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I woke up coughing—as if I had strained my voice—after shouting in a dream


I had been asked to read a short story from a printed page, aloud. The first word of the second line was “system” but it seemed it should have been “systematic.”

I read it the first time and the group of listeners wanted to correct me. Naturally, the response lagged. Three words later the oral editing began—“Systematic”—soon swelling to a chorus of “systematic”s.

I stopped. Still so close to the beginning, I began again.

First word of the second line: “system”—as an adjective, but that’s what was printed and that’s what I read. Black and white. And a regular magazine font on a regular magazine page, nothing faddish.

This time the corrections came quicker. “Systematic” like a chorus of frogs on a muggy summer’s night. Each saying the same thing separately, with only other frogs able to distinguish the individual voices.

Of course, if we needed an obvious adjective, it might have been “systemic.” But the writer, editor, typesetter or proofreader rendered it “system”—and “system” can be an adjective.

If it—“system”—began with the writer, they might all have been party to it, giving it their blessing—perhaps tacit approval—at each step of its writing-publishing journey.

But as the voices of my insistent ad hoc editorial committee died away, I had to respond. I had to choose.

I paused, cleared my throat and began again to read.

This time the critics’ chorus almost exploded—but I had to intervene.

“I didn’t write it,” I shouted. “Shut up!”

And then more quietly offered but still with an edge in my voice, “Do you want to read it?”

Ever heard of system error?

I woke up coughing—as if I had strained my voice—after shouting in a dream.

This continues our monthly feature, Stories with Nathan Brown. Previous works include: “Arrival,” The Regular,”  “The Veteran,” and “The Dead Book.”

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