The Reader

Marcelle Heath

On her first day of her new job a man wearing a kilt and smoking a cigarette showed Isobel Bennett to her cubicle. She briefly fantasized she was being recruited by the C.I.A., but it was probably some sort of not-for-profit. She didn’t care what they did as long as it wasn’t a scam. Isobel’s cubicle was at the end of the row. The man had not stopped to introduce her to any other employees. Isobel caught snippets of other languages being spoken. Her desk had a very nice computer, but during her tenure as a reader Isobel did not turn on her computer once. All her paperwork was on actual paper and handed over at the end of each session to the man in the kilt. 


Most of the work she did was conducted in the conference room adjacent to her desk. She had opened the blinds before her first reading to look at the view of Battery Park, but was told not to do that again. The blinds stayed closed. She wondered what would happen if she opened them again. Would they fire her? She went over possible scenarios where she would tell them she heard a loud explosion and was compelled to investigate or that the artificial light was putting a strain on her eyes. When she was in the conference room, however, the closed blinds didn’t cross her mind. She was too focused on the text she was reading and on her listeners.


One Saturday after she had been at her new job for two weeks, Isobel saw one of her listeners on the subway. The woman was close to Isobel’s age. Isobel remembered the passage that she read and the woman’s startled expression. It was the same with all of the listeners. Please describe listener’s body language during reading, noting any unusual mannerisms and or affectations. Some listeners crossed arms and legs. Some closed their eyes. The woman had listened in much the same way as she was listening to the passenger sitting next to her, leaning forward with her arms tucked between her legs. Isobel tried not to stare at her, and when her stop came up, she exited without looking back. 


* * *


For a moment Joan Ware couldn’t place Isobel. Was she the girl at Dominic’s? The runner on Riverside? Then it hit her. She was the reader. Yes! She was about to get up and say hello (though she wasn’t sure it was allowed) when the woman next to her asked a question.


“I’m sorry?”


“You’re not Ryu, are you?”


“No, I’m sorry to say.”


“I don’t know, I think you might be him. You can tell me the truth.”


“Believe me, a girl as pretty as you, I would tell you the truth.” As soon as the words came out she wanted to take them back. With pretty girls, she couldn’t help herself.


The girl was talking to her about Ryu, who was supposed to meet her, to return her belongings, but hadn’t shown up. Joan wasn’t really listening; she was trying to meet the reader’s eye, but the reader wouldn’t look at her, and at Lexington she got off.


It was Joan’s son, Gian, who told her about being a listener, describing the experience as “life-changing.” A Buddhist, her son had always sought answers to his spiritual questions. Joan was an atheist, but after hearing the reports of two listeners who disappeared after posting about it online, she had to find out what it was about. She had no intention of volunteering, but when she got there, a man led her to a room and before she knew it, a woman came in and started reading. 


Two hours later Joan had stumbled out of the building, disoriented and sweating, into the warm autumn air. The experience, if not “life-changing,” was deeply unsettling.


* * *


At work Isobel was befriended by one of the callers, Didi, muscular and freckled, with white hair and gold-studded lips. Didi had signed up for an experimental drug program the company was incentivizing that was supposed to reverse the signs of aging. Each week she was given injections. “They hurt like a motherfucker!” Didi complained happily, and soon enough Didi was looking younger. The lines around her eyes and mouth disappeared, and her skin was brighter. Even her freckles were more luminous. Employees were required to choose one wellness initiative every six months, emphasizing that optimum health was the best defense against “listener degeneration.” Clearly this didn’t apply to the man in the kilt, who, when he wasn’t holding a mug that had the name of the company, Vade Mecum, printed on it, was smoking a cigarette. To start, Isobel had chosen a diet and supplement regimen, her mind working out the possibilities of starting over. Of starting a new life.


The ones who came before Isobel, according to Didi, were teachers and language experts. Many had shady pasts. “They went in a different direction with you,” Didi said. Not all that different, Isobel thought, her past being what it was. She had made some bad decisions, bad decisions that were partly remedied by her sister, Thaisa. Vade Mecum would give Isobel the security she longed for, and with their wellness initiative, a future she had thought was lost. All she needed to do was be able to read in a clear voice. Did she think she could manage? Yes, Isobel said, of course, remembering bedtimes with Matilda, tucked under her zebra-striped bedspread with Eli, her long hair still damp from her bath, Isobel squinting in the low light, not wanting to retrieve her glasses from the bathroom sink, reading about Africa. (Matilda’s natural stoicism obliterated by the loss of her beloved stuffed elephant, accidentally dropped as they were crossing Flatbush and run asunder by oncoming traffic, a wail so raw Isobel couldn’t identify the sound as coming from her child’s mouth.) Around this time, there were “Last Chance Safaris” advertisements everywhere, and it was all Matilda wanted to talk about. She would point to the tiger in the book and ask if she was dead. “No, honey, she’s right here with her hippo friend. See?” Matilda wasn’t convinced, worrying the trunk of Eli with her small fingers. But then as Isobel continued Matilda’s body would relax against her and she would let out a sigh of contentment. Sometimes, this same phenomenon occurred with one of her listeners, where she or he or they would loosen their limbs, an unfolding of fingers and parting of lips. Sigh. When this happened Isobel’s voice would soften and drop, the words rolling off her tongue slow and easy, the syllables as pliable and sugary as gumdrops. Isobel was forty-four. The future was resurrected. 


* * *


Joan was at her desk when the first attack happened. One minute she was reviewing insurance reports for her job as a forensic accountant, and the next a feeling of such acute dread washed over her she thought she might vomit. Her chest was tight and she couldn’t breathe. She broke out in a cold sweat. She barely made it to the bathroom, unzipping her pants with shaky fingers. Her bowels contracted in shooting spasms that ran the length of her body. Afterward, she was weak and dizzy. In the span of a month, she averaged one or two episodes a week, with no apparent precipitating stressors to set them off. She dreaded waking up in the morning, for fear that she would have an attack that day, and by the end of the day she was exhausted from the stress of anticipating one. 


At night, Joan drifted in a twilight state, where long forgotten memories resurfaced, camping trips with Elena and Gian at Acadia National Park, trading off carrying Gian on one of their hikes, always leaving behind something they needed for him. They marveled at all of their baby gear. In their sleeping bag, Gian by their heads, the sounds of merrymaking campers and the incoming surf all around them as they had hilariously slow and goofy sex. There was a moment afterward as they dozed rather than slept, when Joan’s heart felt so full she thought it might explode. Her life. Elena left her shortly after Gian’s third birthday. Another woman, but it didn’t last. The past, once conjured, could not be expunged, and Joan found herself seeing the early loves of her youth in the faces of young girls she passed on the streets. There was the girl in the bodega, dressed for a night out in platform shoes and a diaphanous smock. Her best friend’s older sister’s doppelganger and unrequited love. Once Joan approached a dead ringer for a high school girlfriend, as she was waiting in line for tacos outside her office building. “What looks good?” she asked. Up close, her eyes were milky green, her lashes tinted purple. The woman ignored her. And in fact, the crazy girl on the subway rebuffed her when she asked for her number. “You’re not Ryu!” she said. True enough. 


After a date in Little Italy, Joan came home depressed. She hadn’t even wanted to seduce her dinner companion, a smart and beautiful art historian. Joan felt wrong, no other way to put it, like some internal switch had been turned off. Her joints were stiff and creaky, her muscles throbbed and ached. Weights, running, yoga. Nothing helped. She called Elena to ask her if she remembered their trip to Acadia, to ask her if she could meet for drinks or come by her place. Was she free now? Elena gave Joan her therapist’s name. Joan began to suspect that seeing the reader on the subway had been no accident. She pressed Gian about it. Had he seen her? Gian said no, but told her something more worrisome. Gian had seen a man in a kilt a couple of times. 


* * *


Spring came in the guise of a heat wave in April. The weekends were spent at her sister Thaisa’s place in Pound Ridge. The supplements Isobel was taking gave her more energy than she’d ever known, and she spent much of her time running through the bucolic landscape or swimming in the pool. After work, she filled out questionnaires at sperm banks, entering education and genetic criteria. Over and over she entered desired physical attributes. Matilda’s hair, Matilda’s eyes, Matilda’s skin. The heat wave broke some weeks later. The deluge that followed was cathartic, her heart spilling out with the rats and sewage. People wading through knee-deep waste, power outages across the city, subway closures. Fifteen days later it was over. She went to the Promenade on a no-sky day. No color, no clouds, no horizon, nothing. Cool and humid. Slurry water lapping the embankment. 


Didi approached Isobel at her desk the following week with bad news. She had heard that management wasn’t happy with Isobel and were considering “taking the company in a new direction.” Different direction to new direction. Didi, Isobel couldn’t help but notice, looked ten years younger, more. Plump, full cheeks, bright, open eyes. Fresh faced. Whatever they were shooting into her was working. Didi’s energy too, was upbeat, buoyant. “Concerned that she wasn’t a good fit” and “performing below expectation” sounded downright sprightly. Isobel asked if there was anything she could do. She needed her job for a donor. And she was good at it. Isobel saw it in her listeners’ faces, in their attention and curiosity, their wonder and fear. She felt it in her body, in her energy and strength. The program was working. 




Joan lived on the Upper East Side, whose halcyon days were long behind it. It had been Joan’s parents’ apartment before they moved upstate to retire. When Gian was younger Elena would get on her case about moving to a better neighborhood; now Gian was old enough to take care of himself. Elena would not approve of Gian volunteering as a listener, especially with the latest news that one had walked into the New York Public Library and set himself on fire. When Joan asked Gian about seeing the man in the kilt, Gian said he couldn’t be sure it was the same man. 


“Did he have a beard?” Joan asked. 


“Yes,” Gian said. “Or maybe it was a mustache.” 


“Was he following you?” 


“I think he was just there.”


“Was he smoking?”


“Ummm. I don’t remember. No, I think.”


“What about the guy you saw at the pizza place? Was he the same guy?”


“I don’t know. All I noticed was the kilt. I didn’t get a good look at him.”


“Why’d you say it was the same guy?”


“I didn’t. You did. I said I saw some guy in a kilt.”


“Gian, this is important. Think. Was it him or not?”


“The one in line, that one was too short I think. But the guy across the street could be him. I don’t know.” 


* * *


Isobel started her day with an elderly listener from Juneau. 


“I bet you’ve never been to Alaska,” he said.


“That’s right,” she said.


“Most people haven’t.”


“I suppose that’s true.”


“People think it’s wild country out there but it’s not. It’s boring as tapioca.”


“Is that so?”


“That’s why I came here, so I wouldn’t blow my head off.” Isobel laughed uneasily and asked if they should begin. The man nodded. After a few minutes he interrupted her.


“Listen lady, you’ve got to put some punch in it if I’m going to get my money’s worth.” Isobel reminded him that he was a volunteer, but that she’d try to be clearer. When she was done, she asked him how he felt.


“That’s a funny question. I don’t feel one hundred percent, if that’s what you mean.”


“Do you need a doctor?” Isobel asked. “We have one on the premises. Some people feel faint afterward.” The man told her no, he didn’t feel faint. He just needed to go to the bathroom. Isobel showed him where it was. She had four more listeners and took a late lunch. When Isobel came back she was surprised to discover her first listener sitting with the man in the kilt and Didi in one of the offices. They were at a table examining papers. As she passed, Didi got up, her gold-studded lips and freckles glowing under the fluorescent light, and shut the door.


* * *


Elena came to the door to pick up Gian. Was there anything going on with him that she should know about? Elena asked. Joan said she didn’t think so. Elena was wearing one of Joan’s old Binghamton t-shirts, the collar ripped to expose one shoulder, cut off jeans, and Birkenstocks that Joan remembered from twenty years ago. She was as beautiful as the first time Joan spotted her on the roof of a house party in TriBeCa. 


“He’s not eating,” Elena said. “We wake up at two, three in the morning and hear him in his room.”


“We?” The we  was Elena and Paige, Elena’s long-term girlfriend. Elena gave her a dark look. “Something’s bothering him but he won’t talk about it.”


After they had gone, Joan wondered if there really was something going on. She had heard him talking to someone late at night, and there was something in his tone that made her think it wasn’t a friend he was on the line with. She didn’t know what that something was in his voice – some catch or hesitation – until now. What Joan had heard, or thought she heard, was fear.  


* * *


Isobel noticed a change in Didi after the day with the listener from Juneau. She wasn’t unfriendly, but she wasn’t her usual affable self either, and no longer came over to Isobel’s desk to say hello. After Didi declined Isobel’s invitation to lunch one Friday, Isobel spotted her with two of the phone operators, sitting outside of the Greek diner, their sleeves rolled up and faces upturned toward the sun. Isobel stayed late, hoping they would notice her effort. Her last reading was a teenage girl who sat with her legs crossed and her palms out, as if in prayer. When Isobel got home, her neighbor was having some sort of party. People milled about, drinking out of plastic cups. There was music. It was a song from long ago, a song about New York, about ball players and good girls gone bad. Isobel felt like she could run for miles and channeled her energy into scrubbing every inch of her apartment, rearranging dishes and clothes and furniture, and masturbating. She fantasized about an old girlfriend, Laura. Laura fucking her from behind, refusing to let her come. Hours later Isobel was finally spent, but the party had gotten bigger and louder. The bass line was thumping, and there was laughter, and some yelling too, and dogs barking. She heard children. She took her supplements and listened to the party from bed, sometimes making out bits and pieces of a conversation before she realized she was falling asleep, and Matilda and her elderly listener from Juneau were reading to her. She kept asking them to slow down so that she could hear them but they wouldn’t. Isobel woke up thinking she was at Thaisa’s, and it took her a moment to realize she was at home in Boerum Hill, in her bed, alone. For years, every time Isobel woke up she would go into her daughter’s room to check on her. She stayed in bed. At Isobel’s check-in on Monday, the nurse informed her that she was at her target weight, and her blood pressure was excellent. She made an appointment at a fertility clinic that day.


* * *


Joan’s symptoms were like the metal balls ricocheting off their targets in one of those old pinball machines Gian played with his friends. One day it was numbness in her hands and feet, another it was purple splotches across her chest, another it was tender, bleeding gums. Most days were spent taking inventory of her body’s failings. Get up, appraise weird bruises on her forearm, shower, try in vain to finish bowl of cereal, try in vain to move bowels, dress, leave apartment, see spots form in front of eyes, order coffee at the diner, toss coffee after two bitter sips, board train, grip handrail after wave of nausea hits, exit train, feel relief when eye spots disappear, climb stairs slowly, ignore jeers and shoves, sweat, exit station, arrive at office forty-minutes late (again), still sweating. The best part of Joan’s day was sitting down at her desk, before deciding to put off responding to another client’s tirade. Once that decision was made, the rest of her day was done for. Trips to the bathroom for consumption of pain pills (worthless), painful bowel movement, and paper towels for surprise appearance of period. Text Gian to bring tampons, specifying size and brand, walk into meeting in progress (shuffling legs close together to keep towels in place), apologize, fight off closing eyes, dodge question about unfinished forgery evidence, leave meeting, feel current of blood flow, rush to bathroom for more paper towels, clean off pants (grateful that they are black), read text from Gian, check mirror, meet Gian in lobby. Before Joan could thank him, Gian told her to look over at the coffee cart.


“There he is,” Gian said. “By the window.” Sure enough, there was the man in the kilt, sitting at one of the tables. The man was looking down at his phone.


“Did he follow you here?” Joan felt another rush of blood. 


“No, I don’t think so. He was here when I came in. But that’s him isn’t it?” 


“Here, take a cab to your mom’s. Don’t say anything to her, okay? I’ll take care of this.” Joan gave her son cash and watched him hail a cab. The man did not move. She weighed her options, and ran to the bathroom. When she came out, the man in the kilt was gone. 


* * *


Isobel, knowing her sister, did not tell her where she worked, saying vaguely that she was freelancing, but one afternoon at Thaisa’s it slipped out.


“Wait, Vade Mecum?” Thaisa asked. “Isobel. These are not people you want to be involved with, believe me. Quit. Get out. How the hell did you get mixed up with them?” She had been temping at a law firm when Vade Mecum first contacted her. After Matilda died from an undiagnosed illness three months shy of her fifth birthday, what little footing Isobel had in the world fell away. It took this long for Isobel to just get by. 


“It’s not true what they say,” Isobel said, getting in the pool, but on the train to Pound Ridge she had spotted an obit for the elderly listener, who had been a prominent businessman in the pharmaceutical industry. Isobel studied the picture of a man at least twenty years younger, but the resemblance was unmistakable. He had fallen off the subway platform. Despite several witnesses (speaking on the condition of anonymity) alleging that he was seen trying to wrest himself from two men moments before, investigators were ruling his death as a suicide. There was also the report about the disappearance of Norman Pope. Three months ago Norman Pope had volunteered as a listener and was last seen at the doctor’s office where he was undergoing treatment for Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.


Isobel tried not to think about it, and instead calculated how many laps she could do. 


* * *


When Joan told the receptionist that she wanted a second reading at Vade Mecum, the man informed her that it wasn’t possible.


“I’m here to volunteer my time and you’re saying it’s against company policy?” 


“I’m sorry, Ma’am. Why don’t you leave your name and number for the manager.” 


“I know about what you do,” Joan said. The spots in her eyes were back, making the receptionist hard to see. “That’s right. I know about Norman Pope.” She dropped her voice when she said the name of the most recent disappearance connected to Vade Mecum. 


“Can I help you?” It was the man in the kilt. Today he was wearing a Vade Mecum t-shirt with his – jeans. No kilt. The man looked like a man posing as a man who wears jeans. Joan wasn’t buying it for one second. 


“Yes you can. What’s your name? Bill is it? Bobby? I know you. I’ve seen you. What are you doing following us? Huh? What do you want? I know people. I’ve got friends. Cops. See?” Joan’s stomach somersaulted and then, ludicrously, she farted, filling up the hall with noxious gas.


“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he told her, wincing from the smell.


“I want to speak to your reader. What’s her name? Where is she?” The man impersonating a man who wore jeans and not a kilt said something to the receptionist, who nodded and started typing. In less than a minute Joan was flanked by two security guards and in less than two she was out the door.


* * *


On Monday, the man who usually wore a kilt  but today sported jeans handed Isobel a sheet of paper. She read the note. She read it again. No, she thought. It couldn’t be. Didi bounced up to her, her white hair now a warm honey blonde, thick and luxurious, bouncing right along with her, to tell her that she was sorry.


“But I’ve met my target HDL,” Isobel said. “I’m in the best shape of my life!” Didi gave her a sympathetic smile. Years of experience had taught Isobel not to personalize her cubicle, but now she wished she had something to take with her. She unplugged the computer that she hadn’t used and wrapped her jacket around it. She had half a bottle of supplements at home. Her fertility appointment was tomorrow. At the elevator, the woman from the subway, her listener, stepped out. “It’s you!” she said, grabbing her arm. 


“This way,” Isobel told her. Her future was here. 


“Hey!” It was the man in jeans. “What do you think you’re doing?”


“Hurry!” Isobel ran down the hall with the woman, trailed by the man in jeans and the receptionist. They got to the conference room where she locked the door. There were muffled voices, feet sprinting to and fro.


“I’m Joan,” the woman said, panting heavily. She vomited into the waste bin. Someone banged on the door.


“Isobel,” Isobel said, handing her a box of tissues. She remembered something. She stood up, opened the blinds, and sat back down. There was more banging, harder and louder, against the walls and the door.


“Are you ready?” she asked, opening her script. Joan wiped her mouth and brow, nodding.


“Good,” Isobel said. “Let’s begin.”

Marcelle Heath’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, matchbook, Nanoism, Necessary Fiction, NOÖ, PANK, Pear Noir!, Portland Review, Snake Nation Review, Storychord, Wigleaf, and other journals. She is Series Editor for Wigleaf Top 50, and Managing Editor of VIDA Review.