Sunday Stories: “Fear of the Unknown”

Fear of the Unknown
by Allan MacDonell

In the mornings, sometimes, she finds herself before sunrise between sleep and wakefulness in an undefended state where the old questions still pretend to apply.

Where is he? She is in the outer court at the Hollywood Bowl. The headliner’s start time has been called, and he has not called. She sits one of three people in a box for four. The open sky above with its far off starlight illuminates nothing beyond the mystery of the moon and that one open seat. How long have I been lying here? She is drowsy on a rocky Sardinia beach. Grainy pebbles mold to her protrusions. Her towel has had a chance to dry since her last swim. He’d said he was going into the water, only for a moment, just for a dip and he’d be back. When did he say he would arrive to meet me? She is in an empty house in a gated community. She ignores the realtor and stalks the polished cement floors. She pictures where her things will be stored and displayed in this home, where his place will be, the side of the bed she will chose. Am I late or am I early? She is on a Spanish resort town pier, dressed for a half-day boat excursion to swim in remote coves and explore secret caves. Incoming small craft disgorge sunburned passengers, their hair stiff and wild from salt spray and breeze. Leather-skinned skippers pack expeditioners carrying goggles and snorkels into outgoing vessels. She can’t be sure if she is meant to be coming in or going out. When is he ever on time? She is buying flowers at a graveyard, stalling for him to show up and wondering how she managed to forget her wallet at home. Where does he go while the time goes elsewhere? She suspects the sanctuary is an interior place. The wind sneaks in as drafts. It’s all dark, too dark to see. There is breathing; there is the smell of breath; there is movement. Will there be touch? An exit she has been blind to passes her through. If he is not here when I am gone, she wonders, where can he be? Now the light is coming in. Now the figures are forming in pieces and gathering into a whole. These specters cluster around her night table, behind the door of her clothes closet, under the empty half of the mattress. He is hidden somewhere in the center of these things, not him bodily, but maybe clues to why he has gone and maybe a key, not to let her in there, but to let her out of here.

The barking will not stop on its own. The persistent, unyielding onslaught had started as twin whimpers in the waning dark. A childproof gate blocks off the bottom of the stairwell. His two dogs press against the barrier, looking up, sniffing up, optimistic that this is the morning that will bring him down to them again. Once more, he fails to descend, and his dogs have no answers for that. His dogs only know that their feed time has come and is gone, and they haven’t eaten. His dogs cannot worry about more than one thing at a time. She wills herself out of bed, retains balance on the stairs down to the kitchen and feeds the animals. In their relief of appetite, in the satisfaction of intake, the contentment of satiation, they are like humans; distracted from wondering where he is and why he is not home at an hour well beyond when home is the place for him to be, at a time when even she is home.

His dogs have become accustomed to her being home and him not there.

A bowl would only slow the passage of ice cream from the carton to her mouth. A bowl would not mark the progress. She can imagine a therapist, a forensic psychologist, asking when she had begun eating ice cream in the morning. Is there an Ice Cream Anonymous? Does Ice Cream Anonymous hand out a little card with twenty questions leading toward self-diagnosis of your problem abuse of ice cream? Do you eat ice cream alone? If she’d known someone was going to show so much interest, she would have charted her fall. Ever more visible depths of cardboard inside the ice-cream carton indicate her declining levels. Declining levels of what? Expectation. Memory. Understanding. Waiting and not knowing what you are waiting for is unhealthy for everyone, she tells herself, including the one who is being waited for.

Full days slipped past, then weeks. His credit cards have been abandoned. His call number is deactivated. He left traces on the Internet; cryptic updates, empty statuses, no clues as to his location or intentions. The traces became months old, then deleted; nothing fresh appears.

“Time to move on,” she tells the dogs. She moves from the table to the sink and deposits the empty ice-cream carton in the garbage container under the kitchen counter.

Things pass through the mind and partially lodge.

Places he could be: Ensconced off grid with an attractive and reclusive chance encounter. Traveling under the radar with a recent widow. Hidden and shielded with a reconciled ex in a remote mining town. Incognito in plain sight with an incorrigible adulteress as part of the continuous turnover at serial tourist destinations.

Places she has been: To the offices of a law firm they had until recently jointly employed. To a handful of regional bank branches. To pick up the tab at three employee birthday lunches. To an early dinner attended by a female associate of a man she had been seeing, a female associate who informed her that the man would no longer be seeing her.

Things he could be doing: Tracking down the family of origin he claimed to have never known. Avoiding the pursuit of business associates he had never allowed her to meet. Composing the memoirs, as he’d often threatened to do. Eating too much. Smoking again. Drinking like never before. Sleeping in.

Things she has done: Put her hands again and again into every pocket and run her fingers over each seam of all the garments left hanging in his closet. On hands and knees, crawled across the floor mats of his car, the car he claimed to love and owned outright, pinpointing a penlight under the seats, up behind the dashboard, along the headliner seams. Traced and retraced all filaments of his social media web. Changed the locks. Driven past a dozen psychic fortuneteller storefronts and pulled in at the showroom for the city’s most elite home security specialists.

People he might be with: Persons who have accepted or been taken in by his new false or assumed identity. Confederates, witting and unwitting, in clandestine efforts, causes, existence. A new true love. A core of bosses, a ring of enforcers, a very discrete and efficient cleanup crew. A contingent of fresh souls in the waiting room of an afterlife indoctrination center.

People she has been with: A therapist who has been told nothing. Law enforcement representatives who have told her nothing. Insurance adjusters who proclaim powerlessness to do anything. Those few true friends who are too discrete or afraid to press her for details of what has happened. The trail of false friends demanding to be told what she imagines might be going on, with who and where.

Is some double face in the crowd waiting for him now? Maybe he has arrived. Maybe with this new person, the waiting is over for him, until next time, when the waiting becomes for someone no one at this time can know who. Not even he has picked the next one yet. Maybe he hasn’t started looking. Also, he could be gone, all the way out, beyond waiting. She hadn’t known everything about how he spent his days. She hadn’t known he owned a gun until she found the empty case. She had been looking for something left behind that might speak to her. There are things she wants to be told, the eternal, necessary things, and practical matters as well. Is someone waiting for her? She may be one wrong step or correct stride away from being picked up, pulled aside and set straight. Does he know who might be waiting for her? She had a man waiting for her, in secret, for private purposes, not so long ago. Did he identify that last man who had waited for her? That last man is as much a ghost as is her missing man. His transitory presence, the reasons he had for being with her, are as much a mystery as the disappearance.

Some woman comes over, shows up at the door unannounced looking for him. This woman has been a friend to both him and to her, although not lately. He had defined this woman as a fluid hybrid of government contractor and corporate shill, highly successful, connected and influential, a definition the woman had taken pains to never dispel. The woman was in the neighborhood; so she rang the bell and asked if he was at home and could come to the door. This woman is given the news, which her whole flawless face says is old news. “But what’s going on with you?” this person asks. “How are you doing?”

“You see how I’m doing.”

“You look great, of course. I’d expect nothing less.”

“I’m eating ice cream alone. I’m answering my own door.”

“Have you been to the police?”

Of course she has been to the police.

“Good,” says the woman. “It wouldn’t look right for him if you hadn’t been to the police.”

“You intimate that you know more than you are letting on, more about me, and more about the missing person, my man.”

“What did you tell the police?”

She is unable to tell the police much. “All of his people are unknown to me, as if by design; all of mine are unknown to him.”

“Also by design?”

Women can be so bitchy to other women, thinks the woman who has been left behind and doesn’t know why. The drop-in visitor is escorted to the door and told goodbye with no lapse from propriety.

Alone again, more things pass through her mind and remain undefined: Why was I in particular pulled out of nothing and brought to life? Did I do something back when I was nothing to deserve what has happened and become of me since?

Some guy, a developer friend of his, sends a text. “I’m up. How are you?”

She types: “My surface is still but I will not say unruffled or calm.” She deletes. She thinks it over for twenty minutes.

She types: “I am free to be plagued by monsters of my own creation, to be menaced, to believe and live a portion of timeless terror, of terror unbounded by time since it is a fear spawned by creations outside reality. No one I’m imagining is alive to me, and so this still waiting is not living.” She hits send. She walks the dogs and checks back an hour later. No reply has come in. She rereads what she has sent. It started out making sense, like so much else.

The dead time is uncomfortable, and it could go on forever, but it won’t. Something will happen, or something won’t. One thing that happens is this guy, the developer friend of her man who is gone, is walking beside her as if they had agreed he would be. Her man’s dogs are wary of this man. “I’ve found nothing,” she says in greeting. “What should I be looking for? Gemstones? Powders? Flash drives?”

“If you don’t know, you don’t know.”

“And what I don’t know can’t hurt me?”

“Well, honey, I wouldn’t know about that.”

“You’ll admit that someday this will all be over,” she says. “I’ll be dead, and he will be dead. I know that.”

“You may both die at the same time; say if a comet hits your house or if a tire blows out on the freeway.”

“There is a likelihood that one of us will die first—unless you’re here to tell me how much longer he and I will be waiting to be in the same house or car again.”

“Well, honey, like I said: I wouldn’t know about that.”

“Maybe you can tell me who would know.”

“Maybe not.” The developer laughs. “Think that one through.”

In the next instant, the developer is gone, and she’s a little less alone, but still all on her own, thinking this situation through, out loud with his dogs. “When one of us dies, the other one will remain alive. It might be me, wondering, where did he go? Will I be going to the same place? No one can tell me. Does he know where I am now?”

Now that he is not here, she can’t picture him liking what she is doing at any moment as she moves through her day. He would frown at her grocery store choices. He would disapprove of her boutique purchases. He would fault her cursory supervision of her employees. He would throw up his hands in exasperation as she idles her car and considers swooping into an open parking spot at the psychic fortuneteller’s storefront. He must have at one time liked something that she did, a single time at least. Some event changed all that. Some circumstance. Some force of personality. What could it have been? What flipped his world upside down and dropped him out of hers? Will the world flip back and bring him back to the surface again?

A man she doesn’t know but knows her although he’s never met her is waiting for her at the next corner. Another man, he knows her without having met her too, she is sure, he knows who she is and who has left her, this other man keeps pace following behind, stopping when she stops, walking when she walks. These unknown men believe they know what happens next. She has learned that they could not be more wrong, but there is no comfort in knowing that.


Allan MacDonell‘s after-death memoir ‘Now That I Am Gone’ is preordering now form Rare Bird Books. His memoirs ‘Prisoner of X’ and ‘Punk Elegies’ exploited his years running Larry Flynt’s pulp factory and the characters and consequences met as a 20-year-old writing for 1970s punk zine ‘Slash.’ He lives beneath the Hollywood sign in California.

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