Grand Prize Winner, 2005 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award: Death and Popcorn by Megan Somogyi
Death and Popcorn by Megan Somogyi of San Francisco. Somogyi graduated from the University of California in 2003 with a degree in English Literature. Judges' praise for Death and Popcorn includes these comments: "This mythic, darkly comic story deftly portrays an aberrant character preoccupied with thoughts that so-called normal people often repress." "Who has not been at times absorbed in the pulsing and ticking away of one's life force?" Four Empty Walls, Somogyi's first novel, was published by Neshui Publishing in 2003. Tim Farrington, a New York Times notable author, called Four Empty Walls "an astonishingly mature and absorbing work." Somogyi currently works in a fine lingerie store in order to support her writing and her shoe habit.
Death and Popcorn
Percy checked his watch for the third time that morning, irritated that the minute hand was moving much faster than he'd hoped. It was already 7:23 am. He liked to be in the office by seven, earlier if possible. Every morning he stood in line at Starbuck's with all the brokers who had to be up for the foreign markets, ordered his venti coffee with two shots of espresso, and navigated the surprisingly heavy traffic on the freeway. He had been commuting at this hour for over 20 years, and it never ceased to amaze him how many people were up and about before dawn. Percy was always slightly disturbed by these people because they intruded on his sense of solitude. He was an accountant-his firm didn't open until 9:00 a. m.-and he treasured the first two hours of the day because they belonged to him alone.
Percy tapped his foot impatiently as the elevator crawled down to him from the 17th floor. The pause between one number going dark and the next one lighting up was interminable, and by the time it had reached the fifth floor there was a thin sheen of sweat on his bald pate. He wasn't completely bald, his wife often pointed out; he had a few stray hairs that looked just lovely when he combed them over the top of his head. You could hardly tell the difference, she said.
Percy admitted freely that his wife was not the most worldly of women; between her needlepoint, toy poodle, and the umpteen bottles of "relaxants" she kept in the medicine cabinet for her "nerves," Millicent was pretty well out of touch with the world. She had been like that all her life, a semi-ethereal creature that had little interest in reality as other people defined it. It was the reason Percy married her. She was like background music, a gentle pattering that he liked to have around but liked even more because it didn't intrude on his life. They had no children because neither of them would be capable of raising them properly. Percy was seldom at home and Millie would let the kids get into any mischief they wanted. They would probably have drowned, set themselves on fire, or gotten run over by a car. Children would also have been difficult because Percy and Millie rarely had sex.
The elevator doors opened with a metallic ding and Percy rushed inside so quickly he had to brace his arm against the back wall to keep from slamming into it. He repeatedly pushed the button for the 20th floor, feverishly hoping nobody would want to get in at the last minute. As the elevator began its silent ascent, he kept pushing the button and breathed a sigh of relief each time he successfully passed a floor without stopping. He could feel sweat beading on his upper lip and collecting in the hollow of his back. His horn-rimmed coke-bottle glasses got a little foggy as the doors slid open and the vast empty expanse of his office was revealed. He stepped out into the air-conditioned silence and savored the feeling of sweat drying quickly on his skin. He checked his watch again as he walked quickly to his desk.
7:25 am. How did he get 25 minutes behind schedule? The morning was not off to a good start. He flopped into his swivel chair and picked up the telephone. He pressed a button on his speed dial labeled "Popcorn" and leaned back with a satisfied sigh as he heard the first ring on the other end.
"Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 7:26 and ten seconds. Beep. Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 7:26 and 20 seconds. Beep. Good morning," the voice droned on an on. This was how Percy spent at least two hours of each day, listening to them tick by.
When he woke up one morning, at 23, and found a clump of hair on his pillow-the rest of it soon followed-he developed a morbid fascination with aging and the passing of time. He derived dark pleasure from the knowledge that each automated beep, each tick of the second hand, brought him one step closer to death.
Sometimes on those quiet mornings before people began filtering into the office, Percy imagined he could feel his individual cells dying, that if he listened hard enough he could hear his body decomposing. Some people, Percy knew, realized life was short and tried to take advantage of what time they had, bungee jumping and taking pottery classes, but Percy liked the contrariness of his choice. His life was slipping by at the same rate everyone else's was, and he was watching from the sidelines, counting down the seconds, hours, and minutes.
Sometimes he felt that he had figured out some great secret of the universe, that everyone was running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to "seize the moment" while he was calm and unconcerned.
"Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 7:28 and 40 seconds. Beep. Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 7:28 and 50 seconds. Beep." Somewhere in the office a phone started ringing shrilly. Percy started at the noise, loud in the air-conditioned silence of the office. He stood up, the phone still pressed to his ear, and glared at the offending phone over the top of his cubicle. He was too close to the receptionist's desk for his liking. Her phone rang frequently throughout the day, and Percy found it difficult to concentrate. His boss consistently ignored his requests to be moved, citing lack of space or some other bland excuse, but Percy had watched most of his co-workers move into cubicles by the windows, and then eventually into actual offices with doors one could close against the unwashed masses. Percy knew he was being passed over, but it didn't particularly bother him. He didn't want more responsibility, or even a bigger salary, he just wanted a cubicle that was farther away from the reception desk. The answering service picked up and the phone fell silent for the time being, and Percy sighed petulantly as he plopped down in his chair again. The damn thing would start up again sooner or later. The closer it got to nine o'clock, the harder he had to concentrate on the seconds that were slipping by. People started coming in, the phones rang frequently, and the office appliances started whirring and making their usual noises.
After about 8:30, Percy couldn't hear his cells dying any more, so he was left with trying to feel them decompose instead. He much preferred waiting to die in the cavernous silence of the early morning, but he understood that some things couldn't be helped.
"Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 7:32 and 30 seconds. Beep. Good morning," the female voice droned. Percy had a much more meaningful relationship with the automated woman at Popcorn than he did with his wife. Sometimes he thought it was more meaningful than his relationship with his mother, too. She'd been dead for about 15 years, and Percy occasionally envied her. He didn't want to hasten his own end, but he was curious about what happened after one's body finally gave out. Was all that Biblical mumbo-jumbo right? Would there be a Judgment Day with fire and brimstone and eternal damnation? Percy thought that would be interesting to see, but he was pretty sure that he'd be one of the damned and that would make the whole experience significantly less enjoyable. Or would he be reincarnated? He figured his karma was neutral, as he'd never been present enough in this world to do much harm or good to other people. If it were possible, Percy wanted to be reincarnated as something inanimate. A shopping cart, a sofa, he didn't care, just so long as he could pass his next life without any exertion at all.
And what if there was nothing? What if once you died, it was just black nothingness-no consciousness, no eternal rewards, just your lukewarm rotting corpse in a box in the ground? This last option appealed to Percy's morbidity. Sometimes on Sunday mornings he would go to the local cemetery and sit on a bench and enjoy the company of the dead. He would imagine the sound of their decomposition swirling in the air around him, harmonizing with his own decay and making the air hum happily, like it was crackling with electricity. Millie thought he was going to church or playing golf or some equally innocuous activity. She spent Sundays with a couple of Valium and a pile of fashion magazines.
The phone at reception began ringing again, and Percy jammed his index finger in his ear. That helped a bit. The sound of the phone was muffled by the roar of his own blood. This was another thing he liked, hearing his blood rushing through his veins. He felt more connected to the inner workings of his body, and the rushing blood made rhythmic pounding noises which fed his need for internal destruction.
As he listened to the voice drone on, counting the seconds of his life, Percy became aware of his bladder pressing against his belt buckle. This was another problem that intruded on his morning trysts with Popcorn. He couldn't function well without a large coffee in the morning, but his bladder wouldn't keep its peace until 9:00 when he had to give up the phone and begin real work. Once or twice he had considered adult diapers, especially when he was passing the Senior Needs aisle in the supermarket. He discarded the idea, though, because it was too undignified even for his low standards of personal conduct and hygiene. Percy waited until he could no longer stand it, when Pacific Daylight time was 7:57 and 50 seconds, then bolted to his feet, tossed the phone onto the desk, and rushed down the hall to the bathroom.
Standing at the urinal, Percy waited impatiently for his piss to make it out the end of his erection. He had always thought this was the strangest side effect of his obsession with time. He never felt rushes of pleasure or that particular tightening of his scrotum, but the erection came nevertheless. He found the behavior of his penis slightly distasteful, thinking that it made him a kind of voyeur. Percy would have expected his body to respond like this if he were hiding in some pretty young thing's bushes with binoculars and a box of donuts, or if he had a real fetish like leather, whips and chains, stiletto heels, or barnyard animals. He hated to think that this preoccupation of his might be a fetish, because he'd always thought fetishes were dirty and that the people who had them were weak. He concentrated on the task at hand, not liking to dwell on the implications of his erection. Eventually his bladder won the battle, and he rushed back down the hall to his desk.
"Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 8:04 and 10 seconds. Beep. Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 8:04 and 20 seconds. Beep. Good morning. At the tone, Pacific Daylight time will be 8:04 and 30 seconds. Beep." The voice droned on and Percy's breathing slowly returned to normal. His shoulders relaxed and the sweat on his forehead dried. Just as he was beginning to feel that everything was completely normal the elevator made a ding announcing its arrival and the doors slid open. Percy felt his stomach sink into his intestines as he watched his boss step out and walk up the aisle towards him. Mr. Fletcher's face lit up at the sight of one of his workers burning the early morning oil and Percy knew that he would have to give up his activities for the rest of the day.
"May I put you on hold for a moment?" he asked the automated woman. "Thank you." He pressed the hold button and turned towards his boss. "Good morning, Mr. Fletcher."
"Morning Percy. You're in early today. What are you working on?"
"The McGraw file. I find it's easier to work when it's nice and quiet like this."
"I came in for a little peace and quiet myself." Percy nodded in exasperated agreement. "Well I won't keep you from the client. Keep up the good work."
"Thank you, Sir, I will," Percy said to Mr. Fletcher's retreating back. He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose under his glasses. He took Popcorn off hold and rummaged in his filing cabinet for the McGraw file, which he had finished two days ago. He muttered along with the recording at the other end of the line, hoping he was giving a plausible performance of a conversation, nodded a few times, and hung up. He took a pen from the little jar with a clock on it and traced some figures already on the page in front of him. Over the top of his cubicle he watched his boss take off his jacket and settle behind his desk, humming a tune that Percy couldn't make out. "Damn," he muttered, clicking the top of the pen repeatedly, feeling the walls of his cubicle closing in on him. He stood up, waved the file above his head and gave Mr. Fletcher a thumbs-up. Mr. Fletcher returned the gesture and went back to the work in front of him.
Percy walked down the hall as calmly as he could and locked himself in a stall in the men's room. He put six or seven paper seat covers on top of the toilet, sat down gingerly, and held his watch to his ear. The frantic rhythmic ticking soothed his frayed nerves. He figured he could get away with half an hour in the bathroom. He looked at the watch. 8:17 am. He'd have to make the most of this time. Percy closed his eyes and let the seconds wash over him.