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By Bob Pfeifer

All Steven's forty years he talked to himself. And to get away from the chatter of his thinking Steven preoccupied himself. He took drugs, drank wine and liquor, worked way too many hours, read books, watched films, fell in love, had lots of sex, and there was always music.

Then everything changed in his life. He could no longer fall in love and since he equated sex with love; that distraction was lost as well. His stomach went bad and he had surgery. Because of this he could not drink. His money ran to nothing.

So all he had was sitting in his bedroom reading, watching films, and writing songs he knew no one would ever hear. After a while he just stared at the TV screen. The films bored him, so he stopped watching. The books did the same, since it depressed him too much reading the ones he loved. So he started writing stories he knew were not very good. The only thing that made him happy was being with his son.

Since nothing was coming into his mind but only going out in the form of his writing, the chatter came back into his head. It didn't whisper or scream, it talked in an even tone. After paying close attention, he noticed that another voice talked to the chatter. He assumed it was his. Back and forth and sometimes in the third person as if there was another, a third voice in his head. Maybe it was watching, he thought. That's how it felt, though it never made much sense, not even to Steven.

The chatter would start up at about 4 or 5 in the morning. By the time the conversation got going, Steven would open his eyes and the third voice would wake up.

Steven rolled over and turned on the light on his cell phone that he kept on his nightstand. He checked the time, though he had a pretty good idea what time it was. Still, he believed it was good to check, to keep some sort of record, just in case, he thought. In case of what was never really clear and Steven was aware of this, having discussed it with himself, concluding that it was something that didn't need to be defined.

The chatter started up, always about the same thing. The conversation was always about suicide. Steven's. He would wake imagining, or maybe it was the chatter talking, about something plunging into his chest. Usually, it was a harpoon or a spear, but an arrow or long blade would do in a pinch.

And the friendly debate would begin. The chatter suggested various ways in which Steven might do away with himself. (Everyone assumed without saying anything that a harpoon was not a possible way.) There was always the pills. Be sure to call the doctor in the morning and over some months time stock up on enough to do the job. Gas was a good one, but it would take a great deal of determination. A gun -- though Steven did not own one, he knew someone who might have a .45 in their shop, in the drawer of a desk. Just in case, are the words Steven remembered his Republican friend saying about the weapon. He wasn't sure about the bullets and less about wanting to get his friend involved, if not in trouble. So there was gas and pills and a gun and, of course, stepping in front of a bus or train, plus the harpoon/spear in his dream.

But always the second voice (or maybe the third or both for all Steven knew) pointed out how much it would hurt Steven's son. That was the downer. And that was the last thing Steven wanted, as he loved his boy more than himself. So the idea of putting this on his boy just to escape his problems (which often felt like hell) seemed selfish. And so not an acceptable way out.

(At about this time Steven often rolled over, went onto his bedroom balcony and had a cigarette, which he recognized as nothing more than a form of killing oneself, a blameless death. And one that would not hurt his son in that special suicide way.)

But the chatter would come back, rallying the others with figuring out a way for it to appear an accident. Then this would not be a weight put on the boy and Steven could have his way out. (This is where ideas about getting hit by a bus would come in.) Still, that didn't sit right. He had to be there for him, is the way Steven saw it.

Every morning this debate caused Steven to feel anxious like he was crawling out of his skin. Going from hot to cold, he felt that harpoon pumping into his chest.

Over the next hour or so, the voices would talk the chatter down and Steven's day would begin. He'd have his coffee and cigarette. On days his son was not with him, he checked his e-mails, though no one wrote anymore. His day passed with a few calls usually initiated by Steven. Mostly, he surfed the net, played his guitar and masturbated to break things up, kill some time till he read himself to sleep, knowing he would soon wake to the chatter.

After a while, Steven was able to get rid of the anxiety and let the voices talk by reasoning that if he was going to kill himself, then he was and there was no reason to get upset about it. After all, what could anyone do. The worries are kind of over once you make that decision.

He really came to believe it was the best thing, though he wanted to live. But he only wanted to live without his problems, the way he lived before everything changed. Problems he believed he couldn't solve short of winning the lottery. Still the bit about his boy made it a Catch-22.

Then one day he slept late. And then it was a few more days here and there. Most of the time, though, he knew the chatter was always there, even in the daytime. It was always there, like the hum of a refrigerator or the electronic buzz in Manhattan that when you live there you don't notice. But it never goes away, even if you can't hear it when asked about it by a tourist.

So the voices came and went as they pleased. Round and round, they would start and stop. Steven never knew what made them come but he was pretty sure that it was logic and reason that quieted them.

After a couple of years, Steven got somewhat bored by the conversation. It's like, here we go again, and Steven would feel all the same things over again. But it wasn't scary anymore. None of the voices had anything new to add. No one discovered a new way to do it. Besides, Steven was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen, he would never go through with it even if he sometimes wished he would die.

One day another strange thing happened. Maybe it wasn't as strange as it was out of the ordinary. Steven came out of the shower to find a man climbing onto his second floor balcony from his neighbor's fence. First he thought someone needed a key next door, but that made absolutely no sense, so he tossed that. He stood in the doorway to his bedroom with only a towel around his waist. The man came in through the balcony door.

For a second, neither man knew what to do. Steven saw he was not a small man but also not a musclebound one. Still, Steven reacted like most in that situation. He was scared for his life. In that second, Steven attacked the man, knowing it was his only shot. He drove his head into the man's middle section. The intruder fell back out the door against the balcony rail, cracking it. They both fell down a story onto the brick floor. The man went unconscious, knocking himself out as he hit his head on the brick ground.

Steven mangled his leg. The man broke and cushioned Steven's fall. Steven crawled naked back into the house. He rang 911. The ambulance and police came.

The nurse in ER said he was lucky, even though it was only a one-story, almost two-story fall. Steven could have fallen wrong. He could have really hurt himself like the other man, she said. But what was he thinking fighting the man. And then she said it seemed like he didn't have a choice. And maybe he didn't, though he had no idea at the time. The police found a gun on the intruder's person.

Steven did it to survive. That was his instinct.

After feeding him intravenous painkillers, opiates, and leaving him alone, the chatter came to visit, weaving its way somehow through the morphine cloud. He felt warm. He didn't care much when the chatter pointed out that Steven's accident was a godsend. His solution was in the room.

Steven knew the chatter was right. He followed the tube running into his arm with his finger. He stopped when he reached the plastic button he believed controlled the morphine drip. He pumped it, letting more of the drug in. The second voice called like an echo through the haze that it was dumb. Steven, the voice said, would pass out before he'd die. Steven pumped the button, not sure he was working it right, while thinking the second voice was really being dumb not seeing the opportunity.

In the end, the second voice was right. Steven passed out. And the chatter, too high to notice, didn't mind. Though the voices believed the chatter secretly liked the idea of living to wake Steven another day.

The next day Steven came home from the hospital. And from then on, the voices woke him infrequently. When they did, he didn't feel anxious about what they were talking about. He knew that he would not kill himself. And he knew if he ever went to that place, it would be with a calm and not a panic.

After a few weeks, he felt better every day, it seemed. Until one afternoon when out of nowhere he felt blue.

He sat quietly but didn't hear any voices. He felt like there was no hope, that he'd wasted his life, his time, thinking about death, and now it had passed. There wasn't much time left and he was spent and empty. And he understood that he filled his life with distractions to escape what was inherent in him: depression.

Bob Pfeifer's debut novel, 'University of Strangers,' recently was published by Power City Press. Pfeifer was a founding member of pioneering indie rock band the Human Switchboard, and was president of Disney's Hollywood Records. His current band is the Tabby Chinos.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 4, 2011