Signals and Noise: Chapter 13 (Cygnus atratus)

Sometimes, when Zach had too much coffee, when he had sneaked a smoke on the back porch that projects out over the weedy ground and right up to the back wall, beyond which is the alley and driveway of an apartment complex in drab rose and orange, sometimes he would lie awake until there was a subtle shift in his sensibilities that was almost like a buzz encompassing him, and he would go on thinking about the events of the day even as he drifted off to sleep and then awoke again, minutes later, and was still thinking about them, like an unbroken chain of reasoning that suffered a momentary dip. But there was always a specter hanging in the facts and the faces and the ideas, like an irrational interloper. Only a fever ever reproduced anything like those moments—like that specter—only a fever could twist ideas over themselves into the impossible and weird motifs that were a merger of sleep and waking fantasies. Zach would rouse in those moments or sometimes bolt upright while trying to reclaim the ideas and force them into a coherent whole, but then, when the pieces had regained their permanence and the puzzle was reunited and showed, once again, the rational and calm artwork on the box of everyday reality, Zach would find himself longing for that alternative state, for the confusion that he struggled to subdue in the hypnagogic fog. It was not just curiosity, he realized, but a sense that there was a constructive event surfacing out of his unconscious self—an event that was using his memories for some special purpose.

There was an ameliorative effect to the anxieties of the day that crept in at those moments, like a sieve had strained all the complexity out of the bursts of nervous arousal, and he would lean back again into the hollow of his down pillow that smelled like his hair, tinged by his shampoo, and turn his face into the dome, sliding his cheek against the silky weave of the pillowcase, finally thinking that sleep would arrive soon. Mostly, then, he would move into the shadows and fog of sleep but, now and again, he would hover there for hours, replaying and reinventing the edges of discussions, the mandates of school anxieties, and the incomprehensible transgressions of strangers into his life. Morning would come too soon on those nights, and he would be the first to see the grays emerging behind the sulfur streetlights, his anxiety rising again at how he would survive the day half asleep, trudging through school halls or, if it was a Friday or Saturday night, relaxed enough to sleep straight through until the sunlight reflected off the apartment windows and played across the walls of his room, his cavern, and he awoke into the warm buzz of the afternoon.

The shooting—that day—kept him awake almost every night, replaying the slow churn of events, encircling everyone’s reactions with descriptions and summaries that formed a narrative backbone for what had happened. We were scared, he thought, we were all scared, but we were also determined to survive. We would have moved to stop the shooter if he had come through that door. Fantasies, constructed of the scripting television mindset, involved him vaulting over chairs and tables to tackle the shooter, cushioned by the thick down coat as they slid into the hall. He was a hero and had saved the school, and had to stand before the school and the national cameras to accept the accolades earned by selfless heroism. There was the alternative where he kicked a desk into a perfect crotch-smashing impulse, forcing the dropping of the gun, and more awards. There was the armed Zach who always kept a secret handgun for just such a moment, ending the shooter’s life with a single, perfect shot, and being forgiven for his rakish disregard for the law in carrying firearms on campus. There were all these possible outcomes but only the trajectory of slow fear building and releasing was the real history, and Zach always began and ended with that same recollection, pregnant with the reality of that moment, the smell of sweat and urine, the fight or flight of three score teens just barely held against an impending doom.

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