“Homing Device” by Shira Richman

Fran was having trouble breathing. Not all the time; just when certain people asked him pointed questions that he couldn’t bear to answer. Sometimes neither yes nor no was immediately clear, and often both bulldozed important details. He also struggled to breathe—air became trapped in his throat and failed to fill his lungs—when certain people interrupted what he was saying with boastful assertions like cascading mop water over his intricate and tenuous toothpick tower explanations. At each meeting he sensed he was decreasing in value. In vitality. The lack of oxygen to his brain was accelerating his decline. He was becoming desperate. He made a doctor’s appointment.

The doctor was new—it seemed she’d taken over his previous doctor’s practice. She listened to his heart, looked into the cave of his mouth, tapped below his kneecaps so his legs jerked like a marionette, and stared into his eyes. Her breath smelled like coffee that had been left on the burner, her face like salty sea air. Was that a scent these days—meant to sate us until we could sneak away to the coast? To his relief, her hands smelled like alcohol: clean and reassuringly clinical.

After removing her stethoscope and setting down her shiny implements, she slumped into a teal vinyl chair. She smiled, which sparked his suspicion, and, at the same time revealed something stuck between her teeth. A shred of chicken or the stringy pith of an orange? The unattractive reminder of her lunch disrupted his breathing, flushed him with the debilitatingly familiar panic.

“Okay, yes,” she said, slowly rising to her feet. Nodding in time to her rubbery steps, she took a slip of paper from a shelf across the room. Before writing, she looked up as if trying to remember something. Her eyes rested on a spider in the corner of the ceiling. It didn’t move. She wrote slowly in clear handwriting: Squeeze-formation ball, followed by her signature, which resembled a messy shooting star.

The pharmacist looked from the prescription to Fran. “Aw,” she said as if she’d just seen a cute puppy picture. Then she stepped out from behind the counter and took a bright yellow rubbery ball from a hook lined with similar balls in a range of colors. “In you, I see sun,” she said, holding the ball up for him to see. “Yellow work?”

He’d always hated yellow. Maybe he had just avoided it since an ex-boyfriend said his goldenrod sweater made Fran look like he was about to puke. Or had he said it made Fran look like puke?

The pharmacist didn’t wait for him to resolve his feelings about yellow. “You’ve gotta squeeze it. Really squeeeeeze,” she said bending her knees. “Each time you feel…funny. Whatever that means for you. Whatever it was that made you visit Dr. Semmel. Don’t tell me, though,” she warned while exaggeratingly shaking her head. “It’s not for me to know.”

She returned to her place behind the counter. “I can’t demonstrate it for you. Only you should squeeze this ball.” She held it out to Fran, and he tossed it from one hand to the other. “Exactly, both hands, I mean, either. But it’s good to alternate. Both offer valuable information.”

Fran set the ball down and pulled out his wallet. “So the prescription wasn’t necessary,” he said, reaching for it.

The pharmacist slapped her hand on the slip of paper. His hand touched hers briefly before he pulled it away.

“Sorry,” he said reflexively. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched a strange woman. He was careful not to.

“It’s good to have,” she said, briefly squeezing both of her eyes closed like a double wink. “For records. Good for us to know. You know, who’s using.” Still resting her hand on the prescription, she cocked her head to one side and smiled in the way that turned him back into an adorable puppy.

Fran squeezed the ball dutifully each time he started to feel tightness beginning to bundle in his body—really squeezed, as she’d instructed, alternating hands. Some co-workers seemed amused by it— “Ah, white elephant gift? I got one of those, too. But mine doesn’t get nearly as much attention as yours,” or on the way to a meeting, “Don’t forget the stress ball. This one’s gonna be a doozy.” He didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything, just took the ball into his hands and compressed it with his personal angst. After a week or so, he began to feel a hardening at the center. It wasn’t exactly a sphere. Rather, it had an uneven, undiscernible shape.

Over the weeks, the shape grew in size and solidity. Meanwhile, Fran’s breathing was becoming much more consistent. Deeper, too, and the panic became less frequent, less acute, briefer. It was like the thing inside was alive, and yet it couldn’t be. Could the ball contain a growing stone? A growing pit would make more sense. But really, it didn’t make any sense at all. He brought it home one evening, hoping his partner, Sam, could help him put things into perspective. Sam was even more rational than he was. He would have a logical interpretation for what was growing inside the bright yellow ball.

As they were warming up some leftover scalloped potatoes and cutting vegetables for a salad, Fran got the ball and tossed it to Sam, as if it was no big deal. He wanted to give the impression that he’d spontaneously thought of the ball when he saw Sam cutting a lemon for the salad dressing.

It landed on the cutting board. Fran’s aim wasn’t very good. Sam washed the ball. Then with jerky movements he made when annoyed, he proceeded to wash the knife, the cutting board, and even the counter where the cutting board sat.

Fran apologized for having contaminated the food prep area, and then said, as casually as he could, “Feel it—it’s got something inside. Can you tell what it is?”

“Not a ring,” Sam said, holding the ball out on his flat palm. “I told you I’m not that kind of man.”

A rubber band stretched in Fran’s chest and he waited, with a held breath, for it to snap. When he tried to speak, he realized he had stopped breathing, leaving hardly enough power even to muster, “No, don’t worry.” Where had the tension come from? This sort of feeling was only supposed to happen at work.

“How can I not worry when you’re hyperventilating before me?” Sam asked. He brushed his still damp, lemon-scented fingertips against Fran’s cheek, put the back of his palm to Fran’s forehead. “You okay?”

Fran let out his breath. Took a new one in. “Yeah. Sorry. Just—could you try feeling the ball? Do you feel something like a bead or maybe a gold nugget? The ball’s kind of heavy, isn’t it?”

Sam squeezed it with one hand, then the other. “Not really,” he said. “Is there wet sand in there? Or maybe an ancient grain—finely ground quinoa? I can’t tell.” He handed it back to Fran. Fran poked the ball, squished it around, but there was no longer any shape inside.  The pharmacist came to mind, the way she’d said, only you should squeeze this ball, how she’d even refused to demonstrate how the squeezing should go.

The panic attacks came less frequently, but Fran almost welcomed them now. It was then that he could make progress with his yellow ball—squeeze it with one tense hand and then the other, wringing it with a desperation that seemed to speak to the ball. Over the coming weeks the small hardness at the center of the ball returned and grew with each bout of anxiety. Around the time he was starting to feel something distinct shaping up in the ball’s core—maybe a head with a big nose and ears, or a fist with a thumb jutting out a little more than the knuckles—a colleague squeezed the ball. Fran had carelessly left it on his chair during a sensitive phone call he’d needed to take to the soundproof phone compartment. When Fran returned to his desk, Kevin was wriggling around in Fran’s seat.

“Not bad for a butt massager,” Kevin said with a grin. He stood and motioned for Fran to sit down. “Now I see why you keep that thing around.” He winked and walked away with a little wiggle of his rear.

Fran picked up the ball and poked it. The shape inside had dissolved, the way it had after Sam squeezed it. And so it went. Each time the center began to take a distinctive shape, something would happen to interrupt its progress. Once the ball got stepped on, and another time it was squeezed by a stressed member of the board on her way to a meeting. A few times it was used for a massage of some sort or another—foot, back against the wall, butt again. Each time Fran’s progress in defining a new shape took longer, but he couldn’t give up. He knew if he could only get the shape developed enough, it would tell him something vital. For instance, maybe it would be the bust of a person he needed to connect with or a closed fist that held onto an important message or map to a significant place. It seemed all he had to do was keep the panic coming long enough to let the ball speak.

In the meantime, he accidentally stepped into a promotion—one of his intricate, tenuous ideas was heard. After all, his voice was becoming stronger. This idea turned out to be just what the company needed for one of its key objectives, and he was the one who could best see it through. Or maybe his superiors just wanted the risk to fall to him, but his ideas were seemingly endless, and when people had to listen to them, they found his thinking was surprisingly sound. This meant he worked more, which Sam didn’t like. Besides, Sam seemed a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Fran began earning more money than he did and, perhaps, perceptions and behaviors that came along with that. Eventually, the relationship ended, not with a bang but a fizzle.

One day while waiting for key data from his boss for a report due in twenty minutes, Fran’s impatience spurred him to call his doctor’s office. Wanting to get to the bottom of this ball situation, he asked for an appointment with Dr. Semmel, the one who had given him the odd prescription. It was about time he found out if this ball had an important message for him, if there was another way to get the information he wanted from the ball.

“Sorry, she’s moved on,” he was told by a male receptionist whose voice was friendly, chirpy even. “But I’m sure Dr. Flinders would be thrilled to meet you.” He listed a few dates and times that the new doctor was available. Fran didn’t need an appointment. Did he? Well, he could come up with a reason for the visit. A general checkup, perhaps, would be enough of an excuse.

“And how about the month after that?” he asked. He just wanted to hear the man continue to talk. Something in the receptionist’s voice was soothing. It didn’t sound like the hum of a conch shell, but it had the same sort of eternal calm. It called to him. “And the month after that?” he could listen to this voice forever. He also knew he would have to let the man off the phone eventually and that he wanted to hear this voice again as soon as possible. “Okay, thank you. I just realized I might need a sooner appointment.”

“No problem,” the receptionist assured.

“When did you say the next available appointment was?” A wildness surged in Fran, like he would do anything to have that voice in his ear.

The receptionist stated a date several weeks out.

“I can’t wait that long,” Fran said.    

The receptionist didn’t say anything. Perhaps he was contemplating whether or not he needed to suggest urgent care.

Not knowing what else to say, Fran asked abruptly, “Do you know about these squeezy balls Dr. Semmel prescribed?”

“Excuse me,” the receptionist said. “Did you say squeezy balls?”

Realizing how odd his question must have sounded, Fran snorted in a dismissive laugh. “Yeah, um, these stress ball sort of things. Dr. Semmel recommended it. You squeeze it, but it’s a ball.” He sounded like an idiot.

“Yes,” the receptionist said firmly. “I do. Know what you mean. I take it you have one?”

“I do,” Fran said.

“You should have been contacted by the manufacturer,” the receptionist said carefully. “I’m afraid they were recalled.”

Fran’s messaging system dinged. A message from his boss was coming in with the data he was waiting for. His report was needed for a meeting that began in 11 minutes.

He poked the ball and the surface felt tacky. When he stroked it with his forefinger, bits broke loose like shreds of an eraser.

“Are you still there?” the receptionist asked.

“Sorry,” Fran said.

“I’d love to know what’s inside,” the receptionist said. “I’ve always wanted to know.”

Another message came in from Fran’s boss. The meeting was in 9 minutes.

Fran propped the phone between his jaw and shoulder, and, with a strength he hadn’t used for years—not since wrenching wheels off vehicles in his father’s auto shop—he used both hands to twist the ball until it ripped open. Inside was a gelatinous blob comprised of tiny grains of gelatinous blobs. The tiny units clung to each other with more density in some areas than others, but as he poked and prodded, he could tell that the composition of density could easily be remolded.

“If you do decide to look inside,” the receptionist said, “would you mind letting me know?”

Fran held the blob to the light. The portion darkened through density resembled a telephone. Fran laughed. “Yes,” he said. “It’s now, I think. It’s just this particular moment in time.”

Shira Richman’s writing can be found in Fourteen Hills, Copper Nickel, Bayou, The Pinch, Timber, PANK, her chapbooks Test Tube with a View (Finishing Line Press), Eden Was Here (Dancing Girl Press), and elsewhere. She currently lives in Nuremberg, Germany and teaches writing at the local university. For more information about her writing, please visit her website: https://shirarichman.net/; to see what she’s been up to musically, have a listen at: https://thedivorceband.com/