For lack of anything better to do, Hugh has signed up for self-help lectures. Three of them are online, and 10 minutes in he mutes the screen to trawl through the news and stare out his window. But one of them is offline, in a rented room at the City Folk Art Museum, and he needs to bathe, shave, and wear clean clothes to attend.
The most attractive thing about the lecture is that it costs only $5, to help cover the room rental. The fact that it’s only $5 means that the speaker probably isn’t too full of themselves. Hugh is tired of self-help talks by people who are awash in money or who mention that, during the lowest point in their life, they had friends to help them, a spouse, a sibling. Someone. The speakers are always too normal and put-together. Their dark night of the soul is more like the blinds drawn down on a sunny afternoon.
There are a few dozen people in the audience, each on a folding chair and with spaces between them as if they’re gapped teeth. Hugh chooses a seat in the back, so he can slip out early if he needs to or stare at the floor in a way that would be too rude and obvious in the front row. The people nearest to him are a heavyset lady in a pink tracksuit and an older man scratching flakes of skin off his arm. It’s like a localized snow shower, and Hugh finds it both repellent and fascinating.
As time crawls by, the group pauses in its restless shifting and chatting to look around. “Who’s running this, anyway?” someone complains from the front.
That’s when the lights go out.
Gasps run through the room. One person releases a pitiful cry. “Where’s the light switch?” someone calls from the front of the room. And then Hugh can’t hear anything except for his own breathing.
As the darkness persists, and the silence around his breathing thickens, Hugh grips the edge of his seat. His heart has started to feel more emphatic in its beating, and sweat is gathering under his arms.
“What’s going on?” he asks. When he hears no answer, he tries, “Hello?”
Someone comes into view: The heavyset woman in the pink tracksuit. The rest of the room is dark, but he can dimly make out her figure and her face. She’s older than he thought. Her eyes are almost lost to wrinkles and pouched skin.
“Good evening, Hugh,” she says.
“How do you know my name?” he gasps.
“It’s on your name tag.”
Hugh looks down. With a jolt, he realizes that although he can see her, he can’t see his own legs, his own belly, arms, and hands.
“What’s going on? Who are you?”
“I’m Cate.” She folds puffy fingers over her belly.
“Ok… what’s going on?”
“We’re going to talk for a short while. It’s better, in the dark, before the lights come on. It’s better, in the silence, before other voices distract us.”
“Talk about what?”
“Self-help. Isn’t that what you’re here for? To help yourself.”
“You guess.” Her face creases in what he’s slow to realize is a smile. “Silly man. You’re not here to help yourself.”
“What am I here for?”
“You’ve got nothing better to do with your evening. Or rather, you think you’ve got nothing better to do with your evening. So you’re here.”
“What could I be doing that’s better?”
The creases on her face deepen, and a bubbling laugh bursts from her pale lips. “That you even have to ask is pathetic.”
“Thanks.” He feels stiff suddenly and wants to stand and walk around. But he still can’t see anything else in the room. For all he knows, he’s in an abyss with just himself, the lady in the tracksuit, and the chairs they’re sitting on.
“You should be prowling the streets,” she says. “You should be baying at the moon. You’re an old wolf without a pack and in some ways you’ll never heal. In some ways you’ll never recover from what you’ve lost. But why do you deny what you have? The blood in you, the thirst for life, for sensing, for exploring. Yes, you’ll limp to your grave, but why not make your blood stir in the meantime? You should be rolling your shoulders, padding into shadows, snapping your teeth at strange scents. Instead, you’re here.”
In some ways, her words make little sense to him. But his heart is beating faster, and his stomach is clenching. “What do you want from me,” is the only thing he can think to say in his confusion.
“What do you want from me,” she mimics. Her face contorts into a sneer. “Apparently you want nothing from yourself. Just living a cooped up life, spoonfed pap in rooms like this, your blood sluggish. You wretched nailbiter, you shivering ghost, you strangler of vital hours. Get out of here.”
The lights in the room come back on. Hugh blinks quickly and peers around. Everyone is sweating and shivering in their seats. The only person up on her feet and moving is the heavyset lady in the pink tracksuit. Cate, she called herself. Hugh follows her with his eyes as she strides out of the room.
What follows, over the next several minutes, is anger and confusion. “We paid money to come here,” says one person. “I canceled plans with a friend,” says another person, who may be lying.
No one mentions the time they’ve spent in the dark. Hugh doesn’t breathe a word about Cate. What he does is simmer with impatience. He fidgets in his chair. Finally, he lurches to his feet. “I’m leaving,” he announces, the sound of his own deep voice startling him.
Years ago, before a downward spiral of failure and drinking, he used to give speeches. He isn’t used to his voice anymore.
People blink at him, and he walks out the door. He’s miles away from his home in Kilter Street Manor, but he decides to walk. He can’t bear to rattle through a subway or pack himself onto a bus. He needs to move. Already, he can’t remember Cate’s words. They’ve darted just beyond the reach of his consciousness. But he does feel an urgent need to walk.
If he stops now and then to inspect the curve of a shadow in an alley, the light of a streetlamp glancing off a window… if he pauses to curl his nose at ripe garbage and sniff at roses tumbling over a fence… if he attends to the squeal of a truck and the electricity of cicadas… he’s not sure why he’s doing any of this. He only needs to be outdoors, sending his senses outwards and reeling them in with whatever they’ve caught.