S&R Fiction: "A Few Words With God" by Teresa Milbrodt

I eat a cherry pop-tart and try not to get crumbs on yesterday’s New York Times. My girlfriend gives me her copies because she says it’s good for me to know more about the world since I don’t watch TV. I’ve never been a reader so I’m happy when the phone rings, but it’s my brother. His voice is choked and staccato like he’s been crying.

He says, God told me you were going to die.

God told you I was going to die? I say.

Sometimes I have to repeat things to my brother to make sure I understand him. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia ten years ago when he was twenty.

You’re going to die, he says. You’re going to die.

Everyone dies eventually, I say, but my heart beats a little faster. My brother hears voices all the time, even God, but those voice usually don’t say anything about me or make him cry.

He says you’re going to die soon, very soon, my brother wails.

I didn’t think it was good for him to get an apartment alone, but Dad said my brother needed independence. Independence is fine as long as he takes his medications, which he doesn’t as often as he should. My brother says the drugs make him sit around watching The Weather Channel and The Home Shopping Network and he gets mad at everyone for trying to make his life better. He likes it when he’s crazy because he feels more like himself and can talk to God.

Did God say how I was going to die? I say.

No, he says.

Like today or tomorrow? I say.

I don’t know, he says. Don’t leave the house. 

I have to work, I say. I can’t skip unless its for a good reason.

Not dying is a good reason, he says.

I don’t think I’m going to die, I say. At least not yet. I could die at home as easy as I could die at work.

Call me at lunch, he says. Call me and tell me you’re alive.

I smell sugary char, remember my second pop-tart and how sometimes my toaster is forgetful and doesn’t remember to pop up.

Oh shit, I say.

Are you dying? says my brother.

Just burning breakfast, I say. I’ll call you and everything will be fine and I won’t die.

Promise? he says.

I promise, I say.

When we hang up he hiccups which means he’s still crying. Tears make him gulp in air.

The copy shop is three blocks from my apartment, a walk along tree-lined streets with houses that belong on the cover of home and garden magazines, the sort of neighborhoods where nothing happens. I look both ways when crossing the street and then I look both ways when I’m in the middle of the street to make sure a car didn’t materialize. When a squirrel skitters in front of me I nearly shit my pants.

I’m not going crazy, it’s just the shock of the phone call. My palms feel a little damp and cool but I’ll get to work and help people make copies and forget about this whole thing. Maybe I’ll call my brother’s case worker Sheila and explain what he told me in case he calls her and is all freaked out. I try to prepare her for stuff like this when I can. Sheila calls my brother a classic case, a smart guy in his twenties who was doing fine, then voices came and everything went to shit. She didn’t say that last part, but I knew it’s what she was thinking.

The copy shop is small, as big as my efficiency apartment with two machines in front and two in back. It’s hot as hell when we have everything running. I’m greeted by the smell of ink and paper and the sound of Ben swearing. Nothing about the world has changed. Another fucking copy machine is on the blink. I flow back into the button-pressing monotony of work.

At the shop it’s me and Ben and his son Danny who goes by Danny even though he’s forty-five or something. They’re good guys, especially Ben who can lay his big hairy hands on copy machines and say “Heal” like some revival minister. The copy machines usually get the idea except for times they don’t, then Ben swears up a storm which is also impressive.

Shitty rat ass fucking machine keeps making paper wads, Ben says with his back to me.

Shit, I say supportively.

We’ve got a big order for pickup this afternoon, he says. Some prof at the university needs copies made and spiral bound. The packet is fucking huge. Start it on one of the machines that hasn’t decided to be a fucking bastard.

A huge job. Good. The packet is on the counter, a bunch of history articles. It’s an inch thick but we’ll copy it front and back. Danny waves to me from the desk in the rear of the store where he’s on the phone cussing out some supplier. Danny has shoulder-length red hair that doesn’t obey combs so it looks like he’s got a bonfire around his head. He could rip a hundred sheets of paper with his bare hands, but he’s got his dad’s touch with copy machines and the eyes of a jeweler, can see itty bitty screws I don’t even know exist.

I work on the packet of history articles, stand in front of the machine with my arms crossed and will it to do something wrong, give me problems, but it maintains that rhythmic hum as the light goes back and forth. In ten or so years Danny will inherit the store. He and Ben say I can work here forever. They like me and it’s not a bad job, but at parties when people ask me what I do I say I make copies, and they say Oh, and look at the ceiling like there’s an interesting bug up there. I’m the assistant to the assistant manager, which doesn’t leave anyone for me to manage.

Ka-choonk, ka-choonk, ka-choonk, says the copy machine. Is it a noise I want to listen to forever? But people say forever a lot when they don’t mean it. Me working here forever would only be thirty more years, thirty-five tops, but it might be shorter now that God is talking to my brother about when I’m going to check out.

Shit. I wasn’t going to think about that. Get back to the copy machine, that rhythm like an electric mantra. Eight years ago I waited to hear voices like my brother started hearing when he was twenty, but I wasn’t smart enough to become schizophrenic because I only heard my father say, Why the fuck are you dropping out of college?

I said I didn’t want to major in business since the people in my finance and marketing classes were pricks.

Dad slammed his coffee mug on the counter and said, I want to have at least one son who’ll fucking make something of himself.

His eyes were as red as the blinking light on a broken copy machine.

I said, You never expected me to make something of myself before.

Of course we did, he yelled, but I knew that wasn’t true. My brother was the straight-A honor-roll fifty-thousand-dollars-in-scholarships kid, the one who’d become a doctor or physicist, but then he started hearing voices and went to four shrinks and dropped out of school and moved back home with my parents and ate orange juice on his cereal and cried when he had to take his medications and cried when he didn’t take his medications because he worried a plane would crash into our house.

Before my brother got sick, my parents would have been happy if I’d become an electrician or an auto mechanic. That was fine with me since I was good at fiddling with gears, but I struggled to get Cs in school and thought algebra could go to hell. When my brother dropped out of school I got an academic death sentence. Dad said I was going to college whether I wanted to or not.

But I didn’t get a degree, I got an apartment and this copy shop job with Ben who’s hands have an IQ of 180. Even when a machine sets him to swearing he’ll fix the damn thing in less than a half hour. When I squint I see angels dancing on his fingertips.

The smell of ink is comforting, like incense. It usually soothes me along with the cadence of the copy machines, but today it’s a dirge. What if I get hit by a car or get a blood clot in my brain? The only thing in my obituary will be He made a lot of copies. That’s better than He robbed a lot of banks, but really, what the fuck?

I should call Mom and tell her what my brother said, but she’ll freak out and say he shouldn’t have moved to that little apartment which already smelled like cold pizza, and Dad will say my brother should be fine if takes his medications, which is true, but he doesn’t.

Ka-choonk ka-choonk ka-choonk.

Rat ass fucking monkey bastard, says Ben. It’s fixed.

Last month I took Chinese food to my brother’s place and we ate huddled around his coffee table. He said the voices aren’t all bad since they explain things to him.

Like what? I said. Nobody explains things to me except Ben, and usually it’s why the fucking copy machine broke.

My brother teared. He likes Chinese food so spicy it makes him cry.

Things, he said. Secrets. They give me warnings. They tell me what not to do. They know the world is scary. 

Sometimes I don’t know if his voices are that weird because in the Old Testament people heard voices all the time, God talking to them and saying Hey, do this or Don’t do this or Go kill a goat for me. My brother’s voices might be like that. He says God talks to him too much, but Moses said the same thing and he parted the Red Sea. If God was going to talk with one of us it would be my brother. That’s the way it’s always been.

I’d pay a lot for some voice to tell me You don’t suck just because you’ve been working in a copy shop for the past eight years, and by the way you’re not going to die, but we’re all going to die and probably not in the way we expect. Last week I saw a New York Times article that said copy machine ink fumes aren’t good for your respiratory system so you shouldn’t breathe a lot around them. Ben’s cough sounds like he’s got a Brillo pad in the back of his throat, but he’s also smoked cigarettes for thirty-eight years.

I call my brother during my lunch break. The phone receiver at the shop weighs five pounds. My fingers punch his number without thinking.

He says, Hello?

I say, I’m alive, and shrug like neither of us should be surprised.

He says, Thank goodness.

I say, Have you talked with Sheila lately?

He says, I’ll talk with her today.

I say, Will you tell her about God?

He says, She doesn’t like it when I do that.

I say, You have to be truthful to her.

He says, I know.

But if he’s truthful she’ll know he’s off his medications, and that’s bad.

He says, I want you to be careful. Promise you’ll be careful.

I can see him in his apartment with his old phone, twisting the cord around his wrist.

I say, I’m always careful.

Rat sucking monkey shit bastard, says Ben.

I have to go help Ben, I say. Another copy machine broke down.

Be careful, says my brother again.

He’ll pace the apartment and mutter prayers all afternoon.

I watch Ben and his surgeon-precise fingers that don’t waver when he coughs. He coaxes the copy machine back to life and says I should learn how to do it.

Danny bitches quietly at the desk in the rear of the store. Our receipts for the week aren’t as high as they need to be. He blames computers, says it’s too easy to send documents whizzing out electronically. Ben says people will always need copies from machines. His faith in this is unwavering.

We still have busy line-out-the-door times, but they don’t happen as much as they used to.

In ten years, when Ben gives Danny the shop, I’ll be assistant manager and get a new name badge, but I still don’t know if I’ll have anyone to manage.

In the mail I get community college brochures that advertise night classes in loud red letters. They say I can have a new career, a new life, everything I dreamed of. The fliers are on glossy paper. I fold them over and use them as coasters. I can’t use The New York Times as a coaster because it’s educational and the print would smear and my girlfriend would get suspicious.

Four o’clock and the college history professor walks in to collect her booklets. She’s the only one in the store besides us three guys. She’s younger than I expected, maybe close to my age, and wears a t-shirt and jeans and a big backpack. The prof writes a check I can barely read, slides the booklets into her pack, thanks me with a nod, and walks back out. Through the front window her stride is so clear, so confident. She’s going to teach people things.

I plod home at six, too aware of little kids playing catch on those perfect lawns, standing five feet away from each other to throw the ball. Someone always misses and the ball goes into street, but what if a kid goes after it and I see a car coming? Should I go after the kid? I’d have to go after the kid, wouldn’t I? I mean, there are things you don’t have a choice about…

But today the kids are well-coordinated and stay on their lawns with their balls and I don’t have to fling myself in front of fast-moving vehicles.

I get home and call my brother and tell him I’m alive.

Thank God, he says.

Did Sheila call? I say.

I told her I was fine, he says.

My brother also says that when he looks at himself sideways in the mirror he can see a halo like a big lemon drop around his head.

You aren’t fine, I say.

I’m fine except for being worried about you, he says.

But I’m fine, I say.

You might not be soon, he says.

How long will you keep this up? I say. Until I die? That might take a while. You don’t know what God means by soon. It could mean eighty years. God must think of time in different ways than we do.

Maybe, says my brother.

Don’t worry about it, I say.

I’m going to listen, he says. Maybe I’ll hear something different. Maybe God will change His mind. Sometimes that happens.

Yes, I say, it does. This is something my brother knows. I just agree with him.

I get last night’s takeout pizza from the fridge, eat it cold because it gets soggy when I heat it up. I flip through The New York Times to look for warnings. Cars whiz past my window. People on their way home from work. Office jobs. One article says that men who eat tomatoes live ten years longer than men who don’t. I look at my pizza and smile.

My girlfriend says I shouldn’t feel bad about working at the copy shop.

People need copies, she says.

That’s true for now.

I eat more pizza and wait for the phone to ring. Maybe it will be my girlfriend asking if she can come over with The New York Times. Maybe it will be my brother calling back with the latest news.

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