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Communication Breakdown

I’ve taken my phone back from Schrödinger; and Kafka’s no longer holding my mail. I’d have continued to accept their cooperation—I enjoy having them around—but ultimately, I suspect, the stress would have gotten to me.

See, sometimes you’ve just got to face facts. (Though I’d be the last to fault you for crossing your fingers while you do so.) And, in this case, the facts were that my phone was likely broken, and there was a certified letter, which likely contained very bad news from some official agency or another, waiting for me at the post office.

My cowardly instinct was to leave things in their acceptably ambiguous state—phone untried, letter unopened—rather than to force them into rude or disappointing actuality. The phone repair guy had been to the house, this I knew. He may or may not have been able to fix the problem without entering the house, this he told me. He would have preferred that I remembered the appointment I had made with him to allow him into the apartment if need be—this I just inferred from his inflection when he called me at the office. The point was, he had attempted to effect some repair, but he wouldn’t know whether it had worked until I tried to use the thing again.

When I returned home that night after the conversation—with plans to check the phone, first thing—there was a slip in the mailbox informing me that I was receiving my last notice to retrieve a certified letter from the post office. I had been stalling because my friends and coworkers assured me that no one ever gets good news via certified mail.

Though I wanted to disregard it altogether, I figured refusing to claim it was just going to piss them off more—and, obviously enough, this vaguely menacing “them” already knew where I lived.

And, anyway, I doubted that ignorance of the letter’s accusation—and certainly, I thought, it had to be an accusation or rebuke of some kind—would spare me. If anything, it would only further damn me as a scofflaw.

“The very fact that you are unaware of what you are accused proves your unquestionable guilt,” I imagined some gray figure thickly uttering in an officious and probably Baltic accent. “The fact that you stubbornly refuse to participate in your lawful and appropriate chastisement is evidence of your antisocial and disruptive tendencies.”

“But what am I being chastised for?”

“For your antisocial and disruptive tendencies, as evidenced by your refusal to facilitate your punishment.”

And like that.

Fortunately, it was late enough that the post office was closed, and I could chuck the notice aside and hope that somehow it would transform overnight into a book of Pizza Hut coupons or a free sample of a new hair conditioner, or some other pleasantly innocuous mass mailing.

I dropped it in a small, shallow woven basket that contains 30 or so other slips of paper the importance of which I’ve willfully forgotten, and turned to head to the kitchen. On the way I blindly kicked the cordless phone’s base, sending the handset spinning down the hallway.

It’s a simple thing, really, to check if a phone is working, even for someone as mechanically disinclined as I. Maybe you already know this, but the manufacturers have wisely rigged the things up so when operable they emit this noise—a “tone,” if you will—indicative of your line’s integrity. Just pick up the handset and press it to your ear; with a cordless phone, such as I have, you’ve got to go the extra step of pushing a button of some sort, but in my experience they’re pretty easy to find and usually labeled with a helpful word like “on” or “talk” or something otherwise suggestive of the phone’s primary function.

My own phone had looped lazily to a stop and rested outside the bathroom door, in the hallway just beyond the entrance to the kitchen. Half-a-dozen steps, a quick stoop and the jab of a button. That’s all it would have taken to answer the question.

I don’t know, maybe I was still unnerved by the postal-service summons and its implied insult—“You’re doing something wrong again, something that others do easily, others who will never have to sign on that shameful line”—but I really just didn’t want to pick up the phone. I didn’t want to know if the phone worked; I just wanted to assume the odds were about even, and, well, to just have faith.

Even at that moment, I was reminded of Schrödinger’s Cat, the hypothetical scenario—the riddle, really—devised by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1927 to point to the conceptual insufficiency of quantum mechanics to explain all physical phenomena. In a nutshell, it describes a cat placed in a sealed and opaque chamber; also in the chamber is a Geiger counter that contains a radioactive particle that has an equal chance of decaying over the course of an hour, and not decaying. The counter is rigged with a triggering device that will, at the first instance of decay, shatter a vial of hydrocyanic acid, thereby killing the cat.

After an hour elapses, there is an equal chance of the cat being alive and being dead; the indeterminacy can only be resolved by direct observation. Until the chamber is opened the cat is, statistically speaking, as dead as it is alive—like my phone.

I should probably develop some distracting hobby, something physically demanding enough that I’m too tired to think like this, but I don’t know if you can hike or box or caber toss away an inclination to invest the most mundane situation with undergraduate angst. It’d probably be worth a shot, though, because I do tend to get worked up about nothing. I mean, the letter was nothing to freak out about.

Oh, if you want to know what it was, just give me a call.

—John Rodat

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