I had an unsettling experience the other morning. It was Wednesday morning, and I was . . . wait. That’s wrong. It couldn’t have been Wednesday. I was at the dentist on Wednesday. No, it definitely wasn’t Wednesday. And it couldn’t have been Friday. I had a nagging headache Friday morning, the result of excessive imbibing with friends the night before. So it had to be Thursday.
Yes, Thursday it was. I was enjoying a pleasant late morning breakfast at my favorite little cafe only a few blocks from home. The name of this understated culinary oasis is Elmer and Fern’s by the way, should you care to look it up. I recommend it. The weather was delightful, exactly as a fall morning should be, so I had walked the six blocks from home. I find that walking to breakfast aids in establishing a happy anticipation of appetite, while walking back home helps to settle and arrange everything in a satisfactory manner.
I was in my usual chair at my customary corner table, taking my time in savoring an exquisite bacon and cheese omelet, with a side order of blueberry pancakes. I accompanied this delicate feast with the cafe’s locally renowned, ground-on-the-premises Bolivian coffee, while casually leafing through the morning paper. I had just swallowed a tasty morsel of pancake, and was reaching for my coffee cup when a pleasant voice addressed me from behind Wednesday night’s baseball scores.
“That omelet does look scrumptious.”
I was startled. I hadn’t noticed anyone approaching the table. I carefully lowered the paper and looked across at . . . no one. The chair was empty. There was no one there. I glanced discretely over my left shoulder, then my right. I was alone. I decided I must have imagined the voice, or perhaps picked up a parcel of conversation spoken overly loudly from nearby. I dismissed the moment, sipped my coffee, inserted a bite of fluffy omelet into my mouth, and returned to the scores.
“Ahhh, that coffee does have a delicious aroma. That wouldn’t by chance be Bolivian dark roast, would it?”
I lowered the newspaper very quickly. There was still no one there. I chewed carefully, looked around to make sure no one was turned in my direction, and leaned to look under the table. My feet sat on the linoleum by themselves. I raised up casually, hopeful that my behavior had not been noticed.
“It’s all right,” the voice said as politely as before. “No one ever sees me, you know.”
I paused before slowly folding my newspaper and laying it down. It occurred to me I was either having a delusion, or something exceedingly strange was occurring. I lifted my coffee cup toward my lips.
“Would you mind wafting a bit more of that aroma over here? I do love the fragrance of a full bodied Bolivian.”
After looking around to make sure no one was watching, I waved my free hand over my coffee, toward the empty chair across from me. I heard a deep intake of air. The voice sighed pleasantly.
“Ahhhh, that is lovely. Thank you.” Keeping my eyes focused on the vacant chair, I took a drink of coffee, then another.
“Pardon my asking,” I said, almost whispering, “but who are you? And why can’t I see you?”
“Oh, I am so sorry,” the voice said. “I should have introduced myself at the beginning. I’m the man who isn’t there.”
My hand stopped halfway back to the saucer. I looked around again. No one was watching, thank goodness.
“Looking for someone? Other than me, I mean?” the voice asked.
“I was making sure no one saw me talking to myself.” I whispered.
“Ahh. No worries on that count. Anyone who notices, will realize in an instant that you’re talking to me.”
“Why, they’ll see you talking into empty space, and realize immediately that you’re talking to a man who isn’t there. And that would be me.” I could hear a smile in the statement. I opened my mouth. No words came out I drained the rest of my cup. One thing was certain. I wasn’t going to get through whatever was happening to me without my hand-ground Bolivian. Agnes the waitress saw my gesture from across the room and hurried over to deliver a smile to me, and a refill of hot coffee to the empty cup, then returned in the direction of other customers.
“Look,” I said, “this is ridiculous. It’s impossible. To begin with, there’s no such thing as the man who isn’t there.” The voice clucked.
“But of course there is. You’ve even referred to me many times yourself.”
“Oh come now. How could I refer to you when I don’t even believe you exist.”
“The same way everyone does, of course.”
“And how, exactly is that?” I asked. It didn’t occur to me that I had actually settled into a conversation with an empty chair.
“By referring to me in the absent tense, of course. Like that time, let me see, you were six, as I recall, and you got a terrible scolding for eating the last two cookies your mother was saving for your father. You protested, and I quote — I have a very good memory you know — “But nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to!” I’m afraid that was me. I wasn’t there to tell you.”
I was mulling a reply to that when the voice coughed politely.
“Excuse me. I hate to be a bother, but could you, you know, while it’s hot?”
“Oh, certainly,” I said, now oblivious to the absurdity of the whole thing. I waved my hand over my fresh coffee in the direction of the voice.
“I hope that’s satisfactory.” Another satisfied sigh was my answer.
“But see here,” I began. “that’s a bit far-fetched, don’t you think? Just because I…”
“And don’t forget that algebra test in ninth grade. You were extremely upset that no one told you there would be one. That was also me, not being there. You got a ‘D’ as I recall. I’m very sorry about that. I was occupied not being somewhere else.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” not realizing I had fallen into a conversation with an invisible somebody who wasn’t even present. ” I wasn’t very good at Algebra, anyway. But I have to tell you, what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. It’s impossible to not be somewhere.”
“Are you sure of that?” The voice became smug.
“Then tell me this. While you sit here, what about all the places you aren’t?” I chewed my omelet more firmly.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well then, consider. Someone could be asking for you right now. In Paris, say, or Lisbon, or just across town. Do you know what the answer would be?”
“Well of course I do. The answer would be I’m not…”I clamped my mouth shut.
“There, you see?”
“Yes, but how does that apply to you? I could say the same, you know. Somewhere someone is asking about you, but you’re not there. And you’re not there, because you’re here?”
“Am I? Here? What do I look like? What color are my eyes? What am I wearing? Can you tell me anything about me, other than my voice? Can you point to me and call out, ‘Look here at this man?’ Go ahead. Try that. It should be fun.”
“Well then, listen here, whoever you are…”
“You can call me Noah, if you want. My friends do.”
“Noah, as in the flood?”
“Oh no. Noah as in no one at home.” I wiped up the coffee that had just jumped out of my cup.
“Well then, Noah, if you’ve been keeping track of me all my life, why didn’t you pitch in and help a little, now and then?”
“Oh, but I did. I’m hurt that you give me no credit.” Indeed, I could hear the disappointment in the voice. “March seventeenth, two thousand and eleven, at nine thirty-seven pm. Have you forgotten?”
I took a drink of coffee while I tried to place the day. I shook my head, setting the cup down. I remembered to waft some aroma across the table.
“No. I’m sorry. I don’t remember.” I heard another deep inhale.
“Thank you. And allow me to refresh your memory.” the voice said. “You were cruising down Fairchild Street that night, and failed to take note of the red light at Misthaven Avenue. You barreled right through the intersection, barely missing a delivery truck, whose driver braked urgently, honked extensively, and offered an obscene gesture as you fled. Yes siree, you owe me big time for that one.”
Now I remembered the event. It had scared me half to death and left me shaking. I had been driving more carefully ever since.
“I don’t know why I should. I don’t see where you helped me at all on that occasion.”
“Oh no?” the voice took on a self-satisfied tone. “What about the policeman you looked around for, and were relieved to see wasn’t there.” My cup froze on its way to my mouth. I wiped up the fresh spill.
“My God. That was you?”
“In the flesh. Well, you know what I mean.”
I nodded. I fed a forkful of now cooling omelet into my mouth while looking around to see if anyone had yet noticed my talking to myself.
“You have to excuse me if I’m a bit taken back by this whole thing.” I said. You must agree it’s most unusual.” The voice took on a smiling tone again.
“Oh, of course. For both of us, in fact. It’s not often that I let someone know I’m not there.”
“Do you mind if I ask some questions?”
“Absolutely not. Question away. But we do need to be brief. There’s someplace I need to not be in a few minutes.” I nodded.
“Very well then. And thank you. The first question, obviously, is back to my previous one. How can I be having a conversation with you if you aren’t here?” I heard a deep breath.
“Ahh, yes. That’s a good one. It’s complicated. To be totally honest, I don’t really have a handle on it myself. I’m sure you’ll understand it’s very difficult to figure something out how something happens when you’re not even there.”
He had me there. His logic was impeccable. I nodded.
“Yes, I do see your point. Well then, have you been following…” the voice clucked at me. I immediately realized my mistake. “…excuse me, not following me around, my whole life?”
“Off and on. You’re not the only one I’m not there for, you know. There are a great many people I don’t keep track of. The job is rather demanding, if I do say so. There really should be twice as many of us if we’re to not be there properly for everyone.”
“There are that many of you? Really?”
“Oh yes. Though as I said, the team really should be bigger. I’m not as young as I once wasn’t, either. I really should be thinking of retiring.”
I nibbled a corner of toast.
“How long have you been around then?” I sipped coffee while he thought that over.
The voice hummed a tuneless melody for several seconds before answering.
“Yes, that’s it, I’m sure of it. The first time I wasn’t there was not telling Caesar about the knives. Nasty business that.”
I gasped, hopefully not so loudly as to attract attention.
“But that would make you over two thousand years old!”
“Actually, we like to say un-old.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I said. “Of course. Makes perfect sense. Still, we’re talking over two thousand years of being, I mean not being, around. That’s impressive.”
“Well, you’re an intelligent man. Surely you understand, not being there tends to be much easier on the body than the reverse.”
I nodded. His logic was irrefutable. We sat — at least I assumed he was sitting — quietly for a minute before. I directed some more Bolivian fragrance his way, then thought of another question.
“Was there ever a time you regretted not being there?” There was another slight pause, then an unhappy sigh.
“I have to admit I’m not proud of being absent and letting Mrs. O’Leary’s poor cow take the blame for the fire.” The voice took on a decidedly sad tone. “And I’ve long wished I could tell everyone what actually happened to Amelia Earhart. Everyone loved her so much. But, you know…” I nodded
“Of course. You weren’t there.” The voice took on a happy tone.
“You’ve got it, now. And I’m afraid the rules are very strict. If I’m not there…”
“Then you can’t tell. I understand completely.”
“Oh, the things I could tell you, otherwise.”
I nodded. As I was mulling my next question, Agnes came by with my check. She seemed perplexed.
“Sir, are you feeling well?” she asked. “You don’t seem quite yourself this morning.” I thought fast and brought up a laugh I hoped would be convincing.
“Oh. You mean…” I used my hand to indicate the empty chair and myself. “Just a little play acting, Agnes. I’m working on a new book, you see, and I’ve been practicing a bit of dialogue for it.”
Agnes was obviously relieved, and her normal smile returned.
“Oh,” she said, “so that’s how you writers do it. I always wondered. You must let me know how it comes along, now. Have a happy day.” With that she turned and headed for another table. I turned back to my conversation.
“Sorry about that. Tell me, has there been a time you were especially happy to not be there?”
I was answered by silence.
“Noah?” Still no response. More than that, now that I was more acutely attuned, I could sense a void, a clear absence. I was alone.
The man who isn’t there, wasn’t there.
I finished eating, paid my bill, and walked home, sipping coffee from a cardboard cup. I walked more thoughtfully and with a slower gait than usual, replaying the whole incident in my head. I stopped once or twice to listen carefully. Had I just heard a soft voice? No. I hadn’t. My new acquaintance was no more there than he had ever been.
I sat down when I got home and wrote out the entire episode, just as you see it here. As the weeks passed, I found myself thinking about the strange meeting—if it could indeed be called that—an inordinate amount of time. I might have convinced myself the encounter had never happened at all, except that every time I visit Elmer and Fern’s now, Agnes asks how my book is coming along. I smile and tell her it’s coming along fine, just fine. And I sit at a table in the farthest corner of the room now. Just in case.
I have reached a point now where I’m comfortable with the whole experience. I try not to over-think it. I have accepted it as one of the exceptional marvels of an amazing universe, more things in heaven and earth and all that. If I occasionally dismay those around me by turning suddenly silent and aloof as I listen to determine if a nearby voice is particularly familiar, that is their concern and not mine.
I did decide that a close friend, having witnessed one of these moments, was correct in suggesting I might benefit from more companionship. I now share my house with a handsome cat, attained at a nearby shelter. He’s what they call a polydactyl, a cat with extra toes, like thumbs, on his front paws. He is black and white, intelligent and affectionate, and almost always agreeable. He likes to curl up on my lap as I read. His name, of course, is Noah.