John Barry


When I was a very small child, I was playing on a beach, somewhere in the Bahamas, with pink and purple sand. I remember a man without a shirt, in a bathing suit. He had a conch shell in his hands. He gave it to me. Then I held my ear against it. I listened. I couldn’t understand what it was saying. I tried to replicate the sound. Da da. My father said that it was my first word. Then I went to school. Then I went to college. They took me to the guy with a grey goatee. He was leaning back in a leather recliner.

We live our lives in words, he said. I asked how many words I had left. 1000, he said. Starting when you were born. One thousand words? I said. That’s already 132, he said. He sat there, impassively. Including exposition and interior monologues? I asked. That’s seven more words, he said. 154 total. Excuse me, 157. Wait, I said. You don’t record my thoughts, I said.

He was looking at his word count. That’s 176 words, he said. Use them carefully. That means that you’ve got— let me see— exactly 824 words left. You’re counting your own words, I said. You can’t do that. 207, he said. Stop asking me questions that I have to answer. I haven’t had a chance to say anything. 222 words, he said. You’ve already used up 22 percent of your allotment. Okay, I said, I understand. That was another five words, he said. Scratch that, I said. That’s another four, he said. You’re up to 261.

I was silent. I sat in a small dark room for a long time. I breathed in and out. I focused on the sound of the breathing, not the words. There was a small stone in the room. I looked at the stone for a long time. But this wasn’t living. Eventually I had to say something. I was up to 184. I started to plan I returned to the man in the leather recliner. I asked for 103 words back. The first part of my life. He thought carefully. Please? I asked. Now I know what I need to say. He thought for a long time. Then he spoke.

Okay, not counting this sentence, your life is 37.5 percent over. What the fuck, I said. Did you really want to say that? he said. Excuse me, I said. That’s okay, he said. I understand. Now it’s 41 percent over, I said. I don’t need to think of it that way, I said. I still had enough to (a) find a significant other, and (b) compose a haiku or short poem, and (c) be remembered at my funeral for saying a couple of things.

I have an idea, I said. Yes, he said? He sounded irritated. I could compose a poem asking someone to marry me. That would kill two birds with one stone. That was a cliché, he said. You’re officially wasting your life. You’ve 51 per cent of it without saying anything. Go. Get out. You have 486 left.

I needed a mate, a close person, someone I could live with without talking. I found one online. She had some of the same interests. We agreed on many of the same things. She said she liked long periods of silence. I invited her to dinner. I love you, I said. I love you, she said. I showed her my iPhone.

From now on, I said, we communicate via emoticon and text. She nodded.

I want 2 marry u, I wrote.

smiley 2 she said.

Let’s have a baby, I said.

💣 she said.

That means you’re pregnant? I asked.

That was 615. My life was 61 per cent over.

Please, I said, just say yes or no.

smiley 2 she said.

The kid grew up. It was a rainy night outside. I worried about the taxes. I had no idea how much money I had in the bank. I watched the rain write dribbles down the window. The kid went to college. They gave him 1500 words. That was more than I ever had. I love you, I said. But he didn’t want to waste them on me.

We were alone again. I looked at her. You know, I said, how few words we have left. She picked up her phone. Let’s talk, I said, for once.

We’re both getting older, she said. Do you really think this is something we need talk about? That we don’t talk? I’m wasting my time with a significant other talking about the fact that we don’t talk. That’s going to be the story of my life? She said. I’m leaving you for another man, she said.

It’s all good, we both decided. We didn’t love each other anymore. We needed to figure out what love meant, how we could use the word more effectively in the future.

I sat in the room. But I couldn’t help talking. I have lived 82 per cent of my life, I said aloud. I’m lonely, I said aloud. I looked at the word count. No one was even listening to me or acknowledging that I existed. I was up to 870 words.

I went back to the man with the goatee. I was told, I said, that I had 1000 words, no more, no less. But I had already used 123. That was the limit. But now I realize…it wasn’t enough. I wonder if I could get, say another 50 words. Rules are rules, he said.

I left the room. It was evening. People were waiting at the street corner. They were heading home. I stood waiting for the light to change. I could hear it. I remembered the beach, the conch shell. Inside the pink zone. There was that whisper. This time I understood. Yeah! I said.

So that brings the count to 1001? All over? No: actually, “Yeah” is not a word. So it’s okay. I’m still around.

© John Barry

John Barry is a Baltimore writer and teacher. His work has appeared in the Baltimore City Paper, N + 1, Salon, American Theater Magazine, the Washington Post, Baltimore Style, and elsewhere. His website and links to his work can be found at  John Barry can be reached at

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