RUMPUS BOOK CLUB EXCERPT: USERS BY Colin Winnette

By

An excerpt from The Rumpus Book Club‘s January selection,
USERS by Colin Winnette
forthcoming from Soft Skull Press on February 21, 2023

Subscribe by January 15 to the Book Club to receive this title and an invitation to an exclusive conversation with the author via Crowdcast

1

YOUR HEART WILL STOP 

Miles was getting death threats. So far, fewer than he would have liked. Not that he wanted to be getting death threats, but once he started seeing them for what they were, he felt like having a few more, from a few more people, would somehow be less threatening. Technically, this first one wasn’t the first. It was the first he’d noticed. The first he’d recognized as a legitimate death threat. 

SOON

That was all the real first threat had said. He was sure he wasn’t alone in his capacity to misinterpret the message. It was only a word, and words came alive in context. They relied on one another; the difference between a log and a log cabin. 

YOUR HEART WILL STOP 

The messages were letter-pressed on weighted stationery—not tossed off online in a fit of pique. There was no postmark on either envelope, no return address. Someone had spent time, actual money. They had carried the notes to his home, slid them in the mail slot, and left.

 

When Miles’s daughters arrived home from school to find him staring at the refrigerator, they absently asked about the new artwork mounted to its door. 

“It’s a reminder,” he told them. “A note to myself.” 

“It’s pretty,” said his six-year-old, fingering the edge of the cream-colored paper. 

Miles had placed a kitchen magnet on the bottom half of the threat, so the top half became a flap that could conceal or reveal the message with a touch. He guided his daughter’s hand from the flap before she could lift it. 

But she was right. It was pretty. The quality of the stationery was part of the reason he’d overlooked the first threat. 

SOON

Seeing the envelope, he’d mistaken it for a wedding invitation. Opening it, he’d amended the mistake, guessing it was advance notice for a forthcoming save-the-date. 

YOUR HEART WILL STOP 

There was no longer room for misinterpretation. Soon finally had a context. Soon was when his heart would stop. 

 2 

Miles’s wife came home late, as she’d been doing more and more often. She found Miles in the kitchen, still staring at the folded note on the refrigerator door. 

“I’m tired,” she said, hanging her purse from a chair back and immediately beginning to undress. 

“What would you do if someone killed me?” he said. 

“If who killed you?” she said. 

“Anyone,” he said. 

“Honestly,” she said, “it would depend on the person. How and why they did it.” 

“That’s it?” he said. 

“That’s all you’ve given me,” she said, vanishing down the dark hall. 

Miles stared at the threat for a moment, before calling after her. “You’re saying there’s a version where you’d have no reaction at all?” 

“That’s not what I’m saying,” she called back. “I’m saying the reaction would be different, depending on those things.” 

Miles got up and followed his wife into the bedroom, where he could hear her fiddling with a drawer. 

“What’s an example of a possible reaction, then?” he said. “Hypothetically.” 

“I already told you,” she said. She slid the drawer shut. “I’d need all the variables.” 

 

Before tonight, Miles had made a project of letting go. He’d been trying to live more in the moment, to accept things as they came. While he rejected mindfulness as a practice, he still allowed himself to deploy certain mindful strategies when convenient. But now Miles was mindful only of the threat. 

He spent most of the night in the kitchen with it, realizing again and again that it was still there. Still real. Still a death threat. 

SOON

A moment of self-doubt sent him digging through the trash for the first note. He was no longer sure he remembered it correctly. Was that really all it said? He knew the search was futile—how many times had they taken out the trash in the last few days—but he couldn’t not check after having had the thought. If the note was still there, he wanted to know. He wanted to be certain. He wanted to consider both notes at the same time, see them for exactly what they were, and understand exactly how they were working together to make him feel the way he was feeling. Miles felt afraid. He felt uncertain. He felt like there was something he should be doing to stop all this, but he had not figured it out yet.

Miles’s hand came out of the trash can’s liner with nothing but a yellow grain of rice stuck under his nail. His best guess was the Mediterranean they’d ordered weeks ago. They’d taken out the trash countless times since then, and goddamn grains of rice were still showing up. He rinsed his hands and gave up on the trash. Miles was irritable. It was almost two in the morning. 

 

When Miles found he couldn’t sleep, he searched online for a database of toll-free hotlines offering sympathetic ears to those experiencing harassment or abuse. He wasn’t comfortable labeling the two letters he’d received on expensive stationery “harassment” or “abuse,” but it felt astute to recognize these letters might prefigure harassment or abuse of some kind, and he wanted to be ready.

Minutes later, a young operator was telling him that fear and frustration were completely valid and natural feelings. 

“It might comfort you to know,” she said, “that the statistical likelihood of anyone following through on a written threat is low. Even so, I understand why you can’t help but take them seriously. Unfortunately, legal recourse is limited in situations like these. At least at this stage. Even if the author of the notes were to show up, the options available to you would depend on how that person acted. What they said and did. The truth is, you’ll have to wait and see. Though I imagine that’s less comforting than you’d like it to be.” 

She sounded young to Miles—far too young for her to be so well versed in death-threat best practices. But something in her short life so far had led her to become an expert at navigating situations Miles had only just been introduced to—not conceptually, but personally—and that even he could acknowledge he wasn’t handling particularly well. It didn’t seem fair. 

“You’re sure you don’t know who could be sending them?” she said. 

“Like who?” he said. “I don’t know anyone like that.” 

“Of course,” she said. She waited a moment before continuing. “The source may become clear with time, or it may not. But I can tell you from experience that in the meantime you’ll swing between worry, forgetting, frustration, anger. Depression. It’s normal. It’s valid. If it’s any consolation, in the grand scheme of things, what you’re dealing with is relatively minor.” 

It wasn’t much of a consolation—if anything, Miles felt demoted—but at least according to a professional his situation wasn’t urgent. If it wasn’t an emergency, that meant his inaction so far may well have been the best possible response. Somehow, instinctively, he’d gotten it right. 

“You’re right,” he said. “You must hear so much worse.” 

The operator laughed, then caught herself and folded the sound into an abrupt clearing of her throat. But it was too late. In that brief and vulnerable moment Miles caught a glimpse of unknown depths, and he was suddenly gripped by the need to hear every detail she had to offer from her years of experience on the job, every story from every call that would put his situation in perspective, tip the scales, and sort the unwieldy card he’d been dealt back into the deck of relative normalcy.

“Unfortunately,” she said, having replaced all discernible candor with an affected neutrality, likely the product of some weekend orientation, “unfortunately, these situations do escalate. Not always, and typically when they do there are precipitating incidents. A breakup. A fight. A restraining order. But in the absence of those things, anonymous letters are rarely acted on. They often cease as abruptly as they start. For your purposes, it’s best to assume they mean nothing until you have reason to think otherwise.” 

Miles tried to imagine what those reasons to think otherwise might be, but the second the images began to populate his mind, he banished them. 

“So it could get worse,” he said, “but there’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing I should do. No way to prepare. That’s what you’re saying? I just want to be clear: I do nothing about the death threats.” 

“For now,” she said, “the best thing is to focus on your daily life. Try not to let the anxiety this is causing you take over. Do you meditate? If not, try it. Try focusing on what’s in front of you as you move through the day, one thing at a time. With any luck, this will all be over soon.” 

It was a sober script prepared off-mic, written specifically to handle people like Miles, people who were not used to the idea of looming violence, of inevitable violence, of other humans in the world who would like to harm, specifically, them. 

“If you’re worried, and you can afford it,” she said, without the slightest hint of discovery in her voice, “you might invest in a security system. Lock your doors. Stay vigilant. But in all likelihood, nothing will come of the notes.” 

More than frightening, it was unsatisfying—the notion that the best course of action was to continue resisting action at all. While he was happy to have been right in his instincts so far, it didn’t seem like a viable long-term strategy to continue doing nothing. Miles liked to think of himself as capable of this kind of rational and detached problem-solving . . . but these were death threats! Maybe things wouldn’t progress, but if they did it was hard to imagine them progressing in any way other than the stated design, an undesirable outcome, in the face of which Miles would feel foolish to have done nothing preventive. 

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said as she began her signoff spiel. Remember, we’re always here. “I don’t mean to keep you. I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of how exactly one does nothing. If I sit and wait, as you’re suggesting, aren’t I simply handing the situation over to my would-be assailant, rather than actively working to determine my fate?” 

The operator was slow to answer, flipping pages in some laminated manual, no doubt, or mentally preparing herself to spend another hour looping back through responses to the same concerns Miles had been approaching from different angles for the past hour. Hearing her hesitation, he felt guilty for leaning on her. This young woman wasn’t even getting paid to answer calls like his, to talk strangers like him through their preliminary responses to anonymous threats, general harassment, persistent stalkers, life-shattering assaults. Whatever worse meant. She must have lived through something unimaginable to want to spend her nights telling people it was normal, understandable even, to be afraid all the time. According to her, it was supposed to be a comforting thought: the standard validity of his fear. Maybe the more you said these things, the easier they were to accept as true. Or maybe they simply were true, and some people had no choice but to know that and work from there. 

“You’re not keeping me,” she said. “And no, I’m not talking about doing nothing. I’m talking about doing the work of trying to find your way back to the parts of your life that make you happy, acknowledging and accepting the fact that there are other parts you can’t control.” 

“And I’ll feel better,” said Miles, “once I’ve done that?” 

“Some days will be harder than others,” she said. “Some days will be easier. In either case, we’re always here.” 

He understood they’d yet again reached the end of the loop, but he didn’t feel finished. He wasn’t ready to be alone. Still, his options were few: start it all over again or let her go. 

“Okay,” he said. 

“It’s frustrating,” she said, “I know. That’s a completely natural and valid way to feel. It might comfort you to know that the statistical likelihood of anyone following through on a written threat is very low. In all likelihood, none of this will feel all that important to you in a matter of time. You’ll have other things to worry about, to focus on. If that turns out to not be the case, we’re always here.” 

 

Miles washed his hands, took out the garbage, and washed his hands again. In bed, he could smell the cubes of lamb that had nested on the rice maybe two weeks prior. He kept his hands at his sides, pushing them deep under the covers, as far from his nose as he could get them. The smell remained. It seemed to fill the room.

All that, thought Miles, from a single grain of rice.

3

The note was still on the fridge in the morning. Some part of Miles had hoped it wouldn’t be. Not that it would have vanished in the night—that was too creepy—but that it would never have been there in the first place. That it was a dream, or a vision delivered upon him in the throes of a fit of insomnia.

Everyone else was energized by a good night’s sleep. His six-year-old was drawing lines through the salt she’d spilled on the table, and his ten-year-old was at the stove, announcing she’d be making breakfast for the family.

“Pancakes,” she said, fiddling with the knob for the burner. She was occupying herself by turning it past the quick flick of the igniter, pumping a spurt of gas into the room, then quickly turning it back to OFF.

“There’s no time for cleanup,” said his wife. “Honey, move.”

He was at the fridge door, blocking it. He’d meant to open it—for what, he couldn’t remember now—but he’d become sidetracked by the note yet again. For several minutes, he’d been standing there, lifting the flap to read the message, then letting the top half fall back into place.

“Sorry,” he said. He stepped aside so his wife could get water from the filter. “What is that?” she said, pointing at the paper.

“A death threat,” he said.

“Funny,” she said. She slid a carton of fat brown eggs from the bottom shelf and turned. “How many eggs can you fry in ten minutes?”

Across the room, his ten-year-old was grinning like a maniac.

“I could fry them all,” she said.

***

Excerpted from USERS, copyright © 2023 by Colin Winnette. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.


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