The story opens with a diary, kept because the narrator feels he has to confess somewhere. In short, spare prose his situation is laid out: he and his wife Mary have perpetual money problems, in part because he devotes half his working hours to being an unsuccessful writer. They argue a lot. One night, after a particularly bad row, he goes out with his friend Mike to see a couple of women, Jean and Sally. That night things go too far between him and Jean.
Afterwards he’s terrified Mary will find out, and the next few days he’s on tenterhooks waiting for the truth to emerge. But it goes well. He and Mary make up after their argument, for a few days they’re happy. Soon enough, though, they have another row about money, and after she storms off he wants to speak to Jean again.
I called Jean last night but the switchboard operator at the Club Stanley said she was out. I figured I’d be able to reach her today at her office.
So I went to the corner candy store to look up the number. I probably should have memorized it by now. I’ve called her enough. But somehow, I never bothered. What the hell, there are always telephone books. […]
Now, as I recall, the telephone number of Jean’s office was in the upper right hand corner of the right page in the directory. I’ve looked it up dozens of times and that’s where it always was.
Today it wasn’t.
He tries the likeliest number, and it sounds like he’s speaking to the switchboard operator he spoke to the previous night, but she now denies that Jean exists. And this begins his spiral of incomprehension.
He tries to speak to Jean by every way he can, to no avail. He calls up her friend Sally, but he can’t get in touch with her either. Mike denies knowing either of them, and claims that nothing happened that adulterous night. He becomes so worried he’s even tempted to confess it all to his wife. Is everyone lying to him? Or is something stranger happening to his life?
Tense and fast paced, it’s also an economically told tale. No details or scene furnishings are given beyond those necessary to the plot, yet a solid enough picture of the protagonist’s life is given that you share in his fear when the rest of the world suddenly insists that his memory is wrong, no matter how vivid his recollection.
Disappearing Act by Richard Matheson
Word count: 4,900
First published: F&SF magazine, March 1953
Where to find it: Twilight Zone: The Original Stories, edited by Richard Matheson, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh, 1985, Avon Books
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, collection, 2002, Tor
Richard Matheson: Collected Stories Volume One, collection, 2003, Gauntlet Press
The story was loosely adapted in the original The Twilight Zone series, in the episode And When the Sky Was Opened