Fred Redekop

Paging Daryl and Java Man

Neandertals did not paint their caves with the images of animals. But perhaps they had no need to distill life into representations, because its essences were already revealed to their senses.
—James Shreeve, The Neandertal Enigma


One Sunday morning in 1986, a psychiatrist named Ira Hartsock jogged in the woods and lost his brand-new Motorola numeric pager. Another man, walking on the same trail, found it; just as he picked it up, it went off. Uncertain what the object was, the man carried it home and called a friend, who explained the new technology and suggested he try the number. So he did.
     A woman answered. “You found it next to coyote scat?” she asked, after he explained the situation. “Is scat what I think it is? And how do you know it came out of a coyote?”
     He explained to her that the scat was twisted like a corkscrew. Also, it contained berry seeds. “Coyotes are opportunistic,” he said, cradling the phone against his shoulder and looking at the scat inside a baggie. “But it’s a red herring that if you find it in the middle of the trail, like I did, then it has to be a coyote, you know, the alpha dog dominance thing. Bobcats will do it, foxes will, it’s not diagnostic.”
     “Coyote scat is a red herring?” The woman’s mind whirled. Before she called, she had been in despair. Now, after talking to a strange man about strange things, she felt much better. It was oddly comforting to know that someone knew how to identify the beasts of the forest by their droppings. She mentioned that she had just seen The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the man cleared his throat; then, after a short silence, pointed out the mistakes in the movie, though in a nice way, she thought. He told her about a flint-knapping class at the university where he had made an Acheulian handaxe out of obsidian as his final project. The receiver was warm against her ear as he described how he struck the blank from the mother stone and dressed the point and edges; his voice got louder and she held the phone away and the words flew past her like stray flakes.
     “It’s just that I know that if I had my knapping kit and a good supply of chert, I could last in the woods for months,” he said, apologizing. “I’m not dangerous or anything.”
     “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m the one with a psychiatrist.”
     “Are you dangerous?”
     She imagined herself in a forest, foraging for acorns and mushrooms. For many years, she had been creating unnecessary problems and it was time to stop. “Just to myself,” she said. “Were women back then really as muscular as men?”
     They arranged to meet that afternoon at a coffee shop. He brought the handaxe and the pager; she dropped the handaxe on her foot. She was wearing leather shoes, but even so, it sliced through the uppers and made a small gash on her foot. The man pulled out a pouch and with her foot in his lap put antiseptic and a dressing on the wound. His name was Brian, but she asked if she could call him Java Man. He decided to call her Daryl.
     Java Man put the handaxe in his pouch, and Daryl put the pager in her purse. There was an awkward silence, each wondering if they could take any more rejection in their lives. Java Man took a breath and asked for her number.
     Daryl burst out laughing. “You called me, remember?”
     Seeing his embarrassment, Daryl was reminded how much she hated her laugh; it seemed that it had brought her nothing but misery. Java Man was suddenly sleepy. His vision narrowed and he didn’t want anything except a clear path to his couch.
     The pager went off. They called the number on a pay phone in the lobby, and, passing the receiver back and forth, told the older woman on the other end of the line the story of how they had met. As Daryl talked, her face reminded Java Man of his mother’s when she hadn’t been drinking; when he talked, Daryl noticed that he had an interesting way of phrasing things. At the end of the conversation, for instance, he said, “Please remember, you aren’t very big. None of us are.”
     Daryl took Java Man by the hand and left the café. As they walked, he told her that the sidewalk was the river where the tribes gathered. The bus stop was where evolution got off. He pointed out a gracile australopithecine dressed in an Oxford shirt and khakis. He admired Daryl’s swaying hips as she climbed the rocky steps to her apartment and complimented the ochre paintings on her cave walls. She spread out skins and they lay down together.
     Afterwards, in the firelight, the small black idol spoke. A travel agent had booked a flight to Jamaica; a pharmacy wanted to confirm a prescription; a patient wanted to know if she should leave her husband. Daryl explained the situation and the woman was bewildered and hurt.      “He gave you one of these thingies? Are you some sort of woodland secretary?”
     They stayed in Daryl’s cave the next day. Some patients were upset at being called back by a woman calling herself Daryl the Woodland Secretary, but others were open to help wherever they could get it. One man, a highly placed executive in a defense-contracting firm, told Daryl that his preoccupation with the weather was threatening his job, his marriage, and his sanity. He stayed up late into the night listening to the weather reports on the radio; sometimes, when there was a big event going on, a hurricane moving up the coast or a Nor’easter, he wouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks.
     “Hold on a sec,” she said, handing the phone to Java Man. “Obsession. This one’s yours.”
     “Um-huh,” he said, settling onto the couch and opening a bag of chips. “You ever hear of Clovis arrowheads?” he asked, when the man’s monologue ended.
     Another man told them that talking with them helped about as much as talking to the shrink, which wasn’t much, but thanks anyway. A woman said that the story of their meeting was sweet and that it might have given her a little more hope about meeting someone, though it also made her feel a little bit more hopeless too. Java Man advised an adolescent male to beat off more, not less, observing that it was the easiest case he ever had. Daryl commiserated with a young woman who read her a list of all the mean things her mother had told her, and when the woman heard the things Daryl’s mother told her, she apologized for complaining and hung up. They checked out a few books from the library and familiarized themselves with diagnoses and the new psychiatric medications coming out. “Med seeker,” Daryl said, when Java Man, a questioning expression on his face, showed her a number on the pager.      “You’re really getting enmeshed with that borderline,” he said, returning the favor. “Debby B. is hooking you with her help-rejecting behavior.”
     Java Man moved out of his apartment and into Daryl’s place. In the evening, Dr. Hartsock called. “Are you crazy, Susan? Do you know you could get arrested for impersonation?”
     She burst into tears, and Java Man, his protective instinct aroused, grabbed the phone from her and roared curses at the caller. He calmed down when he heard who it was and was persuaded to relinquish the phone. There was a long silence while Dr. Hartsock decided what to do.      “Tell me again why you want to be called Daryl. You sure you’re not in trouble? Are you cutting again?”
     “I’ll send the pager back,” she said quietly.
     “Keep it,” her psychiatrist said. “I’ll have it disconnected and get another one. Call my office if you want to see me.”
     She rescheduled, but at the last minute Java Man asked her to drive out West to look for rocks and dinosaur bones and she forgot to call and cancel the session. They stayed in cheap motels and came back with their road atlas marked with a meandering red line and crude drawings of dinosaurs marking the sites they had visited. A couple of months after that, driving Java Man’s old Dodge Dart, she heard the pager go off in the glove box.
     “I’m still getting a bill,” Dr. Hartsock said, when she called from a gas station. “How are you doing?”
     She told him about her trip, and before they hung up, she joked that he could page her if he felt like it. “I might do that,” he said. “Let’s talk again soon.”
     “I’ll look forward to it, Ira,” she said.
     They kept in touch. Daryl was sympathetic when she heard about his divorce, his battle with irritable bowel syndrome, his rising malpractice insurance. Ira was glad to hear about Daryl’s marriage and her pregnancy. He cheered when Java Man started his own construction business, Timberwolf Builders, and sent flowers when Daryl applied to graduate school. On the eve of their son’s sixth birthday, Daryl and Java Man toasted her finished master’s thesis and waited for Ira’s call.
     “Do you really think this is healthy?” Java Man said, frowning, after Daryl hung up. “He needs to let go.”
     “It’s a way for him to blow off some steam from his cathexis,” she said
     “You have such a potty mouth,” Java Man said, licking his mate’s ear.
She didn’t hear from Ira; she called his office and found he had closed his practice. When she reached him at home, he sounded depressed. She made him promise to see someone, and after she hung up, she rummaged for the pager in a junk drawer. She examined it and chills went down her spine. I’m Lonely, the screen read.
     By the time she showed it to Java Man, it had gone blank. “Technology does this,” he said, turning it over in his large, callused hands. “The interface of man and tool is the cutting edge of competition. I mean, look at Amish carpenters, they use nail guns. They haul air compressors on the back of buggies. Life’s just evolved weird, Daryl.”
     Daryl drove to Radio Shack the next morning. When she showed a techie the old pager, he looked at it in mock horror: “My God! Risen from the tomb!” He called co-workers from the back, and they agreed that it was a freaky relic. They formed a circle around it and recommended repairing it with hammers, fine-tuning it with explosives, lubricating it with battery acid. Daryl darted in to rescue it. I Love You, the pager said.
     Java Man hollowed out a bole in a beech tree with his handaxe. “I believe you,” he said. “Ira’s playing tricks, or the thing’s crawling out of the mud. But any way you look at it, you’re holding an ex-psychiatrist’s luck.”
     Daryl stuck the pager in, screen side out. It would be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. What if a woodpecker mistook it for a big black grub?
     “The latest news is that we’re probably separate from every bone they’ve turned up,” Java Man said. “Makes sense, really. I mean, most of us are dead ends, aren’t we? It’s sad, because we’ve got this stupid self-awareness, but I’ve gotten comfortable with it. I think we are Mistakes with Feelings.”
     Daryl had already agreed and wished that he’d just be quiet. “Good luck,” she whispered, her lips close to the trunk. “I’ll visit.”
     “Sweetie,” Java Man started, but she silenced him with a look and he turned away. The pager’s small brain stirred. Take Care. The screen went blank and Daryl wept.


      My parents’ weird habits and nicknames always embarrassed and puzzled me. When I asked why they didn’t wear wedding rings or watches or jewelry, why they burned their clothes when they were old, why being off-the-grid was such a big freaking deal, they told me to ask The Oracle.
     I thought they meant Uncle Ira, but he said I was barking up the wrong tree. Nonetheless, he filled me in.
     “Sounds kinda prehistoric,” I said. “You know. Biblical.”
     “My receptionist’s typewriter was the size of a Brontosaurus,” he agreed. “And like Freud, I am Jewish.”
     “How did people meet without the internet around?” I asked.
     “Small mammals trembling under ferns,” he replied. “We sorta bumped around and tried not to get eaten.”
     We were both silent for a while, and I realized we were friends. Or were we? “Am I some kind of missing link? This whole thing with my mom—” I began. “We won’t go there,” he said, “but rest assured. I don’t compete, I sublimate. As I used to say in the old days, this is about you, not me. Now let’s get you some archaeological evidence.”
For an old guy he can still move, and I could barely keep up as we ran through the woods. Way back in, he stopped and showed me an old beech tree. Its trunk was smooth as skin but all scarred up—hearts with arrows through them, J.M. + D., anchors, balls-and-chains, whales, a T. Rex. Buried in a hole in the tree, the screen was still visible. I was breathing hard. The edges of the wound looked like open white lips. The pager had a message.