Chapter 1: Suit Guy
About once a week, Roy would go to a place called Sal's Deli for lunch. It got a little crowded in there, but that's only because the food was delicious, the portions were generous, and the price was right. On one occasion he was waiting to order his usual, and he couldn't help but get irritated by a guy in an expensive suit who was one spot ahead of him in line. The guy kept looking at his Rolex and mumbling profanities under his breath.
"Can I help you, sir?" the girl behind the counter asked the man in the suit.
"Large Reuben on rye, extra sauerkraut, extra dressing, and I have a meeting in fifteen minutes," Suit Guy said. One middle-class minute of time must have seemed like a geological epoch to this guy in the upper echelon of the tax bracket because he sighed and checked his Rolex about a dozen more times before the girl could make the sandwich, wrap it in paper, take his money, and count the change.
Of course, Suit Guy didn't feel like trifling with tarnished coins and wilted dollars. He left the girl standing there awkwardly with four dollars and twenty-five cents as he rushed out the door holding the Reuben under his arm like a football. Then it was Roy's turn to order.
"The usual?" the girl asked him with a smile.
"Yep," Roy said and smiled back.
While the girl was assembling a ham and turkey with Swiss on wheat, Suit Guy burst through the door and pushed his way to the front of the line. He was yelling, but the words were distorted by a cartoon-sized portion of Reuben that he had somehow crammed into his mouth.
"Tell me where da hell is my God damn pick-el!" Suit Guy screamed through the mountain of corned beef and the savannah of sauerkraut.
"I'm sorry, sir. I'll get it right now," the girl said, visibly shaken. She handed over the pickle, neatly wrapped in paper.
It looked like another tirade was about to spray out of Suit Guy's mouth, but then it just kind of stalled. The silence gave way to gagging, and the Suit dropped the rest of his Reuben and his newly acquired pickle. A murmur rose from the patrons who were standing in line as they began to assess how involved they needed to become in this developing situation.
"Oh, my. Do you think he's having a heart attack?" one lady whispered to the man behind her.
"I don't know. It's possible," he informed her.
"Should we call an ambulance, do you think?" a man asked nobody in particular.
"What's the address here?" another man asked back.
"Sir, are you having a heart attack?" A middle-aged woman asked Suit Guy.
Suit Guy held up an index finger as if to assure everybody this was a temporary thing, and he just needed a moment to compose himself. While he stood there with the reassuring index finger extended and about a half pound of corned beef hanging out of his mouth in some horrible limbo, his head turned lobster red and swelled noticeably. Then it turned even redder -- boiled lobster red. That's when he decided to change the reassuring "index finger" sign to the universal "I'm choking" sign.
"Oh Jesus, I think he's choking to death," some lady diagnosed.
"Does anybody know C.P.R?" a man queried.
"No, he needs the Heimlich maneuver," another woman said.
"Well, you know what I mean. Does anybody know it?"
"I took a class at the Y years ago," an old man said as he stepped forward.
"Give him room," somebody shouted.
The old man rolled up his sleeves and managed to lock his hands in front of Suit Guy's considerable belly, but his tyrannosaurus arms couldn't generate enough compression to dislodge the obstruction. Sensing how desperate the situation had become, the old man began to work more frantically. It looked like a bizarre mating ritual you would see on one of those animal documentary shows, and you could almost hear Morgan Freeman narrating the action.
But it wasn't one of those animal documentary shows narrated by Morgan Freeman. It was Sal's Deli, and Suit Guy had turned an ominous shade of eggplant. Meanwhile, the old timer had lost most of his steam, and could only manage to hang on to the business man's love handles while he gasped to catch his breath. Then, Suit Guy looked at Roy, and Roy saw that his eyes were all pupils, and his pupils seemed to say, "Well, I guess this is it. Can you believe it? A fucking Reuben sandwich ... " Then he lost consciousness and toppled backward onto the old man.
Suit Guy was long gone by the time the paramedics arrived, but at least the old man survived the ordeal, though he suffered a broken hip for his trouble. Jesus, what a world, Roy thought to himself.
Roy was having a lot of trouble falling asleep the night of Suit Guy's death. The fact is, he was never a sound sleeper, and sometimes he'd end up in this weird half-sleep state where he was aware of the room around him; he could hear sounds like a dripping faucet, for instance, but he couldn't move his body. He would be completely paralyzed. Sometimes this paralysis lasted a few seconds, sometimes for a few minutes.
Roy did some research, and it turned out this type of paralysis is a defense behavior triggered by the brain to protect people during dreams. Without this induced paralysis, people would end up throwing grapefruits through their living room window every time they dreamed about striking out the side to win the World Series. Scientists have determined that this paralysis mechanism must go through a chemical and neurological shutdown process, and light sleepers have a tendency to wake before the process is complete. They have also correlated abrupt waking and night paralysis to elevated stress levels.
As far as Roy could tell, this phenomenon was pretty rare, but definitely something that had been observed and documented enough to have credibility in the scientific community. It also very neatly explained his own situation. Roy was a light sleeper with a lot of stress brought on by a grueling college workload. As a double major in Philosophy and Mathematics, Roy was constantly running on fumes. And the party-oriented students who resided in his dormitory often interrupted what little shuteye he was able to steal between his 9:00 P.M. lecture on The Rationalists of the 17th Century, and his 7:00 A.M. Analytic Geometry class.
There was another troubling symptom that would haunt Roy at night. On some occasions, perhaps one-third of the time, he would experience a feeling of weightlessness that accompanied the paralysis. This weightless feeling would start in his limbs and work inward to his stomach and chest. Sometimes the sensation would get into his head, and when that happened, Roy would feel as if he were floating out of his body. To counteract this, he would think "heavy thoughts." As ridiculous as it sounds, Roy would imagine he was made of very dense materials, like lead or concrete, and only then would he feel himself sink back down into his body.
There was a lot of literature written on the subject of out of body experiences, but Roy ignored all the paranormal and occult sources, instead focusing on medical and scientific journals. One popular theory proposed that the brain, in conjunction with naturally occurring endorphins, is capable of generating the floating hallucination associated with out of body experiences (O.B.E.'s). The result is an ultra-realistic "trip" in which the subject genuinely believes his or her own consciousness is projected beyond their physical body.
During his research, Roy found numerous articles that detailed the accounts of people who had survived near-death experiences. These survivors described the sensation of floating away from their bodies, and the ability to observe surroundings from their elevated positions as they traveled freely through space. Many survivors reported looking down at their own bodies while firefighters cut them out of wrecked cars and paramedics performed C.P.R. on their motionless bodies.
Quite a few psychologists agree this must be a hallucination triggered by the brain to cope with the severe trauma of a bad car crash, or some such catastrophic accident. They theorize that a severely injured person somehow switches perspective from first-person to third-person to distance him- or herself from the immediate terror of the situation. Less terror equates to a more moderate heart rate, which means less blood would be pumped out of any gaping wounds. In other words, it's the brain's way of tricking the body into calming down in order to preserve every ounce of blood, and every breath of air.
But why does the phenomenon sometimes occur in perfectly healthy people who are simply resting in bed? It was a question that Roy found quite troubling. One theory that addresses that question goes back to the paralysis mechanism. The theory states that if a subject were to awake in a paralyzed state, extreme panic might set in. To counteract this feeling of helplessness and claustrophobia, the brain triggers the floating hallucination to "trick" the subject into feeling liberated from the paralyzed state.
To Roy, that theory seemed like a bit of a stretch. He figured as long as the scientists and the shrinks were allowed to take liberties and make assumptions, he would go ahead and devise his own theory regarding out of body experiences. He theorized that many humans possess an innate desire to fly, and since people haven't evolved with wings, the brain must conjure up this whole O.B.E. hallucination to fulfill that desire.
Admittedly, the theory could use a little polishing, and about a million dollars in grant money to perform an array of experiments. If a philanthropist had earmarked a tidy sum for conducting research on O.B.E.s, Roy would have made an ideal subject. The night following the incident at Sal's Deli would have been an especially insightful time to have Roy's brain hooked up to an EEG.
That's because Roy once again found himself abruptly waken from a dream when Emo Guy from down the hall smashed a beer bottle in the study lounge because nobody understood his poetry. Roy discovered he was in that all too familiar state of paralysis, and he waited patiently to be released from the tomb of stillness.
Then the weightless feeling began to filter through his hands and feet, climbing his arms and his legs, continuing to fill his abdomen and chest. The feeling surged into his head, and the moorings that tethered him to his own body, to this reality, suddenly snapped. He thought heavy thoughts, he thought about lead, and concrete, and ponderous boulders, but he had already gained too much momentum. It was as if something above were beckoning him, pulling him higher and higher.
Roy could see the details on the textured ceiling with increasing resolution as he ascended, and he moved through it as if it were only vapor. He came up through a pink throw rug that belonged to his upstairs neighbors. They were two cute girls who were getting dolled up like tarts, probably so they could flirt their way past the bouncers at the 21 and over clubs and score free drinks from dimwitted guys. The girls didn't seem to notice Roy even though he passed right in front of their faces, and he thought to himself, "What else is new?"
He continued rising until he came up through the asphalt roof of the dormitory, and there was the sustained sound of rushing water, except he couldn't see any water. He discovered he could control his motion and speed just by thinking. It was easier than driving a car. Roy climbed high into the clear night sky, then stopped instantaneously, and accelerated upwards again at an astonishing rate. It was as if somebody had turned off inertia and gravity. For the first time, he understood freedom in its purest form.
Sounds emanated from the pinpoints of starlight and resonated softly in the inkiness, like when you trace the rim of a wine glass over and over again with your finger until it starts to hum. Roy became very still in the sky, then, and listened to the stars. He found he could focus on just one at a time, or listen to them all at once. There was one star, in particular, that was very hard to hear, and it produced only the tiniest fleck of light. It was the ghost of a sun that had died long before a single dinosaur ever walked on our planet -- just a whisper passing through space and time. He wasn't sure how he could understand such a thing, but he knew it was true, and a vast sorrow cut through him.
It's hard to say how much time had passed, but at some point, Roy saw another entity in the sky with him. It didn't have a human form, but he knew it was human, or at least it had emanated from a human not long ago. Physically, it appeared to be a kind of luminous fog that roughly maintained a spherical shape. It approached Roy, and no words or gestures were exchanged, as their disembodied forms would not allow for such human conventions. A telepathic dialogue arced between them.
"I guess I deserved that. But a fuckin' Reuben sandwich? Can you believe it?" Suit Guy said without saying.
"It's pretty crazy, I guess." Roy answered without words.
"I am dead, right?" Suit Guy said.
"I think so."
"I must be dead. Where do I go now?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know where to go. It's been like this for hours. I don't know what to do. Help me!" Suit Guy said.
"I don't know how to help you. I'm sorry."
"Can anyone help me?" Suit Guy called out with a powerful telepathic burst of energy. "Can anyone hear me? I don't know what to do."
It was maddening to hear the pleas go unanswered. Despair pulsed from the being like a pressure wave. As the wave moved through Roy, he felt it resonate at a slow, tormenting frequency that woke some ancient fear in him. Finally, mercifully, the luminous fog that was the thinking, feeling part of Suit Guy dissipated into nothingness. Roy feared he might blink out of existence too, and he wondered if he had just glimpsed into Hell.
The moon looked at Roy, and it beckoned him closer with its unseeing eyes. He somehow understood the moon wanted him to see its dark side, but Roy was terribly afraid. He had read somewhere that the astronauts who had been to its dark side had seen something they didn't like to talk about, except for the fact that it had changed their lives in some scary and profound way. He wondered what it was that could have scared those great American heroes -- those intelligent, highly trained test pilots who weren't afraid to leave Mother Earth on a fireball, and return in little more than a tin can and a parachute. He wanted desperately to be back in his cramped dorm room, in his own bunk, in his own body.
Roy began to think "heavy" thoughts. He imagined himself dropping a huge steel anchor that was attached to his waist by a 500-foot shot of four-inch galvanized chain. Suddenly, inertia and gravity were stoked back to life, and he began a rapid descent. The moon fell away from him, the beautiful sounds from the stars stretched into eerie, guttural tones, and he dropped through the asphalt roof of his dormitory, through his upstairs neighbors' pink throw rug, back into his bed, back into himself.
Roy wiggled his fingers and toes. He moved his arms and legs, turned his head to the left and to the right. Everything checked out. He got up, took a piss, and laid back down, but sleep was far away. The clock said 11:42 P.M.
He sighed, got up again, dressed in jeans and a flannel, and went outside. The stars and the moon were all quiet. He decided to walk to a little bar on the edge of town called Scuddy's. It wasn't a place students frequented -- it was more of a beer and a shot joint that attracted a tougher crowd. There were usually a lot of ironworkers and bikers who didn't take kindly to little college punks.
Be that as it may, Roy had a buddy named Lucas who tended bar there on Tuesday nights. He always served Roy even though he was only eighteen. It just so happened to be a Tuesday, and it just so happened that Roy needed a drink. If somebody started anything, he'd have to knuckle up and deal with it. Simple as that.
It seemed incredibly inefficient to have to walk across town and wait for traffic signals to change after what he experienced only minutes before. Roy had to remind himself it had only been a hallucination -- the medical journals were clear on that. Then, he looked up at the sky and froze in the middle of the crosswalk. It seemed as if the moon had winked at him.
"It's just atmospheric interference," he assured himself. "Just an optical illusion." He resumed the long walk across town and wondered if maybe the stress from having a double major might be chipping away at his sanity.
To be continued...