turn back over onto my abdomen? It’s quite difficult for me to flip myself back over. I’m not as spry as I used to be.”

The professor felt a little less disgusted by the cockroach than he had before. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the recognition of another conscious being, no matter what the form was, that stirred the soup of empathy. He slipped a sheet of yellow paper from his notepad carefully underneath the cockroach and held the sheet at a 45-degree angle so that it slipped down the page gently but with enough momentum that it was able to turn itself over.

“Thank you, Professor,” the cockroach hissed.

“Happy to oblige,” the professor said. He pulled one of the narrower chairs over to the chaise lounge, sat down, and turned on the recorder. “For the record,” he began. “It is 2:15 pm, Tuesday, July 22, 1958. I am in session with Gregory Samuels. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Samuels?”

“Please call me Greg,” the cockroach hissed. “I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide.”

The professor made a note of that and paused a moment before saying, “The mind entertains all the thoughts that are possible for it to think, but that doesn’t mean that we have to act on every thought we think or let a particular thought take over control of our mind.”

“I know that I don’t have to act on every thought I have,” Greg answered, “but I’m not so sure that I have the intellectual or emotional resources to prevent this particular thought from eclipsing all my other thoughts.”

“I would imagine you to be somewhat lonely, possibly cut off from the care and support of family and comrades,” the professor ventured.

“Not really,” Greg explained. “Could you close the curtains and dim the lights a bit? I have 350 siblings and thousands of close friends. We get together as often as we can. Most of us are quite gregarious and decision-making is easier and less stressful when we’re all together. The sex is good enough, I suppose …”

The professor wrote down some more notes, looked directly at Greg, and asked, “Could you expand a bit on your last sentence?”

“About the sex?” Greg glanced back at the professor.

“Yes, the sex,” the professor said.

Greg exhaled in a long hissing breath that almost turned into a whistle before answering. “It’s not so bad, really. When we’re ready for it, we give off a potent pungent pheromone so that willing partners may find each other. Then we have our courtship rituals, the usual posturing and stridulation. The copulation is both intense and prolonged. We go back to our friends who expect to hear all the intimate details about our partner, the courtship, and the copulation. The problem is that it seems so mechanical, so predictable, so meaningless. I feel like a damned fool.”

“So, you don’t engage in sex?” the professor asked incredulously.

“I do engage,” Greg admitted, “but I don’t run to my friends for debriefing or enthuse about it. In a word, it’s not my ultimate experience.”

The professor smiled wanly. “I suppose you just haven’t met the ultimate partner.”

Greg answered, “It’s more than that. We’ve been living like this for the last 320 million years: hatching out of our egg casings with 30 to 40 siblings, all of us gulping air in our initial shock of existence, crawling out on our own, feeding on whatever is to be had, morphing into adults, congregating, copulating, impregnating, dropping egg casings, and dying. Da capo al fine. We’ll probably continue living like this for the next 320 million years. There has to be something more than that.”

“Except for hatching out of eggs, it sounds like a good description of the human condition,” the professor said after a while.

“I beg of you,” Greg implored, “don’t make light of my plaints. I’m pouring out my soul to you. You are my last hope. After you, the long night of non-existence.”

“I swear to you, my words were wrung from the depths of empathy for your plight,” the professor chose his words carefully. “Is there nothing to which you look forward, for which you hope, to which you aspire?”

Greg spoke as if from another world. His words hissed out of him, “There is no beauty, no poetry, no aspiration or hope, no break in the boring continuity of existence, no lovely fictions to distract us from our dull repetitious lives.”

The professor countered, “How can that be? You seem to me a poetic soul.”

Greg explained, “Yes, that is my curse. I am the exception that proves the rule. I could be the Shakespeare of my species, another T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, an Yves Bonnefoy, and it would matter not an iota. Poetry’s coin is not legal tender in our society. I recite my poems to crowds of thousands, even millions, but they don’t even listen. They look at me dumbly and continue with their copulation and feeding on dung, or whatever the collective mind has decided this moment. I feel loneliest when I’m in such a crowd. It’s unbearable. If only I could have this poetry somehow removed from my brain.”

The professor scribbled notes as fast as he could. He raised the pencil to his lips and tapped the eraser against his lower teeth. When he became aware of what he was doing, he stopped and thought about what he had just heard. He asked, “I suppose it would be too much to expect that your species has doctors who understand the functions and anatomy of your brains, wouldn’t it?”

“Unfortunately, we do not,” Greg replied. “We don’t have so many different roles. There are no doctors. We don’t live more than a year or so, although I’ve heard of some of our distant cousins living as much as four or five years. If we get sick, we die and that’s that. End of story.”

The professor said, “It’s 1958. We don’t have the capability to do what you wished yet. We don’t even know where poetry is located in our own brains, let alone in a … forgive me … cockroach’s brain. Who knows when we’ll be able to map out our own brains or understand how they work? It will probably be hit or miss a long time until we finally get it right. A miss might render you speechless, unable to walk, or kill you.”

Greg hissed a long whistle of wonderment. “Why make the effort to stay alive as long as possible when life is so fraught with suffering and pain? It took an eternity before I was born. My life will end before I achieve anything worthwhile. Then I will be dead or non-existent for the rest of eternity. We are barely a blip on the vast radar of eternity. Why bother? Why continue after the fallacy has been uncovered?”

Professor Bartholomew Hartfeld glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was 2:50 pm. “I’m afraid our time for today’s session is up,” he said, not insensitively.

Greg flinched as if waking up from a dream, “Huh, what? Oh … yes,” he recovered his initial presence of mind. “I had forgotten about the fifty-minute hour.”

The professor added, “It seems like we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is much ground to cover.” Then he asked kindly, “Would you like for me to have Marta schedule an appointment for next week?”

Greg hissed ever so softly, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Next week’s session will be … shall we say … ‘gratis’?” the professor offered most generously.

The cockroach crawled slowly toward the edge of the chaise lounge and then down one of the legs to the carpet.

“What will you do?” the professor expressed genuine concern over the fate of his small client. “Please, don’t do anything drastic until we’ve had a chance to examine all the alternatives!” he implored.

The cockroach slowly made his way over the carpet until it reached the door and then crawled under it.

Marta’s voice over the intercom broke the ensuing silence as she announced, “Your 3:00 o’clock is here, Professor Hartfeld.”

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