T.V. said, “A cow barn doesn’t usually float. Does it?”
The man flipped T.V. to static, killed it, and parroted, “A cow barn doesn’t usually float. Does it?”
Mincy licked her fur unconcernedly.
“Very well. I’m going to blow up the White House, now.”
Still no reaction from the cat. Maybe this sort of thing was not repulsive to cats or perhaps they couldn’t understand him after all.
“Giblets and fish.”
Still no reaction.
He thought, “Of course, it may be her stomach engines haven’t fired.” Yes, that was it. The cat was complacent. He stood, and reflected that his life was almost over. Soon he would be fifty. Actually, in twenty years he would be fifty-some odd years and nothing changed. He thought, “Not true. No more fish. No more animals of many, many sorts. No more frogs and other living things of many, many sorts. Far fewer trees. Many more people. War as usual. Poverty, division, confusion, taxes, money, and economy as usual.” He tried to imagine what that would be like. Before he knew it he was fifty-two. It happened almost suddenly, like a heart condition coming on. He suffered a mini-stroke, then a mild heart attack. Life went on. Almost. And then he died.
* * *
The Curse of Shabin Gold
Sir John Baxter Samson closed the book he was reading, sat back in his favorite Swiss arm chair, and wondered, “Will they think I’m human?”
“I am human,” he said out loud. “You know?”
He said it to his handsome yellow rug-covered walls and, more significantly, to the magnificent swirling tapestry boasting imaginary yellow suns, planets, and moons; yellow grapes and yellow fields; canaries, chicks, and all manner of goldfinches; lemon drops; ripe bananas; yellow sunsets; and even a yellow mirror reflecting yellow-dyed parasols, yellow beach balls, and feathers-on-their-own.
That morning, as he ogled the jaunty assembly threaded in gold as he did every day, he felt even more deeply of its awful power, and his own weariness, concern, and dread in the face of it than usual. Ah! But what will happen to me? He dared not think what might become of him, though, for none of his options looked good to him. For one thing he might die at any moment. He had just read something by the world famous Whirlygig, and other pieces from antiquity on, particularly the Eastern ones, that filled him with a sense of impending gloom and the steady approach of death itself. Every day that passed and each step brought him closer to God (or closer to the Devil), he imagined, closer surely to something else, and death marched on. The poets watched him, so how could he not feel paralyzed, as the black shade—“No!” he cried, “No! This will never do! At all! Send me away to Barbados! No! Bangkok! No! Bermuda! No, no, no, no, no! Bangladesh! Yes! Let me go to Bangladesh and see what that’s like! Away from Death!” But he really had no idea what Bangladesh was like. For one thing (“Acht, another for one thing!” he groaned), it seemed to have been marked out of all the current maps. He picked up one and looked where the United States considered Greece and Italy. No—ah—yes—there were the tentacles of those latter two empires winding their way towards Crete! He thought, “To be on the safe side perhaps I’d better stick with Bangladesh.”
At the moment of this realization and acknowledgement he heard the gong announce the hour, and his pug Pipsi hustled through the curtain into the room, licking her chops.
Cecily Jugen followed not long after with his breakfast tea and a bowl of fresh cut blueberries. The latter were wet and plump. He tried to imagine B-a-n-g-l-a-d-e-s-h and yawned loudly because he felt restless and out of sorts. Cecily withdrew.
“Fairly extinguished, sir?”
“Huh?” said Baxter. He looked around to see who had spoken, and spotted an inquisitive looking little boy with a laden tray standing in the door. It was the boy who had spoken. Presently, he recognized his baker’s son and surmised that he had come with a sample of his father’s sweets for the Swasitime party, which was now only two weeks away. He even recalled the boy’s name. Popsquatch it was.
“The baklava, cropayduma, chazzels, and frapulai!” he said, receiving the tray in his hand, “Ah, Popsquatch! Fairly extinguished am I? Well, I believe I am or may be.”
“I’ve been reading Dickens, sir. My father said to mention that, too, but inconspicjuicy.”
“Ah, yes! Of course, dear boy! And so you have and added a new word to your vocabulary, eh?”
“Inconspicjuicy is with my hand under the plate, sir.”
“Why, just so! And now where might you be headed?”
But Popsquatch had already gone racing down the hall, and disappeared around the corner with a cry of “Bangladesh!”
Baxter, half-turned and munching on a Frutolismotch, bit his cheek.
He steadied the plate. Bang-la-who? How’d that boy know? He had said nothing to anyone. He paced the room, then thought to turn and look out the window. He could see Popsquatch running across the gravel lane to his coach. A white glove reached out and pulled him in. The horses started. Except it was a car. Baxter’s head buzzed. The brandy seemed stronger than usual in his Frapochhenaswalka. He had prepared it himself as usual and brought the leftover from breakfast to his room. Cecily saw him do it, but the rest of the servants had taken the day off as he ordered, to play croquet on the grass.
He expected them to exercise every day prior to serving bouillabaisse, turtle soup, cravetswig, and perridodola. How he enjoyed to see them bounce along after a really good game of croquet! He could see them now on the other side of the yard beyond the driveway, dashing about and bopping each other on the head. Oh, yes! And poking the balls. Such fun they had at it! (Rubber mallets made for good bopping, which added a touch of soccer to the game. A slight concussion was good for the constitution, he believed, so the rules were modified accordingly. It also added character. His servants wouldn’t have it any other way after the first week.) No, ordinary croquet was not for them. It was the age of extremes.
That night, he scribbled in his diary, “Happiness rots on trees if you don’t pluck it when it’s ready, so don’t wait too long to grow young!” then slammed it shut. He thought he heard footsteps. Suddenly, he tore out the page and tossed it in the fire, then fixed his eyes on the tapestry and fell asleep.
* * *
He took a step back from the window. Ten years had passed but it was still the same window, still the same house, still the same croquet game rules, but no one was playing because it was Tuesday, and as everyone knew at Dower’s End, they didn’t play croquet at Sir Baxter’s on Tuesdays by anyone’s rules. The mallets, each one a different color in the customary way, lined a silver see-through glass cabinet ready and waiting for Thursday.
As an eccentric, Baxter dictated his croquet rules and cuisine in order that those things might appall others, but nothing else, unless it were his private expeditions.
He sat cross-legged on the rug and waited for an expedition, now. He had prepared a quigmire-roop, his customary mixed drink for the occasion, and wondered at how well it turned out, considering his scant knowledge of mixed drinks, in general.
The berry’s taste, his posture, the quest, and the moment inspired him. Before long, Charlie Hollingsweed, the master gardener, a tall athletic man, walked in with a pair of clipping shears and Baxter’s boots. He was accompanied by a short impish man, Jason Twitters. Twitters was a childhood friend of Baxter’s. “You called, sir?” said Charlie.
“Yes, Master Gardener, I did.”
Baxter had requested his friends’ presence this day (and the boots and shears) five years ago and then deliberately forgot the request. Arrangements such as these pleased him very much indeed, as much as his grape harvests. He simply needed a diversion. But it bothered him that he had no idea what went on in Bangladesh. He feared her children starved.
“Thank you, Charlie, master gardener,” he said. Charlie looked nervous. That was in his instructions, too. He was to deliver the boots and shears as if he was an anxious man. They began a theatre improvisation at once, which involved a haircut, a bad hair day, and mountain climbing, with Baxter and Charlie as lords, and Jason filmed it without Baxter’s knowledge. (Baxter asked his friend to arrange something that would have an impact, but to keep it a secret from him.) Most everyone, including the gardener and Baxter himself, would not know of the video until the play was over if Jason fulfilled his commission, and he did fulfill it, with the help of one of the servants. The latter, and the same Cecily as appeared before, rolled him in inside a movable shower (Jason had left the room on the pretext of taking a smoke). She managed it under a false pretext to Baxter. She said, “When you’re through, I thought you might like a sprinkle and a bath!” and she delivered this remark so intelligently and in such good humor that Sir Baxter (and the gardener, also) immediately trusted her good judgment (or wanted to trust it), and so Canada, for example, had access to the play at 2 a.m. The whole thing would doubtlessly have amused Baxter very much afterwards had things not gone horribly wrong (and if the play had actually been broadcasted), but the actual show, although it did air eventually, was only to Baxter’s friends in Z. That version of the story, though, we also deem false, and to this day the truth remains a mystery. Historians lack the evidence they need and they don’t know what happened, despite the fact that the Mikepski University Library acquired a copy of the video and a handful of film students saw it as well as the French version it inspired starring Mr. Jarmouth Pokepskiv as the barber. The two productions were remarkably and strikingly similar. However, the French had four main protagonists to Baxter’s two, but this is jumping ahead and out of the story, and we return to Baxter’s expedition. Presently, the women servants joined in the drama as extras and it took on great breadth and depth from that point on. Baxter and Charlie then played servant to all of them, and cleaned up all their things, while they were lords and ladies. The extras did a damn fine job of it, too, by all accounts, but the tape also revealed that the lady handsomely played by Cecily walked off the set and into the tapestry of yellow and gold, where she melted into the wheat field like a ghost.
It seems no one remembered in a book what happened to her, but there she was on film, vanishing into that tantalizingly beautiful landscape! No one except Baxter, the master gardener, Pipsi (but Pipsi was a dog), and Jason saw her disappear, because all the other servants collapsed at the same instant! Jason stopped filming, and emerged from the false shower. Baxter and Charlie desperately tried to revive the cast, but one by one the extras rose and disappeared into the wheat field.
Moments later, Charlie and Jason recoiled in horror to see their own bodies turn to barley, as the sun was blotted from the sky, which left Baxter and the pug. Baxter hurled himself at the hideous yellow wall, now black as pitch, and tremendous force hurled him ten years into his past, to a time when he wondered aloud to himself, “What did I put in that drink?”
The following morning the milkman found him dead with a bullet through his head, and the precious yellow tapestry was gone. Some said (the ones who knew about the textile and its legendary curse) that the spirit of the wheat field shot him in the night (and he wasn’t the first one she killed either, or the last). That was the lore, they hastened to explain, but they shook their heads at the supposed worth of the tapestry. One said, “Every thread a diamond, if you can calculate the sum. I can’t.” Another said, “Money can’t buy it. It owns the owner, but if I had the millions I wouldn’t touch it to save my life!” A third remarked, “Millions. Not to take.” The tapestry had ruined its former owners, too. The only surprise this time, perhaps, was how long the prize remained in the hands of Sir Baxter. The Chief of Police said, “It was not in his possession. Maybe the tapestry will possess you if you try to stare it down.” When asked to elaborate on this, he remarked, “But already I have said too much!” leaving the public to wonder that even he, who epitomized to them the stalwart, unflappable, inscrutable, and constant guardian who never wavered for an instant but stood his ground, yes, even this master of men looked afraid and seemed to tremble; and his deputy marked that he looked quickly over his shoulder when he gave his initial report, as if the walls had ears, and that he shouted in terror half an hour later when the mail fell in through the slot. Such was the grip of the tapestry on men who knew its “supposed worth” and feared it might cost us all too dearly.
The famous detective who solved the seemingly impossible triple-murder-and-phoenix-feather case, and discovered a trained chimpanzee had done it, Ricky Hame, received a call from the Embassy in Munich about the Tapestry of Shabin, told the minister he had no interest whatever in pursuing it, heard the offer, and turned it down flat. His clock stopped on the wall and he had nightmares for weeks. The morning after, he was informed that the minister suffered a heart attack on his walk home and died later that same night. Hame thought of the curse, and was deeply moved and concerned. He never touched the clock after that and forbade anyone else to touch it, never locked the door to allow the spirit a way out. Nor did he bolt the window. He advertised all this in The Daily Musket and no one touched the place. He said nothing more of the clock, but a year later the building caught fire. He read about it in The Musket, as he had moved his office several months before the incident for other reasons. Apparently, the heat “fixed” the clock. The new owner and sole occupant of the place, a jovial man by the name of Mr. Blownee, told him over lunch at Tundlees, where they met on other business, that after the fire he observed it worked fine except one minute out of one day of the year. He paused to clear his throat, and continued with a smile, “When I replace the batteries.”
Hame blurted out something then that astonished both men. He said, “This may surprise you but I think you saved a life today.”
Mr. Blownee reportedly looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, it makes me happy to hear you say that.” After an awkward silence, their conversation returned to its original purpose that had something to do with tax documents. Nothing particularly noteworthy occurred to either man the rest of that day as each pursued his own agenda and slept peacefully through the night. Only the very next day, Blownee saved a boy from falling under a bus at a busy intersection in an accident in which no one was badly hurt. However, the lad abruptly died three days later of unrelated trauma to his internal organs while studying geometry.
Blownee never spoke of this new tragedy and wonder or the clock to anyone again, and Hame happily forgot his phone number. They did not see each other. Hame read the brief account of the rescue and death given in The Mirror, a free weekly for the city. He and Blownee both lived long lives and only chanced to meet once more in the course of them, and that fifty years later, again at Tundlees. Blownee had been out of town and Hame celebrated his ninety-third birthday. Blownee would also be ninety-three that year. Hame spotted and recognized his friend through a sea of strangers, invited him to his table, and was accepted. Little did Hame learn of Blownee that night that was anything but predictable and vice versa. The tapestry was still lost as far as each man knew but neither mentioned it. They were not biologically related by some quirk of their mother and father, and they didn’t have much in common besides their age, and the correspondence between Blownee’s past occupation and Hame’s present one that he never left. Blownee sold his detective business a mere two months after their last meeting to become a minister on a new walk of life, while Hame still followed people to see where they went in order to catch the ones who walked where they shouldn’t. Other than that they both mixed drinks on the side. That was it. Hame called his favorite a “Raspberry Delight,” though it tasted lime, and “Cool Lime,” when he had company over and didn’t feel like giving its real name, since he would then undoubtedly have to explain that it originated from a story he heard about raspberries and bears in the woods from an unusual woman named Alexandra, and then tell the story! But it was one of those stories that only grew murkier and murkier the longer it went on and the more drinks she had. It was not one he cared to tell, it would only confuse them the more.
Reverend Blownee confessed he had a pet name for his favorite drink, too, but he was too embarrassed to share it at first. After laughing at Hame’s story, however, he admitted he called it, “The Fast Ball in Heaven,” but hastened to explain that it had nothing to do with the kinky code of drinks nor religious doctrine. The first time he made it, brandy water rum 2-1-3, with a sprig of mint and sassafras, he did so, quickly, while watching Crownee Phillips strike out Shane Brantos with a hundred-and-eighty-miles-per-hour fast ball. Since the drink had a whole and complete taste from start to finish, he also called it “The Good Old One Hundred.”
It may seem ridiculous to you, gentle reader, for us to end the story at this point, and on this note, but in fact very little remains to be said before it does. The story began with the tapestry and ends with it too. It should suffice to say that the mystery remained unsolved until one hundred and fifty years later when a letter of confession and incriminating evidence in the form of a handgun were found inside the mummy of a dog. At first no one knew whose dog it was; but not too many dogs were mummified then either, which narrowed the playing field down to one or two canines more or less. In said letter, the gardener confessed his crime. Although the tapestry itself was not mentioned, a single gold fiber recovered from the mummy was traced to that source. As I pen these words, said strand (one eight-feet-one-inch long) stands in a museum in Amsterdam under heavy guard, on loan from Munich. Who knows who will have it tomorrow? The tapestry will probably be traced soon, barring overseas difficulties. As to the crime, the man said his motive was “trickery and boredom.” The note continued, “And so now I have done it. No one will ever find out. I committed the perfect murder and manufactured a rock-solid alibi. No one knew that my twin brother and I had another brother who looked exactly like Jason. Read this how you like. We made sure of that, too.” Two signatures and a paw print followed. Must I say what “ink” there was used? But all right then it contained hemoglobin and they can guess but they don’t really know whose.
The T.V. flickered with Jason Croovie on the screen. Jason Croovie’s image of himself said, “I once heard someone say or I once read that the profession that affords the greatest life expectancy is the orchestra conductor. Not bad for someone who spends a great deal of time with his back facing a lot of rich back stabbers. Excuse me. I meant to say someone who spends a considerable amount of time showing you his back. Long life and black coat tails. Do they really belong together?
Of course, I don’t know if it’s true. You might challenge me by saying, ‘Yes, I do believe they live longer than crop dusters,’ and you’d be right. If you stick in that profession your days are numbered. Everybody knows that. It’s a risky job not for the faint-hearted. It looks so—What’s the word?—dangerous. You fly low over the fields, careening wildly up and down on a good day. It’s no wonder the mortality rate is so high. Don’t send me to the moon any time soon. I like a high number of breathable square feet around me at all times. I want gravity to hold me down, down here.”
Jason Croovie was a stand up comedian for war veterans that day.
“Naturally, the military has the highest mortality rate for an occupation. A warrior will face that inevitability with his or her eyes wide open. God knows why we don’t—”
—An old balding veteran with a cap stood up and said, “Did you say, ‘God knows why?’”
Uh oh, thought Croovie. He did. “Good point,” said the comedian. “A warrior will face that inevitability with his eyes open when he must. God knows why we don’t—”
—“We don’t?” interrupted the veteran, “Come on!”
—Croovie said, “God knows why we don’t question what we don’t know. We—”
—“Come on!” shouted the man.
—“God knows,” Croovie interrupted him, “why as warriors we don’t ask much of our leaders. We only say, ‘I’ll fight for you if necessary. If necessary, I will lay my life down for you.’ Does that take courage or stupidity?”
“Come on!”said the vet.
Jason Croovie silenced the T.V. Watching himself perform and get into messes like that made him nervous. He needed a vacation. Now. He picked up the phone and called his agent. Sally’s real name was Jerry Wesunmeechner. He said, “Sally, I need a break from this. I don’t think I’m cut for this groove.”
“That’s for sure!”
The ratings must have been terrible. Otherwise, Sally would have at least made a pretext of protesting a potential Croovie job move.
“Sorry. I quit.”
On Friday, he arranged for a name change with the United States Government. Another annoyance maybe, but “Croovie” had to go. The process went something like this: Matchwoost, Dollinger, Howaday. Which one did he like best? None of the above. He put dinner on. Bracings. Leon Bracings. That’s not a bad move from Jason Croovie, he decided. Initially, he considered his new name a pseudonym. I’ll always be Jason Croovie. Croovie’s not good but Jason makes it better. He tried signing Leon Bracings, though, and found he liked it too. Jason Croovie Leon Bracings. Why not four names? By rickety! If they didn’t all sound good together in that order! Jason Croovie Leon Bracings. He smiled to himself. He really liked the sound of it. He counted to help him fall asleep that night. One sheep two sheep three sheep one sheep two sheep three sheep Jason Croovie Leon Bracings eight sheep nine sheep, and fell asleep.
When he woke the next morning he had a toothache. He wondered, Why do I have a toothache? Why do I feel so raw inside? Yes oh yes oh yes! He headed to the bathroom to brush and floss his teeth, muttering, “Jason Croovie Leon Bracings.” The clock struck twelve. Uh oh. I overslept. I must have forgotten to set the—
“CA-CAW CAW!” cried a raven outside his window. “CAAW!”
“Impossible to think with that harbinger of war and desolation.”
“Harbinger of desolation and war!” screeched the bird.
He rubbed his head and eyes. His bedside clock showed a different time. Was it really 4 a.m.? He sat bolt upright in bed. Then why had the clock struck twelve? He must have fallen asleep again. He picked his coat off the floor. His place was degenerating into a sty of discards and a depository for innards. He thought, No, not innards, you silly man. A depository for material objects and things. Yes, material things of various sorts.
Ugh! He felt groggy as he stared at his bare window ledge. He was alone in his room, alone in the world, jobless and alone. He sighed, closed his eyes, and woke up twenty-nine years later in somebody’s envelope.
The someone was a somebody, you see, the prince of Thabithia, one of their princes, that is. A man by the name of Ashmarti Keemo Ambadulason, an unusual name for over there since it meant nothing, but that’s what Ashmarti liked about his name. “Ashmarti” reminded him of “Ashmolean” and the museum by that name at Oxford. Ashmolean sounded like Napoleon. He loved crossword puzzles! The New York Times crossword of the East was his own newspaper, The Glick (in Thabithian, of course). It printed crosswords with all sorts of everyman’s clues, things like “Go to the bathroom or do something else . . .” in English. Oh, that was easy. The word was either loo or lieu. How he loved his little games that would not take him far! Once, he needed good skin. He slathered on cream to get it and got it sort of. Then he married Tasha and hers was the best, but let us not forget our dear comedian in the envelope!
He was still fast asleep and flat as the tramp smashed in the gears in Chaplin’s Modern Times. He dreamed he was at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where people were midgets. The magnificent hall was so immense from floor to ceiling that the curtains said plainly enough, We are all ants, Lilliputians, and tiny little people. He saw the oversized bust hammered in copper of John-the-Magnificent FK, America’s as-close-as-they-got-to-royalty man, whom many loved and some despised.
Few people knew that on February 22nd of the year 2--- said bust was removed for maintenance and repair and not it but an identical dummy was set on the mount with something inside of it after the renovation and the real bust turned up in the Indian Ocean on the prow of a boat and that boat sank near the end of its voyage in the South Pacific as it fled from the escort it pretended to follow to port for scrutiny. Very little was said about it at the time. Times had changed and Americans particularly no longer wanted anything bizarre or unusual in the press. They read of measurable progress.
Croovie woke in a daze and discovered he really was shrunk and flat. The prince of Thabithia lifted him gently from the table and considered his person as he would his family’s grocery list had it inexplicably appeared on the front page of the morning edition. Opening a scissors, he carefully—No, he decided, I will keep the garments intact—he took a tweezers and fiddled Mr. Croovie’s clothes off, much to the annoyance of that little man, as he was held every-which-way-upside-down-right-side-up-rolled-in-a-ball and starting to feel sick. “No. Stop,” he squeaked.
The prince appeared not to have heard him but said, “Irk, this is no fun,” gave the clothes back into J.C.’s open hand, and watched him dress. He then proceeded to mark in big black letters on the envelope in characters that looked something like these:
RETURN TO SENDER
NOT VERY FUNNY
. . . and off J.C. went the very next morning back to New York, New York, where he awoke groggy but unharmed in his bed with no recollection of his past life besides a vague impression of a woman or a live specimen of the Aves class (in biology) perched on his window sill. The morning after that he abruptly removed himself and all his belongings to Baltimore where he met Mrs. Flipswitch, a poor haggard old thing who showed him her best room-for-rent and said with an air of mystery as she stood outside the door in the shadows against the wall carefully articulating each word according to her dialect, “It belonged to Mr. Edgar Allan Poe hisself.” Croovie had had something better in mind than that squalid narrow room but he was feeling ill and couldn’t face another look ’round. Consoling himself that he would scout out at his earliest best he agreed to her terms. No sooner did he say, “All right,” and repeated himself nine or ten times to make sure that she heard it, than did Mrs. Flipswitch surprise him by tweaking his nose. To his equal astonishment and annoyance, he responded by reflexively tweaking it himself. Nevertheless, the whole business seemed to greatly elevate her spirits, and she immediately launched into a long and tedious discourse on life itself in which she gave her candid opinion and advice on a great many things as well as a substantial family history and a lot of salt and gravy besides.
At this point many impertinent asides and tangents were mercilessly cut from the text to please everyone, and we continue our story along these lines: John Croovie Leon Bracings suspected he had long had a passion for ice fishing which he had also long suppressed. Since he felt under no obligation to try it for the first time but still wanted to honor his lifelong dream, he merely stated in his will that at the time of his death he wished to be frozen in a block of ice and dropped in the Arctic Sea. This death wish—Uh, burial request sounds better—was taken on and executed by Mr. Jason Pulling, a close confidant and friend of Croovie’s for the last twenty-three years of his life, who at age sixty-five undertook the expedition, J.C. having lately died, and dropped the first* Croovie ice cube in the sea, then returned home and cancelled a year’s worth of newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
Again, we cut quite a bit here for the reader’s sake, I think, and get on with the next bit about Lizzie Jennevieve Wozie, who lived in Croovie’s flat in New York after he vacated it. The closet space there incidentally was about as large as the ice block Mr. Pulling took to sea. An unpredictable beady-eyed woman with long black hair, Wozie was employed as a secretary at a prominent law firm in Manhattan. She also murdered J.C. It came out in her testimony as she defended herself in court, that she sent him away in an envelope to a prince in Thabithia, waited until he returned to restore him to natural size and bulk, and subsequently shot him straight through the heart in Baltimore on a foggy night outside the P Street Post Office. He was not someone she knew. She selected him randomly from an internet Who’s Who list of Molly’s Favorite People. Only she knew how to convert people into miniatures and back again, she informed the jury (again we infer, cut, and summarize here quite a bit of the original manuscript), but she quite lost interest in the machine that did the shrinking and resizing/recapitulation and left it in her old closet when she moved to Baltimore to murder the man she formerly made into paper. She knew exactly where he lived because she followed the truck to his new place. After shooting him dead she severed his toe and put it in his freezer (she found the key on his person), where it was discovered by the police. Detective Hame spotted Ms. Wozie lurking outside the body’s flat. When he asked if she knew whose apartment it was, she replied with a sinister smile, “The Body’s Flat.” Hame raised an eyebrow and queried her next on what she had in her handbag. She said nothing, but indignantly emptied it on the street for him. Its sole contents were a long strip of linen wrapped around a blue handgun. Wozie agreed to accompany Hame to the police station for the rest of her interview. At headquarters, she confessed to the murder. Her defense at the trial was barbaric and full of holes. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole. By that time, the iced toe had been quietly deposited in the Red Sea at Mr. Pulling’s request, since he forgot to bring it on his voyage with the rest of Croovie’s corpse, and only wanted the whole excruciating conundrum brought to a swift finish. The murderess, whom the court decided was insane, dangerous, and a criminal, protested that said toe would not “keep” in the Red Sea, but there was nothing she could do about it but consider her own toes and what she might want to do with them later herself. At the time of her death due to pancreatic cancer forty-two years later, Standish Oftler, a senior correctional officer at the female prison, doubtlessly voiced an opinion widely held, when he said, “She was not at all well. No, she was a very sick puppy. Let us hope healthy ones like you and I stay healthy, Leo.”
*Concerning the "first," this is presently explained in the text.
Ty Monk didn’t have long to live, unless he fooled himself, unless he had a very, very long time, but he wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t eager to find out, until Michelle Davispod walked by his box and flitted her eyes at him. Then, he had to know. Would he live only one more day or would he live to be a thousand? He wondered if she knew he was a mechanic. She never asked him. They never talked. Only every five minutes on the dot she walked by and flitted her eyes at him or she scanned him over (to put it another way). Each time her action (however described) possibly implied something different (as a slightly altered phrase repeated in a Philip Glass composition might represent movement and change). Or else her action merely reflected a static state of affairs, like saying “flitting” when “scanning” would have sufficed, and vice versa. It troubled him that he did not know what her visits signified, but he couldn’t ask and risk slipping on yesterday. One can’t ask when one was there. Ty’s arch nemesis, a cruel man with a goatee named Ozwald Brimis, also desired Michelle Davispod.
So, Ty had plenty of trouble. One, with the law for walking outside the lines. Two, with his spouse, whom he hadn’t met and married yet, for marrying too late. Three, with the law some more for his rearrangement of the lines. A palm reader by the name of Feadora Tiff saw these things written on his hand, but only later did he come to believe her. He was arrested for drunk driving (license suspended) around the public square, loitering, and littering, when in fact he was framed for all three by Ozwald, at the behest of their mutual femme fatale (the aforesaid Michelle Davispod) and her dear friend previously declared (but then only as the palm reader) Feadora Tiff.
What could he do in a box? He carved away at his only furniture, a two hundred pound pumpkin, and found a keyhole Michelle Davispod had hidden beneath that tremendous orange vegetable. “Ty!” exclaimed his archenemy through a cranny that had also been concealed beneath said fruit. “It’s not too late to join my side and start bashing people I don’t like. Yes. I, Ozwald, have a proposal for you. Heh, heh. Stand clear!” In that case, thought Ty, there must be a lot of bashing to do, for it was hard to imagine Ozwald liking anyone besides Michelle Davispod—and she only so far as he could use her.
Ty waited until the bulldozer revved up and he smelled diesel before he fled to the far wall. Presently, Ozwald pulverized the wall and chased him around the box, until Ty was surrounded by debris and there was no escape. By that time, only one fragment of wall remained standing. Ozwald lifted his sunglasses and smiled, gloating in his moment of glory, triumph, and justification. He even turned the engine down long enough to say, “O Captain, my Captain!” before firing it again. Ty feared he would perish, as he faced the bulldozer and remembered when his father took him to discover ice. Then, he realized, no, it was lemonade, and made a mental note of it. That was a long time ago, he reflected. Next, his thoughts rolled to a past less distant when he was a student protesting for peace. Closer and closer to the present his musings went as the bulldozer closed the gap, and he saw nothing for it but to make his proverbial last stand.
Suddenly, Ozwald stopped and stared. Maybe he had more games to play with his prey.
“Oh my! I almost forgot. Michelle Davispod asked me to find out. Are you—are you in love with her?”
His voice squeaked like it was trying to sound concerned, but had had little practice in that regard, and the strain was too much for it. Ty seized the chance to outwit his arch nemesis.
“Yes,” he cagily replied. “I am madly in love with Michelle Davispod.”
“My goodness me!” exclaimed Ozwald, hopping up and down like a piston. “Then you also love Michelle, and you and I are rivals in the whole affair!”
“Why, yes, I suppose that’s true,” Ty ventured, though he had long known of his rival’s love for the same woman and was half concealing what was half true, that is, lying to his advantage in the ever changing landscape of his relations with Ozwald Brimis.
“Why, this is a lucky stroke, indeed!”
“Why don’t you see?” his opponent said, trying to read Ty’s face. “If we are rivals, then we must compete in front of her, not kill each other on a lark.”
Did he really say, “on a lark?” Was he truly reading W. Somerset Maugham? The fool! At least now he had a chance though, he thought, as he recalled Schopenhauer’s treatise on art and the idea. He stalled for time.
“Come on! Let’s go to her, so we can compete like love birds! You love her. Don’t you? Yes, I see that you do! Of course you do! So, fight in the manner of Shakespeare’s rival lords that had to guess the contents of her lady’s box to win her lady’s hand.”
This was Ty’s big chance! He wondered what Ozwald had had the night before he broke the box he was in all that long, excruciating, bothersome, languid, and unnerving day. Michelle could not see him inside it again. He was free, but still attached by his heart strings to the one he loved. He considered that he might find another woman to woo, but his heart stopped at treason. No, he realized he couldn’t do that, even if she did not see him, because he loved her. He felt stupid, but also strong and brave. After all, if he played his cards right, though he never played before, he might beat Ozwald. To put a finer point on it, he might win her love! And sooner than he hoped, for already she walked towards them (but behind Ozwald, who still faced him, with one hand draped casually over his machine and the other on a sword he would undoubtedly offer by and by) and still walking (as Ozwald offered said sword and unsheathed his own) and looking very smart, intelligent, buxom, and Anglo-Japanese, indeed, in her pretty ultramarine blue party dress that came down her handsome shoulders to hug her bonny bosom and squeeze the elusive arches of her hips before the material spread and stopped at her thighs, revealing most of her gorgeous legs. She walked on her toes a little and the balls of her small pleasing feet. Presently, she paused to don stilettos that seemed to say, I want you, look at me, very hot, let’s fuck. And she turned. A gold bangle dangled on each of her perfectly formed ears that accentuated her tanned ivory skin and lovely Japanese contours, and suggested the prospect of her neck. Her countenance was serene, and her dark brown eyes showed her depth and spirit. But as I was saying, on came Michelle in a blue dress and bangles.
If he played his cards right, for Ozwald had not yet seen her, and she looked straight at Ty as she approached (undoubtedly to scan the scene, he thought), then he might yet win her heart. The critical moment had come. What would she do? She had no caged man to survey any more with those quizzical eyes. Maybe, by a swift plan of action, he might dispense with Ozwald and surprise her interest.
The villain swiftly seemed to surmise, however, that something was up. “She has come,” he said, “And now the moment of truth. You and I together may finally get her attention, where before she only flitted her eyes at you and I.”
Ozwald tossed the sword to Ty, who caught it in the air.
“Draw your sword!” Ozwald sneered, “and if you be not adept at swordplay at least pretend you were born with a blade in your hand and practiced every day of your life, like I have. In short, make me look good!”
Fortunately, Ty had prepared himself for this moment before and after all of Michelle’s look-sees. His body knew the gestures: when to leap and how to recover; the twist, the bend, and the lunge. Fortunately, I say, because Ozwald was a natural and really had practiced every day. He kept repeating between feints and jabs through clenched teeth that he never stopped practicing, and pretended not to hear Ty, who told him that teachers frequently claimed they could show you all that in no time at all, or else shouted poetry between his jabs and twists, or else smiled, all to annoy Ozwald and to impress Michelle, as she scanned them with her eyes, but suddenly she stopped scanning them, jumped between her suitors with open arms and laughing so hard she nearly doubled over, and, through whoops and peals of laughter, ordered them to stop, but no sooner had she got the words out of her pretty mouth than she collapsed again in fresh new waves of glee and shook with jolly giggles, and her laughter was the sweetest song of all, the babbling brook that rushed down the mountain river to the sea, moon and stars. It quickly arrested them and held them spellbound.
“Hi. No. Don’t stop. I want you to fight like this!”
She invited them to come nearer to her person, and, as they did so, motioned them closer and closer still, until those three faces almost touched. She then ordered each man to place his right or left foot on top of her opposite foot. While they were doing it, she placed one of her arms around each suitor’s back to achieve the position she seemed to desire, and they stood in this much unanticipated and ridiculous pose in all of literature, as she said, “I have waited a long time for you, each of you, to do this, and now fight to the death!” Having spoken thus, she started to release them to their devices, but she was not quite through, for, before they were all free, she pushed Ty and Ozwald into each other, whereupon Ozwald, who was extremely nearsighted without his contact lenses, exclaimed, “Oh my!” or at least his features betrayed him to that effect, and he raised his voice and said, “This rogue that stands before me at this instant, this arch nemesis of mine, who lived in a box until I demolished it with the bulldozer Princess Albatratazari of Mexico gave me in exchange for a miniature by Dali,” he paused and pointed at the big red machine standing by itself in the rubble, “this Ty knew all along that I loved Michelle from the moment I cast eyes on her! I can see it in his eyes!”
Ty saw that he was genuinely surprised, and noted with interest that Michelle wore a look of triumph on her face.
She said, “Lords, forget all that. Here is what I want you to do.” Then, seeming to take stock of the situation, she paused, opened her mouth in the shape of an “o,” and suddenly in a flash of white light a trap door shot beneath her feet and she fell in the void. Ty and Ozwald gasped, reached, grabbed, and tugged, but only succeeded in tearing all her clothes off, as she was parted from them by a pit of darkness into which she tumbled and completely disappeared. Only her dress remained with Ty, who stared at it uncomprehendingly.
Ozwald spoke first. “Extraordinary, Ty.”
They broke down, sobbing, and embraced. Ozwald presently wrested free. He flung his sword to the ground, while Ty leaned on his and said, “At least you’ve got a bullroarer,” but whether he said it in vengeance, reproach, bitterness, love, or a mix of all and each, I cannot say. Ozwald pointed out that Ty could now think outside the box, which had been painfully obvious for some time. Ty ran at him with his sword, and their duel over the portal to the heavens raged and wrangled for centuries. Thus, Ty discovered that he would live a thousand years. However, what that meant never dawned on him until who should leap nimbly out of the pit in a blue jump suit, beaming and raising her fists for a mock fight, but Michelle Davispod, and she was nearly cut down by their swords.
“I’m back, I no longer search places with my eyes, and I’m looking for a meaningful relationship—and I stress meaningful.”
Both men laughed out loud, scowled at each other, smiled, blushed, and they performed each of these actions reflexively and in quick succession. Ty’s behavior puzzled him, as he considered it foolish and weak, and wondered why he had not at least concealed the chagrin he felt towards Ozwald. To make matters worse, his rival appeared to have had the same reaction as he did and reflected his own self-consciousness and discomposure like a mirror. Ty tried to grasp the reason for it but could not, and so was made to feel all the more disconcerted by failing to perceive a cause that should have looked easy for him to discover, to please her. It wasn’t facile, however, and he couldn’t find the root, though he feared it was probably the easiest thing in the world to ascertain and he was probably right, so why was it so hard! It troubled him that both his enemy and his friend caught him in that pickle, for he keenly sensed the riddle, like a box he had to guess the contents of. His embarrassment and confusion doubled, for, as generally happens in a social gathering when one or more madly love one or more of the others and the pie splats the guilty ones in the face, embarrassment turns the lovebirds’ faces deeper and deeper shades of red, and such was the case with Ty, who suspected it of Ozwald, also. Ty, knowing that all three of them had something to do with it, but what exactly that was he would not and could not have said on pain of death were it the slightest trivial thing, since he was only madly in love, would fight to the death at the drop of a hat if she would only let him off the hook, though he was otherwise cautious and smart and prided himself on his many talents and abilities, but he was colored like a beet, now, with no one to blame but himself. He couldn’t bring himself to blame her or his rival because it was only a game. All this flashed through his mind in an instant.
“And some love,” they answered in unison, except what Ozwald spoke was, “And some good lovin’,” and Ty said, “And some love,” and the two are not quite the same.
To which Michelle quickly replied,“Yes, that’s true. Now, if you’ll follow me, I’ve been thinking about it and at least one of you constantly while I was away, though I confess, Ozwald”—She took his hand in hers, squeezed and released it, then walking behind him, took his sword, and continued—“you didn’t make the cut!” She then promptly (and skillfully) stabbed him three times, threw him down the hole, tossed the sword in after him, and slid the door back in place.
“At last, a man who will be true to me and I to him.”
She came forward, so that she stood face to face with Ty, stood on her toes, giggled, snatched the blue dress from his hand and dropped it, kissed him full on the lips and kissed him there again at great length, which he enjoyed tremendously, and he fully and ardently supported her and cooperated with all her wishes, until they were completely done, which took quite a while.
He thought, “My goodness! What a strange, cruel, and wonderful world, and what a beautiful woman! How did this happen?” He was confused in a different way than before, though he didn’t let that stop him. He was a good repairman and with some additional schooling made an outstanding electrical engineer at a robotics factory, philosophized in Michelle’s arms instead of in a box, and that is where we leave him as the story ends.
Mr. Canary v. United States of America
I am Keesha Freeman, the woman whose skin fell off. I am a most ordinary woman apart from that mishap, a math teacher in a Detroit public school.
This is how it happened. I was at home washing dishes, a chore I like to do when I have the energy; it helps me unwind on days when my school kids were unruly. I work at True Justice High School. Usually, dishwashing heals the wounds of the day. On June 4, however, that was not the case.
I live in a town house, and the walls are thin. I usually hear indecipherable noises through them, but that has nothing to do with June 4, except that I was listening to muffled voices again that day when I felt a prickling sensation all over my body. Suddenly, I dropped the colander I was washing and let out a high-pitched scream, because my entire dermis lay on the floor behind me all in one strip, like an apple skin that had been pared thus, but that is only a crude example for I am a woman and not a red delicious. It was outrageous, and my first thought (I am twenty-five) was that my creamy brown skin had made my curvy body very sexy and my wonderful husband wouldn’t know what to do or even recognize me now! How would I make love to him that night? Why did this have to happen to me?
I had time to consider my feelings, I was alone in the house.
What would my friends say? Did this happen to white women? Did this happen because the government put something in my water?
Without my skin, I was ugly as a cockroach. My muscles, veins and arteries, fat and cartilage all showed. Was this somebody’s idea of a joke? I’d find him and curse his bones! What could I do? A folded and piled skin was of no use. I was wet to the touch, and trailing a gelatinous ooze. Oh, my poor skin! I cried. I freaked myself out.
I came to my senses at the sound of a crash immediately followed by a brisk knocking on my front door. I froze where I stood, my heart knocking against my rib cage, but presently, curiosity overcame all my other thoughts and emotions and with surprising quickness I crossed the room and removed the barrier to my sight, that is, I opened the front door, whereupon I observed a peculiar stranger standing before me and beyond him the effects of an apparently trivial street accident involving the drivers of two cars. In front, a woman with sandy brown hair, heavy makeup, and yellow curlers sat in her driver’s seat and screamed into her cell phone, while behind her, a small Indian man in casual business attire and toting a canary in the backseat of his camero inspected his fender.
The first car was already zooming away as I moved to close the door in the man’s face, but before I could clap it shut, the stranger reached out and I felt his cold, dead hand on my shoulder. I screamed and ran into the living room, without managing to shut the door, and he followed me inside. He was small-boned, grey, greasy-haired; wore big glasses, a well-buttoned frock coat, and corduroy slacks. A soiled dress shirt undone at the collar peeked out of his untidy vest and frock coat. He collected my skin and approached with it draped over his arms, like a sacrificial offering.
“Ah, beautiful,” he said, holding it to the light.
I thought, this man is responsible because he came right away after he did it, and I realized I was hallucinating, but there was very little I could do about it. My hallucination was the ghost of Franz Kafka. “I Franz Kafka,” said the fellow in broken English. He spoke in my voice. I thought, he is Franz Kafka. I repeated it to myself several times. He is Franz Kafka…
He didn’t move, but continued to admire my skin, even petting it. A cloud passed over, he stood in the shadows.
“It belongs to me!” I cried.
The ghost said nothing.
I said what I was thinking. “Poets and literary figures don’t leave you alone ever! Even after they die, they keep on!”
Kafka started for the door—“Wait!” I cried, and, catching his arm, I pinned him to the wall. I was an athletic, tall, angry woman and that made me hard to resist.
I thought, this is worse than anything. What can I do without my skin? I can’t let him take it from me without a fight.
The ghost was remarkably solid.
“What the hell are you doing here, when you belong in ----, old man?” I said, stalling for time. That may not have been his year either, but it was close enough. Today certainly wasn’t any of his days.
The ghost said nothing.
“Post modern isn’t even in your lexicon yet, you strange, absurd, avant-garde writer!”
“Come on, Kafka. You can’t come in here and walk away with my skin, leaving me no chance in the world to be seen in public again; my husband wanting my natural body; and me hungry for sex, sanity, and my former self! Why do you look sheepishly at me like that as though I’m your holy creation, your sheep, your—oooh! I can’t stand it!”
I kicked him hard in his privates.
“OWWWW!” said Franz, at last, if Franz he was, and dropped the skin—my beautiful skin.
“Tell me your name!” I demanded.
He doubled over, with his hands on his knees. “Owww! Owww! You know, Keesha. You guessed right!”
It occurred to me that he wouldn’t know English if he were really Kafka, but I relented, and said, “It doesn’t make the pudding any sweeter, does it?”
He straightened up slowly. “Oh no. It is not sweet.”
Suddenly, I felt very tired, he wasn’t helping. “Look. I’ll let you go—“ I said, tightening my grip on the apparition’s shoulder “—only leave my skin alone, number one, and number two, give it back to me. Put it on the way it was before and never return.” I pulled him closer, until our noses almost touched and I could smell the earth about him. I said, “You did restore the cockroach to his former self, did you not?” I was referring to the businessman he turned into a cockroach and back again in “The Metamorphosis,” a short story most people haven’t read.
He said nothing and tried to avert his eyes, so I shook him hard and said, not caring how it sounded, “You restored the cockroach to his former self!”
He nodded vigorously.
“Then do the same for me, freak!”
“Of course I will, little Keesha.”
It seemed natural that he would know my name. “Not so little, am I? Does that surprise you, snake?” I never had anything against Kafka before. On the contrary, I admired his artistic genius like most people with class would, but I wasn’t about to let him get away with murder—for others’ sakes, for my own sake.
“First a poor salesman, now me. You knew that didn’t you? Where were you planning to go with my bo—with my skin? Don’t you say, ‘Back to the grave from which I came.’ I’ve seen a lot of horse shit in my day, but this is the worst.”
I released his arm, sat down, and burst out crying. The truth was I couldn’t very well remember the details of what happened on the businessman’s fateful morning, how long the transformation lasted, or even what his condition was at the end of the ordeal. My best recollection was that he came out pretty well, but only after a severe trial of agony and pain. Plus, I was a black woman and a math teacher and this plain wasn’t fair. What was Kafka after? Did he have a collection of skins?
I tried not to think about the gray ghost, but I had to do something! What would my husband Ronald say? How could I hide the truth from him and still be happy—and still live! Oooh, Kafka!
I wiped my eyes. The phone rang and Kafka disappeared. The skin stayed where it was. That was how I remembered it. I answered the phone and tried to speak, but the sound that came out of my mouth resembled a bee’s buzz. I closed my eyes and remembered no more.
I awoke and found myself lying in bed, it was already morning. The ooze covering my body made the sheets sticky, the covers lay tossed about the floor.
Ronald’s briefcase lay on his desk. I raised myself from the pillows, and saw the note on the bedside table:
In the kitchen I found another hastily written:
I went for help. I will come soon.
Don’t eat anything yet, but don’t worry! You are not crazy! Apparently, a very strange malady afflicts you. The government let loose a substance that triggers a singular hallucinogenic effect and a physical change to boot. The former is called ‘the curse.’ Somehow, it got out of the lab—stolen actually—along with some top secret information. When 911 heard what happened, they said a federal agent wanted a word with me. I’m going there tonight. The word is, with a simple remedy, you go back to normal. The hallucinations stop—and your skin—you get your skin back. We were targeted for this “experiment” by mistake. The intended “recipient” was out of town and an Indian-looking man, though American, a spy who goes everywhere with a canary (so other agents can spot him), came by our house after he realized he hit his deadline. He was unauthorized to act, though; he was doing it for Syria, that double-crossing double agent.
Earlier in the day, he slipped into our house and put a special cap on over our faucet with the concoction inside that allows the skin to fall off, then waited to see what would happen. I believe he ran into some difficulty. I am at this time seeking further explanation, although given the super secrecy of this incognito office, there may be little I can glean. Much of what I learned I learned from Mr. Canary, before he was apprehended, and he was trying to bribe me for information about you! Can you imagine! How stupid is that!
The good news is, honey, you destroyed the impossible-to-repeat concoction by imbibing it! I had learned previously through my own chemical research that the only way this creepy thing works is on one person at a time. That is because—but I cannot go into the details here. Basically, if you had less melanin in your body that would not have been the case, but in short, because you are a woman of color this sinister drug will not work on anyone else from now on! Your skin, in combination with the rare chemicals that you swallowed made it impossible for the invasive property to attack the air of the entire earth as would have happened otherwise, so everyone on the planet is now safe from property Z. (It just so happens my lab did research that proved the very phenomena involved here, though it will not be published for several more years, by which time this will all be forgotten.) So, relax, and don't worry about a thing!
I put the paper down hardly able to believe what I was reading—I read it through again.
The antidote . . .
The antidote? I’d missed that! My trembling hand clutched at the note:
. . . is, believe it or not, a spoonful of sugar! The chemical properties of sugar neutralize and reverse the strange disease you contracted via the new government virus. Now, if you were white, you’d be dead, but thanks to the melanin . . . the only thing is, be sure you use the right sugar. The other kind, as I’m sure you recall from our conversations on my research, will kill you instantly. Oh, that’s—that’s the phone. The agent again. Got to run. Just take one spoonful before eight o’clock this morning, I’ll be back by then. But you need to have it then, or else the stuff will kill you too. Just have a mouthful. Bye!
Your loving Ronald
I threw the paper away in horror, ran to the front door and looked out the peep hole. Across the street, Mrs. Blackstone was gardening in her yard! I looked down at my front door mat—an envelope! I ripped it open—not from Ronald. The spy agency?
Take sugar by eight or you will die! Destroy this note.
I threw my oozing back against the wall and racked my brains.
BROWN OR WHITE?
Suddenly, Ronald’s words came back to me. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘the refined white sugar doesn’t stick together, and moreover it is white. That is why when mixed with Z. it causes a chain reaction, not for ill, no, not for ill, but the body seems to grow a new skin, or to say it more accurately, it recovers the one removed by Z. Any substance could do it, if white sugar is present in it in a one spoonful quantity, but the outcome changes for the worse if it is mixed with say flour and baking soda; better to keep it free of other impediments or you might not get all of your body back! That’s the theory we’re testing now. Interesting, isn’t it?’
I know that’s what he said, but I waited for my husband, and as I waited I penned what you just read.
* * *
Ronald crashed through the door, with his arms open as if to embrace me, and, surprised, I swallowed the sugar, too late to obey him, as he cried, “Wait! Honey, whatever you do, use vanilla extract! Use vanilla instead!” But too late I can feel the change pen this sad
Ronald and I sat in the long room of the Special Bureau. I am a Special Agent. Fitch is my name. A dim light shone on our faces, and colored us a dusty grey. Ronald faced the door, slumped in his chair, after his glass of water. I had sedated him.
I jabbed the air with my pencil, and talked out loud to myself, as Ronald slept. “If I had to tell you this story, I’m not sure I’d get it right. The facts are these, as you yourself put them: a woman by the name of Keesha Freeman—and it so happens—you know—but I’ll tell you anyway, Ms. Freeman is African American. Her skin—her skin, sir, fell off. And she survived. That is your claim. Certainly, it was unnatural and very strange indeed—but there is more. In the interest of my client, the United States Government——yes, I’m afraid that is the entity. Please don’t be too distracted by it. Perhaps you heard of little girls named Snow White or of the Clutter family? No? Well, I know of them, and the latter was a tragedy, but that is beside the point.—As I was saying, Mr. Freeman—and perhaps you wonder why I tell you this story. Ah, yes, why indeed——but as I was saying, in the interest of my client, say it was two o’clock. And as I was going to say, I certainly am aware that Ms. Freeman suffered a catastrophe and lost her head. Allow me to explain, sir. I imagine she witnessed the aftermath of a minor street accident outside her house:——she ran to the door, she opened it, she saw a woman in curlers scream and drive away.”
I paused, left off stabbing the air with my writing implement, and moved my chair quite close to the slouched man.
“She, that is, the woman in curlers, was rear-ended, sir.” I smiled. “But forgive me for proceeding so deliberately, sir, since you undoubtedly wonder how your wife is. And yet I must. After all, Ms. Freeman no doubt wondered what happened. Perhaps she began to hallucinate, although the description Mr. Canary gave of the little man that walked in when she opened the front door without her skin on is very good. If I were guessing, I’d say the surprise guest or figment of his imagination was none other than Franz Kafka, except that he is dead. But you don’t read the classics and never heard of K.? Too bad—what a life you’ve missed. Allow me.”
I stopped talking, produced a lighter and cigarette from my pocket, lit the cigarette, and drew on it.
“Ahhh,” I continued, “Humor me, will you? Funny. What was I saying? Kafka, my government client, Mr. Canary, and you, Ronald Freeman. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Not that it matters a hair to me, but there’s your wife to consider. Why don’t we just put it all on Mr. Canary?” I checked my watch.
“Hungry?” I said. “I ordered chicken and meat loaf, I am very hungry. Starved actually. We bureaucrats don’t get treated very well here, you see.”
There was then a loud knock at the door. I raised his limp hand, and the shadow withdrew. For a few minutes, I said nothing. Presently, I straightened my mustache.
“Too bad,” I said. “There is no time to eat. Not right now. I am so sorry, Mr. Freeman. Believe me, I’d like nothing more than to go home and be done with the whole thing. It’s such a bear!” I puffed a smoke ring.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” I said. “It took me a long time to learn that trick. I’m not really all that talented, you see, but it’s not about me. It’s not about me at all. Here, let me help you.”
I walked behind Ronald, raised both his hands, and dropped them. I bared my teeth and removed the cotton wool from his mouth, then, with an effort, assumed my former mask of complacency and began to circle the citizen.
I said, “She lost her skin, heard the accident, looked outside, was screamed at—oh, and I forgot to mention, I believe that when she lost her skin, she lost her physical, sensual, and sexual identity to boot, and that’s how Kafka fits in. It’s preposterous, I know.”
I rolled the words off my tongue with relish, and continued circling.
“She changed into a grotesque skinless human with all of her blood, muscle, and fat showing. No, I would not have believed you, if my client hadn’t called first. I would have said you’d—” I snapped my fingers, still circling—“lost it! After all, Keesha fell asleep. Then, you came home from work, discovered your wife inexplicably lost her skin and somehow survived it, but you couldn’t rouse her! But that’s ridiculous! Maybe you can help me understand—when you wake up.”
I stopped my paces, and searched the sleeping prince’s face.
“I hope I’m not making you as dizzy as I am with all this walking around. But no more interrupting myself, I promise. And, you know, it truly is a wonder that you don’t wake up! Don’t worry. Your wife’s not here. She’s asleep too. But what does it matter! It’s just—how can I put it? This is a very delicate operation and I want to be sure we’re all safe. That’s kind of me, isn’t it?
It was already the next morning, I hadn’t slept well on the cot, and agent Fitch said he hadn’t slept. The latter offered me a peppermint, and then put it away when I refused.
“Oh, hello Mr. Freeman,” said Fitch. “I had a talk with our suspect in this case, Mr. Canary. I said to him, ‘I don’t know why you won’t talk towards your conviction, but that’s actually what I prefer. You need to hear me, first.’ Mr. Canary, a very straightforward man, whatever else he is, replied, ‘See me tomorrow and finish.’ And do you know what, Mr. Freeman? The coffee smelled terrible!”
“Yesterday,” Grip went on, “I told you the facts. Today, we finish with those, and then we close.” He turned to face the wall. “Ready? Mr. Canary says he saw your skinless wife goggling at the accident he caused at about the same time as he lost his pet canary. The bird escaped its cage and flew out his car window. But hang it all! It doesn’t matter! Naturally, he says that! And as for Keesha, her skin was lying on her kitchen floor, she answered the door, and remembered what she saw. There are no surprises! She was not then insane!”
“At almost the same instant, however,” Grip added quickly, “a man, who as I said, fits my image of Franz Kafka to a cherry-T, walked into your house through the door she opened to ogle skinless out of, and at that moment, we observe, by George, she is losing her straights.” He paused for effect.
I opened my mouth but found I couldn’t speak. My jaw felt numb.
Fitch shook his head sympathetically, and continued, “Later, I expect, she rolls out of her own belly in the form of a lion for Pete’s sake, and considers eating her own human flesh! No, she doesn’t! But, how can a woman lose her skin! She did! She was observed without it by you and Mr. Canary. I tell you, I’m baffled! I’d never had believed it myself, except (oh, we’re close to the bone, now) the stranger I like to call Kafka, heh, heh, ‘a short little man with a shaggy coat and unkempt whiskers,’ as Mr. Canary put it so succinctly and entrancingly, this ghost whom no one else observed unless she did, crossed your threshold without an obvious show of force (there would be evidence of that, at least, but there is not), confronts your wife,” he continued in present tense, “and voila! Keesha falls asleep! No, I don’t buy it. That’s crazy! And that’s not all. Canary uses his connections and books a flight to India. We arrest him at the airport, you come running, and the Bureau gets called in to explore. Thus, you and I, Mr. Freeman, sit here today, and you are ‘a little man with a shaggy coat and unkempt whiskers.’ Did I get it right? Oh, yes, I believe I did. Are you Kafka? I’m kidding, of course. And I see no reason to keep you here any longer. You may go, since we have settled the matter. But talking to you is much better than talking to Mr. Canary. That’s like talking to a dead body!”
Grip took a breath, narrowed his eyes two millimeters, and said in a low voice, “Not exactly like talking to a dead body, of course.” He lowered his voice still farther, and said, “But what I don’t get—Why-did-Mr.-Canary-change-his-name-from-Edward-Zone-to-Fidelius-Canary?—Who is he? Who are you? And why did the Bureau send you here to me? You see, sir, I am an agent and this is my job, but if I don’t know a thing, how can I do what I need to do? I am lost, sir. So pardon me. I do apologize, we seem to be holding you here for no good reason at all—apart from your sleeping wife—and I’m not certain that that alone is grounds for an interview. It’s too bad, sir. It’s too bad that the government is my client, and that I am an agent of the Bureau. No, I am only doing my job, like the infamous train conductor who wrongfully transported thousands of Jews to their death.”
It was then, at the moment Grip said, “death,” and at precisely that moment, that a cordless phone fell through the ceiling, onto the floor, and rang; and a full length mirror lowered also, in front of me.
“My wife,” Grip muttered, took the phone, and hastily left the room, but not before he laid his briefcase, open and with all his papers inside it, on his chair. The draft of the door blew the top sheet onto the right arm of my chair, where it caught on a strip of metal and stayed. It appeared to be Grip’s notes on our conversation, but “Nonsense” was all there was writ.
Before I realized what I was doing, I had stared at it for some time, and this unnecessary delay of my return journey cost me dearly, it
I refused to say a word and kept my thoughts to myself. They have my briefcase, it’s all in there. But no, absolutely not. She never had a chance.
I ran to her, but it was too late. My angry tears were too late to tell her she had the wrong blood type for sugar! She died instantly, and something no one else has ever seen I also observed: the cadaver of my wife transformed itself into a mature lion. But, unable to bear it long, I left the house and ran blindly down the street, shaking my fist at the sky, and shouting, “Keesha! Keesha! Keesha!”
No, sir, I don’t feel any remorse. Yes, I understand the sentence, a lot of years in prison. Goodbye. No, sir. No, sir. No, sir.