Saturday, March 21, 2015

This Must End - Part Two

Part One is here.

And so Ben stepped into a restaurant called Barney’s.  He’d awoken from his nap with no desire for food, but a need to work.  The restaurant was busy with the lunch crowd, and very beige and forest green in its color scheme.  All the tables were glossy wood, shiny and chipped and old with paper mats of forest green placed on top.  The place appeared to specialize in sandwiches, though the table nearest him was occupied by two women, one maybe fifty and thin, and the other maybe thirty and thin, stabbing their thin forks into enormous salads.  The older woman said “I can’t even today.  If it wouldn’t get me fired I wouldn’t even bother with the salad.  Just a row of margaritas.”

The younger woman said, “Oh stop.  Just let’s have lunch.  Lunch is my time, or lunch is our time.  I don’t want work to piss all over this, too.”

The older woman was silent.

Ben was nakedly staring at them when another woman, pretty and blonde and small and dressed in the colors of the restaurant, came up to him holding a menu.  She smiled brightly and Ben smiled back.  Before she could speak, Ben said to her, “Good afternoon, will you be my waitress today?”

She laughed and said, “No, but I’ll be happy to seat you.  Just one today?”

Still smiling, Ben said, “Every day.”

“Oh no!” she grieved brightly, before turning to lead him to a table.

Once seated, Ben ignored his menu, placing on top of it a copy of Seabright’s THIS MUST END.  On top of that, he placed his hands.  He waited only a few seconds, expecting a waiter or waitress to appear, but when no one did he lost patience with himself and opened THIS MUST END right in the middle, where the staples neatly divided the booklet and made it almost impossible to randomly open to any other page.  Seabright had thought of this, of the casual passer-by whose eye is caught by the light blue cover and the black millipede set against the dishwater newsprint of the stack of daily papers atop which THIS MUST END was placed (or at the bus stop or in the stall of a public bathroom or…).  They would pick it up, and if they didn’t turn to page one, they’d turn to the middle, as the staples dictated, and they would read:

By then I thought it would never work that no one would ever listen to me.  I had thought that by then if no one would listen to me then I should be dead.  There are only two options I thought which were that I should die or my teachings should sweep over you all.  So I took to carrying a gun around with me everywhere for whenever I thought the mood would strike me or if I saw nothing changing anywhere then I would take out the gun wherever I was at the time that I was thinking of it and I would place the barrel of the gun against my left eyeball and would pull the trigger into sunlight and shade.  But then one day at night I was out walking.  It was maybe 7 or 8 o’clock.  I was near Clover Square on Beaumont Street under a streetlamp next to a garbage can and a mailbox.  I don’t know where I had been going but I know that I had stopped walking and was standing under the streetlamp looking down at the sidewalk.  My breathing was labored and I thought I was going to die.  I waited to see if I would.  But then just before I could die I heard someone call my name.  “Doctor Seabright!” they called and I turned to look.  It was Davis who I had met in the basement of the theater two months ago.  You who are reading this will remember him.  I told Davis all of my teachings that night along with all the others.  And now here was Davis calling my name and running towards me through the streetlamps light.  “Davis” I said “how are you doing?” “Doctor Seabright” he said when he was standing in front of me “it is true it is all true.  I am sorry and I love you.” “Why are you sorry my child?” I asked him. “Because inside of me I made fun of you that night but then later I saw everything you said I would see.  I saw it in my home and behind my eyes when I slept in my bed.  I saw it coiled around the cars of our city and the buildings of our city and that which did not coil seeped into the cracks of our city.  I saw the glow at night and the mist of the morning.  I felt it in the grip of my hands and the beating inside my skull.  It washed my vision with red and when I began to be able to hear it it was so loud.  It wakes me up and tells me things that make me nod my head.”  This made me myself nod at Davis to confirm to him that yes what he was seeing and hearing was true and as I had explained it would be.  “Good” I said “now what will you do?” But he shook his head.  “I can’t” he said.  “Very well” I said and was proud that I had brought my gun with me.  I removed the gun from my coat and placed the barrel against his left eyeball.  I squeezed the trigger as they say you should do and Davis painted the sky as I promised him and all the others they would do that night in the basement of the theater.

“Good afternoon, sir, my name’s Todd, I’ll be your server today.”

This from a young man with bristly black hair who now hovered grinning over Ben with a pad and pen.  Ben slowly closed THIS MUST END and looked up at his waiter.  The smile that drifted across Ben’s face was rather dreamy.

“Hi, Todd,” he said.

“Hi.  Can I start you off with something to drink?”

“Sure, yes.  Well, just how about water for now?”

“Sure.  I’m sorry, do you have silverware?”

Ben looked down at his table and all he could see was the blue of THIS MUST END and the black of its millipede.  Maybe there was silverware there, maybe there wasn’t.

“Excuse me,” Todd said, and leaned over to the empty table beside Ben from which he plucked a knife, fork, probably a spoon, wrapped up tightly in a napkin.

“Todd,” Ben said, “may I ask you a question?”

Straightening up the table and placing the silverware carelessly on top of THIS MUST END, which Ben quickly pushed away, Todd said “Absolutely you can.”

Ben thought for a second.  The correct words he wanted were elusive.  Articulateness was a gift he possessed only sporadically.  Though he could manage it, and sometimes even impress himself, the words did not always flow from him the way they did from Dr. Seabright.  Dr. Seabright spoke as if language was a thing and a gift that was only his.

“Todd,” he began, “I wonder if you know this book that I have here on my table here?”

Todd’s eyes widened a bit at the realization that the question appeared to have nothing to do with his job.  But he turned his body and bent his neck so he could read the title.  “’This Must End,’” he read aloud.  “No, I don’t know it.  Is that a book?”

“It is a book, a short book.  You can call it a booklet if you’d like.  I won’t be offended.”

“No, that’s fine,” Todd said, smiling. “Are you Dr. Richard Seabright?”

Smiling, Ben said “No, I’m not, though it’s unbelievably flattering to me that you would even think so.  Todd, can I give you this book?”

“Oh, no,” Todd said, his smile turning panicked.  “No, is it a – no, I can’t take gifts.”

“You can take tips?”

“That’s not a tip.”

“It is if I want it to be my tip to you.”

“Well,” Todd said.  “When you’re done eating, if you’d like to leave that for me I’ll take a look at it later, I promise.  Hey, have you had a chance to look at our menu yet?”

“Todd,” Ben said, sitting back in his chair.  “You will take this book home with you, I feel very confident of that.  But let’s say you don’t, okay?  Let’s say you leave it for the busboy, or let’s say you throw it away personally.  What happens after I leave here, that’s just what happens.  But whatever you do, when you go home tonight, I want you to look around you.  On the bus or the subway or in the alleys.  Just look around.  Look down, and then look up.  Open your ears to it.  You will hear a rumbling.”

Todd was not sure what to do.  “I’ll come back,” he said.

“I’m being direct with you, more direct than I usually am with people, and you think I’m crazy.  But when you leave, with Dr. Seabright’s book or without it, you will hear the rumbling.  It’s in your head now, and you’re imagining what it might sound like, and without trying you will be listening for it, and you’ll hear it.  It will sound nothing like what you hear in your head right now.  Right now, you in your imagination, you hear a subway, or the shaking of a drier or washing machine.  What you will hear tonight will be ferocious.  Todd, imagine a volcano boiling over, puking its hot guts up over the volcano’s massive lip, and imagine it all cracking apart, and the Earth, the whole planet, shaking to pieces as these boiling guts from inside its enormous belly slosh over and down onto everything and over every living person.  Imagine the collapse that would follow.  I’m saying that the last seconds of life for everybody on this planet are spent only in fire.  It would be shared.  Imagine the rumbling that would accompany an event such as that.  Compared to what you will hear tonight, that rumbling is nothing.  And you’ll have this book with you when you leave, or you won’t.  I can assure you of this, Todd, that if you don’t have it you will find yourself later sitting in your apartment wondering if all the restaurant’s trash is in the dumpster, and if so, if maybe you should come back here and start digging.”

Todd turned away, saying “I’ll get your water.”

Ben stood up, THIS MUST END still on the table.

“Don’t bother,” he said, and left.

*  *  *  *

It was raining quite hard.  The window over Lauren’s desk looked like someone was aiming a hose at it.  As far as Lauren was concerned, this figured.  Currently, she was in one of her most acceptable moods, one of sardonic resignation that allowed into her existence at least a kind of jaundiced light.  It was the kind of mood that drunks sometimes adopted in order to feel that their drinking problem has made them interesting, though in Lauren’s case she wasn’t fooling herself.  This, too, wasn’t bad – if it wasn’t an oxymoron to fool yourself into believing you weren’t delusional, then she had that, too.  In any case, it was the best mix she’d been able to cobble together so far.  It was the one that allowed her to read or focus on a TV show or cook for herself, and it was the one that did the best job of dragging her through her days at work.  This wasn’t one of those days, thank God, though in the back of her mind she almost regretted that this mood, which was a hard one to maintain, should be wasted on a Saturday.

But moods came and went, and were brought on, and shown the door by, signs and events and fleeting thoughts that were beyond her control.  A newspaper headline might remind her that it wasn’t her apartment building that had burned down around her ears while she slept.  Or something sweet, like a friendly looking dog out for a walk.  The human walking the dog rarely left an impression, but the smile that some dogs’ faces just naturally fell into as their default approach to life (seemingly, anyway) could make her brighten just enough to berate herself for being so miserable all the time.  Today was different in that her mood was a reaction to something inexplicable, objectively inexplicable, and since for all her other problems Lauren was not of a superstitious bent (paranoid, yes, but that was different, or often was, or could usually be made to be) she was left with nothing else to do but figuratively throw up her hands in a  greeting-card-esque “That’s life!” gesture of the kind that would lead others who were either more or less philosophical than she to remark that at least they’d woken that morning on the right side of the grass.

It had started maybe an hour or two after she’d burned THIS MUST END in her sink.  She’d gotten the fire alarm silenced, she’d aired out her apartment, and then, obscurely disgusted with everything around her had decided that maybe she should really leave her apartment, if only to buy a sandwich or some wine.  Or go to the library, which is where people such as herself very often found themselves on Saturdays.  She’d finally shamelessly settled on this latter option, and damn the library employees who’d become used to her presence, and whose familiarity – theirs of her, not hers of them – only managed to ratchet up her loneliness to the point where she sought out the loneliest bookshelf alleys to slowly grind her time to dust beneath her boot.  But she went all the same, because there even the failure to find anything to occupy her mind could drain her day and fuzz out her mind, as long as she was persistent.  So she walked the five blocks to her local branch, which wasn’t a big one, even compared to the other satellites that revolved around the actually big one downtown, and blew through the doors with the sole object of catching no one’s eye until she’d made it to the corner of the library she’d pegged as her destination.  There was nothing specifically appealing about the spot in terms of the books found there, she was pretty sure it was biographies of some kind, but they weren’t technical manuals, and very often it was basically unpopulated. 

As it proved to be today.  Lauren gratefully ended her beeline among the stacks, and sat on one of the metal stools people were supposed to stand on to reach the out-of-reach books.  She fiddled uselessly and needlessly with her dress, which felt loose and old, but finally mustered enough discipline to scan the spines of the books for something she might read for a while, or with thick clusters of glossy photographs she could look at and imagine about.  Literary biographies these appeared to be, and the realization brought out an audible sigh.  She didn’t know who these people were.  She might like to learn about them, and doing so might even count, in her life, as a genuine ambition, but such ideas did her no good right now.  Unwilling to move yet, however, she randomly snatched at one, a fat one about Charles Dickens, which was a name she knew because it was one of those names a person could hardly get through life without knowing, like Dracula.  God, it was such a long book.  The very existence of it made her feel eighty years old.  She let it flop open in her lap and began scanning the pages, flipping dozens of pages at a time, looking for something, a scandal, a tragedy, even an interesting success -- she wasn’t so morbid that she maliciously wished ill on others – and she did find something about spontaneous combustion, though this turned out to be from one of his novels.  Much later in the book was an account of some kind of mental break Dickens had suffered, either having to do with or manifesting itself through public readings of a murder scene from another one of his books, and here Lauren was able to feel some measure of sympathy, though it must remain of a very vague sort.  But Charles Dickens, too, was not well.  Maybe not sympathy so much as triumph.

The book was too long, though, too overbearingly massive, so she closed it and moved to put it back on its shelf when she saw, in the space the biography had left, something else very thin, a book of a sort, leaning across the gap.  She touched it to move it out of the way when she saw the color – a soft, welcoming blue.  Now Lauren sighed, weary in the way other people become when they can’t stop dropping things and as aggravating as it becomes they must finally acknowledge the absurdity of it.  She took the booklet from the shelf, replaced the biography, and turned THIS MUST END so she could see the cover, though she knew full well what it was.  And it was that, but on this copy, her third, was affixed a post-it note, a pink one, on which was written:

Lauren, I really think you should read this.  It is an important book of our time.  It can help you understand yourself.

All the best,

In an off-handed sort of way, she found it amusing that he’d referred to THIS MUST END as a book.  More foregrounded in her mind was her own complete lack of terror over having this eerie little book thrust on her by the same man on three separate occasions, all on the same day, using three separate methods, each one betraying a more thorough knowledge of her life and habits than the last.  Yet all she felt was that, well, that’s life, and she’d woken up on the right side of the grass, hadn’t she?  Or hadn’t she?

So she carried it home with her, and didn’t throw it in the trash or burn it or tear it up.  Or eat it, as Ben had earlier suggested.  Now she sat by her window while it rained and regarded THIS MUST END with a sidelong glance, before finally deciding she was doing nothing more than wasting time by just sitting there and mourning for a day being ruined by rain, a day she would have done nothing more with in any case, so she stood up and retrieved THIS MUST END and sat down with it and began to read:

They come at you or they will come at you.  But they will come at you.  If there is anything in this book that I want to make you all understand it is that this will happen.  It is what I want everyone to know in my life as I go through my life talking to others maybe in coffee shops or grocery stores or anywhere where artists meet.  This is only a surface thing but if you cannot accept it or understand it anything else I want you to understand will not be accepted or will anyway not do any of you any good.  I am trying to help and I am the only one who can.

I first saw them seventeen years ago when I was in a field near some woods.  It was the afternoon sometime and it had been raining but had stopped and I was far away from my home and I can’t remember now why I was in the field or why there was even a field there.  I stood there in the wet grass just standing and I saw them standing at the tree line.  There were four of them with wide bodies draped in cloth and dark angular masks with protuberances on them.  I could not tell what they were masks of or even if they were meant to be masks of anything but I was drawn to them in a way that made my fingertips go numb and my heart race.  I called out to them and said “Hello!”  To my surprise they all waved at me with slow arms.  I began to walk towards them and I kept walking towards them and as I walked I began to realize that I knew things about them that I could not have known such as that these were just four of them and that there were many many more of them than that and that these four were here for me alone.  I also knew that they had chosen me and they saw things in me that told them I could communicate to others what needed to be known.  That you are now reading this book should prove to you that they were correct about me.  I studied many years to hone my understanding of myself and my world and of them so that I could communicate to you properly.  And I knew as I walked that this was something I would eventually need to do.  As I walked through the field toward them I began to plan out my new life based entirely on my current experience at that time of seeing them by the tree line.  I thought of what schools I would need to go to and what subjects I would need to study and what books I would need to keep with me at all times as some people kept bibles or travel guides or recipe books.  I thought about my family and how I must be finished with them forever starting now without a word or a parting glance.  I wondered if they at the tree line were so settled on having me as part of their existence that if I was less willing to walk away from my family as if they were cabbies who had just dropped me at my door that they at the tree line would go so far as to kill my family and make my decision for me.  I knew at once that they would do that and I also realized that it was all the same to me.  They could leave my parents butchered in their beds and my child slaughtered in her crib and my wife burned to ash and bones and I would know at once that this was proper and just or if not just it was at least proper.  When I reached the tree line and they who were at the tree line I planned to tell them that if they wished to murder my family they should feel free to do so even though I also realized it was not my place to grant them permission to do anything.

After some minutes I noticed that I had made no progress to the tree line or to them.  I stopped walking and looked at them.  No longer standing still one did a cartwheel while another clapped and the other two teetered back and forth in a clownish manner.  Then all four teetered back and forth clownishly as though dancing in a sense to clownish music.  I nodded as if in understanding though I confess I did not then understand.  I wonder if even now I do.  But I nodded as I say and they saw this and stopped.  Then in my head I heard four voices of varying extreme pitches the dominant one screeching like a diseased and terrified old woman speaking to me at once and they said “This must end.  This must end.  This must end.  This must end.  THIS MUST END!  THIS MUST END!  THIS MUST END!  This must end.  This must end.  THIS MUST END!”  I smiled and I nodded and I waved to them.  They waved back at me and I thought they seemed happy.  All the while the voices battered my skull making me understand everything and filling it with all the knowledge there was to have.  “Goodbye!” I called to them for I knew that I would never reach the tree line and that soon they would be gone.  “Goodbye!” I said waving.  “Goodbye and thank you!  You are magnificent!  Goodbye!”  I continued to call out my farewells and my thanks and my endearments as they all four at once drifted backwards into the trees all waving at me and happy that they had chosen well.

She closed THIS MUST END and pushed it away, across the table. Perhaps she wanted some tea or something. Outside, the sky was trying to turn black as the rain now seemed to collapse down, as if a bladder hanging high above the city had been slit open. There was lightning, crashing for someone somewhere, but for Lauren just a series of silent, shuddering flickers – it was like sharing a room with a dying lightbulb.

Looking through the rain, down one floor into the street below, she saw a broken multicolored thread of umbrellas along both sidewalks, some snapping open in a panic as she watched. The rain came off awnings in sheets and the gutters appeared to already be flooding. As the umbrellas all fled, she could see along the sidewalks under the awnings of restaurants she rarely went to even though she’d lived in this apartment for years, and she thought about what it would be like, or what she would think, if suddenly she caught the eye of a figure draped in cloth wearing a plastic or rubber or papier maché mask of disfigurement, which is how she imagined the masks so briefly described by Dr. Seabright – worn so that the wearer might present themselves to the world as deformed, or twisted. As, she supposed, was the purpose behind any mask. She imagined the figure standing in the shadow of the blue and white-striped awning that jutted out from Lana’s Café, barely visible and somehow gigantic but still easy to miss, and staring up at her window, through the rain. There was no such figure, but she stood there looking, imagining what it would be like if there was, for a long time.


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