Saturday, March 21, 2015

This Must End - Part Three

Part One is here. Part Two is here.

Sidney still hadn’t made it home, and his head was filled with a terrible rumbling.  He was long off the bus, and had long ago sought a wobbly iron mesh table and sharp iron mesh chair, one set among a scattered many along the sidewalk across the street from the zoo, from which, too, there came a rumbling.  Of hunger, Sidney thought, or outrage, maybe.  He pressed his hands over his ears and the rumbling grew louder and wrapped around his face like a pillow being pressed over his gasping breath.

On the table beside him was a copy of THIS MUST END by Dr. Richard Seabright.  It had been handed to him by a thin grinning man on a street corner several blocks back.  The man had been short in a way that made Sidney wonder if there was some intermediate growth abnormality between dwarfism and gigantism, one that rendered the sufferer somehow of average height but smaller than you’d think they should be.  Anyway, the crown of his head had reached about to Sidney’s nose, and his dark hair had been shaved down to an inkstain on his scalp.  Sidney figured him for a moron and took the blue booklet the man was proffering as a reflex to not offend the innocent.  He would trash it once he could not longer be seen.

“It’s a good book,” the moron said.

Sidney looked at him.  He’d spent his walk from the bus stop fingering his ears, trying to clear up an odd, cottony sound in his head, something like hearing the ocean inside a seashell, but thicker, less hollow, and trying, absurdly, to blink away thoughts of the teeth, and the conversation he’d overheard, and the boys with their blood-smeared dirt and some tortured thing in their arms.  The theme of his day, one of them, had been powerlessness, which had extended itself from the physical self and his inability to do anything about the things he saw, to the mental, and his inability to process even a minute of any of it.  He’d quickly become exasperated.  Before even getting off the bus, as he’d watched a tooth dance along the rubber mat of the bus floor, Sidney had surrendered.  The world, or maybe just today, is a chamber pot, filled to overflowing.  Fine.  Sidney was still capable of closing the door on it.  Sleeping for two days straight would be a better use of his time than stepping out and sinking down to his neck.

But Sidney looked at the man.  Just because he was at a loss for anything else to do.  He wasn’t far from home.

“I’m sorry?” he finally said.

“It’s a good book,” the moron said, grinning with his teeth more than his lips and nodding down at the booklet, which Sidney now finally looked at.  THIS MUST END.  It didn’t seem so long.  Hardly a book.

“Good,” Sidney said.  “Thank you.  I’ll read it when I get home.”

As he began to turn, the moron said “Will you?”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to it,” Sidney said, pausing in his turn, but ready to complete the move.

“Do you hear a rumbling?” the moron said now.

“Excuse me?” Sidney replied, turning back.

“I hear a rumbling.  Do you hear a rumbling?”

Sidney had begun to unconsciously dig his finger into his ear, trying to scoop out the leaves and the cotton and all the dead insects or whatever was turning the inside of his skull into an underground cave feeding its echoes into a live microphone.

“No,” he said.  “A rumbling?”

“Yes.”  Everyone else using the sidewalk rustled by the two of them, not shoving them out of their way only because that might bring the police.

“What kind of rumbling.”

The moron’s teeth grinned wider and he shrugged.

“Like uh oh, this is it, I guess.”

Sidney squinched his face up as though the man reeked, which, Sidney was surprised to realize he didn’t.  Where did he live? Sidney wondered.  In a home?  Under a bush?

“What is your name,” Sidney found himself saying.  He wanted to bite off the words, but the impulse came just in time to soften his inflection, rendering the question a statement of some weird construction.

“My name’s Keith,” the other man said.  “I’m not crazy.”

“No, of course not,” Sidney said, looking down at the black millipede on the blue field in his hands.  “I thought maybe you were Richard Seabright.”  He hadn’t thought that.

“No, no!” Keith protested, almost offended.  “No!  What a thing to think!  I don’t even know Dr. Richard Seabright.  But he is a great man.”  And here Keith put his hand out and took hold of Sidney’s wrist.  “He is a great man.”

Sidney wanted to pull away, but he was determined to retain his civility.  He looked into Keith’s eyes, possibly for the first time since they’d been talking.  Keith’s cheeks were round and extended and his eyes were pinched almost shut.

“This book has helped you a lot, hasn’t it?” Sidney asked.

Keith nodded and said, “Oh yes.”  Then he said, “Do you know Ben?”

And so Sidney pulled himself free from Keith’s grip, as gently as he could manage, nodded his thanks but said nothing, and tried to dream away the rumbling in his head, which by now had added a rhythm, a pulse not quite like a healthy heartbeat, but maybe like an irregular heartbeat, a terrified heartbeat, one that had discovered a hardening somewhere.  He’d hurried along the sidewalk insensible to the people and their noises, clutching THIS MUST END in the weak bones of his hand.  When he’d found the iron mesh table and the sharp iron mesh chair, amazingly empty on this crowded day – though it was beginning to cloud up, and the anticipated rain would soon be here -- he sunk into their arms as if they’d been a nurse and a kind doctor who had something that would make him better, or feel better.

He smoothed out THIS MUST END but its wrinkles held fast, and the booklet curled up at the sides as if restless.  It was restless so he opened it.  He did so randomly, flipping past the stapled middle and finding a page near the end.  On that page he read:

Why do we?  Who are you?  Is that why?  How is this?  What are you?  What is this?  This is what?  Why is that?  Can you hear me?  Did you hear that?  Do you hear that?  What is that?  That is what?  How could you?  How can we?  How can we what?  Did I hear what?  What can you hear?  Why can’t you hear it?  You can hear it, can’t you?  Hear what?  Hear who?  Where are we?  Where were we?  Why now?  Now what?  What now?  Who says?  Why can’t we?  Who says so?  Says who?  Why is that?  Can’t you hear it?  What was that?  Who is that?  Where is that?  Where is this?  Who is this?  Why?  Why not?  Why not now?  Why not what?  How did you do that?  Who did that?  What was what?  In what way?  Can you say it?  Can you hear me?  Can you hear this?  Who am I?  What am I hearing?  What are you hearing?  Why don’t they hear it?  Who are they?  Are you crazy?  Is that what this is?  What is this?  When will we know?  What will we know?  Know what?  Why are you here?  Who asked you here?  Who asked you?  Why do you care?  Who cares?  Why are you screaming?  What is that sound?  Who is making that sound?  Where is that sound coming from?  What sound?  What sound?  What sound?  That sound?  What is that sound?  Can you hear this?  What is this?  Are you okay?  Are you feeling okay?  How does it feel?  How does this feel?  Is this bad?  Can you see their faces?  What faces?  What are they saying?  Can they speak?  Do they speak?  What do they mean?  What does this mean?  Is this too loud?  Is this ever going to stop?  Will this ever stop?  Will this end?  This is what?  Will this what?  Can I hear what?  Do you hear what?  What is what?  Why is what?  When is what?  This is this.  That is so.  They are here.  This must end.

“Excuse me, Sidney?”

Sidney’s head snapped up from the page and he blinked his eyes.  A shadow was outlined against the bright day.  But then it shifted and Sidney saw it was Keith, looking down on him in that sharp chair, and though he was only a foot away his voice whispered through the rumbling like a dying shout.

Sidney said, “What…?”

“Can you hear me, Sidney?” asked Keith.  There was another sharp chair and Keith sat in it.  “You’ve been reading.”  He took from his pocket a card, which he laid on the table.  It was the same blue as the cover of THIS MUST END, and the only words written on it, printed cheaply on it, were TONIGHT THE BASEMENT OF THE MAGIC HOUR THEATER 11:00 REFRESHMENTS.

“You should go,” said Keith.

Sidney picked up the card.

Sidney.”

He put it in his pocket.

Sidney.”

Sidney looked up at Keith.  Keith had rolled up his left sleeve and laid out one hairy forearm across the mesh table as if he was preparing to shoot heroin.

“Look,” said Keith.

Then in his right hand Keith produced a large knife, which he stabbed into his left wrist, right where the blue veins began to branch off.

“Look,” said Keith, and he dug through his flesh.  Blood spurted at first, then began to flood out like filthy water from an overflowing toilet.

“Sidney, watch.”

He began to split his arm with the knife with a determined sawing.  The meat of his arm parted.  The blood sieved through the table’s iron mesh.

Sidney, look.”

He was up to the elbow now.

“Look, Sidney, watch.”

*  *  *  *

“But why?  Where is he?”

Ben stood slightly hunched over the long table of food.  It was all doughnuts and pastries and he didn’t want any of it.  He imagined little sandwiches and wondered why Stephen hadn’t even thought of that, which Ben knew he hadn’t.  Stephen would have sped to the day-old bread place where he would have swept his arm along the tan shelves that housed all the things that had frosting on them until his cart was full, and then he’d have hurried out after having spent less than the price of lunch for two at the House Grille.  Which, if this was a morning meeting, never mind that these were never morning meetings, but if this had been a morning meeting would have been fine.  This meeting was pegged for late night, however, and Ben thought there should be something suitable for a quick dinner.  But he wouldn’t complain.

“Ben?” Stephen said.

“Yes, Stephen,” Ben said, moving on to the coffee pot.

“Where is he?” Stephen repeated.

“I don’t know.  I was told he needed rest, so he’s home, I’d imagine.”

“Why does he always need rest?” Stephen asked.  Stephen was sitting under the dry-erase board on which was a massive drawing of a millipede.  He wore a light-blue button-up shirt, no tie, cuffs folded up as though he was about to get to work on something he hadn’t dressed for.

“Because he’s old,” said Ben.  “Do you think he’s young?”  Before Stephen could reply with something stupid, Ben continued, “You’re new, Stephen, or you’re relatively new.  You have certain expectations that I guess are natural, even though I can’t remember having had them myself.  But let’s allow that they’re natural.”  He stirred some sugar into his coffee, and had been doing so longer than necessary.  He dropped the stirrer into the charcoal-green, trashbag lined, penitentiary-issue plastic garbage can stationed by the doughnuts.  He remained standing as he said, “You’re going to have to regard yourself as going through a second adolescence now.  So during your first one, you’d say or think ‘Why isn’t everyone giving me handouts?  Why are grownups such, whatever.  Jerks.  Why do I have to go to college, why do I have to get a job, why can’t I just get drunk or stoned all the time.’ I’m being blunt with you when I say that you asking me where he is, is like a teenager being a typical teenager dope.  So I’m the grownup telling you you’re being a dope.  You ask me this all the time, or if not me then Diana or Neil.  After a couple of months, I think we’d all have hoped you’d at least have a new question by now.”

Stephen’s Styrofoam coffee cup was empty and he’d been very gradually crushing it between his hands for the last five minutes.  As Ben spoke, he stared into it at the ring of pale brown liquid that slid around the bottom the way he’d seen mercury run from a broken themometer.  Finally, after Ben had been silent for a little while, Stephen looked up and said “Is it part of the system to talk down to anyone who’s frustrated about something?  Or curious?”

Ben shook his head.  He sipped his coffee and wished it was hotter.  He wanted to close his eyes and just listen to the rumble.

“Stephen, do you know what’s so wrong with what you just said?  And if you don’t, how can’t you?  You’re frustrated?  You’re curious?  I would throw you out on your head for that if…Never mind, forget it.  What time is it?  People will be getting here soon.”

*  *  *  *

It was night, and she was back in the park.  The park butted up against the lake, and in truth she was heading there.  Municipally they were separated, but no one thought of them separately.  Regardless, Lauren was heading to the lake.  She was dressed in sweatpants and sneakers, a blue t-shirt and a blue windbreaker.  She’d brought with her no towel or sailboat or inflatable toys or bathing suit.

As she walked through the cool grass and mild blue-black air, the inside of her head sounded like to seashells had been pressed over her ears until her skull and flesh were bruised, and the illusion of the ocean had filled her hearing.  The ocean, or whatever it was, sounded very deep.  Which of course it was, but she could hear it, the depth, very clearly.  Whatever it was.  But it made her head pound, and kept her from sleeping.  It had, in fact, driven her from her bed and into her kitchen, where she hunched over the sink filling a large glass over and over with water, each time chugging it down so furiously that some spilled out of the sides of her mouth and down her neck, spotting her shirt and chilling her skin.  She drank so much of it that she was using the restroom for the fourth time when the idea occurred to her to go to the lake, and to take nothing with her.

This idea occurred to her very suddenly, without much in the way of a preamble, at least not a preamble of thought, after what had happened when she decided to go downstairs and across the street to get some soup.  She hadn’t been eating a great deal, and while she didn’t feel ill she thought she would have trouble keeping down anything more than that, though she did wonder if she might risk a thick soup as opposed to a brothy one, which, if she had any cravings left, for anything, she didn’t have one for broth.  She chose to look at this optimistically:  if she had a preference for one kind of thing over another kind of thing, and chose to satisfy that preference instead of dismissing it as yet one more thing that didn’t matter, then perhaps one day other things would begin to matter to her again, and perhaps the things that mattered would flood out the roaring in her skull that she now regarded as something that had crowded in there simply due to the absence of anything else.  Anything, including, almost, any thoughts at all.  She still thought, of course -- if she was sitting down to do something, which she now rarely did, but, for instance, when she’d been in the library earlier today, an open page forced her mind to register something, at least.  And there was also the soup.  But most of the time she could find herself sitting still in a chair, and it could be an hour or more before she realized that her mind had been exactly as blank as her staring eyes.  The TV would not be on, nor would the radio, because turning either one on would simply not occur to her.  And so the roaring filled up the space, and her head felt like it contained all the dumb, empty menace of a thunderstorm, or, indeed of the surf, from which any number of dead things washed ashore.  Though it was finally getting on to evening, she sometimes felt that this must be the longest day in recorded history.

As Lauren stepped out of her apartment building, she noticed that the rain had let up, and she knew that in better days she might have taken this – not literally -- as some kind of blessing:  Things Are Lookin’ Up.  Now it was merely another pattern of weather, and she didn’t even feel grateful that at least she would remain dry.  Traffic was slow, so she strolled, rather than hurried, across the street, and went directly into the restaurant, went to the bar and asked to place a carry-out order.

“Absolutely,” said the bartender, “what would you like?”

This place had potato soup and tomato soup and clam chowder, and other chowders – ham, she thought – as well as chicken and a few other brothy ones.  Lauren said “Chicken soup.”

“Good for this kind of weather,” said the bartender, and typed the order into his register.

“Yes,” said Lauren, and sat on a barstool and wondered why she’d ordered a brothy soup.  It was so stupid.  She was so stupid.

After paying for and receiving the warm paper bag with the container of soup and napkins and a plastic spoon inside, Lauren stepped outside of the restaurant and stopped.  Right next to her was a trashcan, and she dropped the soup inside it.  There weren’t many people around, so she could retrieve it easily enough and just go home and eat the soup she’d paid for, and she used to like chicken soup anyway, but instead she reached in and mashed her fist against the bag until she was sure the container inside had opened up and the soup was spilling out to mix with all the other garbage below it.  Then she straightened up, fixed the strap of her purse firmly over her shoulder, and was about to walk the few yards back to her apartment building and stare again at nothing until the roaring exhausted her and she slept – sort of the opposite aim of those CDs that played ocean sounds in order to soothe, but bizarrely achieving the same end result – but she suddenly couldn’t move because in the open doorway of her apartment building stood a large figure in a dull, dark robe, and wearing an oblong mask, with features at once abstract and animalistic – actually animalistic, in that she felt if she could see it up close she would recognize the specific creature it meant to evoke, a cat or rabbit or bear or hyena.  So naturally, Lauren froze.

At first, it, or he, or she, was also motionless, and Lauren couldn’t be certain that it was even looking at her.  And she wondered briefly what today’s date was, if perhaps in her increasingly obliterative fog it could perhaps be Halloween and she didn’t realize it.  She knew it wasn’t, though – she remembered the passage from THIS MUST END that essentially described the exact thing she was seeing.  Was seeing, and that was seeing her – she knew now that it was, indeed, looking at her, directly and specifically.  Lauren had a brief, mad impulse to wave to it.  Or him, or her.  She checked the impulse, but just as she’d done so it, the figure, raised its own left arm.  Would it wave?  Was it polite?  Then she saw it was raising both arms, and then placing both hands over its ears.  It held its hands there, and shook its head slowly.  It was communicating.  Then in her mind, Lauren heard a whispered word:  “No.”  She realized the roaring was gone, not even dimmed, completely gone.  Did this thing have a cure for her?  She marveled, and felt warm, at the notion that this bizarre thing could be a savior.  It was not far from her thoughts that she might also be insane now, that perhaps the inevitable snap had finally occurred, but even if that turned out to be the case this experience seemed to indicate to her that her madness would be benign and improbably cleansing.  So she didn’t mind the voice in her head that she recognized as being anything but her own.  She waited with both terror and eagerness for it to speak again.

Then the figure removed its hands from its ears, and all at once the roaring inside Lauren’s skull flooded back with a terrible force, a rumbling wet crash that was like all the buildings around her were exploding, and would keep exploding forever.  The blast and crumble would be perpetual.  It was both a roar and rumble, the sound of constant, violent collapse.  It drove Lauren to her knees, it made her gasp, and she wondered if it was possible for a sound that existed only within a person’s mind could cause them to go deaf.  She thought she might be screaming, but anyway she was crying desperately, her nose was running, and she kept swallowing.  And through it all, somehow, the voice in her head that had offered the counterintuitively hopeful whisper “No” just minutes ago now pitched itself into a shriek like gears grinding and forks on plates: “YES” it said.  “YES” it repeated.  “YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES.”  Lauren managed to raise her drained face, and she saw the figure with its arms outstretched as if for an embrace, and it was nodding its head.  “YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES.”

Lauren wondered if biting clean through her own tongue might stop all this, but before she could try that the roar dropped out, not away, but down into a fuzz like a white noise through which an unintelligible voice could be heard.  But it wasn’t loud, and the sudden release from what had come before made her gasp again.  Gone completely, she saw, was the figure from her apartment doorway, which was now closed.  “I’m insane,” Lauren thought, still on her knees.  Behind her, suddenly, someone said “Miss, are you okay?”  Lauren jerked her head around, and saw a person, the bartender, standing above her, a look of panic on his face.  “Should I call someone?”

Lauren stared at him.  “Did I scream?” she asked.

The man wasn’t expecting that, and asked again “Are you okay?”

“Was I making noise?” Lauren asked.

“…No, I don’t…Let me help you up.”

He reached out his hand, and she took it, and he helped her to her feet.  She said thank you and walked back to her apartment, where she began drinking water.

Now, she was at the lake.  It was dark out, finally.  The ground was wet, but the air felt clear.  She could hear some noises from the park, some dogs barking and people having loud conversations that were far enough away that it just sounded like insect buzzing.  The sky itself was somewhat lit by the lights stationed along the main grounds, but the lake was in blackness and there was no one around, because it had rained.  There was no moon to reflect off the lake, and so the water was darker than the sky.

Lauren gathered stones, searching for them with a small flashlight.  She’d been keeping them in her pockets, but in order to fit there they had to be so small as to be useless.  So soon she emptied her pockets, and began to scout for one big one.  There were several very big ones.  She settled on one that seemed reasonably flat, and spent about five minutes rocking it back and forth so that it came free from the earth with a wet parting sound, and then, with her knees well bent, she lifted it.  She could only raise it to her knees as she stood, so that she was hunched over as she carried it into the water.  Plus the stone was wet and muddy, so she had to hurry before her already tenuous grip gave out.

The water was very cold, which somehow surprised her.  She’d come to think of it as more of a bath, but she knew this was a form of denial.  She went out until the water was up to her knees, right where the stone was hanging in her hands, and then she sat down with the stone in her lap – an awkward move, but as long as the stone didn’t tip away from her, grace wasn’t needed.  And the water didn’t need to be deep.  She took a deep breath and laid back in the water, like she was reclining, until she was entirely submerged.  Then she slowly, because she couldn’t do it fast, but still in some ways fiercely pulled the stone from where it rested on her pelvis up until it was on her chest.  Once that was done, she wondered what to do with her hands, and suddenly she worried that when it came down to it she might just heave the stone back off.  If she’d thought to bring a knife, she could cut into her palms so that if that impulse did take hold it would at least be painful and therefore that much more difficult.  But she hadn’t even thought of this, and so she cursed herself again, and wedged her hands under her back.  Then her breath, which she’d been holding for some reason, pushed out of her lungs and bubbled in a rush out of her mouth.  She couldn’t see anything.  She felt leaves floating across her face, and the grit from the mud was in her scalp.  Her eyes stung, and her hair floated like lace in a breeze.  Her hands stayed under her back, where they felt all the mud and the pebbles.  Soon enough, the breath she’d released needed to be replaced, and here she though her hands would free themselves, something they could do very easily.  But they didn’t.  She felt gratified by this, but very briefly she actually wondered why she should be.  Then her breath was replaced, by something else entirely, and while her head and legs thrashed her hands did not move.  The experience was very painful, and not exactly brief.  It seemed to her very loud, but was in fact very quiet.

*  *  *  *

Sidney walked down the beige steps with the black rubber surface to prevent slipping, at the bottom of which, to the right of a brick wall, blank save for a fire extinguisher pinned against it, was an open doorway.  The room on the other side was brightly lit, and was filled with voices.  Small talk and such.  When Sidney reached it, he saw a room full of men, mostly, with a dotting here and there of women who sat in the otherwise empty chairs talking amongst themselves.  The men mostly wore ties, and appeared to have not changed since leaving work, or perhaps had just left work, having worked late again.  The men wearing ties had their shirtsleeves unbuttoned and loosely rolled up to just below their elbows.  They held, and the women did too, Styrofoam cups of what Sidney rightly guessed was coffee.  Some of the women who were sitting had doughnuts on napkins in their laps.  One of these women, Sidney saw, was the woman on the bus from earlier.  Surprised, he scanned the room until he found the man who’d been with her, and Sidney finally saw him at the snack table, looking at the hole of a jelly doughnut, checking out the color of the filling.  He put that one back and checked another.

“Excuse me,” said a voice behind Sidney, and Sidney turned to see a young man easing sideways past him into the room.

On one wall of the room was a large dry-erase board with a millipede drawn on it, and by that board was a man in a gray suit, whose face split into a grin when he saw the young man.

“Todd!” the man said, and Sidney saw the young man – Todd – turn, shocked to hear his name.  The man in the gray suit approached Todd and held out his hand.  “I’m so glad you made it,” the man said.  “It has been a day, my friend, and you just brightened it.  Welcome.”

Todd mumbled something like “Thanks.”

“Snacks over there,” said the man, “Help yourself, coffee, take a seat, there’s plenty of room.”

Being nearby, the man now noticed Sidney.  He held his hand out.

“Well good evening, old timer,” he said.  “No offense.  How are you doing tonight?”

“I’m fine,” Sidney said.

“We’ll see, right?  You heard me tell Todd about the snacks?  And the coffee?  You go hit that, okay?  We’ll be starting soon.”

Sidney didn’t go to the snack table, or to the coffee.  He took a seat – the chairs were all gray metal folding chairs, and added to the dying institutional feel of the whole room.  When this theater was up and running, what was this room for?

Sidney sat quietly for a while, the murmur of conversation around him nothing more than a sound that washed through his ears.  His only thought as he sat there was that he didn’t see the man who’d sliced open his arm, who had given him THIS MUST END.  Sidney didn’t care.  He just sat and waited.  He looked at his watch.  When he’d finally gotten home, how long had he slept?  When he lay down on his couch it had just started to rain.  That was at what time?

Finally, the man in the gray suit went back to his place in front of the picture of the millipede, raised a hand, and began to speak.

“Okay, excuse me everybody, I thought we’d begin?  I think we’re just about at capacity, or near enough, and it’s time in any case.  Hi.  My name is Ben.  And what I want to teach you all tonight is something you already I think basically understand, in your gut, even if you can’t express it.  I’m going to teach you how to express it.  Okay, I'd like to get right into it, but let’s start with something simple.”  He reached into his jacket and pulled from the inside pocket a handgun.  This he held up.  “Now," he asked "who can tell me what this is for?”

THE END

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