On a long bus ride one afternoon, I attempted to read a book. Life is nothing without books. In books I had found characters realer to me than those whom I knew in reality, ethical principles and philosophies with which I made sense of the chaos and violence around me. However, there were several papers whose deadlines impended, I had to unclog the shower drain, and I suffered a mild cold. Normally I took my pains in stride, but that day a strange, even inexplicable anguish pained me. I felt the complete bus ride would be unbearable. My anxieties didn’t allow me to focus on the book for more than a sentence or two at once, and even these I was too distracted to understand, rereading them ad nauseam but absorbing nothing. Thrashing to escape my life as I would a vise, there was a risk I might just get off the bus at an unfamiliar part of town, a dissociative ghost as in my teenage days. Who knows what might have happened.
Beside me sat a rather corpulent man. My anxiety was so noticeable he offered me consolation. Or maybe he’d noticed I had been intermittently staring at him, or more specifically the sloped profile of his face.
“Yeah, I’ve been pretty stressed out,” I said. He seemed quite friendly, though my nervousness around strangers left my voice quivering.
“Whatever’s worrying you,” responded the man, “remember there’s always worse. Life is a struggle. And you and I, we have it easier than most, but we still face plenty of adversity. The world is full of adversities, too damn full of them. It could stand to lose a few, if you ask me.
“Right now, let me tell you, I own a business. Ever been to that bagel shop on University near the Conscious Carnivore? That’s mine. These bagels, they’re the best you can get, it’s a family recipe, and so are the cream cheeses and the mustards and pastrami we have. These aren’t garden-variety cream cheeses and mustards and pastramis. No, these are special. I always knew these recipes, which my mom taught me, that family continuity kind of shit is my guarantee, I knew they were damn great recipes, people would love them, they’d buy lots of bagel sandwiches with these damn great cream cheeses and mustards and pastramis. Mom’d be honored to know people were buying sandwiches with her own honest-to-God cream cheeses and whatever the hell else. She would love that. But even so, raising the money to buy that place was hard. I had to work this job, then another, all while these cream cheeses and pastramis were flying around in my thoughts all the time. One adversity after another. The jobs were harder with that thought-pastrami in my eyes. And the paperwork, my God, that was terrible. But I did it. And Mom also gave me a twenty-thousand dollar loan, that helped.
“We opened for business, we did well, off to a shaky start, sure, but we did well, though it was a damned pain managing some of those bratty kids who worked there, the bastards. Some bastards are so entitled, never had to work a day in their lives, but even they have adversities. You see, I gave them some. About a month after we opened, though, the world wasn’t satisfied without giving me another trouble. Tuesday, it was on a Tuesday. The phone rang, I picked it up, ‘Hello,’ and the guy on the other end says, ‘Hey, old man. Go to hell.’ Then he hanged up. I wasn’t even that old.
“I didn’t think much of it, I probably would have forgotten this, another instance of this crazy world hitting a decent fellow with adversity, except he called back next Tuesday, about the same time. This time the guy said, ‘Fuck you, old man. I hate your guts.’ I couldn’t believe it. Now I remembered his voice from the week before, and I shouted at him, ‘Who are you, what the hell are you doing, calling me like this?’ But then he hanged up and that was that. I thought he was some prank caller, living only to mix more adversity into my life, so I should just ignore him. But if someone calls your restaurant, you have to answer, that’s part of how you manage a restaurant, it might be some parasite ordering a sandwich for pick up or asking if you have a vegan option. Vegans aren’t better than your or me, you know. In any case, I could handle this.
“Business was doing good after I got this neon sign so you could see a picture of some bagels in the window when it was dark out. That picture, people liked it, they like visual aids. The bagel sandwich in that picture told them, ‘Hey, we’re a serious quality place, we know bagels.’ This sign was my girlfriend’s idea. Larissa, God damn her. That was a few weeks after that first call, but every week, that man called the restaurant again and asked to speak to me and said, ‘Rot in hell, you old louse,’ or sometimes, ‘I fucking hate you,’ but always that kind of thing, pardon my French. It always gave me a moment of doubt. I felt uncomfortable. Could be my restaurant would fail. My thing with Larissa might not work out. Doubts everywhere, like the mustards everywhere. Then there was some new bastard in the kitchen, and I had to show him the spices for the hot mustard, and I’d forget the call what with all the sweat and such, just forget it, no time for that ‘self-conscious’ kind of shit. That week, however, when things were finally going so well, he called and said, ‘You worm, I hate your guts.‘ So what? I wouldn’t even think to mention that level of adversity to Larissa. But then he added, ‘And I’m thinking I might rip them out. Watch your back, old man.’
“This was no longer only harassment, you see. That man had made a threat on my life. We contacted the cops, and eventually the cops agreed to have somebody trace the call when it came next Tuesday. In the meantime, we were on our own! Luckily, nobody tried ripping my guts out before the following Tuesday. Thank God. So Tuesday came around, and sure enough, my man called. He cussed me out for a few minutes, and the cops figured out this crotchety bastard was calling from a pay phone at a gas station on West Washington, so we high-tail our asses over there, but the caller was long gone. Apparently, some detective at the police department was feeling pretty bored, because he decided he would find this jerk who kept calling me. This detective was named Hunt, always wore this ugly, grubby cap, no dignity at all, a literal asshat, as they say. So next Tuesday Hunt had some guys do a stakeout at the gas station, and they were waiting for the man to dial the payphone, but nobody showed up. Instead, my man called me from some other pay phone! Can you believe how clever this punk was? At about that time I decided to write down what this jerk said each week, up to now with what I’ve been telling you I’ve been kind of guessing I admit, and that week he said, ‘You stupid motherfucker, I hope you die. Fuck you, you goddamn asshole.’ I tell you, that’s exactly what he said. This one is dear to my heart, a keepsake, nostalgic, the first one I wrote down.
“So the police kept trying to catch this bastard, but he kept using different pay phones. Always a step ahead, like Jack the Ripper. This punk was nothing but adversity, I tell you, he lived only to adversify me every Tuesday. Sometimes he was more creative. Like one of his calls was a haiku, a kid who worked for me was looking at my record of the calls and pointed out this one was a haiku. Larissa thought that was stupid. Also, only once, but one time, the call was a sonnet, like the kinds Shakespeare wrote, rhyming ‘fuck you’ with ‘eat a shoe,’ so he was quite the sophisticated bastard, I tell you. But even that didn’t impress Larissa. That bitch had no appreciation for class. In any case, as you can see, picking up the phone every Tuesday was always worth it, only rarely did he not have something new up his sleeve.
“After a year of this, we had new phone line installed so that this guy would call the old number and we could at least always know not to answer the old line on Tuesday. Larissa hated this jerk, you see. Made her feel threatened, but anyway this plan didn’t work. He just began calling the new line every Tuesday, he wasn’t just dialing the same number every time. Sophisticated bastard. To be honest, I was kind of relieved, kind of glad. Life needs adversity, and I had other adversity, adversity everywhere, like pain in the ass cable bills, or how I did nothing but make bagels, day in day out, except for like filing taxes, but I actually started looking forward to these calls every Tuesday, it was like a TV series, you know, what would he say next? Larissa hated it, though, she said we should move, that bitch had no sense of class. She was adversity enough, too, and with all the rest of them, so then I said, ‘That’s enough, I’m fed up with you, go eat somebody else’s pastrami and mustard,’ and we were through, thank God.
“My business did pretty well, it suffered during that economic slump a couple years ago, but that guy kept calling. It gave me a milestone each week, thank God, like an anchor point, kept me going when it looked like I might have to close the restaurant and Mom was right about me. Larissa’s complaining wasn’t there for me every week, you see, and the other thing that happened was Hunt would occasionally tell me the progress of the investigation, which was nada, zilch, but it was still something to look forward to I got thanks to this jerk on the phone. Shit, on by birthday, the jerk said, ‘Rot in hell, you old bastard. Also, happy birthday. I hope you choke on a piece of cake and die.’ Wasn’t that nice of him? He was one of only a couple people who remembered my birthday, that made my day in those uncertain times, not that any time is certain, the world is so damn full of adversity. We’re doing well enough nowadays. But he still wishes me happy birthday, he even took the time to learn I’m Jewish so he could wish me a happy Hanukkah every year, or hope I enjoy Passover, you know. But nowadays I can get by without it. Sure, he still tells me he’ll slice off my tongue and cusses me out, but then he’s nice enough to add, ‘And have a good Hanukkah this year, you worm.’ This world is full of adversity, that’s true, but there’s always more to a bastard than you think.
“It was, yeah, that must have already been eight years ago that jerk began calling every Tuesday. Damn. Like six years ago, Hunt basically gave up catching this guy, this guy was always was one step ahead of them, when they tried to have stakeouts at every pay phone in the city, he just called from some hotel lobby. They never found a pattern to where he’d call from. The police said, ‘Your life’s not in danger, since after all these years that jerk never actually did anything, no matter what he says.’ All he did was adversify the hell out of everything.”
“So why did he threaten you?”
“If the caller wouldn’t hurt you, why did he—”
“Experimentation. Every artist experiments, don’t you know? You must be a philistine. I kid, I kid. Yeah, Hunt. Honestly, for a time I don’t know what I’d have done without Hunt. Yeah, he couldn’t catch this jerk to save his life, or my life, but like I said, updates from this detective were something I could depend on sometimes, like the phone calls, and I kept the phone calls, sure, but you need at least two milestones, at least two. Thing is though, once Hunt finally moves on to some other case to do his career good, I guess, I got another milestone, this girl Allie, and she’s way better than that parasite Larissa, she’s got class, she doesn’t mind the calls. ‘Love wouldn’t be afraid of some adversity,’ she says. And she learned how to make spicy hot mustard real easy. She’s an accountant, see? So Allie also can file our taxes! Saves me a lot of time, let me fire our old accountant too, I pay Allie in love, much cheaper, I tell you. So not everything this louse on the phone does is bad, but I tell you, it’s all adversity, the detective’s failure and not having a girlfriend for a few years.
“This punk still calls every Tuesday. Calls aren’t bad for business, I’m doing pretty well in spite of this adversity, in fact business has picked up thanks to this payphone-hopping parasite. You see, for a while I hired a guy, Kevin, to respond to his calls for me, but that made it so impersonal, you know? And it was impossible to know who was calling when the phone would ring. ‘Is it the angry guy?’ ‘No.’ ‘How about that one?’ ‘No.’ I tell you, that was hell. So now I try to answer myself, and if someone else happens to answer, and it’s this jerk wanting to yell at me, I say, ‘Pass the phone to me.’ Allie had this idea that people could come to the shop not only for Mom’s cream cheeses and mustards and pastrami, they’d also want to hear the legend of this jerk on the phone, that’d draw people, draw them right in, we’d become a destination like a haunted hotel. So now we’ve got the best bagels in town and we’re also site of the famous Tuesday phone calls, they’re poetry you see, nobody under eighteen can listen of course. Yeah, we’re doing great, Allie and me, even with this jerk calling us. Life is a struggle, I tell you, putting up with this damn adversity every week!
“See? You probably have it easy compared to me. This last Tuesday, for example, I think this bastard said, ‘I’ll chop your fingers off and stuff them up your ass.’ And since, you know, since it’s the week before Thanksgiving, he adds, ‘Eat some yummy pumpkin pie next week. Or else.’ What I think is this jerk causes adversities because he has a lot of adversity, this sophisticated bastard has lots of conflict in his life since it’s hard being sophisticated, as you and I would know, so he needs someone to talk to. I guess what I’m saying is you should buy a pastrami sandwich from my shop, you’ll love it, lots of people love it. That’d cheer you up.”
The man seemed to earnestly believe the moral with which he concluded his story. Saying he and Allie were doing great, he seemed near tears.
It was certainly true that the world is full of adversity, and those I face are pretty minor. I spent the next several minutes of that bus ride contemplating this man’s story. Any sequence of events or statements is a story, even mathematical equations telling how one formula is equivalent to another. There is nothing more fundamental to being alive, in the intellectual, spiritual sense that a human is alive in a way distinct from being merely biotic, than the universal process of understanding and contextualizing our experiences through stories.
The question was whether I could find a purpose in this particular story. Looking at his slightly sloping profile, I considered asking more, to root for the truth.
“What if,” I said, “I were the one calling you?”
“That couldn’t be. I know what he looks like.”
“You can tell from how a voice sounds.”
“But let’s say I were. Wouldn’t that be a twist?”
“A punchline. I’d punch you right now, and that’s the truth.”
“Think deep into your past. Did you ever screw somebody over?”
“We all pranked somebody at recess in elementary school.”
“The guy on the phone must bear you a grudge. In school, did you ever steal an underclassman’s prom date or something? Maybe the guy tracked you to Madison—”
“I don’t fuck with love triangle bullshit. I have enough adversity as it is. What’s your problem?”
“Perhaps the jerk on the phone is a researcher conducting an unethical social experiment.”
“Well, he’s a celebrity for it now, I tell you.”
“Or the man is trying to generate enough negative emotions to summon a demon into our dimension. Or you fabricated that whole scenario to attract customers. Was it Allie’s idea?”
“Fuck you. Here I am, trying to help you out, and you start adversifying me. Acting like there’s a damn secret here or some shit.”
The bus lurched to a stop at Kendall Avenue, and, plainly outraged, the man disembarked. Although I rationally understood the truth must be banal, could it really be that some jerk selected his phone number arbitrarily?
Lake Monona glistened in the sunlight. Soon every other commuter had climbed off the bus, and I would be gone too. The sky shifted from azure day to saffron dusk, and, with the dimmest modicum of artificial light, whether or not research papers and my frailty and bagels distracted me, I could no longer read my book at all.