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.
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
“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
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
“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
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,”
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
“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
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.