Future Shock (Peterson Berg)

Another Tuesday night filling time and the weird name catches my attention. The Parallax View, a 70’s thriller. A politician gets killed and Warren Beatty struts around with a wily grin and mussed hair. It’s fine. But eighteen minutes in there’s this cut. A woman shows up at Warren Beatty’s place to tell him that something terrible is happening, that people are being killed and she’s going to be next. He doesn’t believe her. He berates her instead. He thinks she’s crying wolf, and she sobs. He acts like it’s romantic, this scene. A seduction. Like his gravity can push all her fears away. He embraces her behind a curtain. Then the cut happens, and she’s stiff. Chalk skin flat against the morgue metal. Just like that she’s dead, and he knows everything she said was true.

After the cut, I sort of watch the rest of the film, but can’t pay attention. I have no interest in anything that happens. I have no interest in the political conspiracy plot. I don’t care about Warren Beatty. All I can think about is that cut, about the woman. Lying in bed, I return to the scene and try to catch the precise moment it moves from one image to the next. My unblinking eyes water as the cut steals her life, again and again and again.

‘Somebody’s trying to kill me,’ the woman declares. ‘Somebody besides yourself?’ Warren Beatty responds.

In the ugly part of the morning, I open my work computer and find twenty-three unread emails. Three more than the number I woke up to yesterday. Instead of looking at them I send one to my boss. A short message: the body says ‘I quit.’ For the subject line I write ‘You Don’t Care,’ which I guess I think is funny. I close the laptop and store it in the alcove under my bookshelf. Then I forget about work, the emails, the routine. It empties out of me like blood from an open artery.

All day I return to the movie, skip to that scene. When I watch it, I feel like I’m scraping against the edge of myself. Every word she speaks unfurls within me like tea leaves in boiling water. I fill myself up with her quiver, and I collapse with the cut.

I stash my phone under the mattress and wait for it to die. Every few hours it vibrates and old thoughts ripple into me. My mind fills with images that I don’t choose, memories that rise and glimmer until there’s nowhere else to look. I catch the flash of Sarah’s face, her closed smile. The delicate curl of her hand. I see us, cross legged on the bed, laughing over a memory that we thought was recent but we both slowly realized wasn’t. I witness our last looks in new light, can hear the unspoken futures we thought we wanted to share.

Everything outside is always milky white and severe. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen at this time of year. It makes the ridges of the mountains look like a misshapen bread knife. Crows land on the balcony above and tip their heads down to look at me through the glass. From the window I watch people walk by the old movie theater across the street. The marquee once featured corny shit like ‘Life Without Movies Would Be A Flop.’ Now it says ‘Don’t Worry. We Are Just At Intermission.’ Been stuck that way for months.

There’s this little moment before the cut where the woman looks down and stuffs newspaper clippings back into her purse. She’s crying, but still trying to get her things together, unable to do anything other than go about her life. When I think about it, I curdle. Something in the way she plays it makes my chest swarm. The way the truth warbles out through her voice. I think, in this moment, she knows the cut is there. It’s already inside her, waiting. 

Tommy randomly shows up one night wearing business casual. He has a six pack with him and holds it up to the peephole like a sitcom. He drinks it alone as I sit curled on the couch. I can tell he doesn’t want to be here. He’s here because Lauren put him up to it. He doesn’t really get what’s happening. I guess she must not either if she sent him instead of coming herself. 

Tommy drinks enough that I tell him he shouldn’t drive home. He drives home anyway. I have no power to stop it.

When I try to sleep, little lines and phrases from the scene hum in my head and replace my thoughts. ‘Future shock.’ ‘Blue in the face.’ They echo and sputter until they’re meaningless, until they’re the only meaning I have left. Sometimes I catch myself whispering ‘I haven’t lost my cat’ to the walls. 

I spend weeks circling closed doors. I hack my hair into something ragged and short. I thought the phone would have died after a day or two, but now I wonder if it ever will. Batteries might last forever if all they do is receive; maybe it’s the seeking and the sending that drains. 

At one point the woman defends herself by saying ‘Austin Tucker thinks so too’ and this time through the line catches in me. I blink the faces of the people I worked with, their real faces, not their virtual ones. A desire shakes into me. I pull out the laptop and discover I’m locked out. I try to sign into my work email on my phone but the account is gone. That’s a good thing, I tell myself. But for a moment I think I hoped someone was still waiting on me. 

The theater has a new sign up. ‘For Lease.’ I draw the blinds. 

For decades people have watched this scene and kept going. They’ve just watched her die and allowed the world to press on. I won’t do that. I watch it and watch it and watch it and now when she cries and screams I cry and scream and when he mocks her I shove him back. I can’t help what’s coming. At some point it will just happen. There will be a moment less than a moment and it’ll be the morgue, no thoughts in between, nothing from no no no no to death. Twenty four frames in a second and all it takes is one frame, then the next. 

I can’t swallow right, even though all I’m swallowing these days is my own saliva. Every time I try it’s like taking down a jawbreaker whole. I gulp and a dense orb presses against my tissue, dragging a dark rainbow down my throat, my chest, my intestines, until it dissolves into my bloodstream. 

I wake up to Lauren banging on my door. Just pounding incessantly. I play it cool, act like nothing when I open it. I guess I didn’t expect how mad she was. 

For a while she paces. For a while she yells. She tells me about her feelings, how she’s scared for me. How my actions have an impact. I don’t know what to say. She doesn’t bring up Mom or Dad, so at least I’m thankful for that. I mostly just sit on the rug and watch her talk. Finally she grabs my hand and drags me out the door for a walk. I slow to a stop every time she lets my hand go, but then she stops letting go and pulls me around the block. She says I have to call out every color I see. Not the object, just the colors. Just identify them out loud, she demands, so I do. I see brown and silver and beige and black and green and red and yellow and I say those words over and over for a long time, until colors are all I think, and all I feel, too. Eventually I start saying other words, and she listens. I tell her about the movie. She’s heard of it. She knows the actress, Paula Prentiss, and that Paula Prentiss starred in a lot of movies with her husband. She always knows odd little things like that. 

When we return to my apartment she asks to watch the scene with me. I tell her she wouldn’t get it. She smacks me for that one. She watches in silence, then rewinds and watches it again. The second time through, she speaks. There’s no music, she comments. This is really sad, she adds. Then she starts crying, right when Paula Prentiss starts crying. Then I am crying too. 

The movie keeps playing. At some point I fall asleep. 

Sunlight glares through the birch trees and Sarah stands before me in a white dress. Lauren beams and asks us to repeat after her. We do. I’m terrified, I whisper to Sarah between our lines. Me too, Sarah says, and she takes my hands.


Peterson Berg lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a novel. His fiction has recently appeared in Maudlin House. Find him @petersonsberg on Twitter. 


image: Jade Hawk is a meat popsicle.