All Stories, General Fiction

Dead Air by Joseph Novak

Transcript from Session 04 of 9/22/10
Patient: Mr. Gregory Wright
Age: 25
Sex: Male
Race: White
Condition: Severely distressed, recently involved in a traumatic event (accidental homicide)
Session Conducted by Dr. Harold Hill
Time Start: 2:59 PM

Dr. Hill: “How’re you feeling today Greg?”

Gregory: “Fine, I suppose.”

Dr. Hill: “You wouldn’t be at a shrink’s office if you were fine Greg.”

Dead Air: 5 seconds.

Dr. Hill: “Why don’t you tell me about yourself? That may make this easier.”

Gregory: “Alright. Where should I start?”

Dr. Hill: “Wherever you’d like. Most people prefer to start somewhere in the middle.”

Gregory: “OK. I’m engaged to a woman named Camilla. We met when we were both still in college. She used to make fun of me then for being too much of an idealist. We live together in a one room apartment on New Hope Road. She works at an advertising agency designing company logos and drawing storyboards for animated commercials. I’m a painter. She likes to call me her trophy husband.”

Dr. Hill: “Does that cause problems?”

Gregory: “No, I think it’s pretty damn funny.”

Dr. Hill: “That’s good. It’s healthy to have a sense of humor. What exactly do you paint?”

Gregory: “I started out spraying graffiti on old warehouses and abandoned storefronts while I was in High School. I did it with a group of friends I had then. We were even arrested for it once, although I must admit that it’s odd to arrest someone for trying to bring a dead thing back to life. But then again, we weren’t the first either.”

Dr. Hill: “What do you mean ‘bring a dead thing back to life?’”

Gregory: “I was trying to breathe some life, or at least a bit of color, into those dead buildings. They were all moldy brick and broken glass. I thought I could at least make them easier to look at.”

Dr. Hill: “Is that what you do now?”

Gregory: “Sometimes. I’ve been hired to paint a few murals downtown and in Carrboro, but most of my work is on canvass. I use brushes for that.”

Dr. Hill: “And how’s that going?”

Gregory: “Better than I thought it would. I’m selling more than enough to keep from needing a regular job. I like to tease Camilla for being a sellout since I’ve been able to get away with freelancing. I even had an exhibition at the contemporary art museum downtown.”

Dr. Hill: “Congratulations. Did it go well?”

Gregory: “Sure, I sold a few pieces. I was offered a few commissions too. Those are the hot ticket because they tend to pay the most. (1) I also showcased an installation there that seemed pretty popular. I built an eight foot high by twelve foot long brick wall in the middle of the showroom. I did all the bricklaying by myself. Once I finished, I painted a mural on either side. They told a story together. I called it: ‘Death of a Dream.(2)’”

Dr. Hill: “What’s it about?”

Gregory: “I’ll bring you a picture next time we meet. I’d rather you just see it.”

Dr. Hill: “I look forward to it. But to be honest, I’m failing to see what the problem is here.”

Gregory: “You know exactly what the problem is. I told your secretary when I made the appointment.”

Dr. Hill: “You’re right, I do. But I’m supposed to wait for you to tell me, and clearly you aren’t ready yet.”

Dead Air: 2 minutes 17 seconds

Gregory: “Do you mind if I smoke?(3)

Dr. Hill: “Not at all.”

Dead Air: 15 seconds

Gregory: “It happened after the art exhibition.”

Dr. Hill: “What happened?”

Gregory: “I was in a car accident.”

Dr. Hill: “How did it happen?”

Dead Air: 32 seconds

Dr. Hill: “That’s alright, you don’t have to tell me now. But answer me this: how long ago was the art exhibition?”

Gregory: “It’s been sixteen days.”

Dr. Hill: “When was the last time you slept?”

Gregory: “I don’t remember(4).”

Dr. Hill: “OK, take this. It’s a prescription for Xanax. It should help you sleep, and ought to help with whatever anxiety you’re experiencing. Take half a bar a half hour before you want to sleep. Don’t do anything between taking it and going to bed. It’ll cause permanent brain damage if you do, or if you take too much. Understand?”

Gregory: “I understand. Thank you.”

Dr. Hill: “OK Greg. Our time’s up. I’ll see you Thursday.”

Gregory: “Yea, see you Thursday.”

Dr. Hill: “Great. Make sure you see Sarah to check out, and give her that prescription slip so she can send the request to your pharmacy.”

Gregory: “OK, will do.”

Dr. Hill: “Thanks Greg. Goodbye now.”

End of Session.

(1) Doctor’s Note: The patient began to look out the office window when he started talking about the art installation the way an old man does when remembering a story from his youth. It is possible that the patient is experiencing a psychological disconnect between the time before and after the accident.

(2) Doctor’s Note: The name of this piece may indicate psychological trauma before the specific incident for which the patient is seeking treatment. This will be confirmed once I see a photograph of it.

(3) Doctor’s Note: This sort of escape into rhythmic and addictive activity is common among these type of cases. The familiarity of both the movement and the physical sensation of the stimulant bring the patient comfort.

(4) Doctor’s Note: This is probably due to some kind of guilt-driven anxiety.


Transcript from Session 02 of 9/24/10
Patient: Mr. Gregory Wright
Age: 25
Sex: Male
Race: White
Condition: Severely distressed, recently involved in a traumatic event (accidental homicide, 18 days after event)
Session Conducted by Dr. Harold Hill
Time Start: 9:12 AM

Dr. Hill: “How’re we doing today Greg?”

Gregory: “A lot better actually. That Xanax knocked me on my ass.”

Dr. Hill: (chuckling) “Good, it’s supposed to. You only took it at night, right?”

Gregory: “Correct.”

Dr. Hill: “Good, let’s keep it that way for now. Do you have the photographs you wanted to show me?”

Gregory: “Yea, here. This is the wall I was talking about.” (5)

Dr. Hill: “That’s pretty damn impressive Greg.”

Gregory: “Thanks. The art museum wants to keep it as a special exhibit for a few more weeks. The curator even suggested that it may become a permanent installation.”

Dr. Hill: “Congratulations Greg, I’m glad to hear the good news.”

Dead Air: 18 seconds

Dr. Hill: “So the last time we met you were telling me about what happened after the art exhibition closed.”

Gregory: “Yea, the accident…”

Dr. Hill: “What happened Greg?”

Gregory: “I made sure to shake everyone’s hand when they came in and left the museum. I have to be polite so that they think I’m not some kind of pretentious art snob.(6) I also had to show a number of people the in-house bar. Drunk folks tend to buy more.’
“It was raining that night. I remember having to drive slowly because I could hardly see out the windshield. I was on Spring Forest, driving towards Lynn, when it happened. Some guy, his name was Clive Owens, was driving the wrong way down the road. He almost hit me on a blind curve. I had to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid him. The police found his car wrapped around a tree a half mile from there. He had a blood alcohol level of .26.’

“When I swerved, I hit a woman driving a little Geo Metro. Those damn cars don’t weigh any more than eighteen-hundred pounds. They’re no bigger than a bicycle. The woman driving it, her name was Barbara Hamm. I killed her. The front axle of my truck cut her car in half at the windshield. She didn’t even have the decency of an open casket at her funeral.”

Dr. Hill: “Greg, that wasn’t your fault. You were just –”

Gregory: “Don’t you dare tell me it wasn’t my damn fault.(7) I was driving the car. I decided to swerve into the oncoming lane instead of running off the road – I’d have been just fine if I had. But I didn’t, and now I’m here with her blood on my hands. I’m responsible for what I did. Who the hell else would be?”

Dr. Hill: “This other man, Clive Owens, he was the one who –”

Gregory: “Yea he was. He was the one who’d been drinking. But he didn’t kill her. I did.”

Dr. Hill: “Gregory, please, you need to calm down.”

Gregory: “I think it’d be best if I just left.”

Dr. Hill: “You really think that?”

Gregory: “Yes, goodbye Dr. Hill. I’ll see you next Tuesday.”

End of Session.

(5) The wall was situated in the middle of a large room with hardwood flooring that was otherwise devoid of furniture or partition. The side facing the door bore an image of the sun casting light upon a golden wheat field. Small men in colored flannel tended it. There was a city beyond the field marked by the reds and blues of billboards and glittering steel. A highway connected the two. A sign on the sign of the road showed a smiling nuclear family pushing a shopping cart and read: “Have your own slice of the American Dream.”

The opposite side appeared to be some kind of rotted negative. The sun illuminated dead wheat clinging to the dry earth next to a crowd of men marching down the highway while brandishing signs that read: “Where’s our bailout?” The once glittering steel of the city was now a mute gray, and the reds and blues of the signage had long since faded. The billboard of the nuclear family had been vandalized with spray-paint to say: “The bank took mine.”

(6) Doctor’s Note: The patient began visibly shaking.

(7) Doctor’s Note: This thought pattern is extremely dangerous. If continued the patient may need to be admitted for 24-hour psychological observation. 


Transcript from Session 01 of 9/29/10
Patient: Mr. Gregory Wright
Age: 25
Sex: Male
Race: White
Condition: Severely distressed, recently involved in a traumatic event (accidental homicide, 23 days after event)
Session Conducted by Dr. Harold Hill
Time Start: 8:03 AM

Dr. Hill: “It’s nice to see that you’ve calmed down Greg.(8)

Gregory: “Yea, I was a little out of hand there. Sorry about that.”

Dr. Hill: “No need to be sorry Greg. It’s perfectly understandable.”

Gregory: “But it isn’t really.”

Dr. Hill: “Your behavior was perfectly normal for someone in your situation, especially for someone such as yourself. You see yourself as the hero, the person who fixes problems. It’s perfectly understandable that you’d have an issue when you perceived yourself as the problem. It’s my job to help you understand that you weren’t.”

Gregory: “That’s not what I was talking about doctor.”

Dr. Hill: “What were you talking about then?”

Gregory: “There’s nothing understandable about how any of this works. I had no control over whether or not Clive Owens was driving on the wrong side of the road. I had no control over what road Barbara Hamm took to get home that night. What I did have control over was where I was when she and I collided. That’s what killed her, and for the life of me I can’t figure out if I even decided to turn that way or if I was just watching someone else turn the wheel.(9)

Dr. Hill: “Now Gregory let’s not –”

Gregory: “Did you ever play football in high school doctor?”

Dr. Hill: “No, I can’t say I did. But I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

Gregory: “I did. I was a linebacker. I was alright at it too. There were some plays, big plays, the plays when the world stopped turning and the only people still moving were me and the guy with the ball – I would watch those plays from somewhere outside of myself. I would watch myself make the tackle. I made no decision about where I went or what I did. It just happened.”

Dr. Hill: “Gregory, I’d like to keep you here overnight. You seem to be experiencing some extreme psychological stress. You need to be monitored, for the sake of your own safety.”

Gregory: “Can you force me to stay?”

Dr. Hill: “Well, no, I can’t force you to do anything.”

Gregory: “Then I’d like to decline the invitation. I hope you’ll understand.(10)

Dr. Hill: “Gregory, I really must insist that you –”

Gregory: “I’m sorry doctor but I really must decline. I’d much rather spend the time with Camilla. Here, I painted this for you.(11) I’ll bring it by once it’s done drying.”

Dr. Hill: “Thank you Gregory. Are you still taking your medication?”

Gregory: “I am.”

Dr. Hill: “Good, you should be. I’m going to write you a prescription for Lithium. Make sure you take one pill every morning.”

Gregory: “OK, thank you doctor.”

Dr. Hill: “My pleasure. Goodbye Gregory.”

Gregory: “Bye, see you next week.”

End of Session

(8) Doctor’s Note: It was hot in the office. The thermostat was set to 78, but the patient refused to roll up the sleeves of his long sleeve t-shirt, instead firmly stretching the sleeves over his hands with his clenched fingers. He may be attempting to hide self-inflicted injuries to that area. This was a popular tactic with kids when I used to work in high schools as a counselor.

(9) Doctor’s Note: This type of denial is extremely dangerous to the stability of his psyche. While it may serve to cope with the severity of the current trauma, it will undoubtedly destabilize his normal understanding of moral culpability and may well lead to serious and deliberate criminal action taken without remorse.

(10) Doctor’s Note: This may indicate a very rapid descent into sociopathy.

(11) Doctor’s Note: The patient handed me a Polaroid photograph of a painting that was rendered on white canvass. The first was a sad, joyless thing devoid of hope or color. It was abstract, and painted with spray-paint and a stencil: black circles of varying sizes randomly intersected each other across the white canvass background. The upper left corner was black as tar, and featured rings fading to gray that concentrically progressed outwards from the blackest portion, radiating across the canvass. 


Transcript from Session 05 of 10/5/10
Patient: Mr. Gregory Wright
Age: 25
Sex: Male
Race: White
Condition: Severely distressed, recently involved in a traumatic event (accidental homicide, 30 days after event)
Session Conducted by Dr. Harold Hill
Time Start: 3:01 PM

Dr. Hill: “How’re we feeling Greg?”

Gregory: “I’m doing pretty well today. I’ve been planning a vacation.”

Dr. Hill: “Yea? Where to?”

Gregory: “I don’t know yet. I think it’s going to be one of those ‘find out when you get there’ kind of trips. I like those the best honestly. Getting there is half the fun.”

Dr. Hill: “So does that mean you’re canceling next week’s appointment?”

Gregory: “Yea, go ahead and cancel it.”

Dr. Hill: “Any idea when you’ll be back?”

Gregory: “I don’t think I will be. This is goodbye, doctor.”

Dr. Hill: “I’m sorry to hear that Greg. What’s brought on the sudden move?”

Gregory: “I need to figure some things out, and I can’t figure them here. I think a change of scenery is what I need.”

Dr. Hill: “Is Camilla coming with you?”

Gregory: “I don’t know. I haven’t put much thought into it.”

Dead Air: 21 seconds

Gregory: “Here, I brought this for you.(12) It’s the painting I made.”

Dr. Hill: “Thank you Gregory. That’s mighty kind of you.”

Gregory: “Nonsense, I made it for you. Maybe it’ll help you remember those things that aren’t understandable.”

Dr. Hill: “Is that still bothering you? It isn’t healthy to waste your life away thinking about such trifling things.”

Gregory: “Yea I have been. But I’d hardly call the issue unimportant.(13) In my eyes it’s real damn important to at least try and understand it, because if it goes one way, it means that in the end we don’t have any choice in what happens to us, that we’re just watching the world go by as everything else stands still; if it goes the other way, it means that we choose a great deal, and that I’m the one responsible for killing Barbara Hamm.(14)

Dr. Hill: “Gregory, please, listen to me. There’s a better way to handle all this. You can live happily not knowing. Don’t you still feel? Don’t your actions, whether they’re your choice or not, bring you joy and remorse and satisfaction? Isn’t it worth living to experience that?”

Gregory: “The problem, doctor, is that I am experiencing those things. I need to know why.”

Dr. Hill: “Gregory –”

Gregory: “Goodbye Dr. Hill.”


Dr. Hill: “Holy Shit. Holy Shit. Sarah! Sarah call the police!”

End of Session

(12) Doctor’s Note: The patient produced a long cardboard tube from the backpack he’d brought in with him.

(13) Doctor’s Note: The patient began rummaging through his bag as he said this, eventually producing a large revolver.

(14) Doctor’s Note: The patient pressed the tip of his revolver against his right temple and drew back the hammer.


Transcript from Session 01 of 10/12/10
Patient: Dr. Harold Hill
Age: 57
Sex: Male
Race: African American
Condition: Severely distressed, recently involved in a traumatic event (witnessed suicide, 7 days since the event)
Session Conducted by Dr. Martin Foster
Time Start: 7:55 AM

Dr. Foster: “How’re we doing today Harry?”

Harold: “Pretty bad Marty. I’m real messed up.”

Dr. Foster: “Don’t blame yourself for it Harry. It wasn’t your fault.”

Harold: “I don’t know Marty. There are just some things you can’t understand.”

Dead Air: 1 minute 13 seconds

Harold: “Do you ever think about fate Marty?”


Joseph Novak


Header photograph: By Methem (Mikko J. Putkonen) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Dead Air by Joseph Novak”

  1. Congratulations J.B.! Your creativity did not come from your Mimi! I will follow with interest your future work as a writer. Mimi


  2. Hi Joseph, a very clever use of structure!
    I used to drive at around 3.30am in the morning and always wondered if a wee beastie ran out in front of me, why I sometimes braked and other times swerved. Your story made me re-visit this question.
    I enjoyed the thoughts on conscience and guilt.
    A very interesting piece of work.
    I look forward to reading more of your stories.


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