Saturday, March 21, 2015

This Must End - Part One

And so, when she’d woken up, and had showered and dressed and had her coffee, she went down to the park. There, the grass had been freshly shaved, and the air smelled of its clippings. Children laughed and ran all around her, and threw things, and then fell down. The parents stood around looking bemused but happy. One sensed that they would have looked appalled, had this been going on anywhere other than at the park. Lauren, on the other hand, could barely take it all in, as was often the case when she came here. The snickering children, and the things they threw, appeared to her as a series of blurred motions, like very fast bugs that she could never lay her eyes on for very long. This was due not to a problem with her eyesight but, she believed, rather with her whole self. And it was nothing to do with the fact that they were children, specifically. In truth, she didn’t know what it had to do with.

She sat on a bench and began eating a granola bar she’d brought with her for breakfast. It was dry in her mouth; it felt almost dusty. But she finished eating it, as it was all she’d brought with her, not just to eat, but to do: she’d brought no book, no newspaper, no crossword puzzle, nothing to occupy her mind or hands. As a result, she was beginning to feel a little hopeless. She tried to remind herself why she’d bothered coming to the park in the first place, since her current state of mind was one she often fell into while there, but she was unsuccessful.

Then a man sat down on the bench beside her. He was in his thirties, probably in the middle somewhere, and he wore a suit, a gray one that was very neat and slick, with a plain white shirt and a soft blue tie, the kind you think you might be able to swim in. He wore glasses with thin frames, and when she looked at his eyes, which were green, from a certain angle, the distortion in the lenses was negligible.

He said, “Good morning. Boy, it’s nice out today.”

“Yes, it’s nice,” she said. “The air is very nice.”

“Because of the grass?” he asked. “Because of the grass they just mowed?”

“That’s nice, too. But also it’s fresh.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s the time of year it is.”

She thought that was a strange way of putting it.  It was supposed to get cold tonight, and it was supposed to rain, as well.

“My name’s Ben,” the man said. He held out his hand.

“I’m Lauren,” she replied, holding out her own. They shook, and he grinned.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” he said.

“No, I guess not. I guess it depends. No, maybe not.”

“It’s nothing bad,” he said, laughing. “Or weird. I just wondered why you came here. This park makes you miserable.”

She looked at him quickly, and then away. Then back. She realized she’d just done a double-take, and felt stupid.

“No it doesn’t,” she said. “I like the park. Maybe I’m just having a bad morning. But anyway, I’m fine. Plus, how do you know? What do you know about how I am?”

“I’m observant,” he said. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a little booklet. He handed it to her. “Here.”

Lauren didn’t take the booklet right away, but she did look at the cover. It was a soft blue again, like Ben’s tie, but a paler shade. Written across the top, in black letters, were the words THIS MUST END. Below that, it said BY DR. RICHARD SEABRIGHT. Below that, there was a picture of a millipede.

“What’s this?” Lauren asked. “Is this something religious?”

“No,” said Ben. “Just the opposite, actually, although not even related in that way. All it is, is something I think you should read.”

He made her take it by placing it on her knee.

“I don’t want it,” she said.

“But it’s yours now. And anyway, after you’ve read it, you can do whatever you want with it. Throw it away, burn it, tear it into a hundred strips and eat it. Once it’s been read, nothing else matters.”

“I’m not going to read it,” she said, and she brushed it off her knee, into the grass, as though it were a crumb or a dead leaf.

Ben smiled and said, “Of course you’ll read it. You’ll see. You’ll read it, and you’ll see.”

“And then I’ll want to thank you, I suppose?” Lauren said, not looking at him, but instead out across the park where children still zoomed by, now with dogs here and there, snapping their jaws at dragonflies.

Ben laughed a small laugh. “Well, I don’t know that I’d go that far,” he said. Then he stood up and stretched his back, squinting at the sun. “All right, well, I hope your day improves. I sincerely do.”

After one last grin, he turned away from her and walked towards the park exit.

* * * *

At that exact moment, when the man named Ben was walking through the park’s West exit, another man named Sidney was leaving through the South exit. He’d seen something he hadn’t liked, and it had spoiled his attempts to enjoy sitting in the sun with his newspaper spread across his outstretched legs. Although he did find that what nature there was to be found in municipal parks to be at best a ruse, and at worst a trap, he was able, most times, to push that cynicism out of his mind and appreciate the trees he sat under as trees – it was no fault of theirs, after all – and the leaves that skittered around him in the breeze, or spiraled down into his lap, as leaves. If an ambulance, or a fire engine, happened to blare past, the spell was broken, and so the spell was usually broken, as people were frequently being hurt or setting fires in this city, but Sidney nevertheless found himself drawn to the mirage of this park for his peace of mind, to whatever degree he could achieve it, as the only haven on offer.

Sidney had been doing well this morning. He’d been reading the sports page, taking a painful comfort in the various analyses of his team’s thus-far nightmare of a season, and listening to dogs barking (the dogs themselves were part of the park’s ruse, being whisked from nature God knew how long ago, the same as the tree Sidney now sat beneath, but he still enjoyed their company). As he reached the end of the last column of print, he made to not so much turn the page but rather, as you do with a newspaper, swing it over, when he was stopped mid-action by seeing the thing he hadn’t liked.

It was happening down the slope, at the top of which grew Sidney’s tree, at the bank of the pond. Two young males, perhaps eighteen, or nineteen, or twenty, or older, sat with their backs to Sidney, with their shoulders and heads hunched down so far that they appeared, at first glance, to be headless. But every so often, one of them would twitch, and their shaggy heads would bob into view, before lowering again to gaze at what the two of them were doing in the dirt in front of them. There was something there on the ground, Sidney could see, or rather sense. The boys were doing something, their arms grinding so powerfully into the earth that a tan dust would sometimes cloud around them, before being whipped apart by a passing breeze. Sidney could see, without quite seeing, that it wasn’t just dirt they were digging into, because the way the boys moved – fast, sometimes, their arms grabbing out – indicated that they wanted to keep something there, to not let it get away, to hold it down. And each boy, as if taking turns, would occasionally look around suddenly, scanning the park and the people in it, for someone who might try to make them stop.

The boys were too far away for Sidney to hear what they were saying, if indeed they were saying anything at all. They were also too far away for Sidney to hear any other noise – those of a pained animal, for instance, or perhaps even a tortured baby (why had he even considered something so horrible?) – and though he was far from the bravest man in the world, or probably even in the park, he felt a strong compulsion to stand up and march down the slope, to demand to know what they were doing, and kick them in the ribs until they stopped doing it. When the boys glanced around anxiously for unsympathetic observers, they were too stupid and myopic to think about who or what was behind them, and therefore didn’t know about Sidney. He could surprise them, bring the shock of his outrage down like an axe blade on their combined, youthful strength, causing them to split apart and scatter in panic.

He stood up.  He brushed at his pants, at unseen leaves and fibers, and began to walk down the slope.  Just as he did so, one of the boys, the one who wore a blood-red jersey with a large white “89” stamped on the back, threw back his moppish head and cackled.  The laugh combined two states of mind, coldness and carefree joy, that Sydney had never heard joined together in his life before.  It was the kind of laugh that belonged to Nazi doctors and the kind of old, hateful men who lived in towers.  Instead of turning him back, the laugh sped Sydney forward.

“Hey!” he called out, waving his rolled up newspaper noiselessly before him.  “Hey!!  You boys!  Hey you boys!  What are up to!?”

One boy, the other one, the one wearing black, swung his head around just enough to catch Sydney in the corner of one disgruntled eye.  The boy’s mouth dropped slack in bored agitation, his good time now ruined by this useless old bastard.  The boy in red then scooped up something from the dirt in front of them, and then seemed to cradle it.  Sydney thought again of a baby, and tried to move faster.  He was closing in, because the boys hadn’t made any attempt to flee yet, but they seemed to be gearing up for it.

“Stop!” Sydney yelled.  “What’ve you got there??  Quit hurting it!”

The boy in black suddenly sprang up, turning as he did, and whipped a small rock at Sydney.  It shot in at about knee level, but skimmed passed, bouncing up the slope.  Sydney barely paused, but as he began to move forward he saw the boy in red, the boy who had swaddled their object of torment, cut into a sprint, one made awkward by his crossed and protective arms.  This stopped Sydney.  The boy was so fast.

And so he stood there, defeated, completely oblivious to the second rock thrown by the second boy, which flit harmlessly by, several feet from his head.  What did catch his eye was that same boy tearing off after his friend, arms swinging free.  He watched them go.  All he could think to do, after a moment, was take a few steps farther down to where the boys had been, sitting in the dust.  There, just in front of where their legs would have been crossed, the dirt was whipped into mud by splashes of red and bits of something else, something pink.

*  *  *  *

Ben walked home.  On his way, he dropped copies of THIS MUST END into a mailbox, on the stoop of a delicatessen, slipped one under the windshield wiper of a Ford Taurus, threw one underhand over the wrought-iron gates of a shambling, crusted over cemetery, bent down and handed one, along with five dollars, to a homeless man who simply nodded continuously through the encounter as though he perfectly understood everything Ben was leaving unspoken, let one, two, three copies fall idly behind him on the sidewalk as he went along, placed another on the wooden bench in the dressing room of a men’s clothier, left another underneath a stack of amusement park coupons inside a bank, another slipped into the middle of a tight and untouched wedge of the city’s free alternative newspaper, another in a baby carriage, the wide-eyed baby pumping its arms, while the unseeing mother tried to understand what her phone was doing, another on one of several of an outdoor café’s glass-top tables that were about to be bussed, another to a man standing on a corner, patting his pockets, his hand rising to take the booklet because he didn’t know what else to do, another he tacked to a corkboard inside a rec center, another he dropped down a sewer, because who knew what might come of that, and several more were slipped between random books in the fiction, history, computer, humor, photography, biography, sports, puzzles and games, sexuality, social studies, and children’s sections of the bookstore near his apartment.  With that done he felt he could call it a morning, and he went home to eat, nap, and then get up and start again.

* *  *  *

Lauren sat in her kitchen.  She’d left the park shortly after the man named Ben took his leave from her, unsure why she’d been there in the first place, and even less clear about what she was supposed to do with her time now.  As she left the gates of the park, she had to pause so a man and a woman, with their two children, a girl and a boy, could pass by.  The little boy held a long toy boat, as tenderly as if it had been a lamb, stretched across both of his skinny arms.  The girl had various inflatable toys, bright yellow and clear-colored, surrounding her arms and her waist.  The parents were both draped with towels.

They’re going to the lake, Lauren thought, before catching herself wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing.  It was really this thought, more than her strange encounter with Ben, that drove her home at a quickened pace.

She now sat in her kitchen.  On the table before her was a copy of THIS MUST END by Dr. Richard Seabright.  It had been taped to the middle of her front door, like a Chinese restaurant flier, while its light blue color put her in mind of notices her parents used to receive from the neighborhood pool.  That tar-black millipede in the center, however, made her think of something scrawled with coal on the inside of cave, as a warning to others.

Lauren didn’t think too hard about how it had ended up on her door.  Ben had put it there, obviously – he knew where she lived, had known before approaching her in the park.  Had he left it on her door before finding her on the bench, or had he somehow beaten her here, and did it matter?  Of course it did, because if he’d done the latter, then he could still be lurking around her building somewhere.  Crouched behind a dumpster, or sitting in the lobby with his face behind a newspaper.  But to what end?  To see if he could make sure she read the damn thing?  How could he possibly do that?  Or to see what would happen to her once she had?

She rose from the table, leaving the booklet unopened.  Maybe she should call someone.  Her mind was being uncooperative today, or rather it was being uncooperative again; it would not let her outside herself, and she sometimes found in that situation that it helped to speak to someone she knew well.  She began counting in her mind how many people who could be described as such still existed.  It was a small number.  Quickly, but confused by her own sudden intensity, she grabbed up THIS MUST END and took it to the sink.  She dug a plastic lighter out from one of the drawers, flicked it, and held an unwavering length of flame to one corner of the pamphlet.  The blue of the cover deepened rapidly to black, and the whole thing began to wither in upon itself.  When half of it was smoke and ash, she dropped the rest into the sink, watched more of it disappear, and then ran the tap over the whole mess.  As she did, the smoke spread out over her ceiling, and her fire alarm began to riot.

*  *  *  *

Sidney sat on a bus, hands clenched into knots across his stomach.  Around him was the odor of food, something ethnic, but not Chinese.  Something that had been slightly burned on purpose. When he’d gotten on the bus, he’d seen no one eating anything.  He was strangely curious about this, but didn’t want to be caught looking at anybody, for fear they’d be crazy, or conclude that he was.  And so now he was staring at the shoes of the woman across from him.  They were sneakers, and he couldn’t help but hear her conversation with the man beside her.  He didn’t know what either of them looked like above the ankles, but he thought she might be averagely pretty, and he might be handsome in the way that some men were, where you could tell that not so long ago he’d been much handsomer.  This Sidney imagined from their voices, and he felt obscurely guilty about it.

“Well, so,” the woman was saying, “then why, then why aren’t we just cutting him off?  Why are we…if he’s going to be ‘You can’t treat me like that, but I can talk to you like whatever’, then why are we deciding we’re going to put up with it?”

The man tried to speak.  “It’s not – “

“No, because, yes it is,” she interrupted.  “No, just listen.  He said – I said to him ‘Douglas, this is our home.  You can’t show up to our home, where we are having guests, and – “

“Jennifer,” the man said firmly.  “You’re not even, like with him, you’re not even letting me get my point in.”

“But why are we – you can make your point, but why are we the bad guys because we won’t have that in our home?”

“So we told him!  We told him that he can’t behave like that, and I think we made it pretty clear.  But you want to, it has to be a scorched earth thing with you.  You want to be done with him completely, just for…and not even for anything you even really disapprove of!”

“Oh, I do,” she said.  Sidney thought she was probably shaking her head here, for emphasis.  “Oh, I do.  You can’t say that.”

“I can!  How can you pretend like this?  I’ve been around you, and I’ve – “

“Okay – “

“ – I’ve seen you do it!”

“No, I know, yes.  But it’s that thing of like, I know when there’s a place for it.  The place for it is not our home, and the time, also, is not when there’re complete outsiders around.”

The bus rolled over a massive divot in the road, and the whole awkward mass of it juddered madly, shaking passengers against their neighbors, and nobody blinked; they just waited for the energy of the jolt to pass through them, and away.  But Sidney had heard a rattle the instant after the bus was jarred, a rattle on the black, ridged, no-slip floor.  Since his eyes were already cast down, he idly began to scan around, looking for the source.

“This is just a circular argument,” the man sighed.

“That’s because you’re not making any sense,” the woman countered, “and you’re not listening.  I don’t see where it’s that hard.”

“Have you even thought how loud you’re being?  You’re being all loud about, on a bus you’re being all loud about how outsiders shouldn’t be around when -- “

“Because they’re our friends.  These are all just strangers.”

“So why does that matter?  You keep making up new rules about this!  No wonder Douglas did what he did.  As far as he knows, that’s how you want to run things this week.  You can never tell from one day to the next.”

“Oh, these people aren’t even listening.”

Sidney heard the rattle again, and his eyes swung along, and caught something small and white, something that might be a pebble, skitter past.

“Well,” the man said, “but I bet they are.  I bet some are.  You can’t say none are.”

“Okay, but I don’t care.  What’ll they do if they hear?  Tell everyone those people on the bus are…whatever.  And anyway, this isn’t even the whole story!  I’m mad at Douglas because of the way he talked to me, and then he had the nerve to be all pissed when I threw it back on him!”

“What was so bad about what he said?  And I’m not, wait don’t get mad.  I’m not even arguing here.  I keep hearing versions of this, but I was in the other room, so I just want to get it clear for once.”

It was a tooth.  Sidney squinted at it, and folded his body forward.  It was a tooth, loose and white and sliding along the floor of the cross-town bus.

“He said, well first I said, ‘Douglas, you can’t bring that into our home.  We have to work this stuff out beforehand, you can’t just show up like this, without saying anything.’  And so he said, ‘Well, but now was the only time.  You know, I had her here, I had her with me and I can’t pick and choose when that’s going to happen.’  I said, ‘Okay, but don’t involve us unless we give you the clear-all, er, the clear ahead, the go on, for it.  You know, it’s our house, we have guests, whatever.’  But I was polite!  So then he says, ‘Jennifer, I don’t even think you get a say here.  This is Russ and my’s thing mainly, and we’re going to do this whether you want to or not.  We’ll go upstairs, and you can serve cookies to your guests.  You’re just here because you’re Russ’s wife.’”

“Oh, Christ,” said the man, Russ.  “Jennifer, you have to tell me all this stuff at the time it happens.  Or even just after, but you have to be clear.  The way you talked about it, I thought maybe he just called you a name or something.  He has no place saying that shit to you.  I can see now why you’re right.”

“But I was so pissed.  And I didn’t want to be like ‘Douglas just said I was just your wife, go tell him I’m not!’  You know, I have to stand up to him.”

The tooth kept skittering, and then the bus hit another bump, and there was more rattling, and Sidney looked to his right, and saw more teeth – three more – hop off the floor, like they were frying in a skillet, and dance off in different directions as the bus rumbled over a patch of old road.  Feeling deeply cold, Sidney then looked to his right, and saw more, some teeth lodged in the rubber ridges of the floor, others nearly lost in the shadows under the seats.  Most were being carried by momentum towards the front, to the driver, and the handicapped seats, and the old people.  Sidney counted maybe ten teeth altogether.

“Well, I’m sorry,” said Russ.  “I didn’t know he’d said that.  I wish you’d told me, but that’s inexcusable that he said that.”  He paused.  “I’ll talk to him.  But don’t, let’s not start that argument again now.  I have to let this sink in now.  Can you let me talk to him?  You don’t have to, but I do.  He’s my best friend.  I’m on your side on this now, now that I know, but I have to talk to him.”

“Fine.  I don’t care.  Just do whatever it is you do.”

Sidney sat back in his seat, and breathed in deeply – this was essentially a gasp, more than a deep breath, and there was a catch to it at the finish, so in the end it sounded like a loud hiccup.  He now was able to look the couple in the face.  They were young, maybe late twenties.  His hair was cut very short, and it spiked up on top.  He was tan, and wore a red button-up shirt that was so bright it seemed like an announcement of some kind.  She was lovely, in an earthy sort of way – black hair, deeply black, and thick, the kind of hair you gathered up in handfuls.

“So what did he even do with her when he left?” Jennifer asked Russ.  “Did he even tell you?”

“What could he do by then?  Went to the lake, I guess.  I hope.  He’s so stupid, though.  Who knows.”

END OF PART ONE

(Here's Part Two and here's Part Three.)

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