“Gaps, know what I mean? Missing pieces. Of time and space — and other things. Other important
things. How do I know they’re important? Well, they have to be, don’t they? It just wouldn’t be right
otherwise. Just wouldn’t make any sense otherwise. Take yourself, for instance. What are you? Flesh
and blood, right? Isn’t that what everybody says? Bone and cartilage. Brain and brawn. Mind and
matter. Body and spirit. Aren’t those the expressions everyone uses? And it’s all so simple, isn’t it?
All so obvious. All so crystal clear. So, tell me, what happens when you’re here one moment — and
there the next? And you don’t know how you got from here to there. Haven’t got a clue. Or you’re
neither here nor there — and that’s even worse, if you can imagine such a thing.
"Neither here nor not here, to put it in its lowest common denominator form, the mathematical logic of
the permanently lost. At sea and not at sea. At least, that’s the way you feel sometimes. Kind of
unsettled, to put it mildly. Queasy and full of wormy, knotted-bark feelings in your stomach. Like
something’s rotting beneath it all but you’re afraid to look because it might make you sick. Might make
the rest of you rot as well. Head in the clouds; boots in the muck. And nothing in-between. You stare
down from on high and there’s nothing there until you get to those muck-encrusted boots. You try to
put your hands on your hips – akimbo, I think they call it – and neither hands nor hips make any effort
to accommodate you. In fact, they make no effort to even appear for you.
"Gaps, like I said before. And then, you know, in an effort at stabilization, you nail your feet to the
floor. The tips of your boots, that is. You nail them solidly with railroad spikes so that they won’t jump
without you realizing it’s happening — and what happens? You guessed it. It gets even worse. You’re
nailed to the floor alright — with 20-centimetre spikes — and that’s a good feeling. A warm, wonderful
feeling. Like suddenly being surrounded by family. By four generations of family ready to celebrate
genetic persistence if nothing else. But then other things start bopping around. Appearing and
disappearing when they feel like it and for as long as they feel like it. The harder you’re nailed down, the
more they won’t hold still. Things, I mean. Know what I’m saying?
"They won’t come together long enough for you to pin them down. For you to nail them to the spot.
Hold still, you want to say. Hold still and be numbered, damn you! Useless. More than useless. You can
shout and swear and pull your hair all you want. In fact, after a while, you don’t even know if you’re still
shouting and swearing at the same object you were shouting and swearing at a moment before. Or
something else that just happens to look like it. That just happens to be passing by — in its devil-may-
care way — when you happen to look up.
"It’s like... like trying to count butterflies in a wildflower field. Ever try that, huh? Used to do it all the
time as a kid. I guess I did anyway from the vivid memories I have. The vivid, slow-motion memories I
have. Anyway, they’re fluttering all over the place. The butterflies, I mean. Up and down and all
around. Just hopping and bopping to their hearts’ delight. From milkweed pod to dandelion. From
apple tree to bramble bush. From sweet clover to prickly pear. And you, curly-haired and sun-burnt,
Greek-god-boy-like, chase after them, trying to keep count in your head. One... two... three ... and
then one of them, one you’ve already counted naturally, decides to fly by you again. Right by your left
ear. Or you think you’ve already counted it but aren’t sure. They all look pretty much alike, don’t they?
One doing it is okay. You can keep track of that, no problem. A couple won’t cause too many problems
either. Even three or four or five aren’t much to handle for the mathematically sophisticated ten-year-
old able to put numbers to objects, albeit in a rudimentary way. It’s when they all get to doing it, leap-
frogging each other just for the fun of it, hitching rides on one another’s backs, doing the butterfly
version of car-pooling.
"That’s when you tend to get pissed off real fast. Mighty pissed off and mighty fast. That’s when you
snap off a switch from the nearest maple bush and start clipping their wings. That’s when you run them
down and begin to mash and smash their little bodies into bits of colored powder. Twitching pieces of
brightly-colored powder. It’s not that you want to hurt them. Or keep them from getting to where they
want to go — wherever that may be. But they just won’t hold still and be counted. Just won’t allow you
to properly tag them. You understand, don’t you? It’s all a matter of counting, life’s inevitable census
taking. Something we all have to go through before we can rest in that cold, cold ground. Safely
immobile. Safely unemotional. Safely unseeing. Safely there in the true sense of the word — with no
longer the option of not being there. Do you see what I’m getting that? Do you? I doubt it.”
I’m talking to a man in a long coat and a sharp-featured, deeply pock-marked face. A face that’s
practically beak-like in all its contours: nose, chin, forehead, ears — everything comes to a point. Even
his glistening, slicked-back hair sweeps to a Brillantined tip. A sculpted helmet-visor sitting squarely on
top of his head. And his legs, they’re more like stilts than human legs. More like jointed-stick
appendages than properly-shaped limbs. When he walks, he lifts first one, then the other, straight up,
straight into the air before bringing it down again ever so gently, ever so carefully. The coat, open at the
front, drags over the sand, picking up the wetter particles on the way. These particles cling for a while
but then fall off as soon as they dry. It’s a spring day. A warm spring day. And, even though we’re
walking along the lakefront, where the breeze is fresh and on the brisk side, he really doesn’t need the
coat. A windbreaker or some kind of light sweater would do just fine. But he’s wearing a long, black,
ground-dragging coat — like he’s an old-fashioned gunslinger or something. Like he just came out of
the Black Hills, pockets full of gold-colored dust. Like he’s about to pull an ace out of his many sleeves.
He isn’t and he hasn’t, of course. Just some guy who likes wearing long, black coats. Even in the
sweltering heat of August, I’m willing to bet.
When I speak, he nods and smiles at me but otherwise doesn’t answer back. Even when I ask him
something and expect some kind of response. Be it pertinent or non-committal. Or even a curt “fuck
you, buddy — you're full of shit”. At first, I think he’s just not the talkative type. Or one of those
people who choose their words very carefully — like gunslingers and prospectors and riverboat
gamblers. But then he gives me a hand-written card that explains his silence: Cat got my tongue. At
least, it sounds like it explains his silence. Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’m not really
"Sorry to hear that," I say. "I mean, sorry to read that."
He shrugs and then hands me another card: You know, I was lonesome as I traveled, but you know, I’
m talking now.
"Glad I could be of help," I say.
We continue to walk along the beach, which stretches before us in both directions. Occasionally, he
picks up a flat stone and sends it skimming across the waves, making it hop and skip and jump until it
finally loses momentum. Until it finally sinks out of view. I do the same. Or try to anyway. He’s much
better at it: the way he positions himself, legs out and well-balanced; the way he leans sideways so that
his torso is parallel to the ground; the way he whips his arm back with a sort of half-twist and releases
the stone at just the right moment and with just the right spin. All a matter of practice, I suppose.
Years of frequenting the same beach and picking up the same stones. Or perhaps some people are just
better at certain things. Are born with the ability to skim flat objects across choppy water. Could that
be possible? Something to think about anyway. In the distance, the sailboats are also skimming,
carefree, kittenish after their long winter confinement. I find them easier to count than butterflies. But
they, too, won’t hold still for any period of time. They, too, bob and weave. And there’s another
problem. If I stare too long, if I focus too sharply, if I concentrate on concentrating, they begin to blur.
To rise above the water. To change shapes. To become dragons or some sort of prehistoric birds. Or
even everyday kitchen appliances that have suddenly developed the ability to fly.
"Have you noticed that? You stare at a spot for too long and it wants to get away from you. Wants to
edge out of the frame. To slither away beneath the nearest stone. Like it’s afraid of you or something.
Like it’s got something to hide. I wonder what it wants to keep from you. I wonder what secret it doesn’
t want anyone to know about. Maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe it doesn’t have any secrets. Maybe it
just wants to be left alone. Leave me alone, it says. Let me be a sailboat and nothing else. Let me
exist in my brute dumbness without you putting words in my mouth — a mouth I don’t claim to possess
in the first place. Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Erratum in fundamentum, as the scholastic
philosopher would most likely say. Now, where the hell did that come from? I don’t remember reading
any goddam philosophers at all — never mind scholastic ones. Maybe, it’s all a mirage, you know. All a
trick. A trompe-l’oeil. The sailboats, the beach, the elevated highway, the traffic jam on the elevated
highway, the people shouting at each other in the traffic jam on the elevated highway, the bus driver
trying to calm down the people shouting at one another in the traffic jam on the elevated highway.
Maybe I just make them up as I go along. Like some sort of demolition-construction company. Like
some firm that’s just as good de-constructing as it is putting things up. But, if those particular objects
are mirages, tricks of the eye, then where are the real things? Tell me that, huh? Where are the things
that really count? Better still: Where are the things when they really count?" I look at my friend, at his
beak-like face, the eyes black and beady, almost all pupil.
"Am I making any sense?" I ask, head tilted, foot on solid rock. "Am I going crazy? Am I really here?
Am I man or mouse?"
He pulls yet another card from what seems an endless selection in his vest pocket and hands it to me:
Let me be a young boy, with a mustache just starting to show above my lip, I wish.
* * *
It’s just before dawn now. The two of us are once again walking — it's what we do best, I think. We’re
walking, each of us holding a cardboard box in his hands, between the glass walls of the city’s
skyscrapers. It’s still dark on the streets where we’re walking but, high above us, the sun glints off the
mirrored windows, sending off little sparkles where the paint has been flecked with gold. Soon, it’ll be
blazing, impossible to view directly. I’m on one side of the street; my friend, the man in the black coat,
is on the other. I call him “my friend” but I don’t really know if he is or not. And I don’t really know what
we’re doing here in what’s called the financial district — but my friend insisted, shaking me out of sound
sleep in the middle of the night and dragging me to this spot. I look across at him, hoping for clues. He
doesn’t give me any. Not a one. Instead, he simply continues to walk slowly, deliberately, stopping
occasionally to look up. I look up when he does — but I don’t see anything. At least, nothing out of the
ordinary. Just the skyscrapers and the sun climbing relentlessly their gleaming surfaces. Like the walls of
some Aztec temple. Like some landscape where dark rituals are performed, growing more blood-red by
the moment. Aztec temple? Dark rituals?
"What are we doing here with these boxes?" I shout across to him. "Come on. I don’t like mysteries.
Especially this early in the morning. You’d better tell me right now or I’m turning back. Come on. Flash
one of your cards or I’m going back to sleep."
He indicates I should hush, exaggerating the motion of finger to nose. A moment later, a police patrol
glides down one of the grid-like side streets. Predator on the prowl. Crosses the intersection. Snout,
torso, tail-lights. And vanishes again. My friend resumes walking. His head is now constantly in the air,
acting like some ball-turret gun as it swivels left and right. I’m about to follow through on my threat to
leave when I hear a thud. High above us. Echoing. Re-bounding. I’m still trying to locate the sound
when something plummets through the air in front of me, landing squarely in the middle of the street.
My friend rushes towards it, getting there only a split-second after it strikes the ground. By the time I
arrive, he’s holding it in his hands, cradling it.
"What the... " I begin to say. Then stop.
It’s a bird. I have no idea what kind, except that it has a red chest and deep blue wings with little
streaks of yellow. Cute little fellow but obviously accident-prone. My friend is stroking the chest,
rubbing it, coaxing it to revive. But it’s no use. I can tell by the way the head hangs and the tongue
droops out of its beak that it’s no use. I’ve seen that exact same look before somewhere — the vacant
stare; the stiffening claws; the useless wings; the still, unbeating heart. They’re sure signs. Inescapable
"It’s dead," I say. "There’s nothing you can do. Just leave it there. Some cat will gobble it up. Have
itself a pleasant surprise of a feast. Or it’ll serve as a home for the spring flies. Maggot heaven.
Nothing more you can do."
My friend, crying openly now, shakes his head and continues his hopeless attempts to bring it back to
life. I’m about to reach down and take the bird out of his hand when the sky overhead resounds with a
flurry of thuds, rapid-fire, one after the other. Entire flocks are falling now, plunging towards the
asphalt. They’re falling all around us. Some strike head first. Others, struggling to right themselves,
end up smashing the ground with their chests. Or backs. Or wings. Some arrive dead. Or die on
impact. Others pick themselves up and walk around in a daze. Like cartoon characters who’ve been hit
over the head once too often. Some even attempt to fly off again — to once more smash into the sides
of the self-reflecting, self-absorbed buildings. I try to help those I think have the best chance of
surviving, those with the least injuries. I lift them and put them in the box. When I look up again, I see
several dozen other people doing the same thing. They’re all silent in their work. All concentrating
mightily on what they’re doing. A van appears behind us, moving slowly down the middle of the street.
The driver takes the full boxes and places them in the back of the van. Then he distributes more empty
ones. When the van is filled, he drives off — to be replaced by yet another van. This goes on all
morning, until the sun is high and the glint vanishes and the thuds stop.
Something ought to be done, I say. Just to say something, you know, and not really expecting an
One of the women looks up at me. Her task is to toss the obviously-dead ones into a garbage bag.
Perhaps as precursor to a proper burial — I don’t know.
"Raze the buildings," she says, dropping one more stiff little body into the bag. "Paint them all black.
Nuke them to hell. Hiroshima and Nagasaki them. Suck them kicking and screaming into the lair of the
"Yeah," I say. "Something like that."
She continues down the street, talking and getting more angry by the moment. Soon, in a rage, she’s
slamming the bodies into the bag, hurling them with all her might. I return to my friend who is still
sitting where I left him, the bird cupped in his hand.
"Come on," I say, searching my pockets for a few precious coins, a few coins earned from street-corner
labor. "There’s nothing more we can do here. Let’s go get a cup of coffee. A sweet, hot cup of Java."
My friend stands up, holding the bird like a sacrificial offering. And then, with a shrug of his shoulders,
tosses it in the air. Like all tossed objects, especially those that were once alive, it looks for a moment
as if it were moving on its own. A leftover momentum like the wing flaps of slit-throated fowl. But I
know, from past experience, that’s just the spasming of involuntary muscles. And I expect it to resume
its plunge the moment it realizes how serious the situation really is and gravity takes hold of it again.
Instead, the bird continues to move upwards. And I stand there slack-jawed as the wings open, as the
wings stretch wide, and it darts away. Up between the buildings. Then quickly past them. Higher and
higher. Red breast flashing beneath the blue sky before it spins and becomes a dot and vanishes
"How did you do that?" I say, turning back to my friend. "I was sure it was dead. I’d swear to it. But it
wasn’t, was it? Just stunned, I guess." I shake my head. "Jeez, you never know, do you?"
I expect him to pull out a card. Another of his cryptic cards. Another of his caligraphically-perfect,
encrypted cards full of pseudo-explanations. Maybe something about a bird in the bush and what it’s
worth — or not worth. But he just looks around for a moment, tilting his head up and down, chin
making contact with breast at one point and then jutting straight into the air the next. He just looks
around, spiralling on one leg until he’s back facing me. Until I can see my reflection in his beady eye:
scruffy and unkempt. In desperate need of a shave. In desperate need of a bath. In desperate need of
illumination. And then, smiling, he holds out his hand. That sharp, talon-like hand.
Who needs God? I think as I reach out to take it, as I feel its rough, comforting touch, its goosebump-
producing touch. Who the hell needs God?
* * *
I’m curled up tight in a bed, knees to chin. It’s not my bed. I know that because it smells newly-
washed. My bed never smells newly-washed because no one bothers to wash it. Or even change it. Of
course, I only call it my bed. It’s not really my bed as such. Not really my property at all. More like a
place where anyone can drop. A way station. A kind of transit point from which people are launched into
their lives. Or out of them. And the stories always filter back to the latest inhabitant: The last person to
use that bed before me jabbed herself in the left eyeball with a syringe — just to feel what it would be
like. The person before that managed to escape into the countryside where he’s now a gentleman
farmer, raising prize pigeons. Or something like prize pigeons at the very least. And me... well, I’m not in
that bed anymore either. Someone else has taken possession of it. Someone who needs desperately to
sleep and who doesn’t care that it smells of piss and cum and puke and monthly blood-lettings — both
natural and induced.
The bed I’m in at the moment is clean and starchy. It feels stiff, like a Victorian matron of some sort
covered to the ankles. If I stay in it for too long without moving, without bothering to visit the little boy’
s room, someone comes along and pulls the dirty sheets away from beneath me — like a magician
yanking a table cloth and leaving all the settings intact. Placing the new sheets is a little more difficult —
but just a little. I hold perfectly still, determined not to help in any way. Despite my lack of cooperation,
the job is always accomplished in less than ten minutes: corners all tucked in; pillow cases replaced;
covers folded back in neat pleats. And that’s not all. Every morning, I get the same treatment —
whether I’m dirty or not: a shave, followed by a complete change of clothing. With a sponge bath every
second day for good measure.
An operation of military precision, I want to clap when it’s over but I just don’t have the energy. I’d like
to put my hands together like a seal and make “aarfing” sounds of approval. Bravo, I’d like to shout.
Hip, hip and well done. I’d like to set up a trapeze act and balance myself high above the world. Way
beyond where things can reach up, take me by the ankles and suck me back down. But it’s not worth
the effort. Instead, I just lie there with my back against the wall. With my back right up against the
wall. All scrunched up and with nowhere to go. I just lie there waiting for the oxygen to be pumped out
of the room and the whole place turned into an airless bell jar for certain experiments that must be
performed, that are of crucial importance not only for this generation but for those yet to come.
At least, that’s what the scratching from the other side of the wall tells me. Whatever you do, it says,
be prepared at all times to offer yourself up as a sacrifice. The short term effects might be
devastating. Fatal, in fact. But that doesn’t mean your sacrifice has been in vain. On the contrary, the
more you die now, the more likely future generations will survive. After all, you don’t think all this
suffering, all this pain and torture and anguish is for nothing, do you? Come on. You can’t be that
ridiculously near-sighted. You can’t have become that much of a sloth — what do you call them? Slow
lorises. That’s it. They got big eyes so they must have big hearts, right? No, no. Forget the
anthropomorphy of primate equivalence. Set your mind to the higher things. Think of purpose and
meaning and the good of the species. Think of evolutionary change and the necessity inherent in our
plans for you. Against that, your suffering (the suffering of some slow loris) pales to nothing — a
hangnail in the universal scheme of things. So make the sacrifice. Now! Be prepared to offer yourself
I have no answers for any of this. No rebuttal. All I can do is hold my breath. I hold it until I’m
bursting. Until my gut is aching. Until my eyes bulge and my skin turns blue. And then I have to let
go. There’s the moment when I have to let go. The inevitable moment. It comes out in a huge rush —
and I grab another mouthful before the vacuum kicks in. I have no idea what I’ll do when that happens.
When the air runs out. But I do know I want to have plenty of the stuff in my lungs. I want to be able
to last for as long as possible before the last gulp is gone. And I don’t care how selfish that might
sound. I don’t care about those scratching noises telling me that each breath I consume is one less for
those who really need it, for those who aren’t about to be sacrificed, for those who have something to
contribute. I don’t care about any of that. I just want to stay alive for one more gulp. For one more
moment. For one more blink of an eye. Is that too much to ask?
Yes, the scratching noises tell me. Your death is needed. Your non-existence is requested. Your
vanishing from the face of the planet is demanded. So stop resisting. Stop being childish. Stop being
Mr. Important and screw everything else. Stop—
Fuck you! I scream, pounding the walls with my fists, with my shoulder, with my head, with whatever
part of my body happens to be available. Why don’t you take your own fucking advice? Why don’t you
fuck off and die? Why don’t you—
When I start to scream and beat the walls like this, I often attract visitors. My room is suddenly invaded
with soothing voices and manufactured concern. One moment I’m a sacrificial lamb; the next I’m the
most important person in the whole wide world, the focus of everyone’s attention. And, after I’ve
calmed down — can't stay angry or upset forever — or been forcibly calmed, I get another kind of visit.
This time from someone who really enjoys the art of conversation, who really likes to hear herself gab. It’
s the only explanation I can find for this frumpy middle-aged woman who sits on the edge of my bed,
hands folded across her lap, and talks a mile a minute, seemingly about nothing at all. About any
subject that comes to mind. I think of my friend in the long black coat and the silences we created
between us. The intimate silences where words became irrelevant and contact all that really mattered. I
think of the fact I’m no longer there. No, he’s the one who’s no longer there and I’m here. So that
means I’m no longer there either. But I wouldn’t be there even if I was. Not without him there. Not
without his comforting presence beside me. Not after he’s flown away. That’s where it becomes
confusing. That’s where I want to curl up against the wall again and sleep forever. But this woman with
the sweet, well-scrubbed, oval-shaped face won’t let me. She insists on talking as quickly as possible.
On leaving no gaps between the words and sentences. And even worse, she insists I also talk.
"Freely," she says. "What you say won’t leave this room. That’s a promise. Your words will stay right
here — and in my heart."
I look around the room, searching for an escape route: if the words won’t leave, maybe I can. No such
luck. There’s only one way out — a locked and bolted steel door. Now, she wants me to express my
feelings. To let it all hang out and tell her what I feel inside.
I feel nothing, I tell her, not wanting to complicate matters. Or perhaps because I’m not in the habit of
divulging the state of my emotions to total strangers. Even if they do have sweet faces and soft voices
and bodies that give off the faint scent of lilac.
She doesn’t accept that answer. Instead, she keeps right at me, trying to pry me open with her crowbar
words. Now, she wants to know my background, where I come from, my loves, my hates, my fears, my
Telling her about my background and where I come from is easy: I don’t know. I haven’t a clue. As for
my loves, hates, fears and fantasies, those come under the category of “feelings” last time I looked — so
they’re none of her business.
She picks up on my 'I don’t know'.
"You don’t know?" she says. "You don’t know where you come from? I shake my head. And you don’t
know who you are? You don’t know your name?"
"Giulio," I say, wondering what that has to do with anything. "That’s my name. That’s what it says on
the name tag anyway."
"Yes, Giulio," she says, her face all earnestness. "That’s your name. We’ve established that much. It
says that on the door. But who are you?"
I shrug and pull away from her, edging as far back on the bed as possible. Maybe she’ll go away if she
sees I’m not interested in talking to her, in telling her any secrets. I push back so far my head makes
contact with the wall.
Tell her who you are, the scratching says from behind me, from just behind my left earlobe. Tell her you’
re a sacrificial lamb. You’re being fattened as an offering to the common good. You’re being led up to
the high, windswept altar where dry tinder awaits and the flames will engulf you, the flames will purify
you so that others may live. Why else would they feed you and clothe you and change your bed sheets
every morning? Why else would they treat you like a pampered pasha in his mountain kingdom? Why
else would they send someone to pretend she really cares about you when you know — ?
I break contact and lurch forward again, almost falling into her lap. She pats my head and begins to
speak in a singsong voice, a voice designed to lull the listener to sleep. Or into divulging everything,
disgorging secrets like a cat bringing up chewed grass.
"Let me be your guide," she says. "Let me help you out of the wilderness. Let me bring you to
someplace warm and inviting where you’ll finally understand who you are. Let me be the one to make
you whole again."
I feel trapped. Which one should I believe? Which one is more likely to be telling the truth? Let’s see.
One wants to sacrifice me; one wants to save me. One claims to be my mentor; the other my
tormentor. The choice should be easy, shouldn’t it? No one in their right mind would take sacrifice over
salvation. Unless, of course, one precedes the other. That would make both of them right, wouldn’t it?
Or maybe they’re both wrong. Maybe there’s a third path that neither of them wants me to see because
they don’t know enough about it themselves. Or, selfish creatures that they are, they want to keep it
for themselves. It’s been known to happen.
"Go away," I say. "Both of you. I don’t care who I am. I don’t want to know. Just go away and leave
me in peace."
I cover my head and roll myself into a ball. A tiny, tight ball lying between this woman and the wall. I
won’t listen to either of them if I can help it. I won’t give either of them the satisfaction. Cutting off the
scratching sounds is easy — I just stay away from direct contact with the wall. The woman is another
matter. Despite my efforts to drown her out, she continues to speak in that droning voice of hers. And
I’m too tired to stop her. She talks for half the night. Chanting. Repeating words that make no sense
to me. At one point, she tries to tell me how the world began: on a strange, back-lit evening just like
this. On the back of a turtle, she says. But I don’t believe her. I know better. The world didn’t begin, I
want to tell her, because the world doesn’t exist. Turtle or no turtle. It just isn’t there. See. You think
it’s all solid and healthy and nutritious — but you can poke your finger right through it. Can make it
come apart with one silly question. Or it’s all a big joke and you’re the butt of that joke. That’s what I
want to tell her but I don’t have the energy. I just don’t have the strength to say anything. And she
wouldn’t understand anyway. What do you mean, she’d say. Look I stub my toe against this bedpost, I’
ll cry out in pain, won’t I? So I don’t say anything.
She, on the other hand, continues to talk non-stop. She talks so much my stomach begins to cramp.
Tighter and tighter. Harder and harder. Muscles contracting and pulling everything else with them. Until
I can’t stand the pain any longer. Until the pressure of holding it in is too much. With a loud explosion,
I soil myself. I let go and feel the soft, hot detritus fill my pajama trousers, spreading out in all
directions, wet and clammy and full of childhood memories. Maybe that’ll drive her away. Maybe the
stench will be too much for her and she’ll retreat. Or she’ll be overcome with a wave of utter disgust for
this sub-human creature before her. This befouler of his own nest.
For a moment, the plan seems to be working. Her sweet face twists and scrunches up, going from oval
to eccentric. She places a handkerchief over her nose and hurries away from the bed, retreating close to
the door. But it’s only a tactical retreat, a temporary setback, a pause before marshalling her forces.
She’s only moving out of the way so that the sheet changers can charge in. Four of them this time, all
practically identical, all marching in step. One pair lift me up, gingerly, one under each arm, and carry me
to the nearby shower stall. There, on the cool ceramic floor, I’m stripped and hosed down, the foecal
matter dissolving under the spray of sudsy water. At the same time, the other pair busy themselves
with my bed: rolling the dirty sheets into a ball and replacing them with crackling duplicates that snap
into place with a slingshot sound. Within a few minutes, everything is bright and clean again — and
smelling of Lysol. The men troop out, hauling away the last traces of my inappropriate behavior. I follow
them with infinite longing, wishing they’d haul me away, too. Wishing I, too, could be wrapped up in a
ball and tossed into an industrial washing machine. The woman smiles as she sits again on my bed. As
she smoothes out a wrinkle that only she sees. She smiles because she knows I’ve been defeated. She
knows that I’ve done my best. Or worst. And it didn’t work. She knows.
"Once upon a time," she begins, "in a world very much like this one — in a world exactly like this one —
there lived a... what? Coyote? Crow? Bear? Blue jay? Wolf? Wishing well?"
She looks at me, her eyes suddenly reflective pools where my fear and longing can easily be fathomed.
"Help me now," she says. "I know you can do it if you put your mind to it. We all can. There lived a... a
"A man," I say, feeling as if the words were being ripped out of me. As if the deep tendrils were being
ripped out and hauled up through my throat.
"Yes!" she says, clapping her hands. "A man. Bravo! There lived a man. A man as in a member of the
male gender of the species. And this man’s name was... come on now... work with me on this... this
man’s name was...?"
"Giulio," I say, my voice no louder than a mouse’s squeak, no more certain than a child held under his
But it doesn’t matter to her. She’s beaming now, grinning from ear to ear. She’s happy now. She
knows that, once she has me talking like any ordinary human being, my salvation can’t be very far
behind. At least, if she has anything to do with it.
"See how easy it is," she says as she places her hand on my knee. It’s warm even through the cotton
pyjamas. "If you put your mind to it, that is. Once you accept that you’re not alone and that others can
help you. That others are there for you when you need them. It’s the easiest thing in the whole world,
isn’t it? Almost as easy as apple pie — if not quite as tasty. Hah, hah."
I’m about to smile along with her, hoping to get into her good books, when she suddenly becomes very
serious — to the point of scowling.
"Your story," she says, pushing her face right up against mine, almost as if trying to mimic some form of
sexual intensity which she couldn’t otherwise feel.
Or maybe it has nothing to do with sexual intensity. Maybe she sincerely wants to help me discover who
I really am.
"Tell me your story," she says, her eyes locked on mine. "Please. I need to hear it. And it’ll make you
feel better, too. Promise."
I lean back against the wall, hoping for inspiration. Or for anything really: My name is Mary Jane and I live
down the lane. What’s my number? Cucumber. Come on, come on, I say to myself. Think of
something. Something a little more original.
Riverrun, the scratching whispers, past Eve and Adam’s...
"Riverrun," I repeat, staring intently into the woman’s dreamy, hypnotized face. "Past Eve and Adam’s,
from swerve of shore to bend of bay..."
And then 628 pages later, the woman asleep, my lips parched, the scratching whispers still going strong:
Given! A way alone a last a loved a long the...
"The end," I say when I realize there’s no more, when I sense the scratching is about to start all over
again and I don’t want to be forced to give the real ending away. Not to her anyway.
* * *
Some time afterwards (I’m not really sure how long), the woman leads me outside into the bright
sunlight. I presume it’s the same woman, although I have no way of knowing really as everyone looks
pretty much the same: bright-eyed and oval-faced. She leads me outside by the arm and I stumble like
someone no longer used to walking.
"You’re free," she says, "free to rejoin your friends." And letting go my arm, launches me towards the
street with a gentle push.
I turn to thank her but the sun blinds me and, by the time I’m able to focus again, she’s gone — only
the click of the self-reflecting double doors as they shut left to indicate there was anyone there in the
first place. I look down at my feet instead. At least, they’ve returned my clothes to me, I say to myself.
Even if they are starched and stiff and make me feel like a zombie. And my good old bag with the name
tag on it, the tag that identifies me. I stand there, unsure of where to go next. From around the corner
comes a man on a motorcycle. He screeches to a halt in front of me, the bike slipping slightly sideways
before he manages to regain control of it. I don’t recognize him at first — what with his helmet on and
all. But the moment he gets off the bike and starts walking towards me, I know exactly who it is. I drop
my bag and rush into his arms.
"You didn’t leave me," I say, face pressed to his chest. He nods. "You waited all this time for me?" He
nods again. And takes out a sign: Come on. You’ve been in this world too long. Time to get back to the
He hands me a spare helmet. I slide it on my head, climb onto the back of the bike and hang on tight.
Michael Mirolla is a Toronto, Canada, novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright. Publications include a
novel—The Boarder—and two short story collections—The Formal Logic of Emotion and Hothouse Loves & Other
Tales. His short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology,
featuring the ten top short stories published in Canadian literary journals in the previous year, while another
short story, “The Sand Flea,” has been nominated for the Pushcart. His novel The Boarder can be found at
http://www.redleadbooks.com/boarder.html and other works at http://www.fictionwise.com/