Hi! What a great year it's been, for literally everybody! So here we go again, my list of the best books I read over the last twelve months. The body of the post highlights my favorites (in no particular order, except for the last few, which are my extra-special favorites), and after that is the complete list. As ever, just because I didn't highlight it, that doesn't mean I didn't like it. It's just that one must draw the line somewhere. Onward!
The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout- Only my second Nero Wolfe mystery, but surely not my last. The most purely entertaining novel I read all year.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi - A strange, complex novel that is at once about what it seems to be about, but also a look at daily life in modern Baghdad (marred by occasionally clumsy translation).
Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen - Wrote about it here.
Doting by Henry Green - Not one likable character, which is perfectly all right. Repetitive, which is the idea.
McCabe by Edmund Naughton - Basis for the Altman film, good enough that I bought two other obscure Edmund Naughton novels.
Last Days by Brian Evenson - About a sort of dismemberment cult. A cerebral, queasy, a horror novel for our times.
Eltonsbrody by Edgar Mittelholzer - This pioneer (so I'm told) of West Indian literature also dabbled in horror fiction. This one's very much imperfect, but the horror itself is both blood-curdling and cruel.
Platform by Michel Houellebecq - This novel about terrorism and sex tourism doesn't give a fuck to a quite extraordinary degree.
Deception by Philip Roth - A sort of meta-novel about a man and a woman, told entirely through dialogue. It's maybe no surprise that my favorite parts were when Roth takes a flamethrower to certain political hypocrisies.
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes - Novel, history, memoir of grief, all in one slim volume. One of the most terrifying books I've ever read.
Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes - Maybe the best in the series since The Real Cool Killers, although I got the order mixed up and accidentally skipped The Heat's On. So grain of salt, etc.
Fullalove by Gordon Burn - One of the most savage novels I've ever encountered, so bleak that I almost wish I'd never read it. It makes tabloid journalism seem kind of sleazy, actually.
Amongst Women by John McGahern - Sad in a way that made me want only happiness for everybody, including the person who caused the most unhappiness.
Revival by Stephen King - As black as Pet Sematary, horror in its purest form. Bleak. I mean, bleak. One of his best.
The Changeling by Joy Williams - One of the strangest, eeriest novels I've read, primal and insane, exuberantly sad, chilling and free.
Watson's Apology by Beryl Bainbridge - A novel based on the true-life murder of a woman by her husband in Victorian London. Almost queasily empathetic.
A Mother's Kisses by Bruce Jay Friedman - A quite funny novel about a kid in New York, his loony parents, summer camp, and the like. I really should read more books like this.
Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny - Rich, encyclopedic, funny, unique. It made me want to immediately rewatch a film I've seen dozens of times. Now do Casino.
The Player by Michael Tolkin - Speaking of novels that are the basis for Robert Altman films, this one is sharper, more disturbing, and better than that movie.
Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis - Lots of stories featuring seafood. Good ones, too. One story, not one of the seafood ones, made me cry. Maybe two other books have done that to me in my entire life.
Love by Roddy Doyle - I absolutely raced through this. One of the best novels about the titular emotion I've read. And just when I thought he'd gone as far he could go with his premise but with too much book left, Doyle writes an ending for the ages.
Antkind by Charlie Kaufman - Gloriously funny, completely devastating. A great novel.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe - Wrote about it here.
Assumption by Percival Everett - This compelling, bleak crime novel ends on such a note of strange horror that I had to think back on the small strangenesses i'd noticed earlier in the book and wonder "what have I been reading?" Unforgettable.
Inside Story by Martin Amis - One of Amis's great books, up there with London Fields and Money and Time's Arrow and The Zone of Interest, this strange, intimate epic is part novel (but which parts?) and part memoir (but which parts?), focusing on his relationships with Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens, and the deaths of each of them. I don't want to talk about it anymore.
McCabe by Edmund Naughton Platform by Michel Houellebecq The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin Doppelgänger by Dasa Drndic Sphere by Michael Crichton Bereavements by Richard Lortz Levels of Life by Julian Barnes Learning to Swim by Graham Swift The Gallery by John Horne Burns The Breakout by Donald E. Westlake The Falconer by Alice Thompson Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi Doting by Henry Green Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen Last Days by Brian Evenson Deception by Philip Roth The Getaway by Jim Thompson Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman Here We Are by Graham Swift Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout Eltonsbrody by Edgar Mittelholzer A Mother's Kisses by Bruce Jay Friedman Assumption by Percival Everett The Animal Factory by Edward Bunker A Night at the Movies by Robert Coover White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair The Chain by Adrian McKinty After Claude by Iris Owens The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead Foe by Iain Reid Weather by Jenny Offill Lanny by Max Porter Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon Antkind by Charlie Kaufman God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block
About halfway through his new autobiography Apropos of
Nothing, Woody Allen makes a reference to the scandal involving him, his
ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow, Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, now married
to Allen, and Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and Farrow. Farrow,
during their vitriolic split and custody battle, accused Allen of sexually
molesting Dylan when she was 7 years old. After bringing it up, he says
parenthetically: “(And I hope it’s not the reason you bought the book).” Speaking
for myself, as a fan of the films of Woody Allen since I was a kid, I can say
that it’s certainly not the only reason I bought the book, but let’s be honest
here. The Woody Allen scandal, and specifically the molestation accusation, has
defined Allen’s life and career for most people more than any of his films
currently do. The number of people who would still publicly count themselves as
Woody Allen fans has dwindled — if everybody else takes his guilt as a given,
who needs the hassle? Indeed, the book was originally supposed to be published
in March by Grand Central Publishing, until there were protests by employees of
Hachette Book Group, who own Grand Central, that same month, leading Hachette to
cancel it. But less than a month later, the book was picked up by Arcade
Publishing and was finally published on March 23. And while the scandal does
take up a large chunk of its latter half, there is a whole lot more going on
This is an odd book. Making the reasonable decision to begin
at the beginning, describing his parents’ lives before his birth and then
chronicling his childhood — which he at different times describes as “perfect”
and “beautiful,” making it all the more perplexing to him that he should be so
grim, pessimistic and misanthropic, even at a young age — as a good athlete
obsessed with magic, New Orleans jazz, movies, comedy and crime (when he was a
young man, his dad witnessed a mob hit, and Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New
York was Allen’s favorite book as a kid), Allen then spends most of the book
jumping around in time like someone who is constantly being distracted by his
own speeding trains of thought. For example, on page 122, Allen mentions Jean
Doumanian, his best friend for many years and, with her boyfriend, the
financial backer of many of his films, before they had a devastating
falling-out about money. Allen writes, “I will tell the story of me and Jean as
I go along, and it is a strange one." Then, starting just six pages later,
he suddenly tells the whole story. Whatever happened to “as I go along”?
Doumanian is rarely mentioned over the course of the subsequent 260 pages, except
when Allen and she were together at some event or on a trip. Frankly, I find
this aspect of Apropos of Nothing charming, and even fun. It certainly keeps
the book from falling into tedium borne out of a strict adherence to
chronology. In any case, my guess is that because Allen has always had complete
control of his films, he demanded, and got, the same for this book. I wonder if
an editor did anything more than accept Allen’s manuscript, read it and then
hand it back to him.
Apropos of Nothing is always very funny, as you might
expect. In the fascinating Woody Allen on Woody Allen, a series of interviews
conducted by Stig Björkman, I remember Allen dismissing any compliment
regarding his comedic gifts by saying it always came easy to him. In Apropos of
Nothing, he doubles down on that assertion (which seems indisputable). After
sending in jokes to New York society columnists and getting published, he was
hired as a gag writer for unfunny celebrities: “And so, I went to work five
days a week and knocked out about 50 gags a day. It sounds like a feat but if
you can do it, it’s no big deal. The subway ride was about 35 minutes, during
which I wrote about 20 gags. The rest in the office.” A nice gig, if you’re
good at it.
Allen rarely praises his own talent, except when it comes to
comedy. He thinks, or proclaims to think, almost nothing of his abilities as a
filmmaker, but almost seems unable to avoid the fact that he was born funny and
is happy to point out how rare this is (among others, he praises Diane Keaton,
Elaine May and his sometime collaborator Marshall Brickman as “authentically
funny”). He rarely has anything good to say about his talents as a director, to
such a relentless extent that the reader might wish he would give it a rest (I
did). While talking to him about Allen recently, my friend Glenn Kenny
described this facet of Allen’s personality as “self-serving self-effacement,”
which strikes me as exactly right. There comes a point when it’s hard to
believe he’s being sincere. This, I imagine, is one of the reasons so many
people have objected to the book, although it would take at most a distant
second place to Allen’s insistence on describing every woman he ever met as
“sexy,” or words to that effect. It’s constant, and depending on your threshold,
eventually sort of off-putting (though it’s hard to imagine thinking this is
the worst offense described in the book). The truth is, there is a
disingenuousness to Apropos of Nothing (very late in the book, Allen describes
his lifestyle as “middle class,” a description about which I am dubious), but
when the reader, meaning me, reaches the long section about the custody battles
with Mia Farrow and the accusation of child molestation, one might begin to
understand why Allen is desperate to present himself as a regular, every-day
guy. Maureen Callahan, in her barely-a-review, called the book “bitter.” You
How to approach this? For this bit, it’s hard to know,
without sounding less like a critic and more like an advocate. But as Woody
Allen might say, at various points in and throughout this part of Apropos of
Nothing, see what you think: After months and months of investigation following
Mia Farrow’s original accusation, both New York State Child Welfare and the
Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at the Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut not
only cleared Allen of any wrongdoing, but also determined that no sexual abuse
had been perpetrated against Dylan Farrow. This is public record, and in the
book, Allen — inexplicably “bitter” according to some — quotes from these
reports extensively. He provides much more evidence, including first-person
testimonies from both Soon-Yi Previn and Moses Farrow regarding how the Mia
Farrow household operated (Soon-Yi says that, among other abuses, Mia Farrow
hit her in the head with a phone), as well as housekeepers and nannies.
(One of the many things that can be added to this is the fact that Andre Previn's ex-wife Dory, a singer-songwriter, once wrote a song called "Daddy in the Attic," the lyrics of which describe a situation that somewhat resembles the story Mia Farrow has pitched all these years. The song was released in 1970, the year Andre Previn's marriage to Dory ended, and his marriage to Mia Farrow began.)
Nevertheless, Apropos of Nothing had to be canceled by
Hachette for giving voice to a sexual predator.
Following this section, Allen, rather awkwardly, rewinds in
order to briefly describe all of the films he made from Husbands and Wives to A
Rainy Day in New York (still not distributed in the United States because of
the second wave of awareness of the scandal that came following the #MeToo
movement). This is probably the least illuminating part of the book, because he
blows through most movies at a rapid pace, boringly complimenting everyone he
worked with; though he takes some time to cock a snoot at the actors he worked
with during this period who later disowned him. He writes of Timothée Chalamet,
who acted in A Rainy Day in New York:
Timothée afterward publicly stated he regretted working with
me and was giving the money to charity, but he swore to my sister he needed to
do that as he was up for an Oscar for Call Me by Your Name, and he and his
agent felt he had a better chance of winning if he denounced me, so he did.
Anyhow, I didn’t regret working with him, and I’m not giving any of my money
I find this funny, and fair, but it will earn him no new
supporters (nor will the sentence “I liked Alan Dershowitz”). But Allen says
throughout this section that during the whole time of the original tabloid
explosion, he expected common sense to take over. Now that it hasn’t, he
believes this book will make no difference whatsoever. The reaction to Apropos
of Nothing so far bears this out. And it’s not as though I think Allen escapes
the book unscathed: His rebuttal to Mariel Hemingway’s account that he left her
family’s home early after he had been invited for the weekend because she, age 18,
refused to travel with him to Paris strikes me as not exactly believable. (He
claims he couldn’t stand sharing a bathroom with her father and so booked an
earlier flight.) And he’s especially weird about his second wife, Louise
Lasser, who suffered from bipolar disorder, and whose sexually euphoric highs
he writes about as though they were just fun sexy games, rather than part of
In short, Woody Allen is, from what I can tell, more messed
up than he thinks. But being an asshole isn’t the same thing as being a
For Halloween, and for Bulwark Online, I wrote a piece about 1973's The Wicker Man, one of the great horror films, with a special focus on the character of Sgt. Howie, as played by the brilliant Edward Woodward. Check it out, is all I ask.
Good afternoon! If you'd like to read a new piece by me, might I recommend clicking this link which will take you to my debut piece for The Bulwark. In it, I discuss the three Rights Stuff: Tom Wolfe's book, Philip Kaufman's 1983 film adaptation, and the pretty lousy new Disney+ miniseries (or as much of it as I was able to see before filing the piece). Enjoy it, why can't you??
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 notour 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 backon 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.”
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 . 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, thatrumbling 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.
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.
He put it in his pocket.
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.
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.
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?”